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Monday
Dec152014

In Praise of the Bookseller/Cashier

Scene: Me, standing behind the checkout counter in a bookstore.
Customer: Are you a cash register?
Me: No, but I'm thinking of becoming one. I hear there's a lot of money in it.

It's a bad joke, but I'll confess I used it a few times during my tenure as a bookseller. Usually it got a laugh, or at least a smile. Not surprisingly, "the most wonderful time of the year" featured prominently in most of these encounters. 'Tis the season that tends to bring out the best and worst in customers, as well as booksellers.

Holiday shoppers at Literati in Ann Arbor, Mich.

You may have noticed.

This is just a theory, but I suspect most prospective booksellers underestimate the amount of time they'll spend as cashiers. That duty tends to be soft-pedaled during the interview process, since in this vow-of-poverty, passion-driven profession, accentuating the positive is the rule. It just makes sense to showcase the glories of handselling, the avalanche of unlimited ARCS and the distinguished company of well-read colleagues, while the interviewee clings to sugar plum visions of a "dream job," featuring serene hours lost in the stacks that are occasionally, yet gently. interrupted to handsell the perfect book to its perfect reader.

The holiday season can be a serious wake-up call. In the heat of retail battle, a little voice whispers, "This isn't what I signed up for." But quickly you learn to become the person your customers need you to be in that moment. And why not? Booksellers love their customers because they can't afford not to, and because booksellers and their patrons are nice people, mostly. In fact, the worst customer I ever dealt with as a bookseller was better than the average customer I encountered working in supermarkets. People go to grocery stores because they have to. Most go to bookstores because they want to. It's a significant difference.

Cash registers at the Last Bookstore, Los Angeles.

I was a good handseller, but I was a great cashier, having started young at the local A&P during high school. Customers used to line up at my register because I was fast, and proud of it. One of my favorite chapters in Studs Terkel's Working is the profile of Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker who says: "It's hard work, but I like it. This is my life.... I'm just movin'--the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register.... You just keep goin', one, two, one, two. If you've got that rhythm, you're a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you're turning your head back and forth.... If somebody interrupts to ask me the price, I'll answer while I'm movin'. Like playin' a piano."

I get that.

And so I decided it would be appropriate to ring in the holiday season with words of praise for you, the bookseller/cashier. In the crazed, checkout counter nucleus of the holiday rush, you just handle it as those customers stampede your way. Often you wonder how so many people manage to arrive at your cash register simultaneously. And then they keep coming, wave after wave, until--despite your best intentions and the spirit of the season--they begin to merge into a single, multi-limbed organism, and what you see when you look out from behind the counter are piles of books, sidelines, toys, calendars, greeting cards and imposing stuffed animals bigger than the child they are meant for. You're in a Ralph Steadman drawing, and there's no escape.

Cashiers at Politics & Prose in Washington. D.C., stand ready to help

A bookseller/cashier is not a specialist. The questions hit you from all sides and some of them are repeated dozens of times: Is Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven as good as they say? Does Amy Poehler's Yes Please come in paperback? Why isn't Cheryl Strayed's Wild with the fiction bestsellers? Do you carry The Innovators by Isaac Walker? (Do you mean Walter Isaacson? No, that's not what I wrote down.) Could you page my wife, husband, kid? Where's your rest room? You are asked to wrap the unwrappable and box the unboxable.

Standing alertly behind your besieged cash register, you're the only representative of the publishing industry that most of these people will ever meet. So you do your best to smile and chat while your hands repeat a series of long-practiced, fluid and instinctive movements with the dexterity of a casino card dealer.

Sometimes, in rare moments of illusory calm, you take a break to straighten shelves and displays. You restock. You fling yourself recklessly into the throng to handsell your favorite books of the year. And you do all of this without abandoning your base camp--that at once cursed and blessed cash register. As Babe Secoli so wisely said, "I enjoy it somethin' terrible." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2405.

