Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Comment: Over and Out

A kind friend offered the ALP and I rides in to work today, very early because he had to get to his own job. The bookstore is operating on reduced hours because of the transit strike, so I'm the only one here this morning. It's kind of cool -- reminds me of being at my high school after hours when I was working on the literary magazine, the sense of the institution in its sleepy, mysterious other life.

We're headed out of town tomorrow for about a week, and I probably won't get a chance to post from Denver, so you won't hear from me for a little while. I do have book-related plans while I'm there, though -- I'm hoping to break away from the family festivities briefly for a visit to The Tattered Cover, Denver's famous (and huge) independent bookstore. I've heard a lot about the place, and I can't wait to check it out -- I'll report on the visit when I get back.

After that, it's time to look forward to 2006. There are so many things I'm excited to talk about in the coming year: the changing forms of in-store and out-of-store book events, the rise of "buy local first" movements, the continuing development and discussion of print-on-demand publishing, media perceptions of independents, the many bookstores of New York, the potential for various forms of collaboration, etc.... and of course all the books I'll read and want to read and hear buzz about, and all the happenings in the publishing and bookselling communities that will come along. Naturally, I also want to talk about plans for opening my own independent bookstore in Brooklyn, but we'll see how things develop with that. I promise to approach each subject with my typical dorky excitement and cockeyed optimism -- call it my New Year's resolution.

I'm really looking forward to having these conversations with other readers and book people -- it's been wonderful to meet you and talk to you in the short time I've been here. May you all have a wonderful and book-filled holiday -- talk to you when I get back!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Comment: Odds and Ends, On the Shelf

I'm stranded in Brooklyn today, as a result of the New York City transit workers strike. Many brave souls have managed to get in to work anyway, but as I don't know anyone with a car and my bookstore is about as far away in the five boroughs as one can get from my house, I'm really stuck without the subway. I'll have to find some way to find a carpool or otherwise make it to work tomorrow, but I'm pretty sure the store can make it through one day without me. And I have to confess I'm enjoying the "snow day" -- I've been working at two busy stores every day for weeks, and I'm feeling a little burnt out. So I'm spending the morning on odds and ends, and looking forward to reading and a nap in the afternoon.

In the odds and ends vein, thanks so much to those of you who have posted comments and sent emails – I've replied to some (including the anonymous commenter who pointed out that I had mistakenly listed Powell's Books as being in Seattle rather than Portland -- whoops, thanks!). It's the busy season, and I haven't had much time to read comments or others' blogs -- I hope you'll forgive my absentia, and stick around for more conversations in the new year.

One conversation I've been having with a lot of people lately is the one about the novelist who changes the world. Orhan Pamuk , the author most recently of the brilliantly structured and insightful SNOW and inarguably Turkey's best-known novelist, has been accused by the Turkish government of "denigrating Turkish identity" because of comments made in a Swiss newspaper interview about the Turkish genocide of Armenians during World War I. You've probably already heard about this, but if not you'll find a ton of information here, at the Literary Saloon archive (thanks to Bookdwarf for the link). The trial has now been postponed until February, possibly because Pamuk is likely to bring evidence to court which will prove the truth of his statement, but also because his international status as a writer (and not an exclusively or overtly political one, but a thinking literary fiction writer) makes jailing him potentially embarrassing.

No one knows how the trial will turn out, but it's certain that the harsh limits on free speech in Turkey are coming under much greater international scrutiny. Along with librarians' and booksellers' robust campaign against the Patriot Act in the U.S., these events are an indicator of the power of books, of words, and of the people who take these things seriously and demand that they be free to use them. Even here in the 21st century – especially so now, when we have access to books and writers that may never before have seen worldwide distribution – it is possible for writers, and readers, to make a difference. Whether you get involved by joining the protests, or simply by buying the book of a controversial or beleaguered writer, you become part of a great tradition of literature as a force for change.


On a slightly less serious note, I'm getting ready to get on a plane again on Thursday – this time to Denver, to spend Christmas with the extended family of the Adorably Literate Partner. (The ALP's family, incidentally, doesn't contain many big readers – he's kind of the black bookish sheep. I've struggled to find non-book gifts for them all, and I now have a greater sympathy for customers trying to buy things for people whose tastes they don't really understand. They're a super nice family, though, including two very small new members, and it promises to be a festive vacation.) So I'm looking through my bookshelves again and contemplating plane reading. I've collected scads of galleys and books lately, many of which I'm dying to read – it's terrible that one has to make choices! So, since I have nothing else to do today, I'm making a list of the unread books sitting temptingly on my shelf. Feel free to comment – I appreciate the input!

EARTH DEMOCRACY by Vendana Shiva (South End Press)
After seeing Shiva's smiling, defiant, optimistic face in the documentary THE CORPORATION, I'm intensely curious about her vision for a less corporately run, more environmentally wise future. She's one of those rare non-abrasive thinking activists.

THE SLEEPING FATHER by Matt Sharpe (Soft Skull Press)
I knew Matt as a bookstore customer in the West Village, but I've somehow never read his highly acclaimed, bestselling, independently published, paperback original novel of dysfunctional family life. What's wrong with me?

REBEL BOOKSELLER by Andrew Laties (Vox Pop)
This one I HAVE actually read already, but it's so chock full of information about the publishing and bookselling industries and advice both financial and creative about starting and running an independent store (all in Laties' manically enthusiastic voice) that I feel like I haven't taken it all in. It deserves a full review, which I'll run as soon as I make a second reading.

RUNNING A 21ST CENTURY SMALL BUSINESS by Randy W. Kirk (Warner Business Books, comingFebruary 2006)
This is a new edition – I snatched up the galley hoping my boss didn't notice. =) I know I'm a nerd, but this business book is actually exciting to me right now, as I think about what steps I can take to launch my own bookstore.

THE LAMENTABLE JOURNEY OF OMAHA BIGELOW INTO THE IMPENETRABLE LOISAIDA JUNGLE by Edgardo Vega Yunque (Rayo)
I love this guy's insanely long titles! The first page or two sounded like a promising trip through the Lower East Side. High on the list.

THE WINSHAW LEGACY by Jonathan Coe (Vintage)
This one was a recommendation specifically for plane reading ("something rich and absorbing, please," I begged") from the folks at Partners and Crime, a great Greenwich Village mystery bookstore. (Why am I buying books from other stores? Because they know things that I don't.) Sounds dishy but intelligent. Can't wait.

ABSOLUTE WATCHMEN by Alan Moore (D. C. Comics)
The ALP received this massive anniversary edition of the groundbreaking 1970s "superheroes in the real world" graphic novel for his birthday, and I'm so stealing it as soon as he's done.

THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE by A.M. Homes (Viking, coming in April 2006)
This one I kind of have to read, since I'm supposed to write a review of it in a couple of weeks. But I've never read Homes and I'm looking forward to it. I know she's kind of a cult favorite, and I wonder if I should read some of her other stuff before tackling this one?... any advice appreciated.


Okay, I'm finished rambling wistfully – think I'll snuggle into the couch and while away the Brooklyn day with one of these. Good reading to all!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chronicle: New York Bookseller / Sales Rep Soiree

This past Monday night I attended a get-together of booksellers and publisher sales reps at Kettle of Fish in the West Village. This social event of the season was organized by the owner of Penn Concessions, the bookstore inside Pennsylvania Station -- an incredibly exuberant guy named Rusel with a talent for getting people together. He sent out an email invite, the bookselling and publishing networks started buzzing, and there was a great turnout of folks from both sides of the catalog drinking the night away and talking books, like we like to do.

