Friday, December 28, 2007

Year-End Thoughts: On Dreams and Roles

I've been feeling like a bit of a bad blogger lately. As my RSS feed clearly indicates, the blogosphere is filled with retrospectives, best-of lists, summaries of the year in reading, analyses of the state of literacy, bookstores, publishing, etc. in the year that's just ending. Last year I posted a list of all the books I'd read; this year I can't even do that, because I've lost track. (Resolution #1 for 2008: write down all books read, preferably on paper, so I can look back at them.)

While I find myself unable to offer a sweeping, overarching point on the year in books, I have been having, rather typically, some personal year-end sorts of thoughts – about where I (and things) have been, where we're going, why are we doing this again, etc.

(As Little Pete from Pete & Pete, the cult TV series of my youth, says in the New Year's Eve episode, "Everybody gets all wiggily on New Year's Eve thinking next year they're going to be better. But every year it turns out they're just a bunch of feebs." His frustration, if I recall, stems from his thwarted resolution to save enough money to buy a rocket pack, with which he planned to fly around and solve all the problems of the world.)

It's a tough time to be a dreamer. The vague somedays of your imaginings have suddenly thudded into the solidity of another year in which your dream has yet to materialize. All your momentum seems, if temporarily, to have petered out, leaving you, a little winded, wondering if it's worth getting up the energy for another run at it.

(In the world of bookstores, this may have something to do with the extraordinary amounts of energy expended in the leadup to Christmas, and the attendant stress and exhaustion, which can leave one longing to just get off the world for a while and let things take care of themselves.)

I'm thinking, a little, of Larry Portzline. As I've thought about his precipitous abandonment of the project of Bookstore Tourism – largely because he was unable to get funding from indie bookstores and trade organizations to fund his awareness-raising nationwide bookstore tour – I've come to somewhat agree with many of those who commented on my post on the matter. That is, it perhaps would have made more sense to seek funding from those with money to spend on cultural projects (for example "tourist bureaus and the Main Street programs" as Barking Dog Books suggests, or even benevolent corporate publishers, or traditional grant initiatives), rather than from the indie bookstores themselves, notoriously strapped for cash and hesitant to take a financial risk – or rather, another risk, since the store itself is a very risky thing to begin.

However, I sympathize a great deal with Larry's frustration and sense of rejection. To have put so much (unpaid) time into what is largely a philanthropic enterprise, and then to receive insufficient concrete support from those whom the enterprise is designed to benefit – it's enough to make anyone throw up their hands and walk away.

It's hard not to see myself in parallel. My own dream, of opening a really great independent bookstore in Brooklyn, seems sometimes further away than ever. I had formed a tentative mental timeline of opening by fall of 2008, but that's been scrapped in light of the ongoing, obvious problem of lack of start-up capital. (For the record, even if I win the grand prize in the wonderful Brooklyn Public Library competition, it won't be nearly 25% of my projected startup costs, the rule of thumb for personal assets required to get a business loan.) I do sometimes get frustrated at the world: that there's so much money out there getting spent on silly or failure-bound projects, but no one has recognized the inescapable genius of my idea and offered to pony up cash, no strings attached. More often, I get frustrated at myself. Something must be wrong with me, that I haven't yet found an investor I can work with, that I haven't been able to save up enough seed money yet to even ask for a loan, that I still have work to do on the business plan, that I'm spending my energy on so many other things rather than the one dream, that other people have managed to open bookstores and I haven't. Maybe I don't really want this enough; maybe it's just a prop to keep my pride intact while working in retail. Maybe I'll want it all my life, and never quite make it.

My last email from Larry was full of anger and frustration. On the one hand, it seems like a good thing for him that he's taking the time to work on a novel in progress, spend time with his newlywed wife, focus on other things. But he sounded hopeless about indie bookstores, and about booksellers, and about the future. He sited the NEA study about the decline in reading, and asked me how I could be among those to discount its ominous findings.

The world is full of problems, ain't it? And there are plenty of people and organizations and statistics and task forces to tell us what they are. There are those whose role it is to tell us what our weaknesses are, so perhaps we can combat them. There are those whose role it is to gather up the range of opinions and find a consensus, or represent the views of the knowledgeable few. There are those whose role it is to challenge our convictions, so that we're forced to think about what we really know and believe.

