Friday, December 29, 2006
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
I've got a day to rest up, make Christmas cookies and finish up those last mix CDs (my perennial gift to family and friends, along with books, of course), and to draw your attention to some items in the news, several of which relate to the ongoing conversation about indie bookstores and community.
Russ Lawrence, one of the owners of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana, is also the president of the American Booksellers Association. He's written this article in Bookselling This Week about the struggle -- and the necessity -- of working together as independent bookstores, as well as the rewards he's found in seeing cooperation increase during his term. It's an insightful article that both acknowledges our history and looks to the future -- check it out!
Bud Parr of Chekhov's Mistress hepped me to the fact that he's got an annotated list of New York City independent bookstores on his blog, often updated and quite personable. It's a great intro to our fabulous bookstore scene.
Sadly, Bud's going to have to remove one more store from that list: the New York Times reports today that Mystery Ink and Ivy Books will close at the end of this month. The article mentions, among other things, a monthly rent of $18,000 (!!!) as one of the reasons for the closure, as well as the encroachment of chains and the aging of its customer base. These Upper West Side bookstores were neighborhood institutions, and their closure is truly a huge loss to our community. If you're local, try to visit the store before the 31st and show your support.
The NY Times also has taken an unusual step in offering up the editor of the Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, for questions as part of their "Talk to the Newsroom" series. The NYTBR is often considered the book world version of "The Man", the arbitrary arbiter of taste and the seat of power, and thus comes in for a lot of criticism (some of it justified) for not including enough women authors, women reviewers, indie press books, etc. Tanenhaus responds to some of these criticisms and others in this interview. It's an interesting look behind the scenes at one of the major institutions of the literary world, run, as they all are, by just some guy like the rest of us.
But there are other resources for book news and reviews, as you blog readers know, and the spate of comments and links recently has led me to some new ones. Antiquarian Michael Lieberman's Book Patrol is a great new discovery, with a bookseller's perspective and a ton of great links. The anonymous author of Bibliotonic (I only know she's an editor) has a nice retrospective on the closing of Micawber's bookstore in Princeton. And she also led me to the blog of Wendy Werris, longtime beloved sales rep and author of An Alphabetical Life; her take on the book tour from one who's seen all sides is hilarious. There's always plenty to read, isn't there?
This will probably be my last post before Christmas -- I'm working straight through until Saturday, then flying home for a flying visit to my family, replete with tears and giggles and songs and movies and books and food and lots of idiosyncratic traditions. I'll try to check back before New Year's to post reviews of my last couple of books (the suspenseful question: will the holiday reading put me over the "52 books in a year mark" I aimed for in January?), and with my own year-end best-of list. In the meantime, I'm curious -- any books on your Christmas list, for giving or getting? And what WILL you read on the plane?
Thanks so much for all of your links, emails, comments, and just for reading -- it's been a wonderful year, and it's ending on a high note, I think. A very Merry Christmas to all, and to all -- happy reading!
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
The New York bookselling community doesn’t seem to exist.
We’ve estimated (generously) that about 15% of the attendees at our Emerging Leaders Nights Out have been from bookstores, with all the rest from publishing houses or literary agencies. Almost no booksellers have attended more than once. And our invite emails to the “general” address of many, many local bookstores have gone almost universally unanswered. It's not from a lack of bookstores; I have a list of over 50 independents in the greater metro area that are currently open. There are probably a lot more publishing employees than booksellers in the city, but I know there are more booksellers than this.
To be honest, I probably could have predicted this. New York City booksellers are notoriously uninvolved in their regional association, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association. At the fall trade show, I was one of only two New York stores represented. The city holds the greatest concentration of stores, if not the majority of the stores in the region, but they’re not really much of a factor in decision making, networking, education, or advocacy on the regional level, because they just don’t join, and they don’t go. And not only do they not join official communities, but many don’t support their fellow indies informally. There are certainly some booksellers who know each other, and some bookstores that work together. But many would rather send a customer away disappointed than send them to a bookstore they see as a competitor.
The two obvious questions are, why is this the case? And why does it matter? The answer to the first I think has some roots in both bookstore culture and New York City culture. Unfortunately, the old New Yorker magazine cover that showed the map of the world, where 9th Avenue took up approximately as much space as all of New Jersey (and most of Russia), is fairly accurate to many New Yorkers’ view of things. Life outside the city just doesn’t matter that much; “their” problems are not “our” problems. “We” just wouldn’t have much to say to a store from, say, Chester County, PA (an example I pick for its absurdity, as Chester County Books & Music is obviously doing much better than many a New York City store). And in some cases the New York Attitude can extend even to neighborhoods: what could my store in SoHo/Upper West Side/Park Slope/Chelsea/East Village possibly have in common with that other store in another neighborhood?
Bookstore culture is the other factor. Independent bookstore owners tend to be… independent. Even iconoclastic, eccentric, or hermitish (though of course this varies wildly from person to person). They don’t tend to be “joiners.” Many consider their kooky little neighborhood venture as a singular entity that, once again, doesn’t have anything in common with any other bookstore. The independent spirit that makes for unique stock, colorful employees, one-of-a-kind spaces, and one-one-one relationships, can also mean that indie bookstores shun anything that seems it might threaten their independence, even if it’s a loose network of similarly independent stores. I think this is a mentality more common in older, smaller stores, but it’s still around.
These two attitudes combined – New York snobbery meeting indie bookstore eccentricity – mean that (at least it seems to me) there’s an unfortunate tendency for New York bookstores to pull in their skirts, grumble that Store X is doing better than us and turn up our nose at Store Y that’s struggling, rather than consider that we’re all in the same boat. It’s a common response in a crisis (more on that later), but it’s pretty obvious it does more harm than good.
The other, major aspect of bookstore culture that prevents a community, especially a community of young people, is the confusion about whether being a bookseller is a profession or not. For many, it actually is not. It’s a part-time retail job (albeit a supercool one), the equivalent of working at the Gap or Hot Dog On A Stick, which is performed for a finite amount of time, for very little pay, and no investment in the company itself. Fair enough.
Unfortunately, the perception of dilettantism can extend even to employees who HAVE been with a bookstore a long time, who ARE invested in the store’s goals and well-being, and who are skilled and knowledgeable enough that they are major contributors to the store and thus to the book industry itself. These are the people Robert Gray calls “frontline booksellers,” the ones on the sales floor, putting books in customers’ hands. But ask them what they do, and they’ll tell you they’re working in a bookstore while they work on their novel, or album, or degree, or plan for life, even if they’re loving their job as a bookseller and rockin’ it old school.
Maybe I’m wrong about this; I only suspect it because I struggled with it myself. The whole “if you don’t have an office/title/publication/PhD, it’s not a Real Job” mentality was inescapable, until the ALP’s observation that I loved what I was doing induced an epiphany that bookselling is, in fact, my career. That many booksellers don’t necessarily consider themselves skilled professionals with a stake in the state of their industry is an indicator of a kind of ingrained anti-retail prejudice. Fact is, if you’re good at what you do, and you get paid for it, you’re a professional. And frontline booksellers are the overlooked professionals of the book industry. They make the transaction – selling a book to a customer – that is the end goal of every agent, editor, publicist, sales rep, and marketer, in every publishing house, anywhere. And they create the space where books are browsed, discovered, and shared: the very arena of literary culture.
Which leads to the second question: why is a bookseller community important, why does it matter. It matters in part because being part of a group of professionals reinforces the idea that one is a professional, and helps one to start thinking in more creative and powerful ways about the world that one works in. That was a weirdly passive sentence there, but what I mean is that my transition to career bookseller didn’t start until I went to my first NAIBA trade show, and found myself surrounded by others who cared about the same things I did. I started thinking about my bookstore not as just the place I punched the clock, but a vibrant part of a larger industry, and one that could be a factor in where that industry went. Booksellers need to hang out with each other in order to find their place in the book world. It sounds abstract, but it’s the beginning of revivifying independent bookstores, and ensuring their future. Without professional booksellers to carry the torch, independent bookstores will no doubt be slowly replaced by chains, corporate decision makers and ever more wage slaves. Bookstore owners in particular ought to encourage their staff to become part of the professional community if they care about the longevity of their stores.