Kettle of Fish is a great old divey bar on Christopher Street -- it was a frequent haunt of mine when I worked around there, and I still seek it out for the cheapest drinks and comfiest couches south of 14th Street. It's been around for ages -- there are pictures of Jack Kerouac hanging out in front of the place, next to the neon "BAR" sign (which was eventually brought indoors as the gentrifying neighbors complained about light pollution). Somehow it's also become a haven for fans of Wisconsin football and other semi-obscure sports teams -- a far cry from the posh lounges and piano bars that primarily make up the neighborhood. I was tickled that Rusel picked Kettle as the place to gather us together -- a place with a literary history, a neighborhood following, and drinks for the booksellers' budgets.

We booksellers weren't allowed to buy any drinks, though -- as is traditional, the reps (or their houses) paid for everything, and no one complained. I walked in with a rep I knew from FSG, whom I'd met up with outside. As we sat at the bar and chatted, greeting others as they arrived, a funny thing became clear: all the booksellers knew the reps, but the reps didn't know each other. And the reps knew the booksellers, but the booksellers didn't know each other. So there were a lot of introductions, and "Oh, I've heard so much about you"s, which was fun to watch. Perhaps this was the genius of Rusel's plan: it was a true mixer, with the result of booksellers getting to know each other (and reps getting to know their competition).

I met a lot of folks I'd only heard about, and had lots of good bookseller talk. Along with Rusel and his partner, I met the manager of the New York University bookstore (lamenting the students who protest "the man" by buying their books elsewhere, when NYU has one of the few remaining independent -- i.e. non B&N -- college bookstores); the husband and wife owners of Morningside Books, my neighbors on the Upper West Side (who have a great program for promoting local buying by offering discounts to customers with receipts from other neighborhood independents); the manager of Posman's in Grand Central Station (whom I felt rather awkward around, as I've considered applying for a position in that beautiful store -- aargh!); and the owner of the venerable revolutionary St. Mark's Books in the East Village, who did me the favor of introducing me to his small press and consignment buyer, Margarita.

St. Marks handles consignment books better than anyone I know -- they're open to anyone's work, yet their consignment section always looks beautiful, and people actually buy from it. Margarita and I talked about the different views of self-publishing in the U.S. and Russia, where she grew up: while we here tend to think "vanity press" when we hear "self-published" and assume it's something not worth reading, the limited opportunities for publishing in the USSR meant that most of the significant and talented authors published their own work, so for her"self-published" means "independent and revolutionary." We both got excited about the potential for small presses and self-publishing, and ideas for incorporating them into my future Brookyn indie, and she gave me her card -- I'm really looking forward to picking her brain and sharing ideas in the future.

There were also a lot of familiar faces there -- our local reps from Knopf, Doubleday, St. Martin's, Penguin, and Publishers Group West, whom we see every season around catalog time and depend on to know their lists and our stores. It was awesome to be in a room with so many other people who know what one is talking about, and have similar, though not identical passions. We shared our favorite books of the year, talked about our desires and fears about the industry, and traded inside jokes and publishing stories. A seriously good time was had by all, and I dragged myself away around ten, though I've heard since that the party went on until well after midnight.

At one point in the evening I found myself in a conversation with Ben from FSG, Carla from HarperCollins, Karen from Knopf, and Margarita from St. Mark's. My old boss happened by and joked "What's this, the kids' table?" All of us were under 35. I have to admit I felt not embarassment, but a twinge of pride -- despite the laments about the lack of a younger generation of booksellers, I was surrounded by my peers, fierce young booklovers with a passion for our industry, and the knowledge and skills to take it into the future. Today, Kettle -- tomorrow, the world!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Comment: Celebrations

Yesterday was my birthday -- 27 big ones. The day was celebrated in suitable fashion, and I have the feeling that it's going to be a good year, full of big doings in the book world.

In the spirit of celebration, I'm devoting this post to some good news about booksellers. I've run across a number of references lately to new and old stores and young and old booksellers that are making a go of it, with new ideas, great business models, and the passion for books and people that makes indie bookstore magic. I've pasted the best parts of their stories below, with links to where they appeared whenever possible. Enjoy!

---

"Greta Kanne and her husband, Chris Harper, recently purchased the Book Juggler, a 22-year-old used and new bookstore in Willits, Calif., about halfway between San Francisco and Eureka. Kanne wrote to Shelf Awareness that she worked at the store as a teenager before going to work at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, where she met Harper. 'Between the two of us, we've worked in seven bookstores and are just thrilled at last to be our own bookmasters.'

"Kanne added that Willits, a town of 10,000, has a large percentage of bibliophiles. "Willits has supported both the Book Juggler and Leaves of Grass Books, a great new bookstore, for more than 20 years. We are both proud to help carry on the bookselling tradition."

(from Shelf Awareness, December 8 edition)

---

"Every year the Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., aims to grow 10%, a target it has reached all but one year since Valerie Koehler opened the store in 1996. (The one off year was 2002, during which Blue Willow was up over the previous year, but not 10%.) "We're on track to hit 10% again," Koehler told Shelf Awareness. 'We work hard at it. We'll die young, but we like it.'

"In general, Blue Willow 'keeps pounding the same message home: that if customers want service, they should come here," Koehler said. "We can't compete with the big guys but we provide a neighborhood atmosphere. Many of our staff know the people in the area. We try to be a family and be upbeat.'"

(from Shelf Awareness, December 8 edition)

---

"The Hudson Valley boasts an exceptional group of independent booksellers. The Golden Notebook is going strong at 27 years old; Dutchess County's Oblong Books has two locations, and Merritt Books three. A relative newcomer, Inquiring Mind, carved out a niche on a well-trafficked corner in Saugerties. There are even a few ambitious new kids on the block.
The Spotty Dog Books & Ale, which opened this July on Hudson's historic Warren Street, may set new standards for diversity: besides offering over 10,000 books, the former Victorian firehouse also sells art supplies, and its vintage bar serves artisanal beers including Kick-Ass Brown and Espresso Stout.

"Warwick's newly opened Baby Grand Café is another multitasker, combining an antiquarian book business with a coffeehouse music series, a gallery, and space for community events. Co-owner Ruth Siegel acknowledges that bookselling is 'a dying business,' but waxes eloquent about the tactile pleasures of browsing and handling books, and the importance of reading. 'Literature is about freedom of independent thought. Books have been banned and burned throughout history. It's so important to be there, especially in this cultural climate," says the new mother, who opened the store with her husband in spite of financial duress and a flood that decimated their stock. "A bookstore is just a positive place. It really is.'"

(from this article in CHRONOGRAM, an online magazine.)

---

Publishers Weekly interviews Ed Devereux, Owner of Unabridged Books, "a Chicago independent store that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month."

"PW: In the midst of all this competition, how have you managed to prosper?

E.D.: One of the reasons is because of our mission—we've always wanted to sell just books, in a bricks-and-mortar store, in a neighborhood. At the beginning Walden and Dalton had a certain mix; in fact the percentage of sales from non-book items at several Walden stores was larger than from books. We don't even want to have an online presence; we want to hand-sell the books to customers in the store. Also, all along I decided that I wanted to have only full-time help, no part-timers. That way you get people who have a better knowledge of books and a better knowledge of the store. And by paying them more than most bookstores and providing them with full benefits, people here stay a long time. So you have very little turnover, and everyone gets to know your customers thoroughly, by name, by face."

---

Congratulations to Unabridged Books on their anniversary. And thanks to Book Juggler, Leaves of Grass, Blue Willow, Golden Notebook, Oblong Books, Merritt Books, Inquiring Mind, Spotty Dog, Baby Grand, and Unabridged for helping to make my own anniversary happy and full of hope.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Chronicle: A Customer Remembered

Last Friday night, something reminded me of my friend Betty, and I resolved to call her and invite her to tea as soon as I got a chance.

On Saturday afternoon, my former coworkers at the West Village bookstore called to tell me that Betty had died in her sleep in early November. She was 92.

