Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Too busy! Much too busy!

Did anyone ever see the Monty Python episode where a policeman keeps breaking in on the sketches proclaiming "Too silly! Much too silly!" ? It's necessary to keep that voice in mind...

Also, have you ever been in a state of constant low-grade guilt because there are so many things you haven't yet gotten done? It's like that around here in Book Nerd land. Sometimes I think I'm just not cut out to be a blogger -- how do all you folks do it?

But things are starting to get sorted out. The ELNO, for one, is well under way -- don't forget to email me if you're a New York-area young person in the book industry and you'd like to attend (or if you're a publisher who would like to donate some swag -- er, publicity materials -- for the event).

I will get back to those of you who are interested in guest blogging as soon as I have time to think about a schedule -- don't think I don't appreciate your offers, because I DO! Hold that thought, and I'll be in touch soon.

In the meantime, rather than reading the rantings of my frazzled brain today, read this article from AlterNet about the closing of Cody's Books in Berkeley and what it may or may not imply for independent bookstores in general. The conversation it engendered on AlterNet is vast and interesting. Does this writer have his finger on the pulse, or is he just one of the naysayers? Curious what you all think...

Hope you're having a good Wednesday -- see you in a state of sanity!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Comment: Street Dates & Street Ethics; Call for Guest Bloggers

I got to thinking about street dates for books over the weekend. This will likely be a short post, due to depressing weather and an overwhelming to-do list, but hopefully it will be food for thought.

The street date (or on-sale date, which I'll use interchangeably though there are subtle differences) is the official date on which a book can be sold in bookstores. The most famous of these, of course, is for Harry Potter; remember all those crates of books waiting for the midnight release? Most street dates aren't down to the minute, but as a rule the more highly anticipated the book, the more strict the on-sale date.

This Tuesday, August 29, is the street date for two such highly anticipated books: Haruki Murakami's new novel BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN (Knpf) and the paperback edition of Zadie Smith's ON BEAUTY (Penguin). My store will likely receive our shipment of these books today (Monday), but we are strictly forbidden to sell either of them until tomorrow.

Street dates were implemented a number of years ago as a result of lobbying of publishers by certain bookstores (mostly chains, I believe), with the complaint that some bookstores were receiving and selling hot books before others were able to do so, thus reducing their ability to compete. The publishers thus implemented strict on-sale dates for certain books that were likely to be in demand, so as to even the playing field for all stores to be able to sell the books to customers at the same time. (Andy, or anyone else in the know, feel free to fill in or correct me on how this all happened.)

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, some stores still sell hot books before the on sale date. Because wholesalers need to have the book well in advance of the street date in order to resell it to their bookstore accounts, publishers tend to ship these books to all of their large accounts (which includes both wholesalers and chains) fairly early. And some bookstores ordering either from wholesalers or directly from the publishers may get their books well in advance of the on-sale date. And the temptation to put a book that customers have been asking for out on the shelf a day or two early is one that can be hard to resist.

Especially since this falls into the category "if it's not reported, it's not a crime." The only way a bookstore can get in trouble for selling a book early is if someone from the publisher sees the book out on the shelves, or if someone calls the publisher to report it. It seems a little tattle-tale-ish to rat out a bookstore to a publisher, so unless it's something like HARRY POTTER, that rarely happens.

What most often does happen is that a customer will come into a bookstore asking for the new Murakami, and when told it will be on sale tomorrow, objects "But I just saw it at [x bookstore]." This is exactly the thing that street dates are meant to prevent, since it undermines the credibility of the bookstore that isn't selling the book yet, and makes it likely that the eager customer will take their business to the store that's selling the book early, rather than the one in their neighborhood that has treated them so well all these years.

In a way, you could say that the street date punishes those who follow the rules. But there doesn't seem to be any more effective way to keep things equal. Most bookstores I know at least make an effort to abide by the street date, though sometimes they may be unaware of one (not all books have a strict on-sale date, and some publishers are more serious about them than others.)

The cool thing about the street dates, in one book nerd's opinion, is the buzz and excitement of waiting for that date. Especially in the fall, when a lot of big new books come out, there are a lot of Tuesdays that it's worth coming into the store early to see what has arrived. (Tuesday is the most common on-sale date, I imagine to give bookstores time to receive the book on Monday and get it out first thing Tuesday morning.) Maybe it's worth all the politics and embarassment just for that moment, when you step into the bookstore and there it is: the book that no one has ever read before.

What do you think about street dates and on-sale dates? As bookstore customers, booksellers, or publishing folks, have your experiences been positive or negative? What do you think is the real purpose of street dates, and do they serve that purpose?

