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In almost any situation, books and gambling can easily be linked by a single degree of separation:
What are the odds that Colm Tóibín would be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (currently 7-2 to win at British bookmaker Ladbrokes) and a Tony Award best play finalist during the same year for variations on The Testament of Mary. Has that ever happened before?
What are the odds that Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio would also be a member of the board of directors for the New York Racing Association?
What are the odds that Senator John McCain would be caught playing online poker during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing about Syria? (Book connection? Check out author Matthew Dicks's amusing commentary on the incident.)
What are the odds that in 1981, I'd leave a Santana concert early, drive to the nearby harness track and watch Rambling Willie race during his nationwide book tour for Rambling Willie: The Horse that God Loved? (I bought a copy and had it signed.)
The odds, in each case, are pretty damned good.
A few years ago in the New York Times, Curtis Sittenfeld recalled an editor telling her that "people think publishing is a business, but it's a casino." Living in Saratoga Springs, I'd rather think of it as a horse race, with a mind-numbing list of factors to analyze before placing your bet and hoping for success: consider multiple entries, research past form, evaluate the people involved (owners/trainers/jockeys or writers/publishers/booksellers), weigh the current odds for success/failure and much more. Do your handicapping, eliminate the obvious losers, narrow down the list of potential winners and then place your bet.
What are the odds you'll be wrong? You know the answer to that one. And yet we keep going back to the book trade window to bet again as we write, publish and market more books, always hoping for the elusive, irresistible combination of luck and performance that makes for a winner, however you might define the term.
Speaking of winners, it's that time of year when British bookies train their focus momentarily on the world so closely aligned to their name, even if the stakes are low. The Atlantic pointed out that only £25,000 (US$39,563) was bet with Ladbrokes on the Booker prize last year, compared to as much as £350,000 on an important Premier League soccer match.
Noting that British newspapers traditionally cover major literary prizes in terms of odds, bookmakers "need a dependable, accurate method of calculating them in a way that ensures the house will still win--but also one that doesn't come with a required-reading list for potential bettors," the Atlantic wrote.
"The most important thing to be aware of is critical reception," said Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes. "We do not read all of the books and in actual fact avoid doing so in order to [not] cloud judgment."
Keeping in mind that this is a year in which Hilary Mantel can't win her biennial Booker, here are the current odds from Ladbrokes for two of the Big Games in this fall's book competitions:
Nobel Prize in Literature
Haruki Murakami (3-1)
Joyce Carol Oates (6-1)
Peter Nadas (7-1)
Ko Un (10-1)
Alice Munro (12-1)
Assia Djebar (14-1)
Philip Roth (16-1)
Amos Oz (16-1)
Thomas Pynchon (20-1)
Ngugi Wa Thiog'o (20-1)
Man Booker Prize
Harvest by Jim Crace (5-2)
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín (7-2)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (4-1)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (5-1)
We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo (6-1)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (6-1)
"After years of hovering in the wings, this could be Haruki Murakami's year" for the Nobel, according to the Guardian, which pointed out that the Japanese author "has been considered a frontrunner for the past 10 years." But some curious betting trends last week that dramatically reduced Kenya's Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's odds are noteworthy, including a large bet at Ladbrokes by "a Swedish customer," the Atlantic reported.
Shortly before the Booker shortlist was announced, Ladbrokes had Crace listed as favorite at the same odds he is now, which may mean something. When the longlist first came out in August, Philip Hensher offered this early handicapping advice: "I can hardly see where else the prize can go than to the long-overdue Crace."
I was one for two in 2012, predicting that Mo Yan would win the Nobel and Alison Moore's The Lighthouse would somehow wrest the Booker from prohibitive favorite Mantel. But it's a new year and gamblers are ever-optimistic. Now it's time for my 2013 predictions. Drum roll, please.... Since no self-respecting, well-read punter would ever bet a favorite, I'm backing Colm Tóibín for the Man Booker Prize and Alice Munro for the Nobel Prize in Literature. So... Who do you like? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2084.
Whether the challenge is increasing sidelines inventory, adding on a complementary business or even opening a sister (or brother, your choice) store in another location, indie booksellers are always exploring ways to increase margins without sacrificing integrity.
Mark Kaufman and Donna Paz Kaufman run the Bookstore Training and Consulting Group of Paz & Associates. When Mark responded to a recent column, it sparked my curiosity regarding what prospective booksellers might understand about nonbook merchandising possibilities as they consider entering the book trade.
"Before we even read your piece in today's issue of Shelf Awareness, Donna and I were talking over breakfast about how interesting it might be to create a little side-business suggesting appropriate nonbook items that stores could merchandise alongside the book," Mark wrote. "It distresses us no end to hear some booksellers insist that they don't want to sell 'all that crap,' mostly because if you were just to depend on the slim margins available from selling books alone, you'd likely not last very long in business. What we embrace (and teach at our workshops) is that there are plenty of opportunities to offer customers a more interesting selection--and make more money at the same time--without having to add an entirely new business to the bookstore."
Long ago and far away (1993 at the ABA trade show in Miami), I attended one of Donna's workshops during Bookseller School. I wondered how much her advice about nonbook inventory for indie booksellers had changed since then.
"Even 20 years ago, there was room to launch a bookstore and financially do well without constant worry about cash flow," she recalled. "Retail bookselling today is more of a challenge, requires more creativity and demands many more skills than it used to. We encourage people to consider ways they'll be unique and how they'll become the 'go-to' place in their community for people who love to read. Why not add a little extra to bump up the average sale, especially when you see customers laugh and have a good time finding things in your store? Each combination will be unique, and there is a wide range of general merchandise categories, services, learning opportunities, and food and beverages to help create that special store."
She cited one of her favorite retail stores in Savannah, One Fish, Two Fish, "with a delicious selection of beautiful art, home decor, books, kitchen items, jewelry. You could buy a beautiful set of sheets there and you can find a collection of poetry and cookbooks displayed so you just have to go look (then buy). I just love it. What kind of store is it? It doesn't matter. It's the same with the fabulously successful Anthropologie stores. It's the synergy that creates a special sense of place."
As far as prospective booksellers are concerned, "everyone who comes to our training usually considers themselves readers and most have acknowledged a lifelong dream of owning a bookstore, but in years I haven't seen anyone who spoke of any concerns about carrying general merchandise (a term I prefer since 'sidelines' marginalizes the importance of other items)," she said. "When trainees learn the financial dynamics of a bookstore, it's crystal clear how valuable higher-margin merchandise is to the bottom line. To some, I think that's a real eye-opener. As trainers, we think it's the perfect prompt to help them think more creatively about what's in the store's selection that will appeal to people who like to read."
Noting that her early experience as a bookseller at Davis-Kidd "was a good place for me to learn about the importance of keeping an open mind," Donna observed that small stores of all types "have been hard pressed to compete in today's retail world, which is why we believe it makes sense to morph into more of a general store. 'The Merc' (Mercantile) has been a favorite place of mine in Ann Arbor and it's so much fun to visit because you never know what you'll find. On Amelia Island, we have lost our quality indie toy store, Hallmark store and wine bar and there's no shortage of artful items made by local artisans who are always looking for a place to show their items. While many specialty stores cannot survive on their own, a combination of merchandise can help a bookstore become an even stronger destination."
She added that when the big box chains "are selling cheap, imported goods, many hunger for unique, handmade, locally crafted, quality items. Booksellers don't have to sell out or feel compromised. It's smart retailing to keep the selection fresh and exciting, filling niches and seizing opportunities. It's time we focus on serving our target markets (people) instead of being focused purely on our product (books). We are so fortunate to have target markets that value education, have disposable income and understand the importance of local business to sustainable communities. We should be obsessed with catering to their intellectual, spiritual and aspirational needs. A dynamic and lively selection will help us remain interesting, relevant and profitable."
Her conclusion: "I think we're in an era where we are transcending categories and that is a very good thing for all retailers, especially indies." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2079
"We try to listen and watch for what there is a need for in our town, staying away from competing with the few other retail shops that are open," wrote Annie Leonard, manager of the Next Chapter Gift and Book Boutique, Knoxville, Iowa, in response to last week's column about adding sideline inventory and retail space to indie bookshops.
Knoxville is a small town of about 7,000 people that has "gone through its share of downtown demise, but we have turned the corner and are working hard to revitalize our downtown with lots of thriving restaurants, a great micro-brewery and more--but we're still light on the retail options, which is where the Next Chapter comes in," she observed.
Describing the store as "a full-service indie bookshop with new books for all ages, as well as a basement with thousands of used titles," Leonard noted that the Next Chapter also has a large women's accessories section (scarves, jewelry, bags, gloves, etc.); a children's section with toys and kids' accessories; a stationery section and four rooms of home and garden décor.
|Staffers (l.-r.) Diane Gordon, Annie Leonard and owner Tresa Mott.
The shop opened more than five years ago in the storefront of a building owned by Tresa and Steve Mott. At the time, Tresa was working as the office manager for her husband's dental practice and running a dance studio in the building, but she had always dreamed of owning a bookstore. She and Leonard knew one another, "so we got together in late July over coffee to talk about the idea of a bookshop," Leonard recalled. "It was magical fun, and by the end of the conversation, we both knew we were on a freight train that wasn't stopping any time soon."
Just as the economy was crashing, the Next Chapter launched in a 1,000-square-foot retail space evenly split between books and gifts. Fortunately, "Our community showed up and Tresa resigned her position at the dental office to be at the bookstore full time," Leonard noted. "In spite of the economic downturn, or maybe in part because of that and the rising gasoline prices, we found that people wanted to shop locally, they liked not having to drive an hour to find gifts and books, and they were willing to give us the business instead of Amazon."
Listening to their customers and monitoring sales numbers closely, the shop has adapted over the years, refining its book selection and expanding women's accessories. After the local Hallmark store closed in 2010, the Next Chapter brought in greeting cards; and a year later, when the local home and garden décor shop closed, the bookstore took over an adjacent empty suite of offices and expanded its inventory to fill another retail void in the town.
Asked about the decision to call the store a "Gift & Book Boutique," Leonard explained: "Several years ago, a lovely out of town shopper stopped in, shopped the whole place thoroughly, and as she walked out said, 'This isn't just a book shop, it's a book boutique!' We loved the expression, and have adopted it as our tag line. Then, as we expanded and shifted our focus a bit, we commissioned a new logo that more accurately reflected what we are, and since we liked the sound of 'book boutique' we added the word 'gift' first to keep the last two words together. I suppose you could say it was a marketing strategy. We think it sounds good in our many radio ads."
The Next Chapter also carries a selection of food products. "We are really proud of our local artisanal food producers, so when Lois Reichert [Reichert's Dairy Air] approached us and asked if we would sell her cheeses, we were thrilled," Leonard said. "We also have three lines of food items like dips, gourmet chips, sauces, etc., so it was a good fit."
Although books are still the primary focus, narrow profit margins mean they "cannot stand alone," Leonard said. "We have learned to be really smart and selective about what books we carry, and how many of them we can keep in stock. That's been a hard lesson at times, but in the end, I still get to find great books for my customers, and that is tremendously rewarding. Further, I've also learned that picking out beautiful scarves, luxe journals and fun wall hangings is lots of fun, too, and helping our customers find just the right gift or home accent is also very rewarding. In the end, it's about staying in business, being fulfilled and meeting the needs of our community, not necessarily about how many shelf-feet of books we stock."