Betty had been a loyal customer of the bookstore since long before I started working there. She had been a friend of the woman who handled the poetry section, and when I came along with similar interests I got to know her too. She came in almost every Saturday, sometimes more often, even when her legs started hurting her and she had to rest often. Once in a while when she was feeling too ill to make it to the store, we would run a book or two over to her apartment, and she'd pay by check.

Her book interests were primarily poetry (which I was happy to help with) and Buddhist philosophy (which our resident meditation maven ably handled). She had great taste, and read widely, though I imagine she couldn't really afford to buy all the books she did. But she was just as interested in the lives of the employees. Even after I left for another bookstore job, she asked after me and kept up with my doings. When she saw a familiar face, she would open both her eyes and her mouth wide in a charming expression of joy.

Betty had probably lived in the neighborhood much longer than the bookstore had been around. From what I could gather (she didn't like to talk about herself much), she had come to New York as a young woman with hopes of acting, and had had some small success in various capacities in the theater world. She had a tiny apartment on Bank Street, and I loved visiting her there, surrounded by her few things, always gracious. She understood the preciousness of her West Village community, considered herself a Villager more than a New Yorker and knew everyone she saw in her neighborhood by name.

At one point when Betty was contemplating surgery, she hired me to help her with some odd jobs that she wasn't sure she'd be able to handle: organizing her music collection, getting rid of old clothes and books, minor shopping. Later, she hired me to type up some of her writings: a sort of spiritual memoir, and some song lyrics, all of which were moving in a humble way. I spent a lot of time with her in her apartment, talking about big things and small things. At some point, Betty went from being a customer to being a friend, and a kind of mentor. Her easy delight, her calm grace, her big-hearted struggle with growing older and facing death, were all reasons to admire her, and to love her.

In the best of cases, a retail store becomes more than a place where financial transactions take place and goods change hands. It becomes a place where relationships develop, where human beings learn from each other and about each other. It becomes not only part of a community, but something like a home, where we learn, in different ways, to love each other. Love means the potential, the inevitability, of loss and grief. But it seems to me the only thing that is really worth suffering for.

Every year at Christmas, Betty showed up at the bookstore with a gingerbread house as a gift for the staff. God, we'll miss that gingerbread house this year. We loved you, Betty. Thank you for being part of our lives.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Review: Book Nerd's Favorite Books of 2005

Yeah, everybody's got a year-end list, from the New York Times' powerful top 10 to every little indie bookstore's table of Bests or Favorites or Notables or Picks. It may be a cliché, but it's really fun, and it can be valuable to would-be readers and gift buyers who can't very well get through every book in the world. So I've had a look over my "book of books" – the little notebook where I keep a record of every book I've read during the year – to take my own stock of the best and the brightest.

This certainly isn't every book I think was important or worth looking at this year – it's just an arbitrary little collection of the ones I got all the way through, and added to my memories of rich and enjoyable reads. I'm not getting co-op or reimbursement from anyone for these, and they don't represent the views of the bookstore(s) where I work. These are just what I'd hand you if you walked into my store and asked me whether I've read anything good lately.

And these probably WON'T be the books my friends and family receive for Christmas – they'll get books based on their own tastes, not mine. But if your tastes or those of a reader you know happen to overlap with mine, you might want to check them out. I look forward to hearing what you think!

Favorites new in hardcover, in no particular order:

THE TENDER BAR by J.R. Moehringer
(Hyperion)
I'm only an occasional memoir reader, and it helps when the story is a simple one like this: fatherless Long Island boy comes of age with the help of the men at the local bar, goes to Yale, eventually makes good. Moehringer, a journalist by trade, knows how to tell a good story without the words getting in the way, and his loving (but always manly) portraits of the denizens of his Manhasset bar include the kind of stories you hear on the best nights at the pub. Muscular, yet lump-in-the-throat inducing – this is a heck of a debut.

MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS by Kelly Link
(Small Beer Press)
Kelly Link is my favorite kind of writer, the literary fantasist, and her newest collection of short stories is full of eerie supernatural stuff that serves as effective metaphors for situations and emotional states. Published by her own indie Small Beer Press (which she runs with her husband), it's a beautifully produced book (with cool art by Shelly Jackson), full of haunted rabbits, zombie savants, stories told to the devil, witches who give birth to houses, and all the other fun stuff you look for in a Christmas gift. Weird, brilliant, wonderful.

FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST by Rebecca Solnit
(Viking)
The creative nonfictionist is also a favorite of mine, and Rebecca Solnit is a great one. She creates an amazing web of connections in this series of linked essays encompassing art, geography, music, science, and her own bittersweet experiences of the manifestations of loss. With content ranging from punk home movies to the use of blue in medieval paintings, reading Solnit is like having a charged, slightly drunken conversation with your smartest and most intuitive friend. (Solnit's essay in the September Harper's about the sense of community that often springs up after disasters is also fascinating, and a good representation of the piercing but gentle insights of a quick and broad-ranging mind.)

THE DISAPPOINTMENT ARTIST by Jonathan Lethem
(Doubleday)
I seem to be going all nonfiction with my hardcover favorites this year, and Jonathan Lethem's essay collection definitely makes the list – I've enjoyed both his sci-fi and mainstream fiction, and I was pleasantly surprised by the skill of his essays. As a Brooklynite, I loved "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn," about his memories of a Brooklyn subway station; as a book nerd, I appreciated each of his explorations of how books, comics, movies, and music have occupied his thoughts and shaped his worldview. Also a heartbreaking account of the lingering effects of the death of his mother (fictionalized in THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE), this collection is a multi-faceted look at an intelligent life spent immersed in pop culture, and the passion and creativity it inspired.


THE HIGHEST TIDE by Jim Lynch
(Bloomsbury)
I think the publishers of this book missed out on a great cross-marketing opportunity by not publicizing this book as a young adult pick. It's a coming-of-age story that rings achingly true, but with enough originality and substance to make it a great read for teens or adults. The protagonist is a scrawny kid on Puget Sound, whose science knowledge and skill at observation makes him a reluctant celebrity when some weird animals start washing up on the beach; over the course of a summer he learns about sex, death, fame, idealism, divorce, love, and all the rest of that adolescent stuff, and treats us to a rhapsodic narrative worthy of Rachel Carson on the ocean life of the Sound, and of the planet. Simple and perfect, good for the nature lover and the confused but good-hearted kid in all of us.

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith
(Penguin)
Yeah yeah, you've heard all about it, but Zadie Smith rocks my world. I've read each of her novels (and a lot of her interviews) and she's in top form with this one. Corresponding to (but not exactly based on) E. M. Forster's HOWARD'S END but set in Boston, it's got snappy dialogue, brilliant plot structures, social commentary from a refreshingly even-handed perspective… and some skewering of that postmodern academic-speak that has the potential to destroy joy in art or literature. And it's suspenseful as heck. If you haven't read it, read it; if you know anybody who likes a heck of a yarn with a super-aware zeitgeisty sensibility, get it for 'em.


Favorites new in paperback, in no particular order:

A DEATH IN BRAZIL by Peter Robb
(Picador)
More storytelling nonfiction; Robb, an Englishman who has spent decades (on and off) in Brazil, narrates the country's history from the Portuguese conquest to the rise of leftist politico Lula, with all of the drama and do-or-die vivaciousness of this most fascinating of South American countries. I spent a couple of weeks in Brazil in college and I've been fascinated by it ever since, but even if you don't have the same attraction, Robb's familiar and informed storytelling style will pull in anyone who can get into a rich and varied cultural history.


MEMED, MY HAWK by Yashar Kemal
(New York Review of Books)
I always mean to read NYRB's classy reissues of lost treasures, but I don't always get around to it. This one pulled me in with the loving blurbs on the back and the burning plains on the front, and then immersed me in a semi-mythical world of barely pre-modern Persia that seemed both familiar (Robin Hood bandit serves the people, brings down the Man) and utterly strange (women's grief rituals, the power of the village landlord and the culture of banditry, plowing fields full of thistles). Memed is the reluctant hero of his townspeople when he goes bandit against their cruel landlord, but their fear causes them to turn against him, and he and his lover and friends get mercilessly abused by the system. Not all happy, but stirring stuff – big epic stories for a complicated world.

