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December 04, 2016
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Kelly McMasters; Reader, writer, independent bookstore owner

Kelly McMasters is a writer, an insatiable reader and the proprietor of a small, independent bookstore in Honesdale, PA.
TRR photos by Jane Bollinger

Kelly McMasters owns a small, independent book store, Moody Road Studio, located in Maude Alley in the 1000 block of Main Street in Honesdale, PA. She writes about the experience in a monthly column for The Paris Review. She is the author of “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town,” the personal story of growing up in her hometown on Long Island, NY where there were three nuclear reactors and all three leaked. A documentary based on the book was shown earlier this month at the Black Bear Film Festival in Milford, PA.

McMasters is married to artist Mark Milroy, whose studio is located in Wayne County, PA on Moody Road, which inspired the name for the bookshop and for his art studio. They have two young children.

TRR: On a scale of one to 10, where 10 is “wonderful,” how would you rate curling up with a book on a cold rainy or snowy afternoon?

KMcM: Definitely a 12. I was thinking about it earlier this week because I was just starting to miss summer. Up here in summer, there’s always so much to do and to get done chore-wise that you never really have those lazy afternoons. In winter it’s much quieter, and there’s more opportunity to just curl up and be by yourself. There’s something I love about reading during the day in winter. Somehow it’s like going to the movies in the middle of the day and when you come out and it’s still light, it’s something like playing hooky that’s really fun.
I think aside from maybe beach reading that winter reading is my very favorite.

TRR: Do you have a favorite genre that you like to read?

There’s certainly stuff that I’m drawn to more, but there isn’t much that I would say I dislike. I’m primarily a non-fiction writer and an essay writer, and so I always love reading essays and non-fiction books, but I also love my novels and poetry, and I like science fiction and historical fiction, too, so I’m definitely not exclusive.

TRR: Can you name a book that changed your life?

KMcM: So much of my life has been changed by books… (Pauses in thought) I would say it probably started with “The Secret Garden,” and then… I went through this moody period in college, this kind of transitioning period where it felt like every book was transformational. I was reading “Anna Karenina” and “Steppenwolf” and “White Noise.” So these books sort of got me to different emotional places. And then “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean was professionally transformational. That was when I realized what an open frontier non-fiction could be. That book was just thrilling in that way. And then E. B. White’s essays and Joan Didion’s essays, those collections were also professionally [influential]...

TRR: When I go to a bookstore, I’m really overwhelmed by how many choices there are. Do you have any thoughts to share on how to make a decision?

I think anybody who works in a bookstore and is putting their time in around the books is there because they have an addiction to books, like me. I’ve found that to be true in all of my favorite book shops, so I always go for the staff recommendation. [But don’t just] ask what they’re reading; tell them what you like… and don’t be shy or feel like you have to pretend that you like something super literary. Be honest, because then you’ll get the next favorite book.

TRR: Finding good, new writers is both a pleasure [when it works out] and a challenge. And frequently an author’s first book makes for a really exciting read, because he or she is just burning to tell that story Do you have suggestions for how to discover new writers?

KMcM: There are a few prizes that I keep my eye on every year. Writers will submit their manuscripts, maybe they’ve never been published…, but it’s a juried prize and there are a few that are almost always outstanding without fail, and those have become some of my favorite sleeper hits that I never would have found out about otherwise. Also books that are [mentioned in] literary magazines or are out from small presses. Their books are always quiet; I mean you’re not going to see them typically on the New York Times bestseller list. I hardly ever read what’s on the bestseller list; it’s just not where my interest lies. And then also I have a pretty decent network of people in New York who are publishing, and other independent book store owners who are saying what they’re excited about, and reading series—I like to see who’s reading where in a reading series and maybe I’ll look at a book that I hadn’t considered for the shop. And my mother. (Laughter). She’s a huge book person, and almost every conversation we have, she’s just read about some new book. I mean we’re reading totally different lists, so I always listen to my mother.

TRR: I’m the crazy aunt who always buys books for Christmas and birthdays for my nieces and nephews and any other children I know. I’m determined to turn them into readers, but I also never know how to choose books for children. Do you have any advice?

KMcM: Well, there are some pretty great and reliable “best 100 books of the century” lists that are in the Moody Road cannon. I think the New York Review of Books has a good one; the New York Public Library has a really good one. Many of them would be classics, so maybe they’ve read them, but I’m a big believer in the classics. I mean, not that I don’t believe in the new stuff, but for gifts, it’s kind of nice to give something that isn’t just out.

I actually I had a crazy aunt who always gave books, and I still remember, and I still have one; it was from my high school graduation. At that point I had no plans of being a writer. I mean I won my high school poetry award or something like that, but I never thought of being a writer as a career, because I thought, “Well, who can do that?” But she gave met this giant hardcover book called “The Big Book of Women Writers,” and at the time it did feel a little like, “Oh, really? That’s what I get for graduation?” But I’ll tell you, it’s one of my all-time favorite gifts that I’ve ever received because she saw something in me that I didn’t see. And I’ve retuned to that book again and again; it’s been really inspiring, so that was a fantastic gift. And also don’t just [consider] novels, but also something like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”—something that might not be the best thriller, or a love story, but there are some really beautiful and classic books like that that will stretch your brain and also be a beautiful read.