Indie booksellers understand more than ever what responding to a community's specific retail needs requires. As Leonard observed, it's all about listening and watching: "I believe that many of our customers view us as a great local option that they are committed to helping stay in business. We very nearly lost every retail business on our square, and that was not a good situation, and lots of locals realized that they would have to participate in changing that situation. We are leading the charge in that local business renaissance, and we hope to be here in the years to come to enjoy the fruits of this labor." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2075.
|Literary gifts at Tattered Cover, Denver
Most indie booksellers (Never say all because, well, then the e-mails start pouring in.) have something in common. They love the handselling high that comes from a conversation resulting in a tidy stack of great books leaving the shop with an enthusiastic reader. On the other hand, they'll never complain if the next customer they wait on buys no books at all, but loads up on greeting cards, toys, souvenir t-shirts, tote bags, Moleskin notebooks, scarves, candy, magnets and locally produced salsa.
What does a great indie bookseller say to these bookless patrons?
Thank you so much. Please come back soon.
There are still plenty of shops that are book-only zones, but the business model for many others has changed during the past couple of decades--sometimes gradually and other times instantly; sometimes out of choice and other times out of necessity; sometimes in small ways, other times in ways that alter their business significantly.
In addition to a carrying a wider range of sidelines, indie booksellers are exploring numerous variations on the "two-in-one" theme. Jeffrey Shaffer, a bookseller at Annie Bloom's Books, Portland, Ore., addressed this recently in a NW Book Lovers column headlined "Books 'n' More?". Noting that he "always liked the dual-purpose business concept," Shaffer said he also "likes to theorize about what type of product or service we could add on that would catapult us to new levels of commercial success and customer satisfaction."
His own choice for "an add-on business that would serve a genuinely useful purpose, be self-sustaining, and expand our base of loyal customers" would be a "clean, well-lighted coin-op Laundromat." Considering a colleague's suggestion that an Algonquin Round Table-style "martini bar" might be a suitable add-on, he observed "the practical side of my brain believes that a bookstore serving adult libations may be walking a bit too far on the wild side."
Many bookshops have been walking that wild side, however. The most recent to cross my radar is Old Firehouse Books, Fort Collins, Colo., which will join forces with a nearby pub, the Forge Publick House, to share a newly remodeled event space beginning this fall. The goal is to "increase community togetherness and improve the connection that already exists between independent businesses" in the city. Beer-themed books will be sold in the pub, and beer will be sold at bookstore author events.
Earlier this week we reported that Scuppernong Books, a bookshop/wine bar is coming to Greensboro, N.C. Brooklyn's BookCourt bookstore is planning to open an eight-foot bar overlooking "about five tables placed under a huge skylight at the back of the store" and Denver's BookBar opened in May with the motto: "A book shop for wine lovers. A wine bar for book shoppers."
If you're feeling a little woozy at this point, have some black coffee (plenty of bookstore/cafes around) and remember that the options for an add-on business are limited only by the imagination, a distinct advantage for people who are in the imagination biz.
Shaffer's call for ideas in his NW Book Lovers column generated some Facebook responses, including a question posed to customers by the Village Bookstore, Pleasantville, N.Y.: "If we were to add another business to the store, what should it be?" Answers ranged from the practical--juice bar, antiques ("piles of old postcards in the drawers of wooden desks, awaiting discovery")--to the innovative--"a small greenhouse"--to the somewhat less useful tip that "one business down here is... herbs and cement."
In Tokyo, "some 20,000 western honeybees are being kept on the rooftop" of the Yaesu Book Center (Books 'n Bees?).
|Beauty and the Book, Jefferson, Tex.
And we certainly couldn't have this discussion without acknowledging our friend Kathy Patrick's Beauty and the Book, "the ONLY Hair Salon/Book Store in the WORLD!"
Independent bookstores already have a legacy of traditional add-on businesses like restaurants/coffee shops (breakfast at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, Washington, D.C., is always a good bet), publishing (from iconic City Lights Books to the rise of Espresso Book Machine-driven small presses) and sidelines (Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., for example, has a sister store called Paper Dreams).
As for the other possibilities, "endless" is probably as good a word as any. So we'll ask you a variation on the question posed earlier: If you were to add another business to your current store, what would it be? Answers practical as well as impractical are welcome. And if you already have a unique add-on, let us know about that, too. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2070.
"Where's your village? What makes up your village?" asked Kathleen Noonan last week in a Brisbane Courier-Mail piece headlined "Shopkeepers are the heart of the community that we call home." Published on Australia's National Bookshop Day, the essay has been making the book trade social-networking rounds here in the U.S. ever since. And for good reason.
"Just look up your local shop on the Internet or drop in," Noonan advised, noting that she would be "pretending to be a bookseller" behind the counter at Avid Reader bookshop, "hopefully just popping books in brown paper bags, saying knowing things like, 'Oh, the symbolism in that one's magical'--and not actually in charge of tricky credit card transactions."
She wasn't just writing about booksellers, however. Noonan explored the concept of being a shopkeeper now: "We're not talking rustic cutesy row of shops here but the village each of us has in our daily lives, in our routine, that actually helps us survive in a big city. Dealing with the sheer size of the city and chaotic intensity means you have to make your own village, a space where you know people and chat to shopkeepers on a daily basis--your favorite sandwich maker, your dry cleaner.... At the core of these villages are shopkeepers."
Shopkeepers have not traditionally garnered such high praise. Adam Smith sounded a little snarky in the 18th century: "To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."
As did Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century: "When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them--as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon--I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago."
I've spent much of my life as a shopkeeper, and I always bristled at the idea that the term was a pejorative. This may come from watching too many westerns, where shopkeepers are traditionally portrayed as either obsequious, sleeve garter-wearing cowards or the widows of obsequious, sleeve garter-wearing cowards. The HBO series Deadwood struck a less insulting shopkeeper chord with Timothy Olyphant's fierce portrayal of Seth Bullock, a man who wants to trade his gunslinging past for a new life as a hardware store shopkeeper, though choosing a lawless South Dakota settlement for his venture complicates things a bit. Imagine an armed Bernard Black.
Customers do not witness the complexity of a shopkeeper's day. Many bookstore patrons, for example, see only an ideal job that involves bookish conversations in a soothing environment, and good booksellers sustain the myth by remaining calm and cordial, even as their work day--an endless cycle of shelving, ordering, straightening, cash register duty and other responsibilities--devolves into an angst-inducing blur. Bookstore patrons don't need to know about any of this, of course.
Shopkeepers play an essential role in fostering our sense of community. As Noonan observed, in addition to "providing a retail service, these shopkeepers make up your village." She also cited author David Malouf's recent observation that "at the heart of a village is often a good bookshop."
"Bookshops are havens. I reckon you are never too scruffy, hungover, or bruised and bewildered to slouch into a bookshop," Noonan concluded. "Books are the friends you don't have to dress up for. They are the lovers that require no stroking of ego or anything else. They are the teachers that set no exams. Bookshops aren't just bookshops. They are ideas shops."
And shopkeepers? Let's just say that in these perilous bookselling times, shopkeeping and community building are not for faint-hearted, sleeve garter-wearing cowards. Maybe it was always so. A 1922 New York Times article, headlined "Shopkeeper of Shakespeare and Company," described legendary Parisian bookseller Sylvia Beach as "efficient and determined, but with her efficiency and determination there was understanding besides." To me, these sound like the core elements of a bookseller... and a shopkeeper... and a village. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2064.
"Those entrepreneurial bookstore owners who can see the opportunities inherent in bringing our communities together online and in real life, and innovating throughout a new age of digital publishing, they, the pioneers and trailblazers, will stay on trend and relevant, playing an important role in modern society and, with our support, continuing to flourish."
You'll probably still be sleeping tomorrow when members of the Australian Booksellers Association begin celebrating the third annual National Bookshop Day (@NatBookshopDay), with bookshops hosting events and promotions across the continent. The official launch of the festivities is the announcement of this year's Favorite Bookshop by actor and author William McInnes during a ceremony at the Sun Bookshop, Yarraville. Check out this promo video featuring McInnes that was filmed at the bookstore. And, for good measure, here's another promo featuring NBD ambassador Markus Zusak.
Four Aussie publishers produced free mini-editions for booksellers to distribute to their patrons: Amazing Experiences (Lonely Planet), Rain Queen by Katherine Scholes (Penguin), The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd (Text), Secret Kingdom Activity Book and Sea Question Activity Book (both from Hachette).
Bloomsbury Australia is running a #lovebookshops campaign across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, asking booksellers to send photos of their stores.
Australian indie booksellers are participating in numerous ways, some of which could easily be in the running as future Shelf Awareness "Cool Idea of the Day" features. Here's a sampling:
In addition to hosting the official NBD launch, the Sun Bookshop's Younger Sun store has invited children to dress up as their favorite Leigh Hobbs character, participate in a drawing workshop with the popular author/illustrator and "afterwards join us for fairybread and cordial."
Electric Shadows Bookshop, Canberra, hosts a fundraising event with author and local Labor MP Andrew Leigh to raise funds for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Writers are being put to work behind the counters as celebrity booksellers at Pages & Pages Booksellers as well as at Avid Reader, Brisbane, where other planned events include free henna hand painting and "jazz on the footpath."
The National Bookshop Day theme this year at Potts Point Bookshop is "(Wo)Man's Best Friend and we are hoping you'll agree that there's no better company than a book, other than perhaps your furry companion." Featured events include Dr. Mim & Claire, "who will be opening PP Vet Hospital," a doggie photo booth and Fairy Poppilina, who "will have you barking in your seats with her special storytime session."
At Riverbend Books & Teahouse, Bulimba, the staff is wearing pajamas to work to celebrate local bookstores in the community. "If you are also feeling gluttonous, tired and literary, then come along and join us in the festivities, where we will be encouraging everyone to eat, sleep, and--most importantly--read local. The first 50 adults and 50 children to visit us wearing their pajamas, or even just a dressing gown, will receive a free book!"
"Read-ins" are being held at TLC Books, Manly, where customers are being encouraged to "come down and cop a squat in or around the bookstore and read"; as well as Mary Who? Bookshop, Townsville, where patrons are asked to "bring a chair (or lounge!) and a book and find a spot in the dappled sunlight directly out the front of MW?... to read... in the lovely company of other readers! Bring a crowd if you can!"
Robinsons Bookshops in Frankston, Chadstone and Greensborough are celebrating National Bookshop Day by launching Blind Date with a Book, "a fun way to try new authors and discover great reads ... [that] involves hand-picked quality fiction titles completely wrapped in brown paper. A few vague words are the only hint as to what lies within."
So, happy National Bookshop Day! The ABA's NBD cat probably sums up the festivities best:
I buy books in my local bookshop so I...
help employ humans
help the environment
kept my money in Australia
and embraced the uniqueness of my favorite bookshop.
--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2059.
While President Obama's visit to an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn., earlier this week has been garnering headlines and well-deserved book industry backlash, I've been lucky enough to witness a less publicized, but no less effective, response to Bezosgate.
