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"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 I'm also on the lookout for those faded, handwritten, often outdated reminders that cling by frayed yellow tape to cash registers ("Use shift-F4 to...")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.
"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.
|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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
Thanks. That's all I've got to say. Stick to the basics. This is Thanksgiving week and I'm thankful to work in the book industry, even during a time when the terrain seems to shift with every step. Maybe because of the instability, which has sharpened our focus.
Before we all launch headlong into the holiday thrill ride that is Thanksgiving and Black Friday and Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, I just want to share a few personal reasons for gratitude. Call them the Three Rs: reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, which I'll consider in reverse order, business first.
I'm thankful for the amazing opportunity I've had to witness an evolution in the bookselling world during the past 20 years, beginning with the moment I stepped onto a sales floor in 1992 and continuing well after I left that bookshop in 2006 to join Shelf Awareness, where I've had a ringside seat ever since.
I learned early that booksellers face "the numbers" on a daily basis, and the profound, ongoing and sometimes hazardous industry changes (you know the list) have required an adaptive New Math. All the more reason to enjoy the measure of hard-won, tentative optimism I noticed this year. If you did a word search of headlines for articles covering BookExpo or the autumn regional bookseller trade shows, the terms "mood" and "upbeat" would probably be high on the list.
The numbers are always a little scary, even when they show promise. I think that's the job description for numbers. But so many of the longtime indie booksellers who are still in business (who have "survived and thrived," as a recent profile of Fran Keilty's Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, Conn., so aptly put it) as well as those who courageously opened new bookstores in recent years, are finding ways to make the numbers work for them by sticking to the basics, weaving irresistible magic spells out of the Three Rs.
"Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy."--Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
I'm unexpectedly thankful--well, it might be more correct to say I'm not unthankful--that everybody seems to be writing now. For no logical reason, I've begun to lose my concern about the dire warnings of a word dystopia where we're all scratching on walls (virtual and otherwise); where "published" and "printed" books cascade around us in a madcap frenzy only Lewis Carroll might conjure ("Now here, you see, it takes all the reading you can do, to keep in the same place.").
There is, if you focus, still a method to sorting out the madness. Every day I observe writers and readers finding each other through means traditional (indie bookstores, print reviews when you can find them, Indie Next Picks) and evolving (focused Web communities, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc.). It's like conversation in any crowded room. You listen more closely to the people who interest you. Certainly it is a challenging time for good writers to make a living and to find their audience, but readers are searching for them everywhere.
I'm thankful for unexpectedly noting a connection between two men who died last week. Shelf Awareness ran, as we often do, brief obituary notes for Isaiah Sheffer and Jack Gilbert, but something haunted me about their passing. Eventually I realized the link was personal, a reflection of one of the things I love most about being a reader.
Last April, I picked up a copy of Gilbert's Collected Poems (Knopf) as part of my annual Poetry Month shopping ritual. I've read and re-read his poems since then, and now mourn him only a brief time after having discovered him.
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
Sheffer, on the other hand, affected my reading life long before I really knew much about him or the extraordinary work he'd done at Symphony Space in New York City. Back in the 1980s, when I lived in a small Vermont city with little or no access to author events, those eloquent reading voices that wafted from my radio during Selected Shorts broadcasts were one of my rare links to a literary community.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Anyway... Thanks.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1876.
What are you reading? I see this question every day on Facebook, which probably says more about the virtual company I keep than the current state of book worship in the world. Still, it's nice to be asked.
Like many of you, my office is a book-stack skyline labeled--to borrow classifications from our friends at Goodreads--"to-read," "currently-reading" or "read." A snapshot of my "currently-reading" list might be seen as a portrait in miniature of the book trade. I do read for a living, after all. So here's today's snapshot. I realize it's dominated by male authors, but that's what a snapshot is--just a moment in time.
I'm nearing the end of one delightful reading journey in Dodger by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins), and have just embarked on Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Viking). Then there's The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams (Yale University Press), which I tend to sip. "I am reading on average about 3 books in two days," he writes in one entry. In another: "I took Liza and Maria to school this morning and then went to the bookshop on the Via Veneto and bought some 20 or 30 paperbacks."
All of my currently-reading titles are intriguing (or I'd just drop'em), but some represent certain changes occurring in our industry. Approaching such books is rewarding and complicated, as I train one eye on the text and another on the context.
For example, Roland Merullo has chosen a small independent press (AJAR Contemporaries, an imprint of Peter Sarno's PFP Publishing) to publish Lunch with Buddha, a sequel to his popular 2007 novel, Breakfast with Buddha. I've been reading an advance copy, and it's a pleasure renewing my acquaintance with Volya Rinpoche, Otto Ringling, et al.
The connection between Merullo and Sarno goes back to their childhood days in Revere, Mass. For this project, they're teaming up on every aspect of the process, including fundraising through Kickstarter as well as an IPO program (more than a dozen investors will each receive a one-time 10% return on their money once the book sells its 10,000 copies).
"We're determined not merely to do everything the big publishers do, but to do it better and faster and at a lower cost," Merullo said. "Peter and I have been working from breakfast until midnight every day for months now. Our skills complement each other well: Peter's a detail person, and I'm out in space half the time. He knows the world of computers inside and out, and I can barely send an e-mail. He and his small staff are as devoted to this novel as I am, and after 22 years of putting out books with the publishing giants, I find that immensely refreshing."
Author Jon Clinch (Finn, Kings of the Earth) is also striking out on his own for his next novel, The Thief of Auschwitz (Unmediated Ink, January 15). "Artists are combative by nature," I read yesterday morning in the ARC of his book. The same character, Max, also says this: "To save yourself with your own two hands. That's art."
