Saturday, May 24, 2008

Updates Galore, then off to BEA!

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and perhaps my last chance to blog for a little while, so allow me to lay some updates and anticipations on you.

Brooklyn Bookstore
I received my PowerUp! check for $15,000 in the mail sometime last week, so yesterday I visited my new friend Juan at a great local/national bank about 20 minutes away. As he and I had discussed previously, I opened a small business money market account with the prize money, which will also be the depository for other funds raised. And he gave me the paperwork to fill out for a great big (to me) small business loan application. I'm hoping to get that in by mid-June, at the same time as I'm looking for retail spaces.

In the meantime, I've made some other great business friends: the Retail Committee of the fabulous Fort Greene Association. It turns out that the beautiful, developing neighborhood of Fort Greene wants a bookstore almost as bad as I want to create one, so I'll be working with them on finding a space, building community support, and doing some more fundraising. I'm so grateful to these folks for what they've done already, and you can be sure there will be much more to report as we lay our plans.

Stimulating Reading
Speaking of fundraising... you like me! You really like me! The Stimulating Reading project has already inspired at least one Stimulating Reader to invest their ENTIRE stimulus rebate in my future Brooklyn bookstore, and several others have kicked in at smaller amounts! Thanks, already -- you're incredible. And the project is getting some notice: Forbes' Digital Download (disclosure: this is my friend Dave who helped out with the website), BookSquare, and Living Read Girl have given some link love, and more are to come. Hooray! You shall receive your shirts, bags, buttons, discount cards, and signed book in due course. Don't forget to spread the word to others in blogland, even outside our bookish realm -- I have a sense that there are lots of folks out there hoping to do something worthwhile with their stimulus rebate, and a lot of little investments can go a long way.

New York City Booksellers meeting
And speaking of little going a long way... I sat in a room on Wednesday with some of the best booksellers in my city, from stores huge, tiny, and everywhere in between, and big things are afoot. I admit I expected a certain amount of pessimism or crankiness at our first exploratory meeting about forming an alliance of New York booksellers -- we're known for our independence and our toughness, after all. But there was almost none of that -- instead, there was the sense that the time has come at last for us to get together and talk about what's great about indie bookselling in New York, and how we can get that across to the book buying public. Thanks to the good efforts of Kelly Amabile, Chris Doeblin, and Eileen Dengler, the meeting was a fantastic exchange of ideas toward a common goal, and I was amazed at the talent and intelligence in the room. We came up with a lot of great ideas for the nature of the group and for specific projects, and agreed to meet again in about a month to solidify some of those decisions. I'm excited to see what's to come.

Book Expo America 2008
And now... 'tis the time of year when a young bookseller's fancy turns to... Book Expo America! Yes, my beloved boss will be far too pregnant to get on a plane herself this year, so she's sending me to Los Angeles along with my trusty coworker (known as Webmaster Dustin), and we have plans to tear it up. To be precise: every year before now I've had a nice little list of things I planned to do. This year: a spreadsheet and a Google map. Seriously, check it out -- you can see all the places I'm planning to be, though some of them require some manipulation of the space-time continuum to be in more than one place at the same time. But, as per tradition here's (an abbreviated version of ) my intended schedule for BEA this year -- because I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, May 27
Arrive in Los Angeles in the afternoon. Dinner with best friend from high school (I grew up two hours north of L.A.), in which I will attempt to persuade him to tell me how in the heck people get around in this city if they're sloshed -- research, you know.

Wednesday, May 28
12:00-4:00: While most smart booksellers are doing the "Welcome to Hollywood" activities, I'll be in a room all day with some of the smartest -- the Emerging Leaders Council -- hammering out an action plan for Emerging Leaders that will take us through the next year and make us a viable organization. After long hours of decision making we'll need some refreshment, so...

5:00: ABA Welcome to Hollywood reception at the Egyptian Theater (It's no Brooklyn Borough Hall, but it sounds like fun)

7:00: Emerging Leaders party at The Woods (There's a velvet rope at this spot, so I can't encourage you to crash, but I hope you've already RSVP'd and I'll see you there. Can't wait to take more embarassing photos...