On Monday, the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., will have a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the soft opening of its highly anticipated second location in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A grand opening is planned for September 29, when the store is hosting a community-wide celebration.
If "living well is the best revenge," then perhaps opening a beautiful new independent bookstore in a thriving city just a week after Bezosgate is one of the best retorts anyone could ask for.
As many of you know, I worked at the Northshire as a bookseller and buyer for nearly 15 years before joining Shelf Awareness, and three years ago I moved to Saratoga. While the imminent arrival of the bookstore is a happy coincidence for me, I do have a betting interest--an appropriate phrase for a city that is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary of horse racing--as a resident, customer and fan in the Northshire's success here.
I stopped by last Friday to check out the work-in-progress as opening deadline loomed. Shelving of new books was just getting underway, carpeting was still being installed and fixtures completed. Booksellers and construction workers rushed around, dodging each other as they balanced books, boards and cans of paint.
A few familiar faces from my past life as a bookseller were there: IT director/buyer Ben Parker working his electronic magic with a new POS system; Barbara Morrow--co-founder, with Ed, of the Northshire in 1976--shelving books; Nancy Scheemaker, my former colleague in Manchester and the new store's general manager, directing traffic as her staff unpacked, received and organized books in sections temporarily labeled with colored tape; and co-owner Chris Morrow, who was supervising the hectic final rush to get the construction finished, among a hundred other details major and minor.
On Wednesday, I returned for an updated peek and the pre-launch chaos was well under control, with Monday's opening no longer a distant goal, but as real as the new awning out front. The frenzied yet focused atmosphere reminded me of Manchester Northshire's ambitious expansion a decade ago, when it nearly doubled in size. I still recall that curious mixture of adrenaline and exhaustion, pleasure and pain, that took hold of us as we headed down the home stretch.
In an e-mail newsletter I received yesterday proclaiming Saratoga as "our second home," the Morrow family said they were "thrilled to be part of this wonderful welcoming community, much as we have been a part of Manchester all these many years. We look forward to hearing from you, what your expectations are, what you like, what is missing, how we can become your bookstore.... We look forward to seeing you in both of our stores and offer our gratitude to all of you for supporting independent book selling."
What will happen next? That's what every reader wants to know about each story they encounter, isn't it? When Northshire Bookstore Saratoga debuts Monday, it will be a soft opening in name only because the staff will be off to the races. This is high season for Saratoga, and downtown is packed with visitors from dawn to midnight and beyond every day.
I don't have an answer for what will happen after Labor Day, but if omens mean anything, I believe the 1,500 people who showed up in June for Northshire's Neil Gaiman event at the Saratoga City Center can be seen as a portent. And it must be a good sign that a new Kilwins shop, which is opening soon in the same building, was using a fan to distribute the scent of chocolate onto Broadway Wednesday morning. We all know now what chocolate can do for book sales.
Chris and I talked briefly on Wednesday and naturally the subject of Obama's Amazon warehouse speech came up. I'd considered asking him for a comment regarding the controversy, but standing in that newborn indie bookstore, I suddenly decided there was no need. The answer was all around us. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2054
"How Google Rediscovered the 19th Century." This headline for Paula Findlen's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention, as did her contention that the "digitization of the long 19th century (materials published between the late 18th and early 20th centuries) has made accessible and searchable scholarly work that has been neglected because it was considered too dated and too unreliable.... When we read the past, we acknowledge that we stand not only, as Isaac Newton put it, on the shoulders of giants, but also on those of scholars of smaller stature who were no less passionate about their subjects and determined in their own way to contribute to the intellectual conversation."
This applies to far more than just scholarly work or the Borgesian virtual library Google is building. I'm absolutely fascinated by the vast depths of historical information about the book trade now accessible through the archives of publications like the New York Times and Harper's.
"An archivist serves the reader's desires," wrote Martha Cooley in her novel, The Archivist. From time to time, I like to unearth shards of bookselling's past for your inspection. I'm no archivist, but there is an endless array of small treasures to be found in the digital stacks that offer, among other gifts, historical perspective. Who were our book trade predecessors? What did they love? What were they worried about? This week's exhibition includes a pair of fragments from the early 20th century:
July 11, 1908: In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, headlined "Saving Bookstores from Extinction," Frank H. Dodd, president of the American Publishers' Association, addressed a decision by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court in favor the APA over Macy's regarding an anti-trust case. The judge declared that Macy's was not entitled to damages because of the publishers' refusal to sell them copyrighted books the department store planned to discount. This would not be the end of the case, but it does offer an interesting moment of reflection on the role of the bookseller.
"The object which the publishers have all along had in view is not to increase their own prices or profits, but to guarantee dealers in books a fair profit such as will enable them to maintain themselves, and thus to preserve the book store from decline or even extinction," Dodd wrote. "It is not always realized that this occupation so serviceable, if not vital, to the intelligence of the community is yet, in the nature of the case, poorly remunerated. Compared to those dealing in the necessaries or even luxuries of life, it is of small volume, infinite detail, and large expense in proportion to output. It requires special training and unusual intelligence. Not only must a bookseller be familiar with the names, publishers, and contents of the 8,000 or 10,000 new books issued every year, but also with 50,000 to 100,000 older books which are in print and demanded from time to time, to say nothing of the vast field of old books. This applies to the business of the book store proper and to some of the best of the department stores. In many of the department stores, however, books are dealt with in a different fashion. Their stock consists of standard authors and the more popular novels of the day. As can readily be seen, this plan excludes from display and sale the more serious books of literary value which are really the more important."
May 16, 1912: The New York Times featured a report on the Booksellers' Convention, held at the Hotel Astor, and a speech by Frederick G. Melcher of the Charles E. Lauriat Company on the subject of "Bookseller and Public."
"The profession of bookselling has fallen and this generation must build it up," said Melcher. "With shrinking profit salaries shrank, and poorer men manned the floors; with poorer men the sales shrank. You, who manage the stores, must draft the best men you can and keep them by paying for good service. Think of what a profession it is. Compare the pleasures of handling books to handling hardware; compare the customers with the customers of a wool house. Why don't some of you engage college men? College men go out to teach at $1,000 a year. Some of you could afford to pay them that for what they would bring you. Our stores must have men whose interest in books does not stop at the door, who can learn to love a handsome page, warm to a beautiful binding, and to whom caring for stock is a labor of love. The public is going to take its trade to the man who sells his fiction with care, juveniles with understanding, sets with enthusiasm, and who will patiently follow to the end his obscure inquiries." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2048.
And so it came to pass that e-books rained upon them for 40 days and 40 nights (more or less... well, more), and he was commanded to preserve the future by building a library shelter from wooden bookshelves that would hold two each of all the advanced reader copies in the land at that moment in time. And thus he did, before seeking refuge from the digital storm. And lo, the e-books continued to rain and rain until, one day, he simply left his refuge, realizing that the weather wasn't going to change and yet he could still walk freely in the downpour. His ARCs, however, were no longer relevant. The future had come and gone again. And he saw that it was... complicated. The End.
Because we're book people, we tend to live in the future. ARCs are perhaps the most visible sign of this, but many of us find it hard to resist the siren song of endless predictions about our industry. We hope to define shadows. Maybe I'm delirious from the current heat wave, but I'm beginning to see the future as a developing recipe for, say, sea salt caramel swirl gelato, with past and present adding flavor and texture.
Straightforward timelines are, by comparison, much more comforting. Picture Rod Taylor in the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. Emotionally and philosophically dyspeptic after a frustrating New Year's Eve dinner with doubting friends, he sits in his invention, an elegant Victorian time sled. He reaches for a crystal knob and pushes "the lever forward ever so slightly."
The future of books we try to anticipate is unnervingly just out of sight and reach, unpredictable, consistently resisting our attempts to turn it into an easy-to-follow recipe. Just consider the ingredients that have been swirling through my overheated, bookish brain this week alone, including our headline in yesterday morning's issue: "AAP Sales: E-Books Come Down to Earth in First Quarter."
Or Monday's New York Times piece that reported retailers can "gather data about in-store shoppers' behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it."
In response, Venture Beat contended that for retailers, "the goal shouldn't be to emulate Amazon and envy its data and price-driven hegemony--it should be offer a very different experience from Amazon: More human, more comfortable, and less about viewing customers as sacks of data and more as, well, people."
An indie bookseller offered reassurance to customers: "While I do think that it makes sense for brick-and-mortar stores (or 'real' stores, as I think of them) to take advantage of some of the same strategies online stores use, I would like to assure you that we are not tracking your movements through your cell phone. But we are paying attention. In a good way. :)"
Then I recalled a scene in Minority Report. Tom Cruise, who's had some sort of eye transplant (long story, already forgotten) enters a store, where a woman's face projected on a flat-screen monitor greets him: "Good afternoon, Mr. Yakamoto. Welcome back to the Gap. How'd those assorted tank tops work out for you?"
I also read a new Harper's piece headlined "Beyond the Book," in which Mark Kingwell observes that the "scope of technology's effects lies on a timescale none of us can survey, creating only opportunities for self-serving predictions--either wildly optimistic or comprehensively gloomy, depending on your interests, age, and health plan. More important, these of-the-moment technology-driven concerns do not get us closer to the heart of reading, which is a matter of human consciousness."
And that reminded me of something from the past. I checked my own time machine, a non-Victorian MacBook Air with far too many saved ancient hyperlinks, and found this: "Futures of anything tend to combine possibilities, desiderata, and dreaded outcomes, sometimes in one sentence," wrote China Miéville last August in the Guardian. "There's a feedback loop between soothsaying and the sooth said, analysis is bet and aspiration and warning. I want to plural, to discuss not the novel but novels, not the future, but futures. I'm an anguished optimist."
In Harper's, Kingwell concludes that "we will continue to argue about all this, just as Socrates and Phaedrus argued the relative merits of reading and speaking more than two millennia ago." Perhaps I'm left only with a recipe for the foreseeable future that is this coming weekend: Blend an excellent ARC (The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P.S. Duffy) with generous portions of cool AC and cooler SSCSG (sea salt caramel swirl gelato). My bookish future... is now --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2043.
Last month in Shelf Awareness for Readers, I wrote about desert island reads, noting that the catalyst had been a box of old books in which I found a 1996 Book Lover's page-a-day calendar (Workman) that included a scattering of picks, mine among them, under the heading "Your Bookseller Recommends."
I've been a little haunted by this handsellers' time capsule ever since, and a couple of days ago, I tore off the bookseller pages and spread them out in front of me like tarot cards. I was reading the past, however, not the future, thinking about bookstores now closed (A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books) and still open (Hicklebee's); thinking about great booksellers like Roberta Rubin, who recently sold the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, and the late, inimitable Warren Cassell, who for years owned Just Books, Greenwich, Conn.
"Inspiration" was a word that came to mind; "legacy" another. More than calendar pages, more than a time capsule, these page-a-day shelf talkers seemed like buried treasure unearthed, and worth sharing:
Carrie Thiederman, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books, San Francisco, Calif.
Beloved by Toni Morrison: "More incredible with each read... keeps unfolding."
Collected Stories by William Trevor: "A big-volume storyteller who's a master of character creations."
Complete Works of Shakespeare: "Do you really need a reason?"
Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin: "A winner, hands down."
Booksellers at John Cole's BookShop, La Jolla, Calif.
Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr: "Completely autobiographical but written as a novel." --Barbara Cole
Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy: "I Liked this book for the strong character development and the overall theme that we are all a product of our past." --Jan Iverson
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: "Because of the interesting history and the development of the characters, I return to this book often." --Alice Kirby
Norman Laurila, A Different Light, New York, N.Y.
The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott: "A monumental intricate work--even more spellbinding than the Masterpiece Theatre version."
Last Watch of the Night by Paul Monette: "Monette's passionate, searingly articulate look at his own life and what it means to be gay today.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: "A legendary novel of a day in the life of a gay college professor in 1962. Isherwood at his best--wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad and bitingly honest."
Claudia P. Castle, Chinook Bookshop, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Shakespeare's Complete Works
The Oxford Book of American Verse
How to Do Things Right by L.R. Hills: "I think it's fair to say all would hold up to infinite readings, and would be fine company for 30 or 40 years."
Valerie Lewis, Hicklebee's, San Jose, Calif.:
The World of Christopher Robin by A.A. Milne: "These poems are repeatable... And, first published in 1924, they're still up to date.
Don't Fidget a Feather by Erica Silverman: "A freeze-in-place contest every child (and adult) will try to win."
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli and Catherine Called Birdie by Karen Cushman: "Young adult books that get my attention on the first page with rich language and strong characters."
Warren Cassell, Just Books, Greenwich, Conn.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller: "It's every middle-aged person's fantasy, and I could read it over and over again, pondering, 'What if?' "
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler: "A compulsively readable contemporary novel about a woman married 20 years who walks away from her family and establishes a new identity."
Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts: "A first novel packed with absolutely delightful character in a great story with a truly happy ending. This is our feel good book of the year."
Karen Davis, Davis-Kidd Booksellers of Memphis, Nashville & Knoxville, Tenn.
Wild Birds by Wendell Berry
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Roberta Rubin, The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka, Ill.
The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson: "For history buffs, or for those interested in a good story, this book is... one of the best descriptions of the Civil War."
Angel of Repose & Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner: "One of the great 20th-century writers crosses the expanse of America in both physical and psychological terms."
The Palace Thief by Ethan Kanin: "How does a young man of 31 know so much about the human condition?"
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: "A beautiful love story, war story and work of art."
Remembering the past, adapting to the future. That's what booksellers do. I was thinking about Warren Cassell, who sold Just Books in 2002, but never stopped being a bookseller at heart. He would e-mail me occasionally regarding industry issues. The last time was in December, 2010, a couple months before his death at 80. I'd just written a column about occasionally being mistaken for a bookseller by other customers when visiting bookstores because, apparently, my 15 years on a sales floor had given me the "bookseller look."
"Almost the same thing happened to me in Powell's a few months ago," Cassell wrote. "I was asked directions with a 'I thought you worked here' comment. If we packaged that look, we could make a million selling it to all those people who comment, 'I would just love to work in a bookstore.' "
There are worse people in this world to be mistaken for than a bookseller. Our island is never deserted, and there are always plenty of great books to read. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2037.
While we're celebrating our big independence win over England 237 years ago, the United Kingdom isn't holding a candlelight vigil this week, mourning colonies found and lost. Instead, they are in the midst of Independent Booksellers Week, with 360 bookstores offering "an eclectic range of events across the country," the Bookseller reported.
"We have a record number of bookshops taking part, and this year's IBW is looking set to be the biggest and best yet," said Meryl Halls, head of membership services for the Booksellers Association, which is featuring a Facebook photo page as well as ongoing reports from IBW participants on Twitter (#IBW2013).
"I do feel that the week has a higher profile. Customers know about it and certainly there's a much higher profile of it within the trade," added Sheila O'Reilly, owner of Dulwich Books.
"Independent bookshops are the keystone species of our cultural ecosystem," wrote Ruth Ozeki, winner of this year's IBW Book Award in the adult category for A Tale for the Time Being (R.J. Palacio's Wonder was the children's winner). "When they are endangered, the rest of our species is imperiled as well. When they flourish, so do we all. Luckily, we know this somehow. Independent booksellers are an adaptable and resilient lot, and readers and writers are loyal and stubborn, and together we form a strong relationship of symbiotic mutualism."
In the Guardian, literary agent and bookseller Felicity Rubinstein offered "five good reasons to support your local indie bookshop":
- To make sure that good writers continue to be published
- Ethical shopping
- To keep us from folding
- To maintain property prices in your area
Melville House Books, which recently opened Melville House UK in London, checked on the current state of independence for British booksellers Keith Smith of Warwick and Kenilworth Books, Jonathan Main of The Bookseller Crow and Nik Górecki of Housmans bookshop.
Author Kate Mosse and bookseller Nic Bottomley, owner of Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, were part of IBW's headline event, a Southbank Centre debate among six industry experts titled "The Perfect Storm: Why Bookshops Are in the Frontline in the Battle for the High Street," the Bookseller noted.
"We should be saying we as a society think bookshops matter," said Mosse. "It is a statement of who we think we are as a society. It is not about value for money all the time--we do not have to go along with that. I do not think there is a single person in this room that hasn't bought a book from Amazon, but reading books and buying from stores matters more than that. We should have the courage to say 'free' isn't everything."
"People talk about bookshops as places of discovery, but we also need to be places of purchase," Bottomley observed. "I think we should be places of acquisition. Nobody showrooms from us because by the end of it they want to pick up a book and walk away with it after a visit. It is not just customer service, it is taking that to the next level, it is sexing it up, pimped for the 21st century."
He also presented a "personal, undoubtedly incomplete, manifesto for 21st century independent bookselling":
- Do one thing differently every week.
- Tell everyone what you're doing. Tell customers what's happening at your shop; tell publishers which of their books you're selling hard; tell the press anything remotely interesting. It will come back to help you.
- Never pay for advertising.
- Copy good ideas from other geographically distant independent businesses.
- Inspire 10 book-lovers every day; convert one book-agnostic every day.
- Surround yourself with creative booksellers who love books as much as you and can wax on about them even better than you.
- Use social media.
- Use the time you were going to spend bitching about Amazon to work out, realistically, what your business needs from publishers. Tell the publishers.
- Create a community. Hold events and book groups that are so good people will attend even if they've never heard of the author and that afterwards they'll rave about to everyone they know.
- Don't give excellent customer service. Give extreme customer service--so that you become part of the fabric of your customers' lives. They will do your advertising for you
- Sell e-readers now if you love them as much as physical books. If not, wait until the margins are plausible before you think about it and in the meantime carry on selling books.
- Don't buy stock from Amazon.
- Be surprisingly cut-throat and financially driven when no-one is looking; Aim not to survive, but to thrive.
Almost sounds like a Declaration of Bookseller Independence. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2032.
"Do you have a public restroom?" If there's a question booksellers hear more often than that one, I'm not sure what it is ("Where's your nonfiction section?" Not even close). And yet, I've been attending industry trade shows for more than two decades without ever seeing a panel devoted to independent bookstores and their public bathroom strategies.
|The Wall of Fame at Quail Ridge Books
Do we simply choose not to talk about it? I don't know, but I've been privy (pun intended) to numerous discussions with booksellers and other retailers over the years about the topic, especially when a new bookstore is in the works or an older one is being renovated.
I should mention that full credit/blame for this week's column goes to Pamela Grath, owner of Dog Ears Books, Northport, Mich. On Sunday, she e-mailed me the following: "Operating a bookstore is a continual learning experience. This year I've figured out that people do not have bathrooms on their Kindles."
Was I intrigued? Of course. "What's the backstory?" I asked. "There must have been an incident?"
"A series of incidents, none interesting enough to recount," Grath replied. "I'm sure you can imagine the general trend."
For the record, Amazon has not perfected a Kindle digital bathroom, though I'm sure they have a patent pending somewhere.
And while BEA seminars may be AWOL, bookstore bathrooms do occasionally make news:
- Reporting for us during her 18,000-mile author tour for Cover of Snow, Jenny Milchman noted "the lofty company of all the authors who have come to this bookstore--and who are on display in the bathroom" at Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, N.C.
- Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., has a bathroom Door O' Fame.
- Indie booksellers have been known to gather in a bathroom for post-event photo ops.
- The "Bookstore Lady" once offered a stern indie etiquette lesson to a showroomer: "And really, you should use the bathroom before you leave home."
- A sign in a closing Borders store read: "No Restrooms. Try Amazon."
- Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz., earned an unofficial "Best Bookstore Bathroom" award.
- World Book Night shared a photo of "the bathroom of the quirky Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford."
- And who can forget the infamous "toilet book" scene from Seinfeld?
On Books & Biblios even considered the dubious retail implications of bathroom shelving: "It does prompt one to consider the boundaries of private and public, of the personalized home space and that of what your clients see.... I'm still scratching my head at the anomalous nature of this place. It has beautifully crafted shelves, and a broad and intelligent selection of books. But selling books in your bathroom?"
What have I learned about bookstore restrooms after all these years?
There are certain retail design rules, the primary one being that whenever possible, you should locate your public restroom in the back of the store, so customers have to pass by as many books as possible along the way.
And there are staff hierarchical considerations when the inevitable happens and the door of your bookstore's public restroom sports the always unwelcoming "Out of Order" sign, which can indicate a range of possible issues, from basic plumbing 101 to, well, let's just say... No, let's not.
I should confess that I took full advantage of reverse hierarchy when I worked as a frontline bookseller. Whenever a "bathroom issue" was brought to my attention that required more than restocking paper supplies, I kicked it upstairs to the highest-ranking person in the store at that moment, using the always effective argument: "We're really busy!" Since I happened to work in an indie with a large staff, I could get away with deferring. Most booksellers don't have that luxury.
Bookstore bathrooms can also be a shoplifter's best friend. During the late '90s, some kids (presumably) were stealing our CDs using the bathroom drop method. One muscially-inclined culprit stashed the plastic security encased discs in a cabinet under the sink, then an accomplice subsequently cracked them open and made a hasty exit. Once aware of the plot, our floor manager extracted the evidence from the cabinet and left a note: "We have your CDs on hold at the front desk. Please feel free to stop by anytime and ask for them." End of crime wave.
Maybe we should discuss all this. "Is Your Bookstore Bathroom Shoplifter-Proof?" Now that would be one hell of a BEA/ABA educational session. Or "Bookstore Restrooms: Too Clean for Your Own Good?" Or "Bookstore Bathrooms: There's No App for That."
I can already imagine BEA attendees asking for directions: "Where's the panel on bookstore restrooms?" And the inevitable response: "Room 1E07, second door on your left." --Published by Shelf Awaress, issue #2028.
|Jack Beck and Wendy Welch
Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the search for a bookshop-sitter launched by Wendy Welch and Jack Beck, co-owners of Tales of the Lonesome Pine bookshop, Big Stone Gap, Va. They needed somebody to keep an eye on the place while they toured for Wendy's new book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book (St. Martin's).
Ultimately, "the perfect" Andrew Whalen took the helm for a couple of months, but Wendy recently told me that among the 180-plus inquiries they received was one from Memphis, Tenn., residents Mark and Sally Smith, who "would have been our shopsitters (and nothing would have gone viral) if it hadn't been that they had a family function in the middle of the period when we needed them. They wrote their information in the voice of their granddog, whom they were babysitting. He recommended them highly."
