Sunday, February 26, 2006

Chronicle: A Day In The Life of Corner Bookstore

So the ALP and I didn't make it to the New York Comic-Con -- turns out tickets were sold out long before we ever made it to the Javits Center. Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles, as my comic book hero Captain Haddock was wont to say when frustrated. We'll have to be content with our nearly weekly visits to Forbidden Planet and Jim Hanley's Universe, local comic book meccas where we get our fix of the newest and greatest.

But it turned out to be just as well, as I got a call from my bookselling friend Chris, who presides at the venerable Corner Bookstore on 93rd and Madison, in the heart of NYC's tony Upper East Side. He was short a staffer and asked if I'd like to come in and work on Saturday. Being Comic-Con-less, short of cash (as always) and curious about the workings of Corner, I elatedly agreed.

It was just Chris, me, and fellow bookseller Peter when we opened at 11 on Saturday -- though we had to wait for a fashion shoot from Teen Vogue, which was taking advantage of Corner's light-suffused book-lined space to show up a pixieish model to full advantage. When they exited with their bags of clothes and those black umbrella things, the business of the day began. Corner Bookstore is that old-fashioned thing, a small general bookstore, and their stock includes literature new and old, art, design, and architecture books, lots of travel guides, some history, poetry, and belles lettres, and a lot of children's books, from board books to young adult series. These latter sections are new to me, and I was excited to see dozens of the books I loved from my childhood -- though my excitement was tempered by an involuntary recoil at series like The Pretty Committee and Gossip Girls, apparently what the pre-teens are reading these days. Ew. (Peter proposed that maybe it was slightly better to read trash than to watch trash on TV, but the idea was met with doubt.)

When I talked with Chris beforehand, he warned me that Corner sells its share of Danielle Steeles to keep the Haruki Murakamis on the shelf. (Actually, he mentioned two female authors with three names each -- Mary Higgins Clark? no, two others -- and it's mark of my book nerd snobbery that I hadn't heard of either.) It's the compromise every successful bookstore makes to one degree or another -- making money off the books you don't believe in -- but Corner handles it with civilized style, as they do most things. For example, it's inspiring to see Chris circumvent a child whose lackadaisical parent is allowing it to tear up books while the parent browses -- his polite but firm manner with both child and parent is a credit to retail employees everywhere, and something I'd love to be able to teach anyone who works with children's books.

I spent the morning neatening and inventorying the backlist literature section, and as the afternoon light moved across the store (whose ingenious front windows display a lot of books while still letting in a lot of light) I did the same for the architecture/art/design section. In between I smiled at customers and pointed them to the book they wanted (or to the much more knowledgeable Chris and Peter). I also got to ring up sales on their gorgeous, massive old cash register (which really is utilized just for its storage drawer and the exciting ring when you wind the handle -- calculations and charges are handled elsewhere). Peter recommended a nearby pizza place, Pintaile's, and I had a yummy UES meets Italy gourmet pizza for lunch. In the evening when it got slow, we talked bookstore gossip, and amused ourselves by teasing Hampton, the store cat, so named because he was found abandoned in South Hampton (though Chris prefers to think of it as a reference to jazz great Lionel, because of Hampton's feline cool). He seems to have overcome his kittenhood trauma, and stalks around on the tops of the shelves like he owns the place, occasionally losing his dignity and scrambling around wildly for no reason, like cats from time immemorial. He has great respect for the books, though -- takes out his primitive instincts solely on the scratching post downstairs.

Corner has an ancient filing cabinet, one drawer of which is devoted to children's credit accounts -- parents can pay to keep their child's name on file with a certain amount of store credit, and the child can put books on account until the credit runs out. It's really no different from a gift certificate, but it seemed to be quite exciting to the kids who came in and importantly put books on their account, and understandably so. I thought it was a brilliant idea to encourage younger customers. Though I'm told that Corner can get its share of demanding well-heeled readers, everyone who came in yesterday was extremely pleasant, and I felt like I was was in a utopian idyll of bookselling.