Sunday
Dec072014

Sacred Words & the 'Acted Book'

"I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead." --from The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

When I heard Henry (Ewan McGregor) speak those lines Tuesday night during a performance of the Broadway revival of Stoppard's play, it occurred to me that the challenge of getting the right words in the right order while adapting a book for the stage must present an intriguing challenge all its own.

Exhibit A in that regard might be the new film Birdman, in which Michael Keaton's character struggles to wrench a stage production from Raymond Carver's short stories.

As the unofficial resident show biz correspondent at Shelf Awareness, I spend a lot of time poring over articles about movie and TV projects based on books, but theatrical adaptations tend to get less attention. This despite the fact that, as the Guardian recently observed, "a new trend is threatening the long dominance of the staged film--the acted book."

I've seen and loved several book-to-stage adaptations in recent years, including Fiona Shaw in Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary and Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. High on my must-see list for the spring is the Royal Shakespeare Company's six-hour, two-play production of Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, based on Hilary Mantel's award-winning novels.

Staging acted books is a complex process. The Guardian noted that "the mistake--on either side of the footlights--is to think that the show is a walking-and-talking book. The premier modern theatrical translator-adapter Mike Poulton, whose work included Morte D'Arthur and The Canterbury Tales before taking on the Mantels for the RSC, warns in the preface to the published texts of the Cromwell plays: 'It might be thought that the sheer length of the two books [1,007 pages] might present problems. I never thought so. The way a novel is structured cannot be reproduced on the stage... they had to be completely reimagined as plays.' "

A stage version of Katherine Boo's National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers was written by playwright David Hare and is being produced by London's National Theatre. Boo told the Telegraph that during the adaptation process, Hare wasn't always open to her interventions, though she understood his reasoning: "On the first draft I made all sorts of suggestions. He took some of them, he didn't take the others. It's his work of art; it's not my medium. I don't have any intuitive grasp of theatre-making."

Simon Stephens adapted Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is now on Broadway. "The first thing he did was detach himself from Christopher's 'seductive voice' and make a list of the actual events in the story," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Then he rearranged them so they occurred chronologically, instead of through flashbacks. Then he transcribed all the moments of direct speech in the book, which were few, because so much of the book is Christopher's interior monologue." Stephens observed: "Everyone who read the book falls in love with Christopher's brain. Our job was to take the audience inside Christopher's head."

A hit musical based on Alison Bechdel's Fun Home opened Off-Broadway in 2013 and will transfer to Broadway next spring. In an interview with the Cut, Bechdel was asked whether she had had any anxieties about how Fun Home would be adapted for the stage.

"I had no idea how anyone would turn this comic book into a musical. And that's partly why I agreed to it, honestly," she replied. "There had been a movie option that I said no to, because I couldn't bear the idea of a bad movie being made about my life. But, I figured if it were a bad musical, it would just disappear. It wouldn't stick around the way a movie would.

"I'm a very casual consumer of musicals. It's not like I'm passionate about the form or even know very much about the form, so I felt like it was very much alien territory. And that's partly, again, why I felt okay about doing it--because it was such a different form, it was easier for me to let go of it."  

Speaking about the musical version of his novel The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem said he had been "led to this conclusion that I never would have imagined without this experience: That theater of a certain kind is closer to the art that I practice than film, for instance, which is so literal and demanding. If you have a scene in a jail, you have to do it, you have to show the jail, a convincing set, whereas, here, we don't have to. We can let people imagine."

All it takes is getting the right words in the right order. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2400.

Sunday
Nov232014

When #SmallBusinessSaturday Is Also Game Day

Like all indie booksellers, Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., must account for the unpredictable (rogue weather systems, late book deliveries, staff health concerns, etc.) in preparing for the holiday season shopping frenzy that officially begins next weekend. But with the University of Georgia's football stadium, where the Bulldogs will face in-state rival Georgia Tech on Small Business Saturday, less than two miles from her store, her situation has an added layer of complexity.