* * *

On another topic, I was so pleased by conversations engendered by guest bloggers Dave and Carl that I'm thinking of making guest bloggers a more regular thing around here. I've started hitting up folks I know, but I'd like to make my plea to all my blog readers too. Whether you're in the book industry or just a book reader, if you have a topic you'd like to write about here, please send me an email and make your pitch. I won't set a length limit, but I think about a thousand words is long enough to be in-depth but not taxing. I have to retain veto power in case I think something isn't the right fit for the blog, but I'll look open-mindedly at all comers. Think about what you might want to write about, send me a sentence or two about it, and maybe I'll be able to set up a schedule for Friday guest bloggers. Thanks for being such great readers -- hope to hear from you!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Chronicle-Mad Wednesday: Brooklyn Biz, Book Festival, ELNO, NAIBA, Body Art

I spent the morning at the fabulous Brooklyn Business Library -- I wanted to make sure I got there in time for the 10:15 Wednesday tour listed on their website. As it turned out I was the only person there for the tour, but the librarian was just all the more helpful for that -- she asked me about what I was working on and what I was looking for, and quickly passed over all the boring stuff to take me to the information I needed (in my case, Brooklyn demographic statistics). She admitted (actually several times) that much of the information in the massive folders lining the walls can be found more easily on the Internet, and that the library was being forced to shift its focus toward mentoring entepreneurs rather than supplying hard data. She proved her point by giving me the names of several websites for research that proved extremely helpful, and even letting me photocopy the zip code map in the Brooklyn phone book. (I'll spare you the details of my research, but one of these days look for a supplementary blog about the birth pangs of a Brooklyn book store...) Hooray for librarians, and hooray for Brooklyn!

* * *

Speaking of which, I hope if you're in town on September 16 you get a chance to go to the Brooklyn Book Festival , being held in Borough Hall and the surrounding plaza from 10 to 6 that Saturday. (Note: you may not be able to see the festival website unless you have Flash installed on your computer.) Details and schedules are hard to come by, even for those of us exhibiting in the festival, but there are an amazing number of big-name authors on board who will be reading, signing, and celebrating in the tents and booths that day. Look for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and lots of children's literature, with an emphasis on locals but with a good showing from Manhattanites and even further abroad as well. It is the first year for the festival, so I think a lot of folks are holding back their opinion (and in some cases their support) until they see how things go this year. Despite those reservations, I have high hopes that it will turn out to be something special, andthat recognition of Brooklyn's unique literary culture continues to grow.

* * *

And speaking of THAT, preparations are underway for the second quarterly Emerging Leaders Night Out (ELNO for you acronymophiles), to be held probably the Thursday before the Brooklyn Book Festival (BBF) -- that's Thursday the 14th. Details on this one are still in the works too, as we pin down time and place, but we're thinking of it as a pre-party for the Festival, and hoping lots of young folks from publishing and bookselling will come out and drink and talk just like we did at the Brazen Head, back in June. The focus will still be social, but this time there will be opportunities to express your opinion of what you'd like to see the Emerging Leaders doing in future... and maybe even some BBF-related book swag from publishers. If you're interested, feel free to email me; I'll be sending out an email to everyone who attended or expressed interest last time as soon as the details are finalized.

* * *

Sadly, I myself will not be attending the Brooklyn Book Festival -- happily, it's because I will instead be in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association's fall trade show. Regional trade shows are sort of like mini-BEAs, though with more emphasis on bookselling -- workshops, roundtables, clases, meet-the-author dinners, and of course the show floor. I'm really looking forward to reconnecting with my fellow Eastern seaboard booksellers, maybe learning a little about Above The Treeline or Constant Contact, eating with some of the authors I most admire, and checking out the exciting new fall suff on the publisher tables. After the show, the NAIBA board has its annual meeting -- and presuming that the membership confirms my nomination, I'll be joining them. I'm extremely flattered to have been asked to join the board, especially because I'll be the youngest person on it and the only one who's not a store owner. I'm hoping it gives me further opportunities to create community among booksellers, support and mentor good business practices, and foster awareness of the importance of independent bookstores in our region. And I suspect I'll be learning a lot too.

* * *

As I suspected, Shelley Jackson's reading last night rocked. We had a great turnout (why, oh why did I forget to break out the camera? Because I was starstruck, of course), and she read a big chunk from the beginning of HALF LIFE (including a crazy song/poem sung by a two-headed kitten), and brilliantly answered questions afterward. I got to hang out with her a little bit beforehand and asked her to sign my galley -- she included a drawing of a "ladies' room" style female figure with two heads, just like the one on her shirt with the label "YESIAMESE." Talk about cool souvenirs from a fictional world! In doing a little biographical research beforehand so I didn't screw up her introduction, I came across Jackson's amazing website, Ineradicable Stain, and information on her "Skin" project (apparently I'm the only book nerd who didn't know about this yet). SKIN is a story written entirely in one-word tattoos on the bodies of 2,095 volunteers, and known in its entirety only to them. (Several of the "words," as the tattooed are known, came to the reading to collect their copies of the complete manuscript, prompting a New Zealand film crew to show up to interview them.) It's an idea as strange and creepy and wonderful as HALF LIFE, and makes more sense the more I learn about Jackson's work. Apparently about half of the (randomly assigned) words are still unspoken for, which had one of my fellow fabulist fan coworkers and I talking breathlessly about becoming Words -- how cool would it be to literally embody a story! But Shelley told me that though she's still accepting them, she has thousands of requests for those few hundred words already, and will eventually have to send out a mass rejection... and the ALP was distinctly skeptical when I suggested the idea, though supportive. Perhaps I'll just have to come up with my own choice of words to embody.

