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'How Pleasant... to Just Work in a Bookstore'

I had to laugh at myself for thinking I could embark on such a venture with no business experience whatever, but it felt like an instinct as powerful as a cow's instinct to eat grass. That is what made me laugh, the certainty that I was at the same time a little crazy, no doubt, and absolutely right that this was the adventure for me, godsent, in fact. Hatfield House: A Bookstore for Women was the name that came to me after dawn. --from May Sarton's novel The Education of Harriet Hatfield

Imagine what it would be like to be a bookseller. People seem to do that... a lot. For those of us who are, or were, booksellers, the fantasy is both understandable and amusing. It tends to lean heavily upon endless hours set aside for reading, book-lined shelves, sleeping cats, and engaging conversations with well-read customers.

Occasionally a reality check will leak to the innocent public via social media or a list ("14 Things Only People Who Have Spent Countless Hours Working In A Bookstore Understand"). Mostly, however, the fantasy thrives.

Those of us who've been in the bookish belly of the beast do understand there is something irresistible about the bookselling life. We succumbed to the siren song ourselves, after all. And it is fun to see the fantasy retain its hold on the public's imagination. After all, does anybody fantasize about opening an e-bookstore? Where would the digital cat sleep?

Sometimes, people get the chance to rehearse a bookselling life:

Indies First: On Small Business Saturday, independent booksellers host authors as honorary booksellers throughout the day to help handsell favorite titles, sign books, give readings and more.

AirBnBookselling: For £150 a week, guests at the Open Book in Wigtown, Scotland, "will be expected to sell books for 40 hours a week while living in the flat above the shop. Given training in bookselling from Wigtown's community of booksellers, they will also have the opportunity to put their 'own stamp' on the store while they're there."

Bookshop-sitter: In Big Stone Gap, Va., Wendy Welch and Jack Beck have put their bookstore, Tales of the Lonesome Pine, in the hands of strangers several times since 2012, when they first sought a bookshop-sitter to fill in while they went on tour for Wendy's book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book.

In a recent article for the Straits Times headlined "Selling books is hard work," Corrie Tan recounted her eight-hour shift at the great Singapore indie, BooksActually: "A warm cat on my lap, my favorite book in hand, a steaming mug of good coffee, on-trend music lingering in the air, the intoxicating smell of new books--this is what I imagined owning a bookstore would feel like. I was certain it would be the most comfortable job ever. I was wrong.

"At the end of an eight-hour shift at independent bookstore BooksActually, my sore feet had turned to lead. I had notched up a score of paper cuts from folding brochures and flyers and opening paper bags. And, surprise, surprise, I didn't get any reading done.... As I limped home, I realized that being a bookseller for a day was like being a sort of literary weatherman, sussing out the mood of the room and reacting accordingly. Sunshine, rain, hail, haze--we were there to create an atmosphere where the written word could be best appreciated and find loving new homes."

As it happens, in 2011 I wrote a column with a similar headline ("Bookselling Is Harder than It Looks"), in which I noted: "They glance up from their reading to watch booksellers shelve a few novels. It's a beautiful, universal and almost ceremonial tableau.... They can't help but consider an alternative: How pleasant it must be to just work in a bookstore....

"Here's just a bit of what those customers nestled in their comfy reading chairs planet-wide don't see because you are doing your jobs so well: today's deliveries stacked up in shipping & receiving; cartloads of as yet unshelved books; sections needing to be culled for returns; returns waiting to be boxed and shipped; staff meetings; internal staff rivalries; scheduling conflicts or sick days that result in overstaffing/understaffing (whichever is the worst one that could happen at this particular moment); ordering to be done; bills to be paid (or strategically delayed); websites and blogs [and social media sites] to be updated; author events to be planned and executed....

"Part of the magic and mystery of bookselling is never letting customers see below the surface.... You chose this profession. If you're one of the best, it also chose you." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2600


Award-Winning YA Novel Banned in New Zealand

In the U.S., we're just nine days away from "celebrating the freedom to read" with Banned Books Week 2015, but in New Zealand there has been considerably less cause for celebration recently. During the first week of September, the president of the country's Film and Literature Board of Review issued an Interim Restriction Order banning the sale or distribution of Ted Dawe's YA novel Into the River, which was honored as the 2013 NZ Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year. The work will be reviewed again by the full board soon to determine a "final decision."