POLITICS by Adam Thirlwell
(Harper Perennial)
Don't get this one for your grandma – there's a lot of graphic sex in it, though it's amazingly unpornographic about it. The title refers to relational politics, complicated when a happy heterosexual couple bring a female friend into their relationship, but Thirlwell cheekily uses international political history as metaphor for the silly things people do when they love and desire each other. Hilarious, and incredibly honest about contemporary relationships (even those less complicated than a threesome) – good for all those clever, sexy people you know.

THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon
(Harper Perennial)
Michael Chabon is my favorite blurber – everything he puts his endorsement on I end up digging. His good taste extends to a love of Sherlock Holmes, and this is his addition to the post-Doyle literature about the big guy, though he's never named as such in Chabon's World War II era story. It's a weirdly unsettling little tale, because you the reader know more at the end than the characters, even Holmes, ever will – but it's also satisfying, as good old English mysteries can be, and the illustrations are wonderful. A bittersweet morsel.

SWEET AND VICIOUS by David Schickler
(Dial Press)
In addition to sharing the name of a great Zen-ish bar in lower Manhattan, Shickler's novel is one of the only examples I know of pure American magic realism (another is his first book, KISSING IN MANHATTAN, which is also a favorite). It's a road trip, it's a love story, they're on the run from the mob and there are carnivals and mystical diamonds and tree houses and gun fights – it's larger and wilder than life. Maybe a little silly for some, but if you like to leaven your literature with adrenaline-rush reading, it's for you. (The paperback cover kind of sucks – try to ignore it.)

IDEAS OF HEAVEN: A Ring of Stories by Joan Silber
(W. W. Norton)
One of those controversial New York women shortlisted for the National Book Award last year, Joan Silber is one of the most underrated writers in America, comparable to Alice Munro in her subtle and compelling imaginings of characters' lives. This story collection is made up of six first-person life stories, told with the calm of hindsight but full of passion and struggle. Discovering the interlinking of characters and themes which creates the "ring of stories" is part of the enjoyment; when I finished this book I just sat for an hour and thought about it all. What a rich collection, from one of our wisest writers.

THE TIME OF OUR SINGING by Richard Powers
(Picador)
I've mentioned my slavish devotion to Richard Powers, and this is the book that sold me when I read it in hardcover in 2004. The story of a Jewish physicist and an African-American musician who marry in the 1930s, the novel tracks their three children through the storm of 20th century science, music, and race relations, and through them explores the complexities of Western history and the human heart. As emotionally powerful as it is intellectually stimulating, this one is not for the faint of heart, but it's incredibly rewarding, and might make you a fan.

LONG FOR THIS WORLD by Michael Byers
(Mariner)
Another quiet story that packs a strong punch. Set in Byers' native Seattle during the dot-com boom, this is the story of a doctor who may have discovered the cure for a rare disease, and the conflicts of medical ethics, financial considerations, and social awkwardness it creates for his family and that of his patients. But it's really about the members of a fairly normal suburban family in their daily lives, observed with a rare and lavish attention that gets it all just right. It doesn't hurt that his writing is (to use a blurber's favorite) luminously beautiful, too.

JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury)
Ooh, this is such a good one! I got to interview Susanna Clarke for Publishers Weekly, and she rocks – she loves her subject and her characters, and she's got her head on straight about the powerful intersection of magic and literature. (And apparently one of her favorite books is a guide to locally brewed beers in her region of England, so you gotta love her.) This book may have been over-hyped, but it really is an epic on the scale of A TALE OF TWO CITIES or THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, full of dark portents, bright humor, adventure and romance, told by a storyteller like no other. Only a sensibility that combines the best of the fantasists and the best of the social realists could make believable both the scenes of early 19th century British Parliament, and of church statues that come alive and begin to talk in ancient languages. The plot is too complex to try to summarize, but it's worth every word, and now that it's in paperback it's even small enough to carry around.


Happy Reading!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Comment: New York Neighborhoods and Rush Relativity

The independent bookstore where I now work is primarily an academic bookstore. We serve a large Ivy League university, and we were founded to compete with the university's own official bookstore, which is run by Barnes and Noble. Many professors prefer giving their coursebook orders to an independent, and we do a very good job of supplying the books to their students. Even outside the coursebook season, our events tend to focus on scholarly texts and debates, and our customers are primarily students and professors.

But we are also located in a fairly well-off New York neighborhood, so we are a general bookstore as well. While we don't bother with cookbooks, kid's books, or some of the fluffier of the new hot titles, we do carry a large and thoughtful selection of new literature, poetry, memoir, pop nonfiction, etc. This tends to be my area of expertise, as I come from a general bookstore background and can be counted on to geek out about the next big thing, or the next undiscovered great thing. We have a coursbook buyer in addition to our regular buyer, and everyone works together to make sure we have what's selling. It's a good system.

The strange part about working in an academic bookstore in December is this: we don't really have a Christmas rush. When we talk about Rush, we're talking about early September and early January -- the beginnings of each semester, when we're mobbed with students, hire extra staff, and rearrange the store to accomodate the influx of coursebooks. Most of our year is spent planning for those two two-week periods.

During December, our primary customer base (students and professors) is on academic vacation, and the neighborhood empties out. And those that are left, in my opinion, don't think of us much as a gift-buying location. We're the go-to store when you want to know the current state of the debate on urban planning, Derrida, or American imperialism; we're not the place you go with a list of relatives and hopes for recommendations.

We do have a well-publicized sale in mid-December, and those three days or so do get quite busy. The difficulty of the sale is that since so many of our books come from university presses with small print runs and short discounts (10-20% off the retail price), we can't afford to discount a large segment of our stock without losing money. But the boss has been doing this for a while, and has figured out how to create a sale attractive enough to bring in customers while still actually turning a profit. However, many of the exciting holiday promos that might work in other stores, or in other businesses, are hard to enact with what is often a very thin profit margin.

So, rather than being the season of bustling staff, carols on the stereo and frantic shoppers, December at my indie is the season of preparing for January. It's my first year here, and I have to admit it's a little disappointing for me; as a certified nerd, I love Christmas and all its trimmings, and I've always enjoyed the extra bustle it brings, with the promise of prosperity for the store that infuses all interactions with joy. But this is the way my store has adapted to its neighborhood and its markets, and it's a very wise way of doing business in this particular sector of the book industry. This year I've had some influence over getting in some big "gift" books -- the ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES, the beautiful collection WOMEN'S LETTERS, and some pretty journals, and we'll have nice wrapping paper and gift seals for the first time. I hope they do well. But in most ways, this is the season where the store lies dormant, preparing to burst into action as the students return for the spring.

Incidentally, I will be getting my Christmas rush fix anyway this year: I'll be moonlighting with some evening and weekend shifts at my former place of employment, a small literary general bookstore with a loyal neighborhood following. That place gets bustling, and with a staff that's like family, customers bringing Christmas treats, and lots of handselling, it gets joyful. Working two stores will make for a long day, but it's a way for me to make a couple of extra bucks during an expensive season, and hopefully help out the overworked staff.

You may be able to guess which store is closer to the model on which I'm planning my own future bookstore. But as both have learned what's needed by their neighborhoods, their customers, their markets, I have a heck of a lot to learn from both.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chronicle: California and Catchup

Your friendly neighborhood BookNerd is back in Brooklyn after a lovely relaxing week in California, and newly energized to jump back into the ongoing conversation about books and bookselling. I've responded to several of your posts, so see below for my thoughts -- I'm grateful for your input and your words of encouragement. I'll be responding to your emails as I have time to give them the attention they deserve -- please bear with me as I deal with the surprising amount of backlog! I'm still working on my HTML skills too (woefully inadequate, due to my non-tech humanities education), so links may take some time to appear, and the format will hopefully only improve with time.

