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Can You Hear Me? I'm in a Bookstore! In Vermont!

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mendocino Haiku #1

Bookstore serene...
Cell phone call
Jagged rock
tossed in pond
SPLASH !!!!!
Outside. Thanks.

Nearly three years ago, Tony Miksak's staff at Gallery Bookshop, Mendocino, Calif., came up with the idea for Signage Haiku after a discussion about "reports that bad cell phone etiquette is rampant, involving, but not limited to, discussions of pooped diapers and bad boyfriends."

Cell phones have been part of our culture long enough that I can already think of them in a personal, micro-historical context.

During the mid-1990s, I had a phone that looked like the squawk boxes soldiers used in World War II movies to call in artillery support. If I wanted to make a call on the road, I had to put an antenna on top of my car. Sometimes it worked.

As mobile phones diminished in size and increased in power, they became status symbols for a while; they belonged to people who had to be in touch at all times with the office. Just having one was enough, and it was easy to dislike such people. A stand-up comedian at the time said that he had bridged the status gap by holding his garage door opener to his ear and talking, and no one knew the difference.

Now mobiles are the People's Phone; they've been democratized, socialized, promoted to absolute ubiquity. Status is conferred only upon those who buy certain high-priced models that allow them to check e-mail, teleconference, surf--perhaps even sail--the Internet and communicate with the International Space Station.

In New York, I sometimes find myself counting the people walking past me who aren't chatting on cells. It's a small number.

Back here in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where cell phone coverage goes to die, we still have to deal with the issue, and the bookstore is where I'm most aware of cell abuse. I'll share three of my "favorite" cell delinquents. I'm sure you have your own.

The AWOL Shopper comes to the checkout counter already talking on a cell phone. After the order is rung up and they've been told what the cost is, they say, "Excuse me." Not to the bookseller, of course, but to the person on the other end of the line. They fumble briefly for credit card or cash, toss it on the counter, then resume the conversation.

The Retail Commander wanders through the bookstore like an ordinary shopper, but maintains constant communication links with other members of a shopping patrol, barking orders, plotting muster coordinates and repositioning troops to scout for bargains at the J Crew, Versace, Ralph Lauren or Anne Klein outlets. Walkie-talkies are occasionally used, just to raise the irritation quotient.

The Weekend Business Warrior has reluctantly agreed to accompany his or her family for a long weekend in Vermont, but must at all times remain in contact with the main office. Somewhere in the stacks, these vigilant troopers stare uncomprehendingly at bookshelves while saying things like, "I told him that if he didn't come down at least five percent, we'd squash that deal. . ."

WBW's are also most likely to say, with a seamless blend of genuine astonishment and dubious cell reception, "Can You Hear Me? I'm In A Bookstore! In Vermont!"

We all have stories about being trapped in cell hell while someone shares their one-sided tale in a supermarket line, on a train or in a restaurant. We've all heard the muffled ring from a pocket or purse, and seen people who were just speaking with us suddenly say, "Excuse me, I should see who this is." A fumbling for the phone, a bright hello, and they have left the premises as surely as the ghost of Elvis.

I was thinking about all this while reading an article in the New York Times recently about the increasing popularity of illegal cell "jammers." Like my boyhood dreams of being invisible, possessing a jammer is appealing, especially in the bookstore, where lack of cell phone etiquette is most apparent to me. But I'll restrain myself. Bookshops are not libraries. Silence is never a goal, especially on a busy day.

Still, I would love to collect some of your bookstore cell phone horror stories and solutions.

One I've considered is signage on book displays, with this visual and the words: CAN YOU READ ME?



Modest Proposal for Booksellers' Halloween

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, November 1, 2007

The trick is too often played upon us--the treat just out of reach. Tantalus may well be the patron saint of booksellers because another major holiday week is passing us by, and what do we have to show for it? Some Halloween card sales, drastically reduced prices on our amazing children's book and toy displays, and the annual three-copy sales spike for Washington Irving.

Yet what holiday is more appropriate for a national celebration honoring (and capitalizing on) the endless parade of dead celebrities who still pay a significant portion of our wages? Shouldn't this week be all about storytelling and bookselling, since ghosts account for so much of our product line?

Halloween could be a bookseller's dream, but too often it seems like a retail nightmare. Where are the festivals and book fairs that might turn Halloween into a bookishly frenzied Week of the Dead? Why aren't we having fun?

If you asked your customers to name their favorite literary ghost story, how many would say A Christmas Carol?

Sorry, wrong holiday, and a missed opportunity.