Because, though I know I’m the poster girl for optimism about the future of indie bookstores, there are some major obstacles to making a store work, especially in New York City: astronomical rents, corporate financial clout, the tyrannical convenience of the internet. Many a bookstore has gone under because their business model just couldn’t cope with the changes in the retail environment and the book industry. I could be wrong, but I suspect the stores that closed were not the stores who were constantly in communication with their fellow stores, attending conferences to learn about new developments, hobnobbing with like-minded folks in publishing or other aspects of the industry to get ideas, staying connected in order to stay ahead. They probably thought “independent bookstore” meant “we don’t need anybody.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
We all sold a great book a year or so ago called THE WISDOM OF CROWDS by James Surowicki (check my spelling); his contention was that a group of people can come up with better ideas than the most genius individual, even or especially when the group is informal. The creativity and vibrancy that comes from networking with others in your field is invaluable, and can make the difference between success or failure for bookstores on the razor-thin margin of profitability. I can’t tell you what specific thing or idea would come out of a group of booksellers in a room together. That’s the point. The stuff that happens when a community talks to itself is something that no individual could create, and it works to the support of the entire community.
Libba Bray’s "Ode to Independent Booksellers" compared indie bookstore owners to the Founding Fathers, those other independents struggling to survive. I think what we’re trying to create is more of a loose confederacy than a federal system, but there’s a lot to be learned from that high-stakes struggle against a bigger and better-financed enemy. (And I’m not saying that chain stores are the enemy or need to be destroyed; doesn’t the U.S. have good relations with Britain? We just need to figure out how to survive and thrive along with them.) And as one of their number wryly pointed out, “If we don’t hang together, we will certainly all hang separately.”
As I wrote in one of my earliest blog entries, we are not each others’ competition. We are colleagues. Chain stores and Amazon take away far more of our business than we could possibly take from each other. And if we talk together and work together, we can not only increase our collective market share, but increase good will, and maybe even improve the literary culture of our city and our country.
To be fair, there are signs of bookseller community already. Rusel, the dynamic force behind the thriving Penn Concessions bookstore in Pennsylvania Station, just sent out an invitation to the third bookseller/sales rep get-together. The one I went to last December was another building block in my enthusiasm for bookselling, and attended by a number of bookstore owners and sales reps of all ages. But it seemed like a tiny percentage of New York stores that attended, and a small percentage of the staff of those that did. We need to do more.
It’s the Christmas season in New York. One of the classic New York Christmas movies is Miracle on 34th Street – remember it? The scene in that movie that has always stuck with me is the astonishment of a customer when Kris Kringle, the Macy’s Santa, sends her to Gimbel’s to get her child’s gift, because they have better stock on what she needs. The indignant Macy's manager is soon overwhelmed by the gratitude of customers and increased sales as a result of Kringle’s counter-intuitive program of good will. Soon Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimble are shaking hands on camera, both having bumper Christmas retail seasons.
To me, that unlikely cooperation is the miracle of the film. Against their expectations, Macy and Gimbel found that supporting the other guy not only makes the customer happy, but benefits the store as well. It’s as old as the Golden Rule, and as cutting-edge as “small is the new big”. Support your fellows, and find yourself supported.
I have on my computer a list of about 65 New York bookstores (including about 8 Barnes & Nobles), with their phone number, cross streets, and specialties. The list is by no means exhaustive. I refer to it whenever a customer is looking for a book we’re out of, or a subject I’m no expert in, or a genre we have no space to stock. I send them over, or I call the store and have them reserve the book. I know some other stores that do this too. And it’s like a little miracle every time: the astonishment, the gratitude, the sale.
I’ll make this list available to anyone who wants it – it’s all public information anyway. Maybe it will be the beginning of your own holiday miracle. And I encourage anyone in the book industry, in New York or elsewhere, to think and wonder about how to make another miracle happen: the miracle of a thriving, connected culture of independent bookstores, and bookstore professionals, in the greatest city on earth. We’ll be trying again, in more practical ways, to get young booksellers together in the New Year. In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts. Thanks for reading.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Want to know the books indie bookstores sold this year? Check out the ABA's beautiful poster of Booksense Bestselling Books of 2006, for reading or downloading.
It's super-satisfying to be a bookseller at the holidays, because customers are more willing than usual to take you up on that passionate book recommendation, for themselves or their giftees. But it still ain't easy. Douglas Dutton of Dutton's Books in Beverly Hills and Brentwood, CA, reflects on the recommendation in this charming and illuminating article on the bookseller's craft in the Los Angeles Times.
You may have noticed me mentioning Bookstore Tourism, the ingenious invention of Larry Portzline to bring booklovers to indie bookstores on day-long bus trips. Larry stopped by the store this weekend and reminded me that the Bookstore Tourism video is now available! You can see a higher resolution of the video on the website, but I thought I'd offer it here for your point-and-click convenience. (Thanks to the ALP for showing me how to do this!)
Here's Part 1, the New York segment. I'm on there at the end, saying what now seems like a fairly irrelevant thing about Bookstore Tourism being an education for folks who shop at chain stores, since the rest of the video makes clear that these "tourists" tend to be booklovers and supporters of "the independent spirit." Many of my favorite NYC bookstores are represented here -- HousingWorks and Three Lives look especially beautiful on film.
And here's Part 2, the California Bookstore Road Trip. It's a great chance to see the insides of some bookstores I've heard all about but never seen (like the famous Vroman's) and it made me super homesick for my home state. I may have to sign up for this myself one of these days!
If you're still reading after that rockin' trip, here are some quick book reviews for the day.
Book Review #48
THE YELLOW-LIGHTED BOOKSTORE
by Lewis Buzbee
(Graywolf Press, June 2006)
Isn't it always the way that the books you buy intending to read get sidelined by some fascinating title you came across in your library from months ago? This is why the "books I've bought" vs. "books I've read" lists in Nick Hornby's wonderful "Stuff I've Been Reading" column in the Believer are always so funny, and I suspect it's something rabid bibliophile Lewis Buzbee understands intimately. I had every intention of reading WIZARD OF THE CROW or maybe FRAGILE THINGS, but instead found myself attracted and then utterly absorbed by this title I've been passing over for months as just another book about books. Actually, it's a book about bookstores -- not an academic one like RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS, or a purely personal one, but a rich and textured exploration of the physical appeal of the bookstore, totally intoxicating to the initiated, and incidentally, how it got that way. Buzbee intersperses his story of growing up a booklover and working in bookstores and as a sales rep on the West Coast with an educated but breezy history of bookselling, from papyrus on a rug in the marketplace to the library of Alexandria, to the coffeehouses of the Enlightenment (the intertwined history of the bookstore and coffeehouse was an eye-opener to me), to the contemporary megastore palaces and warren-like independents of today. And I turned down the corners on dozens of pages (oh come on, it's only a galley) with phrases or ideas I wanted to remember: Elias Canetti's phrase "alone among others" to describe the appeal of browsing or reading in public; an explanation of the development of the codex (the current book shape, as opposed to a scroll); a description of the Sosii brothers, Roman booksellers mentioned by the poet Horace; Alexander Pope's cruel practical joke on a bookseller/publisher who was cheating him; or this fantastic sentence: "The world was bigger because of Steinbeck, but also within my grasp." The only moment I wasn't entirely on Buzbee's side was when he admitted putting his own books face-out in another independent bookstore -- you'd think as a former bookseller he'd know better! But this was an absorbing and truly delightful read, for the lover of books and especially of bookstores -- it's not just telling you what you already know, but it may describe what you've experienced in words that make you understand it as if for the first time; as Pope would say, "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Bravo, Buzbee -- I hope I get a chance to shake your hand one of these days.
Book Review #49
THE DEVIL IN THE BUSH
By Matthew Head
(Felony & Mayhem, December 2005)
Speaking of great booksellers, the folks at mystery bookstore Partners & Crime in the West Village (especially the owner Maggie) are some of the best. The ALP and I were in there last Christmas season looking for some plane reads, and based on my love of Susanna Clarke and Agatha Christie, Maggie recommended both the astonishing Jonathan Coe novel THE WINSHAW LEGACY (which I read that holiday and reviewed at the beginning of this year), and this slyly wonderful little novel. Produced by the bookstore's own publishing arm Felony & Mayhem, which publishes out-of-print or overseas mysteries in lovely paperback originals, this book was originally published in 1945. And I was astonished anew at how much more was going on in books in that era than Dame Agatha ever let on. This one does have a bit of the British lady's sensibility -- especially my favorite characteristic of hers, confounding expectations about age, gender, and class -- but it's a lot more down-to-earth. Set in the crumbling colonial empire of the Belgian Congo, it includes racism, homosexual undertones, tribal mutilation, awkward casual sex, and a certain lady doctor with a mouth like a sailor. The narrator, Hooper Taliaferro, is a likable, if lightweight sort, who stumbles into a story of sinister and desperate people on an failing outpost farm, and is only saved from utter uselessness by the intervention of Dr. Mary Finney, the aforementioned sailor mouth and an extremely smart and practical character. Their interaction is possibly even more satisfying than Holmes and Watson, and the story itself had me scrambling for the subway doors (almost missing my stop) more than once. One caveat: a horrible colonialist racism is pervasive, even among the "good" characters, but of course that would have to be part of telling a story of this time and place; it's only weird because the author himself, being of this time, is probably not entirely aware of, or opposed to, the fearful and paternalistic attitudes. Still, it's a whopping good read; I'm grateful to Maggie & Co., and hoping to track down more Mary Finney stories soon.
