An independent bookstore helps to define and inform the unique culture of a small town. And in Sonoma, folks rely of Readers’ Books to help them choose what to read. Recently I asked co-owner Lilla Weinberger about how she chooses the books she carries in her store. And here’s what she emailed me:

“We carry around 17,000 titles, although given the current economy our inventory is necessarily less robust than usual. The process of selection is what defines each bookstore and is quite complicated. It involves the taste, preferences and knowledge of the buyer, the sales history (if any) of the authors other books, the interests of the various communities that frequent the bookstore, the input of sales reps and publishers, early reviews and subsequent publicity. Our initial buying of what we call frontlist is done two or three times a year depending on the publisher. We buy spring/summer titles in the winter and fall/winter titles in the spring. There are always books that take us by surprise. Examples are The Female Brain and Losing Mum and Pup. Often a book that doesn’t do well in hardcover will take off in paperback–like The Red Tent so many years ago. A title we love is The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. The reviews were excellent but made it sound so depressing that few people were motivated to read it. That’s when hand selling becomes so important. Our customers rely on us to read and recommend books they might otherwise miss.”

Adds Weinberger: “The best way to influence our buying decisions is to buy books from us. That way we see that there are people in the community who want to buy a certain kind of book. It doesn’t work to come in and check the shelves for conservative titles if you never buy books from that store. Right now we have to rely more and more on special orders because we can’t carry as much stock. Generally we try to represent the best-known conservative authors because it’s important to us to be a bookstore for the entire community. Our customer base, however, is predominantly liberal in its views so it wouldn’t make sense for us to carry an equal number of conservative and liberal titles. The current book, Liberty and Tyranny, by Mark Levin is an example of both a title that caught us by surprise, and a conservative title for which there has been considerable demand. Fortunately our customers have been willing to special order it often enough that we can see there is a real demand for it, in which case we begin reordering it when we run out.