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Sam: Hello and welcome to the Books Uncovered podcast. The podcast brought to you by Fulcrum Publishing where we explore the world of books and the people who make up the publishing and the book industry. I'm Sam Scinta publisher of Fulcrum Publishing, and I'm joined today by my co-host for the first time, Maya Roberts, Fulcrum’s community outreach and marketing associate. Hi, Maya. How are you doing today?
Maya: I'm good, Sam. And how are you?
Sam: I'm doing great. Thank you. It's sadly the end of summer as we know, or at least the kind of the way that we think about summer. Obviously, we still have a couple more weeks officially here, but it's always tough to make that transition to fall. But one of the things I love about summer is I always try. To get out there and visit. Some independent booksellers that I've never seen before, and this summer I got a chance to visit a couple new ones for me. One was actually here in Wisconsin. It's called Kismet Books. Down in Verona, WI, which is close to Madison. Really charming little store. Very, very highly curated. Doesn't have a ton of books in there, but you can tell they pay a lot of attention to the books that they carry in that shop. Not been in there before. And so, it was really fun to go into that shop. And then I was in Canada, as you know, this summer. And I saw I went to this wonderful bookstore up in Stratford Ontario, called Fanfare Books which was wonderful and what I loved about Fanfare is I love UK editions of books and they had tons of UK editions and in addition to some really highly curated literary fiction from the US that I hadn't seen in other bookstores, so got to talk with that bookseller as well. And it was just. Wonderful. But how about you, Maya? I know you're new to the industry, have you? I think you've maybe visited some Indies and gotten to know some indie bookstores as well.
Maya: Yes, definitely. I mean that's kind of part of the fun of traveling when you're in a new city, go check out a bookstore, local bookstore and you get a little bit of a feel for that community, what they value and what they're excited about. And then of course, you get to meet the wonderful booksellers in those Indies. And I'm new, but I recently moved to the Madison area. And so, I stopped by one of our local indie books - Mystery to Me recently and it is just this fantastic little bookstore on beautiful Monroe St. in Madison, WI. And you walk in that store, and I tell you what you want to pick up each and every book they've got laid out for you beautifully curated, just like you said of the ones you visited and wonderful, wonderful folks. As well, in the bookstore there. So that was a fun little find and I'd recommend to anyone in the Madison area stop by Mystery to Me.
Sam: You know, that's funny. You mentioned Mystery to Me. First of all, because I I've on the record on this podcast a few times of saying that is one of my favorite independent booksellers. Every time I drive, even by Madison, I have to detour into town to go into the store. But also as chance would have it, imagine that - our guest today is actually from Mystery to Me. Hilary Berg is a bookseller and subscription manager at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison, WI. A lifelong reader, she has officially been selling books for one year, but has been pressing her favorite books into friends hands for decades. Her favorite place to read is outside on the porch, tea in hand, and Ollie, her big hairy dog nearby. Hilary Berg, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
Hilary: Hi, Sam and Maya, thank you so much for having me. I'm doing well. How are you?
Sam: We're doing great and as you can tell, we have a lot of love for your store. It is just such a fun, highly curated store that you go in and you can just tell the folks that work there, care about books and care about what they carry. So you can always find treasures in that store.
Hilary: Well, we appreciate. It so much thank you it is a very, I'm a little biased, but I think it's very special.
Sam: Absolutely. Well, all independent bookstores are are special places in their own right, right, that that's what makes them so wonderful as each of them has that unique character, as Maya was getting at. So you've been at Mystery to Me for a little over a year now, but you've obviously, you're a lifelong reader. What is that transition like? From being a reader to actually working in the world of books.
Hilary: Yes. So I took a couple of detours along the way. I started. I went to school and went to college at Michigan State. I was an English major. I knew I wanted to work with words in some capacity. I spent some time working as a copywriter, working in marketing. On that sort of side of English language. But then, after a couple years of that, I realized I really did want to work with books specifically. So I ended up leaving that job and I went to a library school. I enrolled in library school to get my MLIS degree at University of Wisconsin. Madison and I spent a year doing that. It's a two-year program and I did the first year and in between I was like, you know, I would really love to work at a bookstore while I'm doing this. And I had been a frequent customer of Mystery to Me for a while. And so, I they just, they happened to be hiring. It was a really. Magic Moment I was like, OK, I'm going to go for it. And so I applied to work there and then got hired as a bookseller. So I kind of dipped into different areas. I wrote for a while. I talked about books in like a library capacity. And then I ended. Up at the bookstore so and then in my free time it was sort of a similar thing. For a while I would just be reading on my own and thinking, you know, thinking about the books I read and then suddenly I was talking to friends about them. And then as Bookstagram started to become a thing online, I started a Bookstagram account and I started to talk to more people, people that I didn't know online about books and that's kind of evolved into now, recommending books to people in person at the store.