Question of the day: what's the best, most unlikely recommendation you've ever taken from a bookseller?
Saturday, December 09, 2006
It also happens to be the birthday of one small NYC bookseller. Twenty-eight somehow feels like a much more rounded, mature age than 27 -- I guess it's all those even divisors. I'm way older than Milton was when he wrote that birthday sonnet (23), but younger than Trumbo when he wrote JOHNNY (34). Anyway, I'm celebrating very sophisticatedly with fancy dinner and an art film with the ALP, and later this week having some folks over for some decidedly immature Christmas cookie decorating. This week will also see the venerable 31st birthday of the ALP, who shares his natal anniversary with John Greenleaf Whittier and Ford Madox Ford.
Thanks to my sympathetic boss, I'm leaving work early to enjoy the (cold) Christmassy delights of the city. Enjoy the day for me (and find your own literary birthday counterparts -- it's way too fun.)
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
I hope you all somehow managed to amuse yourself in my absence -- I've been gratified to read your responses to my queries, especially the responses to the prompt "To me, books are..." You can read responses to the same question from Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Lemony Snicket, Susane Somers (?), and, um, yours truly in Forbes Special Report on Books. Thanks to my buddy Dave at Forbes who thought there should be a bookseller's reponse in there, I'm on a list with people I imagine my name will never be joined with again. Fun! And there's lots more in this issue of the Forbes online magazine -- I'm looking forward to reading articles about McSweeney's business model, giving away prose on the internet, book burnings, interactive books, and other topics. I think Forbes has done a great job of addressing some of the contemporary issues in the book world with open mindedness and a lack of knee-jerk despair -- that makes 'em cool in my book. Thanks to all those who sent congratulations for my moment in the sun -- it's a privilege to be able to sound off on what we love. I'm looking forward to hearing more ends of the sentence from you...
Book Expo is podcasting! The newBookExpo podcasts site features a long segment from the National Book Awards, and will include more of the educational sessions and other formerly live-only events for your iPoding pleasure. Good idea? What do you think?
Oh yes, we got some press... here's theWinter ELNO in Bookselling This Weeks. So that's two bad pictures of me on the internet this week. Sorry, I mean, it's excellent publicity for the project, and how great does Steve Colca look with that beard?
The ALP sent me this irresistable time-waster: the"What Kind of Reader Are You?" Quiz
And multiple people have sent meLibraryThing, which allows you to catalog the books in your library online. I admit I can't see the return on time investment on this one. Anyone enjoying it, or think it's lame?
Okay, that's all the time I have -- so much for the big return. I have big thoughts, though -- look for me in the next week or so with some serious thoughts on the state of the bookselling community, especially here in NYC, why it's important, and what Emerging Leaders has to do with that.
In the meantime, I want to hear more about what books are to you. I should be updated with Blogger Beta soon and I'm figuring out the world of Mac slowly but surely, so things will get ever more organized. Have a great week -- see you here soon!
Monday, December 04, 2006
There is literally no time to blog (or at least to do links) here at the store, unfortunately, which sucks because there are LOTS of exciting things to link to and talk about. I'll be back ASAP, I promise!
In the meantime, here's your reader question, which will make more sense when I give you the link madness soon. Complete this sentence: "To me, books are..."
Looking forward to reading your answers!
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Suffice to say, it's darned difficult to find a moment to blog. But will you be surprised if I admit that I love it? Aside from that whole magic-and-mystery thing, the Christmas season is a great one to work in retail -- at least in a bookstore, where you don't have to feel bad about what you're selling and the customers tend to be great. Folks are excited to buy, so every effort seems instantly rewarded; the energy and atmosphere are electrtic; and there's some extra good will floating around that makes it a joy to be in a job that involves talking to people. I'll probably put in an extra shift or two at my alma mater Three Lives, just because it's the most magical place of all. But there's certainly plenty to be excited about around here, as we get this beautiful store into fighting trim for the highlight of the sales year.
HOWEVER, I do need to spend a minute or two to report on, yes, the third quarterly Emerging Leaders Night Out, which came off with great success last night at Under the Volcano in midtown Manhattan. (I was just glad to get the chance to walk -- quickly -- past the Macy's Christmas windows, since I'm almost never in the neighborhood.) Festivities kicked off around 7:30, and by about 8:30 the place wass wall-to-wall with publicists, editors, agents, booksellers, and everyone in between. Steve, Amanda and I got there a bit early and put up some posters advertising the Small Press Book Fair this weekend, thanks to the good offices of Anne Garrett of the James Fitzgerald Agency and her boss, who supplied the promos. I felt a bit more laid-back about this event than I have before (maybe because Steve did all the hard work in keeping track of RSVP's this time -- you rock, Steve!), so I didn't meet as many new folks as I have at the previous two ELNO's. Still, I was happy to see familiar faces, and lots and lots of new one.
Of course I forgot both my camera and the guest book, so there's no way to prove to you how cool it was (anyone see anything on GalleyCat, let me know). But I think it's clear that this project is gaining steam, and will continue to get better quarter by quarter. Thanks so much to everyone who came -- see you in February!
Monday, November 27, 2006
In the meantime, here's my question of the week: what are you looking forward to reading over your holiday vacation (if you're getting any)?
I've got my eye on the Neil Gaiman collection FRAGILE THINGS -- I find good fantasy extremely appropriate for Christmas reading. (Of course, I am a big nerd about Christmas, among other things, and believe in the magic and mystery of it all wholeheartedly. You may find other genres express your sentiments...)
I've also just dipped into THE WIZARD OF THE CROW, one of the nominees for the Litblog Co-Op spring selections, and have found in surprisingly engrossing for such Serious Literature. It's a hefty one, though, and I'm looking forward to a long plane ride to see family on the West Coast in order to really dig in.
What about you?
Monday, November 20, 2006
* I did succeed in honoring America Unchained! on Saturday. The ALP got up early to restock our coffee supply from local favorite Gorilla Coffee (gotta have Flash to see their site), which is not only locally owned and operated, but roasts the beans locally, and stocks only organic, free trade coffee. Hooray! We later went grocery shopping at our local Key Foods/Pick Quick; I did a smitch of research and found that apparently, Key Foods is a New York co-operative supporting local groceries like Pick Quick. Sounds good to me. We both need some new clothes, but decided we could wait on visiting mega-chain Old Navy until another day. I admit clothing stymies my ethical shopping impulses, since the only local places seem to be boutiques way out of my price range. I suppose I should just go back to the thrift-store shopping of my high school days. Anyone else got stories?
* The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) has unveiled the new format for the fall trade show! It's now the Booksellers Sales Conference -- a name that reveals a focus on education and pick-of-the-lists. As electronic ordering has become more prevalent, trade shows have become valuable to booksellers more for education than as a chance to place orders with reps, though they still value the chance to meet face to face and especially to see the great stuff the reps are pitching for the next season. The streamlined new fall format will highlight those two aspects, making the event more attractive to booksellers and thus to publishers as well.
As a bookseller I'm psyched about two days of learning about the best that publishers and NAIBA have to offer(and not feeling guilty that I' m not placing orders). NAIBA Prez Joe Drabyak has declared this the era of the Citizen Bookseller -- the frontline staff who actually put the books in the hands of customers. That's an exciting, galvanizing phrase if I've ever heard one, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the idea develops. I'll be talking about this much more as the date approaches.
Oh, links: click here for the revelation in Bookselling This Week, and click here for the article in Publishers Weekly.
* Quick question: do you all care whether I buy the books I review or receive them for free? There's a big ol' flap going on about this issue (bloggers receiving free review copies), kicked off by this piece on MetaxuCafe, and stoked by Ed's ranting (see bottom of his post to links to other bloggers sounding off). To me it seems like a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but maybe that's because I get free books as a bookseller and as a blogger and it seems fairly normal to me. But in case you wondered, yes, I do sometimes get books for free. A lot of the time. In fact, I get far too many books to ever be able to review them all. So why would I give a good review to a book I didn't like just because I got it for free? Perhaps only, as the original writer suggests, if I were an inexperienced blogger dazzled by swag would it be an issue. Ah. Just for the sake of interest, I'll reveal where I got each of the books I'm reviewing today. Curious whether you're interested.
Okay, so here they are, the quickie book reviews -- though these were all so good they deserve more space.