Bookstores do not gear up for Halloween the way they do for Black Friday or Christmas season. That's a shame. This would seem to be "our" holiday more than anyone else's. Publishing houses may not be haunted houses, as a rule, but storytelling has a long and distinguished spectral pedigree--Dickens, Hawthorne, Poe; Sleepy Hollow, Transylvania, Birnam Wood.

Horror resides everywhere. Recently Abebooks.com announced that Big Brother, from George Orwell's 1984, was chosen the scariest character in literature in a poll of website visitors, edging out a distinguished list that included Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis.

One of my Halloween traditions is to watch Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining. As a writer, I love the scene in which a seriously spooked Shelley Duvall, baseball bat gripped firmly as if ready to knock her husband's head out of the park, discovers that the thick manuscript he has been maniacally typing is in fact a single sentence, repeated hundreds of times on page after page:

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Forgiving the grammatical error, I can't resist thinking how appropriate this image is to what we do for a living. As poor Shelley riffles through the pages, Jack Nicholson creeps into camera range behind her, and utters the only line an author could under the circumstances:

"How do you like it?"

That is a scream, and I do mean in a humorous and not horrific context.

How do you like it?

I like it just fine, and that is precisely why we may be missing a unique opportunity to reinvent Halloween as a book-oriented holiday. We have so much to work with; it would be like taking candy corn from a baby.

Just for the fun of it.

In Christopher Morley's classic novel The Haunted Bookshop--which should be required reading for any bookseller--we are informed that the Parnasus at Home bookstore features a "large placard in a frame," which reads:

This shop is haunted by the ghosts
Of all great literature, in hosts

We are all haunted, in the best possible way, by the books we've read and the authors who've possessed us. We are mediums by profession, channeling the eloquently dead for our customers. As the Parnassus bookshop's placard concludes:

We have what you want, though you may not know you want it.
Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.
Let us prescribe for you.

We need to walk on the wild retail side of Halloween bookselling. Morley describes it best:

Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world--the brains of men. I can spend a rainy afternoon reading, and my mind works itself up to such a passion and anxiety over mortal problems as almost unmans me. It is terribly nerve-racking. Surround a man with Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, Chesterton, Shaw, Nietzsche, and George Ade--would you wonder at his getting excited? What would happen to a cat if she had to live in a room tapestried with catnip? She would go crazy!

Crazy is what we need. Did anyone hold a ghost story slam this year? How can Halloween be anything but our holiday? After all, we have the ghosts.

Cobwebsites Will Be the Death of Us Yet

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Halloween card did it.

I was working an otherwise normal bookstore shift last weekend when a customer asked, "Where's your Halloween card section?" Halloween cards? I knew there was such a section, and I was happy to escort her there, but a little voice in my head still yapped at me: Why would people send Halloween cards?

I've never received one.

Maybe I'm just bitter.

Still, the question jolted me toward thoughts of Halloween, as, I suppose, did one of the more irresistible cards, with its photo of a jolly, rotund nun and the words: "Might as well have a great time on Halloween." Inside, the punch line, literally and figuratively, was, "You're going to fry anyway."

Since I now find myself wrenched into the true spirit of the season, I have transformed the bookstore websiteseeing bus into a jack-o-lantern pumpkin coach and set off to discover what ghoulish Halloween delights are brewing among booksellers online.

At first it gets really scary, kids. I check in with more than a dozen websites, and it's as if the Grinch has struck again and stolen another holiday. Halloween is nowhere to be found. One bookstore site sends a chill up my spine with its announcement to "check out our new summer hours." I picture a virtual Miss Haversham's wedding cake.

There's even a seasonally-appropriate word for such places: cobwebsite.

Now that's scary.

So I take a deep breath, whistle past the graveyard of abandoned websites, and head to the logical starting point for a witching hour--Salem, Mass., where Cornerstone Books promises "Lots of Treats, and No Tricks This October," including an author appearance at the House of Seven Gables and "old-time Japanese monster movies playing all month alongside horror master Vincent Price on the silver screen."

Now we're talking.

In Richmond, Va., Fountain Bookstore offers counter-programming to the candy frenzy by claiming that "Creeeeepy books abound here at Fountain. . . . Books have less calories and more fiber than candy." Since the National Confectioners Association estimates that about 20 million pounds of candy corn sells per year, what if 10 million pounds of that total were converted into book sales instead? Certainly would make a lot of booksellers' lives less frightening.

A "Halloweenie Puppet Show" is on tap at BookPeople, Austin, Tex., "brought lovingly to you by the Almost Professional BookPeople Playing Puppeteers," who will offer "a mishmash of Halloween stories all put together (very cleverly) to make a puppet show for you."

