Matt Keliher Q&A

October 19, 2020
Matt Keliher knows the perfect book for you.

“Some of my favorite moments in the seven years I’ve worked at the store happen when readers place an unreasonable level of trust in me to pick their next book. And if I knock it out of the park, they come back and ask again. And it is simply the best feeling.”

Subtext has always done such a marvelous job with author events. Is it driving you nuts not to be able to do them?

It has been a challenge there’s no doubt about that. The best part of hosting events in the store is being able to gather people, all interested in an author’s book or research, and to engage in this collective curiosity. We are still hosting events. They all just happen online and in virtual spaces that rarely offer the same degree of connection as in-person gatherings.

I love your “Surprise Me” program where readers give you information about preferred genre and you hand-select a book. How long have you been doing that?

We started the “Surprise Me” program in April of this year. It was started as an attempt to give readers a sense of serendipity that you can really only find on the shelves of a bookstore. Basically, a customer gives us a little note about what they are interested in, and our booksellers pick something off the shelf that we feel fits the pattern, or stretched the reader, or was maybe just a very dope book. It is a ton of fun for us, and I think we will offer it for a long time to come.

I remember Subtext back when it was in the Blair Arcade building below Nina’s in Cathedral Hill. How has the move to downtown St. Paul helped your business?

I loved that old space so much. It was such a special place with a really great vibe. But being in a sub-level space proved to be challenging. The move downtown has been incredibly valuable to our business. Not just in increased sales and visibility, but also in creating a real and true community around the bookstore. That’s been the hardest part of downtown being so quiet these days. We don’t get to see so many of our regulars anymore! Or at least not nearly as often as in The Before Times.

To all of us book-lovers you would seem to have a dream job. Do you still get a thrill being around books all day?

At the end of the day, it’s a job. It is labor in exchange for livelihood. And like any job, it has its challenges, its pros and cons. I certainly have a different opinion on it now than I did when I started. The thrill in those early days was indescribable. But to answer your question, yes, that thrill of being able to engage with, talk about, sample, and read so many books provides me with access to literature that satisfy my boundless curiosities. But it’s also the engagement with our neighbors and visitors and travelers that I really relish these days.

You put out the best newsletter, with such thoughtful recommendations and a passion for books. I’ve read many books through the years based on what you’ve shared – from Tommy Orange’s “There There” to Hanif Abdurraqib’s “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” Is that the best feeling when a customer tells you they loved a book you recommended?

There is really nothing quite like it, recommending someone a book that changes their worldview or opens them to new possibilities. Some of my favorite moments in the seven years I’ve worked at the store happen when readers place an unreasonable level of trust in me to pick their next book. And if I knock it out of the park, they come back and ask again. And it is simply the best feeling.

Subtext has such a warm social media presence. How important has that been to your work?

Our ability to connect with our community of readers and customers through our social media is invaluable to the long-term health of our business. It gives us the ability to demonstrate the value of books and bookstores to the community and to carve out a sense of individualism that separates us from other places where you can buy books.

How many books do you read in a typical month?

In a typical month? I don’t even remember what a typical month looks like anymore. This year has been so incredibly wild. Not only because of *gestures wildly at the state of the world* but also because I got married this year and spent endless hours planning and organizing that. But usually, when I’m really cookin’, I read four or five books a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. I generally don’t read very long books. I like essays and short novels and creative nonfiction that critiques social and political realities. Although, many of my favorite novels are the long, deep books.

There’s a theory that independent bookstores may be better positioned than corporate stores due to the tighter bond they have with customers. Is that wishful thinking or do you think that is true? 

I do think that assessment is true. I think that independent bookstores offer an experience that corporate bookstores, whether that be Amazon, or Barnes&  Noble, or, increasingly, places like Costco. Those corporate competitors may move a lot of units, but I think that the curative properties that a small bookstore is capable of creating offer something so drastically different from grabbing whatever new book James Patterson’s team of writers puts out that consumers really value the expertise of independent stores. The two books you mentioned earlier, Tommy Orange’s There There and Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us are perfect examples of that. Those two books are so incredibly good and wonderful and I don’t think it is a stretch beyond reason to confidently say that those two books do not reach the number of readers that they have without booksellers telling people who come into their stores about how incredible those books are. For real, the Prince essay in TCKUUTKU is worth the price of admission on its own.

What’s the first book you read that had a lifelong impact on you?

Whew. This is a good, tough question. And more intimate and intriguing than “the last good book you’ve read.” I’m going to cheat and choose two books because I read them at the same time while I was in college and the combination of the two firmly set my worldview and changed the way that I look at everything, from natural wonder to simple, day-to-day tasks. The two books are: The Bhagavad Gita, an epic poem from Hindu scripture, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The former is a beautiful powerful piece of writing; the latter is an eye-opening philosophical inquiry into values. It is one of the few books that I have read many times, and each time I go back to it, I take something fresh away from it.