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Monday
Jul212014

A Brief History of Beach Reads

First, sincere congratulations to CNN as the 2014 award winner (in a very competitive field) for most egregious use of a summer reading pun: "Whatever your definition of 'beach book'--romance, mystery, gripping true-life-tale--you'll find a shore thing here."

As I dutifully pored over all the summer reads recommendation lists released during the past couple of months, I began having sun-addled visions of beach reads from the distant past (sometimes called "hammock reads," I soon learned). After some seasonally appropriate leisurely research in the archives of the New York Times, I now offer for your summer reading pleasure an ever-so-brief history of the American beach read:

1890s: "During the Summer days a table was placed in the doorway and here were displayed a selection of the paper-covered books for 'Summer reading.' For some reason lighter books were considered more suitable to the hot weather."

1897: "The reader of to-day whose knowledge of books goes back twenty years must often have been surprised with the change that has come over books intended for Summer reading.... Society and civilization may take hope from the improved quality of the Summer books.... It truly seems as if all the world were writing novels. With bad ones plentiful enough, how good the best ones are!"

1900: "But if there is one season in which the printed book might be regarded as a questionable intruder it is when the pageant of Summer has attained its full splendor and the most attractive pages of the great book of nature lie open before us.... When he would for a brief period escape the spell of the printed page, break its chain, and rise to a rarer atmosphere, lo, the whole world seems leagued against him, and from a hundred throats he hears the cry, 'Books for Summer Reading!' "

1907: "What I'm trying to discover is whether any one reads in Summer, or whether the bulk of vacation literature is really an unopened contingent.... It isn't necessary to read a book in order to be happy with it. On a steamer or in a hammock you simply have to have the book in your lap or close at hand, with the paper-cutter and pencil."

Cincinnati Public Library bookmobile, 1927
Cincinnati Public Library bookmobile, 1927

1920: "It made us wonder just how Summer Reading has progressed in a world where excitement has been the rule and where nothing has remained as it was.... Gone are the days when the unambitious reader would lie in the grass in a semi-coma and meander blankly through a volume of trashy lovemaking and trashier thrillers."

1928: "What do people read in the summer?... They read, in other words, whatever the tastes and piety of earlier generations of Summer residents have stored for them on the hotel shelves."

1950: "There is, however, one error which is disastrously popular--namely, the assumption that only 'light' books, by which is meant trivial or foolish or badly written books--are suitable for summer. Nothing is actually harder to read than that which is not worth reading, and there is nothing more likely to produce boredom than a too desperate attempt to escape it."

1953: "When an unwished beach picnic is suggested, for example, the necessity of reading a light romantic novel will not stand up as an excuse for not attending. On the other hand, the casual display of the somewhat weightier book will prove at once that even on vacation the thirst for knowledge rises superior to such casual pleasures as picnics."

1968: "There is nothing like the library of a summer house to reverse the tides of literary improvement.... It is wonderful junk--never weeded out, like other junk, because summer people just can't throw any book away, however transient its subject or purple its prose." (William Zinsser)

1971: "The reviewers must have reasoned that as we, book lovers all, packed to head off for vacation, we agonized about how to pack our limited baggage space with the most rewarding material available. Hence 'suggestions for summer reading.' " (Russell Baker)

1985: "A feeling seems to have arisen that summer is the time for light reading. I don't know where anyone got that idea. The truth about summer is this. There are an enormous number of hours in it--slow hours--and yet, before you know it, somehow it is over.... Summer is the time for heavy reading, reading that works up a sweat. I wouldn't be surprised if there were scientific studies showing that the sun's heat melts eye-glaze." (Roy Blount, Jr.)

2014: "For me, being a reader, in summer or at any other time, isn't a 'lifestyle choice.' Rather, I made the choice--if that's what it was--so long ago, it has taken on an inescapable character in my mind.... The beach is one of the few places pathological readers can pass undetected among their civilian cousins." (Zadie Smith in O, The Oprah Magazine)

And, finally, these history-transcending words of summer reading perspective from George R.R. Martin: "Winter is coming." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2299.