Book Review #44
by Joann Sfar
(First Second Books, June 2006)
I've been on a Joann Sfar kick since his amazing visit to the bookstore a few weeks ago, and by the time I finished this one it had an awesome original drawing and signature inside the front cover. I picked it up for free at a graphic novel seminar at NAIBA in the fall. While I can't say I loved it as much as KLEZMER, it was still fun times. It's an episodic story of the romantic life of a rather neurotic vampire, who tries love with a tree nymph, a fellow vampire, a witch, a phantasm, and a mortal, among others, all complicated in the most contemporary of ways. Ferdinand the Vampire is the opposite of gothic (though he meets Goths); he's more like Emo. My favorite four panels show a sad Ferdinand floating away (his preferred means of locomotion), saying sadly "I don't want to see anyone." He hits his head on a tree branch with a "BONK!" His friends (the Tree Man and a detective) rush up, saying "Oh, the poor thing!" "He knocked himself out!" A third character then observes, "That's what happens when you stare at your shoes while flying." It's the perfect emblem of Ferdinand's plight: his immortal powers do nothing to spare him from angst. The ending is rather abrupt and inconclusive, but unless it ended with a marriage how else could a tale of modern love be ended, or rather interrupted?
MARGHERITA DOLCE VITA
by Stefano Benni
(Europa Editions, November 2006)
Holy cow, this is an amazing book. It's New Fabulist, anti-capitalist/consumerist, witty and youthful, contemporary and terrifying. It's eerie and charing and hilarious. Margherita is a teenager in semi-suburban Italy, content with her slightly oddball normal family, until the del Bene family moves into a newly built sleek black cube next door. Soon everyone is dissatisfied with their lot and seduced by the glamourous del Bene's, and only Margherita is left to protest on behalf of magic, dirt, and authenticity. Things get weirder and weirder so you think you're expecting anything, but the ending is still a shock. And it's one of Europa Editions' beautiful trade paperback originals, a lovely thing to hold and laugh over and ponder and cherish. I was sent a comp copy by a friend at Europa who is crazy about it and prosletizing incessantly, and I'm grateful to him. I'm amazed at the wittiness of the translation from the Italian, but not surprised -- these guys do good work. This is one to read -- it's that whole serious-literature-that's-actually-fun genre that I love. Do yourself a favor and find it, buy it, read it, and tell me what you think.
THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS
by John Connolly
(Atria Books, November 2006)
It seems to be a run of books with magic in them, and I've been eating them up. This is one I picked up from the publisher's table way back at the last NAIBA trade show, and finally got to it, much to my gratification. It's the story of David, who's unhappy after his mom's death and his dad's remarriage, and finds himself in a haunted fairy-tale world seemingly created from the old books that talk to him from his shelves. In a way it's the fairy-tale equivalent of the movie SCREAM, where a character who knows all the rules finds himself in a story he has to stay one step ahead of. But this is an extremely dark version, even for the Brothers Grimm -- it made sense when I realized Connolly's usual beat is the harshest of violent crime thrillers. There were moments when I was frustrated that all of the good magic seemed to be absent from David's story, leaving only the fears and the tests and the impossible tasks. But there's a reason for that, as it turns out, and David's maturation in this alternate reality is convincing, and a bit saddening. Because it's a story of growing up, not in rosy terms, but in hard ones -- realizing what has to be given up, what will be asked of a responsible adult, and what the rewards may or may not be. I was riveted all the way through, and finished with a lump in my throat and a lot to ponder. Fans of Phillip Pullman or Ian Rankin alike will find much to love in this one -- it may be a fairy tale, but it is by no means a children's book.
THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU
by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, October 2006)
Magic, indeed! I was wild about Susanna Clarke's literary magical history JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL from the moment it came out, and I was very grateful to my friendly neighborhood Bloomsbury rep for sending me a copy of this one -- I've been longing for more of Clarke's alternate England for years. This is a collection of stories set in the world of JT&MN, though only tangentially connected. Jonathan Strange makes an appearance in the first story, and it will help if you have read the novel to understand the references, but all the other stories are literate little fables that stand on their own. This, too, is a magic with some darkness in it -- Clarke draws on the very old British tradition of fairies, who are enchantingly powerful, beautiful and fascinating, but also completely amoral and unpredictable, prone to stealing wives and babies and discarding them on a whim, and as likely to embrace you as to cleave you in two. It's the best of legend with the best of contemporary character development and narrative subtlety -- no one writes magic as well as Susanna Clarke. I savored these stories one at a time, like truffles, pausing in between to save them longer. The illustrations by Charles Vess are also charming, and haunting, like this wonderful addition to the world of Susanna Clarke's England.
Friday, November 17, 2006
"Independent Business Alliances, community groups, partnering national organizations, and individual locally-owned businesses nationwide are urging citizens of their communities to “unchain” themselves on Saturday November 18—to do all their business on that day only at locally-owned independent establishments. The efforts are part of America Unchained, a national campaign of the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA).
“Studies from small towns in Maine to urban areas like Austin, TX and Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood found locally-owned independent businesses to generate 3 - 3 ½ times the overall economic benefit to our communities as chains. Why? Home town businesses use far more of the goods and services provided by other local businesses, which chains centralize at corporate headquarters. And despite corporate chain boasts about charitable giving, independent businesses give back more to communities from every dollar.... According to the US Small Business Administration, small businesses create two-thirds of new jobs, and the interdependence of home town businesses creates local job security."
To be honest, my bookstore hasn't officially signed up to be involved. And I haven't heard much about this project in the national media. AMIBA is an organization still in its infancy. But it's growing fast. And I think it's one of the best resources for those of us who believe that independent, locally-owned businesses are important for so many reasons.
You know what the reasons are, and they're not just economic: they have to do with using sustainable practices (less polluting transportation and outscale building projects), with spreading more personal connections and less anonymity and homogenization, with supporting people who are actually doing art and other projects in your home town, with making a place for uniqueness and originality, with creating real community.
So maybe America Unchained! won't be huge this year. But my Book Nerd Challenge to you is to make it happen in your own Saturday shopping. Go to the local coffee shop, the local bookstore, even the locally owned clothing store. See how hard it is to avoid chains for just one day. And if you can, let me know in the comments what your day was like. What local enterprises did you discover for the first time? What neighbors did you run into? What weird, unique little encounters or products or inconveniences or joys did you experience? I'd even love to have someone write a guest post about it (email me if you're interested).
I'll report back too. It'll be good practice for next year.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Hooray for ECHO MAKER!
This Fox News article has quotations from Richard Powers' acceptance speech.
The NY Times focuses on the nonfiction winner, Timothy Egan, author of highly acclaimed dust bowl history THE WORST HARD TIME.
The NY Sun talks about the ceremony, with Fran Liebowitz, Adrienne Rich, and David Remnick waxing eloquent.
GalleyCat was there, starstruck as I imagine I would be, and mentions the reading segment (with Gene Yang's AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and Danielewski's ONLY REVOLUTIONS projected overhead to help audiences follow their reading) and Nicole Kraus's remarks. LBC member
Sarah Weinman was in attendance too, and has a similar reaction to Richard Powers' win, along with some choice remarks about attendees.
And I missed hearing it on NPR this morning, but the ALP tells me that YA winner M.T. Anderson's remarks contained a declaration of respect for Gene Yang's work and pride that his category was the first one to include graphic novels. (I'm all the more interested in reading Anderson's ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING.)
Actually, it seems like a really good year for the NBA. Apparently there's been the requisite complaining about the nomination of unknowns when there were so many big name authors releasing books this year (though you won't find me taking issue with the passing over of John Updike and Phillip Roth's contributions). With the exception of perhaps Taylor Branch's ambitious biography of MLK, it seems as though everyone who ought to have won, did win. It seems to me truly a representation of the best books coming out of America this year. I'm looking forward to reading those I haven't, and triumphantly displaying and selling the winners for customers who actually have some good options to choose from.
(Oh, and I'm sorry about no posting yesterday -- I've got some good books to review, but it was totally mandatory to finish a certain freelance project, and thankfully I got it done. I'll be back with the reviews ASAP.)
Monday, November 13, 2006
* The next Emerging Leaders Night Out has been announced! We'll be getting together on November 29, to celebrate the Small Press Book Fair on December 2 and 3. And thanks to the good offices of marketing wizard Steve Colca, Emerging Leaders NYC now has its own website. It's little more than a blog at this point, but it's a start, and hopefully it will be another resource for connecting with each other. Check it out, tell us what you think, and RSVP for the ELNO!
* As I was making my Christmas wish list on Powells.com (yes, Mom, there are still books I don't have), I finally discovered the Powell's blog. And duh, it's great! Several of my links today are courtesy of the alert and witty folks at Powells, and there's more where these came from. Is there anything those Portland indies can't do?
