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1. DIESEL's 'Close Readers of Beautiful Writing'

Pick a poem, any poem. Well, not just any poem; pick one you have lived with a while. Now, read the poem aloud. How does it sound? Record your voice reading that poem. Add complementary video. Imagine dozens of people doing the same thing.

As it happens, you don't have to imagine this because for the past five years, California's DIESEL, A Bookstore has been releasing a new videopoem daily during Poetry Month. While booksellers are usually the featured readers, DIESEL occasionally invites a guest. Last year, even I got in on the videopoem action with my signature monotone rendition of Gary Snyder's "Hay for the Horses."

DIESEL's co-owner John Evans told me the bookstore has "always had an extra special emphasis on poetry and art. We believe they are essential parts of great local independent neighborhood bookstores like ours. I am a poet and have an M.A. in Poetics (of all things) and so want poetry to be widely, easily available and visible at our stores. We have cultivated poetry reading, and writing, at our stores from the beginning."

That said, technology is no stranger to DIESEL's mission either. "We've embraced technologies, but insisted that they further good aesthetics," Evans observed. "We created a website in 1991 and, I must say, it was beautiful. It's a challenge, as platforms change--sales gets integrated into what was originally a communications tool--to keep the aesthetics going. It's a welcome challenge. My partner, Alison Reid, has said that a good slogan for DIESEL is 'if you bought an ugly book, you didn't buy it at DIESEL.' "


When they decided to produce more book-related videos about five years ago, "we just started naturally also reading from them and then thought, What about a whole month of reading poems for National Poetry Month?" Evans recalled. "Most of us were absolutely excited by it, and some were a little more tentative. After all, hard as it may be to believe, not all booksellers regularly read poetry. But all booksellers have read, and loved, some poetry. Since we try to open things wide, we encouraged people to just read whatever poems they wanted. We were startled by the results the very first year. Several of us--me, Jon Stich and Grant Outerbridge (both very artistic booksellers)--decided to shoot some video to match with the read poems for those who didn't want to be filmed reading and out of a curiosity as to what we could come up with."

During the first year, DIESEL mixed videos of booksellers reading with some videopoems before deciding the video versions were generally more interesting. "Since then, Jon has shot most of the video and added the audio clips," Evans noted. "Pretty much all of our booksellers have contributed readings each year."

Positive feedback has come from customers, friends, publishers, other booksellers and authors, "all praising us for our commitment, for specific poem choices and for particularly effective readings," he said. "Some people look forward to the one-per-day reveal, while others listen to them in groups and a few wait until the month is over and then binge on them. It's a great annual ritual: for each of us; for all of us at the store; and for all of the other readers, of poetry or not, who enjoy getting words in their purest forms."

Evans cited two of his all-time favorite videopoems, which "come to mind every year, largely because of their combination of great reading and eerily perfect video." One is William Butler Yeats's "Lake of Innisfree," read by Nell Arnold, and the other Kay Ryan's "The Material," read by Colin Waters. He also praised Brad Johnson, "who does our blog and is a poet himself and a great reader of poetry. He floored me with his reading voice--like a young Orson Welles! I love to hear him read, but particularly love the first videopoem of his that I saw/heard: 'Sentences' by Lyn Hejinian. My favorite so far this year? Herb Bivins, who works in the Larkspur store, "beautifully reads one of my favorite poems--'The Waking,' by Theodore Roethke--and Jon intuitively marries it to an amazingly appropriate scene. The wind and Herb's breathing, and wonderfully timbred voice, bring forth so much of the incantatory magic of this poem, it just leaves me smiling." The Roethke videopoem is my favorite thus far this year as well.

"One further thing which I've really only full appreciated this fifth year: I really enjoy the sounds of my co-workers voices transposed into this intimate register of reading poems which they care about and so, care for," Evans observed. "This is not the voice of the bookseller with our enthusiasm for books and expert helpfulness, but the voice of close readers of beautiful writing and the imaginations conjoined there. It's such a pleasure to know and hear my fellow booksellers in this way."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2232.

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2. Paul Ingram's Lost Clerihews Found

First, a confession: I did not know what a clerihew was until I learned that Ice Cube Press would be publishing The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram July 1 (shipping June 15). On the other hand, I did know that the author is a legendary bookseller at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, where he has worked since 1989. Whenever a list of great indie handsellers appears, he is inevitably on it.

From Ingram's introduction to his collection, I soon discovered the clerihew was first devised by English author Edmund Clerihew Bentley and follows the rhyme scheme AABB, with the first line including "the name of a well-known or ill-known person." Since Bentley's death in 1956, and despite its adoption by poets like W.H. Auden and Anthony Hecht, "the form has seldom been in use."

Until now, that is. Ingram's mischievous creations have been found at last ("And how did they become lost? Many reasons. They are tiny and often find themselves on napkins, old receipts, sugar packets and matchbook covers."), and readers will soon enjoy the pleasure of their company.

Igor Stravinsky
Couldn't convince me
He knew one damn thing
About the rite of spring.

Ingram said he had doubts when he initially toyed with the form 20 years ago: "I believed I just wasn't clerihew material. I just wasn't that clever. But I do all the buying for the bookstore and had hundreds of names going through my head, so once I'd figured out how to do a couple, I figured how to do a lot of them." Although he estimated he has composed as many as 400 ("not 400 good; not 400 publishable"), Ingram noted that "there are plenty that I did not include in this collection because they are pointedly offensive."

Does the clerihew perhaps allow him to vent a little? "I feel I'm generally a way, way too respectful person, but I don't always necessarily feel that way," he replied. "It's just what came out; they come out kind of naughty. I think most of what I have in there now is just this side of printable."

In his blurb for the collection, Richard Howorth, co-owner of Square Books, Oxford, Miss., called Ingram "an extraordinary bookseller who has not only found the lost clerihews; he has elevated the entire form. This book forever shall reside in our guest bedroom so that visitors will either know or wonder what sort of people we are."

How Ingram's clerihews evolved into a book is one of those great tales of the right people converging in the right place at the right time.

"The book's genesis was mostly through Bruce J. Miller, who encouraged me to go listen to Paul tell me some of them," said Steve Semken, founder and CEO of Ice Cube Press. "I listened to Paul recite clerihews and laughed and loved how clever they were. At first they seemed merely funny, but then, when I realized the point of a clerihew is also to make biographical points about the person, I thought, What could be better than laughing and learning all at once?"

Miller, co-owner of Miller Trade Book Marketing, added: "It's been an exciting time. For me the publication of Lost Clerihews represents the fulfillment of my long held wish to help bring Paul's work to a national audience. I asked him from time to time if he had thought about publishing his wonderful clerihews, and this time I was able to help make it happen."

The book is illustrated by Miller's wife, Julia Anderson-Miller, an accomplished artist who has known Ingram since 1987. "When I was asked if I had the time to illustrate The Lost Clerihews, I was so happy!" she recalled. "What an education and variety of inspired situations those clerihews provided for my creative juices. I was only planning to do 12 or 24, but ended up doing 134. And I still do not want to stop--but the book is finished.

"I did not want to illustrate verbatim, so it was fun to wander off a wee bit. I needed research, because I did not know who some of these people were, and I also needed to get the realism of gesture, face or interesting facts. I looked forward to solving difficult clerihews to put into pen and ink. I love a challenge."

"Having an illustrated clerihew book is 'how it's done,' " Semken observed. "Auden's was illustrated, as was E. Clerihew Bentley's clerihew book. This really is a valuable part of the book, I think."

The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram will include a foreword by Elizabeth McCracken and has already drawn accolades from a range of word enthusiasts, including Jane Hamilton, Daniel Menaker, Roz Chast, Elizabeth Crane, Christopher Merrill and Amelia Gray; as well as booksellers like Howorth and Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah.

And what does the future hold for the clerihew? "I would be absolutely delighted to see great clerihews popping out all over," Ingram said. "I'd love to be part of making that happen. I have also discovered, for example, that just about all of them fit in a tweet."

Semken may have summed up the Team Clerihew project best when he said: "That Paul works at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and it was through a Midwest sales rep telling me, an independent press in the Midwest, about the idea--I really think all these parts working together prove that real partnerships exist in the book industry, that we all need each other." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2227.

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3. The Home Opener

As you read this, Nan Sorensen, administrative coordinator at the New England Independent Booksellers Association, is either preparing to head over to Boston's Fenway Park or is already there, psyched for the home opener of her beloved World Champion Red Sox. Nan is one of the most passionate Sox fans in the book business and I wondered about her game prep because baseball is, after all, a sport of rituals.

"I always wear a Red Sox T-shirt, but most important is I will have a soft ice cream before I enter Fenway," she said. "Regardless of temperature, I always do. Usually I wear shorts and a Fenway Park (I love Fenway as much as I love the Red Sox) T-shirt, but in the heat of the summer I sometimes get brave and wear my pink Dustin Pedroia T-shirt." Would she dare bring a book to a game? "No book. I buy a program at my first game of year. There is always too much going on at Fenway to have a book."

The Red Sox season officially began earlier this week in Baltimore, and even ESPN couldn’t resist a bookish lead in reporting on the game: "No need for Grady Sizemore to embellish his story. It's already just a couple of ticks shy of Roy Hobbs as it is. No need for Jackie Bradley Jr. to embellish his story, either. These days, it seems like Stephen King is ghostwriting it."

Baseball remains the sport that lies closest to our literary souls. Even an impromptu starting lineup card of authors is an all-star team: Roger Angell, W.P. Kinsella, Don DeLillo, Bernard Malamud, George Plimpton, Donald Hall, David Halberstam, Thomas Boswell, Roger Kahn. Creating that list off the top of my head should spark another great baseball tradition: the "rhubarb." What about Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King and David James Duncan and Chad Harbach? Or old school legends like Ring Lardner? Since it's also opening week for Poetry Month, how about Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" or John Updike's "Baseball"?

In other words, books and baseball make a good team:

  • The Baltimore Orioles are sporting a patch on their uniforms honoring the late Tom Clancy.  
  • April 23 marks the 100th anniversary of the first professional baseball game at what is now Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. "Only florists and chocolatiers love anniversaries more than book publishers do," the Tribune noted.
  • Derek Jeter, who will have his own imprint at Simon & Schuster by this time next year, began his Yankee career farewell tour in Houston this week.
  • MLB Network unveiled its new opening sequence, which takes "a page straight out of another American tradition: comic books."

For Nan, however, it's all about the Sox. The team was honored this week at the White House by President Obama, who named Mike Napoli to the newly-created (as of April Fool's Day) President's Council on Beards. Even press secretary Jay Carney "bearded up" for the occasion to celebrate the barbigerous champs--as, by the way, had Nan last season (and we have the photographic evidence), putting on her game face when it mattered.

She did confess, however, that when she was growing up in New Jersey, she was a Yankee fan: "I loved Joe Pepitone!" Later, while working for the publisher David R. Godine, "we used to go to Opening Day at Fenway. George Gibson and Andre Dubus II would buy a big block of tickets and we'd take the afternoon off. That was my introduction to the Red Sox. Now I love Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi (David Ortiz) and Shane Victorino."

There are far too many Red Sox fans among NEIBA members to list, but Nan said that "standouts include Mark Lamphier of Harvard Book Store, Cambridge; and Dawn Rennert of the Concord Bookshop." She also gave high marks to Random House district sales manager Lesley Vasilio, "with whom I go to the games, though sadly not for Friday's game." I couldn't resist asking if there are any Yankee fans hiding out among NEIBA members, and she cited Michael Herrmann of Gibson's Bookstore, Concord, N.H., adding that "he doesn't hide it."

The columnist psyched up for opening day, Little League edition, circa 1959.

Although I'm not a Red Sox fan, I do have genuine Sox street cred. My parents spent their 1949 honeymoon in Boston and saw a few games. Since I was born almost exactly nine months later, you could say I was conceived in the shadow of Fenway Park. And I certainly spent uncounted hours of my youth consumed with becoming a "real ballplayer," as my father, who worshiped Ted Williams, called the good ones.