This spring, the Smiths finally had their chance, watching the bookstore for two weeks while Jack and Wendy took "a good old-fashioned vacation.... When we got home, they had planted flowers in our empty beds and left a quart of fresh milk in the fridge. They are also perfect," Wendy said.
Now the Smiths have decided to offer their bookshop-sitting services to other indies. Their Tales of the Lonesome Pine experience "turned out to be the perfect way to indulge in our love of books, bookstores and travel without having to be tied down to a long-term situation," Mark recalled. "We had great fun. We met a lot of interesting people, some local and some passing through. It was wonderful to be surrounded by books all day while meeting people who wanted to talk about books."
There were challenges, of course, but "Wendy and Jack were liberal with their instructions on pricing so things went along without a hitch," Mark said. "We enjoyed the routine of sorting, finding out-of-order books and reshelving them, and just making things look neat. Oh yes, the flowers were an extra touch."
Mark retired three years ago after a career in the corporate world and Sally was a teacher. Both are volunteers at the Memphis Public Library, where Sally works in the retail portion of the bookstore and Mark in the sorting room. They met through the library's book club and have been married since 2007.
|Mark and Sally Smith
Why do they want to expand their bookshop-sitting quest? "We had such fun meeting the people there in Big Stone Gap, and we were happy to help in a small way independent bookstore owners who needed to be away from the shop for a short time," Mark said. "The opportunity to visit new places and be there long enough to get the real feel of the place is a great opportunity. In short, we love books, love people and love to travel. Bookshop-sitting (Is that really a word?) fulfills all those things."
Of course bookshop-sitting is a real word, Mark. I should know. I was the one who made it up.
The big question, of course, is what sort of indie could use a bookshop-sitter? Wendy said her favorite "crazy bookstore" Facebook cover photo "suggests the atmosphere Mark and Sally walked into that just fit them. Our place is a social center, the books are easy to price and we live there. Mark and Sally had library sale experience but not bookstore itself, but that worked for us. Also, they loved animals and were outgoing--two big pluses to fit our ethos.
"From when the thing went viral last year and we got all those applications, the thing Jack and I noted right away was people who would fit in, in Big Stone Gap, and those who wouldn't. What do the bookshop-sitters think they're getting? That is way more important than anything else. It's like a tiny marriage; you have to have some empathy for how each other lives, or it's not going to work."
As far as the used versus new bookstore question is concerned, Wendy said it "depends on the bookshop-sitters themselves. I don't think Mark and Sally would've wanted to work a new store, given their experience levels, without some serious training. But they walked into our place, spent one day learning how to order books, triage books, and price them. And we walked out and they had the place as their own." She thought the ideal shop would probably have a small staff, be very community rooted and use systems that can be quickly learned. "Not everyone can step into an ethos and match it by talent; most have to match it by being of the same mind."
Do you need a bookshop-sitter? Contact Mark and Sally Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. As Wendy observed, "They don't want money, just to have a good time and be appreciated. And believe me, they are easy to appreciate." --Published By Shelf Awareness, issue #2023.
"This is an old book. Grandma has read it. Please return. I can get the new paperback I saw in Costco. Love, Mom."
One of the little pleasures of my reading life is receiving the B-Mail newsletter from Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass. In each issue, there is a Used Book Cellar "Find of the Week." Sometimes the hastily scribbled notes are funny and sometimes poignant, but always irresistible. It's as if they weren't lost or abandoned at all, but finally discovered their true home and value between those pages.
Exegesis is also part of Brookline's Find of the Week ritual. Here's the commentary on Mom's Costco note above: "This makes my heart hurt. While you're there, we're almost out of mustard and Alaskan king crab spread. Get a gallon of each. And eight dozen bottles of sparkling cider. Unless they don't let you get just half the package, in which case go ahead and get sixteen-dozen. And twenty tubes of toothpaste. Please."
The casual and yet deeply personal handwriting in these scraps affects me as a reader because it is so human in a fragile, unintentionally revealing way that text messages ("pls give gram hr bk getting 14u @costco") or viral tweets can't possibly emulate.
Handwriting isn't a lost art, or at least not an art lost on me. When I visit a bookstore, I'm always drawn to shelf talkers that are handwritten. Even legibility is secondary to the enthusiasm invoked by a pen's scrawl across the surface of a card. I'm also on the lookout for those faded, handwritten, often outdated reminders that cling by frayed yellow tape to cash registers ("Use shift-F4 to...") or over staff break room sinks ("You're mother doesn't work here. Wash your own dishes!"). For pure entertainment, however, there's nothing quite like children's handwritten contributions to bookstore suggestion boxes ("Need more chairs for us kids!").
I'm not a handwriting purist, which is perhaps one reason the scraps intrigue me. Just in case you missed it, January 23 was National Handwriting Day, brought to you, not coincidentally, by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, which represents the $4.5-billion industry of pen, pencil and marker manufacturers. Its purpose is to "alert the public to the importance of handwriting," offering "a chance for all of us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting." Sorry you didn't get my handwritten greeting card.
Probably the reason I'm paying more attention lately is because I just finished reading Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, in which he observed: "Our attitude to our own handwriting is a peculiar mixture of shame and defiance: ashamed that it's so bad and untutored, but defiant in our belief that it's not our fault. What shame and defiance have in common, of course, is the determination to leave the cause of the shame and defiance unaltered."
I get that. My own "hand" is deeply influenced by the slight childhood trauma of switching schools in the middle of first grade and having to adapt in mid-stream from print to cursive. The end result is a relatively legible, if visually jumbled collection of print and cursive letters lining up like mismatched train cars (judge for yourself in this example).
After I changed schools, my former teacher wrote a consoling note to my mother regarding little Robert's apparent struggle to adapt. She conceded that while "many schools do start writing in the first grade," most of the districts in the area didn't begin teaching cursive until third grade. It didn't get better from there. I hesitate to even mention the nuns. In sixth grade, Sister Philomena checked "N" on my report card under penmanship: "Needs help; is progressing but below grade level."
Thus, handwriting eventually became more of a spectator sport for me, and when I need a fix, Brookline Booksmith always delivers with treasures like this postcard: "Hello--Here in Riverside, Conn., for the meeting of the Titanic His. Soc. Met a survivor and got his signature..."
As I mentioned before, Brookline has a true gift for handwriting exegesis: "It concerns me that this message is abruptly cut off. Did anyone out there ever hear any word from attendees of the 1971 Titanic Historical Society reunion in Riverside, CT? From what I know of the original tragedy, it took some hours for the ship to go down, but I fear that whatever befell this postcard's author was rather more sudden. Perhaps the iceberg simply dropped upon the top of the building this time. That would explain it." Nicely played, Brookline. Couldn't have written it better myself.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1933.
Shop local meets broadcast local. In the still center of that spinning wheel of digital retail chaos--e-mails, Tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts, Instagram pics--that is the contemporary bookseller's daily round of local outreach tasks, there's a certain comfort to be drawn from noting the success of an old-fashioned radio variety program created and hosted by Chuck and Dee Robinson, owners of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.
January marked the sixth anniversary of the Chuckanut Radio Hour. Taped before a live audience, the show generally features a guest author; what I've seen described as "some groaner jokes" by Chuck, Dee and announcer Rich Donelly; and an episode of "The Bellingham Bean" serial radio comedy. There is also live music, a new essay by Cascadia Weekly columnist Alan Rhodes, poetry by house poet Kevin Murphy and other bookish treats.
"The show is now broadcast on three low-power community radio stations," said Chuck. "KMRE is the one here in Bellingham and reaches the largest audience. The station can be streamed at any time, but we don't do the show live. CRH plays on the station every Saturday evening at 6 p.m. and every Sunday at 9 p.m. The shows play in rotation. We don't even know which show will play." With two other small stations in the area now featuring the program as well, "I guess that means we're syndicated," he quipped.
When Chuck was approached in 2007 about doing some sort of radio program, he drew inspiration and format ideas from Thacker Mountain Radio (Square Books, Oxford, Miss.) and Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.
"I think part of the appeal is the reflection of a time we remember as simpler--whether it actually was or not (memory does strange things)," he observed. "Though folks my age--I just became a Medicare baby in November--were on the tail end of old-time radio, early television (Ed Sullivan, the Tonight Show, etc.) was really old-time radio on TV. So I think for a lot of us there's a bit of nostalgia involved. Some of us really do like corny jokes."
Since Village Books is also committed to outreach through social networking, Chuck considers CRH to be both a complement and a counterpoint to those efforts: "Our audience for the show, depending of course on what author is featured, trends slightly older than our general audience. To the extent that most of these folks don't likely spend much time on Twitter, the show is likely a counterpoint to what they see others doing. And, to those who do Tweet and Facebook, this might be providing a respite. We do use social media to promote the show and we often have comments, especially on Facebook, about particular shows."
Division of labor while maintaining consistency in a bookstore's "voice" is the eternal challenge for booksellers everywhere, but Chuck noted that Village Books has managed to bridge the outreach gaps well: "We have one person who manages our social media. Lindsey McGuirk is pretty attuned to the philosophy of the store and also seems to have a great understanding of the 'conversational' nature of social media and how it can be used to build relationships. She does a great job of balancing marketing, with providing interesting general information, to having conversations with folks and asking questions. Other staff members have their own blogs and often guest blog on our site."
Who attends CRH performances? While the live audience tends to be in the 45-50 age range, Chuck said that can change depending upon the guest author for a particular show: "T.C. Boyle drew a bit younger audience, as did Cheryl Strayed, but I think for the most part that the radio hour format appeals more to an older audience. We are, however, about to test that notion as we move the show to an auditorium at Whatcom Community College in March. We'll be integrating some faculty, staff and students into the programming, and in our partnership agreement, they'll be able to attend for free."
He noted that one of the more surprising revelations about the show's audience occurs whenever he asks how many are seeing CRH for the first time and a considerable number of hands go up. "We thought after 60-plus shows we would have tapped the local audience, but apparently not."
Happy anniversary, CRH. As Chuck summed it up so well in a recent blog post, "Whoda thunk it? Six years and the Chuckanut Radio Hour is still going strong."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1929.
People fall in love with books. People fall in love with bookstores. People fall in love with other people in bookstores. People even fall in love with booksellers.
"With Valentine's Day around the corner, this is the question that is naturally on every book lover's mind: When I go into my local bookstore, am I allowed to start flirting with the staff?" Sarah Rettger wrote on her blog Archimedes Forgets. Her entertaining reply included this pointed summary: "Short version: Of course!... Longer version: As long as you're not stupid about it."
When I consider Valentine's Day, which is even now circling to land with its stubby Cupid wings, I can't help but think of books. It's just my nature. I love books. I love bookstores. I even fell in love with my wife in a bookstore. For the record, she was also a bookseller at the time.
Forget greeting cards and roses and candy (Well, don't forget them. Booksellers love sideline sales, too). Giving the right books as gifts may be the real key to long-term commitment between readers. And Valentine's Day can turn even the most cynical bookseller into a relationship counselor, especially for those last minute "oh no I almost forgot" shoppers.