Thursday, May 29
8:30 - 4:45: The anticipated yearly ABA Day of Education -- ground zero for bookseller professional development. This year the lineup includes:

9:30-10:45: Buying, Merchandising, and Selling Graphic Novels, 101 (with panelists Diamond Books rep John Shableski, comics guru Scott McCloud, and yours truly. Come for some comics geek out, and serious tips on running a graphic novel section in your store.)

5:00: ABA Celebration of Bookselling (boy oh boy, if you don't know about the big Booksense-related announcement yet, you're in for a treat...)

7:00 on: various parties, including one at Skylight Books which I'm excited to see, and another at the legendary Chateau Marmont...

Friday, May 30
9:00 - 5:00: The show floor experience at Book Expo America, including meetings with reps and vendors, shmoozing with other booksellers, picking up (or trying not to pick up) free galleys and swag, and taking in the spectacle that is the American book industry. It's a lot to pack in to eight hours - wish I could get to everything.

7:00 on: Again, various parties, including a couple of publisher cocktails/dinners, and Craig Popelar's infamous Hellfire party -- I didn't make it last year, and I'm told it was something to see. We'll just hope I can stagger in on Saturday morning.

Saturday, May 31
8:00 - 9:30: BEA Graphic Novel Breakfast (Mike Mignola! Jeff Smith! Total early-morning geekery!)

10:30 - 11:30: What's Hot, What's Good, What's Next in Graphic Novels (another comics panel in which yours truly finds herself a last minute participant. Come to this one for hot tips on what's coming up from a librarian, a publisher, and other experts.)

Afternoon: Rendezvous with my mom and my sisters for a little California vacation. I'll be incommunicado until Wednesday, enjoying some beach and family time.

I've got lots to do between now and Tuesday, so I may not get to blog again before then. If I can find a few minutes of downtime in the ABA lounge I'll try for some live blogging -- otherwise I'll catch up when I get back. Hope you all have equally exciting plans for our beachside BEA -- see you at the show!!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Monday Launch: Stimulating Reading!

As I've been hinting, I've been thinking a lot about the economic stimulus payments currently flowing into Americans' mailboxes. And thanks to the creativity of some politically-minded and tech-savvy friends, I've got a brand-new suggestion about what to do with some portion of that free money.

Introducing: Stimulating Reading!

Visit, and use your stimulus package to become an investor in an independent bookstore -- specifically, the one I'm creating in Brooklyn.

The website will explain the details -- basically, you can choose an amount to kick in and receive some Book Nerd swag and/or buying power at the future bookstore. And using your rebate in this way is a way not only to show your support for my little literary project, but to stimulate the economy through supporting small and independent businesses.

Honestly, I feel a bit presumptuous asking you to use your windfall to help create my bookstore. I don't want to twist your arm -- I'm just offering an option. And especially if you're someone who has mixed feelings about the wisdom of the stimulus rebate to strengthen the economy, this is one way to spend it more purposefully than just by, say, buying new clothes.

I'm working on a number of other ways to pull together the capital to get this bookstore going by late this year. But I'd be so thrilled if some of the start-up capital came from you -- those independent supporters (or "small online donors") who can make such a big difference. And you might even get a personalized signed book, or a one-of-a-kind mix tape out of it, not to mention some major discounts on books.

Check out, spread the word, and kick in if you can. I'd love to hear your thoughts, via comment or email.

And wherever you choose to spend your stimulus payment -- shop local and independent!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Salute to an Outer-Borough Indie

This morning I got this message in my inbox, with the return address Paperbacks Plus:

An Important Letter to our Bookstore Friends:

In 1970, when we first opened our doors on Riverdale Avenue, we lived in a very different world: Nixon was President; Lindsay was the mayor; the buses and subways (and even a slice of pizza!) cost just 30 cents.