Turns out, I've staked out a little role for myself too. In the world of books, I'm not as important or influential as many of the people I've quoted and interacted with this year: as John Mutter, the editor of Shelf Awareness; or Judith Rosen, journalist for Publishers Weekly; or Avin Domnitz, CEO of the American Booksellers Association; or Lance Fensterman, director of Book Expo America; or Johnny Temple, director of the Brooklyn Book Festival; or Russ Lawrence, president of the ABA; or Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon; or Len Riggio, head of Barnes & Noble; or the owners of big, wonderful independent bookstores, like Carla Cohen of Politics and Prose or Rick Simonson of Elliot Bay or Sarah McNally of McNally Robinson; not to mention the authors who give us our work to do, this year, every year, like Michael Chabon of Yiddish Policeman's Union or Geraldine Brooks of People of the Book or Michael Ondaatje of Divisadero or Edwidge Danticat of Brother, I'm Dying or Kate Christensen of The Great Man, or….

I'm grateful to be able to talk to and read about and talk about these folks. Their art and their work have made a world I want to be a part of. Which is why I've taken on my little role, of being one voice of optimism about books and bookstores. There are plenty of voices talking about what's wrong, and why we must change, or even why we won't change or can't change. I want to talk about the joy and the hope part of things: the good things that are, and the potential for more good things on the horizon. It's not the whole picture. It's just the part I've got covered. No matter my occasional despair, I can't help coming back to the good things that I know and believe, from business success stories to wonderful reads to great technological developments to communities and relationships. It's one of the only things I know worth doing.

I certainly can't fault Larry in his decision to move on to other things – it seems to be the right decision for him, and he's planted the seed of an idea that is already bearing fruit through others who have picked it up.

But for me, I can't quit yet. Give me a day or two to catch my breath, and I'll be at it again. I want that bookstore, because I want to build something good and solid in the world. In the meantime, I can't help celebrating all the good and solid things that have been built by others. It's what I did last year. It's what I'll do in the year to come.

Maybe this year, I'll get a rocket pack. Either way, I'm going to keep dreaming. Luckily, there are a lot of other folks with rocket packs to cheer on.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The busiest time of the year...

Forgive the lack of blogging around here lately. If you're a retailer, or a moonlighter, or a newlywed, you'll understand.

I'm working on Christmas Eve at the bookstore this year for the first time ever. Somehow, in seven years of working in bookstores in New York, I've always managed to get out of it, because I was flying cross-country to see family. This year it's the ALP and I in the city, so I'm on Christmas Eve shift.

I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to it.

Yesterday was nearly eight hours at the cash register, interspersed with running briskly with piles of books to restock in sections and tables. In the last hour and a half I started to droop a bit, but for the most part it was so fun. I've gotten some teasing for my incessant cheeriness, and for being the most "Christmassy" person anyone knows.
Apparently I'm a Christmas nerd as well as a book nerd.

I love looking forward to things. It's part of being an optimist. So Advent, the season of expectation, is my favorite. I'm looking forward to everything:

Today, Christmas shopping and a visit to old friends at Three Lives.

A few more days of chaotic, frenzied, joyful bookselling at McNally Robinson.

Sunday afternoon, talking with my mom and sisters in California, who will be celebrating their Christmas.

Christmas Eve, where we close the bookstore early when J.T. starts wandering the sales floor with a bottle of beer, to subtly give customers the idea that the holiday is beginning.

Christmas Eve service at our little Brooklyn church.

Christmas morning, and Christmas day with my adorable new husband.

Christmas night, joining friends in Harlem for a grown-up Christmas party.

And then a week of sweet nothing -- my first vacation since the wedding. Reading. Seeing movies (many made from books). Maybe even blogging.

What's not to love?

What are you looking forward to this holiday?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Good Friday news

Here's a bit of good news, from PW via GalleyCat:

"Bookstore sales increased for the fourth consecutive month in October, rising 8.0%, to $1.10 billion. The increase was the second largest this year, trailing only the 9.3% gain posted in August.

Despite the string of increases, sales through the first 10 months of the year were still virtually flat with sales up 0.3%, to $13.47 billion, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. For the entire retail segment, sales were up 6.2% in October and 4.0% for the first 10 months."

Feels good, doesn't it? Especially that first bit. Another blow to the old doom-and-gloom, no-one-reads-books, no-one-buys-books brigade.

Case in point: I have on my desk at work a copy of the NEA's newest study, which, while it undoubtedly points up real problems in education systems, always irks me with its apocalyptic, hopeless language. If/when I get a chance, I'll read through it and share some thoughts.