* The National Book Award winners are announced this Wednesday -- oh, the suspense! (If Richard Powers doesn't win, I'm going to be very disgruntled.) A commenter on this blog a couple of weeks ago mentioned the flap about Gene Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese being nominated for the Young Adult award, so here's some links on that: the Wired article lamenting the choice (along with a lot of comments taking issue with the writer's opinion), and Gene Yang's response to Wired on the blog of his publisher, First Second Books. I had the pleasure of hosting the publisher of First Second, Mark Siegal, at an event with cartoonist Joann Sfar last week, and Mark mentioned the complaints about the nomination (the first ever for a graphic novel) with a kind of rueful satisfaction. Sometimes criticism is the sincerest form of acknowledgement.
* I'm working on freelance projects, volunteer projects, reading projects, blogging projects, and holiday projects. But I'd better get my tuchas in gear on my bookstore project, or someone else will do it first. (Thanks Bookslut, Powell's, and The Onion for the hilariously close-to-home link). One major obstacle is the fact that my ancient laptop isn't up to handling the spreadsheets I need to create a workable budget, so I'm in the market for a new computer -- I'm thinking Apple since there's a store nearby my house and I love their customer service, but it's all new to me and I wonder if I'd be paying for cuteness and creative options when all I really need is Microsoft Office and a bigger hard drive. Any thoughts from book people and/or business people on PC vs. Mac in our particular industry? And how's a poor bookseller like me to afford it all?
Sorry for ending on a complaint -- must be the gloomy, sloppy weather. I'll be back on Wednesday with some book reviews and in a better mood, I promise. Happy reading!
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
This morning I had coffee with a woman who's about to make that crazy leap into opening a new independent bookstore. I think she's picked a great neighborhood. The rents are low -- there are some housing projects nearby -- but there are a few writers in the neighborhood, and she knows from living there that there are some folks with money to spend. Not much of a restaurant or bar scene, but it's one of those neighborhoods on the brink. And no bookstore for miles around. I'm excited for her.
So my question is this: where do you think someone should open a bookstore? Is there a neighborhood, town, street or state that you think needs a bookstore and doesn't have one yet? Why would it be a good spot? What kind of bookstore could be a success there?
Maybe we can get some more crazy folks inspired to open new bookstores. As Andy Laties says, when the revolution comes, it's gonna look like a whole lot of rebel booksellers.
Check out the HOW TO COMMENT ON THIS BLOG link on the right under "Previous Posts" if you're not sure how to post a comment. Can't wait to hear what you think!
Monday, November 06, 2006
* It's Firmin week at the Litblog Co-Op! Click over for the beginning of a roundtable discussion about Sam Savage's literate rat (including commentary by yours truly). Rumor has it Mr. Savage himself will join the discussion later this week.
* Bookselling This Week has this article about the winners of scholarships to the American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute -- with some (as usual) slightly cringe-worthy quotes from your Book Nerd.
* In the spirit of the documentary INDIES UNDER FIRE, Bookselling This Week also reports on a number of independent booksellers who are involved in fights to keep chains and big box stores out of their communities and encourage local, small-scale retail. In Montana and California, the size cap that would keep big boxes out is up for a vote. In Nantucket, the little guys have already won! Hooray for indies!
* On that note, the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) has declared November 18 to be America Unchained! day. On that date they're encouraging American (and Canadian) consumers to avoid shopping at chain stores entirely, and do all of their consuming at locally owned independent businesses -- just to see if we can do it. Anybody up to the challenge?
* I'm delighted to discover two new booksellers-as-bloggers! Well, new to me -- both of these folks have been blogging since 2005. Sarah of Sarah's Books in Bangor, Maine has a blog called Sarah's Books - Used and Rare (thanks for your comments, Sarah). And Stanley of Book House in Albany, NY has a blog called Stanley Reads (thanks to Robert at Fresh Eyes for the link). Glad to have your company!
* Can I just point out that Edward Champion agrees with me about Michiko Kakutani. The man's no stranger to the (cleverly) snarky review himself, so when he's baffled by Michi's hostility, you know she's gone too far.
* Another new blog I'm enjoying: John Fox's Bookfox. He directed me to Marilynne Robinson's fierce essay on Dawkins' THE GOD DELUSION, for which I'm grateful, and I'm looking forward to more bookish thoughts from the West Coast (John is a writer and professor in L.A.). Glad to have your company as well!
* My friend the food writer Stephanie Rosenbaum (also known as the Fabulous Pie Queen) hepped me to this supercool, (relatively) new Brooklyn website, Until Monday. I've only just started to explore, but I know it's going to be an incredible resource for Brooklyn events (especially of the literary sort) and other resources. Up with the borough!
* Two more shameless friend plugs: the artists in my life seem to be starting blogs lately, and they're so lovely you'll have to forgive me that they're only occasionally about books. Our mistress of the bookstore receiving room has created the meditative and joyful Hundreds of Ways (the title is a Rumi reference about loving beauty), and a longtime bookstore customer and good (if too rarely seen) friend has started up Auk Wrecks & Auk Larks, a title as unclassifiable as her own art, with a recent post about Nell Freudenberger among thoughts about social justice and bits of unexpected art. Enjoy.
* Larry Portzline of Bookstore Tourism directed me to this charming post about book browsing in Europe. Click for a window on bookstore culture far away from our American battlegrounds.
* Okay, and now a roundup of all those lovely folks who have emailed me over the last couple of months with links to other blogs. I admit I haven't had time to peruse all of these, but I wish them all the best -- perhaps you, the readers, can check them out and report back.
- Gimme Your Stuff, a "cultural exchange blog." Rikki, Australian ambassador for Gimme Your Stuff, writes "It'd be fantastic to get some more book lovers involved, as i think it'd be amazing to give and receive pre-loved books which may not be available in your area of the world. It's also a great way of getting new or culturally significant authors noticed in different countries."
- Reading On Writing, a blog by Kevin Allison "about short stories and how they work."
- I was invited to join this group blog based in Canada, but I'll admit I can't figure out what it's all about. Anyone?
- Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie, from Lewis Jaffe of Philadelphia, PA, "a passionate bookplate collector."
- Underground Literary Alliance Book Review blog, one of many projects of founder Victor Schwartzman. Word has it he's looking for additional reviewers, so get in touch if you've got something to say.
Whew! That's it. See you Wednesday!
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
THE KILLING JAR
by Nicola Monaghan
(Scribner, April 2007)
I have to admit this is one of those books that induced a groan when I got it in that Jiffy Pak mailer. Maybe it was the candy pills on the front cover, or the back cover copy comparing it to Irvine Welsh's TRAINSPOTTING. THE KILLING JAR looked like a sneering, adolescent, gratuitous drug trip of a book; not my favorite genre, as it tends to combine the self-dramatizing, overwritten prose I first encountered in my high school literary magazine with the self-righteous, damn-the-man self-destructiveness of drug culture. 'Scuse my snarkiness – I'm just not the Trainspotting audience, I guess.
But Nicola Monaghan's story of growing up screwed up on one of Britain's "council estates" (suburban low-income housing projects) surprised me. Maybe it was the Nottingham dialect that pulled me in (sample sentence: "It must of been summat what you did") – it's hard to write dialect that's both readable and feels authentic, and Monaghan never crosses the line into impenetrable caricature of lower class British speech. This is probably because she grew up on the council estates, a fact which I imagine will be used a great deal in marketing the book.
But the biggest draw of the book was the narrator, Kerrie-Ann, known as Kez (in that weird and charming British nicknaming tradition that makes Madonna into Madge). She's a tough, smart kid, into science, especially butterflies, who because she's born to a heroin addict turns her brains to the only business she knows: dealing drugs. After an extremely brief childhood, Kez rides the wave of the rise of Ecstasy and raves to a cosy little business with her childhood friend and lover Mark, taking care of her little brother John. Her mother's boyfriends treat her badly; her mom disappears; she's seduced and dumped and has an abortion at 14. But she gives as good as she gets, and does some pretty horrible things herself. She's believable and self-aware, not always sympathetic, but always readable, and a far cry from the self-justifying, overdramatizing teen I was expecting. She knows her life is crappy, even when she's having fun, and struggles with competing desires to get ahead and to get out. This is a literary novel about the equivalent of the ghetto, and it's infuriating and heartbreaking as real poverty and addiction and unnecessary violence can be. It won't be out until spring, but if it sounds like your thing, bug Scribner for a galley – Monaghan is the real thing.
BOOK ONE: TALES OF THE WILD EAST
by Joann Sfar
(First Second Books, September 2006)
I'd been meaning to read this since the supernice folks at First Second Books agreed to have Joann Sfar come to our store for an event – everyone seems to agree he's the best thing in French cartooning right now (and it's quite a scene, has been for longer than comics have had cred in the U.S.) I read it in an evening and it's SO good. This is Part 1 of a saga set in Eastern Europe and Russia between the World Wars, and begins the story of a group of misfit klezmer musicians playing in the Jewish towns and cities of the continent. Sfar's drawings seem looser than the ones in THE RABBI'S CAT and VAMPIRE LOVES (both of which I've glanced through with pleasure), which adds to the sort of dreamy folktale feel of the story, where characters' appearance and surroundings can shift subtly from panel to panel.