There may be some lingering effects, so I completely understand Nan's emotions yesterday, when she told me: "Today is like the day before leaving on vacation. Ready to burst with excitement! Glad the gates open early so I can get out of the house and head over. For the past few years I've gone to all the games with Lesley, but could only manage to get the one ticket for this. Going to feel weird, but I'm sure I'll find a few people to cheer with; and sing 'Sweet Caroline' with--one of my favorite parts of the game!"

And is there a connection between baseball and booksellers? "Baseball players, like booksellers, 'fight' everyday for the good of the 'team,' " she replied. Play ball!

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2222.

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4. March Madness: 'There Is Method In't'

"Though this be March Madness, yet there is method in't," Polonius almost said in Hamlet. For the record, the poor guy not only didn't make it out of the play alive, he was also defeated in the second round of 2012's Shakespeare Character March Madness Tourney by King Lear ("O, that way March Madness lies; let me shun that").

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, 'tis the season of March Madness and there are brackets, brackets wherever we turn--online, on refrigerators, on bulletin boards, on everything. It's been a long time since bracket fever afflicted only obsessed NCAA college basketball tournament fans.

"Bracketology--the practice of parsing people, places, and things into discrete one-on-one matchups to determine which of the two is superior or preferable--works because it is simple. What could be simpler then breaking down a choice into either/or, black or white, this one or that one?" wrote Mark Reiter, co-editor (with Richard Sandomir) of the 2007 book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything.

Ben Yagoda, who contributed a "sins against the language" bracket to the book ("I put the phrase in quotation marks to indicate it should be taken with a measure of irony."), observed more recently: "I think we can all agree that March Madness has jumped the shark."

"When did filling out a March Madness bracket become popular?" asked Smithsonian magazine recently, noting that "NCAA bracket madness has also spawned a social phenomenon: The Wire, proclaiming March the 'bracket-iest month of the year,' is rolling out competing brackets each week in a 'tournament of everything.' Even the federal government is getting in on the madness, betting that a bracket will make the Affordable Care Act relevant to millennials. It's hard to turn anywhere on the Internet without running into a bracket of some kind."

The book world is not exempt, of course. Inkwood Books, Tampa, Fla., has its own Staff Pick Madness. Early in the month, Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, advised: "Looking for your own March Madness? Check out Tournament of Books sponsored by The Morning News. Bracketed book bouts."

Launched in 2005, the ToB has inspired many variations on a theme, including the Tournament of Sidekicks from Half Price Books, Out of Print's Book Madness, the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, Game of Thrones March Madness Bracket, io9's SciFi Versus Fantasy Madness, Picture Book Bracketology, Bracketology for Female Book Characters, and even a Quidditch World Cup bracket challenge contest. The Medina County District Library featured Book Madness, challenging readers "to pick the top winners as the Best Books of 2013 go head-to-head with the Books That Stand the Test of Time."

March Madness also erupts annually in the sidelines department for the lucky few college bookstores whose teams win and progress through each round. Right after the University of Dayton was awarded an NCAA tournament berth last week, the bookstore "reported having between two and three hundred online orders for 2014 March Madness t-shirts." (Sideline sales for the sidelines?) And with the Flyers still in the mix, staff member Taylor Seidl said the retail outlook remained upbeat: "As long as we keep winning we have orders coming in for Sweet 16... Elite Eight." Same story at the University of Virginia bookstore, where executive director John Kates said, "In the thirty years I've been here... I've never seen anything like it."

Speaking of the Elite Eight, there was an unfortunate digital retail slipup on Wednesday when the University of Arizona's bookstore had to issue a public apology for accidentally displaying a page featuring T-shirts that heralded the team's advancement to the next round before they had even played their Sweet Sixteen game against San Diego State last night. They won anyway.

And just so you know, in Las Vegas March Madness means "busy hotels, Bud Lite and bustling books," but not our kind of books.

The endgame of NCAA tournament bracketology is almost always defeat and befuddlement. What began March 16 on Selection Sunday with unsullied brackets and 68 optimistic college basketball teams simply cannot resist the tidal pull of a cresting Shakespearean wave ("The ides of March Madness have come."/ "Yes, Caesar--but not gone."). Maybe it has something to do with March itself, that most confusing of months.

Or, as Polonius sort of put it (anticipating, perhaps, Orchestral March Madness, Tuition Madne$$, Public Media Madness, Mensa Bracket Challenge Champion and even March Madness Meta-Bracket: Which Tournament Is the Best?): "A happiness that often March Madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2217.

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5. 'Get Poeting' on World Poetry Day!

Every year, UNESCO celebrates those who give life to poetry as one of the highest forms of linguistic and cultural expression. Poetry is a song of freedom, enabling us to affirm our identity through creation. Poetry is also the song of our deepest feelings; in the words of the Brazilian poet and diplomat João Cabral de Melo Neto, "even unintentionally, every word that comes from emotion is poetry." Through its words and its rhythm, poetry gives shape to our dreams of peace, justice and dignity, and gives us the strength and desire to mobilize to make them real.
--Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general


Friday was World Poetry Day, which was established by UNESCO in 1999 and is observed annually on March 21. One of its main objectives is "to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities."

The festivities are also meant to "encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media, so that the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art, but one which enables society as a whole to regain and assert its identity."

Here's a global sampling of World Poetry Day celebrations:

Harry Man

At the 53rd Struga Poetry Evenings festival in Macedonia this week, British poet Harry Man won the Bridges of Struga award for his debut collection, Lift, while Korean author Ko Un was honored with the prestigious Golden Wreath award.

In Ghana, "they are taking the word art to a whole new dimension by spicing the shows up with the best performance spoken-word artists in the country." World Poetry Day celebrations include spoken-word workshops; flash mob and street performances; a national senior high school poetry slam championship; and a final concert, all sponsored by Goethe Institut and G3 Channels, in conjunction with the Ghana National Theatre, Talk-Fact3, Writers Project Ghana, IUB and Inkfluent.

A replica of the iconic writing shed used by Dylan Thomas will make its first appearance Saturday in Carmarthen, Wales. During the centennial year of his birth, Thomas's shed, a "bespoke replica [that] even has the curled pictures on the walls and the view over the estuary," is touring the U.K.

"It's Poetry Day! Get Poeting!" is the sound advice offered by the blog for English at the Colegio Público de Espiñeira Aldan in Spain. 

The Slovenia Times noted that to "mark World Poetry Day, the Slovenian Writers' Association will hold a poetry and musical evening at the Ljubljana Town Hall's atrium. Poems will also be read in front of the headquarters of Maribor University. Meanwhile, the Iriu Institute has selected poems by several Slovenian and foreign poets which will be served with coffee at selected coffee shops in Ljubljana and Celje."
In Manitoba, Canada, Brandon University is commemorating the day with an hour-long "Celebration of Dead Poets and Their Poetry," during which participants will perform their favorite works from great poets of the past.

Tulasi Diwasa

Nepali poet Tulasi Diwasa is one of more than 50 poets from around the world invited to the World Poetry Festival in New Delhi, India. The festival was organized to celebrate World Poetry Day as well as the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

On the Caribbean island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, "Cross-Generations: A Gathering of Soualiga's Poets" will be held in the Philipsburg Jubilee Library's hall. Lysanne Charles, president of Foundation 5 Square Miles St. Martin and coordinator of the event, said the island "has a long history of poets and in the last 30 years or so published poets. Cross-Generations celebrates the vibrancy of this and pays homage to the older poets and our publishing outlet House of Nehesi Publishers.... It is important that we acknowledge the word of the written and spoken word on the island and the ability it has to transform things."

Tonight, the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, Calif., will host La Poesia Festival World Poetry Day, featuring several poets and inviting people to "bring original poetry in Spanish/bilingual to share."

And Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington has asked "readers of all ages and backgrounds" to participate in Virgilpalooza, a marathon reading of Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid.

In his aptly titled poem "World Poetry Day," Polish author Tadeusz Rozewicz writes:

around noon the phone rang
"today is poetry day"
said Maria
"I can't hear you!"
"today is World Poetry Day, o poet!"
it's been established by Unesco"
Even Ionesco couldn't have thought up
something like this! this is something (something)!

Something indeed. Happy World Poetry Day. Now, go out there and get poeting!

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2212.

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6. Shoplifting Books: Stop! Thief! Oh, Never Mind

"Time: 1985 or thereabouts. Place: Shakespeare & Company Booksellers (as I remember it) in Manhattan." A New York Times "Metropolitan Diary" entry last week opened with that CSI: Bookstore intro, then shared a brief but amusing tale involving a few classic ingredients of the crime thriller: suspect, witness and potential theft, with a devilishly clever comeuppance at the end.

The witness recalls seeing "an unmistakable tall, reedlike figure with a jutting jaw and blondish hair, wearing a floppy knit hat that could not disguise him." She recognizes the celebrity and begins stalking him through the aisles until, quite suddenly, she's astonished to catch him in a criminal act: "He doesn't seem to notice me as he stops and pulls a book off the shelf. He examines it. Then, he quickly snaps it shut, slips it under his oversize coat and strolls away."

Still in shock, the witness continues to trail her suspect until his "pace, slow at first, begins to quicken as he approaches the cashier through the front exit. Wait! What do I do? Do I rat him out? I am stunned into silence."

In a dramatic plot twist, the suspect "magically flips the book out from its hiding place onto the counter along with a $20 bill. He then flashes a conspiratorial wink at me and my gaping jaw. Peter O'Toole then exits the stage, leaving this sole audience member both amused and amazed."

I love that story. It brought to mind any number of incidents from my bookselling days, including the time a new manager at the store where I worked thought he had the goods on an elderly customer who seemed to frequently walk out with unpaid books. The case was quickly solved, however, once clues were assembled and he was informed, Inspector Lestrade-like, that the suspect was actually the co-owner's mother.

As sometimes happens, the Peter O'Toole story tempted me not only to stroll along my own guilt-lined memory lane, but down the Internet rabbit hole as well, where I found a gem from the June 6, 1968, NYT:

"A film about shoplifting that included an episode about a woman slipping a vacuum cleaner under her skirt and walking out of a store evoked horrified laughter yesterday at the American Booksellers Association convention. The audience was told afterward that unexplained shortages in bookstores probably run from 2.4% to 4% of total business handled....

"After the shoplifting film, Hubert Belmont, a Washington book consultant who was a shop manager for 15 years, told the booksellers: 'Now that we have all decided to close our stores we will still go on with the program. However, we will no longer wonder why some of our friends walk away peculiarly when they are leaving the store with encyclopedias between their legs.' "

I should mention (call it a confession, just to keep with the theme) that bookstore shoplifting is a subject that has long intrigued and even haunted me, for a few reasons:

  • I often feel irrationally guilty when I'm browsing in a bookstore I haven't visited before.
  • I wouldn't snitch on another customer I saw shoplifting and I feel a little guilty about that, too.
  • When I was a bookseller, I never once caught anyone stealing, even when I was sure they had; even when they set off the security alarm while leaving. I was a master of the slightly delayed leap into action, hoping one of my colleagues would beat me to the door and the confrontation.
  • I knew I would be lousy at the chase-and-apprehend nature of catching shoplifters, so I didn't try.
  • The standard rule that you could never let suspected shoplifters out of your sight for an instant (lest they dump the goods and increase the dangers of litigation) reinforced my natural inclination to inaction.

Maybe I should have been more vigilant. Certainly I was no Paul Constant, who wrote in the Stranger: "In my eight years working at an independent bookstore, I lost count of how many shoplifters I chased through the streets of Seattle while shouting 'Drop the book!' I chased them down crowded pedestrian plazas in the afternoon, I chased them through alleys at night, I even chased one into a train tunnel."

