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.


Anonymous said...

Keep on keepin' on. I look forward to reading more of your side of things in Brooklyn in '08!

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's time to write the obit of the bookstore yet. I think the problem is that our world is changing so fast, it's really hard to keep up with it. But, if you go in with that flexibility, I guess you have a better shot. And yeah, why aren't more people just handing us money? So frustrating!

PS - I went to high school with Danny Tamborelli. I never found out if he was such a philosopher in real life.

P. J. Grath said...

Stay with the optimism. That and your love of books and desire for the bookstore will converge one day with a source of funding. I didn't open my bookstore until I was in my mid-40's, and its beginnings were unbelievably modest (an unheated shed). Fifteen years later, with several other part-time jobs on and off, I'm still hanging on. Bookselling has never been an easy gig. The same can be said of publishing or making a living as a writer. Failure is always around the corner, success always hard-won and insecure. So what? What would you rather attempt? I sense that it means as much to you as it does to me and that your dream will come true, as has mine. Bon courage!

lady t said...

You gotta keep hope alive,hon. And no,you're not a bad blogger,it's just that you have this thing called a life that keeps you from blogging merrily away:)

I feel bad for Larry,but maybe it's best that he channel his energies into a project that will bring him more appreciation and satisfaction in the end.

Have a Happy New Year,and I look forward to hearing the latest buzz from Brooklyn.

Miraida said...

No one said it would be easy, but that doesn't mean you should even consider throwing in the towel on your dream of the greatest indie bookstore in Brooklyn! It's not an easy task to build something from nothing, but that will make it all that more worthwhile once it's off the ground. I have every confidence that you'll find a way to make this happen!

Sarah Y said...

Aren't dreams messy little affairs? You hold it steady there in front of you meanwhile taking care of all the ramblings and distractions of life like coming down with the flu, cooking dinner, going to work, love affairs, weddings, whatever; then you reel yourself in, dust yourself off, revisit the ole dream again. Keep moving forward, forward until you land there.

Michelle Constantinescu said...

Good for you! Keep going! We need the independent booksellers, and we need to keep books alive. Yes, I do believe there's a decline in reading, but I don't think it's all over. Books feed dreams, if you ask me. When you get that bookstore up and running, let me know. Maybe we can do a Q&A for my new blog carp(e) libris. I want to interview owners of indie bookstores to help promote them.

Andy Laties said...

Well, I recommend you get a copy of "Publishing and Bookselling" by Frank Mumby. Out of print unfortunately. It's a history that starts a thousand years B.C. and continues until about 1950. Did you know that the Roman publishers were able to do print runs of thousands of copies of the most popular books because as staff/copyists/scribes they could use educated people (unpaid) who had been enslaved during conquests?

Or, that the Germans targeted the publishing industry during the 1940 bombing blitz of London?

It helps to get some historical perspective, is all I'm saying.

I understand that not being able to lay hands on capital is intensely, intensely frustrating. But it is also true that BEFORE you raise capital is the time when you have more freedom than you will ever have again. That is: you are striving to end your freedom.

My own bookstore tourism adventure was a failure but I still have plans to get started again. University of Massachusetts continuing education people told me I could set up bookstore tours as courses and they'd put it into their course catalog. But this year I decided to do a master's degree in Community Economic Development instead. Nevertheless, I seem to be headed into attempting to launch a children's bookfair company in Western Massachusetts by next Fall! Maybe doing this sort of wholesale distribution thing will help me assemble the various strands of my life into a coherent stream once again. I do like taking vanloads of stuff into community centers and schools, and doing programming there. If you honestly want to start selling books with no capital -- well -- this is the route. There's a bookseller on the West Coast who has been booking authors into corporate cafeterias and doing massive business with the employees. You may have to do outreach bookselling before you get the money to launch the storefront. And -- you may find that only by getting out in the faces of such clients will someone emerge from some (corporate) woodwork and offer to help finance a storefront for you.