Sam: And so you're the subscription manager at the store as well. So I'm guessing that that's a lot of online work that you do. So you're continuing that in, in the store capacity.
Hilary: Yeah, it's. That is my favorite part of my job. I did not know I was going to be doing that when I first applied. And I am convinced it is the closest thing to being like a professional book fairy that is possible to be employed as. Yes, I I love it. So every month I we have a book subscription program and similar to I know lots of bookstores do subscription programs. This one is a little different in that each one, each pick is curated for the specific person. It's not like. We do one pick and then, send it to all the subscribers so each person gets to fill out a survey and tell me what they like to read, and then I get to walk around the store and just pluck books off the shelf for each individual person. And it is so fun.
Sam: Oh my, I you know, I had no idea that that's what you were, that you had that at the store. And I am going to be signing up because I love the idea of the book fairy is amazing. I just love this. Like to get surprised right to get things that you're not counting on and to just be so thrilled.
Hilary: Exactly, yes. And it's so fun to just walk around and pluck, I end up with, like, a stack as I walk around the store and I just pick. For each person. And it's fun to get a sense of, like, people have such different reading tastes. I try and, like, surprise them with something that they may not have encountered before, just in their own path of looking at books and picking things up and it's a total blast. We started it, I believe in 2020 kind of in response to the pandemic. It was something that we could do that still got books in people's hands remotely. And since then, obviously we've resumed our like normal operations, but we kept that program going because people liked it and it was so much fun. So we've just kept it rolling.
Sam: Brilliant. Just brilliant. And again I I do hope you have a name tag that says book fairy on. It.
Hilary: It you know, that's what I need to work on. I need to like right now my business card just says subscription manager and bookseller, but I think I need to go to our boss and. Be like so. Book fairy.
Sam: We actually just had name tags made for Fulcrum and instead of putting our titles, we are all called book ambassadors.
Hilary: I love it. See, I love it.
Sam: It's the same thing. Yeah, it's the same sort of idea, right?
Hilary: I think she'll be for it.
Maya: Now, Hilary, you talked about, you're curating the selection for each of the individuals that purchasing your subscription. So it is it is highly personalized and it seemed to me that I when I walk in the store, you do that with every customer that comes in, you focus on building a relationship with them and you focus on creating that personalized experience. Could you talk a little bit? About that skill, how you got good at it, or maybe just the difference that that makes when you're interacting with the customer?
Hilary: Yeah, I think well, thank you. We try. That's how we try and make people feel. I think there's a couple things that go into it. Part of it is, I mean, it's just experience. It's just time. The more people are coming in and. Asking questions the. More, you're getting exposed to like, what's on the shelves. What people are picking up. So part of it is just, you know, seeing what people come back for over and over again. I think part of it is our just our specific place in the community. You know, we're a small store, we're located on Monroe St. in Madison, just down the road from Camp Randall. We have a lot of small businesses right on like the one or two blocks that surround us, and beyond that it's houses, it's residential and we get a lot of people from the neighborhood who just walk in and have been walking in for years now. It's not really a place where, you know, we don't have a parking lot, for example. So it's like we get a lot of people from right in the surrounding community who come into the store and have been coming back over and over again and you just get to know their taste, you get to know who they're shopping for, you get to see. I mean, kids come in as really little kids. And then they come in. You know, six years later, and they're looking for middle grade, and suddenly they're looking for YA. So I think we're very lucky to be placed like physically where we are and that helps us be able to make some of those connections with customers.
Maya: Yeah. And and you guys are deeply entrenched in the community. So given all of that, I'm curious, do you have a favorite memorable moment or story from interacting with a customer over the years?
