I’ll never pass up a chance to talk to a bookseller! Marianne Reiner of Run for Cover Books in San Diego joined me to talk books today. We talked about the special handwritten notes she adds to the books she sells, and how a non-reading child can become a book obsessed adult if they can only find the right book. We also talked some heavy subjects, including white privilege and the books that make you confront that. Marianne considers “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson to be a fundamental book, and I completely agree.
Support the Best Book Ever Podcast on Patreon
Want to be a guest on the Best Book Ever Podcast? Go here!
Do you know a young person who’d like to appear on the 2nd Annual Kids/YA Gift Guide Episode? GO HERE!
Discussed in this episode:
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Oprah’s Book Club
Reese Book Club
Read with Jenna
Target Book Club
The Equal Justice Initiative
Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults) by Bryan Stevenson
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Becoming: Adapted for Young Readers by Michelle Obama
Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong
Immediate Family by Ashley Nelson Levy
Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School by Courtney E. Martin
Howard Zinn, historian, playwright, and activist
Survivor Tree by Marcie Colleen
(Note: Some of the above links are affiliate links, meaning I get a few bucks off your purchase at no extra expense to you. Anytime you shop for books, you can use my affiliate link on Bookshop, which also supports Indie Bookstores around the country. If you’re shopping for everything else – clothes, office supplies, gluten-free pasta, couches – you can use my affiliate link for Amazon. Thank you for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
Hello. Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss nd I’m so excited today because I got to talk to another bookstore concierge. Marianne Reiner hails from San Diego, California, and as you would expect from a great book seller, she chose a book that I wouldn’t have picked up on my own, but once I read it, it absolutely changed my understanding of something fundamental. In this case, America’s flawed prison system. Marianne joined me today to talk about why Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Marianne. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Marianne Reiner: Hi Julie. Thank you for having me.
JS: I am thrilled to have you, I’m such a fan of you and your work. Will you tell my listeners a little bit about what it is that you do?
MR: Sure. Thank you. I’m a bookseller in San Diego. My business is called Run for Cover bookstore, and I had opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore almost three years ago, in October, 20018. A dream; literally the dream of my adult life. And there were a lot of things happening, good and bad. And unfortunately the pandemic happened and some of the more difficult parts of the business became just unmanageable. And so I had to make the very hard decision to close the brick and mortar bookstore, on July 2020. And I just couldn’t see myself,not continuing to do some form of bookselling and sharing books and sharing my love of books with people. So I kind of pivoted and, converted again to another role. I call it now, depending on the days, a book concierge or local virtual bookseller, or your neighborhood bookseller, however you want to call it. So basically, I continue to be really active on my social media and my newsletter. People who had followed me from the beginning continue to buy books with me, get recommendations from me, attend some virtual events that I do with authors. In the process, I’ve gained new customers. So it’s been an interesting last year and a half. So I’m still in the book selling business, just in a different way.
JS: A lot over the last year and a half, I saw you post pictures of your car loaded down with book packages. I’m going to tell you, honestly, everything made me cry over the last year and a half, but those pictures, the notion that someone was out delivering books by hand brought me to tears. Are you still doing that?
MR: So, yes, I absolutely continue to do this. And so how it started was, I had never delivered books when I had my brick and mortar. There was no reason. People were coming in the bookstore, picking up their orders, or just choosing on the fly. , there was no reason to do this, but the second the pandemic hit, and we were shut down – and rightly so; I would not have stayed open – obviously I realized. , I heard other booksellers says, well, we’re an essential business. And even I think it’s maybe a little bit of a stretch. I mean, yeah, books are essential to me, but are they really essential to everyone else? So, I thought, I can bring books to customers. They can continue to order their books and I can safely get them to their front porch, to their front door without ever seeing them. I also had customers who were not in town, so I started mailing books to them via media mail. People ask me, well, why do you keep doing this? And there are two answers to this. First, I get to see people even behind their windows or sometime they come out and we stay at a safe distance. And it’s really nice because this is really something I miss so much about having the store. Tt’s the thing I miss the most possibly. But another reason is that I hand write a little note on everyone’s books, on every delivery I make, and this is the difference between me and an Amazon truck. Amazon workers work hard and they’re not who my gripe is against. But the company will never put a handwritten note to someone, saying why I might have liked a book and why I’m so happy to share it with them, or why I’m actually curious about this book because I hadn’t heard about it until they ordered it and now I want to read it. Whatever relationship is fostered with my customers. I try to just in few words, put it out in my deliveries and, and I think it does make it unique.
