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Saturday
Feb112017

Valentine's Day Bookshop Sampler

My favorite headline for the 2017 edition of Bookshop Valentine's Day: "Kim Kardashian skips Super Bowl fun to shop for 'Valentine's Day books for Northie' in deserted store." Actually, my real favorite is not bookish at all: "Love is in the air at the Valentine's Day Digester Egg Tour at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant."

Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colorado, displays VD merchandise.

Am I a cynic? Maybe, just a little, though I'm also fascinated by the varieties of Valentine's Day experience that indie booksellers take advantage of during what is actually the cruelest month (apologies to T.S. Eliot). Merchandising cards, gifts, candy, "blind dates with books," rugs and more keeps the registers ringing for a "holiday" that, as the American Independent Business Alliance noted, "is a big deal for many indie businesses.... Go Local for Valentine's Day! About 60% of people in North America make Valentine's Day purchases each year, totaling about $20 billion."

There's also a political edge to Valentine's Day 2017 in the book world, including the Leaders Are Readers project: "This Valentine's Day, share our love of literature and hopes for a better world by burying the Oval Office in a mountain of great books. In the process, we'll support local bookstores and the publishing industry."

Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., invited people to stop by its Prince Ave. store "during the next week to decorate Valentines for refugees! You write it, we'll mail it to Jubilee Partners, a group in Comer, Ga., that has provided over 3,000 refugees from war-torn countries a safe place to learn English and adjust to their new home. #refugeesarewelcome #allarewelcome #jubileepartners #avidloves #valentines #avidactivism #avidonprince #avidgivesback #refugeeswelcome".

In a letter e-mailed to customers yesterday, Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, observed: "As Valentine's Day approaches, our bookstores are more determined than ever to show support and love for everyone in our community, no matter their opinions, background, race or national origin. In this spirit, we will be donating 20% of all sales this weekend to the ACLU of Connecticut and Rhode Island, WARM Center of Westerly, and the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. We believe that this support will show our love for our country and its freedoms."

At Malaprop's Bookstore/Café, Asheville, N.C., where "book valentines are now taking over our computers," a sidewalk sandwich board asked: "Need something for a love? Feeling frustrated with the Gov.?"

Good stuff. And here's a sampler of what some other indie bookstores are up to this Valentine's Day:

"Did someone say open bar?" asked WORD Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y. "Come out to Villain for our second annual Galentine's Day Romance Bash featuring raffle giveaways, drinking games, hilarious conversation, and more with authors Sarah Maclean, Maya Rodale, Suleikha Snyder, and Damon Suede. This panel will be moderated by WORD's Romance Book Group leader Madeline Caldwell. It's going to be a PARTY."

McLean & Eakin Bookstore, Petoskey, Mich., noted: "Let's face it, Valentine's Day is not for everyone.... It is, after all, an arbitrary day that is supposed to be fun. If it's not fun for you, forget about it! Lots of other historical things happened on February 14th. The state of Oregon became the 33rd state, the first personal computer was revealed, and the first GPS went into orbit. All of those have a lot more impact on your life today than whether or not you celebrate Valentine's Day this year. Here are some traditional, and not-so-traditional Valentine's picks for you to peruse."

For the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo., "every day is a love affair with authors and stories of every genre, and in honor of that, we are dedicating the month of February to the authors we love. Throughout the month we will be sharing letters written by our staff and booksellers to express their respect, adoration and affection for the writers who have lifted them up, inspired them, and propelled them down the path to becoming the wonderful and passionate bibliophiles they are today."

"With Valentine's Day coming up, we thought it might be an appropriate time of year to share some of our staff members' favorite love stories," Brilliant Books, Traverse City, Mich., observed. "Of course, we've got a very eclectic group of readers on staff, so their selections are just as unique. From adorable and charming to heartbreakingly beautiful, these love stories span the full spectrum of relationships. What better gift for your special someone this February 14th?"

Speaking of staff picks, New Zealand's Wardini Books, Havelock North, asked: "How about this for Valentine's Day guys and gals? You can't really go past Amy's succinct description!" And another Kiwi shop, Time Out Bookstore in Auckland, offered an alternative strategy with a balloon that says: "Screw Valentine's Day. Go to bed with a good book."

Ultimately, however, I think Greenlight Bookstore summed up Valentine's Day best in its e-newsletter this week: "And whether you love the holiday or hate it, books make everything better."