You have made the bookstore a wonderful and vibrant place, joining us for chats about your favorite books and special events featuring notables such as Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize winners Robert Caro and Richard Russo. So many great writers both local and worldly like Mary Higgins Clark, S.J. Rozan, Ted Conover, Thomas Cahill, Ann Packer, Pete Hamill, Chang-rae Lee, Frank and Malachy McCourt, Phyllis Chessler and Alan Dershowitz. We’ve hosted special evenings at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, The Riverdale Y, An Beal Bocht and Palombos. New York Yankee greats Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Don Zimmer, Joe Torre, and David Wells, and even the irrepressible Edward I. Koch (four times!).

We have celebrated local authors well known and unheralded. As muggles we embraced Harry Potter and his perilous quest, and banded together defiantly to observe Banned Book Week each year. As children you delighted in our costumed story time characters and over time even brought your own children to marvel and listen. Generations have grown up among our shelves and developed a lifelong habit of reading

Regretfully after 38 years of service to The Bronx, Paperbacks Plus will be closing its doors. We have been honored to serve you as the borough’s only full service general interest (very) independent neighborhood bookstore. As a final farewell, everything (books, cards, games, puzzles, audio books…and even the store) at Paperbacks Plus will be 20% off beginning Wednesday, May 14. NOW is the time to find those Book Club Awards, store credits, and gift certificates that you’ve been using as bookmarks or have squirreled away in sock drawers. Redeem them NOW to take special advantage of our Farewell Sale.

Thanks to you, this little bookstore has thrived in The Bronx, and we have cherished the times we shared over the years. Join us as we close and say goodbye.

Fern, Carroll, Stasia, Ray,
Liam, Brian, and Courtney

I've never been to Paperbacks Plus, because I am a lazy New Yorker and rarely make it up to the Bronx. But I've met Fern, the owner -- she was one of the founders of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, and a very independent person indeed. She gave me a ride home from a NAIBA meeting once and shared stories about running her store -- it's been a long journey.

According to Shelf Awareness this morning, the store is closing primarily because Fern is ready to retire -- she's keeping her accounts open, possibly doing offsite sales, and open to the possibility of selling the store to another. SA also quotes her as saying, ""I have no regrets. I've met so many wonderful people in this business. It's been a passionate part of my life."

If you can, make it up to the Bronx soon to pay your respects. That borough will miss its only indie.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Calling All Emerging Leaders!

First things first: I want everyone to print out the top part of this post (down to the asterisks) and post it in your bookstore! (It might help to highlight the phrases "open bar" and "RSVP by May 21".)

Who: Young Booksellers
What: BEA Emerging Leaders Party
Where: The Woods - 1533 N. La Brea Hollywood CA - 323.876.6612 phone / website:
When: Wednesday, May 28th, 2008 7:00pm - 9:00pm (open bar from 7:00pm - 8:00pm)
RSVP: Space is limited, must RSVP no later than Wednesday, May 21st at

Enjoy cocktails and mix & mingle with authors for the young and hip:

- Scott McCloud, author of Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 (HarperCollins, July)
- Cylin Busby , author of The Year We Disappeared: A Father - Daughter Memoir (Bloomsbury, August)
- Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife (Random House, September)
- Diana Spechler, author of Who By Fire (HarperCollins, September)
- Tony O'Neill, author of Down and Out on Murder Mile (HarperCollins, October)
- Jonathan Evison, author of All About Lulu (Soft Skull, July)


* * *

I know, every day it's something, but I got some of that special cough syrup from my doctor yesterday (does it have codeine in it? I can't remember), and I think the shot I took at 4 in the morning is still working out of my system. I'm feeling a little punch-drunk, is all I'm saying, so bear with me.