Sunday
Jul132014

Human Connection Needs No Reinvention

Last month, I asked if you'd ever wondered how someone completely outside the book trade might envision the shape of bookstores to come, a question prompted by the Economist's "Reinvent the Bookshop" challenge to four leading architecture and design firms.

I was particularly intrigued by feedback I received from relatively new booksellers, whose task is as much invention as reinvention. Karen Bakshoian of Letterpress Books, Portland, Maine, which opened last fall, did not mince words: "I truly despise this idea.... 'They' are removing all the personal interaction between bookseller and customer, taking away the joy of sharing wonderful titles, and all of the fun as well. I have been a bookseller for a whole eight months now, but the best task of each day is working with my customers. They quickly become regulars. They tell their friends and family members what a super bookstore is now right in their neighborhood. They share the books with their friends. They join the book club. Isn't that cool?"

As someone who regularly interacts with new and prospective booksellers on design issues through the Bookstore Training and Consulting Group of Paz & Associates, Donna Paz Kaufman has a vested, as well as personal, interest in the topic of bookstore reinvention. In the comments section for the Economist's article, she had written: "As a designer of bookstores in the U.S. and in various places around the globe for 22 years, it seems to me that the architects miss one important point: people come to bookstores because they want a break from technology. A curated selection, beautiful displays that cater to the reading lifestyle, a comfortable setting, friendly staff, and a business that recirculates its profits in the local community matter. If people want technology, they tap those resources at home or on the road. The bookstore is a comfortable, peaceful escape from a fast-paced life."

I asked her to expand on this observation. "I was so curious about the article and was so disappointed when I finished it," she said. "Seemed they went over the edge when it came to modern design and technology. In another life, I think I was or still want to be an urban planner because the whole idea of how we live speaks so much about whom we are, what we seek, and what brings us contentment and comfort. Looking at bookstores today, I think we need more that is authentic and human to balance out the number of screens and machines in our lives."

She cited Melissa DeMotte's vision for her new bookshop, the Well~Read Moose in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, as an example: "Her store is all about human connection.... cafe with indie coffee roaster and Northwest regional wines, a seating area specifically designed as a quiet nook for book groups, Melissa's mother's rocking chair she used when Melissa and her sister were babies, and a play area for kids. We're excited about Melissa and her store since she came from the corporate world and is so full of life and love. She symbolizes all that we love about the people drawn to this business and we still need way more of them to fill in all of the gaps around the country without bookstores."

DeMotte

DeMotte, who told me she considered some of the "Reinvent the Bookshop" ideas to be "quite creative," has received a lot of positive feedback regarding the layout in the Well~Read Moose's 2,700 square feet. "People say they like the flow and that they can 'find new things around every corner,' " she said. "We did quite a bit of research on the local demographics. After Borders closed, we didn't have a bookstore with all new books. This just seemed 'wrong' for a wonderful community like Coeur d'Alene. Our vision was to create a warm and inviting space to browse, meet friends and try new things--a new book/author/genre, a new brewed coffee, a new wine, etc. We will host our own book clubs as well as reserve spaces for outside clubs to meet. We have a nice seating area for up to 10 people to gather comfortably, sip some wine and chat about their books. We have had many, many people thank us for opening. They are happy to have an indie bookstore and vow to support it. What more could I ask for?"

Non-booksellers also weighed in on the bookshop reinvention issue. Maureen Mills, who worked in small press/academic publishing for more than 30 years, praised her local booksellers, Mary Adams and Janice Holmes of the Annapolis Bookstore, Annapolis, Md.: "I know you hear this over and over--but it is a truly special place run by two very special ladies."

Mills stressed the importance of interconnection over reinvention: "Extend the connection between bookshop and customer to online in a way customers can connect from home, not just to a Web page to order books, but to be able to browse the store, as if you were there (yes, I'm being daring here)."

She also wished there was a better way to "grab and extend the idea of online webinars/seminars/courses, with synchronous book readings connecting groups at bookstores across the country. I'm especially fond of this idea because I can see these functioning in a way that helps people understand the many unique 'hometown' cultures that exist across the country. All this maintained by and promoted through the special personal touch of an independent bookstore. There's a nice challenge."