Talk about encouragement -- I was floored to find myself mentioned in the daily email of Shelf Awareness, an extremely well-researched summary of events in the literary world geared toward booksellers. Thanks to everyone for the publicity -- I feel like an institution! Actually, I feel like maybe the flavor of the week. But I plan to keep plugging away after this heady flurry of attention has passed, and I hope I'll still find all of you out there to talk to.

So, as it often turns out, I ended up reading neither of the books on my list on the plane, but something completely different instead. The ALP (adorably literate partner), aware of my plane reading agonies, gave me a copy of Conjunctions: 39, an edition of the twice-yearly literary journal. This edition was called THE NEW FABULISTS, which shows how well he knows me: it was devoted exclusively to contemporary literary sci-fi, fantasy, and genre writers. This kind of writing has been an obsession of mine since Michael Chabon edited the brilliant MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES, which showcased ghost, mystery, fairy, and adventure stories from contemporary literary heavies. The obsession probably goes back much further, to my C.S. Lewis and Mervyn Peake days, but I love the fact that so many young (and not-so-young) writers are taking advantage of a postmodern anything-goes zeitgeist to explore larger-than-life stories, which at its best, fantasy can produce.

The issue is hit and miss for me, as is the case with most anthologies. Some of the stories are "fabulist" only by a long stretch, and some were so experimental as to be boring. However, there were some knockouts: Kelly Link's "Lull", which I'd read in her collection MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS, is a multi-layered masterpiece; China Mieville' "Familiar" is toe-curlingly eerie and beguiling; Karen Joy Fowler's "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man" is a wonderfully twisted coming-of-age story; and Neil Gaiman's "October in the Chair" is satisying, if too short. But my favorite was by Andy Duncan, whom I'd never heard of before. His story "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" is basically set inside the world of the old hobo song about the place with "the lake of stew, and of whiskey too," and how our hero has to leave it and return again to figure out who he is and how he got to this paradise. It happens to be among the less dark stories in the collection (I don't mind dark but I'm a sucker for those who can make depth and drama out of happiness and joy), and it kept me enthralled. I guess I'll have to find more of his work.


At my mother's house in California, I glommed on to her copy of the catalog from A Common Reader, which in my opinion recreates the experience of an independent bookstore in mail-order (and website) form: careful selections, great descriptions and recommendations, the sense of a real personality. I actually suggested that I highlight some titles from the catalog for potential Christmas presents, prompting her to ask, "Wouldn't it make more sense for you to just get them at your store discount and I'll pay you back?"

It's a fair question: why, with books at employee discounts or as free reading copies at my disposal, do I continue to buy and request books? The answer can only be a deepseated and incurable addiction. Thank you all for enabling me.


(Coming soon: BookNerd's Best Books of 2005!)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Brief Hiatus

It seems like a silly time to take a break -- there are so many great conversations starting here! But I'm off to California until Saturday, and as it's the only time I get to see my family during the year, I probably won't have time for blogging. Please continue your interesting comments -- I look forward to engaging with all of you when I return next weekend (and I'll reveal who made the plane-reading cut). Happy reading!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Comment/Review: Airplane reading

For book people, the biggest question when taking a trip isn't What should I wear? What should I pack? Which suitcase should I bring? No, of course the vital question is, What am I going to read on the plane?

I'm leaving pretty soon to spend Thanksgiving week with my family in California -- a six-hour flight, plenty of time to get into something good. I love recommending plane books to customers -- it's a chance for them to spend a big chunk of time reading, and a good way to sink deeply into books that would suffer from short bursts of reading time. I tend to favor books that are rich and meaty, but not too heavy -- you don't want someone to get off the plane in a blue funk. It all depends on the taste and mood of the reader, of course -- some people want a beach read, and some want to tackle the Dostoyevsky they've been meaning to read since high school. It's highly ideosyncratic, different every time, and lots of fun if you happen to be a book nerd.

Since I wasn't able to lay my hands on a copy of Vollman's EUROPE CENTRAL, I've been toying with books already on my bookshelf as potential plane reads. The two top choices right now are THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS by Richard Powers and MILL ON THE FLOSS by George Eliot. I fell in love with Powers' most recent book, THE TIME OF OUR SINGING, when it came out a couple of years ago, and I've been working through his backlist ever since. He definitely passes the dense and meaty test -- he's astoundingly brilliant, his sentences are linguistic and witty treats, and his subject matter is the stuff of "serious play" -- making connections between the largest themes of life. As I describe him to people, each of his books finds a perspective, and from there is about the entire world. TIME OF OUR SINGING was about relativity, music, and race in America; THREE FARMERS ON THE WAY TO A DANCE was about photography, progress, innocence, and World War I; PRISONER'S DILEMMA (reportedly the model for Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS) was about family dynamics, World War II, absolutes of morality, and Disney. The next one on my list is apparently about genetics and music, and it's a weighty one, all right. If I get into Powers I'll be blissfully dead to the world; if I'm too distracted, it will be hard to absorb his complexity.

I'm thinking of Eliot because I read MIDDLEMARCH last year about this time, and was amazed I'd never read it before. The author seems to me to combine the sense of delicate interpersonal dynamics of Austen, the gray-shaded but high-minded morality of Dickens, the social awareness and conscience of, I don't know, Karl Marx, and the sense of the subtle flow of events of Woolf. She's truly a wide open mind, and her book was absorbing and thought-provoking. I have a nice little mass-market edition of MILL ON THE FLOSS, so that might be a good choice.

Then again, there's always P.G. Wodehouse. And I suspect I may indulge my travelling habit of buying a brainless newspaper in the airport. Oh well -- you've got to aim high.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Comment: My People

So, I somewhat tentatively sent out an email about this blog to a long list of the folks in my address book on Thursday morning. The response already has been embarassingly wonderful. Everyone from my high school English teacher to Larry Portzline of Bookstore Tourism has commented or emailed to say that they're reading and enjoying. And best of all for me, I've heard from a bunch of my fellow booksellers with notes of enthusiasm and encouragement. Thanks, guys.

This last couple of days made me think of a time when I worked in a neighborhood where two independent coffee shops opened up around the same time. (Bear with me, this is relevant in the end.) As things settled out, they ended up serving very different clientele: one was the haunt of the older neighborhood denizens, and one was the hangout of a high-powered telecommuter crowd. But unfortunately, there was an intense amount of unfriendly competition between the two. The proprietors of the two shops were in print as denigrating each other, and they'd make snarky off-hand remarks about the other's place whenever it came up. I happened to like both -- one had better espresso, the other played better music -- but I had to keep my divided loyalty a secret so as not to offend the likeable staff of either place. This was in spite of the fact that both were in competition with any number of Starbucks within walking distance.

In the same neighborhood were two bookshops, less than a block from each other. (I worked at one.) Granted, they'd both been around a long time, so their respective areas of expertise were pretty well delineated. But the amount of cooperation between the two was amazing. We shared catalogs, traded books when our stock ran low, recommended each other for offsite events when we were unavailable, and most importantly, recommended each other to our customers when we didn't have the book they wanted but the other place did. It didn't do either of us any harm, and many people became customers of both shops based on our mutual recommendations.

My point is that the outpouring of support for my little efforts here seems to me to be indicative of a mindset among independent booksellers: we know we are not each others' competition. Our competitors are the chains and the internet, not other independents. Most booksellers seem to have really internalized the realization that the more we support each other, the better things go for all of us. That's why independents have the potential to form such powerful alliances, like the ABA, which can become a voice that publishers and the public can hear. Our collaboration is possible because we know that our unique neighborhood-determined shops mean that we can complement each other and increase the customer base for all independents by recommending each other. More than many businesses, independent bookselling is one in which relationships, not undercutting, are valued as business tools. Duh, that's one of the reasons why I love it.