* * *

So here's today's question: What word, words, quotation, or entire work of literature would you consider having ineradicably etched upon your person? What bit of language is worth tattooing?

Hope you're having a Wednesday as interesting as mine -- happy reading!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Review #34: E Unum Pluribus

I've got a lot on my mind and on my plate these days (wedding planning, volunteer projects, business planning, conferences, side projects... you get the idea), so I haven't been reading blogs and trolling the internet like I (perhaps) should. So no Link-Mad Monday again today -- just a review of one of the most intriguing works of fiction I've read in a long time. I'm gonna remind you of this again at the end, but the author is reading from this book tomorrow night (Tuesday the 21st) at McNally Robinson at 7pm -- I'll be there, and I highly recommend it.

Review #34
by Shelley Jackson
(HarperCollins, July 2006)

I noticed the beautiful Rorschach of a cover, and wondered where I'd heard that author's name before. Eventually I realized that in addition to writing "acclaimed short story collection" THE MELANCHOLY OF ANATOMY, she also did the illustrations for Kelly Link's short story collection MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS, one of my favorite feats of New Fabulism ever. So her cred and her sensibility are well established as being in the realm of things I dig, and I begged and finagled until I got ahold of a galley.

The story is set in a sort of alternate America, where radiation testing in the Nevada desert has created a boom in births of conjoined twins, many of whom share everything but a head and portion of spine to call their own (picture the two-headed giants of fairy tales). Nora is half of such a "twofer," as they call themselves, and when the story opens her other half, Blanche, has been comatose for years, but Nora still wishes she could be more alone. The bulk of the story involves her secret (illegal) quest to have Blanche "removed", interspersed with flashbacks to their childhood in the desert, when Blanche was awake.

The ALP did a research project about freak shows in his younger days, and has read the stories (or attempts) of almost everyone who's ever tried to write fiction about conjoined twins (a list that includes Twain and Nabokov). He says that almost every such story ends up having one of the twins somehow "asleep" or out of the picture, because a writer just can't conceptualize how to write two consciousnesses in one body. It's one of those concepts like infinity, that makes sense until you try to think about it, and then fragments or veers or disappears into incomprehensibility.

Jackson does use the tactic of having one twin out of the picture (at least, that's how it seems; as the novel goes on Blanche's "absence" comes into question). She's more interested in using the conceit of the "twofer" to explore ideas of connection and individuality in American culture and psychology, while always moving the story along and keeping a sharp eye out for sentimentality or twaddle. The immense and sly humor of the book comes from the very familiar, yet exotic forms that "Twofer Pride" takes, as of course, such twins have enough of a population to form their own subculture: modifying language to "de-normalize" singleness ("everytwo", "tyou"), scholars positing that famous historical figures were in fact secretly twofers, screening movies that have kitsch twofer subtexts, going to therapy to learn to embrace two-ness, "singletons" who "identify" as twofers despite only having one head, etc. It helps that a lot of this action takes place in San Franciso, where subcultural activity taken to decadent or intellectual extremes seems to make perfect sense.

The therapy part is the venue for a lot of speculation about the Venn diagram, which Nora despises but eventually finds useful: the overlap of two circles, with some separate space and some shared space. The novel itself can actually be seen as a kind of Venn diagram -- one of many sophisticated structural and thematic linkages. And don't forget the subtextual commentary on nuclear fallout, the melancholy of the American desert, the surreal imaginations of childhood, the vertigo of missing or extra limbs and what it implies about our minds and our bodies, the saving and tormenting necessity of writing. And then there are those wonderful little Winnie-the-Pooh-on-acid rhymes that keep getting sung by taxidermy'd animals or other hallucinatory creatures.