I wonder if it might be of great benefit for independent bookstores in New York -- maybe those who are involved in ABA and so already have a connection to each other, like those who showed up at the Bookseller/Sales Rep Soiree -- to initiate some kind of regular Bookseller Exchange Program. It was a wonderful change to work in a different kind of bookstore for a day, and I think I learned a great deal that I'm storing up for future reference. Owners who sent their staff to another store could have them report back with new ideas, alternative methods, etc. A utopian idea, perhaps -- but anything's possible in New York.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Comment: What's A Bookseller To Do With Graphic Lit?

Apparently it's official: graphic novels are literature. Or at least literary. Or at least culturally important enough that official people will review them as books. Or at least book publishers are publishing them (and a lot more of them than before). The New York Times (the paper of record, and thus the last place to know what's going on -- since they have to wait until it's an official trend before writing about the trend) reviews graphic novels in its book pages, and in this article (archived, sorry) note that comics are the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry. The NYT Magazine now has a "funnies" section (I'm told). Time Magazine has a surprisingly insightful article on the development and current state of the format. And these are just the big guys and the most recent pieces. If you're a book person, you've probably read hundreds of pages of commentary, discussion, and argument about comics/graphic novels/sequential art. And the debate over the name is only the beginning.

I myself am probably pretty representative of the new demographic of readers of comics. I never really picked up the things when I was a kid (aside from the occasional Disney comics given to me by my folks). It wasn't until a few years ago, when I threw in my lot with a genuine comic geek, that I started to give the genre a little cred. The ALP is an omnivorous reader and has a massive comic collection, which I started to raid early on. By the time I jumped in, there were enough books with serious literary chops (MAUS, PERSEPOLIS, etc.) that there was plenty of highly respectable material to read. But I got into the superhero stuff too. While I couldn't find my way into the more complicated series (the Avengers? X-Men? Way too much backstory), I picked up on some new series like RUNAWAYS and EX-MACHINA (a supercool one about an everyman with superpowers who becomes mayor of New York) and FABLES (a brilliant, intense series about exiled storybook characters living in the human world), and I devoloped my own obscure little loves (Green Arrow, especially the second generation -- Connor the Zen monk as bow-wielding stoic bad-ass with father issues has some weird appeal for me).

Actually, the ALP is sometimes disapppointed in the pop culture nature of my comics taste -- with so many high-lit comics out there, I spend an awful lot of time on the fantasy stuff. But for me it's like discovering a new mythology -- archetypes that can be told a thousand different ways, Joseph Campbell style -- and the best of it feeds into my love of well-done genre fiction. I like the highbrow stuff too -- there's an artist named Farel Dalrymple whose collection POP GUN WAR I think is one of the most original and strange and beautiful books I've come across in years, and I've poked through my share of Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman. I have a great respect for and enjoyment of Will Eisner, widely agreed upon as the founder of the genre, but more as a pioneer than as an artist -- while his working-class sensibility and deeply felt moral quandries are wonderful, he can be a bit over the top. As with most genres, I can describe a lot more than I've actually read -- that's my job as a bookseller. But the point is, there's a wealth of stuff out there to be described, to be recommended and enjoyed and pondered and discussed.

In my opinion, the question for bookseller when considering carrying graphic novels is not if but how. At the store where I now work, we have graphic novels mixed in with literature. Some of them may justify that category -- Tezuka's massively ambitious 8-volume comic book fictionalization of the life of the Buddha probably has a better claim to being literature than, say, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. But I can't tell you the number of times a customer has come in and asked where we have the graphic novels, and I have to gesture towards the whole section and wish him (or her) luck. And not all "graphic novels" are novels, of course -- some are short stories, biography, memoir even journalism. The TIME article outlines the dilemma:

Trade bookstores have become an increasingly important outlet for comic publishers so the strategy for selling them on the floor has become critical. Should Superman, manga and "Maus," sit side by side? Chip Kidd, among many others, can't stand this. "I truly believe that Spiegelman's 'Maus' should be shelved next to Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, not next to the X-Men. Maus is a Holocaust memoir first and a comicbook second." Micha Hershman, the graphic novel buyer for the Borders bookstore chain has no such doubts. "The graphic novel is a format," he says. "We would not segment the category by splitting up the graphic novel section." According to Hershman, Borders' research shows the "demographics for 'Maus' overlap with the ones for Spider-Man," so that it is theoretically easier to lure the reader of one to the other than it is to lure a reader of Elie Wiesel to "Maus."