The practice of recommending other stores -- even calling other stores to see if they have the book a customer is looking for -- is one I like to call the "Macy's-Gimble's Phenomenon," after Kris Kringle's ingenious innovation in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. One of my dreams is that regional bookstores could develop a database of the specialities and expertise of all of the bookstores in their area, so that they would know where to send customers even if they'd never been to the store themselves. There used to be a couple of "books of bookstores" for the New York area, but most are out of print because bookstores open and close and it's hard to stay up to date. I think the task of maintaining a list of independent stores is one which could best be undertaken by the bookstores themselves.

I've started a project recently to try to visit all of the bookstores in the New York area. I don't have a timeline or a specific agenda -- I just want to try to get to all of them and see what's out there. Maybe that will be the first step in developing that database. We'll see what happens, and I'd welcome any comments or suggestions. I'm a little shy, but invigorated to know that some of you are reading now, and I hope to hear from you on this and other issues.

Man, I love my people.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Comment: Vollman and the National Book Awards

I was making coffee and listening to NPR this morning when my partner (and several surrounding apartments) might have heard me say "WHAT?!?" I had just heard that William Vollman's EUROPE CENTRAL had won the National Book Award for fiction. The announcement was made as a kind of footnote to Joan Didion's win in nonfiction for THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (which was almost a foregone conclusion, and must make things strange for her, as the award comes at the cost of the deaths of her husband and daughter).

To be honest, I had forgotten that Vollman had even been nominated for the award -- I had glanced at EUROPE CENTRAL when it came out in hardcover and shuddered at how difficult it looked, filled with respect for those who would tackle its 800 pages. And my surprise (and initial indignation) came from the fact that he's not only difficult, but very little known, and it seemed like a purposefully pretentious choice on the part of the judges.

But as I look back at the nominees, I realize there's not really anyone I think should have won instead. Doctorow's MARCH (the only mainstream bestseller) was clearly the favorite, followed by Gaitskill's VERONICA, but I haven't read either or felt any desire to do so. Steinke's HOLY SKIRTS is the only one I know much about, since it's a fictional biography of insane genius Dadaist model perfomance artist New Yorker Baroness Elsa. And Christopher Sorrentino I've heard spoken of respectfully, but he also seems dauntingly difficult.

Fortunately, I was able to recover from my reflexive reaction thanks to having my thoughts on the subject of book awards crystallized by A.O. Scott's brilliant article in the Sunday Times Book Review. Scott explores the paradoxical complaints about the NBA, the Booker Prize, the Whitbread and Pen Faulkner and all the new literary awards cropping up all the time: either they're disgustingly commercial or disgustingly elitist, snobby or pandering. Written before the NBA was announced, his article is amazingly prescient:

"Anyway, the winners will be the obvious choices, authors who have already won plenty of prizes and acclaim, in which case what's the point? ... Either that, or the winners will be people nobody outside a tiny elite has ever heard of... in which case . . . well, see above."

Vollman falls into the second category, obviously, but when one honestly considers the options, that doesn't seem so bad. Sales of his book will likely spike briefly, and perhaps longer if it gets good word-of-mouth from average readers. As a bookseller, I am more likely to have positive feelings about literary awards because of this fact, regardless of fairly or arbitrarily they are awarded. But it does matter whether the books deserve their prize, if only because the award itself needs to maintain its value and integrity. If the NBA winner veers one year toward the commercial and the next toward the obscure, perhaps that's for the best in order to strive for balance and interest readers of all kinds each year.

In my long-held opinion, the lists of nominees for book awards are more helpful and indicative than the actual winner. The shortlist of nominees this year obviously contains some serious writers whose critical reception suggests they deserve a wider readership, at least among those interested in the heavy stuff. Maybe I'll even give Vollman or Sorrentino a try myself. I have a long plane flight coming up, and if they don't keep me interested, maybe they'll help me sleep.

Congratulations to all the winners. I'm especially pleased that Merwin won the poetry award -- I'm a fan of his work, and while I haven't gotten a chance to get to MIGRATIONS yet this will be a good motivation. We booksellers will happily be selling all the winners through the holidays, and hoping their reputations continue to grow.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Chronicle and Comments: KGB & J.T.

(Disclaimer: Today's post was written in a hurry and contains some pretentious New York City namedropping. Read at your own risk of annoyance.)

Last night I made an appearance at KGB Bar on East 4th Street for a goodbye party for an editor. She's graciously accepted my book reviews (and paid me) for a couple of years, and is now migrating west to work on her already-sold novel, so I thought it would be nice to stop by and show my face, since we'd never met in person. I hadn't been to KGB in a couple of years -- I used to go often when I was at NYU, since a professor of mine ran the Monday night poetry reading series. There's a gigantic neon "KGB" sign outside, and a set of stairs just inside the door. The first floor is a small theater, and the bar is on the second. It's just one room, all read, decorated with old Soviet propaganda posters and stencils of Lenin. Strangely cozy, in an ironic sort of way.

My former editor introduced me to my new editor, and we chatted for the duration of a long glass of wine. He looked tired (he's doing two people's work at the moment), but very wryly funny. As is my wont, I chattered on about bookstores -- he loves the store where I work now (maybe more than I do). When I started to tell him about my plans to start an indie of my own in Brooklyn, he asked if I'd like to write a piece about my quixotic struggle to open a bookstore. Of course I would, though I haven't gotten very far in the process yet. But I'm definitely going to start taking notes. As for his suggestion that I could get a book or two out of this -- maybe a little overambitious, even for me.

In other news, the blog of Atomic Books (one of the coolest new indies that I know about, at least based on their website) points out the debate over the reality of cult favorite author J.T. LeRoy. Apparently this article in New York Magazine has prompted the New York Times to stop publication of some articles they'd commisioned from LeRoy, on the grounds that he may be a made-up person.

I sold books at a J.T. LeRoy event a couple of years ago at Fez Cafe. Since the author is reportedly too shy to read from his own book, there were some fun literary celebrities reading from his book, including Michael Musto and Arthur Bradford. My friends and I speculated about whether J.T. might have made a covert appearance, as he supposedly often does. We identified a frumpy-looking woman who might have been a young man in drag. Then again, she might have been a frumpy-looking woman pretending to be a young man in drag, or a young man in drag who is not the author of J.T. LeRoy's books.

The world may never know.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Review: The Brooklyn Follies

THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES
by Paul Auster
Henry Holt
Publication Date: January 2006

I'm sorry to be reviewing something that isn't available to most outside the publishing community for a couple of months, but I wanted to get my thoughts down before they fade. This is a book I read in one day -- an extremely rare thing, and like the books that make you miss your subway stop, a good indicator of how compelling this novel was for me. I'm a Paul Auster fan, though I started late with THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS and ORACLE NIGHT, and am only now coming to some of his earlier work (I have yet to find the time to sit down with the NEW YORK TRILOGY, though it's high on the list of non-new releases I want to read). He seems to me an eloquent storyteller of the city, with plots that sometimes seem modeled after New York streets; he's unafraid of lots of plot, and he sometimes lets his characters get stuck down a dark alley or around an unexpected corner. He's the kind of "postmodern" writer I like -- intelligently having fun with the freedom to use all genres, all voices, all non-traditional structures in the service of something powerful and pleasurable.

