One of the Great Independents

Jack Shoemaker’s desk sits opposite a wall packed floor to ceiling with excellent books. It’s a library to envy: hardcover collections of James Salter, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Evan Connell, Gina Berriault, W. S. Merwin, Robert Aitken, Paula Fox, Paul Celan, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke. If there is a certain pleasing symmetry to the books’ bindings, it is because Shoemaker published every one of them.

Shoemaker’s current imprint, founded and co-edited with Trish Hoard, has its offices in Washington, D.C., where our interview took place. It was a bright day, just above freezing, the third week of January. Shoemaker’s second-floor office was bathed in sun, and water dripped from ice under the eaves all round.

He was contemplating his impending move back to Northern California, where he began his bookselling career working after school in bookstores. Forty years later, Shoemaker is widely respected as an expert editor, sophisticated bookseller, and dear friend to his authors. He has thrived in the cutthroat world of publishing by means of loyalty to a simple transaction: the passing of a book from one reader to another. When he reads a manuscript, he is thinking always of who will want to read it next. This sensibility has informed a life’s work creating such encounters, in a business ultimately akin to matchmaking. He is expert in relationships: the relationship between a writer and his or her text, between a work and the tradition in which it sits, between a work and its readership.

Shoemaker has a scholar’s breadth of literary knowledge but a conductor’s ear for the specific sound of each lone voice. When he speaks about the work of individual writers, he adopts, to some degree, the tone of their work—shifting registers, using long phrases or stopping up short, offering small homages.

And the books are beautiful. They have a heft and elegance that suggest decades or more of life on a favorite shelf. The paper is heavy stock, cut cleanly at the ends; the book jackets are matte, smooth, and richly colored; the bindings are stitched. At the end of our interview, Shoemaker offered to send me away with a book or two representing the best of the new season. I left with a bagful of ten. How could he choose?

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