While I hate to agree with Borders over Chip Kidd, I think Hershman has a point. Graphic novel readers seem to be a specific type, like readers of mystery or biography. Their tastes within the genre tend to be fairly catholic. In thinking about how to organize my bookstore (oh heavenly complicated subject, one that can make for many more postings), I've determined I will have to have a separate section, where Spiegelman rubs shoulders with the comic book journalism of Joe Sacco and the superhero antics of Brian K. Vaughn. These books have earned the right to be sold in literary bookstores, and their unique status and readership demands a section all their own.

As for the name of the section? "GRAPHIC LITERATURE" (or maybe even just GRAPHIC LIT). Let 'em think it's the adult section if they want to. The comic book geeks like me, and those just coming into the fold, will know where to go.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Comment: Conference Geek-Out

Dude, is it just me or have the book reviews been taking over the blog lately? Time to talk about something else. It's still months away, but it's totally not to early to get excited about Book Expo America!

For the uninitiated, BEA is the biggest book industry event of the year. Sponsored by Reed Business Group (the company behind Publishers Weekly), it brings together publishers, authors, agents, booksellers, media types, and a few of the curious. Galleys and ARCs flow like water (big, chunky water that's so heavy you have to ship it home); authors from the obscure to the exciting are on hand to sign their new books; there are educational workshops, big mixers, and of course, parties!

This year BEA will be held in Washington, D.C., from May 18 to 21. For complicated reasons, I haven't made my reservations yet (minor biting of nails...). But come hell or high water ("Lord willing and the creek don't rise," as my mother used to say, only slightly ironically), I am so gonna be there. At previous BEA's I've been enlightened by the workshops, and impressed by the publisher tables. I've gotten warm fuzzies from all the old and new bookseller friends I've met, and made connections with publisher sales reps and other industry folks. Not to mention I've dragged home books that have become my handsells of the next year.

And this year I have particular reasons to need to be there. I've already been chattering with fellow booksellers about the parties we hope to crash and/or get invited to (Litblog Co-Op, anyone?...) And if you can believe it, this year your Book Nerd has actually been asked to be... a panelist! I literally can't say too much about it right now -- the details are still in the works -- but I'll (most likely) be joining some other booksellers on the other side of one of those workshop tables. I should probably be casual about this -- but hello, I'm a book nerd, and I think it's really, incredibly, impossibly exciting. Further bulletins as events warrent.

On a smaller scale, this coming weekend is the New York Comic-Con. No bookstore is gonna send me to this one -- my store has a few graphic novels, but it's not a field they're necessarily looking to expand. But I've become a small-scale comic book geek over the last couple of years (under the tutelage of the ALP, of course), and I'm hoping to grab a couple of fellow geeks and see what all the craziness is about. This isn't the big Comic-Con -- that one's held in San Diego every year and is where the real freaks come out of the walls. This New York version is relatively new, but there are a couple of artists and writers I'm hoping to get a peek at, not to mention the glimpse into new comics on the horizon, and hopefully a free giveaway or two. I'll keep you posted...

Monday, February 20, 2006

Reviews: #9 (Keenan) and #10 (Oliver)

Before presenting today's capsule reviews, I should perhaps recommend that you all take them with a grain of salt. It seems A.M. Homes' THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE, which I panned here (and waffled about in Publishers Weekly [this version heavily edited from what I wrote, mind you]), is not only getting lots of praise elsewhere, but has just been optioned for a movie. So shows what I know.

by Joe Keenan
(Little, Brown, January 2006)