Hilary: Oh my gosh. I don't know if I could pick just one, I think, but I could pick a recent one. This was just I think this was two days ago. We had three girls come in you we just started talking to them. They had just started UW. They were students and they had walked down and three friends and they came up and they said they wanted to do a little book club together. They're like we all like to read, but we kind of like to read different things. But can you tell us a book that you know, these are our specific interests? Is there a place where they could all meet? And there's a book that we could talk about that would have a lot of discussion, a lot, a lot there to discuss. And so I was like, OK. Like it was kind of. You get really specific requests sometimes and this was one where I was like, OK, so we have a mystery reader and we have a romance reader, and we have a fiction reader and. We want something that's discussion-able, for lack of a better word. So I just got to walk around the store and grab a couple different books and then I stood there with them and talked them through and they ended up picking one of them. They were really excited about it and they each bought a copy. And took it home. And stuff like that, like when people come in and they really just leave it in our hands and they're like, hey, this is what I want. Like we trust you. This is what we're interested in. Can you find something? Is so fun and it it was like cool to see these, like young girls who just came back to school. They could be doing like, anything and they come down to a bookstore and they're like, we wanna have a book club together. Help us. And I was like, yeah, OK, I'd love to do that so that's there's so many, but that's probably the most recent thing that's happened where I'm like. Uh, this job is so cool, like just getting to chat with people and recommend them, like, push things into their hands. It's so fun.
Sam: So what just generally these days, what are people who are coming in the store looking for what are you know are there specific genres that are connecting with people right now? Are there specific titles? I know one of the things that you like a lot of indie bookstores pride yourselves on is you find things there that maybe you don't find in the big chain stores, so, so maybe it's not necessarily stuff off of the New York Times bestseller list, but what are what are the customer tastes these days?
Hilary: Oh well, at our store in particular, obviously the store is called Mystery to Me. We do have a lot of mystery readers that come in. We have evolved over the years from being solely mystery focused to more of a general interest bookstore. We have sections for all sorts of different, not just mystery, but we do have a really large and deep mystery selection at the store, it's really carefully curated and we get a lot of people coming in for mysteries, thrillers that they, classic mysteries, things that you might not find at your regular that might not be carried anymore at or missed over because they didn't get a lot of, you know, marketing, publicity this and that at you know your typical bigger box store. But beyond that? We do have a local author section that gets a lot of traffic. We like to work with local authors. We like to put their books out. You know, that's something that is important to us and we like to put their books on the shelves and try and sell them, and we get a good amount of people that come in because they know someone who knows someone who wrote a book. And hey, is that here and it's always great when we can. Be like, yeah. Yes it is. So we've had a a couple of books in particular this year that were done by local authors and we had lots of people coming in for them and that was really fun. We did a couple events with these authors, and they'll come in and sign them and it was a good time. Something else that's had an uptick a little bit is we before we never had a romance section, we only had a general fiction section. We never broke it out into anything more than that, but we had a lot of people coming in and asking for, like RomComs. And so we ended up making a RomCom section specifically for that because we just noticed people asking and it was hard to search through the whole fiction section and just pluck out when people were asking for it. So we did just make a RomCom section. So that's seeing a little bit of an uptick.
Sam: And so how has this transition been? And obviously you've not been there for the whole the whole time of the store, but obviously starting as a more mystery focused store even in the name to you know still having that as your core, but also then serving other customers because obviously you don't have infinite shelf space that how do you make some of those decisions?
Hilary: Yeah, it's definitely not easy. We are very like physically small store. We do only have so much shelf space. Around the holidays, we get so packed in, I couldn't even tell you how many books are stuffed on the shelves, but it has been, it's been a good as far as I know a good transition originally when our owner Joanne bought the store, she bought the inventory from another mystery bookstore that was specifically just mystery focused, and she took it over, so obviously she had all these mystery books, but then decided over time to start integrating some other genres, expanding. You know, at first we didn't have a children's section. Now we have a children’s section which expanded to middle grade and YA and things like that. So I think. It's just sort of organically evolved based on what the community has come in and asked for, asked for over the past 10 years. This past June, we turned 10 years old.