On Tuesday, Geddis solicited ideas from her customers, noting that home games have "REALLY hurt the bookshop. This past Saturday (Auburn game), our sales were about 20% of what they were the previous Saturday."

"To ever present myself and my business as anything less than wonderfully successful is a tricky proposition, so things like this must be handled very lightly," she told me. "When I created this Facebook post, I made a point to let people know that we're doing fine and even a really crappy month (let alone a few crappy Saturdays) won't come close to doing us in. So I make a point to reassure our customers, to let them know that we value them and their decision to shop at Avid--and to let them know we value their opinions as well.

"Because people see bookstores as an especially precarious and precious type of business, I have to tread even more lightly than I might if I had a different kind of storefront. In general though, we keep our financial information private while being positive and honest with customers."

Avid is approximately a 30-minute walk from the stadium. Geddis noted that on game days, "with the exception of particularly rivalrous matches, it's almost always possible to find parking within a city block of Avid, but that can be a hard sell to the uninitiated who are used to shopping at big box stores with parking lots as big as the stores themselves."

Janet Geddis (photo: Shannon Adams)

A "longtime townie" herself, she understands people's reluctance to venture downtown, but is concerned for local businesses that depend heavily on holiday season retail sales. And with the next two Georgia games at home, the immediate challenge is: "How do we make sure we still have customers on those days when our regulars and newbies are either at football get-togethers or are avoiding said get-togethers like the plague?"

Her patrons responded with numerous ideas, including game day tailgating displays out front, online promotions, and even convincing Georgia player and noted bibliophile Malcolm Mitchell to switch allegiance from B&N to Avid. "I don't want to burst anyone's bubble, but a good number of the suggestions are things we've tried before," Geddis said, though she indulged my "helpful" recommendation--a PedalPub Party Bike to shuttle customers to the store. "Ha! I love that idea! I will file that away for sure."

Of all the potential solutions she received, a "during-the-game flash sale was one of my favorites," she said. Going forward, Geddis is "definitely leaning toward a special event between the kickoff and the beginning of the fourth quarter, though I'm reticent to make a habit of giving discounts: I believe books are valuable and worth their cover prices. So we may instead turn up the radio, offer some publisher ARCs and/or other freebie books, and have complimentary drinks for shoppers. That's definitely more Avid-style than a deep discount promotion. We may do a promotion online to coincide with this, and not just to increase sales. I find that many of my customers far and wide still don't realize that we have a website where you can buy virtually any book in print. I want to increase awareness of that side of the business, and a one-day sale online might help get our website more exposure."

And on Small Business Saturday? "One issue we have had is trying to get some of our favorite local authors to come out to be guest booksellers for the Indies First event. Many people would love to be booksellers for a few hours on this day, but the game and its traffic may prevent them from participating, which is a bummer. I do think the Saturday game will have me put a little more effort toward Black Friday, and we will make a special push to get our customers in walkable neighborhoods to visit the shop on #SBS."

Geddis praised her sales reps for being "particularly helpful in brainstorming with me whenever I confess that we have encountered a hurdle. They know my region and other indies' business patterns perhaps better than anyone else (excepting Wanda Jewell, the head of SIBA and knower of all things in the Southern bookselling world). My reps have given me some great tips and have also put me in touch with other bookstores that have similar situations."

She also noted, however, that the "confusing thing about special promotions and/or events during game days is that they are unpredictable. I guess that's the nature of bookstores overall, though--you just never can be sure what events and promotions will be hits and what will be misses. We just keep trying things out and see how they go." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2392

Sunday
Nov162014

Just Say No to Robot Booksellers

I blame Joe Queenan for sending me down the robot bookselling rabbit hole this week. "Are We Really Ready for Robot Salespeople?" was his column's headline in the Wall Street Journal recently. "Are there areas where robotic personnel would be a welcome addition to the U.S. economy?" he wrote. "Sure. Robots could easily replace bookstore clerks, dental hygienists, bouncers and college-admissions officers."