JS: You said when you were first describing it, you described it as a book concierge service. Tell me what that means.
MR: It’s tailored to the customer. So let’s say you reach out and you say, Hey Marianne, my niece is celebrating her 12th birthday. She’s not a huge reader, but here’s what she has liked in the past. Do you think you could come up with two or three books that you think she would like? I love that. That’s a great challenge, and again, you can spend some time online. You can probably find some books, but do you want to do this? Do you have the time to do this? The patience? Most people usually don’t. And so they turn to someone like me who will tailor their requests, their wish. And hopefully we’ll deliver something that works, and that’s where you really get the books that aren’t necessarily on the charts, that aren’t necessarily the trendy books that everyone has heard and they’re great. And I read them too, and I like them, but I know that everyone has read the Oprah recommendations, or their Reese Witherspoon recommendations or Read with Jenna or The Target Book Club. This is great. I mean, it really puts books in the hands of everyone. Authors sometimes, for whom it’s their first book, get to become major celebrities. It’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful. But there are so many books published every day that fly so deeply under the radar that I feel like it’s my role as a curious bookseller to try to bring it to the forefront, to try to bring it to people who may not have heard.
JS: Marianne, how did you become such a reader? What role has reading played in your lifetime?
MR: That’s a great question. First, I want to say I come from a family where I was very, very privileged to be surrounded by books. My entire childhood, my father was a librarian. My mother was a pediatrician who was a huge bookworm. She actually probably was more instrumental in developing my love of books than my father. I mean, my father too, but she probably was more. I had amazing teachers who were interested in me, and an amazing librarian at my school at my elementary school back in France. But the interesting thing, and I often share this because I want people to know that, I did not always like to read. I refused to learn to read until I was seven, which at the time back in France, teachers were starting to be like, well, there’s something wrong with her. And, no, nothing was wrong. I was just stubborn and everybody was reading all around me. So why would I? People were reading to me all the time, so why would I make the effort? I probably was a little bit lazy. Anyway, I finally learned to read, which made my parents feel a lot better, but between the age of seven and 10 but I didn’t like to read. And then I remember very, very clearly one summer, we were on vacation with my parents and we had a family friend. She was a year older than me, and she would often join us for a week or two in the summer. She lived in another part of the country. And so that was our only time to get together. And she was a huge reader. And I remember she was reading a book and she was totally into it. And I kept asking, what’s this book, why don’t you put it down and come play with me? And, and when she finally finished it, she put it down, she left it on the in the living room and she said, Hey, if you want to, look at that book. Of course, I was curious, I picked up that book. I could not put it down. Don’t ask me what it was about. It was a love story, like kind of a young teen love story type thing. The details I don’t remember. I remember the author, Susie Morgenstern. She has an American name. I think she might have had one or two parents American, but she lived in France and wrote a lot of popular fiction for kids in France. I couldn’t put it down, and I remember this being a key point in my reading journey. Being like, books are great. They tell you amazing stories and you don’t have to go anywhere. And yet you’re traveling or you’re dreaming or you’re meeting super cool and interesting people. And so that wasbasically the beginning of the end.
JS: It was all over for you.
MR: Yeah, it was all over. But I like to share this because I often have parents or grandparents who reach out to me and are really, really desperate that their kids or grandkids or other kids are in their lives are not reading. And I always tell people, I think it’s because they haven’t met the right book yet. It takes the right book. I think for, 99% of the population.
JS: So tell me, how did you find this book that we’re discussing today? Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson?