But don't get me wrong -- this isn't an inaccesible, "experimental" novel that you read because you think you should. Like SACCO AND VANZETTI MUST DIE!, like CLOUD ATLAS, like most of the books I truly love, it's something you read with your heart in your throat, soaking up characters and turning pages frantically, while the heavy thematic and structural stuff slyly seeps into your consciousness and leaves you thinking and talking about it long afterward. It probably won't be for everyone -- it's a strange and sometimes disturbing little book, and will certainly appeal to certain sensibilities more than others. But if you have any interest in the strange, the wonderful, the paradoxical, the speculative, the eye-rollingly hilarious and the shut-you-up serious, in a new author doing new work on new themes and classic ones -- by all means, check it out. Read the book. Come to Shelley Jackson's reading at McNally Robinson on Tuesday August 21 at 7 pm. Talk to me about this stuff. It's better than being alone.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Comment: The Corrections

Corrections to Wednesday's post:

The photograph documenting Good Yarns' one-year anniversary party did not appear in Publishers Weekly, as I stated. It appeared (of course) in Shelf Awareness, July 7 edition. I bet you could even still find it in their archives.

Also, Amanda Lydon didn't start up Osondu with no previous bookstore experience. She had previously worked in a bookstore in New York.

Sorry about my lapses. Don't forget to make your voice heard on yesterday's questions and surveys!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Comment: Interview, Questions, Interview Questions

It's not my usual posting day, but I have a smitch of time and some odds and ends for y'all.

Simon Owen of the media commentary and interview blog Bloggasm has an interview with yours truly. He does his research on everyone he contacts, which makes for some interesting questions (also check out the interview with C. Max Magee of The Millions). I got a chance to send shout-outs to my favorite book industry lit-bloggers at the end; thanks for being around, guys!

- - -

Two blogs have posed open-ended questions to readership lately, and I thought I'd extend the questions to you. Feel free to respond in comments here, or on the source blogs.

Matthew Tiffany of Condalmo asks, what's with the hostility toward the short story? I never got around to answering the question myself, but several others did, and Matt has compiled their comments in this post. Feel free to continue the conversation with your own thoughts on short fiction and its discontents.

Dan Wicket of the Emerging Writers Network forwards the question of EWN member Quinn Dalton:

"Hey Dan! I’m moderating a discussion at my local library about the role libraries can play in communities—how it can best support what people need and want, with all the available resources online. I wondered if I could throw this out to the EWN membership—folks could answer any or all of the 3 questions as they please:
What do you want from your library these days (ours already supports online book discussion groups, video/audio downloads, online catalog and many search engines).
What do you see happening with publishing now and in the near future—print on demand, e-books?
What are the best online resources—blogs, literary communities, etc., that you use on a regular basis these days (we’ll assume EWN is at the top of this list)?"

Any thoughts on the role and potential of libraries can be emailed to Dan by clicking on the "Email Me" link on the left of the Emerging Writers Network site. Your answers might play a role in helping readers, writers and libraries find ways to link up!

- - -

Dan was also the one who sent me his responses to the little "One Book" survey making the rounds among blogs. I'm usually mildly opposed to such memes, but this one was too much fun to pass up. You can read my responses below. Then make your own answers and send them to me! (And also send me links to other blogs that have already responded -- I can't find or remember them right now.)

One book that changed your life.
Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One of the only nonfiction books to ever make me cry, and one that shocked me into new ways of looking at the world, myself, and the art and purpose of writing. (Also Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun.)
One book that you’ve read more than once.
L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables -- I actually read the entire series every summer in my teens. It probably gave me some hopelessly romantic notions, but I like to think it also taught me a little about the power of imagination, family, and place.
One book you’d want on a desert island.
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Favorite book of the last ten years -- I've already read it twice, and I feel like I could read it another dozen times with satisfaction.
One book that made you laugh.
Allessandro Boffa's You're An Animal, Viskovitz! made me snort aloud in public places. Couldn't sell it to anyone to save my life, but the chapter where a snail falls in love with itself is one of the funniest things I've ever read. (Also White Teeth, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, and every Jeeves & Wooster book by P.G. Wodehouse)
One book that made you cry.
Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things had me wracked with sobs; my college roommate got a little worried. (But a lot of books make me cry, as the ALP can attest. Everything Is Illuminated, Cloud Atlas, Caddie Woodlawn -- almost any emotionally resonant book can make my throat hurt and vision blur.)
One book that you wish had been written.
I wish C.S. Lewis had written more Chronicles of Narnia. The world he created seems like it has space for infinitely more stories, and I wish he would have complicated it a little more.
One book that you wish had never been written.
The friggin' Da Vinci Code. I hate that people confuse fiction with fact; I hate that people accept bad writing for the sake of a "fast pace"; I hate that every bookstore has had to sell it in order to stay afloat, and that every conversation about the state of the book world has had to mention it. I'm just glad it's finally starting to die down.
One book you’re currently reading.
Shelly Jackson's Half Life. Brilliant dark comedy about unhappily conjoined twins in a world where radiation has made "twofers" a powerful special interest group -- cleverly speculative, psychologically astute, symbolically resonant, imaginatively bizarre. Good stuff.
One book you’ve been meaning to read.
Laura Miller's Reluctant Capitalists, about the evolution of the bookselling industry. Nonfiction is a lot harder for me to motivate myself to read (and this is a dense academic book), but this is a subject I'm deeply interested in, so I'll get to it.

