Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Wednesday chronicle: upcoming events

I'm both feeling ill AND extraordinarily busy today, dear readers, so no time for the thougtful review I was hoping for. Instead, here's some of what I've got coming up -- maybe I'll see you around...

I'm headed to the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) trade show in Providence on Friday, where I've been invited to speak on an ABA panel titled "Doing Digital Right." Robert Gray of Fresh Eyes and Shelf Awareness and Heather Gain of Harvard Bookstore will be my illustrious co-panelists, and the inimitable Len Vlahos is moderating; it's at 3:00 PM.

Next, of course, is the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association trade show (or NAIBA-Con) in Baltimore -- hooray! On Sunday, October 14, I'll be joining Robert Gray (again) and Felicia Sullivan on a panel tentatively titled "Getting the Most out of the Internet" at 3:45 PM. Hope to see you there!

Then, closer to home, I'm honored to participate in the Literary Writers Conference of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses here in New York. On Saturday, November 10, at 2:30 pm, I'll be one of speakers on a panel titled "The Power of Blogging". Stop by if you're in the neighborhood. (Incidentally, the program is the first time I've ever seen my name alphabetized under the ALP's last comes right before Ishmael Beah. Kind of exciting!)

Let me know if I can hope to see you at any of these events!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Brooklyn Lit Life: Nicole Steinberg

I have to admit I've never met BOMB editor Nicole Steinberg in person -- our connection was forged via an email chain, friend to associate to colleague etc. And I'm thrilled to admit I've never been to half of the Brooklyn literary venues she describes -- because that means there's so much more still to discover! Her responses to the Brooklyn Lit Life questions renew my optimism for the borough all over again (I love her thoughts on neighbors and neighborhoods), and inspire me to widen my own circle of literary experiences here (if only in hopes of running into her). Read on, and get out there!

Brooklyn Lit Life Interview:
Nicole Steinberg

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.

I’m the Associate Editor at BOMB magazine, a not-for-profit arts and culture magazine in its 26th year of publication. BOMB used to be located in Soho, but moved to Fort Greene in 2004 and is now a very visible publication in the Brooklyn literary scene. My position bridges both the editorial and marketing departments, so I get to contribute to the magazine’s content while taking part in events and public programming, much of which occurs in Brooklyn.

I also host and curate a reading series called Earshot, which takes place twice a month at The Lucky Cat in Williamsburg. The series is dedicated to the presence of emerging writers in the New York City area, and each event features three local MFA students as well as two featured writers, from all genres.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?

Earshot used to take place on the Lower East Side, but I really like hosting it in Brooklyn now. A lot of literary-minded people are here, and the series attracts a wonderful audience that didn’t necessarily attend before. The neighborhood has an extremely hospitable atmosphere that, I feel, encourages literary growth.

Oh, and I actually live in Queens! How subversive is that?!

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?

It’s a really welcoming borough. The residents seem a bit more…worldly, in a more practical way than typical Manhattanites. And there’s something about Brooklyn that inspires literary folks. Maybe it’s the brownstones or the parks, or the way many of its neighborhoods feel wholesome yet rough-edged at the same time. Even the less popular and/or ritzy areas evoke a sense of nostalgia. I’d say the Brooklyn sensibility is a lot more laidback than Manhattan, and a lot less severe. There’s less of a black and white aura there, and more places for a person to fit in.

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.

I hold the Earshot readings in Williamsburg, which is pretty much full of hipsters, all of them really young.. I remember the first time I had an event there, it was an evening in January and the sky was dark by 6 PM, and I thought I was going to get killed walking beneath the BQE. Now I’m really accustomed to the neighborhood and marvel at how trendy it is. On my walk from the subway to the bar, I pass gourmet groceries, galleries, vintage boutiques, etc. Oh, and Luna Lounge, of course. I just hosted the first event of the 2007/08 season last week, after a two month summer hiatus, and couldn’t believe how many places had closed during the interim, and how many places were open. I saw a restaurant that had closed, and on the same block, an apartment building that was finally done with construction. It’s amazing how fast things can change there, how rapidly the neighborhood is growing, even after the initial boom. And unlike other parts of Brooklyn, I can almost always get a cab there.

As for Fort Greene, it’s also become really trendy in the past few years. It’s really neighborhoody, which is nice in terms of morale; there’s something great to be said for going to work in an area where you can actually enjoy taking a stroll during an afternoon break, or have a leisurely outdoor lunch, as opposed to bumping into a thousand people while walking down just one city block. There are quite a few gorgeous tree-lined blocks with wall-to-wall brownstones. Most of my colleagues walk to work from home and I’m always ever so jealous.

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?

More babies. Lots and lots of babies. And restaurants that only open for business four months out of the year.

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?

Didn’t most of the National Book Award winners last year come from Brooklyn? I might be wrong about that, but gosh, there are a lot of amazing contemporary writers there: Matthea Harvey, John Haskell, Mónica de la Torre…. Not to mention all of my writerly friends who can’t afford Manhattan (and don’t want to live there, even they did). A lot of Earshot readers live in Brooklyn, too. Like I said, it’s an inspiring environment. And it hasn’t yet gotten completely saturated in terms of real estate, so writers can still (sometimes) afford to live there. And since it’s more conducive to neighborhoods, it’s also conducive to neighbors, and writers/readers will find each other and start joint projects, reading groups, etc. Everyone is genuinely interested in what everyone else is doing. And there are more opportunities for people to build small bookstores, cafes, bars and venues that actually flourish, thanks to the word-of-mouth that keeps them going. As someone who once feared for her life walking down Metropolitan Avenue, I can definitely attest to the fact that the dearth of awesome, talented people located in Brooklyn makes the trek out there a lot more appealing than it used to be.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?