So y'all know the point of the Emerging Leaders Project, right? If not, the idea is to foster the creation and growth of the next generation of booksellers, through peer support, mentoring, and education. By providing a professional community for younger booksellers, we're creating an atmosphere where we can think of bookselling as a career, and get plugged in and connected and educated in ways that are going to make us the managers and store owners and innovators of indie bookstores of the future. The point isn't to exclude anyone who's over an arbitrary age limit -- it's to specifically provide resources for potential great booksellers who might otherwise slip through the cracks and go back to publishing, or grad school, or wherever else folks go when they can't make a living in bookselling. It's to think into the future of the independent bookstore, which is vital for anyone who cares about the life of their store and their industry and literature itself.

We've been doing that mostly through getting together and drinking so far, but that's one way of networking -- possibly the most time-honored. (There's lots more coming, though -- I'll get to that.) Turns out that one of the problems we're trying to solve is also one of the problems in getting all of us younger folks together. Lots of younger booksellers don't get the emails sent to the bookstore address -- those get sent to the owner, and sometimes deleted in the flood of daily correspondence. And young booksellers don't necessarily read industry news in Shelf Awareness, Publishers Weekly, or Bookselling This Week -- they haven't yet learned about that, or they don't think it's relevant for them. So while we know there are tons of potential Emerging Leaders out there, we can have a hard time getting to them through the traditional email blast.

So we're open to suggestions. How do you get to the 20- and 30-something booksellers in stores who would be interested in what Emerging Leaders provides? We're thinking maybe postcards. We're thinking social networking (though these booksellers don't necessarily know each other yet either). And we're thinking you savvy Seasoned Booksellers (yes, that's the counterpart to Emerging, and it's a major compliment) gotta let them know -- by posting this invite in your store, for starters. We're hoping to find more ways to get young booksellers hooked in to the network that's forming -- we'll know more after BEA.

And that "we" I keep using is very real, and I'm so excited about it. Because for the first time, the Emerging Leaders Council includes smart, enthusiastic young booksellers from 7 of the 9 regions within the American Booksellers Association. That means there's more smarts, more perspectives, more energy behind the projects we're hoping to accomplish with Emerging Leaders. So, may I introduce my distinguished compatriots on the Council:

Mountains and Plains region: Jenn Northington, The King's English, Salt Lake City

New Atlantic region: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, McNally Robinson, New York City, and
Susan Weis from breathe books, Baltimore

Northern California region: Jennifer Laughran, Books Inc., San Francisco

New England region: Megan Sullivan, Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge

Pacific Northwest region: sweet pea Flaherty, King's Books, Tacoma

Southern California region: Emily Pullen, Skylight Books, Los Angeles

Southern region: Caroline Green, Malaprop's, Asheville

I haven't yet met all of these folks in person, but I'm so proud to be in their company! Come Wednesday the 27th, we'll be meeting for a bunch of hours to lay out an action plan for the Emerging Leaders Project in the next year, expanding our very effective drinking/networking into education, a bookstore exchange program, an online forum, and other projects. We've got high hopes and lots of details to work out

And then we'll be winding down at The Woods, in the company of hopefully a hundred other fantastic young booksellers or fantastic-booksellers-in-training. (Not to mention Scott McCloud, and Curtis Sittenfeld, and the other fabulous authors who are joining us!) So I hope you'll be there, or send your favorite young bookseller. The future of the industry may just depend on who makes it to that open bar.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Brooklyn Lit Life: Garth Risk Hallberg

I'm sick again today, and unable to formulate coherent thoughts on the book industry, my bookstore plans, the stimulus package, or books I'm reading (though all of those things are spinning around in my fevered dreams whenever I nap, which is often). Luckily, I've got someone more eloquent writing today. The inimitable Garth Risk Hallberg (dude, risk is his middle name!) is involved in all kinds of things literarily Brooklyn, and I'm honored to have him kick off the re-emergence of the Brooklyn Lit Life series. Please note that one of these projects, the Pacific Standard Reading Series, hosts an end-of-season reading with Brooklynites Arthur Phillips (ANGELICA) and Douglas A. Martin (BRANWELL) tomorrow night (Tuesday) at 7 PM. If you're not there, you're sicker than I am.