Hope to hear from ya!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Chronicle: Bookstores: The Voices and Visions of Angela Roach; A Day In The Life of Good Yarns

[Note: I'm having trouble uploading photos to Blogger again, so I'll add the photos to this post later if I can.]

As I'm working on the business plan for my eventual Brooklyn bookstore, and as I'm getting to know my fellow booksellers through the New Atlantic Independent Bookstore Association and the Emerging Leaders project, I've gotten the opportunity to spend time in some great independent bookstores. All of you readers and book people probably spend a fair amount of time in bookstores, as I do, but it's surprising what I've begun to notice as I'm looking at these stores from a business person's perspective. What follows are accounts of my recent visits to two area bookstores that have taught me a great deal about good bookselling and good business sense – not to mention being home to delightful booksellers.

Voices & Visions
The Bourse, Philadelphia, PA
Proprietor: Angela Roach

I met Angela at an "Emerging Leaders" meeting sponsored by NAIBA, geared not so much toward the under-40 crowd as toward those who had just opened bookstores or just gotten into bookselling. Angela opened Voices and Visions a little over a year ago, and was full of ideas and questions at our meeting in Phoenixville. What drew my attention was the assertion by Ron Rice of distributor Bookazine that he had seen Angela's business plan and it was "like the Torah" in terms of size and impressiveness. I was instantly full of admiration, and determined to try to pick her brain at some point about how she had made her store a reality. To that end, I got in touch with Angela and asked if I might come visit her store and talk about her startup process. She graciously agreed, so one day in mid-July I got on the bus to Philadelphia.

Voices & Visions is located in The Bourse – essentially a shopping mall in a beautiful historic building. A little out of the way on a lower floor, the store draws attention to itself with beautiful posters advertising its whereabouts throughout the mall – I had no trouble finding the place. There I found Angela, already hard at work before opening, behind the graceful round desk in a store full of intriguing corners and nooks.

[insert picture]

She graciously allowed me to walk around taking pictures while she made some adjustments to the store website (which is hosted by Booksense) – an artist had submitted new images to advertise for their upcoming gallery event. Voices & Visions, as the name implies, is a bookstore focused on art and performance as well as on books, and their event series and the store's décor reflect that focus. Its customers include local students, tourists of Philadelphia's rich historical center, and local residents who have made the store their home. Angela's art-oriented sensibility is also reflected in her creative "branding" – every sign in the store is written in the store's signature font and style, helping to create the idea of the store as an institution.

I learned almost as much walking around the store for 15 minutes as I did from our conversations! One of my favorite creative ideas was this table, which came from an interview Angela did with a local TV station, where she recommended her favorite books for summer reading. What a great way to connect with the local community!

[insert picture]

This is another focus of Voices & Visions: supporting local culture and creating a community institution. There is a Regional Room for local authors and artists, and the store abounds in cross-promotions for other local businesses. Angela's engagement with her community is an inspiration, and I know it will serve her in good stead.

After my photo tour, we left an employee in charge of the store and adjourned to a local coffee shop, and hours flew by as Angela told me the story of opening her store, a lifelong dream which came to pass with its fair share of drama, heartbreak and triumph. She graciously passed along what she'd learned and discovered in that process, and he plans for the future, and answered all of my questions. I reluctantly let her return to her store, my brain buzzing with ideas for how I could apply the success story of Voices & Visions to my own vision. I'm grateful for the benefit of Angela's experience, and grateful for the chance to visit another wonderful independent bookstore.

Good Yarns Bookstore
Main Street, Hastings-On-Hudson, NY
Owner: Sean Concannon
Manager: Amanda Lydon

I met Sean Concannon in his incarnation as sales rep/proprietor of book distributor Parson Weems when he visited our store for a sales call. I had barely learned his name when he said "I read your Day in The Life of Corner Bookstore post, and I think you should spend a day in my store." I learned Sean not only read my blog, but he had recently become the owner of the venerable Good Yarns store in a little town just upstate from New York City, and was hoping to get some feedback about how things are going.

Life intervened, though, and I half forgot about Sean's offer until I met Amanda Lydon at the Emerging Leaders Night Out. Amanda manages the day-to-day business of Good Yarns while Sean and his fellow owner are on the road for Parson Weems, and her bookstore enthusiasm was infectious. (As it turns out, she has a sparkling bookstore pedigree; her mother owns Osondu Booksellers in North Carolina, and has launched a now-famous campaign to get Oprah to visit the store and promote independent bookstores). My brain was jogged again when I noticed a photo in PW (which I can't find now) of a party celebrating the one-year anniversary of Good Yarns new ownership, and I decided it was about time to make that visit. So, on another day in August, I boarded the MetroNorth train from Grand Central Station and made my way to Hastings-on-Hudson.