It's an energetic, often funny story, but it begins with a massacre: bandleader Noah Davidovitch is the only survivor (a Biblical trope?) when a rival klezmer orchestra kills all of his bandmates. He gets his revenge in a very Jewish folktale way, and as he leaves town is joined by a pretty, forceful girl who prefers the romantic itinerant singer's life to her boring hamlet. Then the action skips to a promising, but disgraced (and very cute) yeshiva student, who wanders into the world having given up on God. He meets a much more neurotically dedicated student who has also been expelled, and the two of them accidentally rescue a persecuted Gypsy. Turns out the Gypsy is a guitarist, the neurotic a virtuoso violinist, and Cute Yeshiva Kid knows some good Jewish songs. They make their way to Odessa, which in this book has a very Casablanca air of romance, and of course are bound to run into Noah and the singer.
Sfar somehow gets the music of the klezmer bands into the book, filling whole page spreads with no dialogue except the onomotopaiec (ha! spelling) sounds of the instruments and swirling, dancing revelers. There's so much life and energy in these pages, and also the deep melancholy of anti-Semitic persecution and a feeling of abandonment by God. Sfar's mother was an Eastern European Jew, and he's clearly deeply invested in this culture; at the end of the book is an impassioned essay on safety, terror, and the contemporary world. I can't wait to meet the author of this rich text; it's highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the medium, the time period, the music, or the culture – or anyone who loves a swinging good read.
by Nell Freudenberger
(Ecco, September 2006)
Let me admit that I was a little lukewarm about Nell Freudenberger's short story collection LUCKY GIRLS when it came out in 2003. I read the whole thing, and met the author at a reading (who was rather shy but super nice and professional), but I thought it was fine rather than great, and joined the throng of skeptics who wondered if she got famous just because she was young, cute, and worked at the New Yorker. (But I felt the same so-so way about the much-touted INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri – maybe I've got some weird prejudice against multicultural short stories by women.)
But a recommendation from a fellow bookseller (thanks, Amanda!) made me pick up Freudenberger's novel THE DISSIDENT anyway, and it's freakin' great. If you haven't heard all about it, it's the story of a Chinese artist, famously jailed in his own country as a political dissident, who comes to the U.S. and stays with a well-off (but seriously messed up, of course) Los Angeles family while teaching art at a girl's school and preparing for the first U.S. showing of his work. Ironically, I think a lot of its strength comes from the sense of an artist meditating on the arbitrariness of artistic fame, and the half-truths, plagiarisms, self-betrayals, and poses that can be part of the process for even the most talented and sincere artists and works.
The sometime narrator and eponymous dissident "Yuan Zhao" is a retiring sort who feels something like guilt for the acclaim he's getting in the U.S. (and the reasons for that become more and more clear to reader and characters as the book progresses). His story is his own, and the suggestion of the clash of Chinese and Los Angeles cultures is well done but never over done (a strength of Freudenberger's which I'm always impressed by). But I couldn't help thinking of him as in some ways a stand-in for Nell herself, rather baffled by the acclaim she's received and wondering how on earth she can live up to and follow up on her early success. All I can say is, she's done herself one better – if the first book's success was partially a fluke, this one is entirely deserving of praise. (Ironically again, the reviews haven't been entirely favorable.)
There are some loose ends that I wanted tied up – the Los Angeles mother's abortive affair with her brother-in-law, the son's offstage violent episode and new Hispanic girlfriend, and some other stories that seemed begun but abandoned when the dissident's own story became too interesting to leave. But I finished the book with a great sense of satisfaction, the kind that comes when a story has left your heart aching at its sadness and confusion and injustice but with a saving remnant of hope, and a new understanding of an idea or two. Is copying a master a talent equivalent to creating something original? Is it art because the artist says so, or because someone is paying attention? What good are good intentions, and what obligation do we have to those who don't appreciate our efforts? Are there other satisfying roles besides that of the artist?
Me, I think so. The gallery owner, the teacher, the Mrs. Dalloway-esque housewife – those are the artists that appeal to me, making a space for original work to grow and be noticed. Maybe that's one of the reason's I'm such a fan of this book. Nell Freudenberger, unlike her characters, doesn't need to act like an artist or live an "artist's life". She is a serious artist, and potentially, a great one.
THE SUBWAY CHRONICLES
Edited by Jacquelin Cangro
(Plume, September 2006)
I missed the website (www.thesubwaychronicles.com), which is kind of an open forum for telling true tales of subway life, inspired by a conversation the editor/webmaster had with friends over a Thanksgiving dinner, everyone trying to top the other. But I love the idea and the book. Some of the pieces in here I've read before and loved – Jonathan Lethem's "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn", Colson Whitehead's "Subway" chapter from COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK. Some are from favorite writers I hadn't heard on the subject – Vivian Gornick, Calvin Trillin, Francine Prose, Johnny Temple. But the majority are from writers I've never heard of, who as far as I know could be the guy across from me on the D train, and that's what makes them great.
Riding the subway for a New Yorker takes up a big chunk of life, and sometimes the most interesting one. Usually, it's reading time (and I read a lot of this book on the subway, which was kind of meta). It's also where you encounter your fellow citydwellers at close quarters, for better or worse, and that makes for a lot of good stories. I love April Reynolds' theory in her essay that
"every New Yorker has his or her own private stock of cocktail party-worthy subway stories that fall into three major groups: the stinky story, the Good Samaritan story, and the scary story. These are broad categories that can conflate or morph at will."
I'd add the preacher story, but the basic theory holds. This paperback original may be the perfect collection of such stories. They're like the best of Studs Terkel-style themed oral history, except written by real writers, and all immensely readable.
Riding the subway for New Yorkers is part of our identity, I think. One of the reasons I moved here (or rather, stayed here) is that I hate driving, and I've traded it for an experience that's new every day, for better or worse. I'm grateful to Cangro for making space for these stories to be told outside the cocktail party. They're great fun, and only as long as my commute. I hope there's a sequel.
by Cornelius Medvei
(HarperCollins, April 2007)
I hate to end on a down note, but this was the only one of my recent reads I found disappointing. I'd had it mightily pitched to me, and it seems like the sort of thing I would like given my love for FIRMIN: a brief, illustrated chronicle of the city life of a persecuted talking baboon. But unlike with FIRMIN, I ended up thinking it was a mistake to publish this work as anything other than a quirky short story. The journalistic description of Mr. Thundermug's education, housing, romance, arrest, trial, and happily ever after were told with such a deadpan brevity that I didn't have time to feel anything about it. Actually, I read this in one sitting at a bar while waiting for a lunch date, and didn't even mention it to them when they arrived.
In its defense, the character of the City where Mr. Thundermug lives is more interesting than the character himself; it reminds me of the hybrid all-city of the brilliant animated movie TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, which was supposedly a composite of Paris, New York, and Montreal. This city is a more ancient English one, but seems to have elements of Indian or Southeast Asian ruins and North American technological dependence. It's a strange and fascinating place, and makes for a melancholy, whimsical little book. It wasn't exactly to my taste, but maybe it will be to yours.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Chas Addams, the New Yorker cartoonist and creator of the Addams Family, is the subject of a new bio by Linda Davis that looks pretty great. Check out this excerpt and some cartoons on the NPR website.
It's a great day to check out And Now The Screaming Starts, a blog dedicated to all things strange and scary (though it's more delightfully odd than actually frightening). Book reviews of WORLD WAR Z and Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins are just the beginning. Check out the links at right for more goofy horror blogs.
And if you're on your way to the Manhattan Halloween Parade, stop by McNally Robinson Booksellers after 5 for our own bit of spooky weirdness: the funerary violin stylings of Rohan Kriwaczek, author of AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ART OF FUNERARY VIOLIN. Check out the NPR piece for the backstory on this enigmatic work, and Rohan's website for his own presentation of the matter. I'm looking forward to some dressing up, eating candy, and listening to some appropriately eerie music for the dead on this day of appreciation for the literary weird.
Monday, October 30, 2006
THE KILLING JAR by Nicola Monaghan
(Scribner, due out April 2007)
KLEZMER BOOK 1: TALES OF THE WILD EAST by Joann Sfar
(First Second Books)
THE DISSIDENT by Nell Freudenberger
In the meantime. I'd love to hear from you.
What are you reading, or what have you read recently?
What do you think of it?
Where did you hear about it?