MR: I had picked it up at a bookstore. I honestly don’t remember where or what the circumstances were. I had heard of Brian Stevenson. I have been an activist, especially in the work against the death penalty for a number of years. So I had heard his name, I had read about him. When the book came out, I was really intrigued, really excited. I picked it up, I read it so quickly. I was in tears the whole time. I passed it on to my husband. I said, you need to read this. It wasn’t what I’d call it a transformative book for me because, sadly, a lot of the stories that Brian Stevenson describes in his book are stories that as, as an activist, I had either heard about, or I had heard very similar stories. I can’t say I was surprised or learned something devastatingly new. But I was really, really happy, if I can use that word in that context, that this book would finally get a much wider audience because it was touching the subject and topics that are really close to my heart. It’s beautifully written. And I thought finally, some of those stories that have been unfolding for too long are gonna reach mass markets and that’s what this book has done.
JS: Can you tell my listeners what this book is about?
MR: Yes, absolutely. Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who started an organization, a non-profit called the Equal Justice Initiative. It’s his memoir of being an attorney in the south. He’s originally from Delaware and working on some of those most complicated legal cases, representing people who have no money to pay for an attorney. The vast majority of cases he works on are death penalty cases, but he worked on many other cases. He worked on cases with children in foster care, he worked on cases of abused spouses or rape victims, et cetera. He’s an attorney who represents and defends people who have been turned down by everyone else, basically. He’s, honestly, one of my heroes, he’s amazing. He writes beautifully about, I know you read the book, about stories that are just heartbreaking. It’s stories of injustice after stories of injustice in this book, one after the other. This book for me resonated particularly strong because it’s the concept of injustice is something that has been on my mind ever since I was a little girl.
JS: Did you learn something new in this book or did it confirm what you already understood about the American justices?
MR: Sadly, I did not learn something new because I was trained as a lawyer. I went to law school in France. I did a, a master’s of law here, and again, as an activist, I also knew a lot about similar cases. It did just deepen my respect for people who do this work and my conviction that as a human being, I have to do my part, whatever form it takes to bring those stories of injustice to the forefront, to people’s consciousness. So, hopefully each of us make a choice to make a difference.
JS: Well, this is my last question for you, but I’m going to go ahead and ask it now because what can we do? I came out of this book with this feeling of just, oh my God, this situation is terrible. We have to throw everything away and start over, which is obviously not going to happen.
JS: You come out of this book with a feeling of hope?
MR: No. I mean, yes and no. The central case in his book is Walter McMillan. He talks about a lot of other cases in the book. Walter McMillan was convicted of a murder he did not commit; he was innocent. He was in jail for six years and he was eventually free and his conviction was overturned. So there’s hope in that sense. But you also learned that obviously he was damaged to a point of no return and he died much too early. And his family is scarred, as every other family who goes through an experience like this is.
JS: So what can people do?
MR: I have wondered this so much over the years that I did activism and I came to the conclusion that it really starts locally. What anyone can do is to look around where you live, be interested in the local politics. Vote in elections, but truly vote, truly do your research. The judges you vote for make a difference in the cases that are similar cases as the ones presented in this book. Who you choose to put on school boards around the country make a big difference in the type of education that our children are going to receive. So I really came out with this understanding that you don’t make big changes by starting at the top. You make big changes by starting where you are, and those changes may look like it’s very, very small, but there one more step towards a bigger change, bigger sense of justice for all. I live in a very, very privileged area. I’m white, I’m a woman. I truly believe in the power of books and stories to tell stories of people are not looking like or who are not sounding like me. And that understanding of other people’s story, other people’s culture, other people’s background is a first step in living together in the community. I really, truly believe that. I think it’s a very strong thing about books and that’s probably what I love most about bookselling is I don’t need to read about – I mean, I like that too, but I don’t need to just read about people who look like me or sound like me, or have the same life as me. I’m so much more interested in what others think.