My delight began when I got off the train (after only 40 minutes) and walked up a set of stairs to find myself on Main Street, which looked like something out of an idyllic summertime novel or a 1940s movie. Many of the store fronts looked like they dated from 50 or 60 years ago, but all were lovingly maintained, including that of Good Yarns, a few doors down on the left. I walked in to Amanda's smiling face, and quickly met not only the other employees on duty but a customer or two, all of whom seemed to be well-known faces, trading news and book suggestions.

The idea was that I would work as an employee in the store for the day, but I have to admit I didn't actually do a lot of work. Amanda and I were too distracted by talking to each other about ideas and experiences (her employees teased her that she'd found someone "just like her," by which I assume they mean a book nerd). We compared notes on point of sale systems, reordering, customer relations, book clubs, sidelines, store layout and organization, logos and branding, and staff training. At some point we took our conversation to a local diner for lunch, where we were joined by Amanda's 12-year-old "intern." "My dad says I'm living his dream," she told me, and I tend to agree with him – how cool would it be to grow up hanging out in your local bookstore?

I made a couple of suggestions about store layout (moving the fiction section from the several separate racks to one long wall display) and using the computer system (creating reports for weekly reorders), but I know I learned at least as much from Amanda as she learned from me. (We were having so much fun I forgot to take any pictures!) Having learned the business in the trenches (she helped her mom open Osondu, creating the store from scratch with no previous bookstore experience), she has a daring and creative sensibility I admire. Her next idea is a local "moveable feast" – a sit-down dinner with local authors, with tickets to be purchased in the store, for which she may collaborate with the local library. I wish Amanda, Sean, and Good Yarns the best of luck as they continue to grow, and have every confidence they'll become a bookstore to be reckoned with!

What bookstores have YOU visited that inspired you with their creative ideas or great people? I'd love to hear about them!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Reviews #30, #31, #32, #33: The Foreign Country of History and the Right Amount of Adventure

I'll forego the traditional link madness today in the interest of catching up on some book reviews. These are more or less in the order read. My calendar says we're in Week 33 of the calendar year, so I'm right on schedule for hitting that 52 books mark this year!

(Just one linky suggestion: the discussion has begun over at the Litblog Co-op of MICHAEL MARTONE by Michael Martone, and several of that clever gang are writing their comments in the form of fictional autobiographical "Contributor Notes," in homage to the form of Martone's experimental novel. It's a funny way to find out everything that never happened to Dan Wickett and Edward Champion, and may turn you on to a new book. My comments won't show up there until the fall round of titles, but everything these guys pick tends to be interesting.)

Book Review #30

by Emily Barton
(FSG, February 2006)

This one has been on my to-be-read list for a long time. As a devoted Brooklynite, as well as an aspiring entrepreneur, I was intrigued by the promise of a story about a female gin factory owner in 18th-century Brooklyn even more than by the idea of someone trying to bridge the East River a hundred years before it actually happened.

The book starts with a correspondence between Prudence Winship, proprietor (proprietress?) of Winship Daughters Gin, and her now-married daughter who has moved up the Hudson, with Prue promising to tell her daughter about the time she tried to build a bridge and everything that led up to it. This correspondence, I'll admit, induced some skeptical blinks and eyebrow-furrowing, as it's hard for a writer to get right the cadence of turn-of-the-19th-century spelling and expression (all those f's for s's), and hard for a reader to tell to tell if they have. Fortunately, Barton doesn't frame the whole book in this antiquated mode of writing, and the reader quickly gets acclimated to the characters' speech. It's one of the things that makes the book such a rich immersion in a culture that is surprisingly foreign; go back 200 years and even your backyard is another country.

This historical immersion was the primary pleasure of the book for me: seeing the familiar Brooklyn names attached to people, not streets and neighborhoods; realizing what a big deal it was to go to Manhattan when the only way was by ferry (and how snooty Manhattan was compared to Brooklyn even then); imagining the effects of quartering British soldiers on Brooklyn land, making friends with them and then having to say goodbye when their army was defeated; how much and how little the Revolutionary War affected Brooklynites and New Yorkers, in what unexpected ways; politics local and national in a place that's just barely a nation; the conception of slavery among even Northerners as an economic practicality; and the realities of lighting, cooking, using the bathroom, preventing pregnancy, and large-scale construction in the early 1800s.

The story progresses slowly, without tricks, allowing an engagement with the lives of Prudence, her two sisters (one loud and rebellious, one housebound by a speech impediment), her moody mother and cheerful but doomed father, her light-hearted lover, her employees (and slaves), her allies and friends and enemies. Ultimately there's still a foreignness, since while the story contains deep emotional tremors, people of Prudence's day didn't have the language we do to talk about it (sexual motivations, transference, sibling dynamics, alcoholism, compensating, etc.), and to some degree they never seem to quite understand themselves or each other. But who's to say the language means we know ourselves so much better?