Who would you reccommend it to?
I'm always looking for new reading suggestions, and stories of how books find their readers. Looking forward to hearing yours!
Friday, October 27, 2006
But that's not the only reason I'm light-headed.
I'm going to Portland!
I've been hearing about the ABA's Winter Institute since this time last year. It sounded odd at first -- like BEA, but without the sales floor: just pure programming for booksellers. But the booksellers who went to the first one in Long Beach came back singing its praises, saying they learned more practical stuff about running a bookstore, and had a better time meeting authors and each other, than at any other event ever.
So yeah, I wanted to go to the Institute in Portland, Oregon this year, especially when I checked out the session lineup. Financial documents! Store design! Magazine selling! New media! Not to mention the author events, and the chance to hobnob with other dedicated booksellers -- candy for a book nerd like me. But the bookstore couldn't afford to send me (and most of these are skills I'd be putting to use in my own future bookstore, not necessarily in my current job), and I couldn't see a way to swing that airfare myself, despite the admonitions of fellow booksellers and other advisors that I needed this education.
Then I heard about the Emerging Leaders scholarship, and thought I'd better give it a try. I didn't think I had much of a shot -- I've been in the business for a number of years now so there are probably folks who are more "emerging" than me, and since I won a scholarship to the NAIBA trade show several years ago I figured my karma was fresh out of scholarships. But I wrote my essay and I sent it off.
Yesterday afternoon, Len Vlahos (one of my favorite people at the ABA) called for me at the store and broke the news. The Emerging Leaders committee gave me the scholarship. They're flying me out and putting me up. I'm afraid I got all high-pitched on poor Len -- he really did make my day.
Thank you so much to the founders of the Emerging Leaders Group -- Julia Colishaw (Shaman Drum Bookstore), Cindy Dach (Changing Hands Bookstore), Allison Hill (Vroman's Bookstore), and Neil Strandberg (Tattered Cover Bookstore). This means so very much to me, and I can't wait to see you all in Portland.
Now, the ALP is making something that smells delicious for dinner, so I'm going to pull my bathrobe around me and shuffle off. But you'll know that dreamy smile on my face isn't just the fever talking.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Did I mention I'm now the events coordinator for my bookstore? Our former coordinator decided a few weeks ago that he'd like to spend more time on the sales floor (he's in charge of the literature section, lucky guy), so I was tapped to step in. And I'm totally loving it. In addition to hosting events, I now get to work with authors and publicists to set up events in the store, figuring out what works best for us and them, trying to think creatively about what's likely to attract the best audiences. It's a lot of emailing, and also a lot of making up flyers and posters and ordering and returning books. I'm a lot busier at the store than I used to be, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. And spending half of the time in the back office and half of the time on the sales floor is great – computer work and customer service are a good break from each other.
Man, I love my job. The performative, conversational, communal aspects of reading really appeal to me, and I feel lucky to be able to help to shape that in our store. And I love pitching things I care about – I'm like some kind of semi-competent PR agent, who can only sell what she really loves. And I get to do arts-and-crafts stuff with the sign and poster making – what could be better?
Movie Screening: Indies Under Fire
As I mentioned, a group of us convened at Steve's apartment a couple of weekends ago to watch the buzzed-about documentary INDIES UNDER FIRE, which tells the story of the conflict of chains and indie bookstores in the San Francisco Bay area. Steve and his girlfriend Anique were there, along with Amanda and Alison from Good Yarns bookstore, Sean from independent rep group Parson Weems, and a longtime book industry type from Consortium Book Group. We'd gotten tentative RSVP's from a couple of other booksellers and publishers and were sad they couldn't make it, but the small group was actually a great size for conversation.
Unfortunately, most of us had criticisms of INDIES UNDER FIRE. While the footage of customers and staff at Bay Area indie bookstores clearly demonstrated the love and loyalty that those people felt for their local indies, it seemed to be preaching to the choir. I don't know that anyone who doesn't already see the value of indies or the dangers of the spread of chain stores would be convinced by the movie. And when a Borders exec claimed he knew many people who were "begging" for a Borders in their community, I wanted to see those people and their reasons, or at least some evidence that they didn't exist.
Actually (and this is strictly my opinion) I thought the chain employees didn't even come across as the biggest villains (there was one Borders manager in particular who was clearly very professional and sympathetic) – it was the landlords and developers who seemed like the worst players, with a short-sighted, self-serving idea of what their communities needed and no interest in responding to neighbors but only in making a quick buck. (But maybe I just feel that way because I live in the New York real estate market...)
But the best part about the movie was that it did instantly spark conversation – we were debating before the credits were over. Where is the line between serving consumer free choice and being a predatory business? Should independent bookstores position themselves as the equivalent of a nonprofit, something that should be supported and protected because it's an ethical thing to do, or should they focus on offering superior service and experience in order to effectively compete as a business? Is there some kind of conflict of interest in campaigning for preserving your community when it benefits you financially, or is that just a part of being a good citizen of your neighborhood? What exactly are the qualitative differences between chains and indies in terms of atmospheres, employees, selection, etc.? Is it possible that there are some readers who actually prefer the chains, or is it just a lack of education that makes them think so? Is there room for both the chains and the indies in the American bookselling landscape? How can we make the playing field more level, while still demanding the best from every bookstore?
Obviously, the questions go on and on, and our individual answers to them may determine our direction as local independent businesses of all kinds. I think it might be more productive to show this film to bookstore owners and other independent business owners than to bookstore customers in a public screening – it really forced us to think hard about how we position ourselves in our market, the factors we're up against, and the power we can have if we work together. I'm curious to hear others' takes on the movie – let me know what you think if you've seen it.
Meeting: Emerging Leaders planning
Last Friday I met up with Steve Colca (publicity, W. W. Norton) and Amanda Lydon (manager, Good Yarns Bookshop) to work on our game plan for Emerging Leaders, both the next Night Out and some additional projects and ideas. (I have to add here, that one member of our planning committee is having a serious moment in the sun – check out today's Shelf Awareness for a great piece on the media attention that Amanda and her mom, Margaret Osondu, have been getting from the Today Show and Oprah!)
Over fabulous tacos from La Esquina and a drink or two at Double Happiness, Steve, Amanda and I laid our plans, which involve another Emerging Leaders Night Out this fall, as well as a young bookseller/publisher roundtable of some sort early in the new year. One of our major focus points for this next ELNO will be getting more booksellers into the mix, and we've got some plans for doing so; drop me a line if you've got ideas about that or you'd like to get involved. I'll keep you posted!
Weekend: NAIBA Board Meeting
This Sunday and Monday was the fall meeting of the board of directors of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers association in Spring Lake, New Jersey. So Sunday morning I met up with NAIBA executive secretary Eileen Dengler, her assistant Doreen, vice president Lucy Kogler (of Talking Leaves bookstore in Buffalo) and secretary/treasurer Pat Kutz (of Lift Bridge Books in Rochester). Eileen drove us the hour and a half through Staten Island and environs down to Spring Lake, a pretty little town of high-end summer houses on the Jersey Shore. We met up with Betty Bennett (of Bennett Books and the fabulous Bennett family) and former president Fern Jaffe (Paperbacks Plus in the Bronx) and had lunch in the Who's On Third Diner, a baseball-themed place filled with locals, and we were already talking business. (Actually, we'd been talking bookstore stuff all the way in the car, and we didn't stop even for meals this weekend. What can I say? – we're all bookstore nerds.)
We stayed in a beautiful Victorian B&B called the Normandy, with weirdly wonderful "women's handicrafts" (like wreaths made of hair) on the walls, lots of adorable details, scrumptious food, sweet staff, and a super-cool Tower Room at the top, where I was lucky to be assigned. (The view of the ocean was great and it was charming in the daytime, but when the wind blew at night and the stairs creaked, I couldn't help imagining Victorian ghosts coming to join me in the Tower, and I tossed and turned a bit. This is what comes of having a book-addled imagination.)
The Board convened at two o'clock on Sunday, and we talked business straight through until two o'clock on Monday, with only occasional breaks to raid the cookie table, walk down the boardwalk for dinner in a local restaurant, and sleep. Joe Drabyak of Chester County Books & Music is president this term, and he led the meeting admirably, with his trademark brilliantly groan-worthy humor and a great instinct for making sure all voices were heard. You can see a complete list of the board employees, members and their bookstores on the NAIBA website (soon - it's in the process of being posted); for me this weekend they became just Betty, Fern, Eileen, Joe, Jack, Lucy, Paul, Pat, Harvey, Doreen, Carla, Lynn, Tim, and Rob. I treasure the conversations I got to have with them in between business about our towns and our stores, our lives and our families, our histories and our hopes. One of the purposes of the meeting, we all agreed, is to rejuvenate ourselves as booksellers and as board members by spending time with people who are equally committed to books, bookselling, and the independent bookstore community, and who become friends as well as associates.
