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.