Jerry Seinfeld was willing to rat out his own Uncle Leo for shoplifting books at Brentano's:

Jerry: Leo, I saw you steal.
Leo: Oh, they don’t care. We all do it.
Jerry: Who, criminals?
Leo: Senior citizens. No big deal.

When I was a bookseller, I just couldn't take the pressure of being an anti-shoplifting enforcer, and now I'm an oblivious bookstore customer, avoiding any temptation to snitch. Oblivious... and maybe just a little guilty.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2207.

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7. Serendipity & the Festival Internacional de Poesía

We've all experienced serendipitous moments while traveling, when our plans suddenly evolve into something unexpected, profound and beautiful. Recently, Northshire Bookstore co-founders Ed and Barbara Morrow were in just such a situation during their two-month stay in Granada, Nicaragua.

Ed and Barbara Morrow with indie bookseller Troy Fuss, owner of Lucha Libro Books in Granada, Nicaragua

In February, the Morrows discovered their visit happened to coincide with the city's 10th annual Festival Internacional de Poesía (International Poetry Festival), "a week of activities and festivities, all centered around poetry--punctuated by live music," Barbara recalled. "It is held mostly outdoors in the central square of Granada, surrounded by the beautiful San Francisco cathedral, local vendors selling artisanal wares and the lovely square itself consisting of cafés, shops and restaurants, catering to locals and tourists alike.

"The festival celebrates poets from around the world, many from Latin American countries, and this year's North American honoree was Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate. It was thrilling hearing her read her poems (in English, and then deftly translated into Spanish) at the beginning of the festival; she was regal, profound and accessible."

One night, during a celebration of women poets, Dove "spoke eloquently about the abuses faced by women around the globe, and said that in a perfect world there wouldn't be the need for women's poetry and men's poetry," Barbara added.

A bookseller at heart, she mentioned two books in particular that had helped prepare her for the trip. One was Gioconda Belli's memoir, The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, "and lo and behold, she was here for the festival, so Ed and I bravely sought her out to talk to her briefly and ask her to sign my book.... The other indispensable book I discovered was Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua by Stephen Kinzer, who covered Nicaragua for the New York Times in the 80s. A friend of mine tracked him down at BU where he teaches, and we're going to all have dinner together when we get back at the end of March. Bookselling is good practice for chutzpah!"  

The Morrows also connected with Troy Fuss, proprietor of Lucha Libro Books, "who basically just landed here and decided to open a bookstore that carried English and Spanish books," she said. "It's pretty tiny, no more than 600 sq. ft. There apparently is a B&N equivalent that just shut down their Granada store. Their main--and I think only--presence is now in Managua, the capital."


Shortly after Barbara contacted me, I started noticing Facebook posts about the festival by Naomi Ayala, who'd been one of the poets invited to read there. She is the author of three poetry collections, including, mostly recently, Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations (Bilingual Review Press), which I highly recommend. From "For Remembrance":

Ask me why I'm silent.
I speak the unwinding
through which the wind blows.
Listen and you will remember me.
There are echoes everywhere.
Laugh back.

I wondered what the Festival Internacional de Poesía had meant to her. So I asked.

Street corner at burial of machismo and violence against women readings (photo by Naomi Ayala)

"Nicaragua is a country that respects and values culture highly--its own and that of other nations," Ayala observed, adding that nowhere is this more evident than at the festival. "Of all the seminal moments I have had the opportunity to experience as a poet, my participation in this year's 10th anniversary will forever rank among the highest. Here Spanish, not English, was the international language that brought together 141 poets from all corners of the world. So it was that I had the great honor to exchange, at minimum, a few words in the language in which I first began to write poetry with Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Latvian, Korean, and Maltese poets, to name a few, who are beloved by their nations--and Nicaragua--in ways few American poets can imagine.

"It is dumbfounding to see how a small Third World country, with a tiny staff and a small troop of impassioned youth volunteers, can pull off an event of such magnitude--one that, besides the dozen or so nightly poetry readings, includes two art exhibits, more than half a dozen street concerts and dance performances, and concurrent book and crafts fairs."

Barbara Morrow's words echoed Ayala's: "What is so amazing to me is that in this Third World country, which has seen such violence and upheaval in its recent history, they have chosen poetry to bring people together. And that so many people turn out to celebrate poetry and what it represents: namely, the personal expression of longing, desire and gratitude."

Ayala eloquently captured the essence of her Festival Internacional de Poesía experience when she said that, in addition to "a dozen new poems, love in so many forms and friendships that will last a lifetime," she returned to the U.S. "with the unwavering knowledge that poetry is not only alive and well in places outside my purview, but that, every time I sit in a street corner, every time I hang over my desk, I am not among the world's few."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2202.

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8. Handselling Is Always a 'Trust Fall'

Handselling is many, many things, and placing the right book in the hands of its ideal reader is just the proverbial iceberg tip. Below the surface lurk intangibles like magic and instinct, tempered by experience, success and rejection. Also luck. Also trust.

Handselling at the King's English, Salt Lake City, Utah

Most of the excellent handsellers I've known--and there are many--display a natural affinity for the classic "You've got to read this!" moment with a customer, which can be repeated over and over without sounding rote. All they need is the right environment in which to be turned loose. Until I became a handseller, I never would have imagined I had the gift; didn't even know it existed.

Jill Hendrix, owner of Fiction Addiction, Greenville, S.C., is one of those great handsellers I've encountered over the years. Last week we showcased her innovative "Trust Fall" promotion as a "Cool idea of the Day." And it is.

"How much do you trust Fiction Addiction? Will you take a trust fall with us?" she asked in a January e-mail to customers. Turns out, they trusted her a lot. To date, more than 60 copies of Andy Weir's The Martian have been sold and Hendrix may survey the participants to see whether "there would be any interest in this as an ongoing idea... perhaps the Trust Fall Bookclub."

Since first learning about the promotion, I've been toying with the idea that all handselling is a Trust Fall. Those Fiction Addiction customers who were willing to pre-order the novel sight unseen, based only on the confidence they had in their favorite local bookseller, certainly exhibited a profound counter-algorithmic faith. But Trust Fall handselling also goes well beyond that example to include variations like daily sales floor interactions, telephone/e-mail/social media conversations, shelf-talkers, "blind date with a book" displays, signed first edition clubs and much more.

"To me, handselling is when customers decide to buy a book they otherwise wouldn't have based on your recommendation, whether that recommendation comes through a face-to-face conversation, our e-mail newsletter, a shelf-talker, a post on Facebook, etc.," Hendrix said.

Shelf talker at Seattle's Elliott Bay Books (photo: Northwestbooklovers.net)

I agree, and wonder how many other frontline booksellers discovered the mystery of handselling only after getting into the business. I'll admit that when I was first interviewed for a bookstore job in 1992, I was a little flummoxed by the notion that customers would even consider my recommendations. I'd been shopping in bookstores for decades and rarely spoke with the staff (yes, I was one of those). As a bookseller, however, I was amazed and pleased by the curiosity people had about the books I read. And once I'd earned their trust, even when they didn't like a particular suggestion, they still came back for more.

Hendrix, as it happens, followed a similar path. "We were big library people growing up, so the first time I remember really shopping on my own for books was in college at Yale," she recalled. "If I'm remembering correctly, Atticus Books would have some shelf talkers with suggestions. After college I lived in New York and mostly shopped at chains and don't remember even seeing a Staff Picks section so, like you, I never asked for suggestions. I depended instead on a friend who read much more than me."

Maybe great handsellers are born and made. I don't recall precisely when I realized that so many readers were taking Trust Falls with me on new books because it all seems so natural and inevitable, in retrospect. Handselling, above all, is just a private conversation--whatever form that may take--between one bookseller and one reader. You don't just "sell"; you make certain books irresistible (or try to), and trust is a critical part of that exchange.

From HudsonBooksellers.com

If all this sounds like a romantic notion of what a bookseller should be, then I stand guilty as charged; a handseller to the end. At its best, handselling can be an intricate Trust Fall dance, with the steps changing, often imperceptibly, each time the music starts--or a fine new book is released.

What's the ultimate test? Handselling to another handseller, of course. Yes, I'm currently reading The Martian, thanks to Fiction Addiction and Jill Hendrix. Now that's a Trust Fall.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2197.

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9. That Elusive 'Red Cover' Book, Revisited

In a New York City bookshop where much of the action occurs in Sheridan Hay's 2007 novel The Secret of Lost Things, the staff is adept at a game called "Who Knows?"--pooling their varied and idiosyncratic skills to answer otherwise unfathomable book requests, including the customer whose "hands might move apart, as if to say 'it's about this thick'... [T]he only reliable source of reference was the staff and their collective memory."  

We know the drill.

What prompted my recollection of the "Who Knows?" game was a bit of clever sales floor merchandising recently at Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex. A photo posted on Facebook showed their "Blue Display," featuring a slate on which the following words, all-too-familiar in their infinite variations to booksellers worldwide, were written: "I don't remember the title, but it's blue."

This sparked my memory and a little research. I recalled that Blue Willow's owner Valerie Koehler had mentioned a few years ago (also in 2007, as it happens) that while she'd been giving a lot of thought at the time to online searching as it related to the game, she believed a discerning human element was absolutely critical. She trained her staff to field vague title requests with a healthy dose of well-masked skepticism.

"When searching, use unique keywords, ask leading questions," she advised. Assume, without letting your customers know it, that they might be just a little confused or misinformed. She cited the example of someone who'd been reading a great book, wanted additional copies for friends, and described it as "a memoir with 'I Remember' in the title, in which a retired man is dying and telling his life story and he was a historian and he studied war and he lived on an island." Using these clues, Koehler had "gently" enlightened the customer that she was actually reading Rules for Old Men Waiting, a novel. Result: pleased customer and two books sold.

We've all been there, finding infinite ways to merge available technology with a bookseller's ability, instinct and well-honed memory. It's reassuring that humans can often still reign supreme in the realm of "blue cover" inquiries. Social media helps now, of course; I often see "calls for a title" on Twitter and Facebook as booksellers crowdsource in a digital version of the "Who Knows?" game.

Same as it ever was? Absolutely. In 1936, George Orwell described "the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover."

Despite my occasional suspicions, I don’t really believe people consciously make up their endless stream of misheard, misread or misremembered titles. On the other hand, I did unearth a condescending New York Times piece from 1909 that featured the Office Philosopher and the Office Radical setting out to test the mettle (aka belittle) local booksellers after this exchange:

Their bookish quest begins when the Philosopher shares a joke "told by a book clerk to the effect that somebody went into a bookstore and asked the long-suffering clerk for a copy of John Stuart Mill on the Floss. Now I consider that a high-class joke."

Unamused, the Radical says he has "read a bushel of these jokes at the expense of the bookshop customers... and I'll bet they are fakes. For this reason: not one-tenth of the clerks in bookstores would know the difference. If a customer went into a book store and asked for a copy of John Stuart Mill on the Floss, it would be dollars to donuts that the clerk would reply, 'We haven't got it in stock, but we can order it for you.' " The two gentlemen wager dinner and then proceed to stump and humiliate bookseller after bookseller in the city.

Seeking balance in my bookselling universe, I soon discovered another NYT piece, from 1914, in which the death of one of the founders of Leggat's Bookstore was noted, followed by an observation that the shop's clientele included "all the famous literary and public men of his era. But they also included many thousands who had no fame but knew where books could be got for the most reasonable price and where they could be quickly served by clerks who knew something about every book that was ever published."

Take that, Philosopher and Radical. Leave them "clerks" alone. By the way, they're called booksellers, and one of the best parts of this vocation is the opportunity to serve as "customer request decoder," a mystifying, Holmesian task in which clues are presented and deductions made, elementary and otherwise. --Published by Shelf Awareness, #2191.

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10. 'Love Letters': Common Good Books' Poetry Contest

I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
Don't waste my time and I won't waste yours.
You are the woman I love, of course.
I'm crazy about you and always have been.
And don't make me say it again.
Cause I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
A man of monumental brevity.
That's me.