Our goal for the weekend was to set our plans for the year, and figure out how we as an association can better serve the bookstores that make up our constituency (not to mention getting more regional bookstores to become members, goals which obviously go hand in hand). This involves allocating our finances, working with publishers, planning small events like the Trunk Show in upstate NY and the Shop Talk events in various cities, and the culmination of our year, the Fall Trade Show. We came up with neat ideas in a lot of areas (you'll see them happening and hear about them on this blog in the next year), but we saved the trade show talk for last.
In a late-night, after-dinner meeting on the wide porch of the Normandy, we worked to formulate what exactly the purpose of the fall show and convention is, and what it should be, and whether it's working to that purpose. We tried to figure out how we can make the show more attractive and more productive for publishers and especially for our membership. And we came up with a somewhat revolutionary plan for a new kind of show. I can't write about the new focus yet – "discretion" is actually right there in the "NAIBA Board of Directors Guidelines" – and anyway it will be so much cooler when we reveal it all at once. But it's going to surprise you and knock your socks off, and we think it's going to be a radical, wonderful clean slate. So be prepared, and stay tuned...
I hitched a ride home on Monday with Fern Jaffe (after ruefully admitting to Eileen that as a carless New Yorker I'm like the kid in the carpool, since after every meeting the question is "Okay, who's got Jessica?"). Fern and I talked about her experiences as not only the owner of the only independent bookstore in the Bronx (Paperbacks Plus) but also the first president of NAIBA, back when it was still the New York–New Jersey Independent Booksellers Association. (Eventually the organization merged with the Middle Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, and the combination of names is where New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association comes from – not, as I thought, because it's not the "old" AIBA.) Fern is an incredible mentor and force in the industry, and I feel lucky to have finally met her after hearing about her for years. She's just one of the amazing booksellers who make up this community in which I've found myself. And I'm grateful for all of them.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Friday, October 20, 2006
I'd been feeling a little isolated in my book nerdishness at the bookstore where I then worked, where folks didn't seem to share my enthusiasm for the work. I'd been inspired by Robert Gray's Fresh Eyes; I sent myself an email with his URL and the text "Think about doing this yourself." I wasted a lot of work hours reading Jessa Crispin's Bookslut (yep, she's an inspiration too in some ways), and I was getting excited about the possibilities of talking about books on the web.
A week or two after my first post, I sent my new blog address to almost my entire email list. That list included NAIBA Executive Secretary Eileen Dengler, who sent it to the entire NAIBA listserve, which is certainly how people in the industry started to hear about it.
In the whole year since then, I've been encouraged and inspired and challenged by your comments. I've been flattered and invigorated by hearing from people who read the blog at conferences and trade shows and in my own bookstore, and I've made more than one virtual friend who turned into a real one. Opportunities have arisen that would never have occurred without this exposure. And I've developed my own ideas about independent bookstores and what I want to do in this world.
James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, and Opal Mehta scandalized us. Orhan Pamuk was arrested, then won the Nobel. David Mitchell, Mark Binelli, Richard Powers, Sam Savage, Brian K. Vaughan, and dozens of others made us remember why we read. I've moved to a new bookstore (where there's lots of enthusiasm) and joined the NAIBA Board of Directors. Emerging Leaders has, well, emerged. I've discovered Bookdwarf, Bookseller Chick, Conversational Reading, Ed Rants, and dozens of other tantalizing litblogs. I've joined the Litblog Co-Op and had my own standards of reading and writing and supporting underdogs raised. We've debated the degree of independence that being an independent really means, and how we can effectively work together. I've learned, and thought, and written a heck of a lot more than I did in the year before.
So, this is one of those birthdays where everyone else gets presents, even if it's just a big old cyber THANK YOU. I really just want to say thanks to everyone who's read, commented, excerpted, linked, talked, and emailed in the last year. Despite my desire to talk, I probably would have quit long ago if I hadn't felt that you were listening, and talking back. You're my community, and you rock.
Not everything has changed -- I'm still pressed for time, running off to my paying job and tearing myself away from this most addictive and productive of free-time hobbies. Hope you're all enjoying the Halloween season this time around. Thanks so much again for your support. Happy reading!
Monday, October 16, 2006
I know I'm always prodding you readers to comment on the issues I discuss on The Written Nerd. However, it has occurred to me that since many of you are book people, not blog people, you may not know how easy it is to comment (or "post a comment") on a blog. Forgive me if this is all old news to you, but I thought I'd write up a brief tutorial to make commenting less of a mystery. These instructions look long, but I'd say they take about 30 seconds, plus however long it takes you to articulate your thoughts in writing.
How to Comment On This Blog
1. Click on the "[#] COMMENTS" link at the bottom of the post on which you wish to comment. A new window will pop up (disable your pop-up blocker if you need to.)
2. In this new window, type in your comment in the box under "Leave your comment."
3a. If you have a Blogger user name, click on the bubble next to "Blogger." Type in your user name and password in the blanks that appear.
3b. If you want to post your comment anonymously, click on the bubble next to "Anonymous." You will not be asked for any identification info.
3c. If you want to comment using your name (or any name), click on the bubble next to "Other". Type the name you wish to use in the blank marked "Name." The "Web page" blank is optional, but you can use it to include the address of any website you want people to link to when they click on your name in the comments.
4. Type the squiggly letters you see into the "Word Verification" blank. (This exists to prevent the comment equivalent of spam email.)
5. Click "Preview" to see what your comment will look like. You can edit the writing in the "Leave your comment" box to modify your comment.
6. Click the blue "Publish Your Comment" button.
Congratulations! You've commented on The Written Nerd!
* Last week was Slate's Fall Fiction week, which of course I'm slow in noticing. My favorite article in their "Book Blitz" is this one on Overlooked Fiction, with comments from bloggers (including Bookdwarf) and booksellers (including my former coworker Carol at Three Lives, a voracious reader and supporter of the underdog if ever there was one; hi Carol!) Lots of other interesting stuff in the Slate lineup, too; I'll have to read through some of it before I can link and recommend.
* And the winner is: FIRMIN! The Litblog Co-Op's Read This! Selection has been announced, and Sam Savage's literate rat takes the field. Click over for nominator Ed Champion's brief but thoughtful take on why he picked this book, including this great summation:
Firmin challenges our narrative assumptions by presenting us with a tale told by a rat, signifying perhaps both nothing and everything, about the relationship between reality and fiction. It can be read as a literal entertainment or a multilayered parable about gentrification and the palliatives and pitfalls of imagination.
* Speaking of Ed Champion, today the man is hosting what you've all been waiting for: the Richard Powers Echo Maker Round Table. Today is the first of five installments, containing the rambling thoughts of nine readers (including yours truly) riffing off of each others' musings on the novel, followed by a response from Mr. Powers himself on Friday. This will serve in lieu of a review of this Book #39 for me, as I found myself writing and thinking more deeply about this book in this format than about any I've read recently. (Yes, I'm still a fan!) I'm totally hooked on the roundtable as a kind of virtual book club, one where you have room to really develop your opinions. And of course I'm totally star struck that Richard Powers now knows my name (if only virtually, in order to comment on my crackpot opinions). Hope you enjoy the exchange!
* Last night I wore my CBGB T-shirt to a screening of INDIES UNDER FIRE at Steve Colca's place in Harlem (which I'll write more about later), totally unaware that last night was the last hurrah for this legendary rock fortress. I gotta admit I never actually went to a show at CBGB proper (I did go to the CB's Gallery next door, which had more folky and indie stuff), but it seemed important that it existed as an emblem of all things down and dirty and New York and punk rock. Now its legend will only grow, unimpeded by a concrete existence. Firmin would understand. Here's what Patti Smith said:
"Kids, they'll find some other club," Ms. Smith insisted during her set. "You just got a place, just some crappy place, that nobody wants, and you got one guy who believes in you, and you just do your thing. And anybody can do that, anywhere in the world, any time."
* And if you feel like continuing to bask in the sweet misery of nostalgia for places that are no more (a sentiment always easy to conjure up in this changeable city), the Times also has a piece on Bookstores That Live Only In The Mind: all the great NYC bookshops that have closed in the last 10 or 15 years. I think it's pretty amazing how long some of these guys lasted, from the 'teens to the '90s in some cases. Me with my militant optimism, I'd love to see a piece someday on stores that have opened and are succeeding. But it's also important to pay attention to what's come and gone. These were bookstores where dusty old print media could live and breathe, and we respect them as they respected books and readers.
So go ahead and indulge in a little Monday moping; I'll be back on Wednesday with a review of the new documentary and hopefully some new books, to help us face forward again. Happy reading!