A prescient publicity chap sent me this one, name-dropping P.G. Wodehouse as a comparison; how did he know that I am a passionate adherent of the Wodehouse school of novel-as-musical-comedy? I've actually been watching the BBC Jeeves & Wooster miniseries lately, and have been reminded how much I love all that goofy wordplay and lighthearted peril, averted at the last minute. But mostly the wit. Joe Keenan is an author I've heard compared to Master Wodehouse before, if Wodehouse was a gay TV writer. Keenan writes for Frasier and has a couple of other novels to his credit, which I've always meant to read but never gotten to. I'm awfully glad I got to this one – it was a cheerful romp of a thing, narrated in Wooster-ish witty bumbler fashion by Philip Cavenaugh, a struggling playwright who is lured to Hollywood from New York by his unscrupulous pal Gilbert, and drags along their practical, moral and brilliant friend Claire for protection. (Incidentally, it's fun to read a story with a gay male protagonist and his straight female best friend, instead of vice versa.) Complications too numerous to detail ensue, and Philip, Gilbert and Claire are treated to equal portions Hollywood glamour and mortal peril. There are a series of gay sex scenes that made me blush and hope no one on the subway could read over my shoulder, but even these were treated with such lighthearted wit that they seemed less pornographic than, well, rompish. (The story climaxes during Oscar season, and while I haven't seen enough of the contenders to plan to watch the show this year, the timeliness may make Keenan's book even more appealing.) Claire plays Jeeves in this setup, managing to save our heroes (and their new movie star friends) from ignominy and jail eventually, and the ride is well worth it. Customers are always asking for "a really funny novel," and I'm glad to have Joe Keenan's work to add to my arsenal of suggestions – if they don't mind a little bit of the naughty stuff, any reader is sure to be thoroughly entertained. What ho!

by Mary Oliver
(Beacon Press, paperback April 2005)

On a completely different note – I've also been a fan of Mary Oliver for a very long time, and I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading her latest collection (I think we're selling the hardcover in remainder at the store already). I came across a copy at that blessed institution, the Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch – walking over there to check out the newly acquired books and DVDs has become a Saturday morning ritual for the ALP and I, and we often come across books we've been meaning to read, and brand-new discoveries as well.

When you say the phrase "nature poems," your listeners are likely to roll their eyes imagining some hippy-dippy hooray-for-trees kind of stuff, perhaps replete with a New Age-y "spirituality." Mary Oliver, for the most part, transcends the stereotype. Her poetry is serious minded, skillfully crafted, full of a deep joy, and observant of the dark and light reality of the natural world. I equate her with my nonfiction heroine Annie Dillard, another woman willing to turn an honest eye to the strange and the beautiful going on unmindful of the human in the world. Like Dillard's, Oliver's sensibility seems to be growing more Christian (or just theistic) as she grows older – her poems of observation and joy often turn to praise. But it's a perplexed faith – as she muses in "The Wren from Carolina," "All things are inventions of holiness. / Some more rascally than others." I made the ALP listen to me read aloud this and some other of my favorites, including "This World," where the poet despairs of writing a poem with "nothing fancy" when the whole world seems extravagantly beautiful, and the rare semi-political poem "What Was Once the Largest Shopping Mall in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been A Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon," which is a humble, quiet and stoic rant against consumerism. As Oliver seems to be drawing further apart from the rest of the civilized world, her poems become ever more deeply engaged in the world apart from society – the world of the individual, animal life, lit by the sun, the reason she wakes early. Easy enough for non-poetry readers to get into, deep and layered enough for the more sophisticated (though not the cynical), Oliver is a poet whose unconcern with human society makes her all the more humanistic.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Reviews: Martin, Coover; Comment: Bookstore Junkieism

Blizzard. Freelance work (to make ends meet, a bookseller's salary being sadly not commensurate with the job satisfaction). Social obligations. Valentine's Day. Honestly, when's a girl to blog?

Sorry for the big blank – I've actually come across several stories I wanted to comment on in the past week (a Bookslut linked article from Feb. 10 about authors accosting booksellers [with snarky subtext, surprise], more Orhan Pamuk and Frey/LeRoy commentary, poet Dan Chiasson's insufficiently enthusiastic review of Justin Tussing's THE BEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD [which I reviewed for Publishers Weekly and found odd and brilliant], etc.), but I just haven't found the time. So I'll just start with where I'm at: two new mini-reviews, and a happy link.