It's mostly done. In in response to just what the community has come in and ask for and. Been looking for. We still do a lot of special orders in the store. We do a lot of ordering for people and make sure they know that it's not an inconvenience or weird. I know it might like feel strange to come up and be like, hey, can you get this just for me? But we do it all the time and it is just because we only have so much space on the shelf and everybody in the, you know, they have really varied tastes around the community and we try and predict it and stock as well as we can, but there's always going to be things that people are coming in and looking for that we just don't have. So we do a lot of ordering and try and fill that way. If we don't have it on the shelf then we'll try and get it in for somebody another way.
Sam: Yeah, I think that's a really important point you make and something I think people forget about with independent bookstores is they can pretty much get any book and a great way to support your local indie is not just to buy what's there, but if there's something you know isn't there, order it through them because they still are selling the book.
Hilary: Oh yeah. Right. And we get a lot of people who specifically come in and tell us, you know, we want to order this from you. We don't want to buy it on Amazon like we are and we are, so, so grateful for everyone who takes the time to do that because it makes a huge difference. And yeah, we do it all the time, so it's great.
Maya: Yeah, that definitely makes me happy to hear. Hilary, earlier you mentioned that you kind of got involved in the book world a little bit via booktok and you mentioned that your customers are driving the books you're putting in the store, so. I'd be curious to know what you've kind of seen as far as booktok influencing the desires of your customers and influencing what you're stocking these days.
Hilary: Well, we do absolutely see it. That is for sure. There are a couple books that have gotten really big on booktok I'm specifically an Instagram bookstagram person. I have not yet ventured into TikTok. I feel I'm like is 30. I'm like, I don't. I don't know if I am. I belong on TikTok. I can't decide, but we absolutely have had people coming in asking for books that I know just from being around the Internet have like blown up on TikTok. We all of a sudden we couldn't keep the Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo on the shelf, and we were like, what's the deal? We could Sarah Jay Mass on the shelf. And we're like, hmm, you know, Colleen Hoover, things like that. And it comes back to booktoks. So even though we have. It's not that all of our customers are necessarily like of the booktok age. Or generation or whatever. Even still, we feel the impact of that for sure, and they go off the shelf and we bring them back in and these books go off the shelf again. And it. So far we haven't seen any signs of it slowing down.
Maya: I tell you what that booktok success is every publisher’s and every author’s dream, I think, and it's an elusive thing that is, is kind of by chance sometimes. But it the way those books fly off the shelves, it's fascinating too.
Hilary: See, I can only imagine, and it's interesting that it's not necessarily one specific like they're not. All new books. They're so like Evelyn Hugo. I, I think came out multiple years ago. It's not like it's a new release or anything. We've seen the effect also with. If we go to mystery, the book Cain’s Jawbone, which is like a real, it's pretty. It's it's, I mean, decades old and it's this, it's this older puzzle mystery book. Very few people have solved it over time. Lots of people. Yeah, and. Yeah, and it got popular on TikTok somebody was like, oh, there's this old. You know this old? Puzzle embedded in this story and all of a sudden everybody's trying to solve it, and that is a good example of a mystery that we I I don't know if we carried before even before TikTok kind of brought it back to life. But now. We order it and reorder it constantly. We sold one this morning when I was there so people are really into it.
Sam: I had a student last semester. I give out gift cards to a local independent bookseller for trivia for my for some of my students, and he went and bought that book with his gift card. He's like, oh, I saw this and I had to solve the I guess he had heard about it on booktok
Hilary: Yes, all the time. And so that's it's been interesting to see things like that happen where like one day I I like I said, I don't even know if we carried it and then all of a sudden, it's become one of our constantly reordered books so.
Sam: You know what's what's wonderful in talking with you is you. You have a very upbeat approach and feel about the book industry and, you know, being in publishing for quite a while and being around other people and publishing. You could certainly get sucked into the negative aspects of this and. Certainly, independent bookselling is is similar to independent publishing in that way. Do you are you? Are you and the the folks at the store get feeling a sense of optimism, maybe in spite of what you you constantly hear on the macro level?