Art and hard work. With an extensive background in advertising, Clinch is prepared for the challenge ahead. He told the Washington Post last month that "everywhere I go these days, I see things that remind me that I’m doing the right thing. Yesterday, I was out for a bike ride here in Vermont, and right up the road, we have the Long Trail Brewery. It occurred to me that I'm kind of like a micro brewer of publishing. Big publishers are good at certain kinds of things that have to do with mass audience and big trends and so on, and it's like big brewing. I'm the little guy who can turn out something that maybe isn't for everybody, and that's okay."
I'm also reading Close Is Fine, a damn good story collection by Eliot Treichel (Ooligan Press). Describing itself as "a general trade publisher rooted in the rich literary tradition of the Pacific Northwest," Ooligan, which is affiliated with Portland State University, is a teaching press "staffed by students pursuing master’s degrees in an apprenticeship program under the guidance of a core faculty of publishing professionals." And, I would add, publishing quality fiction.
"Send the book out, and let it take its chance," Mr. Alf advised Lady Carbury in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Her novel's title was The Wheel of Fortune. While it requires much more than luck to publish a successful book the way we read now, there are also more options available to the players. Picture that.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1867.
"Unfortunately, I have my father's bowel, which is subject to conservative rages & liberal terror."--Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins
Somewhere today, this is about to happen: A customer will enter a bookshop and immediately complain about the selection of high-octane, politically-charged books there, accusing the first available bookseller (cashiers being the most convenient and likely victims) of using the store's inventory and display space to espouse views that run counter to, well, that particular customer's.
Or, a customer will enter a bookshop (maybe one located in a swing state, maybe not) and do some hasty, furtive rearranging, so a book by or about a notable Democrat or Republican, a liberal or conservative, ends up prominently showcased in the fiction section.
Nothing new. These little invasions have been occurring every day nationwide since we all hit the unpaved road to the White House once again. I don't even need empirical research to back up the claim. I can rely confidently upon anecdotal evidence gathered from 15 years as a frontline bookseller, spanning five presidential campaigns. It's not hard to do the math, given the frequency with which I witnessed such all-consuming bad consumer behavior and the number of bookstores still operating in the U.S.
But as the 2012 campaign winds down--while, against all known laws of physics, simultaneously heating up--and Election Day looms, one subtle aspect of the ceremonial browbeating and breast-beating may be overlooked.
After the returns are finally in, the returns begin.
That is not a Zen koan. As booksellers (particularly buyers) know all too well, next week many of the books that have been battling one another for votes (aka readers) during the past year will be as out of season as those Halloween children's picture books that are being packed up right now, and as out of office as the losing candidates.
Rant lit books are the first to go. They're the ones that weren't simply published, but hurled ferociously across our ever-expanding political divide in a high stakes game of biblio-dodgeball. Whether face-out or spine-out, on shelves or displays, they've been harassing innocent customers for months with angry titles that scream: "Let me tell you about those unscrupulous idiots on the other side!"
Not all books about the election fell under the category of rant lit, of course, but as the campaign stakes increased, there was inevitably a comparable spike in publication of titles featuring variations on a theme of How Barack Obama Is Ruining the U.S.A. or How the Conservative Right Wing Is Ruining the U.S.A. Subtitles occasionally added a small measure of context.
Customers responded. Some bought a few of the screamers. Some complained about the noise. Others complained too much of that noise was coming from just one side of the political spectrum and demanded equal shelving. Whether deserved or not, booksellers, like elected officials, were often accused of bookish gerrymandering.
As with every narrative, however, "The End" arrives eventually. An odd thing will happen next week, right after Election Day, when all those furious books shut up. At first it may seem ominous, like the kind of quiet you have in a war movie, when one guy in the foxhole says, "What's that?" and the other guy says, "I don't hear nothing" and the first guy says, "That's what I mean."
It's not ominous. It’s a truce. You wait for another barrage, another livid reader, but this time the quiet persists. The screaming titles are still there, but they've lost their voices due to agenda-driven laryngitis. Their time is up. Some may seem to be pinching their lips together in frustration, holding their breath, waiting for the next opportunity to rant. Others, many others, will be quiet simply because they have nothing more to say. They're exhausted and irrelevant. They've won or they've lost. Their pages, for the moment, are sealed.
Within weeks, of course, they'll be replaced by more timely, equally furious titles and a post-election book-lashing will start the whole battle again.
But here's my Election Day recommendation. Call it a prescription: Next Tuesday, vote for the candidate of your choice, then find a quiet corner, an irresistible rant-less read and enjoy the few precious moments of quiet while they last.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1862.
It's not the book ghosts; you're never afraid of them, even when the shelves are full and all those authors, living and dead, whisper: "Read us... Read us... Read us..."
"Did you ever notice how books track you down and hunt you out?" Christopher Morley wrote. "They follow you like the hound in Francis Thompson's poem. They know their quarry!... That's why I call this place the Haunted Bookshop. Haunted by the ghosts of the books I haven't read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There's only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it."
A reader practically from birth and a bookseller for years, you've been chased by those ghosts all your life. Now they're just something Tim Burton might create--scary looking, yet also funny and even mildly annoying. The real terror lurks elsewhere, in the familiar places and objects that take on a spectral air this time of year.
Imagine your bookshop at twilight on Halloween.
You're getting ready to close. A few customers linger. Maybe the pale girls in the children's section look a bit too much like The Shining's twins. Maybe that local author furtively turning his book face-out makes you think the text within repeats "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."