JS: The main focus of the story, Walter McMillan, was actually at a, not a barbecue but a fish fry at his family’s house, his entire family, his entire extended family. And most of the neighborhood was at the house and saw him there while the murder was happening. So here I am, a white woman in Orange County going well, then this … I don’t understand what we’re even talking about here. Why are we even talking? And I sat back and went, God damn you privileged spoiled brat! Because it was almost like a fantasy novel or a science fiction novel to me. It boggled my mind. And he tells story after story about how differently people of color and children of color – that was where it really got me, chapter eight, about the children – and poor people are treated in the system that we assume, from our privilege, we assume it’s meant to work for us. But I was at the barbecue. Everyone saw me. Yeah, because for me, that is how it would work.
MR: Yeah, exactly. You’d never had been prosecuted. Never.
JS: We quite literally live in two different justice systems. Which I hear a lot, but it didn’t really hit me until reading this book.
MR: Absolutely. And I will never pretend to understand what people of a different color, a different origin, a different part of the world go through. But I will sure do my very best to be an ally and to understand, and to try to explain to others who may treat them differently and with injustice that this is wrong and why it is wrong. I think it’s our common responsibility. What is the legacy of the history of this country built on slavery? Well, this is the justice system we have. And like you said, it is two justice systems. It’s not just one. It’s two, and the same one is not applied the same way, depending on the color of your skin, on your economic status, on your gender, on your sexuality, on your religion, et cetera, et cetera.
JS: Mental wellbeing.
MR: Mental wellbeing. Oh my gosh. Yeah. When I had the store, I was, and I still am, so proud that this book was our best seller. And the reason was, and this is something I’m sure other booksellers have told you, hand selling is an incredible tool that booksellers have at their disposal. I always had a stack of that book in the store and any time someone would come in not sure what they wanted I would make sure I would get this book in their hands. And then the publisher was really smart. The publisher released a Young Readers version of Just Mercy. An adaptation. It’s been done for a lot of books that were popular like Michelle Obama’s Memoir was adapted for young readers and others. So I then started to sell that one a lot too, and I think it’s great.
JS: Is this a book you reread frequently?
MR: It’s so interesting. I don’t reread books. Or I don’t usually reread books. Well, there’s a question of time. I very little time to. I would love to reread some books. I also am someone who loves to stay on my first impression of a book. So, but for this interview with you, I actually did reread it pretty quickly, because I wanted to remember some of the details and the feeling.
JS: And does it feel different?
MR: It felt the same. It felt just absolutely – it feels like a fundamental book to me. I heard Bryan Stevenson speak in San Diego. Oh, my gosh. He was absolutely amazing. There was not one dry eye in the entire auditorium.
JS: I liked that you used the word fundamental because Walter McMillan died did not die in prison. But at his funeral Bryan Stevenson, he said the real question of capital punishment in this country is not whether people deserve to die for crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?
JS: And this is what I put in my notes. I use the word fundamental also. Until we can reckon with that fundamental question, we can’t fix this. We can’t keep arguing about this until we really reckon with it. And if we have decided that we get to kill, we’re never gonna solve this.
MR: I told you that for years, I was an activist in human rights organizations. And the main one was Amnesty International. And so I participated in countless discussions and presentations about the death penalty. And the movement against the death penalty evolved. At one point I think some of the leaders in the movement realized that they had to start talking numbers, how it costs so much more to kill someone that’s then to keep them in jail for life and other arguments. I understand using those arguments, I understand that it works for some people, but I would always go back to what a system using the death penalty does. What it does is it take? The right to kill in your name and in my name, because we are the citizens of this system. We are the people who have put in place – the, the politicians, the lawyers, the judges, et cetera. So this system does things in our name. And I go back again to that fundamental moral question, has anyone the right to kill in my name? And my answer is no, absolutely not. You do not have the right to kill period. I don’t care who you are, do not kill. I’m an atheist. I’m not a religious person. And yet my understanding is that a lot of religious people will agree with me. Do not kill, and certainly don’t do it in my name.
JS: Do you read like this all the time or do you alternate? Do you have to cleanse your palate with something fluffy, or do you really stay committed to all this kind of reading?
