Friday, December 29, 2006

Comment: Year-End Limbo

So the store is still busy, somehow. Lots of tourists in the city this season. And I'm working make-up shifts because of my vacation in CA. And I've picked up that ugly bug that's going around, so my brain is fuzzy and mucus-y anyway. So you'll probably have to wait until the new year to read my Best of 2006, which guarantees it'll all get in there anyway. In the meantime, have a Very Happy New Year, and I'll be back in 2007!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Link-Mad Wednesday: Pre-Christmas Edition

Sorry about missing Link-Mad Monday; we're having a (thankfully) very busy holiday at the bookstore, with mountains of boxes to unpack every day, a constant stream of customers with requests, questions, and piles of purchases, and lots (I mean LOTS) of giftwrapping. It's all pretty joyous, except for the occasional nervous breakdown, usually remedied with a Mental Health Break (MHB) and some cookies or coffee (LOTS of coffee). Check out "'Tis The Week Before Christmas" by Janet Potter of Brookline & Wellesley Booksmiths in Massachusetts in today's Shelf Awareness for a taste of the flavor of Christmas week in an indie bookstore.

I've got a day to rest up, make Christmas cookies and finish up those last mix CDs (my perennial gift to family and friends, along with books, of course), and to draw your attention to some items in the news, several of which relate to the ongoing conversation about indie bookstores and community.

Russ Lawrence, one of the owners of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana, is also the president of the American Booksellers Association. He's written this article in Bookselling This Week about the struggle -- and the necessity -- of working together as independent bookstores, as well as the rewards he's found in seeing cooperation increase during his term. It's an insightful article that both acknowledges our history and looks to the future -- check it out!

Bud Parr of Chekhov's Mistress hepped me to the fact that he's got an annotated list of New York City independent bookstores on his blog, often updated and quite personable. It's a great intro to our fabulous bookstore scene.

Sadly, Bud's going to have to remove one more store from that list: the New York Times reports today that Mystery Ink and Ivy Books will close at the end of this month. The article mentions, among other things, a monthly rent of $18,000 (!!!) as one of the reasons for the closure, as well as the encroachment of chains and the aging of its customer base. These Upper West Side bookstores were neighborhood institutions, and their closure is truly a huge loss to our community. If you're local, try to visit the store before the 31st and show your support.

The NY Times also has taken an unusual step in offering up the editor of the Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, for questions as part of their "Talk to the Newsroom" series. The NYTBR is often considered the book world version of "The Man", the arbitrary arbiter of taste and the seat of power, and thus comes in for a lot of criticism (some of it justified) for not including enough women authors, women reviewers, indie press books, etc. Tanenhaus responds to some of these criticisms and others in this interview. It's an interesting look behind the scenes at one of the major institutions of the literary world, run, as they all are, by just some guy like the rest of us.

But there are other resources for book news and reviews, as you blog readers know, and the spate of comments and links recently has led me to some new ones. Antiquarian Michael Lieberman's Book Patrol is a great new discovery, with a bookseller's perspective and a ton of great links. The anonymous author of Bibliotonic (I only know she's an editor) has a nice retrospective on the closing of Micawber's bookstore in Princeton. And she also led me to the blog of Wendy Werris, longtime beloved sales rep and author of An Alphabetical Life; her take on the book tour from one who's seen all sides is hilarious. There's always plenty to read, isn't there?

This will probably be my last post before Christmas -- I'm working straight through until Saturday, then flying home for a flying visit to my family, replete with tears and giggles and songs and movies and books and food and lots of idiosyncratic traditions. I'll try to check back before New Year's to post reviews of my last couple of books (the suspenseful question: will the holiday reading put me over the "52 books in a year mark" I aimed for in January?), and with my own year-end best-of list. In the meantime, I'm curious -- any books on your Christmas list, for giving or getting? And what WILL you read on the plane?