Everything poses a threat. The hand-scrawled "Out of Order" sign on the public rest room door seems as terrifying as "REDRUM" written in blood on another door--The Shining again. You really don't want to know what’s behind that portal now, do you?
And those eerie, flickering lights moving up and down the aisles, dancing across the covers of books? Demons! No, just customers showrooming your books with smartphones so they can buy online. Okay, yes, demons.
It's all getting weird. You should do a walk-through inspection to allay your fears. Watch your step. Did you hear that? Never mind. Just the wind, you suspect. The front door always groans a little, and these ancient wooden floors creak only as much as they should.
In the staff break room, the sink is heaped with food-encrusted dishes, and on a nearby table, the hardened remains of a birthday cake invoke the musty scent of Miss Havisham. Next to the lethal-looking steampunk microwave oven, a sagging bookcase predicts the future through ARCs lined up like headstones. You pluck one and read the back cover. So this is what will happen on February 11, 2013. Terrifying. You replace it quickly, as if trying to clamp the lid down on Pandora's Box.
Stay out of your office! You can't. What's that paper on the desk? A warning? Don’t look! You did. Publisher's invoice. Payment due! Second notice! It awakens frightening memories of a phone call hours earlier. Your landlord. It's about the lease. Again!
You careen through the back room, stumble and fall across a stack of old sealed cartons hidden in a seldom-used, cobwebbed corner. Just boxes, you think, but suddenly you remember that bargain book show in Chicago four years ago, and a few too many drinks and a number tossed out in a moment of ill-chosen buying bravado mixed with the certainty that you could handsell anything, even a New England diet crockpot cookbook--"600 copies? I'll take all of them." You've sold 53. Now they will be here... forever and ever.
Seeking a moment's solace in the events space proves futile. Those skeletal chairs remind you of too many nights when their emptiness was its own brand of horror. And this memory calls up the image of a shriveled hand reaching once again into the air, as if from the grave, beckoning for attention. It's the lady who attends every author event, sits in the front row, asks embarrassing questions and never buys the book. Try not to meet her stare. She'll turn you to stone.
Something bumps against your leg. The bookstore cat. Tonight even his stare is malevolent. You close your eyes, call upon Titiana, Morley's patron saint of practical, no-nonsense booksellers ("I'm not afraid of ghosts.") for protection.
And then, quite suddenly, you're safe again in the knowledge that, while being a bookseller can have its nightmarish aspects, not being one is an unimaginable fate.
What was that noise? Legions of stumbling, glazed-eyed zombies are lurking outside your front door, pounding on the glass and demanding entry. No, wait, that's just a vision of the Black Friday crowd next month. They can't get in... for now. Happy bookish Halloween!--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1857.
There is a marked trail of books that you can see clearly when you look over your shoulder, and a pair of recent deaths has reminded me once again how important that well-read path can be.
A college friend, with whom I'd had only minimal contact through letters and then e-mails over the past 40 years, died suddenly October 2 of natural causes in Ottawa. He was 64. I didn't know about it until a couple of days ago, when his daughter found me in the traditional 21st-century manner--scanning Facebook for matching names until the right one appeared.
When we were in college, my friend and I used to have long conversations about the ideal bookshop we wanted to run someday. That our store was conjured from dreams became clear many years later when I started working full-time as a frontline bookseller.
Several days before I learned of his passing, I happened to recall those conversations in a quiet moment as I was working at my desk. I don't believe in ghosts, but the timing of that recollection was, in its way, almost empirical evidence. Our Borgesian bookshop is apparently still open.
Then there's Alex Karras, a former All-Pro defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions who died October 10 at the age of 77. His death touched a different nerve and an earlier book memory. I was in high school when I read George Plimpton's Paper Lion, a humorous account of his brief research stint in 1963 as "last-string quarterback" for the Lions during their summer training camp.
Paper Lion was one of my earliest "bridge books." Although I was a good student in high school and college, I was also an athlete and bridging the gap between those disparate worlds became increasingly complicated in the late '60s and early '70s. Reading helped.
In my memory, Karras was the real star of Plimpton's narrative, not just for his athletic ability, but also for his intelligence, sense of humor and, well, presence. He was a wise-ass and a storyteller (two of my favorite attributes), specializing in tales of his own reincarnations: "General Washington was beautiful. I was at Valley Forge, you know, real cold...."
Rereading Paper Lion (a 45th-anniversary edition from Lyons Press) this week for the first time in nearly half a century, I was surprised to discover--or be reminded--that Karras hadn't even been in training camp that year. He was under indefinite suspension by the NFL for "placing a series of small bets during the season," as Plimpton delicately put it.
Yet Karras still manages to be the centerpiece of the book. Plimpton never misses a chance to sneak in anecdotes about him, and the final third of Paper Lion is practically handed over to flash-forward accounts of time spent with Karras later. Absence somehow becomes a kind of presence.
As Plimpton observed, "His presence had not only been missed on the field but also in the social life of the training camp--particularly in the dining room, where he put on his skits and monologues.... He had an absolute flow of free association, and his fantasies seemed to spring forth, never set pieces, but spontaneous and extemporized."
So Paper Lion became a trail marker on my book path, though I'm not the only one. In an introduction to the 1993 edition, Plimpton wrote: "The most heart-warming reaction to Paper Lion over the years has been the reaction of high school and grade school teachers who have spoken to me to say that they often assigned the book to students with little interest in literature who were subsequently turned on to reading."
When it went out of print for a time, Plimpton received letters from many teachers who mourned the absence of a book that offered certain students "the affirmation that there could be a strong aesthetic link between what they loved foremost, far more than classroom work--football, say--and reading about it in something other than the sports magazines and the newspapers."