Olsson's Crystal City bookstore, Arlington, Va., will host an event with NPR Pop culture critic Eric Nuzum, author of The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula, which Chuck Klosterman calls "the definitive look at why society loves the man who's not in the mirror."

What's the scariest story you've ever read? Jabberwocky Bookshop, Newburyport, Mass., is conducting a poll on its website. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" gets my vote because I've always been convinced that when it comes to horror stories, we have nothing to fear but each other.

"Red wine, sharp cheese, the glow of candles. Bring a friend and join us for ghost stories after dark." That's the spine-and taste-tingling proposition offered by the Kaleidoscope: Our Focus Is You, Hampton, Iowa, which will offer "Stories By Candlelight."

Russo's Marketplace Books, Bakersfield, Calif., Wild Rumpus Books, Minneapolis, Minn., and Other Tiger, Westerly, R.I., are among the booksense.com stores featuring a selection called "Scary Spooky Books for Teens," designed for readers who have "become too cool to ask for candy . . . and no way are you dragging yourself around in a silly costume. Suddenly, Halloween is more about exploring the darker, sinister side of the holiday--if not yourselves."

Staff Picks have taken a ghoulish turn at University Bookstore, Seattle, Wash., where appropriately spooky recommendations are listed from "Jack O'Lantern" Jay, "Monster" Mechio, "Zombie" Zoska, "Poltergeist" Pam and "All Hallow's Eve" Ann.

The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, N.Y., showcases a selection of "Halloween Thrillers" with an irresistible lead: "You're reading compulsively. One after another the pages turn. The plot hurtles along. Your eyes scan the pages quickly. Your pulse pounds. The pacing is quick, and the mystery runs deep and unpredictable. Nothing beats a great mystery!"

And nothing beats having some ghoulish literary fun next week. Read scary stories, eat your fair share of candy corn and have a great Halloween. But please, please beware of those truly horrifying cobwebsites. They'll be the death of us yet.



'Ain't the State of Things Cloudy Enough?'

Shelf Awareness: Friday, October 19, 2007

On Monday afternoon, during my Amtrak trip north from Baltimore after NAIBA's Fall Conference, I found myself making--as I tend to do--a mildly absurd connection. Maybe it was the endless parade of telephone poles flicking past my window, but something caused me to equate the NAIBA Internet marketing panel I was part of last Sunday with a scene from the HBO-TV Western series Deadwood.

Al Swearengen, the irresistibly sleazy owner of the Gem Saloon, stands on the second-story porch of his establishment. Whiskey bottle in hand, he watches a group of men raise a telegraph pole on the outskirts of town.

"Messages from invisible sources," Al says scornfully, "or what some people think of as progress."  
One of his henchmen, the dim but lethal Dan Dority, suggests that the telegraph is just another form of communication, like smoke signals or letters. Al asks him when the last time was that he received a letter and Dan replies, "Bad news about Pa."

Al's case is made. Bad news, indeed. "So by all means, let's plant poles all across the country," he sneers. "Festoon the (expletive) with wires to hurry the sorry word and blinker our judgments of motive. Ain't the state of things cloudy enough? Don't we face enough (expletive) imponderables?"

Dan thinks about this for a moment, then replies, "Well, by god, Al, you give the word and them poles'll be kindling."

Kindling they did not become. In fact, almost 140 years later, telephone poles are still with us, flashing by my train window, carrying "messages from invisible sources."

Time was on my mind during the train ride Monday: the time that has passed since telegraph poles stretched out to the western frontier; the time that seems, in every age, to be shrinking even as we discover technological breakthroughs meant to make more efficent use of time.  

Our Internet marketing panel in Baltimore was led by Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, events coordinator at McNally Robinson NYC bookshop and author of the bookseller blog, The Written Nerd. It also included Felicia Sullivan, editor and publisher of the literary journal Small Spiral Notebook, senior online marketing manager at Collins and author of The Sky Isn't Visible from Here, which will be published by Algonquin in February 2008.

Jessica and I had been on a similar panel at NEIBA in Providence, R.I., which I wrote about in an earlier column. For our part, we again showcased several favorite bookstore websites, as well as bookstore blogs like Atomic Books, Kash's Book Corner and Brookline Blogsmith.

Felicia offered a guided tour of popular social networking sites that should be of interest to booksellers, like Gather, FaceBook and MySpace. She also provided a list of book-related sites (LitMinds and Gather Essentials, for example), as well as age- and subject-specific sites such as blogher.org (women), gaiaonline.com (teens) and eons.com (boomers).

During our conversation with the audience, the subject of time came up more than once, especially time management as the key impediment to engaging more creatively with Web 2.0 opportunities.