TRR: Do you worry about children not reading enough?

KMcM: It’s terrifying. Maybe about a year and a half after my book was published, I read at this college in Brooklyn, and I visited one particular class… It was for kids who were trying to catch up to college level. This one teacher who invited me thought that because [my book] was a Long Island story, that they might see themselves reflected because [they were] the same age. Actually we had a really fantastic discussion, but I would say that a third of them said that this was the first book that they’d ever finished, and I can’t even fathom that.

I know that some people just aren’t readers and that’s fine—no actually that’s not fine, but you know what I mean. And that’s why I partner here with First Book, and for every book that I sell, we give a book to a kid in Wayne or Pike County. Last year First Book did their book gifting around the holidays… and they’re planning their Christmas event again this year. They focus on pre-K. These are the very first books that these kids will ever own, and then they’re going home and reading them to their parents, because in some cases their parents can’t read, and that act—I mean I have a two year old and a four year old and we’re constantly reading together. With the two year old, he’s just now asking for the books, and he’s really excited in choosing his books, and now the four year old is starting to read to me. It’s this really interesting capsule in time where… we’re sharing a story and sharing physical space. I mean they’ll both be on my lap, and it’s such an amazing time together. And that’s what I think will translate into a love books later on. I mean that’s why I love books, because they were such a huge part of my childhood.

I grew up in the Catskills for those first pre-reading years. Probably very similar to a lot of your readers, we were in a little house where we couldn’t see any other houses. There were just me and my mom at the end of this long driveway, so what we did was read. I don’t even remember a TV, though we must have had one. We listened to the radio and we read. It was just part of our everyday [life]… and then once could read to myself—I’m an only child—so it was a huge companion for me. I would say the first series where I started demanding books was the Nancy Drew series. I loved [those]. I was obsessed. And then I started getting really into Christopher Pike, which was like teen horror where you scared yourself a little (laughter) and Judy Blum, of course. I mean I would say probably my first book that I was obsessed with where I read it and I couldn’t’ stop thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading it was “The Secret Garden,”

TRR: Tell me about running a small independent book store.

KMcM: This is my first crack at small business, at a physical business. So there have been some surprises about those things that go into it, like quarterly taxes and sweeping the floor and that kind of stuff, which is fine. But what’s been really interesting are the reactions of people. Some walk in and it’s like they’ve fallen into a secret garden. They say, “I didn’t know you were here. I can’t believe you’re here. I mean, what are you doing here?” (Laughter) So they start to look [around], and then they’ll say, “Oh, I read this,” or “Oh, I’ve been wanting to read that.” There’s just that excitement, which of course is how I feel every day.

And then there are the people who walk in and you can sort of tell that they don’t feel they belong here and they’re trying to be polite, but then their eye will catch something that interests them, and that’s sort of my favorite moment. Then there are people who just poke their head in the door and say “books,” and then they run away. (Laughter)
I’d say another thing is that the idea of this store from the start was the celebration of paper, and that goes to our woodblock prints as well as to the printed book. A lot of the books, particularly the ones on the table, are not art books necessarily, but they’re kinds of books that you wouldn’t get the same experience if you read them on an e-reader. Not to say that I’m anti e-reader, because I’m certainly not. It certainly has its place, but I can’t imagine reading poetry on my Kindle, or….

TRR: Do you have a Kindle?

KMcM: I do, although I have to say it’s probably lost its charge 16 months ago and I haven’t…

So you sort of have a Kindle.

KMcM: (Laughter) Yes.

But curling up on a cold snowy afternoon with a Kindle just isn’t the same.

No, going back to your original question, perhaps the best part about curling up and reading is falling asleep with the book on your chest. (Laughter)

TRR: Tell me about your column for The Paris Review. How did that come about?

Well, I had an essay published in the American Scholar right as the shop was staring to open. The American Scholar is like my nerdy crush (laughter), so I was very excited, because I’m a religious reader. They had this column by Michael Dirda, who was a huge bibliophile, and I saw in one of his columns that he was going to be leaving and that they hadn’t found a replacement yet, so I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is perfect. I can write for the American Scholar on a column basis.”

So I put a pitch together and sent it to my agent. And she said, “I love your pitch—just the idea of leaving the city and coming to the country and opening a bookshop. Can you let me have this pitch for two weeks and let me try to [send it around]?” And so she sent it to The Paris Review, and they wrote back immediately and they said “yes.” Later on I asked why they were so quick to say, yes, and [my editor] said she thinks it’s every literary person’s dream in New York City to (a) leave the city and (b) open a bookshop. She also said she [didn’t want] this to be a sort of glowy thing; she wanted the real stuff, and that is what I think I’m giving in the column. But it’s also helped me figure out how I’m feeling [about the bookstore] and how it’s doing. I’m just trying to be honest on the page, but it’s also reaffirmed—not that I thought running a bookshop would be easy—but it’s just reaffirmed my relationship with books.