From Harry Styles to Emma Roberts: How celebrity readers became the book influencers we didn’t know we needed

In August, Harry Styles stopped by Sweet Pickle Books, an independent store in New York City that sells both pickles and books. He bought pickles, a T-shirt, and a hat. Photos of Styles inside the boutique spread fast on social media. Word of his visit spread to TikTok, where videos of the singer routinely get hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of views. (His own song “As It Was” has become one of the app’s most used songs.)

Leigh Altshuler, who opened Sweet Pickle Books two years ago after losing her job during the coronavirus pandemic, says Styles’ visit was life-changing for her business. “That’s the best thing I could have asked for,” she says The Independent during a phone call in October. “And I couldn’t even have asked for it, because there’s no language to say, ‘I wish the biggest pop star in the world would come to my store.'”

Not long after Styles’s visit, his then-partner Olivia Wilde was photographed wearing a Sweet Pickle Books hat on the street. (After Altshuler and I speak, Wilde is revealed to have modeled the same hat in a photo spread for the November 2020 issue of Elle magazine.) That buzz, combined with the fact that Styles walked its hallowed aisles, has increased foot traffic at 47 Orchard Street, the store’s address in the Lower East Side. Fans have shared posts and videos about their own trips to the shop. By the time Altshuler and I speak, two months have elapsed since Styles’s shopping excursion, but its effect is ongoing.

“I still see people come in with Harry Styles tote bags every day,” she says. “It’s an amazing thing that people find out about the store. So many people are like, ‘This is such a Harry store, no wonder he came here.'”

Styles’s trip to Sweet Pickle Books echoed another recent occurrence: in June 2020, Chris Pine (incidentally, one of Styles’s co-stars in Don’t Worry Darling) was spotted leaving Skylight Books, an independent bookstore in Los Angeles. When he was photographed leaving the same store again in January of this year, he held up his stack of books so that the paparazzi shot would register their spines – giving the books and their authors a kind of shoutout money can’t buy.

(What did he purchase? Per Esquirewho memorialized the moment in a piece titled “Chris Pine is a Low-Key Book Influencer”: “Caroline Desroche’s Los Angeles Standards, a photobook about Los Angeles typography; Kaoru Takamura’s Lady Joker, a crime thriller by a Japanese superstar; Jon Kalman Steffanson’s Summer Light Then Comes the Night, a literary novel from the Icelandic countryside; and Agustina Bazzterica’s Tender is the Fleshan Argentine dystopia about legalized cannibalism.”)

Styles’ and Pine’s bookstore moments each rose to a virality of their own. There was, undeniably, something irresistible about a pair of Hollywood heartthrobs bringing their starry selves to the cozy world of indie bookstores. (See: Hugh Grant’s bookseller character’s face when Julia Roberts walks into his store Notting Hill.) In the modern age, with the help of social media, this has translated into a reclamation of sorts. Famous people – actors, musicians, and, yes, models – are so often creative types, but celebrity culture rarely ascribes to them the braininess associated with creative professions. A love of books and literature is one of the most efficient ways to challenge that perception.

“The nature of celebrity is changing,” Paul Bogaards, a publicist in the publishing industry who has spent three decades thinking about what makes authors and their work compelling, tells me in an email. (Full disclosure, Bogaards is this writer’s publicist, but more relevantly, the authors he has worked with include the two-time Pulitzer winner Robert Caro, Bret Easton Ellis, Nora Ephron, Emily St John Mandel, Toni Morrison, Donna Tartt, and the actor Sharon Stone.) “Today, celebrities want to be celebrated as artists in their respective fields of work and seen as living lives not so different from our own. This was not the case decades ago when their lives were celebrated for being different.”

In the book world, celebrity influence ranges from the serendipitous (Chris Pine lifting his purchases to the lens of a paparazzi’s camera) to the organized. Celebrity book clubs have been around for almost three decades. Oprah Winfrey launched hers in 1996. Reese Witherspoon started her own in 2017, as did Emma Roberts, who co-created Belletrist with her friend of more than 10 years, Karah Preiss.

When Preiss and I speak, Roberts – who goes through one to two books a week when she’s on set, according to Preiss – has been reading Gavin Lambert’s The Goodbye People and sending Preiss photos of her favorite pages. The two have done this since the beginning of their friendship, and decided to take it to a wider scale with Belletrist.