MR: Yeah. So I do a lot of this kind of reading. I rarely read things that are too light, just because I’m usually bored, to be honest. I have a lot of friends. Who’ve asked me over the years, Why do your read such depressing things? I think one way for me to, in some different times in my life, to cope with my own sadness and other issues has been to read things that were so much more sad than what my life is or was, and to be like, You’re pretty lucky. So I sometimes think it’s a form of therapy for me to read heavy stuff. But again, of course I do read light stuff. Oh, absolutely. I love to read to laugh. I find it hard to find books that may make me laugh. But when I do I like to cling on to those. I wish, Ali Wong would write another book because I don’t think I have laughed so hard reading a book.
JS: Me too! And that’s another one that is great on audio. I’ve read it and listen to it. She’s so funny.
MR: She is hilarious. Oh my gosh.
JS: What are you reading these days?
MR: So I am finishing a book I loved called Immediate Family. Oh, it’s a beauty. It’s a gem. It’s a fiction. It seems to me like it must be based on something very real for her maybe or someone she knows. It’s a story of a woman who has a younger adopted brother who, when he gets married, asked her to give a speech. And in preparing for that speech comes back a lot of memories from their childhood and his arrival. He was adopted from Thailand. And also, a lot of her issues as a woman in trying to conceive and have a child. It’s so beautiful. There is something very personal for me. My sister was adopted, so I think my interest in that book was also very much guided by my own story and the story of my sister. Oh, it’s absolute gorgeous writing. I highly recommend it. Immediate family, by Ashley Nelson Levy. I also read, and I wanted to mention this earlier when we were having this conversation around Bryan Stevenson’s book, it’s called Learning in Public by Courtney E Martin. It’s a non-fiction. She lives in Oakland, California is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. The Oakland Hills are usually populated with white, wealthy individuals. And the lower land of Oakland is where African-American, Latinos, and other less privileged population live. And she happens to live down in a community where she is a minority as a white woman. And when it comes time to decide where to send her kid to school, her first daughter, and then her second one, she and her husband are confronted with the realities of school choices. And I think every person, well, every white parent, has probably had these kinds of conversations and this kind of decisions. She basically decides to send the kid to local school, to her neighborhood school that is large, large majority African-American. Her kid will be at minority and where everyone else around her tells her, do not send your kid there. She tells her story was such honesty, with provocation in a good way. Like it really made me think a lot about how we white privileged parents tackle these issues. And there’s so much hypocrisy. And I know it’s not how we’ll solve the world problem, but we do have to address these kinds of issues. We have to. Segregation is in schools, and we have to do better. We can do better.
JS: I just read an article about real estate agents. And when they say it’s close to good schools, how that is coded language for pretty much white neighborhoods. And again, I hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining when I say this, because I think these moments are so important to our growth as humans. It was one of those things where I went, oh my God, I have participated in this. It’s so great to be confronted with these moments and to get really uncomfortable when we recognize the times we have participated – or ignored! Not even participated, just ignored, ignored.
MR: Yeah. And in these issues, neutrality is dangerous. So when you say, having ignored it, you have participated, you have made it an issue. You have sanctioned these segregation systems and that’s a problem. And the first step is to acknowledge it and then do something about it. I think it was Howard Zinn, who’s another one of my favorite writers and USs historian, who wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Things are moving. Things are changing. Things are going fast and neutrality is not enough.
JS: How can my listeners find you?
MR: Sure. So my most active place is Instagram. I think this is how you found me. Same for Facebook. I also have a Twitter account. We also have a website and I try to keep up on what the upcoming events are. We have a virtual launch and reading on Saturday with a wonderful local author of a picture book, Survivor Tree by Marcie Coleen. And it’s an amazing book about a tree that survived the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. It’s a picture book. It’s for children, and it’s an amazing story. And I’m working on other events coming up. So, keep up and I post everything that’s coming up.
JS: his has been so lovely talking to you. I hope you will come back anytime you want to tell me about a book.
MR: Thank you, Julie. It’s been really a pleasure. Seriously. Really, really nice. Thank you. I would love that. And one day we’ll meet in person.
JS: I can’t wait.
Remember whenever you are book shopping, help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at Bookshop. Bookshop’s mission is to support local, independent bookstores. And if you shop using my link, I get a small percentage of your purchase at no extra expense to you.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.