Earshot! And, let’s see… an excellent reading series venue is Williamsburg’s Stain Bar, as well as 440 Gallery and the Perch Café in Park Slope. Lots of small presses live in Brooklyn as well, including Akashic Books, Archipelago Books, and, once upon a time, Soft Skull. BookCourt is probably my favorite Brooklyn bookstore. Hmm. Thinking about it makes me realize that a lot of the Brooklyn literary scene is centered on Park Slope. I’d love to see an awesome reading series in, say, Bensonhurst. But then it might be tough to get people out there—almost as tough as it is getting people out to Queens.

Also, one of my favorite annual events is the Brooklyn Book Festival. I missed it this year, sadly, as I was out of town. But I just love seeing all those literary geeks in one place, selling their wares and ideas. They’re truly my people.

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?

I think one of the reasons Earshot does so well is because it’s held at an amazing venue: The Lucky Cat, on Grand Street between Roebling and Driggs. It’s a bar/restaurant that’s very atmospheric but also cozy and comforting. People feel really at home when they enter, and that’s an invaluable aspect to any literary venue, since it puts the readers and audience at ease. Also, they give the reading series curator free beer, and that ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

My ideal Brooklyn bookstore would have lots and lots of literary magazines and journals, a huge poetry section, a huge graphic novels section, and would reach out to the community by hosting lots of events, workshops and excellent readings, not just by Brooklyn writers (although that would be wonderful), but also writers from other boroughs. As much as I applaud the Brooklyn lit scene’s tendency to cheer itself on (“We love Brooklyn! Yay, Brooklyn!”), I feel it’s important not to be too exclusive. Or maybe that’s just the Queens Girl in me, demanding satisfaction.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Graphic Lit Galore: Kabuishi, Bechdel, Robinson

Man, I've been hitting the graphic novels hard lately. Here's a rundown on recent reading.

Flight, Volume 1
edited by Kazuo Kibuishi

(Villard, April 2007)

Don't let the publication date fool you -- the Flight project is one that has been building and gathering steam for a long time, and just recently burst unavoidably into the consciousness of folks like me (i.e. "mainstream" readers). The anthology, first published by Image Comics in 2004, gathers short works by dozens of young (sometimes VERY young) independent comic artists and writers. Many relate, more or less, to the "theme" of flight, whether it's a boy and his dog building a dirigible to traverse a fantasy world, a nerd and a popular girl bonding over kite flying, or a penguin who finds a way to transcend the whole flightless bird thing.

As with any collection, it can be a bit uneven -- some of these artists were in their late teens when they did this work, and a few feel a bit teen angsty for my taste, while others are a little too avant garde for me to make sense of. But the overall high quality of the collection is astounding. The colors are gorgeous, the art is diverse and brilliant, the stories are quirky and clever and poignant. One of the best things about it: the collection could be read by nearly any age, so it's a great one to hand to teenage readers, and literary enough that you can feel proud to do so.

One of the best additions in this edition is the afterword by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame), written as if it's a retrospective on Flight in the year 2050. He reminisces on the moment that comics changed, and how Flight was the thing that made it happen: more women in comics, high production values from mainstream houses, the integration of (or erasure of the line between) online and print comics. The following three volumes of Flight, along with the gorgeous blog/website, seem to bear out his half-humorous future predictions. The editor, Kazuo Kabuishi, is a rising comics superstar in his own right (I reviewed his Daisy Kutter here). I can't wait to get to the next three volumes in this anthology series, or to see what Kabuishi and all these young stars do next.

Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel

(Mariner, June 2007)

I know, I know, it's ridiculous that I'm just now reading Fun Home -- the hardcover came out over a year ago, and it's probably the most successful literary comic book since Persepolis. I've been working my way through the Graphic Lit section at the bookstore and boning up on the classics -- I meant to borrow this one and return it in pristine condition, but it turns out I'll have to pay for it, because there's no way I'm giving it back. This is probably the best memoir I've ever read, graphic or no, doing all the things that this genre excels at: putting experience into context, creating a story out of the chaos of real life, working out emotions and connections in art, admitting subjectivity while striving for fairness and a bigger truth.

Bechdel's literary allusions, ranging from Proust to The Wind in the Willows to The Great Gatsby, aren't just smart girl show-offishness: they become integral to the story, tools for understanding her father and her family through narrative, through parallels with the stories she knows, and through connections to the stories that were important to them. Her family's life was literally shaped by the books they read, so it's inevitable and powerful to retell their story through these lenses. And she adds to this literary structure by doing what comics do best: using the power of images and words together and separately. Bechdel's stone-faced renditions of her mother and father are more telling than any attempt to describe their emotional distance: I've never seen comics characters more expressively expressionless. I won't bother to even mention the "plot", a description of which you can find anywhere. Its specificity, and its resonant universality -- what's more familiar than hometown, family, selfhood, education, mortality, love? -- make it a nearly perfect memoir, and a huge leap forward in the literary possibilities of comics.

As a matter of fact, I'm glad I read this comic so late. I somehow found myself on a panel with Alison Bechdel at Book Expo, and if I had read her book beforehand I would have been completely paralyzed with admiration. As it is, I'm going to have to start reading "Dykes to Watch Out For," reading Alison's blog, and becoming a literary stalker after the fact. You've been warned: read Fun Home at the risk of total, blissful obsession.