In the meantime, if you haven't yet, be sure to listen to "One for the Books," a segment from NPR's On the Media. It covers elements of the contemporary book landscape from Oprah to e-books, and though booksellers have probably heard much of it (and more) already, it's nice to wrap your head around the whole picture. I'm grateful just for the opening salvo:

"The new media are thriving, the old media are dying. That seems to be the theme of our program from week to week to week. But of course it's much more complicated than that. Because increasingly, the old and new are merging into each other. This week, we're devoting the program to the oldest of old media: books."

Not either/or. Both/and. Let us have podcasts and print, e-readers and indie bookstores, bread and roses. It's not too much to ask.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Oh no.

I've just been informed by a fellow Brooklyn litblogger -- and have since confirmed with the man himself -- that Larry Portzline has decided to quit the bookstore tourism business.

Don't try to find his noted Bookstore Tourism blog -- it's not there anymore. In fact, Larry's taken down all of his related sites. Here's an article about his project in the New York Sun if you're curious.

Larry was trying to raise funds for a nationwide indie bookstore tour -- he had lined up media, made a massive itinerary of indie bookstores across the country, and had appealed to the ABA and the regional associations and other organizations in publishing to help fund the tour.

Apparently, not enough folks stepped up.

After five years of appearing at trade shows, running Bookstore Tourism buses in New York and California, writing a book, and enjoying the approval of the indie community.... Larry found that no one wanted to put their money behind his project.

I'm disappointed, and a little ashamed of us.* Making bookstores a destination is one of the ways that independent bookstores can remain vital and viable. It sucks that no one believes that enough to fund it.

You'll probably be hearing more from me on this. In the meantime, what do you think?

* And honestly, I'm also surprised: I was at the NAIBA fall board meeting when this came up, and while the bylaws don't allow me to tell you about the conversation, the decision was made to make a donation to the tour, though not as much as had initially been requested. My impression then was that other regionals were donating as well. Maybe that didn't come through, or maybe it just wasn't enough.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Joke, A Pageant

From Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which the ALP and I have been reading aloud:

"The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do."

I love the splendid joke of Christmas in retail. Impossibly busy, we nevertheless find more time than we do at any other part of the year to give recommendations, to have a little human interaction with our customers. And it's glorious. Though we depend on it to pay our rent, it does seem to have less to do with making a buck and more with the pageantry of generosity and abundance. I spend a lot of time in the back office these days, but it's wonderful to have Christmas come along so I get to be a bookseller again.

Here's wishing all of you booksellers a merry and bright season in the store.

For the rest of you: do you have a favorite holiday retail story?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Do you love to read books but hate reading books?

I just about fell out of my chair cracking up over this.

It may not be the most sophisticated critique of the Kindle, but it's possibly the funniest, and maybe the most satisfying.

I came across by way of Chip Kidd on A Brief Message, by way of GalleyCat. Everyone's sure talking about this thing.

LBC & Me

When I took on the second job at BookStream, I had a couple of wild-eyed moments of realizing that I literally didn't have time for all the things I've committed to in my life. Several calmer, more balanced individuals suggested making a list of all of my projects, and figuring out which I could cut out. Making an actual list, of course, would take too much precious time, but I did ponder the various options in my head over several weeks. Something (or somethings) had to give.

Sadly, among the projects left behind was participation in the Litblog Co-Op. Though I haven't yet been moved from "participating weblogs" to "members emeritus" yet (because EVERYONE in the LBC is probably at least as busy as I am), I've officially given notice to the group. It sucks, because there are so many smart folks blogging there, and I've gotten to read so many great books (that I might never have discovered otherwise) and had some great online conversations about them. But promising to read three extra books per quarter, vote on a favorite, participate in many email discussions about policy and schedules, and participate in many online discussions about books, didn't seem like something I could do in good faith. So, one thing regretfully crossed off the list.

However, the LBC continues to do its good work of highlighting underpublicized fiction. They've just announced the Winter 2007 READ THIS! pick: The Further Shore by Matthew Eck (Milkweed Editions). If Dan Wickett recommends it, chances are it's good stuff -- his intro compares it to The Things They Carried, but to me the plot sounds intriguingly like The Warriors (beloved of Brooklynites and fans of good bad movies everywhere). If I can find it in my pile of books, perhaps I'll actually be able to take the LBC's recommendation (instead of determining it). Best of luck and Godspeed to the faithful LBC members -- I'll be reading!