--Publiished by Shelf Awareness, issue #2935

Saturday
Feb112017

Howard Frank Mosher--No Stranger in the Kingdom

Howard Frank Mosher

This is how I learned about Howard Frank Mosher's death: On Sunday, I was walking down a long hallway in the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis during ABA's Winter Institute when a familiar voice called my name. I turned to see Jenny Lyons of the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury. During the 1990s, we had worked together at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center. Jenny told me that Howard had died that morning.

Then Northshire's co-owner Chris Morrow suddenly appeared from around a corner and there we were, three Vermonters at a conference in Minnesota, talking quietly about a man we had all admired (and even better, genuinely liked) while some of the nearly 700 booksellers in attendance at Wi12 passed by us unaware of this brief, impromptu ceremony.

His death was not a shock. We knew Howard had been in hospice care. On both his personal and official Facebook pages recently, he had shared the sad news with friends and readers through a post that began, in classic understated Mosher style: "Well, the best laid plans, as they say."

I first met Howard in 1994, when he came to the Northshire for an event to launch Northern Borders. After that introduction, I knew I had some catching up to do and read Disappearances, Where the Rivers Flow North, Marie Blythe and A Stranger in the Kingdom. I've been one of his readers ever since. But more than that, I admired the guy. He was good people. As a native Vermonter, I was drawn to his stories about a part of "my" state he knew better than I did. Being a Vermont native also made me, by definition, a tougher audience, since Howard, who was originally from upstate New York, had to overcome my resistance to outsiders. He did.

Mosher reading at Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, Vt.

The outpouring of remembrances has been compelling. Vermont Public Radio featured "a celebration" of his life. Author Chris Bohjalian described him as "one of the most generous novelists I know." Don Bredes cited his willingness to "advocate energetically for an unpublished hopeful and promote the efforts of independent booksellers everywhere." Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, wrote: "New England is a little duller this week without Howard Frank Mosher’s brightness."

"Howard was a dear friend of the New England bookselling community," the New England Independent Booksellers Association's NEIBA News observed in a tribute that featured many other voices, including Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier ("We will miss his smile, his charm, his unwavering love of the NEK and of course, his books."), Dick Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton, N.Y. (Howard was "a nearly perfect gentleman who wrote with fine style about what good writers must--the things that they know and experience in life."), and Richard Russo ("If we can somehow make it in the world without him, it'll be because he taught us how.").

In its e-newsletter yesterday, the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick wrote that Howard "was a customer of ours, usually calling in orders that we would mail to him at his home in Irasburg. When he called, he would be full of excitement to share a recommendation of a new author or book he'd discovered. The next time he called, he would ask, 'Did you have a chance to read (insert title here)?' Or he would have a funny story to share, maybe an interaction with a big-city publicist or a chain bookstore where he stopped for a reading. That story would be punctuated by a guffaw of laughter he just couldn't hold in, and you had to laugh when Howard laughed--the pleasure he took in telling these stories was infectious."

In 2015, when I interviewed Howard for a column highlighting his support of independent bookstores, he told me: "I don't think I've ever had an unpleasant experience at an indie bookstore." He spoke at length about the generosity, importance and dedication of indies; their crucial role in community building and how they "keep the culture going." He said he believed it would not have been possible to have his career as an author without the longtime support of indies.

I last saw Howard at NEIBA's fall trade show in September. His novel God's Kingdom had been a finalist for the New England Book Award, and in brief remarks at the awards dinner he offered his thanks to the booksellers "for all you've done for clueless scribblers like me and for millions of readers throughout New England. Thank you so much for everything you've done for constitutional rights."

Obituaries for children's authors often deploy the adjective "beloved," though you rarely see it for authors of adult books. But Northshire Bookstore co-founder Barbara Morrow used it in her piece for the store's e-newsletter yesterday, noting: "One of Vermont's most beloved and prolific authors was Howard Mosher, who--shockingly and sadly--died this past Sunday of cancer, surrounded by his family in his beloved Northeast Kingdom. He visited us just last fall, when he drove 3 1/2 hours each way to join the Northshire family to celebrate our 40th anniversary.... Howard Mosher was a Vermont treasure, and there is no better tribute to him than to get lost in one of his books depicting the world as he saw it. His new book, Points North, will be published in the coming months. Howard, we love you."