Thanks so much for all of your links, emails, comments, and just for reading -- it's been a wonderful year, and it's ending on a high note, I think. A very Merry Christmas to all, and to all -- happy reading!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Comment: New York Bookstores Need A Miracle

When my buddies in publishing and I decided to try to adapt the Emerging Leaders project of the American Booksellers Association to the New York area, it seemed like a perfect fit. The idea was to get the young people from the publishing community and the young people from the bookselling community together, informally networking and getting to know each other so that we could work toward the future of the book industry. But we ran into a problem I didn’t expect.

The New York bookselling community doesn’t seem to exist.

We’ve estimated (generously) that about 15% of the attendees at our Emerging Leaders Nights Out have been from bookstores, with all the rest from publishing houses or literary agencies. Almost no booksellers have attended more than once. And our invite emails to the “general” address of many, many local bookstores have gone almost universally unanswered. It's not from a lack of bookstores; I have a list of over 50 independents in the greater metro area that are currently open. There are probably a lot more publishing employees than booksellers in the city, but I know there are more booksellers than this.

To be honest, I probably could have predicted this. New York City booksellers are notoriously uninvolved in their regional association, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association. At the fall trade show, I was one of only two New York stores represented. The city holds the greatest concentration of stores, if not the majority of the stores in the region, but they’re not really much of a factor in decision making, networking, education, or advocacy on the regional level, because they just don’t join, and they don’t go. And not only do they not join official communities, but many don’t support their fellow indies informally. There are certainly some booksellers who know each other, and some bookstores that work together. But many would rather send a customer away disappointed than send them to a bookstore they see as a competitor.

The two obvious questions are, why is this the case? And why does it matter? The answer to the first I think has some roots in both bookstore culture and New York City culture. Unfortunately, the old New Yorker magazine cover that showed the map of the world, where 9th Avenue took up approximately as much space as all of New Jersey (and most of Russia), is fairly accurate to many New Yorkers’ view of things. Life outside the city just doesn’t matter that much; “their” problems are not “our” problems. “We” just wouldn’t have much to say to a store from, say, Chester County, PA (an example I pick for its absurdity, as Chester County Books & Music is obviously doing much better than many a New York City store). And in some cases the New York Attitude can extend even to neighborhoods: what could my store in SoHo/Upper West Side/Park Slope/Chelsea/East Village possibly have in common with that other store in another neighborhood?

Bookstore culture is the other factor. Independent bookstore owners tend to be… independent. Even iconoclastic, eccentric, or hermitish (though of course this varies wildly from person to person). They don’t tend to be “joiners.” Many consider their kooky little neighborhood venture as a singular entity that, once again, doesn’t have anything in common with any other bookstore. The independent spirit that makes for unique stock, colorful employees, one-of-a-kind spaces, and one-one-one relationships, can also mean that indie bookstores shun anything that seems it might threaten their independence, even if it’s a loose network of similarly independent stores. I think this is a mentality more common in older, smaller stores, but it’s still around.

These two attitudes combined – New York snobbery meeting indie bookstore eccentricity – mean that (at least it seems to me) there’s an unfortunate tendency for New York bookstores to pull in their skirts, grumble that Store X is doing better than us and turn up our nose at Store Y that’s struggling, rather than consider that we’re all in the same boat. It’s a common response in a crisis (more on that later), but it’s pretty obvious it does more harm than good.

The other, major aspect of bookstore culture that prevents a community, especially a community of young people, is the confusion about whether being a bookseller is a profession or not. For many, it actually is not. It’s a part-time retail job (albeit a supercool one), the equivalent of working at the Gap or Hot Dog On A Stick, which is performed for a finite amount of time, for very little pay, and no investment in the company itself. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, the perception of dilettantism can extend even to employees who HAVE been with a bookstore a long time, who ARE invested in the store’s goals and well-being, and who are skilled and knowledgeable enough that they are major contributors to the store and thus to the book industry itself. These are the people Robert Gray calls “frontline booksellers,” the ones on the sales floor, putting books in customers’ hands. But ask them what they do, and they’ll tell you they’re working in a bookstore while they work on their novel, or album, or degree, or plan for life, even if they’re loving their job as a bookseller and rockin’ it old school.