Brooklyn Lit Life Interview
Garth Risk Hallberg

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.
I've actually got three projects. The first is that I get up and write fiction every day. (You can find some stories floating around here and there, as well as a kind of offbeat novella that was published this winter). This alone can be all consuming. Should be. I want it to be. But often, possibly as an excuse to procrastinate, I fall into my second project: writing little literary pieces for my friend Max's blog, The Millions, and other places. Finally, I just started this reading series, The Pacific Standard Fiction Series, partly as a way of convening writers and readers here in Brooklyn. My ideal day would involve writing all morning, lunch, writing until about four, riding my bike to get coffee and sit outside and read, writing a little reaction to what I've read, and then, right at the edge of mental exhaustion, going to a bar with some friends. And dinner should be in there somewhere. Amazingly, I get to have my ideal day with some regularity, especially in the summer. That might be possible anywhere, but I still feel a debt of gratitude to Brooklyn for making it possible.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
When I was in graduate school, I settled on Brooklyn because the rent is cheap and my friends are here. I also like trees, dogs, and bicycles, which we have in abundance. I like having space for my books. I like being reminded, whenever I cross the bridge, that Manhattan is surrounded by water.

Is there a Brooklyn sensibility or character? How would you describe it? How does it differ from the character of New York City as a whole?
I'm of two minds about the possibility of a "Brooklyn sensibility." I would describe Brooklyn as a place where you don't feel pressure to dress up before going out to drink. (Which doesn't mean the conversation is any less intense.) Or as a really comfortable seat at a great drama, the drama being Manhattan. You can be really involved in that drama, but with a certain perspective. When the curtain goes down, you get up and go on with your interesting life.

On the other hand, I think Brooklyn probably has many of the same vices (and virtues) as Manhattan. You just have to look a little harder to find them. I want to say Brooklyn can be just as thrilling, and just as full of itself, but what do I know? Perhaps the essential character of Brooklyn is that people like me, who didn't grow up here, tend to sound kind of silly making pronouncements about its essential character.

What about your particular neighborhood? Does it have its own unique character? This can include the kinds of people you tend to find there, particular characters or places that epitomize the neighborhood, etc.
My neighborhood is functionally nameless. Some people call it Columbia Street and other people call it Red Hook. I'm lobbying, semi-facetiously, for WayBeQa (West of the BQE.) It's really a one-by-six-block extension of Cobble Hill, but once you cross the expressway, things change. We have a lot of Spanish-speaking residents, a lot of Southerners, a lot of characters. Great bars and bakeries. It's kind of like an industrial seafaring town.

What do you think of the direction Brooklyn, or at least your neighborhood, is going? What does the future look like in terms of economics, demographics, culture, and other changes?
My little spot has remained pretty stable for the four years I've occupied it, as far as demography goes; as soon as it gentrifies further, we'll be unable to afford it. But it's a hike from the subway, which helps, and most residents seem very attached to the ratio of bistro-to-bodega. Then again, the forces of Ikea and Brooklyn Bridge Park seem to be conspiring to jack up property values and trigger speculation. I wish my neighbors and I could all just lock in our rents and stay. But then it wouldn't be New York.

There's something funny about the relationship of artists to real-estate speculation in this city. Artists are both anti-speculators and, in a way, the ultimate speculators. I'm thinking of a scene from the Simpsons where Fat Tony has been selling rat milk to the schools. The rat dairy gets raided, the milk spills all over the street, cats come to lap it up, and reporter Kent Brockman says something like, "And so, the circle of life is complete."

Is there a Brooklyn literary sensibility? Which writers or works most emblematize Brooklyn for you? Which older writers set the tone? Which contemporary writers are you reading with interest?
A "Brooklyn literary sensibility?" Hmmm... I want to argue that there really isn't one, except that living in brownstone Brooklyn, Williamsburg, or Greenpoint will enforce a certain consistency of relationship between writers and their means of production (by which I mean time and space, which require more money here than in smaller towns (and less money than in Manhattan). And maybe proximity to the publishing world makes you have to fight a little harder for your intellectual freedom than you might if you lived in, say, D.C. Then again, people don't look at you funny for trying to be a writer in Brooklyn, which is nice. It's like saying you're a lawyer in D.C. It's de rigeur. Or possibly comme il faut.