Box Office Poison
by Alex Robinson

(Top Shelf, May 2001)
And then it happened again. I'm way behind (this time six YEARS behind) on reading this book that everyone (okay, Gavin Grant at Small Beer and some best-of lists) recommended to me. I read it. I'm obsessed. And then I find out I've been in the same room with the author and totally failed to recognize the genius -- perhaps luckily for us both. Turns out Alex Robinson appeared at McNally Robinson for the Best American Comics reading with Harvey Pekar last October, and since I hadn't read Box Office Poison yet his name meant nothing to me, and I treated him like all the other up-and-comers playing second fiddle to the adorably near-comatose Harv. In fact, I didn't realize this until I found Alex's website and shamelessly emailed him to ask for permission to reproduce a page of his book (you'll see why below). Turns out he's a super nice guy, still lives in New York (where the book takes place) and is perfectly willing to have his art grace the blog.

Oh yeah, let me not forget to tell you about the book. Sherman (would-be writer), Jane (would-be cartoonist), Ed (would-be cartoonist), Stephen (would-be historian), Dorothy (journalist), and Irving (cranky has-been cartoonist) play out their lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan, falling in and out of love, jobs, projects and passions. Does it sound like a Friends-y sitcom? Actually, I think a more appropriate comparision is George Eliot's Middlemarch: a complex ensemble story, where characters develop in ways you don't expect, and the neat conflicts and fixes of Jane Austen (or comic strips or sitcoms) are deepened and enriched into a smart, funny, honest, unpretentious whole picture of a time of life and a time in history.

Robinson is good at stuff that I've never seen before. He gets at the exact feeling of a noisy party or a night of bar conversation with overlapping speech balloons that leave some words unreadable but get at the hubbub of voices or the buildup of friendships through conversations. He writes long-term relationships as well as the agonies of first kisses. (There's an extended scene where Jane and Stephen, a long-time couple, have sex while continuing to talk about their day -- the speech balloons are totally disconnected to what they're doing, and you get a sense of the deep comfort, and the habits, of their relationship. There's also a scene on a fire escape where Sherman contemplates kissing a girl who's not his girlfriend, and his thoughts take up way more space than the actual action, just like they do when you're thinking about making such a move.)

I love where Jane and Stephen visit Jane's family for Christmas -- the family resemblances, the love and exasperation, Stephen's bemused and longing outsider-ness. I love especially the epilogue from Ed, who turns out to be something of a hero, chronicling where his friends' lives have gone, with love and bewilderment. There's actually a lot of love in here (including Ed's compassion for the unloveable Irving, and the love of geeks for comics, among others) -- surprising for a bunch of kinda Gen-X 1990s sarcasm majors. Robinson has what I admire in my favorite writers: wit, humanism, playful seriousness, and a rich understanding of day-to-day joys. I've been going back and re-reading bits of this, and suspect I will continue to do so, at least until I lay my hands on some of his other work.

Anyway: the pages below. Sherman, one of the main characters in Box Office Poison, works as a bookseller -- in a huge Manhattan chain store, a job he hates more than anything on earth. (Since Robinson worked in a bookstore for 7 years, my guess is that this is the 18th Street or Union Square Barnes & Noble.) His experience is totally different from mine, or that of most of the booksellers I know, but some aspects are the same anywhere. I sat on the subway the other night with another bookseller from my store, cracking up in rueful familiarity with this spread of Dumb Customer Questions. Read 'em for a peek into a bookseller's (worst) day -- if you've ever worked in retail, you'll sympathize. As added proof that Robinson is a decent human being, he's even included himself in a cameo as a disgruntled author. Click to enlarge, and enjoy -- then go out and buy some comics to read this weekend.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Times, The Post, and the Daily News on New York Bookstores

Monday, an article in the New York Times confirmed the story that the Barnes & Noble on Astor Place in New York is closing, and put to rest the rumors we'd been hearing that a new branch would open in Chelsea. The Astor Place branch will close on December 31, citing astronomical rents, the bane of all bookstores in NYC. (Strangely, the quoted yearly rent of $1.15 million for 32,000 square feet works out to only about $35 per square foot -- well within reasonable range, even for a bookstore.) The Times reports that a new B&N will open at 270 Greenwich Street in TriBeCa on November 28, "so the total number of Barnes & Noble stores will be unchanged."

However, a Tuesday article in the New York Post makes that last statement questionable. Real estate sources say that the Chelsea Barnes & Noble won't renew its lease when it comes up next May, though Barnes & Noble hasn't confirmed this. But the Post also says the chain may have signed a lease at Lexington Avenue and 86th Street for a new store to open next year. Go fig.

Possibly the best part of the Times story is two paragraphs at the end, where Meg Smith of the ABA offers McNally Robinson as a counter-example to the gloom-and-doom of the bookstore news. But read through the comments on the article for almost every possible perspective on the issue, from optimism that perhaps this signifies a return to local retail, to despair that New York is becoming ever more unaffordable and homogenized, to apathy about the importance of bookstores at all, and a brief debate about whether McNally Robinson is in fact a chain (it isn't; see comment #33). Fascinating stuff, and far from simple.

And then, check out the Tuesday Daily News story on independent bookstores in Brooklyn, which are thriving despite competition from Barnes & Nobles in their area. BookCourt (Boerum Hill), A Novel Idea (Bay Ridge), P.S. Bookshop (Dumbo), and Spoonbill and Sugartown (Williamsburg) are doing just great, actually. (And of course this brief article doesn't cover half the indie bookstores in the borough.).