These are not Shelf Awareness obituary notes in the usual sense of the term. They're just memories of a bookstore and a book, and the power of absence.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1852.
You have to love a regional trade show where one of the country's best-known bookstore owners, Garrison Keillor (Common Good Books), leans forward and confidentially (albeit in front of an audience of more than 350 people during the Heartland Fall Forum's opening reception at the Depot in Minneapolis) asks another celebrated author/bookseller, Louise Erdrich (Birchbark Books), the following question:
"Your business is okay?"
This was something of a signature moment for me during the inaugural HFF, a combined regional show for members of the Midwest independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. Business was indeed okay among most of the booksellers I spoke with, and their reaction to the show was enthusiastic without reservation.
David Enyeart, assistant manager and event coordinator at Common Good Books (and the newest member of MIBA's board), "had a blast and everyone I talked to there did, too. The optimism and enthusiasm were palpable. Meeting a wider array of booksellers at the expanded show helped us all remember that we're part of a huge, vibrant and successful community. We were able to share more experiences, hear more ideas, and fall in love with our jobs all over again. I was awed by all that our region's bookstores have accomplished and inspired to do even more in the year ahead."
Carrie Obry (right in photo), executive director of MIBA, said she was "thrilled with my experience working with GLIBA on developing and hosting the combined show. Most everything came together according to our most optimistic calculations, and then some. With two separate associations at work (and all three employees in separate locations), there was a lot of administrative/office set-up that had to be done. That was the biggest challenge of the show, but I think we're stronger because of it. Seeing how GLIBA is run gave me another perspective and is helping me better run MIBA."
Nearly 800 people attended HFF, 358 of whom were booksellers--including 81 GLIBA members. Obry considered this "a successful number," adding that the 2013 show in Chicago "should be even better for mixed MIBA/GLIBA attendance because it's more central to both regions."
GLIBA executive director Deb Leonard (left in photo above) also thought next year's show would attract more members, but said, "I think that it worked out wonderfully for both regions. The show was well-attended, and there was definitely a positive, high-energy vibe throughout. It was a nice combination of things from both regions. The attendees seemed to work and play well together, and I think the combined show solidifies the Midwestern identity of the Heartland, especially for those publishers in New York."
Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean and Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., said he and his wife, Jessilyn, "always look forward to the fall GLIBA show as we know we'll spend several days with colleagues who understand the unique challenges of selling books in the Midwest. We hoped that the Heartland Forum would have that same sense of camaraderie, but we weren't sure what to expect. What we encountered surpassed all of our hopes. The education sessions were terrific and covered a wide range of important topics. There were terrific author signings and talks, but most of all, the show floor was fantastic."
At one point, he looked around the exhibit hall "and felt as if I'd traveled back to a show from 10 years ago. The floor was full and bustling, not only were there terrific publishers but also fantastic sidelines. The publisher support for the show was overwhelming and I saw many publishing friends that I rarely see outside of BEA. I couldn't have hoped for a better first joint show and my hat is off to all of the board members, EDs and of course Joan Jandernoa for the amazing amount of coordination. All of their efforts truly paid off and I believe it has created a solid foundation for many more joint shows."
Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan., said she and co-owner Beth Golay "were invigorated from day one" and called the Depot "the best venue for any regional show I have ever attended." She noted that ABA's Events Specialty Institute on Wednesday "set the tone for a great week," a momentum that was sustained by the HFF day of education, book buzz presentations, ABA's session on the new partnership with Kobo, roundtable discussions and book awards, "all filled with enthusiastic booksellers from both the GLIBA and the MIBA regions. And I do mean full--the rooms were buzzing."
Like Norcross, Bagby observed that once the exhibit hall opened on Friday morning, "the trade show floor was energetic--everybody gathering to talk about fall books, publisher specials and regional catalogues. A bonus was authors autographing books in the booths and a contingent of upper management from the publishing side of the industry. I plan to have booksellers at next year's HFF in Chicago and hope the two regions continue to partner beyond 2013."
Anticipation of future HFFs was on Enyeart's mind as well: "Regional shows--like bookselling itself--are all about building community, so the collaboration with GLIBA made this year's Heartland Fall Forum doubly good. They were excellent partners, and I can't wait for next year's show."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1847.
Is "bookshop-sitting" a real term? Google doesn't seem to think so, but I'll coin it right now anyway because a bookshop-sitter is precisely what Wendy Welch and Jack Beck, co-owners of Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books, Big Stone Gap, Va., are looking for.
To be precise, they need someone to take care of their bookstore for a couple of months this fall while they are traveling across the country on an author tour for Welch's upcoming book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book (St. Martin's, $24.99, 9781250010636, October 2 release).
"It's ironic that it's a book about independent bookstores that's got me in this position, but I cannot close our community bookstore to gallivant off and have fun with other bookstores," Welch observed. "Our shop is in a small rural community of 5,400 and it doesn't do enough trade to hire someone in at a living wage. Plus we have two dogs and three cats on staff. So what we're offering is complete room and board for a person or couple (from laundry soap to the occasional pizza delivery) in return for him/her/them watching the shop for October and November, when most of the 'road trip' activities for the book take place."
Who would want to be a bookshop-sitter? Welch suggested that someone "who is thinking about starting a bookstore 'someday' would benefit from two months at no risk; someone who doesn't want to own one but always thought it sounded fun to work there could have the experience for their bucket list."
As far as the "practicalities" are concerned, they "are not offering wages, just full living expenses; we can't accommodate anyone’s pets, because our dogs are territorial and Val-Kyttie is senile. Children are possible but they would have to sleep in the living room as we have only one guest room."