Brooklyn residents whose writing I admire include Anya Ulinich, Emily Barton, Amitav Ghosh, Benjamin Kunkel (does he still live here?), Rick Moody, Jonathan Letham, my friends Porochista Khakpour, Yasmine Alwan, Jason Leahey, and Janice Clark (late of Fort Greene). Plus a lot of people who have read at Pacific Standard: Christopher Sorrentino, Francisco Goldman, and the sneakily brilliant Joshua Ferris. I admire Colson Whitehead's "sit down and do the damn work" principles. Also: we have great literary magazines and small presses here. If this adds up to a Brooklyn literary sensibility, it seems like a pretty heterodox one to me.

Why do you think Brooklyn has such a dense population of writers? Is there something particularly literary about Brooklyn? Where and how do people read here?
I can only speak personally and say that I feel safer knowing there are many other writers nearby. I guess I'm not strong enough to maintain a completely oppositional stance to the culture I live in; I find it comforting to know I'm not alone. Brooklyn also makes it easy to live like a flaneur without flying through money, which is helpful for my writing. I mean there are relatively uncrowded parks, cheap bars, and streets of perfect density. But really, I'm still guessing it's mostly the rents.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
This list of the magazines and presses I like is probably pretty familiar: One-Story, A Public Space, N+1, Canteen, Hotel St. George Press, Akashic Books, Archipelago Books, Soft Skull Press, Melville House, Ugly Duckling Presse. Other literary things I like include the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Ring Shout, Freebird, Pacific Standard, 826NYC, Triple Canopy, Spoonbill & Sugartown, BookCourt. I think, though, that there's a danger in defining "literary" too narrowly. DeLillo talks in his Paris Review interview about how important exposure to music and film and painting were to his discovery of his own voice. And I think bars and cafes matter, too. So I'd say some of the hidden institutions that facilitate my writing are: Issue Project Room, Sunny's, Lucali's, Frankie's, Moe's, the Victory, Hope & Anchor karaoke, BAM Cinematek, free movies and music outdoors in the summer.

What do you think would make Brooklyn better as a literary place? What does the borough still need? What are the opportunities and challenges it faces?
This list of things I think would make Brooklyn better as a literary place will contain a lot of familiar items. Rent controlling my apartment. More sensibly planned development. A tunnel between Jay St.-Borough Hall and Borough Hall. More frequent B71 bus service. Victory for the forces of democratic socialism. Not necessarily in that order.

Imagine the ideal Brooklyn bookstore or literary venue, a place you'd like to read on your own or participate in literary community. What would it be like? What would it avoid?
My ideal place to read would be a packed church basement, like the kind Dischord bands used to play in in D.C. Packed, sweaty, teeny, revolutionary but wholesome and devoid of unearned 'tude. Failing that, it would be a bar serving cold beer at a reasonable price.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Books, Stimulation, Expectation...

I'm told by Shelf Awareness that Redbery Books in Cable, Wisconsin, recently began using the tagline "Books: The Ultimate Stimulus Package." The phrase doesn't appear on their website, but kudos to these booksellers for thinking creatively about the IRS Economic Stimulus Payments. How better to utilize that random chunk of money (or, as my tax preparer speculated, advance on next year's refund) than by patronizing independent bookstores?

I've been thinking a lot about the Stimulus Payments, too. Actually, with a little help from some very creative friends, I'm working on a little venture that offers my own alternative for using that cash in a way that has a real economic impact. The campaign should launch by early next week -- keep your eyes on this space for details.