Hilary: Yeah, absolutely. Especially after I would say I was. This was just before my time there. But I know just from hearing my coworkers talk the pandemic really like the community kept us afloat during the pandemic. They wanted us there. They didn't want us to go away they made such an effort to make sure that our store made it through what was we didn't know how long this was going to be. And so. I think it really after something like that happening, especially so soon, it's easy to feel good about. Like you know, you see these people put into action like or whenever somebody comes up and says I I know I could get this from Amazon for half the price, but I don't want to. Like, I came down here because I want to get it from you. To be able to be the people who are face-to-face, having those interactions instead of just hearing them second hand. I think it helps make it a lot easier it. It makes it easy to feel good. About being in business.
Sam: Oh, that is. That's awesome. That that just warms my heart to hear that. And Maya’s too. Yeah, I see her gesturing down there. Well.
Maya: It warms my heart. Definitely yes.
Sam: It makes our jobs easier too. Very. To be able to deal with with people who are feeling upbeat and positive.
Hilary: Right, absolutely.
Sam: Well, we're, we're, we're coming now to my favorite part of every episode where we get to talk about books, which is, you know, we've kind of been butting up against it this whole time. But now we actually get to embrace it. The hey, what you reading section? And of course, we've been talking a little bit about the fact that Mystery to Me right there in the title does a lot of mystery books. And so we thought today it would be fun to talk about. Mystery book recommendations and so Hilary, as always, we start with our guests and we'll start with you. You've got a couple picks for us.
Hilary: Yes, I do. OK, so this part I was most excited for, so. My first pick is one that has been around for a little bit, but I love and I think is the number one book that I have handsold at Mystery to Me in all of my time there, and that is The Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osmon. This the 4th book is about to come out, so we're a little ways into the series. But it's definitely not too late to catch up. These are super british, super lovely mysteries. It's the premise is about these four octogenarian friends who live together in this nursing community and like. The lovely, sweeping hills of the UK and in their free time, they would try and solve cold case crimes, murders, things that happened a long time ago, when of course, all of a sudden a real murder falls into their lap in their community and they have to try and solve it. And I know that might sound like. A really like basic premise. But once you get to know the characters. I just love them so much. I would read about them doing anything at all. The books get funnier and funnier as they go on. I like to think of them as kind of lower ”c” - cozy. So capital C cozy mysteries are their own specific genre with like their own rules and tropes. And these books don't necessarily follow that, but they give you the cozy feeling of love, like sitting down with a blanket and sitting down with the characters. And I look forward every there's been one published, I think every year for the past four years. And I look so forward to when they come out. It I I love that series. So that's my first one. And then my second is a newer mystery. This one came out over the summer. It's called My Murder by Katie Williams, and it is. It's quite short. It's really good if you it's best inhaled in one sitting. If you can swing it, or maybe a couple. I think it took me two, but so. And the idea behind that one is so imagine a world very similar to ours near future world, very similar to ours, but one of the only changes is that now the government as part of a government project can bring people back to life after they have died. They only use this for specific circumstances. They don't do it to everybody, but it can be done. And our main character is someone who she was the victim of a serial killer, and the government decides to bring her back to life and put her back into her, her old life. From before this happened. And so she comes back and she starts to, you know, be told what happened to her and hear about the circumstances and starts to ask some questions about how this really happened, what really played out and starts to solve her own murder, basically. I've never read anything like that. Where somebody. Is able to like be the detective in their own murder mystery. But it was really good, really fast-paced. I haven't read a mystery like it before, so that was a fun one. Over the summer when people came in and they're like I want something quick, but I want it to be really engaging really. Like I could hand that to them. Easy peasy and. I I think it's it's been going really well. So those are my my most recent two.
Sam: Excellent picks. Wonderful. Thank you. Well, Maya, I know that mystery novels have not been a genre you've explored much, but for this podcast, you dove in. So what? What have you read? And. What? What did you like?
