If you were to ever be welcomed into Sarah McNally’s home, and casually parked your posterior into a perfectly vacant looking chair, chances are you would be sitting in one of your host’s reading spots. “I have a couch that is so big that two tall people can lie end to end without touching feet,” said the owner of New York City’s McNally Jackson Books. “I have three different reading positions in that couch alone.” The rocking chair in her bedroom, complete with homemade quilt, welcomes magazines and book reviews; the one in her living room teeters when poetry is in session; the kitchen island is the domain of the newspaper. Sit on the right side of the couch and you’re getting comfy with art and essays; choose the left and you’re in another world – that’s where McNally reads novels. “My house is like a literary amusement park,” she said.
McNally’s customers haven’t made a habit of showing up at her house to indulge in this cultured carnival. After all, why would they – there’s more than enough bright browsing space, cosy reading spots, literary discoveries, and hospitality to go around at the store, which is nestled on NoLIta’s Prince Street in Manhattan. “[I’m] an almost comically maternal, hospitable person,” she said of her approach to customer service. “I always want to help settle strangers in comfortably. Last week I rubbed the upper arms of a woman who had just come in from the cold, trying to warm her, and I thought she was going to call the police.”
It’s precisely this affectionate, tactile approach that has seen McNally Jackson surge forward in a time when many independent booksellers are shutting up shop: a hand-picked selection of some 60,000 titles, a knowledgeable and attentive staff, and a boss who sees customers’ experiential enjoyment as her mission, no, her duty. “If I can’t make a person comfortable and excited about reading and unite them with books,” she said, “I don’t deserve to exist.”
From Winnipeg, Canada, McNally was born to a bookselling family, but made her way New York-wards after college, eventually working as an editor at Basic Books – “I loved editing because I had never done anything deeply collaborative before, and to be trusted inside a writer’s vision of his or her art is a profound and moving privilege.” She then branched out on her own, and whether by nature or nurture, she’s clearly found where she’s meant to be. “I love bookselling because I can run around thinking about a million things, from the mundane to the transcendent, and it all matters… The dirt in the corner is my problem. What Proust’s birthday means in downtown New York is my problem. I have to walk through the store allowing every book I see, even if I haven’t read it, to resonate deeply within me, and if it saddens or irritates even the most inconsequential part of my soul, I have to take it off display.”
She describes her work as being like a spirit medium, “raw to every inch and aspect of the bookstore.” But as any book-buyer knows, a bookseller is even more than this – they offer counsel, thrust recommendations into your hands with fervor, and will always point you in the direction of Harry Potter, no matter how many times they’ve been asked. “It’s so wildly, relentlessly un-boring that I’m too entertained to even know what exactly the job is,” she said. “One woman may treat me like a low functioning algorithm, efficiently look through stacks of books, and choose one I explicitly insulted. Five minutes later someone facing a fatal illness will come and ask me for books to give her solace and strength as she dies, and we may end up weeping and reading poetry out loud to each other.”
For our readers who have yet to cross the threshold, and immerse themselves in her working world, McNally offers a literary comparison of the store experience, that is both tantalizing and touching – a testament to the warm welcome her customers receive on a daily basis. “Behind the scenes it mostly feels like Finnegan’s Wake, but, for the customers, Dubliners,” she said. “If you haven’t visited, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I hope only that your rambles will be sweet and your reveries spacious.”