During the past week, I've been monitoring bookstore love notes in the form of e-newsletters. Here's just a tiny sampling of the indie love happening out there as the big day approaches:
Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.: "Folks, let's talk about something serious for a minute. I'm going to get right to it. In order for you to give flowers to your sweetie on Valentine's Day.... you first have to kill the flowers. Sever them in the prime of their brief, radiant life. Or worse, hire some mercenary floral assassin to do the dirty work for you. What sort of monster have you become? You'll never be able to wash their chlorophyll off your hands. Need an alternative to veg-icide? Why not save the roses and give your loved one the gift of reading?"
Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn.:
How do we love thee? Let us count the ways:
1. Inspired Events!
2. Celebrated Books!
Alright, look, so I can't promise you chocolate. But the coffee shop's next door.
Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "We're not doing any official Valentine's Day events at Greenlight this year--but in a way, every event is our way of saying we love you. This month we've got electrifying poetry, moving and original fiction, vegan cookery (with tasty samples!), top drawer comedy and a celebration of Black History Month. What's not to love?"
Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich, Mass.: "Do you remember the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading? The one that whisked you away to a foreign land or time, made you swoon, had you laughing or crying out loud, or changed your opinion.... The instant someone recommends a book that falls outside your comfort zone, and you accept the challenge to read it, that is when you know you have fallen in love with books. We invite you to share your love story with books on our Facebook page. How did your story begin? Maybe you can inspire others to fall in love with a book!"
I'd already decided to write about Valentine's Day when a package arrived from BooksActually, an indie bookstore I love (though, regrettably, have never visited) in Singapore. I wrote about this wonderful bookshop some time ago and have remained in contact.
Occasionally, BooksActually sends me recent titles published by their Math Paper Press. These books, currently not distributed in the U.S., are beautifully designed and have opened up a new literary world to me as a reader. The latest gift box included Transparent Strangers by Loh Guan Liang, whose poem "Dancing in the Bookstore" ends with the following lines, which seem to perfectly complement a holiday celebrating love and--for all of us--the irresistible, seductive power of words:
How this gathering has become
a communal feasting of glances, books
changing hands, magazines flipping,
jumping, exchanging partners
as they twirl us round the shelves.
Take this waltz, this everyday waltz
with its narrow waist in your hand.
Happy Valentine's Day, book people.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1924.
Have you seen any good books on television lately? I know. Books are on TV all the time as adaptations, serializations or, in the eyes of many viewers, ruinations. If golf is a good walk spoiled, then TV shows swiped from the printed page can often be a good read spoiled.
There is, however, a network where books do not go to die. Every weekend, C-SPAN 2's Book TV dedicates 48 hours of programming to author interviews, panel discussions, book fairs, book signings, author readings and bookstore tours around the U.S. It may be as close as the book world can, or would want to, get to reality TV.
On Wednesdays, part of my job is to scroll through Book TV's upcoming schedule, compiling a list of programs that might be of interest to Shelf Awareness readers. And every Thursday morning, we feature a "This Weekend on Book TV" section. Imagine that: a network where books matter. Even as I wrote this column yesterday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Ret.) was being interviewed live at the Free Library of Philadelphia about My Share of the Task: A Memoir.
C-SPAN and the book world have a long and mutually beneficial relationship. That iconic C-SPAN bus gets one of the best parking spots in New York City every year, inside the Javits Center near the entrance to BookExpo America. I pass by several times each day (and have the tote bags to prove it). I also watch Book TV programming regularly, and am particularly fond, for obvious reasons, of the featured bookstore events, like Saturday's visit to Santa Fe, N.Mex., where a stop at Collected Works Bookstore is on the itinerary.
It's always fun to get a "behind the scenes," or at least on the scene, peek at some great indie bookstores nationwide. Popular Book TV venues include Politics & Prose, Washington, D.C. (home field advantage); Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe Ariz.; Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass.; and Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo., but dozens of indies regularly get their moments on camera.
One thing I've noticed is that both C-SPAN and the indies have become more media sophisticated over the years, compared to early efforts during the 1990s when the bookshop where I worked would sometimes be a site for filming events. Production values were a bit shakier then, and the cameras tended to roll longer before and after a reading than perhaps was wise.
At the first C-SPAN event we hosted, for example, the last thing viewers saw was one of my fellow booksellers and her son making their exit from the back row by trying to sneak under the camera. Unfortunately, they tripped over each other instead, adding an unintended action sequence to the otherwise civilized episode.
Book TV is in a way the second-generation effort for the network, since C-SPAN's book genealogy really began with Booknotes, which ran from 1989 to 2004 and was hosted by the network's founder and CEO Brian Lamb, whose dry but direct interview style I found absolutely irresistible. Watching Lamb was like seeing a book version of Dragnet. His "just the facts, ma'am" style seemed to go against everything television stood for, and yet it worked precisely as he intended, keeping the spotlight on the writer being interviewed.
Mark Edmundson, author of Why Read, was the guest for the final episode of Booknotes. Inevitably, Lamb's first question was: "Why read?" He never shied away from asking for seemingly obvious information--the kind of clarification most of us wouldn't dare admit we didn't already know--as shown in this rapid fire sequence:
How often do you read something that you totally disagree with?
Give us an example.
What's a nihilist?
Where's that term come from?
On C-SPAN, reading and television find common ground. Consider the question Lamb asked Shelby Foote in 2001: "What is it about the written word that's either attractive to people or separates it from television?"
Foote's reply: "I really think that the written word is what defines us as superior creatures to all the other creatures on earth. Man is characterized by a number of things. One of them is he's the only animal that knows he's going to die some day. And knowing that, he also has an obligation to make the most of whatever time he has. And making the most of it is enormously assisted by reading, by learning about the world." Now that's great book TV.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1919.
My desk is too neat. I've seen many other book trade people's desks over the years. Most glory in an organized--"I know where to find what I need"--chaos of paper, ARCs, mail (opened, half-opened and unopened) and other necessary detritus, ranging from science project coffee mugs to inkless pens.
But my desk? Barren.
I'm certainly not lacking for material to correct the situation. There's a large room downstairs, furnished with packed bookshelves, and the volume of incoming ARCs and comp copies never slackens. My desktop, however, remains unnervingly pristine.
Whether you're a bookseller, writer or publisher, you probably log a majority of your workday in Deskland. Even frontline booksellers, who spend hours on their feet, are also tied umbilically to sales floor information desks or POS counters (which are really just high desks cluttered with impulse-buy items).
One of Garrison Keillor's writing desks used to be on the sales floor at the old Cathedral Hill location of Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn. And when he led a media tour of the new store last year, Keillor said: "I don't know where I'll hang out--I'll need a desk."
In Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, proprietor Roger Mifflin is introduced sitting "tilted back in a swivel chair, in a corner which seemed the nerve center of the establishment. The large pigeon-holed desk in front of him was piled high with volumes of all sorts, with tins of tobacco and newspaper clippings and letters. An antiquated typewriter, looking something like a harpsichord, was half-buried in sheets of manuscript."
That's why I'm worried about my desk. I consulted an expert on the subject for perspective. Valerie Kohler owns Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., and her store blog's name is More Letters from the Messy Desk.
"My messy desk probably looks like most," she observed. "Our backroom is only 200 square feet and that includes the tiny restroom. Most people can't believe that we have three computers back here and at any time four-plus people might be working here. So there is no privacy and lots of interruptions. But we remain friends. My desk is vintage 1970s, which means it's not ergonomically correct and the drawers except for the one file drawer are pretty useless."
As of yesterday morning, she said her desk's inventory included:
- A few ARCs that I really want to read
- Two applications from some very qualified people whom I don't have room for
- At least 12 catalogues dropped off by reps that haven't made it to the catalogue shelf (Thanks to Edelweiss, I can keep this one tidy.)
- My lunch bag
- Some pretty Blue Willow pottery that a book club gave me. What am I going to do with it?
- Gobs of scratch paper
- A small Rolodex (Again, thanks to computers, I don't need two big ones like I used to have.)
- About six inches of paper that I need to deal with, including a Kobo order, a co-op clarification, notes from our World Book Night Committee meeting and a cool idea I printed from a tweet for our summer reading challenge.
- My paper calendar, which is my life support
- Two magnetic poetry boxes (???)
- A broken mouse
- Photos of my boys when they were young in swimming trunks with blue tongues; of my husband and I with lots of hair and no gray; and a great picture of my parents with me at the MPIBA show I attended.
- My water bottle
Valerie called her desk "command central and I love it when I see the gray metal on the bottom. This is where I read e-mails, send the Messy Desk letter, take phone calls and I love every minute!"
Should I mess up my desk?
Research doesn't help. For every study that finds a "messy desk can actually lead people towards clearer thinking," there's another countering that "office clutter undermines productivity and motivation."
Earlier this week, I visited a museum showcasing items from a now-defunct marble company. It occurred to me that the old desk on display in a mock office looked as sparse as mine does now. And yet, that desk was much too weatherbeaten to have been so neat when it was in daily use during the first half of the 20th century.
I probably can't alter my ways, but I did just put an ARC on the desk. It's lying there now, bugging me. I want to shelve it, but I won't just yet. Every journey begins with a single step, they say, and perhaps every messy desk begins with a single, unshelved ARC.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1914.
When you want to know about a place, ask the people who live there. When you want to read about a place, read the writers whose words reveal more than just the surface of a region's past and present. What does that have to do with self-publishing? This: For a bookseller considering the possibility of stocking a self-published book, one reliable sign of a winner is a title with a tangible sense of place. Whether or not such a book eventually finds readers beyond the region, it must begin at the center--a pebble dropped in a local pond--before concentric retail sales circles can spread.
In their introduction to Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, editors Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek describe the project as "a community effort to tell the story of a city." And that's just what it is. If I were a bookseller in Northeast Ohio, I'd stock this book.
Harriett Logan of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights does. "Rust Belt Chic has been well-received and is selling well," she said. "It's gotten lots of local press (which helps), and it includes so many local writers, both well-known and not, that it has lots of appeal to many. It's a good-looking book, too."
Discovering marketable self-published books can be a challenge. Logan noted that when she first heard about the anthology, she approached the editors regarding wholesale terms, and they "have been very good about getting the book to me (hand-delivered!), including frequent re-stocking. As an indie bookseller, I love carrying books like these, and appreciate their local content and high standards. That's what being local is all about."
Rust Belt Chic has sold well for Suzanne DeGaetano's Mac's Backs Books in Cleveland Heights. She observed that "neighborhood and independent bookstores always do well with local interest books. I think there is a hunger for people to understand local history and culture and Rust Belt Chic hits that sweet spot." When she describes the book to customers, "I say that it is a book about what it means to be a Clevelander. It is entertaining and illuminating to read all of these diverse stories that describe our Rust Belt DNA."
The book also speaks to her retail sense of place: "In the same way that people are hungry to learn about their city, they are dedicated to support their city's independent enterprises. Cleveland has a very strong buy local movement that has helped stabilize and revitalize the neighborhoods. People want their bookstores to exist and thrive--browsing the bookstore is a cultural activity akin to visiting the gallery or going to hear a favorite band."
One of the anthology's contributors is Philip Turner, whose family owned and operated Undercover Books in the Cleveland area for several years. Although he moved to New York City in 1985 to begin his career in publishing, Turner was eager to explore an aspect of his Rust Belt roots in "Remembering Mr. Stress, Live at the Euclid Tavern." Along with "other Cleveland transplants living in NYC," he will be reading from Rust Belt Chic January 3 at Public Assembly in Brooklyn.