Three New York papers; two days; three articles about bookstores. It's an interesting moment, folks.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Link-Mad Monday: Festival Edition

Yesterday, September 16, was the Brooklyn Book Festival! What a day, and what a turnout. The ALP and I had a socially/personally packed weekend (turning in my business plan was just the beginning), so we didn't head over to Borough Hall and environs until around 3:00. But we still managed to fill a tote bag (purchased from Word) with new books, and see a lot of new and familiar faces, some of whom I'll name-drop here

First stop was the Small Beer Press table, where the inimitable Gavin Grant was fending off the hordes. I chatted with Gavin about an event at the bookstore with their Interfictions anthology later in October, and snagged a copy of The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, published by Del Rey but edited by Grant, to peruse for potential additions to our Halloween party lineup (and for the joy of smart, literate genre fiction, of course).

This was about the time we realized we were going to need to hit the ATM.

We'd already done some damage at a used bookstore on 7th Avenue earlier in the day, but there was no way we were going to be able to resist the bounty of books we'd never seen before on vendor tables. (I can't find the ALP's stack right now, but I know he got a new volume from the Continuum 33 1/3 music series (on "Born in the USA"), a cool cultural history of children's traditions called The Games Black Girls Play from NYU Press, the Evasion-English Dictionary from Melville House, and various other titles from poetry to novels to nonfiction.)

We stopped by the Overlook Press table and ran into the hilarious loose canon of book enthusiasm that is Jim Behrle; we exclaimed over their new reissue of the incredible Gormenghast trilogy in its original three separate volumes (the single volume weighs a ton and is difficult to sell, though it's beloved by everyone from C.S. Lewis to Quentin Crisp), commented on the incredible niceness of Slaves of the Shinar author Justin Allen, and cracked up at the ponderous outdoorsiness of the reissued tome on rodeo Let 'Er Buck.

I said hi to the folks selling books on behalf of HousingWorks Used Book Cafe, and shared excitement about the upcoming Open Air Book Fair on September 29, which McNally Robinson will participate in. (Along with the embarassing pleasure of having a Housing Works employee tell me she loves The Written Nerd, I got the added satisfaction of the phrase "And is that the Adorably Literate Partner?")

I sought out and met Jay Baron Nicorvo, Membership Director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, who posted a comment on this post last week inviting me to join a panel on blogging at the clmp's Literary Writers Conference in November. Of course I'm delighted -- I love having conversations about book world issues in public, and hope I'll be useful -- and grateful to Ron Hogan for recommending me. Invite by blog comment -- a clever way to fill out a blogging panel, eh?

We ran into an old coworker of the ALP -- Derek White, who now heads litmag Sleeping Fish and indie Calamari Press. Derek is one of the writers published by Calamari and designs most of the covers, which I think are beautiful and disturbing; he's clearly found his calling, and I think a lot of publishers should be looking to him for good ideas in well-done indie design. I picked up a poetry collection by Peter Markus called The Singing Fish which looks irresistible.

Unexpectedly, publicist extraordinaire Molly Miklowski was manning the Coffee House Press booth -- she's usually found nearer the publisher's headquarters in Minneapolis, so it was a treat to see her. (Remember Firmin at the LBC? -- Molly helped make that happen, and we sighed over our love of Firmin once again). She pressed upon me Brenda Coultas' poetry collection The Marvelous Bones of Time, another Halloween-appropriate offering, and if Molly's taste is anything to go by another winner.

Molly also introduced me to her table-mate, Bob Hershon of Hanging Loose Press, which just happens to be Brooklyn's oldest independent publisher (since 1966). As Bob pointed out, it's funny that a friend in common thousands of miles away should bring together book people who live in the same borough! He passed along his collection Calls from the Outside World and we traded praise for Sherman Alexie, who published his first collection with Hanging Loose when he was practically a kid. Can't wait to get these guys -- who are still putting out cool new work -- into the store for an Indie Press Night.

What else? -- Stopped by BookCourt's booth to say hi to Henry and Zack, and ran into another old friend, Random House sales rep Annette-Trial O'Neil, who's always a trip. Visited the cool artists' collective Booklyn to make a deal on some chapbooks and learned about their bookmaking courses (and their cool T-shirts). Chatted with Dennis Johnson of Melville House about the amazing success of The Little Girl and the Cigarette and the economics of hardcover vs. paperback original. Saw Zoe and Tom at the Archipelago and A Public Space booths, respectively. I'm sure there were other encounters -- forgive me if I spoke to you and haven't mentioned you here, and thank you for adding to the joy of the Festival.

Didn't make it to any of the readings, which were rich and plentiful. But as we wandered toward home as the Festival wound down around 6:00, we noticed Pete Hamill chatting with Jonathan Safran Foer in front of Borough Hall. A little further along was Chuck Klosterman, surrounded by a bevy of admirers. And a few yards later, Jonathan Lethem answered questions from a reporter or friend -- it was hard to tell.

It was lovely to walk home in the fall air with our bag of books and plans for dinner, just like people in any other town. But it was especially clear yesterday that Brooklyn, though it can feel at its best like a small town, isn't like any other town, anywhere.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Link-Mad Monday: Good News & Deadlines

Dear readers, the end of this week is the deadline for the Brooklyn Business Library's business plan competition, and I still have some elements to pull together. So blogging will be light, if it happens at all.

