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!

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"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)

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"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)

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"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.)

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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."

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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.