Review #8
The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories
by Valerie Martin
(Vintage Books, to be published May 2006)

In one of those happy confluences of fate, I had picked up a galley of this book from the piles at the bookstore (swayed by the blurbs from internal Random House staff on the back), and the next day received a copy in the mail as my reviewing assignment. I was leery of Valerie Martin's previous book PROPERTY, as it sounded depressingly "darkly erotic," i.e. people exploiting each other. There are elements of that here, but it's not the focus, and the stories are so skillful it doesn't feel gratuitous. Each story has as its protagonist an artist (a couple of painters, an actor, a poet, a printmaker, and of course a novelist or two), struggling or not, and the plots concern their negotiations with art and recognition as well as the unexpected paths of their relationships. I don't want to say too much about the actual plots of the stories, as their surprises are part (but only part) of the collection's joys. In trying to describe Martin to the ALP, I came up with the unlikely comparison of O. Henry meets early Paul Auster, and I haven't thought of anything better yet. She does sometimes seem to pair Auster's contemporary noir with Henry's twist-that-changes-everything, but in a fierce and rich way all her own, and one that seems distinctly female. This was a missing-multiple-subway-stops book, and based on the blurbs and my own reaction, I think it's going to be one of the word-of-mouth hits of the summer. Check it out as soon as you can – compelling and rewarding reading.

Review #9
A Child Again
by Robert Coover
(McSweeney's, 2005)

As with many book people my age, I have that love-hate relationship with McSweeney's – they wouldn't be so influential if they weren't sometimes (often) brilliant, but the cutesy/pretentious vibe that occasionally surrounds their projects can be off-putting. This book both intrigued me and puzzled me: childhood stories and fairy tales reinterpreted for an adult world, and the book is bound with an oversize pack of cards in the back cover that contain a story themselves. The ALP had read an earlier book of Coover's and found it insufferable, but I glanced at a few pages and thought this one looked like it had possibilities. The first story, "Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee," turned out to be my favorite – little Jackie Paper, now a Member of Parliament and feeling his age, is forced to return to redeem his forgotten friend Puff from those who want to destroy him for his dragonly impulses. The story combines the humorous literal with the profound metaphorical elements of the story, and is immensely tender and satisfying. In some of the other stories, including "The Return of the Dark Children" (about the aftermath of the Pied Piper in Hamelin), "Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock" (about a now-menopausal Alice unable to escape the nonsense of Wonderland) and "Stick Man" (about the poignant adventures of the classic simplified drawing in the human world), Coover managed the same magic combination. Others, though, went too far one way or the other – usually too far in the metaphorical direction – and are too tiresome to talk about. This is about average for a McSweeney's venture, I find, and I'm grateful for the good stories – no one else would likely have published them, and they do add to my pantheon of genre genius. I would definitely recommend the beautifully bound book to those who tend to gravitate toward cleverness and remember their children's literature, but caution against a certain ennui with Coover's rewrites that I suspect might be remedied by a return to the originals, open to our own interpretations.


Thank the powers that be for, will you? Their hefty online presence and solid indie values (recommendations by real booksellers, creative engagement with authors and readers, refusal to sell clothes and appliances and stuff) make them a worthy independent alternative to Amazon for online book buying. And now they've got a cool author essay series going, with a great installation by newbie memoirist (good luck, in this climate!) Danielle Trussoni. Her gratifying little piece "Confessions of an American Bookstore Junkie" could be my own life story (nerd, junkie, same diff), except that she was headed down the author route rather than the bookseller route. This despite the advice of an early bookseller memoir, who taught her "two rules to live by:

1. Slowly but surely and only after coffee.
2. Working in a bookstore is the most enlightened profession attainable to humankind. "

Amen, I say! Trussoni is grateful to her bookselling mentors (as am I: thank you, Toby and Jill and Jenny and…), but notes that the stores where they presided have since closed. Her closing lines: "Where, now that these bookstores are gone, will all the bookstore junkies find employment?"
Oh, they're not all gone. And the bookstore junkies are making plans of their own. I venture to suggest that one woman's addiction is another woman's plan for the future, and I thank Ms. Trussoni for sharing our obsession so lyrically.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Review: The Big Moo (#7); Book Nerd Reveals What She's Really After

The Big Moo: Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable
by The Group of 33, Edited by Seth Godin

(Portfolio, 2005)