Maybe I’m wrong about this; I only suspect it because I struggled with it myself. The whole “if you don’t have an office/title/publication/PhD, it’s not a Real Job” mentality was inescapable, until the ALP’s observation that I loved what I was doing induced an epiphany that bookselling is, in fact, my career. That many booksellers don’t necessarily consider themselves skilled professionals with a stake in the state of their industry is an indicator of a kind of ingrained anti-retail prejudice. Fact is, if you’re good at what you do, and you get paid for it, you’re a professional. And frontline booksellers are the overlooked professionals of the book industry. They make the transaction – selling a book to a customer – that is the end goal of every agent, editor, publicist, sales rep, and marketer, in every publishing house, anywhere. And they create the space where books are browsed, discovered, and shared: the very arena of literary culture.

Which leads to the second question: why is a bookseller community important, why does it matter. It matters in part because being part of a group of professionals reinforces the idea that one is a professional, and helps one to start thinking in more creative and powerful ways about the world that one works in. That was a weirdly passive sentence there, but what I mean is that my transition to career bookseller didn’t start until I went to my first NAIBA trade show, and found myself surrounded by others who cared about the same things I did. I started thinking about my bookstore not as just the place I punched the clock, but a vibrant part of a larger industry, and one that could be a factor in where that industry went. Booksellers need to hang out with each other in order to find their place in the book world. It sounds abstract, but it’s the beginning of revivifying independent bookstores, and ensuring their future. Without professional booksellers to carry the torch, independent bookstores will no doubt be slowly replaced by chains, corporate decision makers and ever more wage slaves. Bookstore owners in particular ought to encourage their staff to become part of the professional community if they care about the longevity of their stores.

Because, though I know I’m the poster girl for optimism about the future of indie bookstores, there are some major obstacles to making a store work, especially in New York City: astronomical rents, corporate financial clout, the tyrannical convenience of the internet. Many a bookstore has gone under because their business model just couldn’t cope with the changes in the retail environment and the book industry. I could be wrong, but I suspect the stores that closed were not the stores who were constantly in communication with their fellow stores, attending conferences to learn about new developments, hobnobbing with like-minded folks in publishing or other aspects of the industry to get ideas, staying connected in order to stay ahead. They probably thought “independent bookstore” meant “we don’t need anybody.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

We all sold a great book a year or so ago called THE WISDOM OF CROWDS by James Surowicki (check my spelling); his contention was that a group of people can come up with better ideas than the most genius individual, even or especially when the group is informal. The creativity and vibrancy that comes from networking with others in your field is invaluable, and can make the difference between success or failure for bookstores on the razor-thin margin of profitability. I can’t tell you what specific thing or idea would come out of a group of booksellers in a room together. That’s the point. The stuff that happens when a community talks to itself is something that no individual could create, and it works to the support of the entire community.

Libba Bray’s "Ode to Independent Booksellers" compared indie bookstore owners to the Founding Fathers, those other independents struggling to survive. I think what we’re trying to create is more of a loose confederacy than a federal system, but there’s a lot to be learned from that high-stakes struggle against a bigger and better-financed enemy. (And I’m not saying that chain stores are the enemy or need to be destroyed; doesn’t the U.S. have good relations with Britain? We just need to figure out how to survive and thrive along with them.) And as one of their number wryly pointed out, “If we don’t hang together, we will certainly all hang separately.”

As I wrote in one of my earliest blog entries, we are not each others’ competition. We are colleagues. Chain stores and Amazon take away far more of our business than we could possibly take from each other. And if we talk together and work together, we can not only increase our collective market share, but increase good will, and maybe even improve the literary culture of our city and our country.

