Alexander Chee and SoCal immigrants behind Boxwalla gift box

When author Alexander Chee agreed to select “American Fiction” for a subscription service called Boxwalla, which began with two works arriving in mailboxes this month, he understood a key benefit of receiving curated articles.

Chee is the author of acclaimed novels such as The Queen of the Night and the collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He is also a fan of gift boxes. “I like the idea that being surprised is part of the process,” said Chee of Tennessee, where he taught at the annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference. “I get the New York Review of Books subscription, plus a mystery box of comics and graphic novels every month, and you never know what you’re going to get — and discover.”

Boxwalla was founded in Irvine in 2015 by husband and wife Sandeep Bethanabhotla and Lavanya Krishnan; Their range includes luxury skin care, coffee and tea, chocolate and even high-end textiles. But their first subscription boxes were based on books they loved, and these have always been at the heart of what they offer. Now, they aim to expand their forward-reading mission by collaborating with authors like Chee—excellent writers who also have a deep understanding of the kind of literature they want to share.

Chee’s choices: “Brother Alive” by Zain Khalid and “The Town of Babylon” by Alejandro Varela. Both books, which have been published in recent months, fulfill Boxwalla’s long-term mission, which Krishnan summed up during a phone call with the two founders. “It used to be that there was always an elitist element when people talked about taste,” she said. “We really don’t think that should be the case. The more you read, the more you experience and you learn what you like, what your taste is.”

Boxwalla co-founder Lavanya Krishnan

“The America that we see on the streets here has many different sensibilities,” said Lavanya Krishnan, co-founder of Boxwalla and resident of Irvine.

(Courtesy of Boxwalla)

Krishnan said they hope to “recreate what you were doing 20 or 30 years ago when you walked into a bookstore, browsed and suddenly realized you liked something you had never heard of before.” Boxwalla is essentially your friendly local bookseller: “We give people what we think is best, and then they find their own favorites from our selection.”

Boxwalla’s model isn’t exactly new; In fact, it joins a recent wave of book subscription franchises — from a revival of the Book of the Month Club to a newer service, Literati, which draws on influencer recommendations. For years, publishing executives have wrestled their hands with the problem of “discovery.” When Amazon replaced the bookstore experience with algorithms and put smaller stores out of business, how were readers going to find great reads that would surprise them?

These services help close the gap. Boxwalla’s niche represents discoveries you may never have read about in magazines or on Twitter – with an emphasis on translated and multicultural works and power readers like Chee, whose stacks are higher than most.

Book subscriptions are themselves an old American tradition. Domestic sales skyrocketed after Harry Scherman launched the Book of the Month Club in 1926, on the wise expectation that a skyrocketing middle class would seek jury-curated titles. Many club songs became enduring classics, including “A Farewell to Arms”, “Gone With the Wind”, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Although its popularity waned around the turn of the century for many reasons, the club was revived in 2015, with its selection overseen by an editorial director instead of a jury, fresh branding, and a new focus on accessible fiction.

In 2008, famed independent bookstore Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon began shipping “must-have” boxes. A group of booksellers selected a title each month, wrapped it in a custom slipcase signed by the author, and shipped it along with little treats—chocolate, a mug, a notebook, a magazine. Although the program was shut down in August 2021 due to supply chain issues related to the pandemic, plans for a revised version are in the works. Kim Sutton, Powell’s director of marketing, recalls one bookseller calling this “essentially hand selling” — the traditional term for bookstore recommendations.

boxwalla

Founded in 2017, Literati is pursuing a slightly different model – one that blends the old-school notion of the talkative bookseller with the BookTok era. If BOMC could be called literature for the well-read crowd and indispensable the sophisticated option, Literati seems to be targeting the influencer-obsessed.

“Our luminaries select the book each month and curate it according to their club theme,” says Jessica Ewing, Literati Managing Director. These power hand sellers include novelist Roxane Gay, activist Malala Yousafzai, golden state warrior Stephen Curry, and author Susan Orlean. “Readers suffer from the ‘paradox of choice’ when looking for their next favorite book and are simply overwhelmed by the process,” says Ewing. “Our goal is to create a better book experience by bringing together some of the most influential minds in the world.”

Boxwalla takes a similar tack with Chee, albeit with an emphasis on pushing readers out of their comfort zone. “We wanted to make sure people read translated literature from around the world and understand that great literature isn’t just written by English speakers,” said Bethanabhotla. “It might feel like work for some people at first, but once you start getting involved with music, movies, or books, eventually you’ll find joy.”

Two of the translation authors who have stood out in previous Boxwalla bids are recent Nobel Prize winners: Svetlana Alexievich, the “non-fiction” writer from Belarus, and Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, author of “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”. Bethanabhotla did not discover Alexievich through her Nobel Prize, but while reading a research journal about the Soviet-Afghan War.

The founders of Boxwalla, who both grew up in Delhi but relocated to the United States for graduate school, cite the multifaceted Irvine as a particular inspiration. “The America that we see on the streets here has many different sensibilities,” Krishnan said. “People from all different countries, speaking all different languages, living their lives. That’s what we wanted to reflect when we decided to dedicate a subscription series to American fiction.”

Chee was the first person they asked to curate a box. “We’ve been sending Alex boxes for a while just because we loved his taste,” says Bethanabhotla. “He’s also a huge advocate for other authors.” When he praised Boxwalla’s curations online, “I almost cried,” adds the co-founder. And when he accepted her offer to curate his own box, “we were surprised, and it was amazing because we all agreed on what we wanted to do. We were pretty jaded when it comes to American fiction, and reading Alex’s recommendations revived it for us.”

Khalid’s “Brother Alive” is a compelling journey that begins in a mosque on Staten Island, New York, where an imam has adopted three boys – one Nigerian, one Korean and the third of unknown Middle Eastern origins – and to a transformative one Travel to Saudi Arabia guides Arabia. Varela’s The Town of Babylon follows a gay Latinx professor’s return to his suburban hometown as he works to come to terms with a complicated past. Both novels have received all the right praise without really catching on in a tough market – and will certainly benefit from Chees and Boxwalla’s cachet.

Equally important, they represent a way forward for US literature as the country (despite the dangerous backlash) becomes increasingly heterogeneous. “They were so different,” Chee said of his choices, “but reading both gave me a sense of an America I know but don’t see enough of in American literature.”

The characters in his selection, Chee added, “know America better than America knows them.” The author, whose native roots are Korean and Scottish, wishes to “highlight books that are new to American publishing.” Could these be tomorrow’s classics, backed by a book of the month club more diverse and open-minded than the one Harry Scherman founded almost a century ago? Whatever happens, Chee says, “I want to show what I see today as the richness of the American literary imagination.”

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-08-19/how-two-socal-immigrants-and-alexander-chee-are-reinventing-the-gift-box-for-books Alexander Chee and SoCal immigrants behind Boxwalla gift box

Sarah Ridley

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