I was doing some shelving in the Business and Economics section and this little book caught my eye – it's a weird title, it's a pocket-size package, and Malcolm Gladwell is one of the authors mentioned on the cover as part of "The Group of 33." I read a few pages and decided to borrow it (thank goodness for our store's generous bookseller borrowing policy, without which I would probably spend more than my paycheck on books – and which allows me to learn about the "products" I'm supposed to be selling). It's a little bonbon of a business book, written in page-long, story-oriented segments by different writers (without individual attributions, a policy which Godin explains in his intro). As such, it's a little like reading something like the Bible – even with a common goal (in this case, teaching business people how to "remarkablize" their ventures), this many writers can occasionally sound contradictory. Stick with what you're good at – but innovate wildly! Don't be afraid to fail boldly – but make sure you fail cheaply! The title is a reference to Godin's previous book Purple Cow, and both refer to the necessity of standing out from the crowd, becoming something customers remark upon, i.e. remarkable. (Since I picked it up his book and found it worth talking about, I guess he's succeeded.)

There is some silly business-speak in here of the "think outside the box" variety, that quickly spirals into meaninglessness when you try to think about it too deeply. But it's very easily readable, and for the most part I found the writers articulated and reinforced many of the workplace/marketplace principles I believe in – and that I think independent bookstores are uniquely able to fulfill. Believe in what you're doing, and let your passion show. Hire good people, make their work worth their while, and listen to their ideas, especially those on the front lines. Figure out what your customers like and do more of it (duh). Let your play be creative and productive. Don't skimp. Don't underestimate the potential of the Internet, but don't get caught up in the hype of the next big thing. Care. And several writers made me think about ways these can be enacted and made profitable that I'd never thought of before.

Why am I reading a business book, anyway? Well, as you may have noticed, I want to found and run my own bookstore in Brooklyn, and I want it to be brilliant. I'm not going to be abandoning my post as (what Robert Gray of Fresh Eyes calls) a "frontline bookseller" any time soon. For one (really big) thing, I still have more debt than capital, and I haven't figured out yet how to convince some rich and foolhardy investor to back my crazy venture. And I still have a lot to learn about the business. And I still just love working on the bookstore floor. But I'm constantly thinking about ideas for my future store, bouncing them off the ALP (my future business partner) and my fellow bookstore employees, talking to people in the industry about them, and shaping my long-term plan for a place of literature and community. And every once in a while I get the itch to think like an entrepreneur, and see what kind of business skills and ideas I can pick up for free.

I suspect you'll be hearing a lot more about this dream venture of mine as this blog goes on. I also suspect most of you are not huge business book readers, so I apologize in advance for some book reviews that may be deadly boring to you. But for me it all connects back to the same dream. Books and reading aren't just my entertainment or my passion – they are my vocation. And I just want to keep getting better.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Comment: It's The Local Economy, Smarty

Thank goodness for Shelf Awareness! Their daily email on book industry news and events is an invaluable source of information on books getting buzz, business statistics and trends in publishing and bookselling, and bookstore openings, closings, and programs, among other things. And unlike an unfortunately large percentage of media outlets, the editors of SA don't start out with the assumptions that 1) real literacy is disappearing, if not already a thing of the past; 2) independent bookstores are cute but doomed to failure; 3) the Internet and the bookstore can't be friends. No, their reports on what's actually happening out there are uplifting more often than not, because they're not interested in perpetuating old stereotypes about bookselling. They do report when a good bookstore falls by the wayside, but there are just more stories about stores enacting great programs, opening up in new markets, analyzing trends and developing new ideas.

This past week Shelf Awareness reported on the American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute (which I would have given my eye teeth, whatever they are, to go to) -- a new program, off-season from the much bigger Book Expo America, designed specifically around workshops for bookseller professional development. The Institute was held in Long Beach, CA (which is why I couldn't go), to make it more accessible for booksellers who can't always travel to the usually East Coast-centered BEA. I've been hearing bits and pieces of reports back, and it sounds like it was a great education for all involved.

SA mentioned specifically a session on a topic that's a favorite of mine: Buy Local movements. These are grassroots projects of an alliance of small businesses in a certain area, often led by independent bookstores, meant to draw attention to the benefits of buying from local stores as opposed to frequenting chain stores.

