Growing up in Skokie, Ill., Matt Astrella was “kind of a geeky kid who loved books.” While his friends were outside playing softball, he’d be inside reading. And it’s the rare 10-year-old whose prized possession is the complete works of William Shakespeare.
“I’ve always loved libraries and bookstores. It’s the ambience. There’s something magical about them,” Astrella says. “I remember going to an antiquarian bookstore, holding old volumes in my hands and thinking, ‘This feels so wonderful.'”
Astrella has the perfect job for a bibliophile: He’s the books department manager at the UC Irvine Bookstore and is dedicated to bringing the love of reading and creative thinking to the campus.
“We’re a cultural hub of UCI,” he says. “We like to be a venue where faculty, students and the community can discuss books and all things literary.”
UCI has one of the few university bookstores in the state — or country — to host author readings. Literary celebrities such as T. Jefferson Parker, Marianne Wiggins and Janet Fitch have held readings, as well as rising stars from UCI’s prestigious M.F.A. Programs in Writing, including alumni Maile Meloy, Joshua Ferris and Aimee Bender.
“We support emerging talent,” Astrella says. “Every time an M.F.A. graduate gets published, we love to host a signing. They call it ‘going home.'”
The bookstore also supports current students’ literary endeavors, holding launch parties for new issues of the journal Faultline and Web-based Kiosk, hosting Anteater Book Club meetings, and simply offering a reading refuge.
“Students love hanging out in the magazine section, and we encourage them to chill,” Astrella says.
He has also spearheaded the bookstore’s involvement in Literary Orange, an annual day of workshops, readings, talks by authors and other events celebrating the written word, presented by Orange County Public Libraries and UC Irvine Libraries. The bookstore will again sell titles at this academic year’s event, to be held April 10, 2010, in the UCI Student Center.
Before joining UCI 22 years ago, he managed the book division at the California State University, Fullerton bookstore, and was an independent bookseller at Mariner’s (now closed) in Laguna Beach. His family treasured culture. His grandfather was first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His mother read books and magazines constantly.
His office feels like a quaint literary salon. The upholstered reading chairs he bought at Pier 1, the framed artwork, the Grecian statuary — all suggest a more gentrified world that existed before online booksellers and discount chains put many of the independent bookstores he loves out of business.
“It would be a shame if all that’s left are the big-box chains or Internet orders,” Astrella says. “When I buy a book, I like to pick it up, look at the cover, thumb through its pages and read about the author. Buying online is not the same. But it’s challenging for booksellers to compete in this day and age.”
He’s proud that the UCI Bookstore has cultivated a loyal following both on and off campus by offering titles not found in discount warehouses.
“We have a larger-than-average, eclectic selection of books,” Astrella says. “Our strength is literary criticism and philosophy.
“All of us in the bookstore love the written word and exposing new audiences to literature. It’s knowing that you can be a creative force in the way people view and read books. We’re a source of ideas that stimulate the intellect.”