The first Brooklyn Bridge both is and is not successful; I was really in suspense about whether it would get built, and you'll have to read the story to find out what happens. The sections detailing the workings of the gin mill and the bridge construction reminded me of the whaling passages in MOBY DICK: technical and fascinating on some level, but tempting to skim when you want to get back to the meat of the story. Ultimately, Barton has crafted a rich story of family, ambition, and community that's a truly rewarding, if never stunning read. I put this one on our Staff Picks table; I'd recommend it highly for long summer evenings.

Book Review #31
by Agatha Christie
(St. Martin's, August 2002 [originally published 1948])

Yep, I picked up another Agatha Christie, and of course I can't tell you too much about it since it is, by definition, a mystery. This was a rare Christie story that I'd read before and actually remembered who the killer was, so it was interesting to read with that in mind and mark the clues and red herrings dropped along the way. One interesting twist is that our hero and the young heiress he loves (in whose family the murder has been committed) met overseas during the war, and it was her professional competence in the Army offices that first attracted him. Despite this feminist touch, there's a weird jolly racism about the patriarch of the family, who is originally from Greece; the implication is that his "foreignness" gives him a particular kind of charming amorality (also attributed by the British to the French, the Italians, and those other "excitable" Mediterranean races). Ah well – Dame Agatha was both ahead of and a product of her times, but there's no denying she makes an incomparable way to while away a subway ride.

Book Review #32
by Thornton Wilder
(Bantam Pathfinder Editions, November 1972 [plays originally published 1938, 1942, and 1957, respectively)

Thornton Wilder holds a special place in my own literary history: I wrote my college entrance essay (to the college I ended up attending on a scholarship) about OUR TOWN, and THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY remains one of the books that changed my life. Wilder's up there in the company of C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and Annie Dillard in his ability to combine a wide-ranging philosophical ambition with an awareness of the earthy humor and absurdity of human life. I'd never read THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH before, so I picked up this stoop-sale paperback and ended up reading all three.

THE MATCHMAKER (originally called THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS) is the least ambitious of the three, and is apparently a rewriting of a very old European play, which I believe is the same one Tom Stoppard adapted for his version, titled ON THE RAZZLE. Scenario: tyrannical shop owner terrorizes rebellious employees, marriageable daughter; everyone separately leaves the shop for the big city; wacky hijinks ensue (hiding in drag in the hat shop, parties separated by screen in fancy restaurant); and pretty much everyone ends up married. It's a fun piece, and there's a bit of Wilder's typical fourth-wall-breaking at the end when someone is asked to give an apparently extemporaneous moral at the end (his verdict: have just the right amount of adventure).

OUR TOWN brings me back to BROOKLAND, since it's about the consistent rhythms of life and death through human history, on the smallest and realest scale. Boy, girl, mother, father, church, school, marriage, ambition, death – and the difficulty of ever looking at each other, ever loving each other enough to counteract the mortality that we can't quite imagine. As I said, I've written and written about this, so I'll shelve my further explications for some other occasion.

THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH turned out to be equally moving, as it's about a sort of eternal present on a larger scale, particularly in times of war and disaster. The Antrobus family (and their femme fatale-slash-maid, Sabina) seem to be cavemen, 19th century resort goers, and 20th century New Jersey suburbanites, all while dealing with the constant threat of annihilation from nature, other people, or themselves, and struggling to maintain the will to keep going. The final act felt especially resonant, as Antrobus, returning from "the war" to his ravaged family, discovers that the source of the evil he has been fighting is within his own house, and that he must now find a way to make peace with it. There's a lot of actors "breaking down", understudy substitutions, and addresses to the audience built into the play; I imagine in the wrong hands this could feel gimmicky, but when Wilder is performed well it seems to be a profound reiteration of the slip-shod scramble to keep the show going on that is the human experience.

Yeah, I cried reading this play. Partly in relief at the knowledge that we've always been on the brink of disaster as we are now (environmental catastrophe, continuing violence), and we always seem to make it. Partly in grief that we're still struggling with the failings and attempts at reconciliation that plagued us in the 1940s, not to mention for all of human history. He's a writer of big ideas, Mr. Wilder, and in a way that reminds me of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS, manages to find a big space for hope and comfort in the midst of his reminders of tragedy and loss. If anyone knows where I can see a performance of this one (if anyone even still performs Wilder; has he gone out of style?), let me know.

Book Review #33
by Marisha Pessl
(Viking, August 2006)

The Sunday Times Book Review had this book on its front cover yesterday, with a review the gist of which seems to be "Despite the fact that Marisha Pessl is disgustingly young and beautiful and precocious, this book is really quite good." Apparently there's been a lot of advance snarking because of that dreamy author photo in the back, and one can understand a certain amount of irritation, and the charges of youthful gimmicky-ness or immaturity. Doesn't bother me much, somehow; I'm a huge fan of the Jonathan Safran Foers and the Zadie Smiths, the younger and more brilliant the better. (Maybe it's because I don't think of myself as a writer and can enjoy the books as just a reader? Or maybe I just have a soft spot for my own generation making good.)