If everyone is already working at full tilt, how can they incorporate online marketing into the mix? Where in the course of their busy days will they find time to blog, to update website staff picks, to send out email newsletters, to check and fulfill online orders?

After the panel, one bookseller said that she already works a brutal schedule and cannot find good help to delegate any of these tasks to. She had no interest in establishing an online presence. Like Al Swearengen, she might have, but didn't, ask, "Ain't the state of things cloudy enough? Don't we face enough (expletive) imponderables?"

A hundred trade show panels won't answer these questions because there will never be enough time--nor a sufficient number of qualified, motivated staff members--to do everything that needs to be done.

But there never has been enough time. When booksellers were slipping index cards between the pages of books for inventory control, there wasn't enough time. What were you doing with all your extra time before you had to answer emails and cell phone calls all day? 

We find time where we've always found time, in its mysterious expandability.

Booksellers will not gain by resisting the Internet, any more than turning a handful of telegraph poles into kindling would have stopped the future from reaching Deadwood.

In 1866, Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, "I think the habit of writing by telegraph will have a happy effect on all writing by teaching condensation."

Perspective is everything in this discussion.



Dog Ears Books Takes a New Path

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, October 11, 2007

In response to last week's column about the NEIBA panel on bookselling in a digital world, Pamela Grath, owner of Dog Ears Books, Northport, Mich., emailed me ("taking a new path" was her subject line) to share her early experiences with a bookstore blog she started in September: "Not sure where the blog will take me, but it's fun so far. Unlike the more formal web page, the blog invites meandering. It is my intention to have them complement one another, both adding something different to and supporting the bookstore."  

Whenever the subject of bookstore blogs comes up, certain questions get asked every time. Why bother? Who will read it? Who has time? Will it sell books? There are many more, of course, so when a bookseller does commit to blogging, we can't resist asking a few of questions of our own.

Pamela Grath opened Dog Ears Books in 1993 as a used bookstore, though her inventory now includes about 20% new titles. Her blog, Books in Northport, is a mere pup by comparison.

Why bother?

According to Grath, "I started the blog because many of my best bookstore customers are from St. Louis, Chicago, Ann Arbor, etc. They get to Northport only once or, at best, a few times a year, but love my bookstore and Northport. The blog seemed like a space where we might continue our conversations even when friends were far away. Posting entries on a blog also seemed more sensible than writing different versions of the same e-mail to half a dozen people and still leaving out others who would have enjoyed the exchange."

She added that essay-style topics "are always simmering in my head, many related to books and bookselling, many others related to life Up North. I liked the idea of staying in touch with people and letting them know what's going on at Dog Ears Books, in Northport, in my life, and in my mind. Also, living in a beautiful place means no end of photographic subjects to share, along with all the new and old books that come to my attention every week of the year. Tying these threads together struck me as an interesting challenge."

Grath's readers thus far have been enthusiastic in their e-mail responses, though few register a password so they can leave comments. She promotes the blog where she can. "To attract new readers, I've included the blog address on bookmarks I give to store customers. There's a link from my bookstore website, too, and our local Chamber of Commerce put both links on their site, since I'm a dues-paying business member."

She wants to keep the Dog Ears Books website "clean and easily to navigate." It was designed to offer an introduction for customers who've never been to the region as well as "a point of reference for established customers, especially those interested in out-of-print books on particular subjects (e.g., Michigan and the Great Lakes )."

The blog, however, offers an alternative form of communication. "With the blog, my focus can be as wide as I choose. A little philosophical creativity can connect any two topics in the world. Just as conversations with customers in the store range far and wide, beginning from a simple point of reference, so can blog postings and comments. That aspect appeals to me greatly."

Grath views her blog postings as an "introduction to the conversational life of the bookstore and the town, beginning with my musings on various books and subjects. Both are ways to visit the bookstore from afar. There are places I love and visit via the Internet, and I know there are people who feel that way about Northport, Michigan, and Dog Ears Books. Northport is a seasonal economy (orchards and tourism), and finding ways to extend that season is important."

Although it is much too soon to predict what sort of impact the blog will have, Grath is excited about the experiment because "I have some very loyal customers, and I know that building loyalty and community are vital to the survival of bookstores."

Like most Internet tools currently available, bookstore blogs are only as good as the booksellers who create them. Ultimately, it still comes down to motivation and execution--a familiar, even old-fashioned combo platter in this industry.

And Grath's motivation is clear: "'You're living my dream!' people exclaim with envy. There are a lot of sacrifices involved, as you know. But this isn't a job; it's a calling. My bookstore is my world, my way of life."