But just in time, Shelf Awareness linked to three articles about independent bookstores making good.

Explore Booksellers and Town Center Booksellers are among the only local shops lauded for good customer service in an article about the trade-offs of shopping local in the Aspen Times. (Note to self: customer service is a key component of a successful indie.)

The Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas is getting new owners after twenty years, according to this article in LJWorld. Click on the video link to hear Kelly Barth, a long-time employee who is one of the three new owners, talking about plans for the future, including focusing on the store's strengths and providing space for local writers. (Note to self: the neighborhood is the strength of a successful indie.)

And my hero Betsy Burton speaks in the Deseret Morning News about the King's English, one of the most successful indie bookstores in the country and spearhead of a powerful Local First movement in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her confidence and optimism have shaped the world around her; she's seen growing public awareness of the value of local businesses. (Note to self: the benefits to the local economy are one of the values of a successful indie.)

It's good to be encouraged by such voices as I turn toward what I hope is the real beginning of the process of starting my own independent bookstore. I hope you'll forgive the Biblical quotation, which seems unavoidably apropos as I find myself inspired by the community of booksellers testifyin' about the good work that they're able to do:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders... and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."

I'm off and running. See you after the deadline.

P.S. In the meantime, don't forget about the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend! The lineup is even better than last year -- I'll be there if I possibly can.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Can I just say...

Apparently no more than five minutes before I arrived at the bookstore for my shift yesterday, George Saunders (The Braindead Megaphone) was sitting in my office chair, talking on my phone, doing the pre-interview for his gig on Letterman. You can see a video clip of the show here (thanks to Ed for the link.) He was gone before I got there.

But the day wasn't a total loss. A couple of hours later Junot Diaz stopped by to sign stock of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao before his big reading uptown that night (thanks to Richard Grayson for the write-up), and he kissed me on the cheek not once, but twice.

And in the evening Edward P. Jones was in the store, fresh from an interview on Leonard Lopate (thanks to Maud for the link) to introduce writers from the anthology he just edited, New Stories from the South 2007.

Just one of those days, I guess.

Brooklyn Lit Life: Richard Grayson

Richard Grayson is the real thing: born and raised in Brooklyn, he's equally at home in the old neighborhood and the hipster revival. His name may be new to you, but he's been writing fiction and nonfiction since the 1970s, and he often writes about current literary events in New York on his MySpace blog. I'm grateful that he followed up on our earlier email correspondence by writing about his memories of the bookstores of Brooklyn; his knowledge of the borough, and his love for it, is deep and wide.

Brooklyn Lit Life Interview
Richard Grayson

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.

I’ve been writing stories since the early 1970s. They’ve been collected, rather haphazardly, into various books, but I never intended to write any books. My first three books, published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were all the result of publishers contacting me, taking all the stories I sent them, and working them into collections. Later books were published pretty much the same way. I also write memoir and other nonfiction, from humor pieces to op-ed opinion pieces, and in 2004 McSweeney’s published my diary as a Florida congressional candidate on its website and I turned that into a book.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?

I was born here, in Brownsville, in 1951 and grew up in East Flatbush, Gravesend and then mostly in a neighborhood known variously as Flatlands, Old Mill Basin and Kings Plaza (after the mall opened a few blocks away in 1970). Most of the kids I went to public schools and Brooklyn College with couldn’t wait to escape the borough for someplace nicer. I loved growing up here, in a place half urban, half suburban. Our house had a swimming pool, I started driving as soon as I could, yet – unlike most of the kids in my neighborhood – I adored going into “the city,” as we called it. But the future of the borough looked pretty grim in the 1970s, and by the 1980s I was living in Florida and spending most summers on the Upper West Side.

I’ve lived most of my life in Florida and other Sun Belt states and came back here last year. However, I did have brief sublets in the intervening years in Sheepshead Bay, Park Slope and Williamsburg and visited often, so I never really lost touch with Brooklyn.

Brooklyn’s my hometown. I think it’s greatly instructive to return to your hometown when you’re over 55.

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 think it’s a kind of feistiness, perhaps engendered by a sense of inferiority to Manhattan. Everyone in the US and maybe the world had heard of Brooklyn. I grew up on all those World War II movies where there always seemed to be a Brooklyn guy in the platoon, with his funny accent and street-smart ways. Obviously that’s morphed a lot in the past half-century, but I think a version of it remains.

There’s also the sense of diversity that I grew up with, although neighborhoods were always quite distinct. I always enjoyed that and liked to travel on buses around Brooklyn outside my own neighborhood, which was very Italian and Jewish. As a kid, I was so nerdy that I liked to collect bus transfers from the different lines. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been continuing to ride the buses. A whole lot of non-brownstone Brooklyn exists that many newer and younger residents reading this probably rarely see.

I love living in Williamsburg, but when I was growing up and even in college, I felt sorry for people who had to live in what I thought was a run-down, decaying neighborhood. Some of my friends who did grow up around here don’t have such good memories and don’t enjoy coming back.

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.

I’m in Williamsburg now, pretty much at the center of things, with a short walk to everything the neighborhood has to offer. It’s exhilarating to live here. I like the energy, but to an old-time Brooklynite, a lot of what’s going on is pretty amusing.

I live in a house that belongs to friends I’ve known since forever, on a block I’ve come to for many years, and the older residents are the ones I relate to well – though I go to a lot of the readings and concerts and performances and art galleries and McCarren pool events where I see mostly younger people – I hate to use the term hipsters, but what are you going to do?