A prospective bookshop-sitter would be expected to work Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., "and we’ll introduce them to the support team in the community so they can get a pinch-hitter if an emergency arises," she noted. "We will be home a day here or there, but we're headed out October 5 and I suspect that trip would end the week before Thanksgiving. If this person wants to be home for Thanksgiving, that's not a problem. Ideally the person would come the last week of September and spend a week with us learning the ropes, then off we'd go and they'd be in charge." Check out her blog and bookshop videos for a more information on the business.
Where is Big Stone Gap? Welch called it "unique as a geographic location on earth. It’s beautiful, in a mountain valley, in a town full of architecture spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. The elegant courthouse is across the street; a 1950s gas station is a block away. We can walk to the grocery, local restaurants, church (about 12 within six blocks), downtown shops, etc. On Sundays/Mondays, when the shop is closed, Asheville is two hours away; Keokee Lake is 30 minutes up the road; fun places to explore are tucked into every valley on the map. I think the beauty and smallness of Big Stone are the only truly unique elements of our shop; other than that, we’re the same as others, and that’s what I think those interested in this experience will be after: an archetypal rather than unique experience."
While there is plenty of work involved in bookshop-sitting, even for a short stay, she stressed that "what makes our bookshop fun to run is not that different from other bookshops: colorful local characters; predictability and unpredictability married to each other every day [See her blog post headlined "The Really Fun Parts of Bookslinging" for an example]; the thrill of being around so many books, some famous, some not. Would it be too hokey to say a sense of wonder? There’s something new to discover every day--in the books, in the people, in the news about books. It’s very satisfying, that 'aliveness' of the mind."
Does the prospect of bookshop-sitting this autumn sound appealing to you? If so, and for more details, contact Wendy and Jack at email@example.com.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1813.
Consider this "book family" portrait: Kathy Patrick, owner of Beauty and the Book, Jefferson Tex., and founder of the Pulpwood Queens book club, is bookended by her daughters Madeleine (l.) and Helaina (r.), along with authors Michael Morris (l.) and William Torgerson (r.).
On the final day of BookExpo America this spring, I met the incomparable Patrick in person for the first time after years of e-mail and phone conversations. As you must for any impromptu meeting at BEA, we fine-tuned our rendezvous point coordinates by cell in the midst of the organized chaos, and eventually gathered near the main entrance.
I've been thinking about that moment as I prepare for the fall regional bookseller shows; imagining a kind of human web being gradually woven--in person and electronically--to connect so many of us in the book trade. Even if there are problem relatives here and there, we still all have impressive book family trees. I've always considered myself inept at the mysterious art of "networking," but damned if it doesn’t happen anyway.
My conversations with Morris and Torgerson, whom I met for the first time during that BEA photo op, have continued. It just works that way, a phenomenon Patrick summed up nicely when she mentioned her "book family" to me earlier this week, adding "that's what books do; they connect us in ways we never dreamed to benefit our lives."
Since meeting Morris, I've read his fine new novel, Man in the Blue Moon (Tyndale). Would I have read it if we hadn't met? I suspect not. You know how that goes. The same holds true for Torgerson's book Love on the Big Screen (Cherokee McGhee), which I'm reading now. Paying attention is just what a book family does.
So how are these book families formed? Morris recalled that his initial contact with Patrick occurred years ago, when his first novel was released by a small press. "My mom saw Kathy and the Pulpwood Queens on Good Morning America. She called me up and said 'these women seem like your kind of readers.' So I looked Kathy up and probably like hundreds of others at the time, sent her my book."
Patrick has been championing his work ever since, and made Man in the Blue Moon the Pulpwood Queens' October Book Club Selection this year. She also invited Morris to co-host the next Girlfriend Weekend in January and is taking the extreme, if not unprecedented, step of "making my hair blue if I can sell 1,000 copies as I believe in this book so much!" He and his wife, Melanie, "have become my book family and I consider them like my younger brother and sister," she added.
Torgerson became part of Patrick's book family more recently. "I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor that goes, 'Writing floats on a sea of conversation,' " he observed. "I was out on the Web looking for people talking about books. I came across Kathy's Beauty and the Book page. It connected to Facebook. I wrote Kathy a message. You probably won't be surprised that she wrote me back almost immediately."
Timing is often, if not always, everything, and the subject of his first novel, Love on the Big Screen, was "the story of a college freshman whose understanding of love has been shaped by late-'80s romantic comedies," which ultimately inspired the theme for the 2012 Girlfriend Weekend.
"I enjoyed my time in Jefferson," Torgerson recalled. "I ended up caring about Kathy because she's sweet and she's looking for ways to help people. The Queens use literacy as a vehicle to help people. Reading is almost an excuse to come together and look for ways to help people in need."
"Then Bill took it one step further," Patrick said. "As he was interested in film, he filmed our weekend and made a documentary, For the Love of Books, on our Pulpwood Queen mission to promote authors, books, literacy and reading." The movie will be screened September 8 at the Phenom Film Festival in Shreveport, La.
"He's now like family, too," she observed. "I have been blessed by these two authors and have hundreds of others who are right alongside these fantastic writers. I have created a 'book world,' a world where we are building lifelong friendships, relationships and community that is truly making our lives for the better." Maybe we could just call it book family values.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1818.
"The story of Avid Bookshop is still being written and we'll get to watch the creation of an indie bookshop through the window of social networking. Our book community is always telling new stories," I wrote in Shelf Awareness almost three years ago. I'd just returned from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in Greenville, S.C. That was where I first met Janet Geddis, now the proud owner of Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., which opened last fall.
