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, 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.