Booksellers NZ issued a warning to member bookshops, noting that "the fine for distributing Into the River while it is banned, without knowledge of the ban, is $3,000 for an individual, and $10,000 for a business. If it is distributed while it is banned, with knowledge of the ban, is $10,000 or up to three months in prison for an individual, and $25,000 for a business."

The Interim Restriction Order was sparked by complaints from Family First, a fundamentalist Christian group whose director, Bob McCoskrie, requested the review. "Hopefully we have set a precedent and people start bringing other books to the fore that they are concerned about," he said. "Where a book is targeted at teenagers it needed to be language and theme appropriate."

"I read the book in 2013, and it has stuck with me," noted Jenna Todd, manager of Auckland's Time Out Bookstore, which has drawn attention to the issue in numerous ways, including a sidewalk chalkboard, photo op with Dawe and an "offensive books" window display, with a prominently featured brown paper-wrapped copy of Into the River.

"We often look at troubled young people around us and ask, 'How did this happen?' " Todd continued. "Into the River tries to answer that question. It takes a look at the path that a young Māori boy could take after leaving his whānau, having his culture disregarded and being bullied within an alienating boarding school system.... It's gritty, unapologetic and raw. It contains sex, drugs and swear words. But when read in context, its confronting scenes add depth to the protagonist Te Arepa's toxic surroundings. Many of the so-called scandalous and 'offensive' scenes result in negative experiences for him. It's a good book. And this week, I have been told we will be fined $10,000 if we sell or display it.... We look forward to removing the paper bag and selling it again."

Reaction to the decision has been sharply critical among booksellers, authors, publishers and readers. Across New Zealand, public "silent readings" of the book have been held in protest.

"It is clear that the processes within the 1993 Act are out of sync with modern norms where access to information, particularly books, is ubiquitous and cannot be censored by way of a single country's laws," said Booksellers NZ CEO Lincoln Gould. "Censorship cannot be applied effectively when printed books, e-books and all sorts of other reading material can be accessed online from anywhere in the world.... There certainly needs to be a conversation with government about whether the current law needs to be reviewed."
Publishers Association of New Zealand president Melanie Laville-Moore called Into the River "a highly regarded piece of literature, charged with influencing and changing the lives of many of its teenage male readers. This is an unprecedented and extreme action by the Film and Literature Board of Review. Banning books is not the New Zealand way."

Peter Biggs, chair of the board of the New Zealand Book Council, said "placing a permanent age restriction on Into the River will restrict the ability of family and whānau to make a decision on what is appropriate reading for their children; it will limit access for mature, advanced young readers."

The book's publisher, Penguin Random House NZ, issued a statement saying it "believes that young people benefit from having access to coming of age books that help them to understand the complex society in which they live."
Writer and editor Emma Neale, who worked on the initial assessment and editing phase of the novel, observed: "If we silence the book, and remove it from young adult readers, we repeat the kind of insidious censorship and bullying the fictional private boys' school of the novel, Barwell's, embodies. From silence grow ignorance, isolation and confusion. The extension to a total ban is horrifying and represents the level of censorship expected in totalitarian states."

In an essay for the Guardian, Dawe shared his views on the issue, concluding: "I won't speculate on how all this will end, because my thoughts are for those boys I set out to connect with. You know the ones. They are the dudes who don't read. Don't succeed. Appear in the newspapers for the wrong reasons. And, instead of finding their place in society, find it in jails, mental hospitals and morgues. Reading can be a lifeline to these guys, it's just often one good reading experience that sets them down a new path."

At some point during Banned Books Week, perhaps we'll also have the chance to celebrate the end of Into the River's ban, too. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2595


An 'Occasion to Celebrate' & a 'Day of Reckoning'

Maybe you already know this and are still celebrating, but I think it should be noted that Tuesday was UNESCO International Literacy Day. This year's theme was "Literacy and Sustainable Societies." On its website, UNESCO stated: "Literacy skills are the prerequisite for the learning of a broader set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values required for creating sustainable societies. At the same time, progress in areas of sustainable development, such as health and agriculture, serves as an enabling factor in the promotion of literacy and literate environments."

Calling #InternationalLiteracyDay both "an occasion to celebrate the commitment of individuals and organizations striving to ensure that everyone has the skills needed to engage with the world," as well as "a day of reckoning," the Global Partnership for Education shared new data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics indicating that 757 million adults (two-thirds of whom are women), including 115 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24, still cannot read or write a simple sentence.