--Garrison Keillor's poem "That's Me," from O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound (Grove Press)

Love is in the air today, but who says it can't continue through spring if you're up to the challenge of entering "Love Letters": Common Good Books' Second Annual Poetry Contest"? Author, entertainer and indie bookstore proprietor Garrison Keillor is "putting up some serious cash" in support of good verse, with a $1,000 first prize and four $250 runner-up prizes. Judges for the contest are Keillor, Tom Hennen and Patricia Hampl. Finalists will be named April 20 and winners announced April 27 at a celebration of poetry in St Paul, Minn.

"Proclaiming one's love is the great test of a poet, to put irony and satire aside and the great everlasting litany of complaint and to put your heart on the line. That is where you reveal yourself as a human being. It's not for the timid," said Keillor.

David Enyeart, the bookstore's event coordinator and assistant manager, explained that transitioning from a regional contest to a national one has been a natural evolution for the store: "Having fun and drawing some attention to poets sounds like a good day to me. But this isn't altruism. We're living up to our motto--'Live Local, Read Large'-- by showing everyone that reading and writing are important because they connect us with each other and with the whole world. That message is worth a little effort, we think."

He also noted Common Good Books "is fortunate among bookstores to have a solid base of poetry fans among our customers. So of course, we're serving them by running this contest and helping them to become better writers and readers of poetry. Last year's contest was well received here in St. Paul, and we're pleased to continue our burgeoning tradition with this year's bigger prizes.

Colin McDonald in promo video for this year's Common Good Books' Poetry Contest

"Poetry isn't just something that Minnesotans like; it's for everyone. The more people are talking about poetry and writing, the better for all of us in the book world. If our contest sends someone into a bookstore in Wichita, Kansas, or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, looking for a writing guide or a slim volume of inspiration, we'll be happy. If a bookseller in Michigan can use our contest to lure a customer into their Poetry section, our efforts will not be in vain."

Poets, aspiring poets and even non-poets are welcome to enter. For those who need a little help, the Common Good Books tumblr features a contest advice page, where tips will be shared "on how to win at (writing) love from some of our country's best poets," including Tony Hoagland, Deborah Garrison (poetry editor at Knopf), Richard Blanco, Henri Cole, Sophie Cabot Black, Kathleen Flenniken, Jim Moore and Kristin Naca. Sage counsel on "How to Write a Love Poem" begins today with Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts.

Last year's poetry finalists on display at Common Good Books

To enter the Common Good Books Poetry Contest, "just craft a paean to your favorite person, place, or thing. Pour your love onto the page, shape it well, and mail your love letter to Common Good Books before April 15. Fame and fortune could be yours," the organizers proclaimed.

Why snail mail entries in a digital age? The answer is both traditional and practical, according to Enyeart: "I'm going to make entrants mail us their poems because we are proponents of ink on paper and because I need a signed release so we can publish their work."

The rules:

  • The contest is open to anyone living within the United States.
  • The poem must be a declaration of love for a specific person, or being, or object, or place--i.e., something tangible.
  • The entries must be unpublished anywhere, and the author must have full rights to the material.
  • Only one entry per person.
  • Entries must be mailed to Common Good Books (38 S. Snelling Ave., St Paul MN 55105), postmarked no later than April 15, 2014.
  • Entries must include a signed release, available at http://commongoodbooks.tumblr.com/advice

"My dream is to spark a nationwide conversation about poetry. I'd love to see grandparents and grandchildren sitting down together and writing odes to breakfast cereal or mud puddles," said Enyeart. "I'd like to know that lovers across the country will craft slightly better text messages because they honed their skills writing poems for our contest. I want to eliminate the wrinkled noses and shy stammers that come when you say the word 'poetry' in airports and shopping malls. I want to discover the next Poet Laureate in an overlooked ZIP code.

"More realistically, we'd like to show everyone that poetry is not only something that you read, it's something that you can make. And whether a poem earns a thousand dollars or just one smile, our contest aims remind people that words on paper can change lives. As booksellers and book lovers, we're big believers in the power of words on paper to move people."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2187.

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11. 'Winter Is Coming' Here: Bookshop as Warming Hut

You know the feeling: irritability and listlessness resulting from long confinement or isolation indoors during winter. Diagnosis: cabin fever. Prognosis: according to Punxsutawney Phil, six more weeks. Prescription: Wendy Welch, co-owner of Tales of The Lonesome Pine bookstore, Big Stone Gap, Va., offered a delightfully vengeful Groundhog Day recipe variation on Mulligatawny, though I'd suggest we consider the medicinal benefits indie bookstores provide as warming huts.

For those who live in toastier climes, a warming hut is a small building with perpetually burning log fire. Hikers, skiers, snowshoers and their kindred winter spirits are invited to stop in and thaw out their feet for a while. There's one in the state park where I walk, and even the distant smell of wood smoke can take the edge off an arctic blast.

During our current winter of discontent, I've also been warmed by reading cozy e-mail newsletters and social media posts from indie booksellers to counter the mind-numbing cold. Gradually, I began thinking of bookstores as warming huts, too. Here are just a few of many entries that focused on the three Cs: coping with nasty weather, communicating with snowbound customers and conjuring up snug, put another log on the fire, imagery:

Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.: "'A Polar Vortex is best spent inside a bookstore'--Note left on our typewriter. Even our paper snowman agrees."

WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Shake a fist at the polar vortex and warm up at our JC café with some butternut squash soup (courtesy @RomanNoseJC catering) or a mocha!"

Norwich Bookstore, Northfield, Vt.: "Our intrepid booksellers Kathryn and Katie made it to the bookstore in time to open this morning. We might close early depending on the storm, so call ahead if you are in need of reading materials today! Liza is going to hole up at home, feed the woodstove and work on the website upgrade. Enjoy the snow..."

Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex.: "If you are wondering. YES we are open! Alice and Girlboss don't take snow days. They would walk to work in the snow if they had to--Maria."

Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y.: "Is there a bookstore in your thoughts today? Come and see us!"

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan.: "Looks like we are all going to be snowed in tomorrow. Any reading suggestions???... 'Snow is falling. Books are calling.' From our friends @literacykc--'That's right! Stay warm and safe on this snowy day.' "

Bank Square Books, Mystic, Conn.: "We will be open no matter what tomorrow as we have staff who can WALK to work. That's why we love being in Mystic. Not sure what the hours will be so best to check or give us a call before you come. You can also shop our website anytime or give us a call and we will deliver on Thursday, within a reasonable drive. Thanks for supporting your locally owned and fiercely independent bookstore.... We are open. I think the only store in downtown Mystic that is but don't you need a book to curl up with on this snowy wet day or some cards to write to your faraway friends?"

McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich.: "The bravest book club in Northern Michigan! The Dinner by Herman Koch got over 35 members to battle the weather this morning!"

Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: "It's a snow day, but we're open. Come beat cabin fever with an Eric Carle-inspired art project from 11:30-12:30--an impromptu activity for kids ages 4-14 and their grownup assistants."

via LittleFreeLibrary.org

Charis Books and More, Atlanta, Ga.: "L5P is still a bit of a winter wonderland but we are here and open today for all of you bookworms who are running low on reading supplies. We have decided to postpone tonight's event because of concerns about the roads after dark. Thank you!"

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, Ohio (e-mail): "Snow Day! Get great deals today only! Take an extra 10% off any kids book. Free kids meal with purchase of an adult meal at Bronte Bistro. Enjoy a delicious cup of hot cocoa or specialty drink--Yum! Make this snow day special!"

"Winter is coming." That deadly long-range forecast in the first teaser trailer for HBO's Game of Thrones alerted even those of us who hadn't read George R.R. Martin's novels to the fact that in Westeros, winter lasted not for a season, but for years. Oh, the horrors! Oh, the heating bills!

And tonight, the voice of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in NBC's opening tease for its Olympic coverage will add symmetry to the season, blending cold fantasy with snowbound fact--skiers & groundhogs & White Walkers & Polar Vortices, Oh Myyy! (which is, coincidentally, the title of a book by George Takei, who shared a meme pic offering due tribute to Winterfell, the Stark clan and their family motto: #winteriscoming). Be not afraid, however. You will always find welcoming shelter in the closest indie bookstore warming hut.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2182.

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12. College Bookstores: Amazon's 'Shot Across the Bow'

Earlier this week, the University of California, Davis, revealed that it had been partnering with Amazon since last fall on a pilot program through which the online retailer pays the school 2% of net purchases made by UC Davis Amazon Student members, or by users who enter Amazon through a storefront on the home page of the university's store.

"Whether deals like this harm UC Davis Stores sales is an open question and, now, an ongoing experiment," a Forbes article headlined "Amazon Attacking Barnes & Noble On Campus?" noted. "Less immediately clear is if such a deal will put a dent in one of Barnes & Noble's healthiest businesses. In 2013, the college bookstore segment showed modest 1.1% growth while both the company's other divisions shrank."


Concerns over B&N's fiscal health aside, the future of independent college bookstores also comes into play here. A link to the Forbes piece was sent to me by Drew Goodman, former trade book sales manager at the University of Utah Campus Store and currently a speaker, consultant and writer at Building Better Ideas. He described the UC Davis/Amazon deal as "a proverbial shot across the bow of independent college stores."

I asked him to expand a bit on his initial reaction. Goodman said he has no doubts that Amazon's incursion into the college bookstore market is a negative development. He recalled that he lost his bookselling job last April "in part due to the online competition from retail sites, particularly Amazon. I think there are those in the college store industry who continue to innovate and resist giving in to Amazon. They are trying their best to create new ways of serving the students, staff and faculties at their schools that Amazon just can't do without a physical presence. They are going to see Amazon/UC Davis partnership as a deal with the devil.

"Other stores, such as the one I worked for, started giving in. We set up associate seller accounts to try and redirect students to purchase from Amazon, but through the bookstore links. As long as we got the sales percentage from Amazon, we felt that it was better than nothing. Problem is, what you end up training your students to do is just go to Amazon in the first place."

The UC Davis/Amazon partnership, however, "is a whole new animal, and could really end up being a case of the rabbit tugging on the bear's tail," Goodman observed. "It may look good initially, but again, you're just giving away your sales for a 2% take."

He also cited a prior situation that occurred when he worked for Borders Books, which partnered with Amazon in 2001 to run its website and took a percentage cut of sales: "The problem was, it began to funnel too many sales to Amazon. Why go to Borders.com when you could just go to Amazon in the first place? By the time Borders had their 'Oh, sh*t' moment about the whole thing, it was too late. They never recovered enough to really put together a competitive website. They had trained their own customers to go to Amazon--end of story."

A primary concern for Goodman is that "in taking the leap on this deal," UC Davis could set a precedent, particularly for bookstores that "have gotten lazy about competing, relying on the students needing to come to them for their books and supplies, and not doing anything to push back against sales being taken by Amazon. Those stores who are already in precarious positions may just throw up their hands and give in to Amazon. Others may be pulled in by the siren song that Amazon is singing, only to find their physical stores drifting too close to and crashing on the rocks.

"Amazon never does anything unless it benefits Amazon," he added, noting that another article he read "had said that the reason UC Davis was partnering with Amazon was because they were one of the most successful college stores when it came to the associate program. That says to me they have already been handing a ton of their business over to Amazon. My suspicion is that Amazon wants this 'partnership' so that they can get a top to bottom, deep dive on the data for a college store, and once they have that data and no longer need a partner, they'll curb-stomp UC Davis, just like they've done so often to others."

Goodman also predicted that Amazon "will not stop with just one store, and by the time stores that are participating find out what kind of raw deal they may be getting it will be too late, leaving the entire college stores industry just that much weaker."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2177.