It's a good word, beloved, though Howard might have considered it a little over the top when applied to him. I'll use it anyway. Beloved Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher was a fine writer... and a good guy.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2930

Friday
Jan272017

ABA Wi01: Once Upon a Time...

It's quite possible that while you are reading this Friday morning, I'm on a flight to Minneapolis, where I'll have the pleasure of covering the 12th annual ABA Winter Institute with several of my Shelf Awareness colleagues.

I've been thinking about how far WI has come in just 11 years, which is probably what sparked that "once upon a time" headline above. On August 8, 2005, Shelf Awareness reported "the ABA will hold its first annual Winter Education Institute on January 26 and 27 in Long Beach, Calif. Free to all ABA members and staff, the Institute will feature education programming ABA put on at BEA and some new sessions; it is for both new and veteran booksellers. The program includes a 'What Are You Reading?' breakfast (its lunch equivalent at BEA is highly popular), a welcome lunch, an evening reception and an independent retailing luncheon."

What were you doing 11 years ago? Maybe you were at the first Winter Institute. I wasn't. In fact, I was still a few months away from joining Shelf Awareness, but this week I found myself time traveling through the archives to explore the origin story of WI01 (though it wasn't called that at the time, of course).

On December 23, Shelf Awareness reported that 260 booksellers from 170 stores had registered for the first Winter Institute. By January 26, 2006, WI01 finally opened "with a striking number of attendees--altogether 360 people have registered for the event," more than double the 150 that then-ABA CEO Avin Domnitz had said the organization would consider a "great amount."

The January 30, 2006 edition of Shelf Awareness featured the first of several pieces on the inaugural conference, under the headline: "Grade for ABA's First Winter Institute: A+." The piece noted that the nearly 400 attendees "had nothing but praise for the event. The mood was relaxed but intense, and many remarked on how easy it was to talk shop and socialize. Several industry veterans went so far as to call it the best bookseller-oriented event they had ever attended."

That's how it all began. In the archives, I found many tidbits that were, after more than decade, intriguing in both prospect and retrospect. Here's a sampling:

• "The seminars, most of which were similar to ones presented at BEA, emphasized business principles, how to increase sales, and such current topics as buy local programs and what independents can learn from independent businesses in other industries...."

• "One of the most striking sessions was the Emerging Leaders late-evening meeting at which many people, young and old, discussed the difficulties younger booksellers encounter. Relatively low wages and a lack of room for advancement at many bookstores were familiar themes. But as expressed by passionate, articulate and intelligent booksellers, the problems took on a more personal, more powerful form. One particularly poignant moment came when a young buyer at a large independent said that at BEA and other gatherings, even her peers at comparable stores don't treat her with much respect. Of course, the problem of who will be 'the next generation' of booksellers is all the more important nowadays because of the attractiveness of careers in other industries, particularly the Internet...."

• "There was no question that booksellers like the Winter Institute and want it to be repeated.... Several ABA staff members said a Winter Institute would likely continue being held in a part of the country far from BEA's location that year. Ironically the ABA may be faced with an unforeseen challenge: how to keep a popular event from growing so big that it might lose its cozy, focused quality."

Avin Domnitz

• "Above the Treeline, the online 'tool in managing inventory that has never existed before,' as ABA CEO Avin Domnitz put it, was the hot, new thing at the Winter Institute for the many booksellers unfamiliar with it. Above the Treeline had nearly 100 ABA member stores signed up before the event; based on bookseller reaction, that number will grow substantially this week."

• "One of the most entertaining and talked-about presentations at the ABA's Winter Institute last week was the panel on the Bookstore as Third Place, which featured Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, whose main store is in Coral Gables, Fla., Philip Rafshoon of Outwrite Bookstore and Coffee House, Atlanta, Ga., and showstopper Collette Morgan, owner of Wild Rumpus, Minneapolis, Minn."

• Russ Lawrence, owner of Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton, Mont., and v-p/secretary of the ABA, said bookstores "should have websites even if sales aren't high. 'People may not buy online but they use independent store websites to search for books and look up events,' he explained. 'They will find out information and bring it into the store to buy there.' Like store advertising and newsletters, a website should reflect the store's personality and content should be changed regularly. Lawrence commended Powells.com for 'providing wonderful content to bring people to the site again and again.' "

• Dee Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., "has been involved in a local organization called Sustainable Connections since its founding about four years ago.... Robinson said that 'the public is receptive. The mindset has changed over the years, and now they get it. They understand why buying local is important.' "

In the March 31 issue, Shelf Awareness reported: "Following the colossal success of the first ABA Winter Institute, held this past January in Long Beach, Calif., the association has noted that interest in the next Winter Institute, scheduled for Los Angeles early next year, has grown dramatically even though the ABA is not yet accepting registrations."