At the 2009 SIBA show, I participated in an ABA panel about indie booksellers using social media and we happened to display Geddis's blog I'm an Avid Reader on the big screen as an example of how even a prospective bookseller was building her community online in anticipation of a bricks-and-mortar future.
What I didn't know, however, was that she happened to be sitting in the front row. Still in the early planning stages of her bookseller dream then, Geddis was envisioning a time when she could host events and handsell, but was also keenly aware--as she told me--that "for now I have to bide my time and wait for the stars (and dollars) to align. Though I'm usually rather impatient, this process of planning a bookstore has taught me to take my time and lay the proper groundwork before jumping in."
The years have passed by and this weekend I'm in Naples, Fla., for SIBA's 2012 trade show. Coincidentally, the first bookseller I saw yesterday in the hotel lobby was Geddis, though we'd actually communicated by e-mail last week after I found myself wondering what she recalled about that first encounter in Greenville. Seems like yesterday. Seems like forever.
"I had such a nostalgic little moment reading that Shelf Awareness article from 2009," she replied. "In some ways, I feel very much like that completely green, naive, and hopeful prospective bookseller; in other ways, I can't believe how far I've come and how much I've learned. Remember being in high school and being told, 'You think this is hard? Wait 'til you start college!' And then you were in college and felt as if things were easier than you'd expected based on everyone's warnings. 'Well, maybe college is going smoothly. But wait 'til you do grad school or get your first real job!'
"Every step of my life, I've come to learn to heed others' scary warnings less and less. So you can imagine that by the time I was embarking on my plan to open a bookstore and was told over and over how difficult it was, I was getting a little cocky. I've encountered each phase of my life with a chorus of cautionary voices in the background. So when I pronounced that I would be opening a bookshop, I dismissed many--not all!--of the experienced folks who told me I'd have to say goodbye to life as I knew it, at least for a while."
With perspective gained from hard-won experience, she admitted that she now feels "pretty foolish for not believing everyone, because--oh my gosh!--this is so much work and so difficult and so overwhelming. I work way more than I'd expected to, and my to-do list grows exponentially as I barely get a chance to check one thing off a week. My feet hurt at the end of the day, and my old schedule (working when and where I wanted) is long gone."
That might sound like disillusionment to someone who has not been called to the bookselling life, but we know better. Geddis quickly clarified: "I have never come close to being so fulfilled and happy with my job. I look forward to going into work each day, and I love talking about books with my energetic, loveable staff and my energetic, loveable customers. It's hard to pull myself away from the shop in the evenings because there are more conversations I want to have, more books I want to alphabetize, more kids I want to read to. All my friends and family know how much I adore my adopted hometown of Athens, and recently I've begun looking at Avid Bookshop as a sort of love letter to this amazing place."
The rewards of an indie bookseller's life may often be tempered by unpredictable complications and hard work, but bookselling is still one of those rare vocations that can be absolutely irresistible.
"All in all, I have barely hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my business," she concluded. "I've learned so much in the last five years and would not trade a moment of the journey. Now it's time to get down to the beach to soak up the last rays of summer and take in all that delightful, inspiring energy of my fellow booksellers." Sounds like another great new story.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1822.
"My guess is you're here because you love books or are homeless or are dating someone who loves books," said author Randy Wayne White (Gone) during the SIBA Supper last Friday at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in Naples, Fla. He was talking about the critical importance of stories--found ones as well as lost ones: "If you have the calling to write; if your clients have the calling to write, I urge you to answer that call, to have them answer that call."
He described storytelling as an absolute necessity "to anchor one's life in the world" and called upon his audience to get their grandparents to "write three honest pages about themselves. If we don't write it down, we're lost."
The SIBA show is a storyteller's theme park. Here's a story: Frazer Dobson and Sally Brewster of Park Road Books, Charlotte, N.C., told me they were introduced to one another a decade ago at SIBA. How did they celebrate the 10th anniversary of that first meeting and their subsequent marriage? By attending this year's SIBA show, of course, where Frazer, who is a rep for Como Sales, spent his time telling booksellers stories about Workman's new list; and Sally, as emcee of the Taste of HarperCollins Breakfast Saturday, observed that storytelling is "the best way to sell books. A story sells a story."
We have a courtship story, so how about a birth story? Also at the breakfast, Mary Kay Andrews (Savannah Blues) called SIBA's show the place "where I think I was born as an author. We start one place and our stories come round full circle."
During the show's Kick Off Lunch, Michael Morris (The Man in the Blue Moon) told the story of a "trunk tour" he and his wife embarked on several years ago to promote his first book, A Place Called Wiregrass. "Remember the movie Coal Miner's Daughter where they're riding around eating baloney sandwiches and looking for radio towers?" he asked. "Well, we were eating Subway sandwiches and looking for SIBA stores. This is like coming home to me." Morris also noted that he'd been born into a family who "weren't readers, but they were storytellers."
That theme was echoed by Stephanie McAfee (Happily Ever Madder), who said because her family owned a trucking company, she'd learned much about the world when she was young through what she called "CB news," which was "broadcast" to her town when the "truckers picked up stories from all over the country and brought them back... embellished."
William Joyce (The Guardians of Childhood), whose Oscar-winning short film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore was screened during the SIBA Supper, recounted the nightmarish time after Hurricane Katrina struck, and one redemptive moment when he spotted a child intently reading a book in a stadium packed with 18,000 displaced people. "This is something that is more powerful than technology," he said. "People need stories."
When Nicki Leone, SIBA's website administrator and newsletter editor, and programmer Ian Oeschger presented a "demystifying e-books" education session, they explored alternative and "hyperlocal" storytelling possibilities for indie booksellers, advising indies to create their own e-stories.