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13. Bookstores & Museums, Reading & Art

Sometimes the stars just mysteriously align in our book universe. There's no "mind the gap" caution for readers venturing between past and present; or the diverse worlds in books we read and the "real" world. One of these intriguing alignments occurred recently in my little corner of the universe with art and literature. Here are a few of the signs I noticed:

Excellent books (read or reading now) on my desk: Within reach, and all connected in some way to art, are The Eleven by Pierre Michon (translated by Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays), The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman by Sena Jeter Naslund, Secrecy by Rupert Thomson (ARC, April release), The Artist's Library by Laura Damon-Moore & Erinn Batykefer (ARC, May) and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Cool bookstore road trip: Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., just hosted what looked like a great bus trip to the Frick Collection in New York City for the exhibition "Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis," featuring Goldfinch, a 17th-century painting by Carel Fabritius that plays a key role in Donna Tartt's novel.

Art, literature & commerce: The influence of books on attendance at the Frick exhibition was phenomenal, driven initially by the presumed star of the show, Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring, which had been expected to draw art lovers as well as fans of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling 2000 novel. Goldfinch, however, soon began "hogging the spotlight," Frick director Ian Wardropper told the New York Times. "Halfway through the exhibition, we noticed a shift.... That's when we started to see book clubs coming in." As of last week, Goldfinch tote bags had outsold their Pearl competition 842 to 582.

The power of fiction: I saw the Frick exhibition in December and was also pleasantly surprised by the crowds huddled around the small work by Fabritius compared to the clear sight lines available for the Vermeer. I was not prepared for a second surprise in store for me when I entered the Living Hall to pay my respects to a pair old friends: Hans Holbein's portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, staring one another down grimly as they did centuries ago.

It had been a few years since my last Frick pilgrimage. On previous visits, I was always drawn to the More portrait, perhaps because Utopia is one of my favorite books and I love Peter Ackroyd's biography. Cromwell, by contrast, looked like that grouchy uncle at a family reunion. But last month, for the first time, Cromwell seemed to have altered dramatically; his expression was keen, his eyes radiating intelligence. I glanced over at More. He looked a bit... dyspeptic. There was no mystery; I knew immediately who was to blame for my confusion as well as the apparent touching up of these paintings after nearly 500 years. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies had clearly disarmed my longstanding prejudice against Cromwell through the irresistible necromancy of fiction.  

What remains of art & of books: In 1999, BookExpo was held in Los Angeles and we arrived a day early so we could see "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" at the L.A. County Museum of Art. I was the remainder buyer for the Northshire Bookstore then, and perhaps can lay blame on that extraordinary--once in a (my, at least) lifetime--exhibition for "inspiring" me to purchase, a few years later at CIROBE in Chicago, nearly 1,000 remaindered hardcover copies of Frederic Tuten's Van Gogh's Bad Café at a cool 25 cents each.

The good news is that we eventually sold more than 600 of them for a tidy profit before I left the Manchester, Vt., bookstore in 2006. The bad news is the remaining copies may still be buried in deep storage there, sealed away like a plot twist in an Edgar Allan Poe story. That novel is part of my bookseller's legacy, as Northshire general manager Chris Morrow jokingly (I hope) reminded me not long ago.

Centuries from now, when android archaeologists are combing through the ruins of an ancient indie bookshop, will they unearth those cartons and wonder what the hell their human forebears were thinking? One can only hope my single contribution to the art world--an installation I call "Van Gogh's Bad Café: The Boxed Remains"--will fascinate lovers of art and literature in the distant future.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2172.

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14. Books, Girlfriend Weekend & 'Viva Las Vegas, Baby!'

As you read this, the 14th annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend is officially underway in Jefferson, Tex., featuring a resplendent gathering of book lovers, authors and even an Elvis impersonator or three to evoke this year's theme, "Viva Las Vegas, Baby!"

Just yesterday, founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club--with more than 500 chapters nationwide--and long-reigning Queen of Girlfriend Weekend Kathy Murphy (formerly Kathy Patrick) shared her final checklist on Facebook: "Tiara packed, check, fifty million costumes plus headdresses, check! I am on my way to Jefferson in just a few minutes and am I pumped! We'll have more Elvises than you can shake a stick at and quite a few Ann-Margarets too! See you there, channeling Nancy Sinatra!"

If there is anyone in our industry who better represents the concept of "the show must go on" than Kathy, I'm not sure who that might be. This has been a year of transition for her, including the closure of Beauty and the Book bookshop/hair salon in Jefferson and a move to Hawkins, as well challenges in her personal life. Nevertheless, she has once again gathered her Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys for another tiara-fueled Girlfriend Weekend and the show is definitely going on right now.

As far as I can tell, I first began corresponding with Kathy in 2007 when she sent me an e-mail responding to a Shelf Awareness column about reading independent press titles. Recommending Rain Village by Carolyn Turgeon, she wrote: "This is a writer to watch and Unbridled Books to me is discovering authors of extreme merit. I just could not wait to tell you about this small press book!" That "I just could not wait to tell you" about a book energy is classic Kathy, as anyone who's encountered her will attest.

Kathy and her daughters

In 2008, her own book, The Pulpwood Queen's Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life, was published, and we've been corresponding regularly ever since. I finally met Kathy and her daughters, Madeleine and Helaina, at BookExpo 2012 in New York City. She told me then she believed she had "created 'a book world,' a world where we are building lifelong friendships, relationships and community that is truly making our lives for the better." And so she has.

"Life has been about major change this past year for me with my divorce, and move to a new home and shop in Hawkins," she said recently. "The future? Sharing my love of books and mission to promote literacy, of course. My bookstore now only carries Pulpwood Queen Book Club Selections."

In a recent profile, the Longview News-Journal noted that Kathy "fills her days with what she loves: God, books and, of course, big hair"; and that "those who have watched her build the book club over several decades know her spirit, if anything, has gotten stronger."

Kathy's daughters are also an intrinsic part of Girlfriend Weekend. She said they've "been helping me on the weekend since they were little kids. Madeleine is the DJ for my Great Big Ball of Hair Ball and Helaina usually sings and will be helping me and my co-hosts. They are big book lovers like me!"

In addition to her day job working at a beauty salon, Kathy is the youth director for the First United Methodist Church of Hawkins. "I love my life here and my church members have enveloped me in big book love," she said, adding that more chapters of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club are in the works, as well as speaking engagements, including one at the upcoming Nacodoches Film Festival where For the Love of Books, William Torgerson's documentary about Girlfriend Weekend, will be screened.

She is also working on an updated and revised edition of her book and talking with a producer in Los Angeles regarding a possible film about her life in books. "Will it happen, who knows?" she said. "But what have I got to lose? I lost my home, my church, my shop this past year, so suddenly I think I'll just go for what comes my way."

Noting that she "never had a clue what I would do in my life, because of books I have had a pretty good run at adventures through reading," Kathy observed: "I still don't know what I want to be, not when I grow up, but what my life's purpose and mission is I have just turned it all over to God. Funny, but that plan of action seems to be working very well for me. I'll just keep on like Johnny Appleseed, sowing away seeds for reading. Onward and upward to Girlfriend Weekend!"

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2168.

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15. Dear FutureMe: The Universe Is Expanding... in 3D

Dear FutureMe,

Hope you've stopped worrying. I can't. There are weeks when even the most optimistic toilers in the field of bookselling have their "The universe is expanding.... What's the point?" moments. In Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall, after young Alvy Singer's mother scolds him ("Brooklyn's not expanding!") because he's stopped doing his homework under the intense pressure of cosmic destruction, Dr. Flicker waves his hand grandly through the air and says, "It won't be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we've gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we're here!"

My own universe-is-expanding-what's-the-point moment of doubt arrives annually while reading dispatches from the Consumer Electronics Show. This year, just as I'd finally come to terms with the weirdly commonplace nature of e-books floating in the virtual ether and POD titles instantly available in certain indie bookshops, I learned that I now must gear up for the oncoming ubiquity of a "3D printing trend" that "bodes a future in which shoes, eyeglass frames toys and more are printed at home as easily as documents," as AFP described it.  

At CES, musician will.i.am, speaking as "creative officer for 3D Systems," predicted that within a decade, "3D printers will be in your house like refrigerators, TVs and microwaves."

Is that true, FutureMe?

And just when I was thinking print books might be a refuge for now from this one aspect of digital nation's manifest destiny, I read in Time about the intriguing limited edition of Chang-rae Lee's new novel On Such a Full Sea, which "brings publishing into the future (or, rather, one possible future)" with a 3D-printed slipcover that "features the letters of the title rising off the surface at an angle." Time called the innovation "one direction in which the publishing industry could move, at a time when the future of the physical book remains in question: providing fewer readers who are willing to pay more for each purchase with a reason to splurge for the physical object rather than the digital version, turning books into luxury objects."

Five years ago, Brooklyn-based MakerBot was the only 3D printer company at CES. "Now, it is surrounded by rivals on a large section of show floor devoted to the trend," according to AFP. Company spokesperson Jenifer Howard said, "We feel like this is the year of 3D printing." Was it, FutureMe?

MakerBot plans to market a 3-D Replicator Mini printer this spring for $1,375. "We believe that the MakerBot 3D Ecosystem we are presenting to the world fulfills the vision of a 3D printer for everyone," said company CEO Bre Pettis. "We have laid the groundwork for everyone to be able to be a creative explorer."

Why am I worrying then? I happen to be really good at adapting. POD and e-books already seem so turn-of-the-century to me. And if we really want to get all big-picture about this, as the BBC did recently with its "Timeline for the Far Future," in a thousand years most of our words will be extinct and in a hundred quintillion years the earth will die. Young Alvy Singer didn't know the half of it.

Do you have a 3D printer, FutureMe? Are you printing out life-size characters and scenes to re-create novels in your house and backyard? What do you do with your 3D Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer after you've "read" them? Are they recyclable?

Whatever mind-boggling predictions you're dealing with in your time, FutureMe, please take solace in knowing that some of them will happen (like Arthur C. Clarke's 1974 spot-on explanation of life with a desktop computer), but not all (still waiting for those affordable flying cars). The trick is, as ever, to make our peace with The Machine without getting crushed in its gears or motherboards--or whatever the hell is being invented now to crush you/me later.  

Here, at the dawn of 2014, CES and 3D printers notwithstanding, I'm trying to worry less and be more optimistic. Why? Many reasons. Consider Greenlight Bookstore, Community Book Store, WORD, powerHouse Arena, BookCourt, Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers.... It turns out that Little Alvy Singer's mother was wrong. Brooklyn is expanding, which gives me hope for the future of indie booksellers everywhere.

Thanks for listening, FutureMe. Write when you can. I'd love to hear from you.

P.S.: How did those Amazon Prime Air delivery drones work out? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2162.

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16. Resolved for 2014: Read Lots of Great Books

You've seen the illustration again and again. The transition from one year to the next is always represented by an overconfident newborn baby and a scythe-wielding Father Time, accompanied by promises of a fresh starts and lists of resolutions that flutter through the air like Times Square confetti on New Year's Eve.

Out with the old and in with the new is the prevailing cultural myth, though author John Green contends that last year's decrepit baby should not necessarily be thrown out with the champagne-laced bathwater because "some encouraging trends and statistics about the current state of humans in the world" indicate that "there are many reasons to be hopeful that 2014 might be the best year on record for humans, even if much of this growth is not (currently) sustainable."

So we've got that going for us.

There probably isn't a book industry equivalent to the baby/old man icon, since a book published last year, if still in mint condition, looks just like a book set to be released next Tuesday (and may be much, much better between the covers). Digital books, you ask? Who knows? Perhaps they will remain forever, if virtually, young. Certainly they seem so right now, though I assume something will come along not too far down the publishing line that will make our current "state-of-the-art" e-book delivery/consumption process seem as archaic as an 8-track tape deck in a 1973 Chevy Caprice Classic.

Does that matter? At the reading core, I don't think it does. Thus my single resolution is the one I make every year. It has been further validated by the recent discovery of Woody Guthrie's 1942 "New Years Rulin's," which included "Read lots good books." For 2014, I'm upping Guthrie's ante by vowing to read lots great books.