“We started to think, ‘We imagine that other people do this too – underline, highlight, read obsessively, send what they’re reading to their friends,” Preiss says. “And given Emma’s pre-existing audience, she was like, I think, we should start something on Instagram that’s dedicated to reading and literary culture and books.”

In its five years of existence, Belletrist has cultivated an aesthetic that Preiss, in a phone call in October, describes as “a little bit left of center.” Its picks have included Octavia E Butler’s FledglingLisa Taddeo’s AnimalMelissa Brother’s Milk Fedand Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Body.

“I coincided with this trend of female-identifying actresses sharing what they’re reading,” Preiss says. “I think it’s not a coincidence so much as it’s part of this ‘I share, therefore I am’ mentality that has emerged in an Instagram age.”

In 2020, the model Kaia Gerber started her own book club, spotlighting titles such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and MeRosie Price’s What Red WasChloe Benjamin’s The Immortalistsand Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. On Instagram, Kendall Jenner, has been known to share photos of herself with her current readers, including Darcie Wilder’s Literally Show Me a Healthy PersonFariha Roisin’s How to Cure a Ghostand Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else – resulting in what has been referred to among fans and in headlines as “Kendall’s unofficial book club.” In November, during the reporting of this piece, she shared a photo of herself browsing at the Mysterious Bookshop, an independent bookstore specializing in crime fiction located in Manhattan.

Through her work with Belletrist, Preiss has observed “a critique that [this sort of book influencing] is performative, that it is brand building and not real.” People are prone to questioning whether the celebrities – usually female – actually read the books they plug.

“There’s such an obsession with that,” she says. “And I’ve even seen it with Emma, ​​where people are like, ‘No, she really reads.’ It’s something you have to qualify, which feels to me a little bit misogynistic and a little bit judgmental. By asking that question, you are kind of proposing that actresses wouldn’t read.” In a way, she says, “celebrity has cannibalized acting”, taking away from acting being perceived as an art form, even though “there is a long history between literature, film, and television.”

But beyond that skepticism, celebrity endorsements can also elicit fascination, and change the lifespan of a book. The alchemy works both ways. Celebrities, says Bogaards, “can help connect others to said books because many readers want to emulate their behavior – at least the good celebrities!” For readers, digging into the same books as someone they’re curious about can create a sense of intimacy or access.

“Reading is a tether,” Bogaards adds. “It makes us closer. And possibly readers feel closer to celebrities if they are reading alongside them.”

Since June 2021, the Instagram account Celeb Book Recs has curated lists of books shouted out by specific celebrities. Anna Haynes, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder and of the Columbia Publishing Course, was inspired to start it after watching various YouTube videos in which people read a specific celebrity’s favorite books.

“I found those videos really interesting, even if I wasn’t interested in the particular celebrity,” she told The Independent over the phone in November. “There aren’t a lot of celebrities that I am a super fan of, but it’s interesting to have that insight into somebody’s mind, somebody who seems so inaccessible and out of reach. Being able to use books to get into a person’s psyche was really interesting to me.”

Each of Haynes’s posts centers around one celebrity (Roberts, Pine, and Gerber have all been featured; other subjects have included Alexa Chung, Bella Hadid, and Lupita Nyong’o.) To curate her posts, she searches previous interviews and articles looking for references to specific books. Each post begins with a shot of the celebrity in question, along with book covers, after which users can scroll through more detailed slides including additional background. (A recent post about Elizabeth Olsen featured Madeline Miller’s CirceAnthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot Seeand Malcom Gladwell’s Talking To Strangers.) The account has more than 45,000 followers, and Haynes has a backlog of 81 suggestions for future celebrities to include.

“I think it helps to humanize celebrities, knowing that they can read and that they enjoy reading,” Haunes says. “I think that’s really interesting to people. It’s akin to [the US Weekly section] Stars – They’re Just Like Us! People can relate to them in a way that they didn’t expect to.”

For small businesses like Altshuler’s Sweet Pickle Books, a celebrity endorsement can make all the difference, even beyond the initial buzz.

“If [Harry Styles] ever gets to read this – we want to send you a thank-you note,” she says. “… If you’re a celebrity, go to a small bookstore and buy their merch, because it really matters and it helps so much. I’ve had repeat customers who found out about the store through Harry Styles or Olivia Wilde, who come and shop for their books here. And that, to me, is a slam dunk.”

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