This new novel is actually a lot less dark than his two previous novels, and from what I've gathered than his previous work as well. Maybe he's been spending more time in the sunnier borough of Brooklyn, where he makes his home -- this is a novel of neighbors and neighborhoods, not of anonymity and bleak high rise rooms. The story is narrated by a retired insurance salesman, Nathan Glass, who grew up in Brooklyn and has returned there, half jokingly, to die. Glass is divorced, had cancer but beat it, and is planning to live out his remaining days in comfortable solitude. But an encounter with a long-lost nephew, the nephew's charismatic employer, and the sudden appearance of a child without her mother (another relative) hurtles him back into the world of relationships and dramatic goings-on. The plot is breathtakingly suspenseful, but never dips too deeply into darkness, and with a few exceptions, things turn out much as everyone would like, though not necessarily as you'd expect.

Three of the main characters have the last names of Glass, Wood, and Brightman, which is what started me thinking about comparing this novel to Dickens, with his emblematic last names, though these are much more sleek and contemporary than Fezziwig and Murdstone. This seems to me a Dickensian book in many ways: real moral dilemmas are faced, coincidences and plot twists run amuck, the hero finds himself changed by his fellow men, and the city itself plays a characteristic role. Not to mention the happy ending, which is immensely satisfying in a way that has nothing to do with expectations of harsh realism. (Auster subverts the ending somewhat disturbingly on the very last page, but this coda in no way changes the fact that this is basically a novel about happiness.)

Throughout the book, the characters discuss an idea they come to call the Hotel Existence: a real or imaginary retreat from the problems of the world, where all of the luxuries and interests you can imagine are there in a place of safety and companionship. At one point it is suggested that a Vermont hotel may be the embodiment of the idea, but I think for Auster the real Hotel Existence is Brooklyn itself. All vices and desires are represented there, but the strong fabric of the neighborhoods and the enduring hominess of the architecture, and all of the other indeterminable factors that make the borough "the world's biggest small town," mean that in some ways Brooklyn (at least the Brooklyn these characters live in) is both a safe retreat and a place to become deeply involved and fulfilled.

Incidentally, I tend to feel the same way about Brooklyn. It feels more like a hometown to me than anywhere I've lived since my childhood -- a place of traditions and of wild new possibilities. But even if you don't share the feeling, Auster's latest is definitely worth a read. Don't come looking for his traditional noirishness; just enjoy a grab-you-by-the-collar story full of meaty details and compelling characters that is as satisfying as a fat Dickens novel, with a very contemporary sensibility.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Response: Why Amazon Is Not the Best Thing to Happen to Bookselling

On Halloween, Bookslut provided a link to an article by Alison Rowat in the Glasgow Herald titled "Why Amazon is the best thing to happen to bookselling." (It's now been archived; here is a link to the abstract, and I'm happy to email the entire article to anyone who requests it.) I forwarded it to my local booksellers listserve immediately for consideration, but I've been stewing about it ever since. My first reaction to Rowat's complete dismissal of independent booksellers as "fantasy merchants" and "dated as ration books" was so dumbfounded, so full of personal righteous indignation, that I didn't feel capable of gathering my thoughts for a reasoned response. Tonight, however, serving my quiet shift at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company (another quixotic venture I'll expand upon later), I feel ready to marshal my passion into the service of logic and offer my refutation of the points Rowat has put forward.

(To some, it may seem like a bit of an overreaction to so meticulously respond to an article in a small overseas online periodical, especially one written in a fairly tossed-off, ain't-it-obvious tone, and probably geared toward a set of readers entirely different from anyone likely to read me here. But I'm afraid Rowat's comments are indicative of a thoughtless mindset unfortunately widespread among book buyers. And I hope that we, as booksellers, can "be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you" [as the underdog early Christians were admonished, if you'll forgive an un-PC literary allusion]. It matters that we know why and how she is wrong. This isn't for the Rowats of the world; it's for the independents who want to change their minds.)

First, I have to acknowledge that there is some truth in Rowat's defense of Amazon.com against the charge that it (along with Britain's Waterstones and America's Barnes & Noble) is destroying literature by offering nothing but blockbusters. As she rightly points out, Amazon makes a huge variety of books, both super-hyped and relatively obscure, available to would-be readers who don't have a local bookstore, or whose local bookstore doesn't carry what they want to read. This has been a boon for those outside of major urban areas in the same way that many, many aspects of the Internet and its age have been, and I don't begrudge Amazon its success, or those readers their books -- more power to them.

But my argument comes down, more or less, to this (credit for the metaphor to my adorably literate partner and housemate, who helps me focus my ranting). Amazon is to an independent local bookstore what the liquor section of the grocery store is to a local pub. Heck yeah, the stuff at the former is cheaper, and they probably have any variety you could think to want. But you don't go to the latter for the prices or the convenience, do you? People visit there for the product, yes, but also for a good recommendation, for the serendipity of who or what you'll find there, for the soul-strengthening reality of being in a building, on a street, with other people. They go there for community. And they go there for the good stuff you can only get in small doses, with luck, from a friendly host.

Okay, I've stretched the metaphor far enough. Truth is, as Rowat implies, there is a lot of nostalgia for an idyllic pre-virtual age in some of the grousing about Amazon, and indie bookstores aren't perfect little Edens, for the most part. What they are, however, is a very real, very contemporary, vibrant and changing part of the literary and cultural world, and one which can (potentially) offer benefits which Amazon simply cannot. Take, for example, the issue of recommendations. Rowat praises Amazon for suggesting "you may also enjoy" books by Saul Bellow when she purchases Portnoy's Complaint online. (She asserts, rather surprisingly, that she has had "bad" books pushed on her at brick-and-mortar stores by booksellers needing to get rid of overstock. I've never heard of this practice, which seems unlikely since a bookseller can always return unsold stock to the publisher, but if it's happened that bookstore deserves her criticism - neighborhood bookstores thrive on trust and returning customers, not on one quick sale. And I have heard it suggested, though I cannot prove, that in some cases Amazon actually accepts payola [i.e. co-op dollars] for prominent placement of books, rather than relying on any editorial discretion.)

In my opinion, it's pretty easy to give Bellow to a Roth reader -- heck, a computer could do it. Both authors fit easily into a certain era and sensibility. But to suggest that a fan of Portnoy's Complaint might also enjoy the dark hilarity, sexual anxiety, and Jewish cultural subtexts of Daniel Handler's (aka Lemony Snicket's) under appreciated adult novel Watch Your Mouth? That takes more insight, and more time, than an automatically generated list of "matches" can provide. It takes a bookseller.

I actually suspect that Rowat, perhaps like many Amazon users, doesn't really get much use out of the depth and variety that she touts as Amazon's strength. (As Andrew Laties, author of the phenomenal Rebel Bookseller advises, what customers say they want isn't always the same as what they do want, and superstores like B&N actually refer to most of their non-bestseller titles as "wallpaper" because of the merely decorative function they serve in such a store.) She complains that the brick-and-mortar store she visited didn't have a copy of the Man Booker Prize-nominated book she asked for. (This could have been oversight on the part of the bookstore, though it could also have been a result of over ordering by, and preferential treatment of, Amazon and the chains, which has been known to happen in the case of a big book.)

Rowat found her book on Amazon, of course. The book has been culturally vetted, one of the few that achieve wide enough notice that it becomes a must-have, go-to item. But as many readers and booksellers know, awards or blockbuster status or cultural cachet can be fickle and arbitrary things, and many readable, important, thought-provoking, brilliant, original, worthy, and loveable books fall through the cracks. The only way to discover them is to get them from someone who really knows your taste -- or just to browse a good selection and see what you run across. These two things, community and serendipity, are the treasures available from independent stores which, for all its riches, Amazon cannot provide.

For all its length now, my thoughts only scratch the surface of the online megastore/independent debate. Other voices have joined in the discussion of this particular piece: here, and here , for starters. (A quick Googling of Alison Rowat will reveal that her style and depth of coverage has made her more enemies that friends on previous occasions as well.) And I know that independents are actually gaining force and will to continue to find their place in a digital age, something I mean to chronicle here. Rowat compares Amazon to Dickens' publishing in periodicals, as "turning the technology of the age to his advantage." But buying well-known books from the standard online source isn't the same thing as creative use of technology. Independents will thrive as they bring their talents to the electronic age with passion instead of fear: with effective online ordering, websites full of their employees' unique recommendations, blogs to bring community and serendipity to a wider market.