It's that simple, and attainable. Everything else about our industry requires a well-honed ability to anticipate and adapt. We all do this, every day of the year, and it's the antithesis of a resolution. You don't resolve to be more adaptable. You are... or you aren't.

Dee Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., definitely is. On Facebook this week, she eloquently depicted our book trade challenge of living--with resolve if not resolutions--in the future, whether we're poring over advance reader copies and publisher catalogues or...: "For my non-retailer friends, so you have an idea how schizophrenic my life is: It's not 2014 yet, and I've received 3 catalogs with my 2015 calendars I need to buy, with one rep appointment to buy calendars. And on Jan 6 we go to Atlanta gift show to buy Christmas decor/ornaments for next Christmas. Happy New Year!"

The reading life, however, offers a chance for resolutions. Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich., shared one: "New Year's Resolution: Finish every book I start. (That includes you, copy of Infinite Jest sitting near my bed since 2011.)." And Brain Pickings offered historical precedent with a publishing twist in the form of a 1977 pledge by Susan Sontag to "have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. ('No, I don't go out for lunch.' Can break this rule once every two weeks.)."

New Year's Day is also a good time to offer sound advice for others to follow. In a post at Bustle, Emma Cueto wrote: "This year as you make your New Year's resolutions to get in shape and stop wasting all your time on social media, there's one other habit you ought to try cultivating: Buy your books from independent bookstores whenever possible. That's right, it's time to ditch Amazon and even Barnes & Noble and take your business elsewhere. Namely to a locally owned bookstore."

Shopping indie "is something you can feel good about, and unlike your other New Year's resolutions, it won't leave you sore from weight lifting or sitting at home alone on a Saturday because you gave up drinking so much," Cueto noted. "So take that money you were going to spend on a gym membership you know you'll stop using by April and invest it in your book shopping. You won't regret it."

Sounds like an excellent and comfortably familiar game plan to me, so here's my slightly revised resolution: I will read lots of great books in 2014 and keep buying them at indie bookstores. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2157.

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17. The Holiday Season: It's a Wrap

So... this happened, which led me to think about the delicate, and occasionally indelicate, art of "professional" holiday season gift wrapping. By professional, I mean the people doing the wrapping are being paid. By "people," I mean, of course, booksellers.

On Christmas Eve, sometime during the late afternoon in most indie bookstores, one final customer will arrive at the checkout counter with an armload of stuff, and a bookseller or two will accept the challenge of wrapping these almost ceremonial purchases. The gift paper choices at that point may be limited; of the three or four or six rolls on display, a couple will no doubt be simple cardboard memorials to Christmas wrap options past.

But that wrapping station scene represents the culmination of weeks of intense handiwork with paper, ribbons and bows. Some may think booksellers have it easy. I mean, how hard can it be to wrap a book? Those people, however, have never tried to make a presentable present out of a stuffed giraffe or a box-less set of Buddha bookends. There are any number of paper-resistant challenges in a bookstore. Wrapping a cat is mere child's play by comparison. And those doubters have clearly never dealt with a long line of customers armed with very specific requests ("When you wrap that third book, on the outside could you also add this candy cane and this bookmark wrapped separately... and this Virginia Woolf keychain and...?"), each of which is graciously fulfilled.
For booksellers who aspire to greatness this weekend, inspiration can be found among your contemporaries--Patricia Zapata won this year's Scotch Brand Most Gifted Wrapper Contest, which asked competitors to wrap items like a toy castle, a kids' go-kart or a giant two-person paddle boat--as well as your predecessors: Mrs. Juliet Koenig Smith's 1965 obituary in the New York Times called her "a specialist in gift wrapping" who "was often called upon by leading stores for difficult or important projects. She wrapped many gifts for presentation to Presidents and other officials. Once she wrapped an entire automobile for a television commercial."

Could a bookseller do that? Absolutely. Bring on the paddle boats and cars, though I guess we should concede that not all gift wrappers are created equal. Some booksellers were born to wrap; others have gift wrapping duty thrust upon them. You can train almost anyone to wrap a book, but only the truly gifted can draw gasps of appreciation for a well-wrapped stuffed giraffe.

The Australian Booksellers Association has been using the peculiar trials inherent in gift wrapping as a book-selling promotion this year with a series of posters, including "A Christmas Guide: How to Wrap Awkwardly Shaped Presents... Or You Could Just Buy a Book."

Wrapping under pressure and public scrutiny is another issue altogether. During holiday crunch time, seasoned booksellers always raise their game while wrapping endless stacks of items, in full view and following detailed instructions ("Put Harry's name on the Grisham and Patterson; Sally on the John Green; Papa on the card game..."). By the way, this is the perfect time to recite a silent, seasonal prayer of thanks for Post-it Notes.

In any endeavor where intensity and volume meet flailing arms and liquid refreshments, disasters inevitably occur. A former colleague reminded me of the time one of our fellow booksellers "jostled a cup of hot chocolate she was drinking into a shopping bag with five really big expensive art books I had just gift-wrapped. They were totally ruined. I had to sneak out of the gift wrap room and surreptitiously find duplicates on the shelf. Luckily, we had every one of them but I was terror-stricken. The customer never knew anything other than her gift wrapping took an extraordinarily long time."

On Tuesday afternoon, after that last gift is wrapped (for customers, anyway) and the bookshop doors are locked, booksellers will be free to exhale and--if I may suggest--take some holiday post-wrapping refreshment advice from chef Mario Batali, who offered the following advice last Sunday in the New York Times: "A cold afternoon of present-wrapping can use a warm touch. Heat up a cup of skim milk with a teaspoon of vanilla and then make a double espresso. Mix the two in a large goblet, then add a shot each of peppermint schnapps and Jack Daniels. Stir gently, then get back to work."

But don't go back to work too soon. Try to get some rest before Thursday because, well, you know the drill. What do most booksellers have to look forward to on the day after Christmas? You'll arrive at work to see a line already forming outside your bookstore in hopes of snatching up discounted gift wrap for next year's holiday season. Next year?!!!--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2154.

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18. Colin Wilson & 'The Philosopher's Stone'

It struck me that the popularity of Christmas is a matter of web-like consciousness. Childhood conditions us to relax and expand at Christmas, to forget petty worries and irritations and think in terms of universal peace. And so Christmas is the nearest to mystical experience that most human beings ever approach, with its memories of Dickens and Irving's Bracebridge Hall.

Colin Wilson, who died December 5 at the age of 82, wrote these words in his novel The Philosopher's Stone, first published in 1969 and a book I never considered handselling when I was a bookseller, even though I first read it nearly 40 years ago and have had a copy somewhere on my shelves ever since. Curious.

The Guardian's obituary called him "Britain's first homegrown existentialist star." Like most other obits, it focused upon his first book. Published in 1956 when Wilson was 24 years old, The Outsider garnered "phenomenal reviews and sales" and "led him to be seen as a potential savior of the human spirit, a thinker who might find a way through the spiritual nullity of the postwar years." Recently, David Bowie included it on his highly-publicized "Top 100 Must Read Books."

Wilson's "passionate inquiry into his themes continued but critics deserted him," the Guardian noted. "He went out of fashion and--though he published more than 100 works--he survived financially only because many of those dealt with murder or the occult as pathways to the insights that fascinated him."

Why should I care? I never thought Wilson was a great writer, but one of the reasons his death struck me is tied, I suspect, to a list meme that has been dominating Facebook lately, at least among its bookish members. You may know the drill. A Facebook friend tags you and shares a list of "10 books that have stayed with you in some way." You craft your own, tag some of your bookish crew, and the virtual world grinds on, literary karma intact.

I was tagged a few times and dutifully created a list. After posting, however, I began to think about that phrase "stayed with you" and Wilson's death. I hadn't listed The Philosopher's Stone, and suddenly realized the book had indeed stayed with me for decades.

It isn't as if Wilson disappeared from my reading life. As recently as 2011, I mentioned him in a Shelf Awareness column, noting that I'd discovered Bruckner's symphonies in the pages of The Philosopher's Stone, which also introduced me to composers Sibelius and Elgar; philosophers Bertrand Russell and Hegel; and even the psychologist Abraham Maslow.  

There are some books you can only read in your 20s. Maybe this is one of them, but certain passages do still resonate: "Then I looked across the room at my bookcase.... The sunlight on the bright paper covers produced a sense of euphoria for a moment, but it vanished almost immediately... The sight of the books caused an after-image on the inside of my eyelids. And then, in a flash, I saw with perfect clarity the solution of the problem that had almost driven me to suicide. It was as if I had seen to the inner-nature of the books, and understood that they were not books at all, but a part of the living universe. Each one of them was a window on 'other-ness,' on some place or time not actually present."

So the Philosopher's Stone has stayed with me, weaving that spell certain books cast, as most readers will understand. "Through books, man has conquered time," Wilson wrote. "The insights of poets and saints are still alive. For two million years, man ascended the evolutionary ladder slowly and painfully, changing hardly more than an ape of the horse. With the invention of books, he took a giant step into the realm of the gods."

In her foreword to an American edition of the novel, Joyce Carol Oates praised John Fowles, Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble and Wilson for "consciously attempting to imagine a new image for man, a new self-image freed of ambiguity, irony and the self-conscious narrowness of the imagination we have inherited from nineteenth-century Romanticism."

That was a tall order, written on the cultural tailwind of the late 60s, but it may well have pushed me closer to The Philosopher's Stone. In an obituary published this morning, the New York Times notes Wilson "argued that it was possible for mankind to achieve this exalted state through the kind of transcendent experience that comes, for instance, in the presence of great works of art."

Unanticipated transcendence is precisely what I recall about reading the novel in my youth. Maybe this year's Christmas season is the perfect time to sink again into that "web-like consciousness" and re-read The Philosopher's Stone, one of those precious books that just "stay with you."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2149.

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19. 'Books 'n More'... 'n More

Literary gifts at Tattered Cover, Denver


Most indie booksellers (Never say all because, well, then the e-mails start pouring in.) have something in common. They love the handselling high that comes from a conversation resulting in a tidy stack of great books leaving the shop with an enthusiastic reader. On the other hand, they'll never complain if the next customer they wait on buys no books at all, but loads up on greeting cards, toys, souvenir t-shirts, tote bags, Moleskin notebooks, scarves, candy, magnets and locally produced salsa.

What does a great indie bookseller say to these bookless patrons?
Thank you so much. Please come back soon.

There are still plenty of shops that are book-only zones, but the business model for many others has changed during the past couple of decades--sometimes gradually and other times instantly; sometimes out of choice and other times out of necessity; sometimes in small ways, other times in ways that alter their business significantly.

In addition to a carrying a wider range of sidelines, indie booksellers are exploring numerous variations on the "two-in-one" theme. Jeffrey Shaffer, a bookseller at Annie Bloom's Books, Portland, Ore., addressed this recently in a NW Book Lovers column headlined "Books 'n' More?". Noting that he "always liked the dual-purpose business concept," Shaffer said he also "likes to theorize about what type of product or service we could add on that would catapult us to new levels of commercial success and customer satisfaction."

His own choice for "an add-on business that would serve a genuinely useful purpose, be self-sustaining, and expand our base of loyal customers" would be a "clean, well-lighted coin-op Laundromat." Considering a colleague's suggestion that an Algonquin Round Table-style "martini bar" might be a suitable add-on, he observed "the practical side of my brain believes that a bookstore serving adult libations may be walking a bit too far on the wild side."

Many bookshops have been walking that wild side, however. The most recent to cross my radar is Old Firehouse Books, Fort Collins, Colo., which will join forces with a nearby pub, the Forge Publick House, to share a newly remodeled event space beginning this fall. The goal is to "increase community togetherness and improve the connection that already exists between independent businesses" in the city. Beer-themed books will be sold in the pub, and beer will be sold at bookstore author events.