As a publishing industry veteran, Turner was intrigued by the business proposition the co-editors offered: "They asked each of us, if, in the event the book sells well enough to make back its expenses and reaches profitability, would we want an honorarium payment, or would we choose to plow the earnings back into another indie project, to be chosen from among book ideas presented by the contributors, with one (or if we're really fortunate, more than one) project being chosen for funding? It's sort of like our own Kickstarter. With a book idea of my own in mind, I happily chose the second option."
Although Rust Belt Chic has "about zero presence outside of town," Trubek is pleased with the regional response thus far: "Since the book's release, we have enjoyed a lot of community love and enthusiasm." In addition to bookstore and online sales, the book is available at a number of other venues, including the Cleveland Art Museum, a local clothing boutique, a Cleveland-themed clothing store, a newly opened hostel and a bike shop. "We have been asked to readings and signings at all the local bookstores, and to do readings at series held at bars, etc.," Trubek added. "A really unusual event we did was to have a signing at a hair salon."
Turner called the Rust Belt Chic project "an excellent example of community-oriented publishing." There's definitely a place for that in our evolving book world. Concentric circles always start at the center, wherever it may be.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1881.
Maybe it began last spring when I learned about the "Writer In The Window" series at Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y. Amy Halloran would be "sitting in one of our windows with her typewriter composing poems, letters, stories for passersby," the bookstore's website explained, while inviting people to "bring your young children to see the ancient writing device she employs for her craft!"
Ancient writing device. I liked that description. Since I've never been a romantic where typewriters are concerned, nostalgia just isn't an option. I was introduced to Apple's Mac Plus keyboard while working as a trade magazine editor in the late 1980s and never looked back. Prior to that, I'd spent a couple of decades pounding away at a succession of manual--and then electric--typewriters and was ready for my ears and finger calluses to heal.
In June at BookExpo, I saw a photo of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's manual typewriter during a presentation about the late Russian author's archives by his widow, Natalia. Solzhenitsyn is a writer who means a great deal to me. I snapped a photo of the screen, as if capturing an image of a mechanical ghost. As it was, in a way.
These two incidents opened a typewriter vault during the summer, as I gradually became aware of keyboard specters, in an "I see dead typewriters" sense, everywhere I turned. They seemed to have risen from the shallow graves of antique shops and were "making news." Salon described the phenomenon as "a typewriter renaissance," noting "hipsters and newbies alike rediscover those beautiful machines that go clickety-clack."
Jesse Banuelos of Berkeley Typewriter told Salon that most of the typewriters he sold were manuals made between the early 1900s and the 1960s. The brands on display in his front window "read like a row of multicolored tombstones: Royal, Remington, Underwood, Smith-Corona, Olivetti, Corona, Adler, Oliver."
But typewriters remain in the past tense for me. In the recently published The Richard Burton Diaries, the actor writes of a "brand new Olivetti typewriter" he received as a gift in 1970 and describes the "fire-engine red" machine as "sparkling and very loose compared with the old Hermes Baby and it will take me a little time to bang away on it with the same abandon as I do on the old one which I shall keep anyway out of loyalty for many years of battered service."
And yet, manual typewriters are flourishing in present tense as well, now that "they've found new fans among hipsters who are repurposing them for the digital age," Salon wrote. Banuelos noted that you have to be a bit of a romantic to want a typewriter, "and besides, they're cool." His customers "want a machine that has to be old, unique and nice. Why? Because of this. The click, click, click. They want that.... Let me tell you something. Young kids today, they want one of these machines."
More than a year ago, the New York Times wrote about the digital generation "gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest."
Can you hear them? Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Click. Click. Click. Like bones rattling. Listen to the Boston Typewriter Orchestra's rendition of "Entropy Begins in the Office." Imagine Bartleby and Edgar Allan Poe in adjoining cubicles.
It isn't just the original clickety-clacks, of course. The magic spell of typewriters has been invoked with the iTypewriter, USB Typewriter, Chromatic Typewriter and an array of recycled Steampunk keyboards. If you're both nostalgic and computer keyboard-loyal, "you can make your laptop or desktop computer clang like a typewriter." There's even an app for that. I don't know what to say about the Latvian magazine that created @hungry_birds, a Twitter account featuring tweets by local wild birds pecking at the keys of an outdoor keyboard covered with unsalted fat.
Typewriters are cool. Suddenly, in this alternate universe, I've gone from not caring about manual typewriters at all to becoming too old and unhip for them. OMG! On the other hand, one aspect of the typing universe has altered slightly in my favor. As electronic keyboards shrink to tablet and smartphone dimensions, my self-taught typing technique is finally logical and even recommended. I'm a four-finger--yet blindingly fast on a good day or because of incessant deadline desperation--sort of typist. This style is perfectly suited to my iPad mini, but I can definitely feel a cold chill run up my spine as Mavis Beacon frowns with disapproval out there somewhere. Clickety-clack.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1886.
"We're here and wearing our Holiday Present Recommendation hat. It's invisible, yet effective." That invitation was posted last week on the Facebook page for Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va.
There are some things I don't miss about working as a bookseller during holiday season crunch time. For example, I don't miss this conversation:
"I need to find a book for my uncle."
"What kinds of books does he like?
"Oh, he doesn't read."
But I do miss the many people who really did want to find perfect books for the readers in their lives. Those were the conversations that de-Scrooged my Christmas 'tude every year, and I was more than happy to wear the bookishly traditional HPR hat then.
This week I've been monitoring bookseller Facebook pages--like NORAD tracks Santa on Christmas Eve--for signs of holiday spirit. Here are just a few that sparked my interest:
Nightbird Books, Fayetteville, Ark., is hosting an Xmas Sweater party tonight. The shop has been asking patrons to stop in and "have your sweater photographed. Even if you can't join us at the party, your sweater could be a winner! Prizes awarded for the best/worst Sweater!"
Throughout the month, Book Passage Bookstore & Cafe, Corte Madera, Calif., is posting Book-a-Day Holiday Gift List recommendations on its Facebook page.
Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz., creates Kids Book Baskets, the "perfect gift for kids from infant to teen! Also ideal for new parents, grandparents or anyone who wants to encourage reading and imagination through every stage of a child's life."
The spirit of giving is in the air, of course. On November 24, Sparta Books, Sparta, N.J., posted: "What I love about the holidays. Someone paid for a book to be given to the next child who came into the bookstore... the next 4 customers 'paid it forward' and did the same. LOVE my customers."
Customers participating in the sixth annual Families Helping Families Holiday Book Drive at Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo., can "stop in the shop to select a card off the holiday book drive tree; each card features information about a child served by the Family Development Program of the Family Center of Durango."
At Eight Cousins Books, Falmouth, Mass., the "name tags on our Giving Tree are climbing higher and higher. Thanks to all who have donated books this year. You've kept us busy wrapping!"
Speaking of trees, they are once again sprouting temporarily in bookshops nationwide, including book Christmas trees in the front window of Learned Owl Bookshop, Hudson, Ohio, and at Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C. I also noticed a tree made from pages shaped like ribbons that was created for Macintosh Books, Sanibel, Fla. And Clinton Book Shop, Clinton N.J., won the "Best Wreath" prize in this year's Red Mill Village Festival of Trees.
How about a menorah made from books, you ask? Bookshop Santa Cruz shared a link to Juniper Books and designer Thatcher Wine's book-themed menorah.
Ack! It's the "Little Drummer Boy" again. On Monday Idlewild Bookshop, New York, N.Y., responded to a Times article on the ubiquitous holiday soundtrack everywhere you shop with a promise: "You won't hear any Christmas music here! Right now, we're playing some Oscar Peterson..."
The shop local movement is also trending seasonally. Earlier this month, Pelican Bookstore, Sunset Beach, N.C., participated in a downtown Christmas Stroll, during which people could "shop and eat locally at participating stores (Including Pelican Bookstore) and receive discounts and win prizes, all while benefiting local animal rescue groups and animal causes that affect our community!"
Yesterday the Vermont Bookshop helped celebrate "Stag & Doe Night in Middlebury, brought to you by the BMP [Better Middlebury Partnership] and your local merchants. Our doors will stay open until 8 p.m. and there will be festivities all over town. SHOP LOCAL--BE SOCIAL!"
And even though Women & Women First bookshop is just a figment of Portlandia's imagination, the IFC show's Facebook page does feature a sign with a seasonally appropriate retail cautionary note: "SHOP LOCAL OR WE'LL TELL SANTA."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1891.
Just call me holiday music Scrooge. I've been thinking about the negative retail implications of merry tunes piping through bookstore sound systems nationwide and possible connections to the impending end of the world (Happy Mayan Apocalypse Day, by the way).
I recently learned that Montgomery Ward created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for a giveaway coloring book (Johnny Marks adapted it as a song). Tommie Connor's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" was originally commissioned for a Saks Fifth Avenue greeting card ad campaign.
Disillusioned? Nah. I also read that retailers should consider the "sound of their brand," according Immedia Group, which found that of the 73% of shoppers who notice music playing in stores, 40% will stay longer in a shop if they feel the music is well chosen for the environment and 40% will spend less time there if they feel the music isn't suitable.
"We all have a deeply personal and individual taste in music, so choosing the right playlist can be difficult," said Immedia's CEO Bruno Brookes.
Music matters, and holiday music matters even more. It's an "I'm in the mood to shop" thing.
No one knows this better than my former colleague Erik Barnum, floor manager at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt. Among his many duties, he shoulders the considerable (and essentially impossible) task of pleasing both staff and customers with his in-store music playlist.
Although it has been four years since my last December on the sales floor as a bookseller, I'm still a bit haunted by those holiday soundtracks. The fact that we sold a lot of CDs because of store play was a retail balm of sorts then, but the long-term effect on me has been Christmas music tone-deafness.
Times have changed since I fled the bookstore music scene. "We pay for the Pandora Business service (Muzak for the 21st century)," Barnum said. "I picked five stations on Black Friday, with only one of them being a Christmas station. I put the Pandora box on Quickmix so it would only play a Christmas tune once in awhile. As the holiday approached, I gradually deleted stations until it was all Christmas all the time."
He also noted that while the Northshire "still gets the occasional inquiry about what's playing and we try to turn it into sales, our music section has been cut so far back due to downloading that the former relationship between store music and CD sales is over."
My holiday music recommendations back then were--unlike my ability to handsell books--irrelevant. I didn't have a clue. Not infrequently, after I'd heard a particularly irritating song a few hundred times and was considering the possibility of terminating the CD with extreme prejudice, a customer would suddenly appear like a sweet version of Marley's ghost and ask: "What's playing? It's so beautiful. Do you sell the CD?"
|Photo: Jean-Baptiste Mondino
If the "sound of their brand" is critically important as a retail music strategy, then it's probably for the best that I'm not involved in this aspect of the business anymore. My holiday playlist leans toward the downbeat: Joni Mitchell's "The River," Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "I Believe in Father Christmas," John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)," Tom Waits's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" and "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues.
I can hear customers rushing for the exits now.