To be fair, there are signs of bookseller community already. Rusel, the dynamic force behind the thriving Penn Concessions bookstore in Pennsylvania Station, just sent out an invitation to the third bookseller/sales rep get-together. The one I went to last December was another building block in my enthusiasm for bookselling, and attended by a number of bookstore owners and sales reps of all ages. But it seemed like a tiny percentage of New York stores that attended, and a small percentage of the staff of those that did. We need to do more.

It’s the Christmas season in New York. One of the classic New York Christmas movies is Miracle on 34th Street – remember it? The scene in that movie that has always stuck with me is the astonishment of a customer when Kris Kringle, the Macy’s Santa, sends her to Gimbel’s to get her child’s gift, because they have better stock on what she needs. The indignant Macy's manager is soon overwhelmed by the gratitude of customers and increased sales as a result of Kringle’s counter-intuitive program of good will. Soon Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimble are shaking hands on camera, both having bumper Christmas retail seasons.

To me, that unlikely cooperation is the miracle of the film. Against their expectations, Macy and Gimbel found that supporting the other guy not only makes the customer happy, but benefits the store as well. It’s as old as the Golden Rule, and as cutting-edge as “small is the new big”. Support your fellows, and find yourself supported.

I have on my computer a list of about 65 New York bookstores (including about 8 Barnes & Nobles), with their phone number, cross streets, and specialties. The list is by no means exhaustive. I refer to it whenever a customer is looking for a book we’re out of, or a subject I’m no expert in, or a genre we have no space to stock. I send them over, or I call the store and have them reserve the book. I know some other stores that do this too. And it’s like a little miracle every time: the astonishment, the gratitude, the sale.

I’ll make this list available to anyone who wants it – it’s all public information anyway. Maybe it will be the beginning of your own holiday miracle. And I encourage anyone in the book industry, in New York or elsewhere, to think and wonder about how to make another miracle happen: the miracle of a thriving, connected culture of independent bookstores, and bookstore professionals, in the greatest city on earth. We’ll be trying again, in more practical ways, to get young booksellers together in the New Year. In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Link-Mad Monday, plus book reviews

SERIOUSLY back in action! I downloaded Firefox and everything seems to be working beautifully in blog-land (thanks John T., our indefatigable store factotum, for the advice). And after a super-lovely birthday weekend (our rather literary dinner and a movie were very satisfactory, and we did some local Christmas shopping), it's time to get back to business.

Want to know the books indie bookstores sold this year? Check out the ABA's beautiful poster of Booksense Bestselling Books of 2006, for reading or downloading.

It's super-satisfying to be a bookseller at the holidays, because customers are more willing than usual to take you up on that passionate book recommendation, for themselves or their giftees. But it still ain't easy. Douglas Dutton of Dutton's Books in Beverly Hills and Brentwood, CA, reflects on the recommendation in this charming and illuminating article on the bookseller's craft in the Los Angeles Times.

You may have noticed me mentioning Bookstore Tourism, the ingenious invention of Larry Portzline to bring booklovers to indie bookstores on day-long bus trips. Larry stopped by the store this weekend and reminded me that the Bookstore Tourism video is now available! You can see a higher resolution of the video on the website, but I thought I'd offer it here for your point-and-click convenience. (Thanks to the ALP for showing me how to do this!)

Here's Part 1, the New York segment. I'm on there at the end, saying what now seems like a fairly irrelevant thing about Bookstore Tourism being an education for folks who shop at chain stores, since the rest of the video makes clear that these "tourists" tend to be booklovers and supporters of "the independent spirit." Many of my favorite NYC bookstores are represented here -- HousingWorks and Three Lives look especially beautiful on film.

And here's Part 2, the California Bookstore Road Trip. It's a great chance to see the insides of some bookstores I've heard all about but never seen (like the famous Vroman's) and it made me super homesick for my home state. I may have to sign up for this myself one of these days!

If you're still reading after that rockin' trip, here are some quick book reviews for the day.