Whether it's the history of an ancient graveyard in town or a guide to area restaurants, "there are dozens of e-books that you could create and sell yourself," Leone said. "One of SIBA's goals is to help people develop this hyperlocal option. There's a ton of stuff you can create without needing to be a rocket scientist and you can sell it."
Oeschger, who envisions indie booksellers "becoming book creators as well as book promoters," demonstrated how this could be achieved using Calibre, which he described as "kind of disruptive in a good way in the e-book market."
While noting that "if you thought you could sell your own annotated version of Moby Dick you are free to do so," he also emphasized the advantages of a more regional focus: "Aren't we all in the business of creating hyperlocal content?"
Maybe in the end we are the stories we sell and tell. Ask Cliff Graubart, who described himself during one panel as "a bookseller first, a publisher second and I've always had a table at SIBA. I always had a fantasy of walking around the show as an author." And so he was last week, talking about his new collection of stories, The Curious Vision of Sammy Levitt.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1827.
The thing about trade shows in our business is--no surprise--that there's always a lot of print matter stacking up in all those tote bags and backpacks. This is a good thing, of course, but adding a show catalogue to the burden may sometimes feel, if you prefer your clichés with a twist, like the book that broke the camel's back.
I used BEA's mobile app this year, but didn't expect to have the option for the regionals and was pleasantly surprised to find one available at the recent Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance show.
How did that happen?
SIBA's executive director Wanda Jewell said she had long wanted an app for the show, "but the cost and commitment everywhere I looked was too much." Then she learned about MobePlace. After exploring the possibilities, she decided to give it a try.
"Since all was still in beta, it was a bit buggy and involved several do-overs but each time I needed their support (even over Labor Day weekend) they were there with a fix, help, or updates as they were needed," Jewell noted. "Having to put the content in more than once turned out to be a good lesson, and as I added content and worked with the software I figured out work-arounds and strategies to make the app work for #SIBA12. We weren't able to announce the app until the Thursday before the trade show as we were working right up till then, but I will use it again and I will encourage my colleagues to use it. It is quite an elegant yet free solution."
Reaction among attendees was generally positive. "I applaud Wanda for encouraging SIBA stores to stay technologically up to date," said Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction, Greenville, S.C. "As with any new technology, there were some bugs with the debut appearance of the app, but I love the idea of looking at my phone calendar for trade show event times and room numbers instead of having to locate my paper program among the slew of catalogues, galleys and other ephemera one carries around at a trade show."
Curiosity induced Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., to download the MobePlace app, and she "ended up using it quite a bit. The different views were nice to have--look at meals, education, social events or everything all together in a calendar format. I was very pleasantly surprised."
Although he doesn’t consider himself a "particularly 'technological' person," Jeff McCord of Bound To Be Read Books, Atlanta, Ga., also found the app helpful: "The printed SIBA show programs this year were the best ever and I tried to carry it with me everywhere I went. But sometimes it was at the bottom of my bag, or I had left it on the bedside table, or whatever, and I could just flip on the MobePlace app and find out where I needed to be in a few seconds."
Shane Gottwals of Gottwals Books, Warner Robins, Ga., had mixed feelings: "It was useful, but I liked using my printed guide since I could circle the events I wanted to attend. Yes, it was easy to use. For an event like this, though, a printed guide was much better. That's a lot of information to pack into a small mobile app screen."
Bloggers Heather O'Roark (Book Addiction) and Sandy Nawroot (You've GOTTA Read This!) offered slightly different reactions. O'Roark "didn't use it as much as I could have because I had my program with me at all times. But I did think the app was extremely convenient and a good addition to SIBA." Nawroot, on the other hand, "used it instead of the printed itinerary for the event. It was at my fingertips in a matter of seconds. This was a very handy tool."
Nathan Halter, member relationship manager at the American Booksellers Association, praised the layout of the app as "very user-friendly and I was a bit surprised by how deep the app went, how much information they were able to include."
He also noted that "other regionals might be (and probably should be) interested in developing an app for their events. One of my first thoughts when using it was that I think it would make a lot of sense for us to develop a similar app for some of the events we host (i.e., Winter Institute); it makes attending these events much easier for the attendees."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1832.
Where have you been spending your time during Banned Books Week? Maybe the best response is between the pages of a controversial book you've never read before. But I found another tempting alternative in the world I've inhabited for the past couple of days. Surrounded by indie booksellers, authors of new books and publishers, I'm in Minneapolis, Minn., where the Heartland Fall Forum, the first joint fall trade show hosted by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, ends later today.
I'll be writing more about the show next week, but I just wanted to share a little of the bookish magic that's in the air here, especially during a week in which we also contemplate the actions of people whose stated goal is denying access to certain titles. Any self-disrespecting, book-banning troll who dared to show up at HFF would immediately be banished into eternal, wordless exile. Forthwith, as they like to say in the best troll stories.
No, that's not quite right. More likely, the troll would be loaded down with generous stacks of great new books and sentenced to spend some quiet time in the nearest available reading space: "You think that book you wanted banned was unsettling? Read these!"
"It is an honor and a joy to work in a world where ideas are still valued," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's bookstore, St. Paul, Minn., during HFF's opening reception Wednesday night. He is also the editor of Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores (Coffee House Press). Although Weyandt is now often introduced at events as an editor or author, he said (with a generous measure of bookish intensity): "First and foremost, forever and always, I will be a bookseller."
