As an independent bookseller, Deep Vellum Books’s Cristina Rodriguez possesses the gift of prescription; the store’s general manager recommends literary titles with ease, taking even the subtlest cues from patrons—their Zodiac sign, a favorite trashy TV show—and turning them toward new worlds to delve into. Until a stay-at-home order shut down all nonessential businesses in Dallas, you might have caught a glimpse of Rodriguez through the bay windows of the publisher’s Commerce Street storefront as she chatted with customers about books.
Of course, Rodriguez can’t be at her shop right now, and is social distancing to help curb the spread of COVID-19. But these days, Rodriguez has a smart workaround that keeps her connected with customers. She’s set up a Deep Vellum hotline so that she can still talk about books—and everything else—with fellow quarantined readers. “What can I do to show up for people? What can I do to make their day a little bit easier?” she remembers thinking when the shop had to close. “If that’s to joke around and talk about books and astrology, then that’s how I can show up.”
On March 18, Deep Vellum announced on Facebook that it would be opening a hotline for customers, who could call up the bookstore for recommendations Monday through Saturday, from 12 to 5 p.m. (Texting and email are also options). “Call me, beep me, if you wanna reach me!” Rodriguez added when she shared the post on her timeline, with a red phone emoji. “This might be the dumbest, horniest, or best idea I’ve ever had? I’ll let y’all decide.”
About fifteen patrons rang the hotline the first day it went live. One caller had noted Rodriguez’s disdain, expressed on one of the bookstore’s posts, for Jessica Batten, a controversial contestant on Netflix’s recently released dating reality show Love Is Blind. “You know, I just love her,” the woman said. “What does it mean that I just love her?”
“You just love chaos,” Rodriguez answered. She then thought of a novella, Ties by Domenico Starnone, that brims with engrossing relationship drama. “You’re going to love watching contemporary family life explode on the pages,” she told the caller.
Deep Vellum Books opened in 2016 as the retail arm of Deep Vellum Publishing, a not-for-profit publisher focused on English translations of literature from all over the world. The shop carries a selection along those lines but doesn’t limit its inventory to titles put out by Deep Vellum. Rodriguez’s presence at the store, where she’s been since 2017, has helped the fifty-person-capacity venue become a destination for writers like Melissa Broder, an author who’s behind the popular Twitter account @sosadtoday. The anti-influencer was so excited to read for Texan patrons last February that she rented a candy-red pickup truck for her Deep Vellum book tour date.
The delight of propping open the shop’s doors so that people can listen to readings from the sidewalk is lost for Rodriguez during Dallas County’s current stay-at-home order. Deep Vellum’s calendar was packed with April events—a lifeline for the scrappy and independently run bookstore—and Rodriguez says she misses playing host to regular community events, like the Queer AF open mic night held at the shop on the first Friday of each month. While she’s now streaming author events and the store’s Book Cult book club meetings, the hotline came first.
“I didn’t want to rush any virtual events the moment that we closed. It just didn’t feel sincere in the moment,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted to give everybody time to take things in and adjust to their own schedules.”
The bookseller lives in Dallas with her older sister, who is an essential worker and gone most of the day. When Rodriguez isn’t on the hotline, she’s often talking about it; her friends joke that she starts every conversation now with an anecdote from her day on the phone. Most people who call are acquaintances linked to Rodriguez and Deep Vellum, often via social media or through patrons of the store. But occasionally Rodriguez does hear from friends, too. Poet Sebastián Páramo rang to order two books. He made it out with three, thanks to Rodriguez’s suggestion of Silvina Ocampo’s Forgotten Journey, the Argentine writer’s short story collection about deep family ties. Rodriguez also read Páramo his Capricorn horoscope.
“She just put on her Walter Mercado hat and did it,” he says, referring to the late Puerto Rican television astrologer, whom Rodriguez posed as for an image promoting the bookstore’s hotline.
Rodriguez says that about 75 percent of callers end up ordering a book; they have the option of receiving books directly at their homes or via curbside pickup at the shop if a title is already at the store. While calls have slowed some since the launch of the hotline, the store still receives them consistently.
One call in particular caught Rodriguez off guard. A woman who sounded like she was in her mid-to late-twenties—close to the bookseller’s age—had one more thing to ask before hanging up.
“Can I ask you a question about my love life?”
“Sure,” Rodriguez said.
“I feel so alone. Do you think that I’m ever going to find love? How am I supposed to find love in a quarantine? I was already having a hard time,” the caller said.
“That was the moment when I thought, ‘This hotline is a little more than I thought it would be, but I’m grateful for it,’” Rodriguez says.
For the next hour, the two women exchanged ideas about loneliness and isolation. As the caller described how worn out she was from meeting others’ needs when she herself needed so much, Rodriguez recalled the book, How to Do Nothing. In it, the Stanford professor and author Jenny Odell gently teaches readers how to live in their own minds and choose where to direct their attention. The caller ordered the book at Rodriguez’s suggestion.
While the Deep Vellum hotline works as a short-term solution while the shop is temporarily shuttered, Rodriguez sees a place for it even when the store is back open. “I don’t think I’m going to get rid of the hotline. I’ve enjoyed it so much,” Rodriguez says. “As much as it is for other people, it’s been a little bit helpful to me too.”