And now here we are in Minneapolis for WI12, ready for the next chapter of this pageturner.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2925

Friday
Jan202017

The 'Basil Fawlty of Booksellers' & Co.

Bernard Black, the patron saint of curmudgeonly booksellers

Bernard: You sold a lot of books. You got on well with customers.
Manny: Thank you.
B: I'm gonna have to let you go.
M: But I got on well with all the customers, I sold a lot of books!
B: It's not that kind of operation.

--"Manny's First Day" episode of BBC's Black Books (about the 20:20 mark)

After showcasing the quirky/quaint aspects of bookselling in Wigtown last week, I felt equal time rules demanded that we highlight the legendary curmudgeonly side of the trade, especially in light of certain recent viral headlines: "Steve Bloom: the Basil Fawlty of Booksellers"; "Yorkshire's 'bookseller from hell' regrets calling customer 'a pain in the arse' "; "Blame Yorkshire's wuthering winter, says wife of U.K.'s 'rudest bookseller' "; and even "What Britain's grumpiest bookshop owner can teach us about the NHS crisis."

Bloom, owner of Bloomindales in Hawes Market House, was accused of being ill-mannered to potential customers who refused to pay his 50p entry fee. The chairman of Hawes Parish Council said members want the bookseller to change his attitude or leave the town: "I have received more than 20 letters of complaint in the last four years about the abusive behavior of Mr. Bloom--by letter, e-mail and telephone.... The bookseller is a discredit to the good reputation of the town, he is letting the Market House trustees down time and again."

Having since expressed some regret for his behavior, Bloom nonetheless vowed to continue his admission fee policy: "I explain about the 50p and when they come to leave with a book I say keep the 50p. Many people then say 'no keep it or give it to charity.' So it goes to Compassion in World Farming.... Those people who get upset about the 50p feel challenged. This is a test. I want people who come into to shop to be interested and appreciative of books. This is not a bus stop or a room for browsers.... Now that this has got out to the press, all and sundry know how it works, so it won't be the same. But I'll continue to ask for it--I'm not bowing to pressure."

Bloomindale's

He even has supporters. In the Guardian, Stephen Moss wrote: "Mr. Bloom is one of the last, honorable remnants of this dying breed. Secondhand bookshops have been decimated by the Internet.... As for the rudeness, it goes with the territory. Secondhand booksellers are natural misanthropes. If you don't buy a book, you are wasting their time; if you do a buy a book, you are stealing one of their friends. Either way, they will hate you, so enjoy the miserable experience.... Book lovers are life haters--and Mr. Bloom is a hero, not a villain, keeping an ancient tradition alive."

We've all encountered the classic bookish curmudgeon. In my case, she was a librarian in the small Vermont town where I grew up who seemed to despise kids (I don't think it was just me.) and was forever ushering us back out onto the street when we lingered too long in the children's book room. Hers was a determined, if ultimately futile, attempt to derail my need to read.

During my long tenure on the sales floor, I tried to be a gracious and welcoming bookseller, though I suspect there's just a little Steve Bloom buried deep inside many of us. "Curmudgeon" is not an infrequent word used to describe folks in our profession. As recently as last summer, the New York Times noted that the Strand's "employees are known for being 'curmudgeonly' but also clever, even cool."

And last year, Jim Toole of Capitol Hill Books was labeled "D.C.'s most curmudgeonly store owner" by the Washingtonian in an interview where he explained his extensive set of rules for customers. Asked if patrons generally obeyed, he replied: "Either that or they go home. People either have to follow the orderly processes here, or they're asked to leave. What am I supposed to do, sit here as the owner of the bookstore and put up with some miscreant? The customer isn't always right. I am. People don't like that. They think I should be groveling--I don't grovel."

For our 2009 special April Fool's Day edition, I imagined a hyper-curmudgeonly bookseller who professed an "intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level--smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.... Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. 'Essentially, I make them eat their words,' Wilkins said. 'We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books.' "

As a model curmudgeon, however, Bernard Black still reigns supreme:

Bernard: What do they want from me? Why can't they leave me alone? I mean, what do they want from me?
Manny: They want to buy books.
B: Yeah, but why me? Why do they come to me?
M: Well, because you sell books.
B: Yeah, I know...