And challenges, as we know, are nothing new for indie booksellers. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2294.

Sunday
Jul062014

It's 'All About the Books' for NEIBA/NAIBA

'Having a great time! Wish you were here!" That's the summer postcard I would have sent out last week from the "All About the Books" event held in the Henry A. Wallace Center at the FDR Library and Home, Hyde Park, N.Y. The New England Independent Booksellers Association and New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association teamed up to host the gathering, with Bookazine underwriting, as it has since All About the Books launched in 2009.

"Hyde Park was an experiment in including NAIBA members and more New York-based authors and I'm glad we did it," said NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer. "As we have done all along, we try to create a balance of fiction and nonfiction, male, female, large publishers and smaller, indie publishers, two children's book authors--one picture book and one YA. Somehow it all works. It isn't anything you can make happen, but when it does it's an amazing two hours."

Mary Beth Thomas, v-p of sales at HarperCollins, agreed: "This is the second event I've gone to and I just see them as a great opportunity to hear from a variety of authors, most of whom I'm not that familiar with, and to learn about their upcoming books. They each have their own way of handling a 5-10 minute presentation, but all the ones I've heard have been funny, or inspiring or scary, or in some cases all three! It's a great way to generate enthusiasm among the booksellers in a more intimate setting than the regional and national shows. Also a great opportunity to connect with booksellers. The venue was lovely as well."

Mandel

The morning program featured authors Peter Ackerman (The Lonely Typewriter, David R. Godine), Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven, Knopf), Justin Martin (Rebel Souls, Da Capo), Cammie McGovern (Say What You Will, HarperCollins Children's), Brian Morton (Florence Gordon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Brent Ridge & Josh Kilmer-Purcell (The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Cookbook, Rodale), Bill Roorbach (The Remedy for Love, Algonquin), Joanna Scott (De Potter's Grand Tour, FSG), Gail Sheehy (Daring: My Passages, Morrow) and Annie Weatherwax (All We Had, Scribner).

The time limit sparked entertaining, concentrated storytelling, with the writers talking about their new books and expressing a little indie bookseller love. For example: "First, I want to thank all of you," said Mandel, noting that her first three novels had been Indie Next picks. Morton observed: "I want to take a moment to talk about what you do.... It's been so inspiring over the years to see indie bookstores not only survive but thrive." Citing the critical importance of locavore and shop local movements to their world, cookbook authors Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell said they are "always so encouraged when we go to your bookstores because we see that that's what is making you successful also." And Scott noted: "You keep the blood flowing in our literary culture."

Sheehy

Perhaps the loudest applause was for Sheehy, who said she was "thrilled to be here today as a foot soldier in the war of independence against Amazon."

The afternoon education session, "Increasing Sales on Your Website," featured NEIBA president Suzanna Hermans, co-owner Oblong Books & Music stores in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y.; Andrew Getman of Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C.; and Neil Strandberg of the American Booksellers Association.  

With the surge of social media options, store websites have sometimes taken a back seat, but, Strandberg said, "You need an online presence and I think a homepage is still a useful thing to have. That you cannot be found digitally just does not make sense anymore."

"You have some concept of who you are as a personality, so your website has to represent the story you're telling," Getman observed. Displaying a bookshop site that was highlight its Amazon/Hachette-themed display, he said: "She has this fabulous display, but what's wrong with this picture is you can't click it. You can't buy locally.... Make it a destination people don't get flustered by."

Neil Strandberg, Steve Fischer, Suzanna Hermans & Andrew Getman

Hermans discussed Oblong's "custom content" on its website, including autographed books and the Oblong Insider subscription service for YA titles: "We make sure we have a pre-order link on our website a month before an event," which also allows visiting authors to link to it in advance. "Custom content is really important to me," she added. "That's where the money is.... It's a little bit of a time suck, but it's worth it."

"Are there genres or types of books you are less competitive with?" asked Strandberg, suggesting bookstore websites "present things you won't find on the Amazon homepage. If you've got something that's unique to you, you're more likely to generate sales that a large retailer wouldn't."