Maybe holiday music has always complicated the spirit of the season. Consider this: "Do You Hear What I Hear?" was composed in 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Or this: Hugh Martin, who wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," was asked to change the original line "It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past" to "Let your heart be light/ Next year all our troubles will be out of sight" for Judy Garland. His lyric "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was altered for Frank Sinatra to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."
I don't think I'm a musical Grinch; I just hear what I hear. But I do hope you have yourself a merry little Christmas, after which... we'll have to muddle through somehow. Even Mr. Scrooge had to face the music eventually.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1896.
|Leslie Adrienne Miller and Dobby Gibson
There's a story behind my unilateral decision to name January 8 the first day of Winter Poetry Month. It all began at the Moveable Feast Luncheon during Heartland Fall Forum in Minneapolis last October. I was fortunate enough to be at a table with Graywolf Press poets Dobby Gibson (for his upcoming book It Becomes You) and Leslie Adrienne Miller (for her much-praised and excellent collection Y). Two poets at one table happened to be a pleasant--and unprecedented--moment in my life as a poetry reader and longtime participant in variations-on-a-moveable-feast at trade shows.
But why focus on Gibson now, as Winter Poetry Month begins? For one thing, It Becomes You was released January 8 and I've read it three times. For another, he writes that "a poem is no more meant for this world than you are, dear reader." Call it a kindred souls moment. Reason enough, but there have been several other catalysts, including:
- The Friends of William Stafford are once again sponsoring more than 60 events nationwide during January Birthday Celebrations honoring Stafford's spirit, life and work. I wrote about this last year.
- Richard Blanco is the inaugural poet.
- The Boa Editions blog showcased a video adaptation of Lucille Clifton's poem "what the mirror said" by underprivileged girls at Prerna School in India and noted: "This is why BOA is here."
- Sharon Olds told the Observer that a poem "doesn't intensify experience, it adds to it. And it is not about a different person, is it? It is the same person who has made a song."
- Several times during an NFL playoff game last week, it was mentioned that Houston Texans running back Arian Foster is also a poet.
- Most of the books I've been reading since the holidays are poetry collections, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Time of Useful Consciousness (New Directions), Natasha Trethewey's Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), David Ferry's Bewilderment (University of Chicago Press) and Dispatch from the Future by Leigh Stein (Melville House).
Poetry in our world. Poetry in the winter. Words and white space are seasonally appropriate.
Gibson recently told me that while he was writing It Becomes You, he "awakened to the realization that my motivation for writing a poem was inseparable from my motivation for reading a poem: I ultimately aspire to become a poem. My new book is an extended meditation on this idea.
"The transitive experiences of writing poems, reading books of poems, and constructing an authentic self (if that is the right verb), are all so wonderfully intertwined for me. To such a degree, in fact, that the launch of It Becomes You at readings this month--and out into bookstores and whatever digital distribution channels I barely understand--doesn't feel like a finish line. It's only the beginning of a much longer process of completion, of becoming, one for which I'm grateful to share with a reader, whoever he or she may be."
Reaching out to those readers of poetry is part of the job description for David Enyeart, event coordinator at Common Good Books in St. Paul. On January 23, the bookstore will host a reading by Gibson and Sarah Fox (The First Flag, Coffee House Press, April).
Enyeart called the upcoming event "a good example of how we put together compelling readings. First off, it's two great poets. Both of them are well-regarded and active in our local writing community. Additionally, we're able to give readers a sneak preview of Sarah Fox's book, so that's something they can't get elsewhere. And of course a conversation between two authors can always go in unexpected directions. With all that, I'm confident we'll have a solid turnout and a lively evening."
He also noted that Common Good Books "is committed to poetry. From the proprietor on down, we value poetry as much as fiction, biography or any of our other areas. It's at the front of our store and in the front of our minds when people are looking for books. We're also fortunate to have a good base of customers who feel the same way about poems. They come to readings at about the same rates as discussions on any other topic, and I really don't treat our poetry events any differently from our other author readings."
Garrison Keillor, the proprietor of Common Good Books, is reading Kenneth Rexroth's poem "Snow" on the Writers Almanac today. How many reasons do we need to celebrate Winter Poetry Month?--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1904.
My literary resolutions are always the same: Read more, write more, and when otherwise unoccupied, read and write more. --Author Ben Ehrenreich in Jacket Copy
While I love that quote, New Year's resolutions are not for me. "Reflections" are more my style, and this week I've been reflecting on the fact that it's been over eight years since I started a fledgling blog called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal, which gradually evolved into this column for Shelf Awareness.
When I first decided to write about being a frontline bookseller, I wanted to convey a sense of the magic that so often occurs during that critical moment when a book finally escapes the clutches of the industry and enters the domain of the reader. Years after leaving the sales floor, I'm still intrigued by the narrow gap bridged on a daily basis as one bookseller somewhere in the world reaches out to physically hand over a copy (or, even better, a stack of copies) to one customer in a gesture that is both routine and ceremonial.
For my initial Fresh Eyes blog entry in 2004, I said I hoped to be more of a traveling companion than a guide on this reading and bookselling journey. That was how I'd always handsold books, beginning conversations not with a directive ("Read this!"), but with a question ("Who do you love to read?").
Reflecting this week upon the curious path I've taken professionally, I can see the trail behind me, marked clearly by the books I've read and the extraordinary "book people" I've met, both inside and outside the industry. The trail ahead, however, is largely unmarked (though not without promise) for all of us, even if our various job descriptions do propel us relentlessly toward the future, engulfing us (New Year's resolutions notwithstanding) in the usual tangle of deadlines, sales projections, ARCs, pub dates, event planning and all the other working parts of our fragile, book trade time machines.
Cuban chess legend José Raúl Capablanca was once asked how he could play so well and so fast on exhibition tours, where he might face two dozen or more opponents at a time. His answer, perhaps apocryphal yet irresistible here, was: "I see only one move ahead, but it is always the correct one."
Few of us are geniuses (or legends, for that matter) and knowing the "correct" move has not gotten any easier in this business, as is evident from the good news/bad news roller coaster we all ride daily--bookstores opening or thriving or closing; publishers succeeding or failing or merging; authors finding readers or not; and, of course, all-consuming technology taunting "fiber-based" texts.
It can be confusing and even disheartening at times, but I draw strength, as I always have, from a single image: one reader... reading.
Now another year has begun, and we wonder if we should enter it with fear, like medieval peasants terrified by the prospect of an invading army or disease (or, these days, another unanticipated technological marvel) coming over the distant hill. But like cocktail hour, it's always the Dark Ages somewhere. As a character in one of John Berger's stories replies to an irate woman who has demanded to know "what century in God's name do I think I'm living in?... How many, Madame, do you think were not dark? One in seven?" It is, as it always has been, the best and worst of times. We literary peasants adapt to survive.
In the midst of it all, miraculously, readers keep reading. "You absolutely have to respect the reader because they're smart enough to pick up your work," author Marcie Hershman advised writers at a lecture I attended years ago. She was right. They are. We should. I do.
Those readers are everywhere. You just have to pay attention. "Wherever I met another person with even the least appreciation for artistic excellence, I was overcome with joy," observed 17th century Japanese poet Bashō. "Even those I'd expected to be stubbornly old-fashioned often proved to be good companions. People often say that the greatest pleasures of traveling are finding a sage hidden behind weeds or treasures hidden in trash, gold among discarded pottery." Sounds like a handseller in the making to me.
On reflection, 2013 will belong, once again, to readers. May they find your bookstores and your books, and may that narrow, ceremonial gap between the book trade and its patrons be bridged again and again in ways old and new. Maybe that's a New Year's resolution after all. "Nothing's worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes," Bashō wrote. "Yesterday's self is already worn out!"--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1899.
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"Lesson: not to travel with so many books. I bought more yesterday, unable to resist the bookstores of San Francisco."--The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
While the latest episode in this story occurred last Saturday at Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y., it began almost 15 years ago, when I was a frontline bookseller answering the phone one day at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt.
A man's voice asked if we carried any books by Thomas Merton and that question led, as bookseller conversations sometimes do, into a discussion of Merton's life and work. The caller, author Jon Katz, was researching a project that would eventually become Running to the Mountain: A Journey of Faith and Change (the paperback subtitle is "A Midlife Adventure"). The conversation has continued, off and on, for a long time now.
|Jon Katz and Red on duty at Battenkill Books last Saturday.
Katz has written many books--Dancing Dogs is his latest--and eloquently chronicles his life in the country at BedlamFarm.com. When I learned he would be working at Battenkill Books for three hours every Saturday as the store's "Recommender-in-Chief," I had to stop by. We talked about old times and new. He handsold me John Banville's Ancient Light and Jonathan Tropper's One Last Thing Before I Go.
I wasn't the only one.
"I was very happy with my first day," Katz told me afterward. He had prepared for his shift by scanning the bookshop's inventory and "had a long list of books I had read and heard about." SInce then, the bookstore has continued to receive e-mails and Facebook messages "asking for recommendations apart from the Saturday hours." He invited Battenkill Books owner Connie Brooks to "just pass them on. Monday she e-mailed me that the orders were flying in, and I made e-mail recommendations for her. This is really worth doing."
Noting that Katz "is hugely supportive of the store, and that has let us be creative about ways we can work together," Brooks cited as an example his 2011 book Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die. When it was published, she was able to offer signed and personalized copies to customers: "This proved to be hugely popular, and we still take requests almost every day for signed, personalized copies of Jon's books. We ship them around the country, and even around the world."
Thus, when Katz suggested "serving as a 'book concierge,' or as we call him, 'Recommender-in-Chief,' " Brooks embraced the idea. "He knows how busy I am with the day-to-day running of the store, and this role allows him to share his love of reading. Jon's an avid reader: he's reading about a book per day--and he relishes what all booksellers do--matching up a person with a book he feels they will love. For us, it is a completely new way to involve an author with our store. We've had great feedback on it from customers both near and far."
Recalling his first day on the job, Katz said he "was touched mostly by people's need and eagerness--a starvation almost--to talk to a human about the books they might consider reading. I was aware of three kinds of visitors and callers. E-book readers were not prepared to order on the spot, some people only wanted paperbacks, others just wanted a recommendation for some topical hardcovers. I had to suss out who was who. When I did, it was exciting, chemical really: The Art Forger to a woman whose late husband was an art historian, Little Wolves to a woman born in Minnesota, The Stockholm Octavio to a lover of gentle historical mysteries. It was good that I was prepared, because I needed to be. There are so many people with a passion for books and they seemed so eager to talk with someone who shared the passion."
The Recommender-in-Chief concept "seems to grow and take on its own life," he observed. Noting the challenge booksellers face keeping up with the increasing volume of published titles, he added "it is imperative that this hole be filled while the country is wanting to buy local, as this is something nothing but a good independent bookstore can do and readers--like bookstore people--are struggling with so many choices and an overload of hyper-media."
Brooks agreed: "I hear all the time from folks around the country who have lost their local bookstore, so by proxy, we've become their 'local' store even if they are half way around the country. They gain a personal relationship with a store--real book recommendations and super service, and we gain a broader customer base that helps us to survive."
This is a story that doesn't end, but continues as it began, with conversations and connections, and with the enduring image of Thomas Merton, a mutual literary friend who was also "unable to resist the bookstores."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1909.