Bookseller a James Patterson Holiday Bonus Program recipient
By Lou Fancher
Bookseller Marian Nielsen will never be lonely.
Not only do legions of readers hoping to be handed the perfect book or staff members at Orinda Books who enjoy Nielsen's literary knowledge continue to draw close, books are lifetime companions.
"I've always loved to read," the 86-year-old Rossmoor resident says. "I cut my teeth on 'Winnie the Pooh.' I love even the spines of books. If I've not read them yet: I look at book spines on my shelves and it's like having friends standing there waiting for me."
And "on the shelf" with her treasured volumes will be an award from bestselling author and literacy advocate James Patterson. Nielsen was honored Dec. 15 as a 2015 James Patterson Holiday Bonus Program recipient, receiving a top award. From 2,848 nominations nationwide, 87 independent booksellers were selected. The holiday bonus program is part of $2 million in awards or grants that Patterson contributed to bookstore employees and school libraries in 2015. The bonuses totaling $250,000 ranged from $1,000 to $5,000.
"Mr. Patterson has been wonderful to independent bookstores," Nielsen says. "It's my colleagues and the people they got to write emails behind my back who made it happen."
Of course, the 27 years Nielsen has worked at Orinda Books and her special knack for adapting to the industry's fluid circumstances has something to do with the recognition.
"Marian always offers to work extra shifts, gives book suggestion reviews to book clubs, even drives books to customers who cannot get to the store," says Orinda Books owner Maria Roden. "She's incredibly knowledgeable, patient and always has a bright and positive attitude. There's probably a lot I haven't mentioned, but you get the idea: she is invaluable."
A Berkeley native, Nielsen says she spent her formative years often visiting the North Branch Berkeley Public Library. "I was an only child and gravitated to English writers."
Favorite Brit authors span centuries and include Charles Dickens, Jane Gardam and Kate Atkinson among others.
"Everyone should read 'Great Expectations.'" she says. "It's a seasoned classic and informs later writers. (Gardam's) 'Old Filth' is a book I recommend to adults."
Nielsen earned an undergraduate degree in American history from Stanford University and gravitates to fiction that reveals real life history. The drama of journeys and endings -- tales of a person's life or an era coming to a close told with wit or humor -- can naturally engage readers, she suggests.
"The goal is to bring someone together with a book that will make them happy."
Twenty-seven years after former Orinda Books owner Janet Boreta invited her to join the staff -- they met at Stanford, where Nielsen also met her husband, Bob Nielsen -- her job demands forward thinking.
"One tends to be haunted by an obligation to read the newest books as a bookseller. I love to reread books. It's like slipping into a comfortable place where you've been happy. But you always have to read ahead for customers."
A particular joy as an independent bookseller in the East Bay is customer interaction.
"One of the most pleasurable things is to have time to engage. I'm able to find a springboard through books because people tell me things they wouldn't even tell their sister or hairdresser."
If there are drawbacks, it's that people who are solely e-readers don't come to the store as often.
"Attention spans are shorter, too. There's not as much excitement about a huge, new novel."
Children's picture books, she's pleased to say, are increasingly popular.
"We're noticing an uptick. Those books are not as happy on a Kindle as they are in the hands of a child. Sitting in a caregiver's lap, turning pages of a large format book ... that (tactile) pleasure doesn't go away."
The transition to new owners, she says, has been "a blessing." Roden and her husband, Danny Roden, became owners in July 2014. Nielsen says Roden's enthusiasm is matched only by a community of readers so supportive of the bookstore that people often arrive with their Amazon printouts and insist the store order the books.
"They do their homework at home, but they want us to survive," she says.
Nielsen, a mother of three adult children with four grandchildren, says parents and grandparents visiting the store are wonderful and deserve to be acknowledged. Why? Because they are bringing in their children, the future readers who will grow up loving the spines on their shelves.