A Novel Idea—creating a home for local writers and small presses

A novel by a local author finds a home at a Passyunk Ave bookshop that has already reinvented itself twice in three years

In late November, Passyunk Post contributing writer CT Liotta published his debut novel. But getting there wasn’t that easy.

No Good About Goodbye is a young adult LGBTQ spy novel set in South Philly,” he says. “It’s about a 15-year-old boy, Ian, who fits the mold of a pulp adventure hero. After a tragedy overseas, he moves in with his cantankerous grandfather in Lower Moyamensing while searching for his missing brother. In a twist, he falls for an undocumented Chinese immigrant—his best friend William Xiang. Ian’s great at breaking codes and dodging bullets, but can’t figure out how to leave a voicemail for the cute guy he likes because he doesn’t want to ruin their friendship by coming out. The two boys end up saving each other’s lives in totally different ways.

“The problem is,” Liotta continues, “even after professional editing and design, no major publisher wants to take on a story like this. It’s fun, funny, and irreverent, but it’s niche. Mergers, staffing shortages, and cutbacks have overwhelmed traditional publishers, making breakthrough writers who aren’t already big stars on Twitter or Tik Tok rare.

“I love my indie publisher. The book is available on Amazon, and every major bookseller can order it, but it’s tough to make a story stand out without the backing and advertising budget of a major publishing house. I have no connections who will talk it up in the New York Times or book me on Fresh Air. I kept asking, ‘is there a home for a book like this?’”

A local bookstore for local writers

Celebration was in order in early December for Christina Rosso-Schneider and her husband Alexander. Their bookstore, A Novel Idea, had just celebrated its third anniversary in its space at 1726 E Passyunk Ave.

“Most businesses figure out what to do in their first year,” says Alexander, “and it sets the stage for success or failure. We have had three distinct first years with no consistent data.

“During our official first year, 2018, we worked with local restaurants, theater companies, and small presses on events and programming. Our goal was to stay local—to support local authors and independent presses and publishers, and to engage local businesses. Then, the pandemic hit.

“We spent our second year in lockdown, filling mail-orders from home. When we realized we would survive, Christina and I trusted our guts a little more on how to move forward. We had fun.

“Year number three has been a hybrid of our first two years. People are back in the shop. Some want to attend live events, but many want to remain virtual. We’re working on ways to do both at once. We don’t know if or how things might change, so we’re trying to grab and implement ideas while we can.”

Past events stand as testament to the owners’ flexibility. The first year saw events like Brunch with a Book, which partnered with local coffee house Ground Up Coffee. Theatre Contra held performances in the bookstore. To respect social distancing during the pandemic, the store offered nights out. “People could have private dates in the bookstore after-hours. It wasn’t all romantic. Sometimes it was a mom and son, or sisters, and we’d let them bring food and drinks.”

In 2022, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, AWP, will hold their annual conference in Philadelphia. Speakers and presenters have booked a Novel Idea every night—sometimes for two events in a single day.

Almost all of A Novel Idea’s successes come from being everything online booksellers aren’t: a reflection of the neighborhood, and a place for small-press novels from local authors like Liotta to have a place in the front window.

“Personalization is key,” says Alexander. “You can do things when you’re local that you can’t when you’re big. It’s nice when a customer walks in, and I know the books they like. I can say ‘hey, have you looked at this new title or heard of this new author?’ While indie bookstores sell large-press bestsellers, they’re not beholden to advertising them. They can allow other writers to shine, and lesser-known books to break through.

Stores like A Novel Idea also allow people who love books to meet and share ideas in ways they can’t online or in a big-box bookseller. The store will serve as a wedding space for the first time next year.

“It’s funny,” says Liotta. “My first thought on approaching Alex and Christina was, ‘why on earth would they want to carry my little indie book that nobody’s heard of?’ Things became clear as I spoke with them about their store and their philosophies. A Novel Idea was exactly the space where books like mine find a home. Who knew?”