Meet a Bookseller: Mary McDonald of Nicola’s Books

Originally from Maplewood, New Jersey, a bedroom community of Manhattan, Nicola’s Books bookseller Mary McDonald lived in Ohio for 25 years before moving to Michigan in 2013. She has been a bookseller for almost 20 years, ever since she got a part-time job in 2000 at the Learned Owl Book Shop in Hudson, Ohio, to supplement her work as a freelance writer. But Mary’s love of independent bookstores started as a young girl, when she saw the value a bookstore had in her own community. Maplewood was fortunate to have an independent bookstore, The Book Stop, that provided what Mary refers to as ‘a true independent book shop experience.’ “The person who ran the book shop, Liz, knew everyone. I would come in as a kid and say, ‘I need a book for my Uncle Bob,’ and she’d say, ‘I don’t think he’s read this thriller yet.’

”It was this deep connection bookstores have with their communities that attracted Mary to apply for a job at the Learned Owl, whose service was on par with what she had experienced herself growing up. “People would come in and you knew them and you knew their kids and their spouses. It was a cool way to sell books–really knowing a community and having folks who you sold books to again and again. You got to know their taste. We would even occasionally call customers we knew very well and say, ‘I just read this thing and I know you want it. I’m just going to set it aside for you.’ That’s something I’ve always really liked about indie bookselling.”

Mary decided to move to Michigan in 2013 to pursue a romantic relationship, and secured a job at Nicola’s Books before making the move. As a bookseller at Nicola’s, Mary handles consignment, acquisitions, and most school-related inventory ordering. In her spare time, Mary also volunteers her time as the Exhibitor Chair for the Kerrytown BookFest. But it’s connecting people with books that she loves most. “I love sharing books that I love with other people. I think that’s great. And especially kids. Little kids get so excited about a book. I love how excited they get! And they’re reading, which is setting them up to have this pleasure that can be lifelong.”

While Mary reads a lot of speculative fiction and science fiction and enjoys reading funny memoirs, she is drawn to any book that makes you think. “I like books, whatever genre, that make you examine the world and why it is the way it is and how people make it so. I think any good book does that in any genre.”

We asked Mary what she’s read recently that she’s been excited about, and like any voracious reader, she was hard pressed to name just a few books! Below are three titles that really stand out to her. But we encourage you to seek her out the next time you visit Nicola’s Books, as there are plenty more books we’re sure she’d love to share!

Mary’s Book Picks

Words are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books, 2000-2016by Ursula LeGuin, Little Beer Press, $15.99

What I love about this book is that she’s writing about books that she loves. It’s a book of essays and some of them are reprinted book reviews that she did for various publications. Some are talks that she’s given about various genres or movements in literature. Some are just things where she’s writing and saying ‘I love Grace Paley and I don’t know why she’s out of print.’ And now Grace Paley is in print again. Yay! She’s always thoughtful and it’s just a terrific book because I can dip into it and I know no matter how many times I look at it, I haven’t read all of the things that she’s talking about, and I know each one of them is going to be a gem.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Broadway Books, $17

I’m not a big horror fan at all, but this a great book and it is horrifying. It is not for the faint of heart by any means, but it’s smart and literary and funny and twisty and just, everything that a book should be. Except if gore freaks you out you should NOT read it! But it’s great and it’s totally under the radar. I don’t know why it didn’t get more press than it did. 

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99

This is a really good book–it’s like a tribute to Gothic mystery– by Elly Griffiths who did the Magic Men series and is a forensic archaeologist in Britain. She’s a good writer and she’s really fun. It’s about an English teacher who works at a high school, and in her spare time, is writing a book about a fictional Gothic mystery writer who is supposed to have lived in one of the buildings that is now this high school where she is working. She’s a single mom who has a daughter and is living her life. Then one day she’s going through one of her diaries and finds that someone has written in it. And what they’ve written is ‘You don’t know me.’ How creepy is that?! Because you’re thinking ‘Oh my gosh, who is this person whose been in your house and found your diary?’ But there’s also that aspect of, ‘Well, IS it really someone else? Or is it her and she’s just really intensely messed up in some way?’ Then someone in the school is killed and it just goes from there. It’s edge of your seat. It’s really good!

Featured in April 2019 newsletter