Some of the advice was basic, yet often overlooked: Place all social media links at the top of the homepage and use "buy buttons" rather than click-throughs for featured titles. "You don't have to put everything on the website," Getman cautioned, adding that social media platforms are ideal places to showcase event photos and other "ephemerals" that might draw visitors back to the online store.

And then it was over, this very good day for books.

"It was wonderful to host both NEIBA and NAIBA groups in the Hudson Valley," said Hermans. "As a store that spans both territories, it was great to get everyone together in the same room to share ideas. I hope we can collaborate again in the future." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2289.

Sunday
Jun292014

Discuss: Non-Booksellers 'Reinvent the Bookshop'

Outside perspective can be intriguing, if only to spark further conversation. In his 1888 novel Looking Backward, this is what Edward Bellamy imagined retail stores would look like in the year 2000: "All our stores are sample stores, except as to a few classes of articles. The goods, with these exceptions, are all at the great central warehouse of the city, to which they are shipped directly from the producers. We order from the sample and the printed statement of texture, make, and qualities. The orders are sent to the warehouse, and the goods distributed from there."

Last December, in a piece headlined "Are You Ready for the Store of the Future?" Mark Startup of the Retail Council of Canada's MyStore division told Profit magazine: "It's taking large retailers a long time to figure out all this technology. Independents can change the store environment almost on a dime."

Have you ever wondered how someone completely outside the book trade might envision the shape of bookstores to come? The recent media blitz regarding Foyles' shiny new flagship "Bookshop of the Future" in London inspired Intelligent Life, the Economist's culture magazine, to challenge four leading architecture and design practices to "Reinvent the Bookshop."

Gensler, 20.20, Burdifilek and Coffey Architects were each given the same brief: working with a £100,000 (US$169,836) budget, design "a general-interest bookshop, selling fiction, nonfiction and e-books, in store and online, on a typical European high-street site, with two floors of 1,000 square feet each." Check out the full article for complete details, but here's just a sampling from their designs:

tl;dr (short for "too long; didn't read"): At Gensler's bookshop, "you don't have to enter the store to shop from it: the glass facade is a touchscreen that can be tapped on to download e-books from QR codes," Intelligent Life reported. A vending wall swings onto the pavement, offering a changing selection of paperbacks. To save floorspace, there is no checkout counter; payments can be taken instantly by booksellers with a card reader. Gensler's Owain Roberts said they did not focus on fixtures and fittings, which he called "incidental to the activities taking place," because the retail model is changing so fast that "the days when a fit-out would last five years are long gone."

The Art of Storytelling: Jon Lee, 20.20's creative director, agreed: "People won't go into a shop because the ceiling's beautiful. They'll go in because the experience is relevant to their lifestyle. It's what you do in a space that's really important." This "reinvented bookshop" has a café "with a twist: a Yo! Sushi-style conveyor belt delivering short reads and reviews to consume with your coffee" to act as a draw to the back of the shop, Intelligent Life wrote. Mobile "mid-floor units" carry screens to advertise events, as well as books that fit a frequently changed theme. A staircase and tree lure patrons upstairs. All books are displayed face-out, with just one title on the front of a drawer and the rest of the author's work inside.  

ILB (Intelligent Life Books): "If you just concentrate on books, you're rolling the dice," said Burdifilek's creative director Diego Burdi. ILB "is more of a gallery, showcasing particular books alongside related merchandise.... It's like a concierge service: everything in one place. My frustration [at the moment] is that I buy the book, then I have to go to another store to buy the product. It's a luxury to see and touch the product. That's what the Internet doesn't give you." ILB incorporates a glass roof to highlight the selling space upstairs as well as entice customers to the downstairs. A digital kinetic screen on the back wall spans both levels, lighting up at night like a movie screen.

Craftword: "Can you save the bookshop? Is there any point?" asked Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects "cheerfully" (as Intelligent Life described his tone). Believing that digitization will make print books redundant, Coffey said that what can be saved is the cult of the book as a beautiful object. Intelligent Life noted that Craftword "celebrates the arcane arts of printing and bookbinding" and is the "antithesis of an e-book emporium: 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."