We don't need to hate Amazon for what it does. We need to do what we do better. Because what we do is irreplaceable. A good local independent bookstore may be the stuff of book lovers' fantasies. But it's also as real as the corner bar, and getting better all the time.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Cubicle vs. Sale Floor

It's been more than a week since my last confession... er, post, and it's likely to be a while before I can post again. The reason for this isnt' that I've got nothing to say or I've lost interest in saying it -- it's that I do not work in a place that is conducive to self-expression in this form.

I lasted a scant ten months in the corporate world (and it was a college publisher, so it wasn't THAT corporate) after I graduated from college, before fleeing back to the world of bookselling, where I'd worked part time as a student. Cubicle life made me weepy and itchy and filled with loathing for self and others, and it was an incredible relief to leave it. But there are two things I do envy the office worker: privacy, and free time. Not to say they don't work hard -- I know many do. But there's a difference between working at your desk to edit a manuscript, and being available to customers every minute of the day. Even if I do have a long-term computer project going, I will drop it at a moment's notice to help someone find the book they're looking for. If there's not a customer at that moment, there's receiving, shelving, sorting, display work, and in my case, keeping an eye on the other sales floor folk to make sure they're being attentive to the customers as well. That's my real job, and I love it. I love the interactions with non-virtual objects and real-time people -- it's one of the million reasons why I'm doing this.

But it does cut in to the blogging time.

I think this is why there are so few bookseller blogs. I'll try to steal a few minutes here and there, or just get up earlier. This is just a disclaimer about the nature of retail, even of the noblest and most fun sort.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Chronicle: The NAIBA 2005 Fall Trade Show

So last weekend I went to the fall trade show of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, held in the beautiful (gah) Tropicana in Atlantic City. Not being a gambler, I have the usual appalled reaction to people who don't look like they can afford it throwing their money down machines in an imitation colonial port where the light never changes. Worse than the fake insides of the giant casino/hotels – or just bad in a complimentary way – is the outside world of Atlantic City: boarded up storefronts, pawn shops, by-the-hour hotels, and the inevitably jaded Jitney bus drivers. The boardwalk I do like – its cheerful seediness reminds me of Coney Island – but the rest of the city depresses the heck out of me. I actually saw one giant used-book-store-slash-antique-shop on the bus ride to the hotel, but I've never heard of the independent bookstores of Atlantic City. Certainly none were represented at the show.

At the show itself, however – in our set of meeting and eating rooms off the main casino floor – I felt the mood was refreshingly optimistic. I attended this NAIBA fall show for the first time last year, and almost came to harsh words with another bookseller (who later became a friend) because I felt their attitude about the plight of independents was defeatist and flawed. (To be fair, that bookseller, Dean Avery of Ariel Books in New Paltz, was forced to announce the closing of his store this year. He had reason to be pessimistic, and we'll miss him.) Publishers don't care about us, chains are pushing us out, people are using Amazon instead of brick and mortar stores, we have to discount ourselves out of existence – common and possibly reasonable complaints, but as a fresh-faced young bookseller who's just found her life's work, I was puzzled and bit indignant that the joy seemed to have gone out of my fellow booksellers, that they faced the future not with fresh plans and new excitement but with a sense of dread, just trying to keep their heads above water. As a New Yorker, I realize booksellers in this town may have an easier time of it than most, but we still face competition from the same sources. I learned some good tips and made some good friends, but I determined to think differently and look for the change to come.

This year, it seemed the change had come, or is coming. The keynote speaker was Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English in Salt Lake City – hardly known as a bastion of the literature-reading public, but Betsy has made good in an incredible way. A cheerful and forceful personality, Betsy has been at the forefront of the Buy Local First movement in her area, and she has great reports about the increasing consumer awareness of the negative effects of chain stores, and of the importance of community which locally owned businesses provide. There are a number of recent studies from various cities (they're available on the ABA website, www.bookweb.com) showing that a much higher percentage of every dollar spent in local businesses stays to recirculate in the community (as opposed to those spent in chains, which tend to go to national headquarters and fail to help the local economy). Armed with this and other data, and led in many cases by local bookstores, "Local First" movements are springing up around the country at a grassroots level. My favorite is the "Keep Austin Weird" movement, which has been very successful in raising consciousness about preserving unique local businesses in that most enlightened of Texas cities. Betsy assured us that the tide has turned, that a backlash is starting against "the chains" (as we indies contemptuously clump them), and that there is hope for vibrant local scenes where bookstores, especially, can thrive. There was some skepticism in the room, and clearly stores face different situations depending on their own local economics, demographics, and other factors. But there was a resoundingly positive response to these encouraging new ideas, and I found it set the tone for the rest of the show.

NAIBA and the Tropicana fed us very well, and booksellers were treated to meetings with lots of authors over lunch and dinner. Jonathan Safran Foer and Pete Hamill both spoke at lunch, and both made me proud to live and read in Brooklyn. The show floor itself was a chance to meet the sales reps we talk to on the phone, and of course to pick up some swag in the form of reading copies of books to come. I have some favorites, of course, which I'll discuss in detail in the next installment. The most relevant title, perhaps, is one called REBEL BOOKSELLER, written by a longtime indie bookseller with an eye toward starting local stores and competing successfully with chains. It's published by Vox Pop, the publishing arm of a new indie store right here in Brooklyn. I can't wait to visit the store and read the book, and I'll give the full report here when I do. BOOKMARK NOW, a collection of pieces on 21st century writing and publishing edited by Kevin Smokler, is one I've read already which was also on display, and I had a good conversation with the Basic Books rep about its relevance for the exciting new developments in the literary world.

The theme of the trade show (because it has to have a theme, just like the senior prom) was "Sea Change By The Seashore", with an adaptation of the passage from The Tempest: "Bookselling but doth suffer a sea change, / Into something rich and strange." It's an oddly high-flown motto (and what do we mean by "strange"?) but, I think, prescient. Things are changing, in publishing, in retail, and always in writing. Bookstores are at the crossroads of these changes, and it's exciting to be here and involved at this particular moment.

I just hope next year they have the show in Baltimore.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

First Installment: My Overenthusiasm

Here's the thing: I struggle with the dichotomy of hipness when it comes to books and bookselling and the literary world. I've spent time in publishing (trade and college), literary agenting, book reviewing, and independent bookselling on both large and small scales, and I've been reading since before I could pronounce my "r"s, so I know a lot of books and authors and folks in the biz. I work now in a well-established bookstore in New York City, the throbbing center of the American publishing industry. I've gone to posh author dinners and shaken hands with big name authors and I know the buzz on books that will be published six months from now. So that makes me kind of hip, I guess, in my very small world. But I suffer from that killer of coolness, overenthusiasm. I am so crazy about literature that authors are my rock stars: I speculate about their lives, get all goofy when they're around, talk endlessly about their influences and comparative merits. I confound my coworkers with my desire to learn more, do more, take on extra jobs in the store because I just love doing it. I am so excited about bookselling, as the place where literature hits the streets, and as a possibility for the creation of community which is grounded in tradition but looking forward to the most exciting developments of a new age, that I bore even my bookseller friends. I do so much talking about this stuff that I finally realized I'd better start talking to more people. So here's the beginning. There are a wealth of fantastic literary blogs out there -- I'll link to some of my favorites. There are even some booksellers getting into the act. This will be a place to record cool experiences in the literary biz, to talk about books that I'm excited about, and to speculate and plan endlessly for my own bookstore, a goal that I'm working toward with embarassing giddiness. I hope some other book folks can read and share and enjoy. I'll probably keep right on chattering either way.