Denver's Bookbar

Earlier this week we reported that Scuppernong Books, a bookshop/wine bar is coming to Greensboro, N.C. Brooklyn's BookCourt bookstore is planning to open an eight-foot bar overlooking "about five tables placed under a huge skylight at the back of the store" and Denver's BookBar opened in May with the motto: "A book shop for wine lovers. A wine bar for book shoppers."

If you're feeling a little woozy at this point, have some black coffee (plenty of bookstore/cafes around) and remember that the options for an add-on business are limited only by the imagination, a distinct advantage for people who are in the imagination biz.

Shaffer's call for ideas in his NW Book Lovers column generated some Facebook responses, including a question posed to customers by the Village Bookstore, Pleasantville, N.Y.: "If we were to add another business to the store, what should it be?" Answers ranged from the practical--juice bar, antiques ("piles of old postcards in the drawers of wooden desks, awaiting discovery")--to the innovative--"a small greenhouse"--to the somewhat less useful tip that "one business down here is... herbs and cement."

In Tokyo, "some 20,000 western honeybees are being kept on the rooftop" of the Yaesu Book Center (Books 'n Bees?).

Beauty and the Book, Jefferson, Tex.

And we certainly couldn't have this discussion without acknowledging our friend Kathy Patrick's Beauty and the Book, "the ONLY Hair Salon/Book Store in the WORLD!"

Independent bookstores already have a legacy of traditional add-on businesses like restaurants/coffee shops (breakfast at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, Washington, D.C., is always a good bet), publishing (from iconic City Lights Books to the rise of Espresso Book Machine-driven small presses) and sidelines (Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., for example, has a sister store called Paper Dreams).

As for the other possibilities, "endless" is probably as good a word as any. So we'll ask you a variation on the question posed earlier: If you were to add another business to your current store, what would it be? Answers practical as well as impractical are welcome. And if you already have a unique add-on, let us know about that, too. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2070.

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20. Shopkeepers & the 'Heart of the Community'

"Where's your village? What makes up your village?" asked Kathleen Noonan last week in a Brisbane Courier-Mail piece headlined "Shopkeepers are the heart of the community that we call home." Published on Australia's National Bookshop Day, the essay has been making the book trade social-networking rounds here in the U.S. ever since. And for good reason.
"Just look up your local shop on the Internet or drop in," Noonan advised, noting that she would be "pretending to be a bookseller" behind the counter at Avid Reader bookshop, "hopefully just popping books in brown paper bags, saying knowing things like, 'Oh, the symbolism in that one's magical'--and not actually in charge of tricky credit card transactions."

She wasn't just writing about booksellers, however. Noonan explored the concept of being a shopkeeper now: "We're not talking rustic cutesy row of shops here but the village each of us has in our daily lives, in our routine, that actually helps us survive in a big city. Dealing with the sheer size of the city and chaotic intensity means you have to make your own village, a space where you know people and chat to shopkeepers on a daily basis--your favorite sandwich maker, your dry cleaner.... At the core of these villages are shopkeepers."

Shopkeepers have not traditionally garnered such high praise. Adam Smith sounded a little snarky in the 18th century: "To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."

As did Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century: "When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them--as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon--I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago."


I've spent much of my life as a shopkeeper, and I always bristled at the idea that the term was a pejorative. This may come from watching too many westerns, where shopkeepers are traditionally portrayed as either obsequious, sleeve garter-wearing cowards or the widows of obsequious, sleeve garter-wearing cowards. The HBO series Deadwood struck a less insulting shopkeeper chord with Timothy Olyphant's fierce portrayal of Seth Bullock, a man who wants to trade his gunslinging past for a new life as a hardware store shopkeeper, though choosing a lawless South Dakota settlement for his venture complicates things a bit. Imagine an armed Bernard Black.

Customers do not witness the complexity of a shopkeeper's day. Many bookstore patrons, for example, see only an ideal job that involves bookish conversations in a soothing environment, and good booksellers sustain the myth by remaining calm and cordial, even as their work day--an endless cycle of shelving, ordering, straightening, cash register duty and other responsibilities--devolves into an angst-inducing blur. Bookstore patrons don't need to know about any of this, of course.

Shopkeepers play an essential role in fostering our sense of community. As Noonan observed, in addition to "providing a retail service, these shopkeepers make up your village." She also cited author David Malouf's recent observation that "at the heart of a village is often a good bookshop."

"Bookshops are havens. I reckon you are never too scruffy, hungover, or bruised and bewildered to slouch into a bookshop," Noonan concluded. "Books are the friends you don't have to dress up for. They are the lovers that require no stroking of ego or anything else. They are the teachers that set no exams. Bookshops aren't just bookshops. They are ideas shops."

And shopkeepers? Let's just say that in these perilous bookselling times, shopkeeping and community building are not for faint-hearted, sleeve garter-wearing cowards. Maybe it was always so. A 1922 New York Times article, headlined "Shopkeeper of Shakespeare and Company," described legendary Parisian bookseller Sylvia Beach as "efficient and determined, but with her efficiency and determination there was understanding besides." To me, these sound like the core elements of a bookseller... and a shopkeeper... and a village. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2064.

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21. National Bookshop Day Down Under

"Those entrepreneurial bookstore owners who can see the opportunities inherent in bringing our communities together online and in real life, and innovating throughout a new age of digital publishing, they, the pioneers and trailblazers, will stay on trend and relevant, playing an important role in modern society and, with our support, continuing to flourish."

--Author Chris Allen, in a guest post headlined "Why bookstores are the future, not the past" at Bite the Book, the blog for Australian indie Pages & Pages Booksellers in Mosman.

You'll probably still be sleeping tomorrow when members of the Australian Booksellers Association begin celebrating the third annual National Bookshop Day (@NatBookshopDay), with bookshops hosting events and promotions across the continent. The official launch of the festivities is the announcement of this year's Favorite Bookshop by actor and author William McInnes during a ceremony at the Sun Bookshop, Yarraville. Check out this promo video featuring McInnes that was filmed at the bookstore. And, for good measure, here's another promo featuring NBD ambassador Markus Zusak.

Four Aussie publishers produced free mini-editions for booksellers to distribute to their patrons: Amazing Experiences (Lonely Planet), Rain Queen by Katherine Scholes (Penguin), The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd (Text), Secret Kingdom Activity Book and Sea Question Activity Book (both from Hachette).

Bloomsbury Australia is running a #lovebookshops campaign across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, asking booksellers to send photos of their stores.

Australian indie booksellers are participating in numerous ways, some of which could easily be in the running as future Shelf Awareness "Cool Idea of the Day" features. Here's a sampling:

In addition to hosting the official NBD launch, the Sun Bookshop's Younger Sun store has invited children to dress up as their favorite Leigh Hobbs character, participate in a drawing workshop with the popular author/illustrator and "afterwards join us for fairybread and cordial."

Electric Shadows Bookshop, Canberra, hosts a fundraising event with author and local Labor MP Andrew Leigh to raise funds for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Writers are being put to work behind the counters as celebrity booksellers at Pages & Pages Booksellers as well as at Avid Reader, Brisbane, where other planned events include free henna hand painting and "jazz on the footpath."

The National Bookshop Day theme this year at Potts Point Bookshop is "(Wo)Man's Best Friend and we are hoping you'll agree that there's no better company than a book, other than perhaps your furry companion." Featured events include Dr. Mim & Claire, "who will be opening PP Vet Hospital," a doggie photo booth and Fairy Poppilina, who "will have you barking in your seats with her special storytime session."

At Riverbend Books & Teahouse, Bulimba, the staff is wearing pajamas to work to celebrate local bookstores in the community. "If you are also feeling gluttonous, tired and literary, then come along and join us in the festivities, where we will be encouraging everyone to eat, sleep, and--most importantly--read local. The first 50 adults and 50 children to visit us wearing their pajamas, or even just a dressing gown, will receive a free book!"

"Read-ins" are being held at TLC Books, Manly, where customers are being encouraged to "come down and cop a squat in or around the bookstore and read"; as well as Mary Who? Bookshop, Townsville, where patrons are asked to "bring a chair (or lounge!) and a book and find a spot in the dappled sunlight directly out the front of MW?... to read... in the lovely company of other readers! Bring a crowd if you can!"

Robinsons Bookshops in Frankston, Chadstone and Greensborough are celebrating National Bookshop Day by launching Blind Date with a Book, "a fun way to try new authors and discover great reads ... [that] involves hand-picked quality fiction titles completely wrapped in brown paper. A few vague words are the only hint as to what lies within."

So, happy National Bookshop Day! The ABA's NBD cat probably sums up the festivities best:

I buy books in my local bookshop so I...
help employ humans
help the environment
kept my money in Australia
and embraced the uniqueness of my favorite bookshop.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2059.

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22. Northshire's 'Second Home' & Bezosgate

While President Obama's visit to an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn., earlier this week has been garnering headlines and well-deserved book industry backlash, I've been lucky enough to witness a less publicized, but no less effective, response to Bezosgate.

On Monday, the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., will have a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the soft opening of its highly anticipated second location in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A grand opening is planned for September 29, when the store is hosting a community-wide celebration.

If "living well is the best revenge," then perhaps opening a beautiful new independent bookstore in a thriving city just a week after Bezosgate is one of the best retorts anyone could ask for.

As many of you know, I worked at the Northshire as a bookseller and buyer for nearly 15 years before joining Shelf Awareness, and three years ago I moved to Saratoga. While the imminent arrival of the bookstore is a happy coincidence for me, I do have a betting interest--an appropriate phrase for a city that is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary of horse racing--as a resident, customer and fan in the Northshire's success here.

I stopped by last Friday to check out the work-in-progress as opening deadline loomed. Shelving of new books was just getting underway, carpeting was still being installed and fixtures completed. Booksellers and construction workers rushed around, dodging each other as they balanced books, boards and cans of paint.

A few familiar faces from my past life as a bookseller were there: IT director/buyer Ben Parker working his electronic magic with a new POS system; Barbara Morrow--co-founder, with Ed, of the Northshire in 1976--shelving books; Nancy Scheemaker, my former colleague in Manchester and the new store's general manager, directing traffic as her staff unpacked, received and organized books in sections temporarily labeled with colored tape; and co-owner Chris Morrow, who was supervising the hectic final rush to get the construction finished, among a hundred other details major and minor.

On Wednesday, I returned for an updated peek and the pre-launch chaos was well under control, with Monday's opening no longer a distant goal, but as real as the new awning out front. The frenzied yet focused atmosphere reminded me of Manchester Northshire's ambitious expansion a decade ago, when it nearly doubled in size. I still recall that curious mixture of adrenaline and exhaustion, pleasure and pain, that took hold of us as we headed down the home stretch.

In an e-mail newsletter I received yesterday proclaiming Saratoga as "our second home," the Morrow family said they were "thrilled to be part of this wonderful welcoming community, much as we have been a part of Manchester all these many years. We look forward to hearing from you, what your expectations are, what you like, what is missing, how we can become your bookstore.... We look forward to seeing you in both of our stores and offer our gratitude to all of you for supporting independent book selling."

What will happen next? That's what every reader wants to know about each story they encounter, isn't it? When Northshire Bookstore Saratoga debuts Monday, it will be a soft opening in name only because the staff will be off to the races. This is high season for Saratoga, and downtown is packed with visitors from dawn to midnight and beyond every day.

I don't have an answer for what will happen after Labor Day, but if omens mean anything, I believe the 1,500 people who showed up in June for Northshire's Neil Gaiman event at the Saratoga City Center can be seen as a portent. And it must be a good sign that a new Kilwins shop, which is opening soon in the same building, was using a fan to distribute the scent of chocolate onto Broadway Wednesday morning. We all know now what chocolate can do for book sales.

Chris and I talked briefly on Wednesday and naturally the subject of Obama's Amazon warehouse speech came up. I'd considered asking him for a comment regarding the controversy, but standing in that newborn indie bookstore, I suddenly decided there was no need. The answer was all around us. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2054

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23. Synergy 'Creates a Special Sense of Place'

Whether the challenge is increasing sidelines inventory, adding on a complementary business or even opening a sister (or brother, your choice) store in another location, indie booksellers are always exploring ways to increase margins without sacrificing integrity.