Book Review #48
by Lewis Buzbee
(Graywolf Press, June 2006)
Isn't it always the way that the books you buy intending to read get sidelined by some fascinating title you came across in your library from months ago? This is why the "books I've bought" vs. "books I've read" lists in Nick Hornby's wonderful "Stuff I've Been Reading" column in the Believer are always so funny, and I suspect it's something rabid bibliophile Lewis Buzbee understands intimately. I had every intention of reading WIZARD OF THE CROW or maybe FRAGILE THINGS, but instead found myself attracted and then utterly absorbed by this title I've been passing over for months as just another book about books. Actually, it's a book about bookstores -- not an academic one like RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS, or a purely personal one, but a rich and textured exploration of the physical appeal of the bookstore, totally intoxicating to the initiated, and incidentally, how it got that way. Buzbee intersperses his story of growing up a booklover and working in bookstores and as a sales rep on the West Coast with an educated but breezy history of bookselling, from papyrus on a rug in the marketplace to the library of Alexandria, to the coffeehouses of the Enlightenment (the intertwined history of the bookstore and coffeehouse was an eye-opener to me), to the contemporary megastore palaces and warren-like independents of today. And I turned down the corners on dozens of pages (oh come on, it's only a galley) with phrases or ideas I wanted to remember: Elias Canetti's phrase "alone among others" to describe the appeal of browsing or reading in public; an explanation of the development of the codex (the current book shape, as opposed to a scroll); a description of the Sosii brothers, Roman booksellers mentioned by the poet Horace; Alexander Pope's cruel practical joke on a bookseller/publisher who was cheating him; or this fantastic sentence: "The world was bigger because of Steinbeck, but also within my grasp." The only moment I wasn't entirely on Buzbee's side was when he admitted putting his own books face-out in another independent bookstore -- you'd think as a former bookseller he'd know better! But this was an absorbing and truly delightful read, for the lover of books and especially of bookstores -- it's not just telling you what you already know, but it may describe what you've experienced in words that make you understand it as if for the first time; as Pope would say, "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Bravo, Buzbee -- I hope I get a chance to shake your hand one of these days.

Book Review #49
By Matthew Head
(Felony & Mayhem, December 2005)
Speaking of great booksellers, the folks at mystery bookstore Partners & Crime in the West Village (especially the owner Maggie) are some of the best. The ALP and I were in there last Christmas season looking for some plane reads, and based on my love of Susanna Clarke and Agatha Christie, Maggie recommended both the astonishing Jonathan Coe novel THE WINSHAW LEGACY (which I read that holiday and reviewed at the beginning of this year), and this slyly wonderful little novel. Produced by the bookstore's own publishing arm Felony & Mayhem, which publishes out-of-print or overseas mysteries in lovely paperback originals, this book was originally published in 1945. And I was astonished anew at how much more was going on in books in that era than Dame Agatha ever let on. This one does have a bit of the British lady's sensibility -- especially my favorite characteristic of hers, confounding expectations about age, gender, and class -- but it's a lot more down-to-earth. Set in the crumbling colonial empire of the Belgian Congo, it includes racism, homosexual undertones, tribal mutilation, awkward casual sex, and a certain lady doctor with a mouth like a sailor. The narrator, Hooper Taliaferro, is a likable, if lightweight sort, who stumbles into a story of sinister and desperate people on an failing outpost farm, and is only saved from utter uselessness by the intervention of Dr. Mary Finney, the aforementioned sailor mouth and an extremely smart and practical character. Their interaction is possibly even more satisfying than Holmes and Watson, and the story itself had me scrambling for the subway doors (almost missing my stop) more than once. One caveat: a horrible colonialist racism is pervasive, even among the "good" characters, but of course that would have to be part of telling a story of this time and place; it's only weird because the author himself, being of this time, is probably not entirely aware of, or opposed to, the fearful and paternalistic attitudes. Still, it's a whopping good read; I'm grateful to Maggie & Co., and hoping to track down more Mary Finney stories soon.

Question of the day: what's the best, most unlikely recommendation you've ever taken from a bookseller?