"Bookstore clerks" might be robot-replaceable, but not great indie booksellers, whose unpredictable book/author obsessions, evangelistic prime directive ("You must read this!") and emotional ties to their local communities do not necessarily lend themselves to seamless robotic replication.

On the other hand, I'd have to concede that managing robot "bookstore clerks" might be less complicated (until the inevitable robot uprising) than managing indie booksellers, which can seem more like herding bookstore cats. For example, bookstore clerk/robots could easily be programmed to wear a store uniform, while anyone who's ever been in a staff meeting debating the potential introduction of name badges knows all about fierce, if relatively quiet, bookseller uprisings.

That said, our robotic retail future appears to be at hand. Lowe's has unleashed OSHbots, which will "be able to communicate with customers in multiple languages and remotely connect with expert employees... to answer specific project questions." And "food giant" Nestle is deploying "1,000 'emotional' humanoids as sales clerks across its Japanese stores. We are sure that our customers will enjoy shopping and being entertained by robots."

Then there are Amazon's robots and Echos and drones, oh my! From Tuesday's New York Times: "In a promotional video, Echo had aspects of both Mary Poppins and HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with perhaps a touch of The Matrix."

Earlier this year, a designer envisioned the bookstore of the future as "niche, retro, social, inky, bibulous, but with only a few books to buy off the shelf. The idea is that you make your own, with the help of floating robots--choosing the paper, ink, font, leather, even gold leaf--on antique presses and binders."
 
John Forsyth, chair of the Australian bookstore chain Dymocks, told the Financial Review "the potential for robotics is massive, but that will take us some time to identify." He wasn't referring specifically to booksellers, but still.
 
As is often the case with future worlds, the warning signs have been around for years. From the digital/robotic archives of the New York Times:

1983: At the New York Is Book Country Fair, "McGraw-Hill Bookstore will have a computer activated by touching its screen. Omni magazine will welcome guests with a robot." And at the American Booksellers Convention in Dallas, booksellers lined up to hug "a red robot who not only walks but also talks a blue streak.... a visible reminder that computers are now an important part of American book publishing and bookselling."

1980: At the ABA meeting in Chicago, a "specter is haunting publishing.... What will bidding goodbye to Gutenberg lead to? The 'paperless' book, say the futurists. And what will the old-fashioned publishers, editors and authors be creating for their new hardware? Answer: not books but 'software' to feed the electronic robots."

1977: The ABA show in San Francisco featured "a five-foot-tall robot selling The Encyclopedia of How It Works... The robot's electric voice asked, 'Would you like to know how I work?' And gave back the answer: 'Get mommy to buy my book.' "

1930: "A grotesque figure" spoke during the ABA's dinner. "Two glassy eyes, one green and one red, stared from its flat face.... A row of little bulbs where the collarbone should have been were illuminated a grid-glow tube in the thorax flashed. Then this mechanical man began to speak.... Televox asked, almost coyly, 'I wonder if there are any questions.' 'What is your favorite book,' asked J.P. McEvoy, the toastmaster. 'My favorite book," responded Televox. "is Is Sex Necessary?"

Where will robotic handselling ultimately lead us as a civilization? You've seen that movie. As film trailer voice-overs like to say, "In a world where..."

Imagine robots working for a few years as bookstore clerks until they finish their novels and become robot authors. Far-fetched? Last month, organizers of Japan's Hoshi Prize for science fiction "decided to open up entries to aliens and computers," hoping that next year's competition "will see stories created by artificial intelligences going up against those written by humans, with judges to be unaware of who--or what--wrote an entry until the winner is chosen."

Are they already among us? Just ask yourself this: Would a human mind consciously link these four professions: "bookstore clerks, dental hygienists, bouncers and college-admissions officers"? Or did a robot "easily replace" Joe Queenan? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2386.