Mark Kaufman and Donna Paz Kaufman run the Bookstore Training and Consulting Group of Paz & Associates. When Mark responded to a recent column, it sparked my curiosity regarding what prospective booksellers might understand about nonbook merchandising possibilities as they consider entering the book trade.

"Before we even read your piece in today's issue of Shelf Awareness, Donna and I were talking over breakfast about how interesting it might be to create a little side-business suggesting appropriate nonbook items that stores could merchandise alongside the book," Mark wrote. "It distresses us no end to hear some booksellers insist that they don't want to sell 'all that crap,' mostly because if you were just to depend on the slim margins available from selling books alone, you'd likely not last very long in business. What we embrace (and teach at our workshops) is that there are plenty of opportunities to offer customers a more interesting selection--and make more money at the same time--without having to add an entirely new business to the bookstore."

Long ago and far away (1993 at the ABA trade show in Miami), I attended one of Donna's workshops during Bookseller School. I wondered how much her advice about nonbook inventory for indie booksellers had changed since then.

"Even 20 years ago, there was room to launch a bookstore and financially do well without constant worry about cash flow," she recalled. "Retail bookselling today is more of a challenge, requires more creativity and demands many more skills than it used to. We encourage people to consider ways they'll be unique and how they'll become the 'go-to' place in their community for people who love to read. Why not add a little extra to bump up the average sale, especially when you see customers laugh and have a good time finding things in your store? Each combination will be unique, and there is a wide range of general merchandise categories, services, learning opportunities, and food and beverages to help create that special store."

She cited one of her favorite retail stores in Savannah, One Fish, Two Fish, "with a delicious selection of beautiful art, home decor, books, kitchen items, jewelry. You could buy a beautiful set of sheets there and you can find a collection of poetry and cookbooks displayed so you just have to go look (then buy). I just love it. What kind of store is it? It doesn't matter. It's the same with the fabulously successful Anthropologie stores. It's the synergy that creates a special sense of place."

As far as prospective booksellers are concerned, "everyone who comes to our training usually considers themselves readers and most have acknowledged a lifelong dream of owning a bookstore, but in years I haven't seen anyone who spoke of any concerns about carrying general merchandise (a term I prefer since 'sidelines' marginalizes the importance of other items)," she said. "When trainees learn the financial dynamics of a bookstore, it's crystal clear how valuable higher-margin merchandise is to the bottom line. To some, I think that's a real eye-opener. As trainers, we think it's the perfect prompt to help them think more creatively about what's in the store's selection that will appeal to people who like to read."

Noting that her early experience as a bookseller at Davis-Kidd "was a good place for me to learn about the importance of keeping an open mind," Donna observed that small stores of all types "have been hard pressed to compete in today's retail world, which is why we believe it makes sense to morph into more of a general store. 'The Merc' (Mercantile) has been a favorite place of mine in Ann Arbor and it's so much fun to visit because you never know what you'll find. On Amelia Island, we have lost our quality indie toy store, Hallmark store and wine bar and there's no shortage of artful items made by local artisans who are always looking for a place to show their items. While many specialty stores cannot survive on their own, a combination of merchandise can help a bookstore become an even stronger destination."

She added that when the big box chains "are selling cheap, imported goods, many hunger for unique, handmade, locally crafted, quality items. Booksellers don't have to sell out or feel compromised. It's smart retailing to keep the selection fresh and exciting, filling niches and seizing opportunities. It's time we focus on serving our target markets (people) instead of being focused purely on our product (books). We are so fortunate to have target markets that value education, have disposable income and understand the importance of local business to sustainable communities. We should be obsessed with catering to their intellectual, spiritual and aspirational needs. A dynamic and lively selection will help us remain interesting, relevant and profitable."

Her conclusion: "I think we're in an era where we are transcending categories and that is a very good thing for all retailers, especially indies." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2079

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24. Building a 'Full Service Indie Bookshop'

"We try to listen and watch for what there is a need for in our town, staying away from competing with the few other retail shops that are open," wrote Annie Leonard, manager of the Next Chapter Gift and Book Boutique, Knoxville, Iowa, in response to last week's column about adding sideline inventory and retail space to indie bookshops.

Knoxville is a small town of about 7,000 people that has "gone through its share of downtown demise, but we have turned the corner and are working hard to revitalize our downtown with lots of thriving restaurants, a great micro-brewery and more--but we're still light on the retail options, which is where the Next Chapter comes in," she observed.

Describing the store as "a full-service indie bookshop with new books for all ages, as well as a basement with thousands of used titles," Leonard noted that the Next Chapter also has a large women's accessories section (scarves, jewelry, bags, gloves, etc.); a children's section with toys and kids' accessories; a stationery section and four rooms of home and garden décor.  

Staffers (l.-r.) Diane Gordon, Annie Leonard and owner Tresa Mott.

The shop opened more than five years ago in the storefront of a building owned by Tresa and Steve Mott. At the time, Tresa was working as the office manager for her husband's dental practice and running a dance studio in the building, but she had always dreamed of owning a bookstore. She and Leonard knew one another, "so we got together in late July over coffee to talk about the idea of a bookshop," Leonard recalled. "It was magical fun, and by the end of the conversation, we both knew we were on a freight train that wasn't stopping any time soon."

Just as the economy was crashing, the Next Chapter launched in a 1,000-square-foot retail space evenly split between books and gifts. Fortunately, "Our community showed up and Tresa resigned her position at the dental office to be at the bookstore full time," Leonard noted. "In spite of the economic downturn, or maybe in part because of that and the rising gasoline prices, we found that people wanted to shop locally, they liked not having to drive an hour to find gifts and books, and they were willing to give us the business instead of Amazon."

Listening to their customers and monitoring sales numbers closely, the shop has adapted over the years, refining its book selection and expanding women's accessories. After the local Hallmark store closed in 2010, the Next Chapter brought in greeting cards; and a year later, when the local home and garden décor shop closed, the bookstore took over an adjacent empty suite of offices and expanded its inventory to fill another retail void in the town.

Asked about the decision to call the store a "Gift & Book Boutique," Leonard explained: "Several years ago, a lovely out of town shopper stopped in, shopped the whole place thoroughly, and as she walked out said, 'This isn't just a book shop, it's a book boutique!' We loved the expression, and have adopted it as our tag line. Then, as we expanded and shifted our focus a bit, we commissioned a new logo that more accurately reflected what we are, and since we liked the sound of 'book boutique' we added the word 'gift' first to keep the last two words together. I suppose you could say it was a marketing strategy. We think it sounds good in our many radio ads."

The Next Chapter also carries a selection of food products. "We are really proud of our local artisanal food producers, so when Lois Reichert [Reichert's Dairy Air] approached us and asked if we would sell her cheeses, we were thrilled," Leonard said. "We also have three lines of food items like dips, gourmet chips, sauces, etc., so it was a good fit."

Although books are still the primary focus, narrow profit margins mean they "cannot stand alone," Leonard said. "We have learned to be really smart and selective about what books we carry, and how many of them we can keep in stock. That's been a hard lesson at times, but in the end, I still get to find great books for my customers, and that is tremendously rewarding. Further, I've also learned that picking out beautiful scarves, luxe journals and fun wall hangings is lots of fun, too, and helping our customers find just the right gift or home accent is also very rewarding. In the end, it's about staying in business, being fulfilled and meeting the needs of our community, not necessarily about how many shelf-feet of books we stock."

Indie booksellers understand more than ever what responding to a community's specific retail needs requires. As Leonard observed, it's all about listening and watching: "I believe that many of our customers view us as a great local option that they are committed to helping stay in business. We very nearly lost every retail business on our square, and that was not a good situation, and lots of locals realized that they would have to participate in changing that situation. We are leading the charge in that local business renaissance, and we hope to be here in the years to come to enjoy the fruits of this labor." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2075.

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25. What Are the Odds? Who Do You Like?

In almost any situation, books and gambling can easily be linked by a single degree of separation:

What are the odds that Colm Tóibín would be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (currently 7-2 to win at British bookmaker Ladbrokes) and a Tony Award best play finalist during the same year for variations on The Testament of Mary. Has that ever happened before?

What are the odds that Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio would also be a member of the board of directors for the New York Racing Association?

What are the odds that Senator John McCain would be caught playing online poker during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing about Syria? (Book connection? Check out author Matthew Dicks's amusing commentary on the incident.)

What are the odds that in 1981, I'd leave a Santana concert early, drive to the nearby harness track and watch Rambling Willie race during his nationwide book tour for Rambling Willie: The Horse that God Loved? (I bought a copy and had it signed.)

The odds, in each case, are pretty damned good.

A few years ago in the New York Times, Curtis Sittenfeld recalled an editor telling her that "people think publishing is a business, but it's a casino." Living in Saratoga Springs, I'd rather think of it as a horse race, with a mind-numbing list of factors to analyze before placing your bet and hoping for success: consider multiple entries, research past form, evaluate the people involved (owners/trainers/jockeys or writers/publishers/booksellers), weigh the current odds for success/failure and much more. Do your handicapping, eliminate the obvious losers, narrow down the list of potential winners and then place your bet.

What are the odds you'll be wrong? You know the answer to that one. And yet we keep going back to the book trade window to bet again as we write, publish and market more books, always hoping for the elusive, irresistible combination of luck and performance that makes for a winner, however you might define the term.

Speaking of winners, it's that time of year when British bookies train their focus momentarily on the world so closely aligned to their name, even if the stakes are low. The Atlantic pointed out that only £25,000 (US$39,563) was bet with Ladbrokes on the Booker prize last year, compared to as much as £350,000 on an important Premier League soccer match.

Noting that British newspapers traditionally cover major literary prizes in terms of odds, bookmakers "need a dependable, accurate method of calculating them in a way that ensures the house will still win--but also one that doesn't come with a required-reading list for potential bettors," the Atlantic wrote.

"The most important thing to be aware of is critical reception," said Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes. "We do not read all of the books and in actual fact avoid doing so in order to [not] cloud judgment."

Keeping in mind that this is a year in which Hilary Mantel can't win her biennial Booker, here are the current odds from Ladbrokes for two of the Big Games in this fall's book competitions:

Nobel Prize in Literature
Haruki Murakami (3-1)
Joyce Carol Oates (6-1)
Peter Nadas (7-1)
Ko Un (10-1)
Alice Munro (12-1)
Adonis (14-1)
Assia Djebar (14-1)
Philip Roth (16-1)
Amos Oz (16-1)
Thomas Pynchon (20-1)
Ngugi Wa Thiog'o (20-1)

Man Booker Prize
Harvest by Jim Crace (5-2)
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín (7-2)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (4-1)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (5-1)
We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo (6-1)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (6-1)

"After years of hovering in the wings, this could be Haruki Murakami's year" for the Nobel, according to the Guardian, which pointed out that the Japanese author "has been considered a frontrunner for the past 10 years." But some curious betting trends last week that dramatically reduced Kenya's Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's odds are noteworthy, including a large bet at Ladbrokes by "a Swedish customer," the Atlantic reported.

Shortly before the Booker shortlist was announced, Ladbrokes had Crace listed as favorite at the same odds he is now, which may mean something. When the longlist first came out in August, Philip Hensher offered this early handicapping advice: "I can hardly see where else the prize can go than to the long-overdue Crace."

I was one for two in 2012, predicting that Mo Yan would win the Nobel and Alison Moore's The Lighthouse would somehow wrest the Booker from prohibitive favorite Mantel. But it's a new year and gamblers are ever-optimistic. Now it's time for my 2013 predictions. Drum roll, please.... Since no self-respecting, well-read punter would ever bet a favorite, I'm backing Colm Tóibín for the Man Booker Prize and Alice Munro for the Nobel Prize in Literature. So... Who do you like? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2084.

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