And while you're getting all anticipatory... it's totally time to look forward to BEA! Here are just two of my highlights for maximum butterflies-in-the-stomach expectation:

The ABA Celebration of Bookselling at 5:00 on Wednesday, May 28, in addition to being the usual joyous drinky/snacky/chatty gathering of booksellers from across the country, is going to mark the unveiling of something the ABA has been working on for the last couple of years. I've been sworn to secrecy, but I've seen a preview of this announcement... and it made me cry, in the good way. It's not often a branding/marketing initiative does that to ya, but when you're in a business that incorporates some of your highest ideals, sometimes you get lucky that way. I may try to give you some further hints as we get closer... but most importantly, don't miss the unveiling!!

And right after that, if you're one of us under-40 booksellers, don't miss the Second Annual BEA Emerging Leaders Party! We'll be sending out an invite to our mailing list soon and posting info in industry periodicals, but I'm giving you the sneak preview now:

Wednesday, May 28, 7:00 to 9:00
The Woods, 1533 N La Brea Ave (less than 10 minutes' walk from Hotel ABA)
OPEN BAR 7:00 to 8:00, courtesy of Reed Business
Featuring hip authors to meet, young booksellers to mingle with, and tips on making the most of your BEA

No RSVP needed, though we'll probably need some bookseller ID at the door. Hope to see you all there and get the party that is BEA started!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Chronicle: Jonathan Lethem & DJ Spooky, or, I Love My Job

So just disregard all of the "poor me" stuff stated or implied in Friday's post -- I have the coolest job in the world.

I was a tad stressed out last week (my coworkers can testify to my unstable state), and miffed that I had to go into work Friday, my day off, to set up an offsite in the morning and host an in-store event in the evening. Thanks to an afternoon pedicure date with a girlfriend, I was feeling a bit calmer in the evening, and my trusty fellow booksellers helped me do the requisite setup: clear out the regular cafe customers, hang up the ponderous movie screen, set up the temperamental projector/computer/audio hookup, put out rows and rows of chairs. We were ready in good time, and the first of the evening's guests appeared: Jonathan Lethem. (Note: I was floored by Fortress of Solitude, and I've read everything the man has ever written on Brooklyn, as well as some of his earlier sci-fi stuff, which I also love. He's a hero, an icon.)

"Hey, how are your Brooklyn bookstore plans going?" he asked, almost first thing. (I'd mentioned my dream in a shameless moment when Lethem was in the store for a reading by his friend David Shields.)

I stammered about being at the part where I need to go to banks and get some big loans, but that the neighborhood was really supportive.

"Yeah, they're dying for a bookstore," he said.

Thrill One: Famous/admired author remembers one's plans, expresses enthusiasm. Almost as good as the encouragements of David Mitchell.

The other author, Paul Miller, was a bit late in coming, so I later got to chat some more with Jonathan while the crowd slowly filled and overflowed the chairs we'd set up. I asked him about his new novel in progress, to be published probably late next year, which I'd read an excerpt from in Zadie Smith's Other People anthology (it's the story/character "Perkus Tooth"). He said it was getting close to finished -- "I know everything," he said, "I just have to get it written." He told me that along with Perkus and the story's narrator, there are a handful of other characters, and the story mostly plays out on New York's Upper East Side. When I asked if there was any magic in the story (like the ring in Fortress, or his earlier literary genre-bending), he allowed as how there was more of a sense of ominous foreboding.

"It's something like a Saul Bellow novel that's gradually taken over by H.P. Lovecraft," he offered.

Thrill Two: Inside scoop on forthcoming literary work from admired author, complete with memorably clever descriptive phrase.

At last, Paul Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky arrived, and greeted me gracefully amongst all the posse/admirers clamoring for his attention. I asked what we were doing for audio/visual, as I had had only the vaguest instructions; he humbly admitted that it had been "one of those days" (it later turned out he'd just gotten off a plane from Antarctica), and he didn't have anything prepared. But he handed me his (own personal) iPod and pointed out the right playlist, and suggested I pull up both author's websites for the big screen.

Thrill Three: Custody of famous DJ/artist's iPod.