Sunday
Nov092014

Regional Education Panels: 'Ideas that Work'

"This is the one time we all get to legally plagiarize and steal from our colleagues," said moderator Andy Nettle of Back of Beyond Books, Moab, Utah, in 2011 at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show, during an education session titled "Best Thing I Did this Year." I've attended several variations on this theme of sharing great bookseller ideas, retail and otherwise, over the years, and always come away from them impressed by the braided spirits of creativity and partnership they represent.

Jessilynn Norcross

"The object of this morning is to collectively share ideas. Some of the best ideas can come from the person sitting next to you," Jessilynn Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., said last month to open the Heartland Fall Forum's education plenary session "Ideas That Work (and Those That Don't): "Bring one thing that worked for you as a bookseller over the past year and one thing that didn't and we'll share in our common missteps and success!"

She began the conversation by sharing her initial skepticism earlier this year when her husband and co-owner, Matt Norcross, was lobbying for the bookstore to sell vinyl records and turntables. "Finally, I said, 'How big was this investment going to be?' " she recalled. "It ended up completely taking off.... Our town currently doesn't have a music store. We identified a need." The bookstore is even getting into vinyl early Christmas spirit this week. She cited Baker & Taylor for vinyl and Deerpark Distributors for turntables as the bookstore's primary sources, adding that the margin is healthy in this category.

Many of the "ideas that worked" shared by booksellers involved online marketing. A quick poll of the audience found that more than half had an active Twitter account, a fact that would have seemed unlikely, if not downright startling, just a few years ago. Among the online ideas shared:

  • Text marketing for store event reminders.
  • Using a social media company (SnapRetail and Boutique Window were noted as options). One bookseller praised this alternative for "doing your social media for you because I don't have a social media person on staff."
  • Posting photos of booksellers with their staff picks and links to the authors' Facebook or Twitter pages (and don't forget to put those magic symbols # and @ to good use). 
  • Promoting through photos of local "celebrities." A bookstore posted a pic of their UPS delivery guy posing for a bookish mugshot during Banned Books Week.

Strategies for dealing with the never-cresting wave of ARCs sent to bookstores generated many suggestions, including the seasonally appropriate idea that booksellers could wrap ARCs during the holiday season (even better, wrap them in Indiebound flyers) and offer them to customers as gifts. Other suggestions:

  • Always "brand" the ARCs you're giving out with a self-inking store stamp.
  • When someone buys a title from the staff picks display, give them a wrapped ARC.
  • Develop ARC reading groups in local schools, or solicit reviews from students to showcase on social media.
  • Use ARCs on Blind Date With a Book displays as giveaways.

Speaking of Blind Date with a Book, Norcross observed that the promotion, which "a lot of stores started doing for Valentine's Day, has really been a big, big hit," quickly evolving into a year-round promotional option for many bookstores.

Jill Miner of Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, Mich., noted that she has an official store typeface for all signage, and uses inexpensive picture frames to showcase "the important things we want to communicate. If it's not frameworthy, scraps of paper won't do."

Reading groups came up several times during the session. I particularly liked the idea of short-run, pop-up book clubs such as the Summer Reading Rainbow, which Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., created around Rainbow Rowell's works last summer ("It's going to have a beginning, middle and end," said Left Bank's Jarek Steele.). And Nicola's Books, Ann Arbor, Mich., has hosted "Book in a Bar" and "Noir at the Bar" events. "It's a great way to find a niche that you're into and get a book club going," said Lynn Riehl. "The publisher is your partner in this and they want you to be successful."

At the end of this session, one question remained unanswered: What were the ideas that didn't work? Maybe it's a positive sign that success, rather than failure, was on everyone's minds at HFF. And maybe the best takeaway from this fall's regional bookseller shows would be that so many great ideas are working and, as Andy Nettle advised, available to "legally plagiarize." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2381.