Various national organizations, such as the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) have sprung up to help provide information and services to such movements, but their leadership is by necessity local. One great thing AMIBA can provide is access to the various surveys that have been completed regarding the impact of independent businesses, in locations varying from Austin, Texas to rural Maine. These show consistently that three times as much money stays in the local economy when you buy from a local independent store as when you buy from a chain. That means that your book purchase (or hardware, clothing, flowers, prescriptions, etc.) is going to feed local workers, support local tax-based projects like public works, and make your community a better place to live -- as opposed to whisking right out of town to the corporate headquarters of a chain and padding the bank account of an executive.

Betsy Burton of The King's English Bookstore in Salt Lake City Utah is behind her city's Buy Local First campaign. Dee Robinson of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington is one of the founders of a Sustainable Connections project there. And Carla Jimenez of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida is part of the Tampa Independent Business Alliance. (There are other similar projects, such as Austin's famous and fabulous Keep Austin Weird, which is an appreciation of local culture as well as a campaign against corporate anonymity, though not explicitly a business alliance.) These booksellers have been involved in alliances with other local businesses to create cross-marketing (coupon books to other local stores), festivals and specials to raise awareness ("buy local" weekends with discounts at independent stores), and educational campaigns (brochures and other materials about the benefits of buying local and the damages of chains).

As Burton puts it, "the climate is right" for buy local campaigns. "The public is receptive. They're tired of strip malls and Wal-Marts." She added that "hundreds" of such campaigns could be launched now, "and bookstores across the country can be branded as the center of the campaign." Robinson agrees: "the public is receptive. The mindset has changed over the years, and now they get it. They understand why buying local is important."

Do you, dear readers, understand why buying local is important? Aside from the economic benefits to your own hometown, patronizing local independent businesses creates a community that just isn't possible at oversized chain stores with short-term employees. It supports an environment where people are able to make a living on a labor of love, where people with skills and knowledge about their product or service (not just about watching the bottom line) can prosper. It allows for human connections and interactions that are less mediated by advertising and sameness. It's a way of learning what's unique about the place where you live. I'm sure, if you think about it, you can think of a dozen reasons more.

I know you can't always shop local. (That's why they're often called "Buy Local First ".) There are times when you just need something right now and your local store doesn't have it, etc. You're not going to get the cold shoulder from us indies for doing what you have to do. But the more people who make the effort to shop local when they can, the better our neighborhoods and communities can be.

I think Buy Local First movements are being led by booksellers because, like your best English teacher, they understand that it's not just about the books. Being involved with literature means engaging with the world, and having your eyes opened to what it can be. Good on these booksellers for acting locally. I'm proud to be a part of the indie revolution, and I can't wait to get started on Buy Local Brooklyn.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Comment: Freedom is complicated

Because I've been so busy lately, I failed to report in that Turkey has dropped the charges against Orhan Pamuk. It's a victory and a relief for the literary world, to be sure -- we've been spared one of our most interesting and insightful contemporary denizens. But many Turkish artists and writers with less international status remain under indictment under Turkey's law. And Pamuk's swift release means that attention won't necessarily continue be leveled at the institutionalized censorship of that country. Slate has a great article about the complex relationship of Turkey, the EU, Pamuk, and the ideas of Justice and Honor in complex and changing cultures. Included is the disturbing fact that while Turks vilify Pamuk for not being "Turkish" enough, some Europeans have denounced him for not being quite dissident enough. I love the conclusion:

"There is surely some irony in that fact that you can now be prosecuted in Europe for denying a genocide and prosecuted in Turkey for asserting that a genocide took place. For a country that has long created fictions out of its own past, it is all the more fitting then, that it is a novelist who starts the dialogue about what really happened."

The clash of cultures makes for wonderful art-- witness the literature of colonialism and post-colonialism, the rich music of African and European fusion in America, the traditions of Catholicism and tribal religions on Brazil. Hopefully such art serves to illuminate our common humanity, as well as highlighting our uniqueness. It's an incredibly difficult balance. Hopefully Pamuk's non-trial will mark the beginning of a new understanding of the complexities of Turkish culture, and the need for change.