But I also feel comfortable all over Brooklyn because I know these neighborhoods well. Last week I was one of very few white people at an Anita Baker concert at Wingate Field in a neighborhood I grew up in. My great-grandparents owned a house a few blocks away, and innumerable other relatives were nearby. I feel I belong in Bensonhurst or Gowanus or the Heights or Canarsie or Kensington because I have personal history in all those places.

I was on my old block – East 56th Street between Avenue O and Fillmore – a few days ago, and the neighborhood seems even more idyllic than it used to be, a great place to grow up even if the subway was a 20-minute bus ride away. There was a moving van in front of the house next to door to ours, and I heard the family out front with their stuff speaking Creole. So I asked a teenage boy looking bored off to the side, “Sak pasé, are you moving in or out?” Out, he said, to Florida – where they can get a house twice as big for half the money. Just like my family when they moved to Florida in 1979. My parents had lived in Brooklyn all their lives.

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?

Thirty years ago, when I was in my twenties, the long-range prediction was that Brooklyn would go the way of Buffalo, Detroit, and St. Louis. There were contrary voices that proved more prescient but the predominant mood was gloom over the decay and a nostalgia for the gloried past of the Dodgers, street stickball, eggcreams, etc.

I try to deal with the changes I’ve seen in some of my stories in And to Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street, such as the title story which alternates between 2005 and the 1970s, or in quasi-memoirs like “The Lost Movie Theaters of Southeastern Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach,” that deal with some of the things that are gone (I’m writing something now about the old Norwegian neighborhood in Bay Ridge that’s mostly disappeared), and in current-day pieces like “Diary of a Brooklyn Cyclones Hot Dog.”

I always thought Brooklyn was a cool place, and I think it will continue to be a cool place. On the other hand, I’ve lived in other parts of the country, and Brooklyn is far from being the only cool place.

I suspect that a good portion of the future literature and art of Brooklyn won’t come from where you’d expect but from non-brownstone Brooklyn, with its immigrants from all over the world. The diversity is breathtaking when I ride the bus down Coney Island Avenue or Third Avenue or Church Avenue.

Two kinds of immigration that saved Brooklyn: the obvious one I just mentioned –fostered after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler, who represented Brooklyn in Congress for fifty years, got the landmark 1965 immigration bill passed – and the migration of the artistic and professional classes into neighborhoods that started becoming trendy as early as the late 1970s right in the midst of the general decay.

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?

Growing up, I loved books about other kids in Brooklyn: first and foremost, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and then Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, Irving Shulman’s The Amboy Dukes and later Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and Jay Neugeboren’s An Orphan’s Tale.

Other great older Brooklyn books are Daniel Fuchs’ Williamsburg Trilogy, Wallace Markfield’s hilarious To an Early Grave (later turned into the film Bye Bye Braverman), Aflfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, Michael Stephens’ Brooklyn Book of the Dead, Jack Pulaski’s The St. Veronica Gig Stories (a terrific Williamsburg book), Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete and Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant.

Fiction writers whose works emblemize Brooklyn for me also include Irwin Shaw, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen (whose photo I used to pass every day changing classes at Midwood), Gilbert Sorrentino, James Purdy, Paula Fox, Pete Hamill, Gloria Naylor, Jonathan Baumbach, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Jane Schwartz, Thomas Glynn, Jacqueline Woodson, Pietro di Donato, Thomas Boyle, Edwidge Danticat, and Robert Greenfield.

In poetry, Marianne Moore and later Harvey Shapiro, Robert Hershon and Martin Espada. In drama, Arthur Miller, whose mother used to play cards with my great-grandmother, as well as Donald Margulies.

The best recent Brooklyn writing for me has come from Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster. Touré told me about a novel he’s working on that sounds wonderful.

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 got an incredible literary education at J.H.S. 284 in East Flatbush, at Midwood High School, and then at Brooklyn College, where I studied with writers who themselves had grown up in Brooklyn. Despite coming from a working class background where the only college graduates I knew were my teachers and my doctors, since I was very little I assumed living in Brooklyn meant I could become a writer.

In my story “Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn,” I explore my love for the libraries here. But there were also numerous places to buy books in Brooklyn in the old days, when all bookstores were independent bookstores. The one I liked best was a tiny store, The Book Worm, on Flatbush Avenue off Church, a couple of stores down from the Dutch Reformed Church and across from Erasmus Hall High School and the Astor Theatre, which played foreign and “art” movies. I’d go into The Book Worm with a twenty-dollar bill that my father or grandfather had given me and buy loads of Bantam and Signet paperbacks for a quarter or 35 cents each – later they got more expensive, of course, but still relatively cheap. I can recall buying The Crying of Lot 49 there, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Franny and Zooey and Manhattan Transfer.

But it seemed every neighborhood at least the next best thing: the stationery stores, family-owned drug stores and little holes-in-the-wall that sold cheap mass market paperbacks, including the “classics” lines with everything from Greek drama and Shakespeare to Mark Twain and James Joyce, along with the latest bestsellers (and yes, I read a lot of wonderful crap, too).

There was the My Friends Bookstore that also had used comics on Clarendon Road east of Flatbush Avenue and a store whose name I can’t remember on Kings Highway around East 18th Street owned by two young lesbians who introduced me to writers like Rita Mae Brown and Colette and Jean Rhys. Not far away, just off Kings Highway on Coney Island Avenue, there was a little used bookstore run by the mother of a Brooklyn College classmate that had some odd and interesting volumes. And Sandy Tischoff’s Mostly Books on Cortelyou Road was like a country store gossip exchange for Flatbush that lasted until the 1990s.