Maya: Yeah. So I got pushed a little bit outside my comfort zone with the mysteries. With the book recommendations section here, mysteries aren't what I normally pick up, but. This was a fun little challenge. And so in kind of prepping for the podcast, I thought I got to do some research and I need to read one classic mystery, and then I need to be read one more modern mystery. And so in my research I stumbled across and I ended up deciding on and. That was what was available at the library the Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, Hammett. And so I went through that. And I'll tell you what, by the end of the Maltese Falcon, the double crossing left me trusting no one. And so that was a fun one and and just a nice, old timey. I mean, it was written in, I believe, 1930. So that old timey detective mystery was a lot of fun and and a pretty quick one, too, to get through and. Then I recruited the help of some of my friends and asked around for mystery book recommendations because I wasn't even sure where to start and one that was recommended to me that. I just absolutely ended up falling in love with was The Life We Bury by Allan Eskens and that one is set somewhat locally, so the main character is up in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis, Saint Paul area in Minnesota. And so I've got some family up there, so touched a nerve on being a little bit closer by it. And it's a college age student who is asked to go and interview an elderly individual. And then write their biography. And he does that and he ends up getting paired up with a gentleman who was convicted of murder and is dying. And so he starts to hear his story. He starts to dive a little deeper into what happened in the situation and ends up just kind of. I won't no spoilers here, but it's a very intriguing tale of what he learns in the relationship that he builds with him. And so I ended up just falling in love with all of the characters by the end of it. And so that one was a lot of fun. It it also has some interesting themes on justice and family trauma. As well, so The Life We Bury by Allan Eskens was my second recommendation today.
Sam: Excellent. Thank you, Maya and glad you got pushed out of your comfort zone. And as we discussed now you've got to watch the Maltese Falcon movie because that's another classic.
Maya: Yes, that's on my that's on the top of my movies to be watched.
Sam: well, so you know, unlike you, Maya, I would say and I've talked about this before in the podcast. Mystery and espionage are probably my number one genre to read. And so narrowing it down to two out of like hundreds and hundreds of books over my lifetime is difficult. But I just picked two that I've read say in the last year that I just really, really enjoyed. The first one is called His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, who's a Scottish author. I had heard about this book. It was a Booker prize finalist, was kind of a surprise Booker prize finalist in 2016, but I had not read it. And I happen to be in Scotland a year ago and we were in this town, Applecross, which is on the West Coast of Scotland, and we went into this little craft shop and they had a stack of these here. And it turns out the book takes place in that area. So I picked it up and started reading it while I was there. And it takes place in 1869. It's written in the form of a memoir. And I have rarely read a book. With such a wonderful sense of place and history. As done as kind of a mystery, but also a study of class and family and legacy and heritage and culture. Very Scottish but very, very well written. Just a beautiful, beautiful book, a lot of dark stuff in there. As you can imagine. But but quite wonderful. And then the second one is one, I actually bought at Mystery to Me it was one of those. Hey, what's this on the shelf here? It's a book called the Remarkable Mrs. Anderson by an author by the name of Miklós Bánffy. Now Miklós Bánffy was a true this is, you know, kind of kind of too, too funny to be to you wouldn't believe it's true, but it is. He was a Transylvanian Count. So Count Miklós Bánffy, who had actually written this wonderful book called the Transylvania Trilogy. These three books that talk about Transylvania at the turn of the 20th century, and it's just this beautifully written story of of culture and people and all this shifting well, I had no idea he he had lost his home and the family lost their whole legacy as a result of the transfer of Eastern Europe. And so he was pretty much poor. Living as a pauper essentially, and was writing these pot boilers and he wrote this mystery novel called the Remarkable Mrs. Anderson. Which takes place in in the 1930s in Italy. Mostly in in kind of fascist Italy, but it involves this couple that are involved in this intrigue involving a stolen piece of art as they're racing across Italy into Eastern Europe, and it is just such a wonderful romp. There is humor, there is romance. There is drama, there is culture and it is just I was so pleased. I just saw that book on the shelf and Mystery to Me and I said I have to have this and and then just was so rewarded by such a wonderful, wonderful story. So thank you, Hilary and folks for giving me one of my favorite books I've read in the past year. Just an absolute joy.
Hilary: That is delightful. I'm so glad you liked it. That's awesome.
Sam: Yes, well, Hilary, this has been absolutely wonderful and and I wish we could bottle your joy and optimism and enthusiasm because it is infectious and it really does give me such great feeling about the the publishing industry and knowing we're all doing the right thing. But thank you so much for joining us today.
Hilary: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Sam: And Maya, thank. You so much for co-hosting today. I I hope that you will join us in the future again as well. It's has been wonderful having you on the podcast.
Maya: Absolutely, Sam. It was a joy. Thank you.
Sam: Well, thanks to everybody. And as always, happy reading.
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