Duly prepared, with strains of remixed Allen Ginsberg in the background and the Jonathan Lethem and DJ Spooky websites up on the screen (both appropriately dynamic changing backgrounds), I did my standard intro, for a crowd of over 100.

Thrill Four: Realizing that you've successfully planned and are now hosting a very popular event, on a Friday night, in Manhattan, New York City.

Lethem first read from his new novel in paperback, You Don't Love Me Yet (with comics characters and hamburgers flashing over him from his own website). The passage, about a band's goofy but electrifying set at a loft party, had the feel of a good really good party getting started, and the added bonus of Lethem shouting lyrics like:

I'm the houseGUEST
I can't get no REST
In your guest BED
I'll sleep when I'm DEAD

Then he talked: about the creative and performative aspects of music vs. literature, about borrowing and referencing and theft, about his own interest in these issues and his contact with DJ Spooky, before he turned it over to Paul.

Paul read from his introduction to the anthology he edited, Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture: a trippy meditation on satellites, shared experience, tributes and sampling. Then he talked: about the contributors to the anthology from Brian Eno to Lethem to Chuck D to Cory Doctorow, and some of the ideas he'd been developing about creative commons, cultural exchange, copyright and "scene-ius" (Eno's term for collective creativity).

And then he passed the mike back to Lethem. It was like a collaborative, intellectual MC showdown: each kept taking the conversation higher and higher, riffing on each other's themes, pulling out new sweet phrases and big ideas, and referencing everybody. I wish I'd kept a tally of the name-dropping -- or rather, effective allusions and informative tributes -- these two dropped. Just for a sampling: Ginsberg, James Brown, Gertrude Stein, Wu Tang Clan,
Slavoj Zizek... Lethem talked about his Promiscuous Materials Project. Miller passed out free CDs.

It was possibly the most high-level, high-energy conversation I've ever heard in the bookstore, and when it was over, the applause was thunderous. And then people bought books. EVERYONE bought books.
I bought books myself, which happens a small percentage of the time when you're doing events six nights a week.

Thrill Five: The event worked. Actually, it rocked. And you made it to the end.

As the line of fans getting books signed dwindled and we got the last of the equipment put away, I sidled up to the authors with my own books for signature. Both wrote variations of "To Jessica -- thanks for a great night!"

Thrill Six: Personalized signatures from authors you admire... even if they could possibly be misconstrued by later readers.

I lamented light-heartedly that I didn't get my hands on one of the free CDs, and Paul asked for my card and said he'd come back to the store to give me one and sign more books for stock. Then Jonathan reached in his bag and pulled out one of those skinny jewel cases that you buy in bulk, with the title "Monster Eyes" (the name of the hit song of the band in his novel). "Here -- music to read by," he said.

Thrill Five: A secret mix CD made by Jonathan Lethem. Sweet!

Okay, I am a total nerd. Authors are my rock stars. The question is, how did I get so lucky that they pay me for this? And is it okay if I keep on doing this -- reading, meeting authors, working in bookstores -- for the rest of my life?

Friday, May 02, 2008


I'm sorry no posting this week. I'm up to my neck -- no, over my head -- with managing book sales for PEN World Voices Festival events, and keeping up with events in the bookstore. And I've gotten myself sick, something creeping from my head to my chest and making me even less capable of keeping on top of things. But here's a bit.

The Literary Saloon has some nice reports on PEN Festival events. is suing New York State. Publishers Weekly reports on the backlash from the successful efforts by the ABA and others to enforce sales tax on online retailers with "nexus" in the state. The Wall Street Journal also has an opinionated take on the issue.

Want some literary entertainment this evening? I don't know what to recommend -- you've got the Jonathan Lethem & DJ Spooky Show at McNally Robinson, or the Thomas Pynchon birthday party at the revitalized Freebird in Brooklyn. We've got audio-visual; they've got food and a fax-a-thon.

Now I'm going to take a hot shower so I can stagger out into the day's duties. Hope y'all are doing better than I am.