Earlier, first-class book departments existed in the department stores like Macy’s on Flatbush Avenue and at E.J. Korvette and Abraham & Straus on Fulton Street, where I worked in my uncle’s slacks store in my early teens, and where I’d spend my money during lunch hours. There were also a couple of musty Fourth Avenue-style used bookstores one block south of Fulton on Livingston Street and another one on Montague Street in the Heights and on Utica Avenue near Carroll Street in Crown Heights that also had comics (I remember buying the first issue of Green Lantern there). A candy store every few blocks on Avenue N and many other avenues sold the comic books I was crazy about.

The Barrons and Barchas bookstores on Hillel Place sold not only college textbooks but also some great literary books when trade paperbacks started becoming the norm.
And there were the really good Community Bookstores in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, where a few stores down on Seventh Avenue there was also the Second Story Bookstore whose yellow steps said something like “Don’t be lazy, books are waiting for you upstairs.”

But by the time I started Brooklyn College in 1969 and taught at LIU downtown in 1975, most of the venues that sold good books had closed. In 1970 when Kings Plaza opened, Waldenbooks – the big shopping mall chain -- had a store there. It wasn’t great, but it was three blocks from my house, and they did take a lot of copies of my first book of mostly Brooklyn stories, With Hitler in New York, when it came out in 1979.

However, by then I pretty much went to Manhattan for books: Eighth Street, Gotham, Shakespeare & Company, Soho Books, Doubleday, B. Dalton, Books & Company, St. Marks, Coliseum and the rest, including a bunch of literary bookstores whose names I’ve forgotten and which are long gone.

I’m glad to see we have some new and wonderful bookstores in Brooklyn again.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?

I’m no expert on today’s scene, but I’d say the Brooklyn Book Fair, Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival, and the many reading series at a number of venues around the borough, in bars and bookstores and other places, such as at the Stain Bar, Unnameable Books and the Old Stone House. Also there are excellent literary events at the public library, at Brooklyn College (where the MFA program is now one of the best in the country), and at less-heralded venues like Medgar Evers College. 826NYC in the Slope is doing amazing things for kids. There are great organizations and publications located in Brooklyn. The borough president’s office has been very helpful, and I don’t say that just because I’ve known Marty Markowitz since his graduate student government days at BC in the early 1970s.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Double-Duty Wednesday: Links & Bookstore Visits

Link Madness (late edition)

I guess I was overcome by Labor Day laziness and forgot to blog on Monday, so here are some late and rather eclectic links.

* Author Alex Kuczynski has a somewhat smirky article in the NY Times about the contemporary book party, describing the "colossal blowouts" for books by Tina Brown, Holly Peterson, and Patricia Marx, as opposed to the warm-wine-and-skimpy-brie affairs of yesteryear. Her contention is that today's parties are hosted not by publishers, but by wealthy authors and friends of authors; hence the extravagance in hopes of garnering publicity. (Thanks to Ron at Galleycat for the link, and I'll second his notion that if it's media mentions you want, invite a blogger or two along with the glitterati!) I'm not sure I agree with Kuczynski; we've hosted some pretty swanky publisher-sponsored digs at the bookstore, and sold books offsite at several more, though there are still plenty of author-sponsored cheap wine and cheese soirees -- long may they live.

* Speaking of rich people and reading, the Times also has a slideshow of recommended wedding gifts for booklovers. Too bad this wasn't around when the ALP and I were sending out invites -- though some of these are pretty silly. We're happy with just books... or maybe some more bookshelves.

* Here's a more grassroots kind of project: the Delocator! Covered recently in Bookselling This Week (among others), the website is a tool for locating independent coffee shops, movie theaters, and bookstores in your zip code, and anyone can add a favorite. It's not a perfect system (I put in McNally Robinson's zip code and several bookstores were in there two or three times, and there were clearly some spam entries), but it's certainly a step in bring independent businesses into the internet age, and raising consciousness of the great stuff in our own communities. Give it a try -- add your favorite local spots, and discover some new ones (I just added Word, one of the newer additions to the Brooklyn bookstore scene).

* Latest in the e-book saga: Business Week reports on the Sony Reader, which is available in Borders and Best Buy, though Sony won't release sales figures, which suggests it's not doing so well. The main problem at this point, aside from some complaints about clunky design, is that e-books for the readers are only available through Sony Connect, the company's own website, and there aren't that many. Though that may change as Sony is "now planning to adopt e-book software from Adobe Systems" which will allow downloads from other outlets. What do you think, readers (small R)? Any interest in reading books on an electronic device, particularly this one? What would have to happen to make e-books relevant? And what would that mean? I love the way one commentor on this article puts it:

I am interested in where this takes us? How many trees can we save? How do authors fare or royalties when the print and production is taken out? how much cheaper can books be? They're big questions. Bring them on!

* I know one place people will be talking about these questions: the 2008 ABA Winter Institute in Louisville, Kentucky! Registration has just been opened for the January 24-27 conference and educational sessions -- it's the third annual Winter Institute, so Len Vlahos at ABA has dubbed it WI3, perhaps in reference to the increasing focus on technology. Holy cow, am I dying to go. I'll have to figure out some way to beg, steal or borrow plane and hotel fare to get in on those conversations.