Words to live by? Um... maybe not.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2920

Friday
Jan132017

Living the Bookseller's Dream in Wigtown

Many (most?) book people have had "the dream." They imagine what it would be like to own a quiet little bookshop in a quaint town and have the time to indulge in long conversations with patrons that went beyond handselling. Maybe they could spend quality time exploring the shop's bookshelves for lost treasures or just leisurely tidying up. They might sip tea and read an old book for a quiet hour. Although I was a bookseller for almost 15 years in a big indie, even I fantasized occasionally about that other, simpler booklife.

But Fred Powell, owner of Main Street Books in Frostburg, Md., and his wife Kathy are actually living the dream this month. Shortly after the holidays, they arrived in Wigtown, Scotland's National Book Town, to assume temporary proprietorship of the Open Book, a unique Air BnB option that offers a "bookshop holiday/residency experience" running a used bookshop.

Sponsored by the Wigtown Festival, the program allows guests to "play-bookshop for a week or two. We'll give you your very own bookshop, and apartment above, supported by a team of friendly volunteers and bookshop sellers to make your trip as lovely as possible.... Residents will be expected to carry out all the normal duties of a bookseller including: opening/closing the shop during normal working hours, welcoming visitors, selling books, staffing, stocking, creating awesome window displays and basically putting your own stamp on the shop."

But why, you may wonder, would a professional bookseller be tempted to pay for the privilege of being... an amateur bookseller?

Powell recently told me he "first learned of the Open Book from a story I read in Shelf Awareness probably two years ago. A recently retired man in publishing wrote about his stay in the book shop. I investigated the idea with Kathy, my wife, and my bookstore staff--who are running my store in Frostburg while I run the Open Book in Wigtown. With both my wife's academic calendar--she teaches in the Social Work Department at Frostburg State University--and the book store schedule, January 2017 looked to be the best time to come to Scotland. I think I signed up for this adventure about a year and a half ahead of my arrival."

The Wigtown Book Festival organization owns and stocks the bookshop with second-hand titles and guests provide the labor. "You sign on for your week or two through Airbnb," Powell noted. "You do pay for staying in the upstairs apartment but it is minimal. I was responsible for all the arrangements to arrive in Wigtown from flights, rental car and hotel. We came early and spent five days in Edinburgh and two days along the coast in Ayr and Stranraer before our arrival in Scotland's Book Town. All together I will be away from my store for almost a month."

He noted that upon arrival, they were met by a festival volunteer who showed them the shop and apartment. "There are no rules of operation," Powell said. "We set our own hours and days for opening. In our first week--open for four days--we had 49 customers and sold 18 books. Mysteries and gardening titles made up the majority of the sales. Most of our day is spent in conversation with customers as we tell them the story of how we came to be in this used book shop in South West Scotland and they tell us about themselves. Wigtown is a village of 1,000 residents, so you start to recognize faces very quickly from the bookshop or from the local cafe. Just this minute, a local dropped off some shortbread to go with our coffee and thanked us for being 'the brave people who came to Wigtown in January.' "

My earlier question--Why would a professional bookseller be tempted to pay for the privilege of being an amateur bookseller?--was answered eloquently by Powell: "My motivation for coming to the Open Book is twofold. One is to spend time in a country where the common language for both me and the Scots is books. Secondly, I am at a point in my bookselling career--having just celebrated my store's 27th anniversary--that I need to get excited about the book world again and start learning new ideas to bring back to my store in Western Maryland. In just the first week, both of my motivations are being met."

At the end of our exchange, Powell did precisely what any self-respecting bookseller would do. He recommended a book: Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets: A Real-Life Scottish Fairy Tale, Jessica Fox's 2013 memoir chronicling her journey from being a NASA employee in Los Angeles to moving to Scotland and living in a used bookshop.

Sold.

Words to live by: On the Open Book's blog, Kathy Powell's first post (January 3) noted that the "flat is very spacious and the book shop well stocked. We were planning on opening tomorrow at 10 a.m. for after-holiday sales, but we already had our first customers today while we were getting settled in the shop. Our first sale was one mystery book for £1.5. Bookselling is not bookselling is not bookselling! Every shop is different and all customers are not alike."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2916