Happy reading?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Chronicle: Milton, Harris, Trumbo, Nerd

According to this website, December 9 is the birthday of Joel Chandler Harris (creator of Uncle Remus, now sadly verboten un-PC teller of African-American folktales), Dalton Trumbo (author of JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN and famously McCarthy blacklisted screenwriter) and good ol' John Milton (you know, that poem about heaven and stuff?)

It also happens to be the birthday of one small NYC bookseller. Twenty-eight somehow feels like a much more rounded, mature age than 27 -- I guess it's all those even divisors. I'm way older than Milton was when he wrote that birthday sonnet (23), but younger than Trumbo when he wrote JOHNNY (34). Anyway, I'm celebrating very sophisticatedly with fancy dinner and an art film with the ALP, and later this week having some folks over for some decidedly immature Christmas cookie decorating. This week will also see the venerable 31st birthday of the ALP, who shares his natal anniversary with John Greenleaf Whittier and Ford Madox Ford.

Thanks to my sympathetic boss, I'm leaving work early to enjoy the (cold) Christmassy delights of the city. Enjoy the day for me (and find your own literary birthday counterparts -- it's way too fun.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Links, Books, Madness!

At last, it's just me and my beautiful iMac by the light of a (finally) lit screen, with all of these lovely links for something to do. Now, of course, Blogger is giving me trouble -- I hope I can work around it, but the extra time and the demands of the never-ending World Outside means this may not be the extensive post I'd hoped for.

I hope you all somehow managed to amuse yourself in my absence -- I've been gratified to read your responses to my queries, especially the responses to the prompt "To me, books are..." You can read responses to the same question from Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Lemony Snicket, Susane Somers (?), and, um, yours truly in Forbes Special Report on Books. Thanks to my buddy Dave at Forbes who thought there should be a bookseller's reponse in there, I'm on a list with people I imagine my name will never be joined with again. Fun! And there's lots more in this issue of the Forbes online magazine -- I'm looking forward to reading articles about McSweeney's business model, giving away prose on the internet, book burnings, interactive books, and other topics. I think Forbes has done a great job of addressing some of the contemporary issues in the book world with open mindedness and a lack of knee-jerk despair -- that makes 'em cool in my book. Thanks to all those who sent congratulations for my moment in the sun -- it's a privilege to be able to sound off on what we love. I'm looking forward to hearing more ends of the sentence from you...

Book Expo is podcasting! The newBookExpo podcasts site features a long segment from the National Book Awards, and will include more of the educational sessions and other formerly live-only events for your iPoding pleasure. Good idea? What do you think?

Oh yes, we got some press... here's theWinter ELNO in Bookselling This Weeks. So that's two bad pictures of me on the internet this week. Sorry, I mean, it's excellent publicity for the project, and how great does Steve Colca look with that beard?

The ALP sent me this irresistable time-waster: the"What Kind of Reader Are You?" Quiz

And multiple people have sent meLibraryThing, which allows you to catalog the books in your library online. I admit I can't see the return on time investment on this one. Anyone enjoying it, or think it's lame?

Okay, that's all the time I have -- so much for the big return. I have big thoughts, though -- look for me in the next week or so with some serious thoughts on the state of the bookselling community, especially here in NYC, why it's important, and what Emerging Leaders has to do with that.

In the meantime, I want to hear more about what books are to you. I should be updated with Blogger Beta soon and I'm figuring out the world of Mac slowly but surely, so things will get ever more organized. Have a great week -- see you here soon!

Monday, December 04, 2006

"To me, books are..."

Just one more day, o faithful readers, and I'll be back in action! I finally lugged my lemon of an Apple to the Mac store, and of course the kind folks replaced it immediately -- I've just got to wait until tomorrow for them to transfer all my files, and then I'll be in business at home.

There is literally no time to blog (or at least to do links) here at the store, unfortunately, which sucks because there are LOTS of exciting things to link to and talk about. I'll be back ASAP, I promise!

In the meantime, here's your reader question, which will make more sense when I give you the link madness soon. Complete this sentence: "To me, books are..."

Looking forward to reading your answers!