"Design on its own will not save the bookshop," Gensler's Owain Roberts observed. "If you leave the model as it is and redecorate, nothing's going to change. The solution needs to be much more fundamental: informed, strategic and daring."

Agree? Disagree? How would you "reinvent the bookshop"? Maybe you already are. --Published by Shelf Awarenesss, Issue #2285.

Sunday
Jun222014

The Siren Song of a Foreseeable Future 

I recognize the symptoms. My annual bout of late spring future shock is an aftereffect of BookExpo America, attacking an immune system thoroughly weakened by conversations regarding the "foreseeable future" of the book world; ritual harvesting of ARCs (books from the future); and enhanced anxiety about a potential Cyborgian literary dystopia (see McSweeney's "The Future of Books," year 2070).

Scalzi and Preston

This year my future shock began even earlier than usual, during a BEA presentation called "Where Near-future Techno-thrillers and Sci-fi Meet." When the conversation turned to "envisioning" things to come, Douglas Preston said it is "impossible to predict the future," and John Scalzi added: "We expected rocket cars and got the Internet and cell phones."

The symptoms returned this week when Amazon unveiled the Fire Phone. After noting its features in her New York Times piece, Claire Cain Miller deftly played the unforeseeable future card: "Amazon must be thinking: What if, say, a contact lens could do all that? The Fire is Amazon's stepping stone to the future, and for now that just happens to be in the form of a phone." 

Scary though it may be, we love to think about the future, even though rocket cars so often turn out to be cell phones. During BEA, Jacob Weisberg of the Slate Group interviewed Walter Isaacson about his upcoming book The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Oct.), which explores the past to explain where the present came from to those of us living now... in a future. My prediction: I will read this book.

"When you and I were first going on the Internet, we probably did it with training wheels," Isaacson said, citing those ubiquitous AOL startup CDs from a couple of decades ago. Cue the nostalgic, infuriating sound of dial-up, a neo-ancient siren song luring us to the Information Superhighway.

Isaacson and Weisberg

Isaacson said the future has traditionally been made by innovators and "the secret of innovation is putting together the right team." Calling his book "a series of lessons in collaboration," he added that the best innovation requires "a diverse set of people working in proximity," where they can bump into each other, work as teams, even "finish each other's sentences.... You need to have that primordial stew that brings people together."

Who leads this team? "If there were one simple answer, we wouldn't have a 500-page book," Isaacson quipped. "Almost every great innovator in this book was somebody who knew how to collaborate." He also emphasized the importance of merging creative with technological: "Joining the liberal arts with technology; that is the great theme of this book."

How does this affect the future of the book business? Isaacson observed that unlike the music and magazine trades, "the publishing industry is quite healthy," and stressed the continuing importance of the organized "team effort" that traditional publishing still represents in nurturing a writer, bringing out the best book possible and getting it to readers.

He utilized an additional team effort while writing The Innovators: "I realized that the Internet was invented for collaborative creativity," so he posted chapters from early drafts on Medium, where the public commented and added margin notes. "I got 18,000 comments," he said. "The good news is a lot of it you can ignore," but many of the contributions, including substantial input from Stewart Brand, improved the final book.

Even that term "final book" may be considered illusory now. Isaacson said he could imagine a "next phase of the publishing industry" in which "we could take this book and say, 'How do we make an enhanced book from that?'... I would like it to be a wikified book in which I get to play curator." He quickly added he saw no conflict between print and electronic books. "I think we've reached the equilibrium," Isaacson observed, adding that when we consider all the things a print book can still do better than a digital one, "it's amazing what a wonderful technology paper is."  

Regarding the Amazon vs. Hachette controversy, he said Amazon "has done a lot of innovation and that's good," but expressed concern that profit appears to be increasingly the motivation for Bezos's moves: "I think he is in danger of losing that sense of putting the customer first.... It's also about the perception that publishing and selling a book is not the same as selling a button-down oxford shirt."

BEA future shock. Weeks later, I'm still slightly dazed, stumbling along in the muddled present, and still no rocket car in sight. Perhaps I'll cede the final words on the subject to an author both Isaacson and I rank among our favorites. From Walker Percy's Lancelot: "To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2279.