At breakfast yesterday morning, Emma Straub, a bookseller at BookCourt, Brooklyn, N.Y., whose debut novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures (Riverhead) was released earlier this month, echoed Weyandt's philosophy. Although she has taken a leave of absence while touring for her book, she lamented that "what I'll miss most is saying, 'Here, read this; read this!'.... I think every writer should work in a bookshop. I think publishers should require it."
Peter Geye, author of The Lighthouse Road (Unbridled Books), eloquently expressed his deep gratitude to booksellers during yesterday's breakfast event: "I look out across the room and see nothing but a room full of bookish saints.... Without you, I wouldn't exist as an author. How do you thank people for making a dream come true?"
He also talked about his own learning process in the world of books, noting that while being a "writer" is what he does in private to create his novels, "there's another part of the job description and that's being an 'author.' I think it's you all who have taught me how to be an author.... If I never wrote another word, I'd still have the gift of your friendship."
As is often the case when book people gather at these events, one speaker after another underlined the importance of indie bookstores. Justin Cronin, whose latest is The Twelve (Ballantine), praised booksellers for being "the opposite of hedge fund managers," while Christina Schwarz, author of The Edge of the Earth (Atria, April 2013), noted: "If every English teacher wants to be a writer, every writer dreams of being a bookseller." And Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins (Grand Central), said that her part-time job at WORD bookstore, Brooklyn, "has changed my life," adding: "I thank you for what you do, and I also get what you do."
Jim Heynen, author of The Fall of Alice K. (Milkweed), said, "I haven't been mixing with people who love the same thing I do so much in a long time. I'm just amazingly grateful to those of you who have the boots on the ground and say, 'Hey, check this out.' "
There is, of course, more to write about all the book business that was conducted here, but it's also important to acknowledge the beautiful, if short-lived, theme park for book people that a regional booksellers trade show inevitably becomes. The concept of banned books is even more surreal when you're fully engaged in all this fine conversation about writing and publishing and bookselling and reading. Here a book is an absolute necessity, a way of life. Or, as Emma Straub put it, a book is "love pretending to be a subway companion." Take that, book-banning trolls.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1843.
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Maybe it's because I live in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. As Edna Ferber wrote in Saratoga Trunk, her novel set in the late 19th century, "July and August there's nothing like it in the whole country. Races every day, gambling, millionaires and pickpockets and sporting people and respectable family folks and politicians and famous theater actors and actresses, you'll find them all at Saratoga."
Maybe it's because Yaddo, the legendary colony for writers and artists, is located about two furlongs east of the top of the stretch at Saratoga Race Course; or maybe it's because of something author Curtis Sittenfeld said a few years ago in the New York Times, recalling an editor who told her: "People think publishing is a business, but it's a casino."
Whatever the reason, gambling and literature have long been interconnected for me, and this is the season--shortly after summer's thoroughbred horse races and just before publishing's thoroughbred literary prizes--when I tend to think about betting lines and their relationship to the world of books.
I frequently check in with British bookmaker Ladbrokes for the latest Man Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature odds. Just can't help myself; probably my English heritage sparking an instinctive punter's urge to handicap literature. And, of course, I work daily in one of the most odds-against industries imaginable. Publish a new book in this market? Who'd take that wager? Yet there we all are at the betting windows again and again, season after season, looking for a winner.
In England, bookmakers and book makers often share newspaper space. Just before the Booker shortlist was announced, a Guardian headline proclaimed: "Booker prize: Hilary Mantel is bookies' top tip for shortlist." Earlier this week, in an article covering the shortlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize, the Bookseller routinely added: "William Hill has already called on The Better Angels of Our Nature as the most likely winner, with odds of 2-1."
And thus to the question of the day: What are the current odds? As of this morning at Ladbrokes:
Man Booker Prize
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (9-4)
Umbrella by Will Self (11-4)
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (5-1)
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (5-1)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (6-1)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (8-1)
Nobel Prize in Literature
Haruki Murakami (5-1)
Bob Dylan (10-1)
Mo Yan (12-1)
Cees Nooteboom (12-1)
Ismail Kadare (14-1)
Ko Un (14-1)
Assia Djebar (14-1)
In what seems to be an annual rite, a "flurry of hefty bets" on Dylan for the Nobel was noted by the Guardian, which predicted that a hard rain's a-gonna fall (sorry, couldn't resist) on his chances, since "experts consider his real prospects vanishingly small." Alex Donohue, a spokesman for Ladbrokes, quipped: "We're happy to 'fill the satchel' in bookmaking terms as we expect the Dylan backers to part with their cash again this year."
As horseplayers say, "I wouldn't bet that with your money."
What bookies fear most is big money backing a surprise prohibitive favorite that goes on to win. This happened in 2009 for Wolf Hall, when a "rush of bets" in a 48-hour period after the Booker longlist had been announced slashed Mantel's odds from 12-1 to 2-1.
"Odds on book prizes are not a particularly sophisticated science," the Guardian noted at the time. "The bookies will generally work on a pretty simple basis--they'll chuck the shortest odds on the writers who are most famous, and work from there." The Mantel betting frenzy was "just a case of bookish betters taking advantage of the advantageous odds put on Mantel by a relatively unbookish bookie."
This year, however, "all of the momentum is with Mantel and punters are confident in her bid for the first ever repeat win," said Jessica Bridge of Ladbrokes. "She cost us dearly in 2009 with Wolf Hall and this year looks set to be no different."
In Croupier, one of the best movies ever made about gambling and writing, aspiring novelist and casino croupier Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) says, "Gambling's not about money... Gambling's about not facing reality, ignoring the odds."
If I could walk up to a betting window for well-read gamblers right now, I'd buck the odds and wager on Alison Moore to win the Booker and Mo Yan the Nobel. Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to place your literary bets--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1838.