This is the book I took with me on the plane to California, and I actually ended up reading it instead of (okay, along with) my typical airplane allotment of trashy magazines. It took me the whole weekend, but hoo boy, what a read. This one made our Staff Picks table as the favorite of my boss Sarah; her take was that even when the plot gets breakneck near the end, Pessl never stops packing each paragraph with brilliant similes, asides, cultural references, and sparkling prose. Sometimes that can actually get a little frustrating; like descriptions of gin manufacturing, it can be tempting to skip the asides about film noir stars' biographies or the dynamics of leftist revolution in order to get back to the plot. But it shows an amazing discipline and talent in a writer, and I'm sure I could read this again and notice dozens more brilliant passages that I missed in my headlong pursuit of the denouement.

Oh yeah, the story: Blue Van Meer (named after butterfly species beloved of late mother, daughter of itinerant, charismatic professor of political science-ish stuff) finds herself, after a nomadic, extremely reading-intense childhood, spending her senior year of high school at an elite prep school in North Carolina. Taken under the wing of the equally charismatic film teacher Hannah Schneider, Blue finds herself forcibly inserted into the ranks of the cool kids or "Bluebloods," who hang out with Hannah for Sunday dinners and adore her.

(Here my main credibility issue kicked in: the cool kids are far too diverse. There's a glam rich girl and a golden boy, but there's also the big sloppy Southerner, the ethereal flower child with one long braid [??], and the small, sharp, potentially gay boy with glasses and orange tie. At my high school, THE popular crowd was pretty homogenous, though there were crowds that could have contained any of these kids; but maybe things are different in North Carolina.)

Blue is writing from her first year at Harvard, trying to make sense of that year, at the end of which, she reveals immediately, she discovered a dead Hannah hanging from a noose. How things get to that point, and what that means, is a story as compelling (and possibly as confusing) as THE BIG SLEEP, and Blue wisely leaves some elements unresolved. The book is structured like a course syllabus, each title named after a great (or semi-great) work of literature that has some symbolic connection to the events therein. It's immensely clever, immensely compelling, challenging and enjoyable, if ultimately… pretty unbelievable. One of my coworkers actually threw the book across the room when she got to the part about the forces acting behind the scenes, it seemed so ridiculous. But for me it was just about the right amount of adventure. As Sarah qualifies, this book probably won't get you any closer to enlightenment, but it's a heck of a good read. Read it now before the hype burns you out; it's not Ms. Pessl's fault she's a ready-made media darling, but you bookish types better get to her skillful writing before the promotion of her pretty mug gets to you.

Wednesday's post will be all about bookstores. Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chronicle/Comment: Recap of Time Off, Preview of Upcoming Events...

Okay, as I might have suspected, it's taking longer than I anticipated to recover from my little vacation. I spent the weekend here at my baby sister's wedding, which was completely wonderful and exhausting, as weddings tend to be, and even more so because the weekend involved hiking, rafting, dressing up in bridesmaid clothes, and many meetings of new family members over huge meals. I'm back in Brooklyn, but still gathering my wits, so bear with me for a bit.

I hope you've enjoyed the spirited exchange on the American Booksellers Association and the Booksense programs that's been happening here in my absence, starring Dave, Andy, Carl, and a few other brave souls willing to jump into the fray. I hope there's been a bit of learning from each other happening, as well as an articulation of our own positions. I would encourage anyone who has opinions on these matters to share your thoughts with the ABA leadership. You can find them by going to the ABA website, (which also has information that may answer many questions) and clicking on "Feedback" at the top right. And I'd love to hear from you too!

I've got lots of things I want to post about in the next few weeks -- the trick will be finding time between activities to write about those activities. In all optimism, here are a few of the things I'd like to address:

- Chronicle: an account of my fascinating visit to Voices & Visions Books in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, and my business chat with proprietor Angela Roach

- Chronicle: account of my upcoming Day In The Life visit to Good Yarns Books in Hastings-On-Hudson, and perspectives from manager Amanda Lydon

- Reviews: I'm behind on writing up my reading by at least 4 books, and there may be more by the time I get to them...

- Comment: the role and potential of regional trade associations, centered on the upcoming New Atlantic Booksellers Association fall trade show (September 15-16)

- Comment: a look at the upcoming Brooklyn Book Festival (September 16), and thoughts about the Hotel ABA Brooklyn

- Comment: Publisher blogs, and other new book blogs worth noting

And hey, if there are other things you'd like to see me write about, let me know! This will probably keep me busy through September at least. Hopefully I can clear the August condensation off my brain and get started. Stay cool out there, and look for more content soon!