When you are shopping for books for an entire city of people, it is less like browsing for your next batch of great summer reads and more like acquiring volatile tech stocks on the NASDAQ. “How do you know what books people are going to buy?” is the defining question of Marie DuVaure’s waking life. As the head buyer for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, DuVaure purchases every single book in the store. Vroman’s is one of the most luxurious independent bookstores in Los Angeles, the kind of place where many well-intentioned people come in for that David Copperfield they’ve been meaning to read, but end up waylaid by the extensive selection of Itty Bitty Booklights, Miso Pretty lip balms, leather-bound travel journals, tropical incense sets and Yankee Candles in the second-floor stationery tchotchke area. The store caters to a crowd I would classify as “old” and “rich.” DuVaure would classify them as “not just an older moneyed generation, but an affluent younger generation as well, a mix of tradition and edgy that indicates a changing demographic.”
DuVaure buys books two seasons ahead. So you may be just thinking of cracking open your new Sue Grafton murder mystery in rainy October, but DuVaure is already picturing what thriller you will want to read on a sweltering day in July. “It’s a tricky thing,” she says. “A science as well as an art. You can’t make one decision across the board. You gauge partly by the history of the author whether a book is going to sell well. Have they sold well in the past? You know, for instance, that Michael Connelly will sell a certain amount. Or that when the new Don DeLillo comes in, or the new Ondaatje, you have to order at least a hundred or 120 right off the bat. Other times, you just have to take the leap.”
When she ordered too many copies of Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game last summer, instead of returning them to the publisher, she decided to keep them until December. “There was a smattering of stuff in that narrative sports genre, but nothing else really like it. There was no competition. I knew that people would be asking for this type of book to give as last-minute gifts to men for the holiday.”
When a book sticks around for too long, she frowns, “Oh dear, I think that one was a dud.”
DuVaure is petite and prim, like a lady in a dollhouse, and reminds me of Audrey Tautou in the film Amélie, not just because she is French (DuVaure, who has lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, grew up in Aix-en-Provence) but also because of a charming shyness, optimism and thoughtfulness in her demeanor. She is simply dressed in a crisp white-collared shirt, slim jeans, black boots and a delicate silver wristwatch. Everything about her whispers small, classic and well-considered, the outward evidence of a woman with natural inborn good taste. She takes up so little space in the world, yet her influence upon it is considerable.
On the chair next to her are two large canvas tote bags stuffed with books. Instead of driving, DuVaure travels two hours by light rail and bus each day to work. To pass the time, she sifts through publisher catalogs, contained in the first tote bag. “It takes discipline to do it this way,” she says, patting the bags. “I only carry so much or I begin to feel like a mule.” When she first started taking public transportation to Pasadena from her home in Venice, she often missed her train because it was hard to run carrying so many catalogs and books, in addition to a purse and a lunch box.
“These are the fall catalogs from HarperCollins,” she says, indicating the ones she would be reading on the way home tonight. “I’m doing my first pass. I go through them in two passes, usually. The first pass is just to let it sink in, to get a feel for the titles. The second is to decide on the numbers.” The biggest number (2,300) was for Harry Potter. The smallest number was zero. “Many books, I skip. But I’ll also buy lots of onesies.” A travel guide to Fiji, perhaps, or a mechanical-design book, or a “highfalutin” architecture book.
“You cannot allow yourself to get stale,” DuVaure says as she pulls up the day’s totals on her laptop. “Have fresh eyes and remember to appreciate what the message of each book is, even though certain books you see over and over again. Like in the Health section, how many times can you write about going on a diet? But people do. So this is not a job for someone who is presumptuous. It keeps me . . . what is the word . . . the opposite of proud?”
“Yes! Humble. You learn to appreciate the breadth of information out there, the travails of people who all want to tell their stories.”
Put another way, you never know when a book will “hit.” It will unexpectedly get glowing reviews, or get mentioned on a TV show, or its author will appear on the cover of a magazine, or Oprah will decide to read it. DuVaure will then go to war with the other local stores’ buyers, competing to grab the last available stocks from wholesalers. Christmastime, in particular, is “insane.” The demand is instant. The sweet spot is just “slightly ahead of the trend.”
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On any given day, you can find DuVaure huddled behind her computer in Vroman’s administrative offices, behind the stationery section and next to the aromatherapy candles. The bookstore’s software gives her an instant update on how many copies of any one book have sold that day. Sometimes, for fun and also to “take the temperature” of the buying public, she tracks the speed at which a certain title — the new Cormac McCarthy perhaps, which just won the Pulitzer — is selling. “I like to be aware of what’s happening on the floor,” she says, pulling on the little fingerless black gloves she keeps by her keyboard. “What’s happening in receiving? That’s the real thing. Has a shipment arrived? Sometimes a new batch comes in, and due to the vagaries of shipping, corners get bumped. Or covers are warped.” Ultimately, on “lay-down day,” or the day the book becomes available to the public, her job is to make damn sure the books are there, or to make sure she has a good reason why they’re not.
DuVaure’s favorite concept is cross-pollination. For example, when staff members were setting up the display shelf for the new coffee-table book The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, with Claire Nouvian’s dazzling, lush photographs of deep-sea ocean life such as the green globe sponge, spookfish, pigbutt worms, yeti crabs, helmet jellies, glowing sucker octopi, benthocodons and the “vampire squid from hell,” DuVaure thought it would be the perfect opportunity to mix in a book on the culture of sushi. She collaborated with the stationery buyer, who in turn mixed in some bottles of blue bubble bath and note cards featuring drawings of fish. “Not to trivialize it, of course, because then it would be too much, but you want to gently suggest.” You are not shaping an entire culture, necessarily, but rather piquing the curiosity of an individual mind.
Despite her aptitude for it, book buying was not something DuVaure originally planned to do. She thought she would be a pilot, or a United Nations translator. “It sounds so pompous now,” she says, shaking her head. “I will translate for everybody. Or I will go everywhere, even to the moon!” But that sense of discovery remains. “Especially when you find someone who is telling a story in a new way,” she says, looking off into the distance. “You may have read it 20 times, but never heard it told quite that way before.”
That happened recently when a rep asked her to read an “incredible” book he was promoting. They all say that, the reps, but she gave Ron Carlson’s Five Skies a try. “It had this powerful, perfect rhythm,” she says. “Of course, all the reviews say that. Powerful, poignant, perfect rhythm . . . But it was true. It’s about the developing friendship of three carpenters, how they work together, how they evolve.” When she’s on the train home, DuVaure says, she still thinks about that book every day.