Brooklyn Bookstore Visits
I had a very interesting week. I'm in the home stretch of trying to get my business plan ready for the September 14 PowerUp! deadline, and as usual at this point I feel both super-ready and like I need to go back to Square 1. So I spent some time this week visiting folks at two different (successful) Brooklyn bookstores to pick their brains a little, and enjoy the scene.

Word Books, Greenpoint
As I mentioned earlier, Word Books is one of the newest additions to the Brooklyn literary scene. Opened in March 2007 by Christine Onorati, it sits on the most Brooklyn-ish corner of Greenpoint you can imagine. Across the street is a public park with baby strollers and teenagers playing basketball; behind that is an old industrial warehouse with "GREENPOINT" stenciled in beautifully faded letters on the side; down the street is a church steeple silhouetted against the sky; a block away is the multi-lingual bustle of Greenpoint Avenue. Word occupies one of those enviable two-exposure corner lots, albeit on a quiet street in a
neighborhood that's really only accessible by the dreaded G train (one of the few subways that only serves Brooklyn and Queens, not Manhattan, it's notoriously unreliable on weekends).

I asked Christine about that, expecting to hear that her business was mostly during the evenings and weekends when folks were home from work, but her knowledge of the neighborhood put my assumptions to shame. As she's discovered living a few blocks away, there are a lot of work-at-home folks around, and they are thrilled for the chance to shop local. The shop is open from 10 to 7, and business has been tripping along steadily for these first, often precarious months. To put it in perspective, Christine told me that she ran a bookstore in a small Long Island town for about six years ("practice" for the Brooklyn store, she calls it now), and while her rent in Brooklyn has doubled what she paid there, her sales have quadrupled -- and that's just in the first six months! She emphasized the importance of knowing your neighborhood, and knowing that there are folks who want to read what you read around you -- otherwise, she says, what's the fun of stocking your store?

The store has the aura of doing small things solidly and well. The window has a beautiful stencil with the store's name and specialties, and the window displays have won prizes (i.e. the Lonely Planet display contest). There's a graphic novel section that's possibly better than the one I buy for, though half the size. Discounted books are front and center; great fiction and nonfiction line the left-hand wall. A gorgeous display of hand-selected stationary and a wall of neat locally designed T-shirts round out the sideline offerings. And the back is a slightly segregated section of kids books and toys -- very savvy from a browsing and marketing perspective.

There's also great potential for the future. A child-proof gate blocks access to the basement, which is finished just enough to hold events (the store's Harry Potter party attracted around 200 locals). Christine has plans for expanding her event series, implementing a number of book clubs, and maybe adding more retail space. Talking to her, I suddenly realized the wisdom of thinking about a bookstore in phases. Maybe you don't have to have every element in place on opening day. Maybe it's financially and even emotionally more reasonable and satisfying to think of the store as a work in progress, something that will continue to improve and expand and refine and grow every month and year. I'm grateful to Christine for her insights, and I can't wait to see how Word continues to grow.

Book Court, Boerum Hill
Downtown Brooklyn's own BookCourt is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of bookstore life: founded in 1981, the store has done a fair amount of growing already, though more is on the horizon. I stopped in on a Friday morning to get a feel for the place and talk to founders Henry Zook and Mary Gannet and their son Zack, who now works in the store as a manager. The store is one of the success stories of indie bookselling in the last quarter of the 20th century: though they had some slow years in the 1990s, when the book business seemed to falter everywhere, their neighborhood regulars never failed them, and the owners were able to buy their original building and the one next door. Mary told me that when the Barnes & Noble opened a few blocks away in 2003, business at BookCourt actually got better. By that time folks had seen what tended to happen to small bookstores when the chains moved in, and they clearly told the owners of BookCourt that they weren't going to let that happen to their store. Mary and I agreed that Brooklyn is a good place for an indie: New Yorkers can tend to be more educated about economics and the effects of shopping local, and Brooklynites often have fierce loyalties to their neighborhoods.

BookCourt's operations were interesting too; they're open until around 11 most nights, because of the restaurants and nightlife in the area, and earlier in the morning to accomodate business from the nearby courthouses and city government buildings. I spent an hour or so receiving a shipment from Perseus (something I haven't had a chance to do in a long time), and learned about the store's staffing, computer systems, and discounting policies, which seem to fall somewhere between those of a small store and a large store, in keeping with the bookstore's 1800 square foot space. This encompasses the two store fronts and basement of the first building, and the store seems larger than it is, with lots of beautiful displays, staff picks, and local Brooklyn interest books. They're the exclusive seller of a Jonathan Lethem project, Patchwork Planet, and have lots of great relationships with local authors.

Things are about to change, though. Henry and co. are in the process of building on an addition in back that will more than double the size of the store, and that will serve as expanded event space, cafe, and increased retail space. To accommodate this increased volume, they're also finishing some basement space to serve as a receiving room and offices, and will streamline some processes. More books will be moved upstairs, the children's section will be relocated and expanded, and the store will begin to stock remainders. It's an exciting time, as the renovations should be complete in a few months, and the venerable store will enter a new phase of its life.

I sat with Henry and Zack in their office/living space above the bookstore after my stint on the floor, talking about history and future, plans and precautions. BookCourt is another shining example of knowing your neighborhood, investing wisely, and creating a space for books and authors that has obviously led to long-term success. I'm grateful to Henry, Mary, Zack, and their staff for their enthusiastic support of my own bookstore dreams, and inspired by the life they have created for themselves, and I look forward to seeing the bookstore continue to mature.