Here's a tiny sampling of how the world acknowledged International Literacy Day:

U.S.: "Reading is much more than a leisure activity for members of an East Cleveland court diversion program, who proudly snapped their 'literacy selfie' last Friday so they could participate in WKYC's celebration of International Literacy Day [#WeReadHere]. For these women enrolled in the court's 'From Lemons to Lemonade' program for offenders, their every-other-Friday discussions about literature have helped give them tools needed to break difficult cycles in their lives."

Belize: The Ministry of Education celebrated ILD by holding a Read Aloud Day. Lurleen Betson Gamboa said, "What we are trying to promote is that we want parents, we want teachers, we want community personnel to read to their children or read to a child and the reason for that is when you do read aloud it promotes comprehension, it promotes strong vocabulary, so when you are reading to that child he or she is able to imitate that reading as well as the child is gaining basic comprehension skills and vocabulary skills."

photo: Vanndeth Um/tuoitrenews.vn

Vietnam: Tuoi Tre News presented a World Vision Vietnam photo feature exploring how kids in remote areas "embark on extreme journeys to school... to pursue literacy."

New Zealand: Literacy Aotearoa Wellington, a specialist provider of adult literacy and numeracy education, held a giant game of Scrabble in the foyer of Wellington Railway Station as "a fun way for our staff and students to engage with the public, promote awareness of adult learning and highlight the services that LAW have to offer."

Russia: Olga Ivanova, a senior research fellow at the department of Russian linguistic culture at the Vinogradova Institute for the Study of Russian Language, "claims that Russians are simply fed up with the illiterate mangling of words that Internet communication has produced and that was fashionable just a couple of years ago. A backlash is now underway, with international projects like 'Total Dictation' promoting correct spelling and use of language throughout the world.

DR Congo: From a statement by Martin Kobler, head of the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo: "I commend the Government for the efforts made to promote literacy, which, in addition to representing a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to all Congolese people, is a development factor. Therefore, I reiterate my commitment to supporting the Government authorities to better empower the most disadvantaged sections of the population for an active contribution to sustainable development."

Fiji: "Highlighting the importance of literacy to people with disabilities," and with support from the Australian Government through its partnership with the University of the South Pacific, the Disability Resource Centre "provides a space for studies, specialized learning equipment and support from student volunteers. The initiative is part of the university's commitment to make its facilities and courses accessible under its Disability Inclusiveness Policy adopted in 2013."

photo: The Hindu

India: Students and teachers at Periyar University rallied to mark International Literacy Day, carrying placards and banners with slogans like "Education is not a preparation for life, education is life itself"; and "A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance." The students and teachers "took a pledge that they will do everything possible to eradicate illiteracy."

Cayman Islands: "There still remains a segment of students who leave our schools without obtaining the literacy levels they require to contribute fully to the development and sustainability of our society," Education Minister Tara Rivers observed. "Improving literacy standards continues to be one of the highest priorities for the Cayman Islands Education System, as literacy underpins the life-skills of all individuals in our community."

At the opening ceremony for a two-day literacy conference in Paris this week, UNESCO assistant director general for education Qian Tan said ILD is a time to "renew our commitment to literacy as a human right which empowers people and transforms societies.... Without literacy, equitable and sustainable society cannot be realized." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2590


Where We Find Poets

I remember
The crackle of the palm trees
Over the mooned white roofs of the town...
The shining town...
And the tender fumbling of the surf
On the sulphur-yellow beaches
As we sat... a little apart... in the close-pressing night. -- From "A Memory" by Lola Ridge

To celebrate National Poetry Day New Zealand last week, one of many events nationwide was "Poets at Dusk" at Page & Blackmore Booksellers in Nelson: "The sun sets and words arise." The bookshop also invited patrons to stick a favorite poem in its shop window.

At Time Out Bookstore, an event called "All Tomorrow's Poets 2015" featured "another vibrant and diverse group of writers from across the Auckland sprawl.... Come and listen as these poets push through the congealed membrane of the traditional NZ canon."

For the Wairarapa region's "When Poetry Comes to Town" celebration, Hedley's Bookshop in Masterton held a "Paperbag Poems" event at which patrons could bring their lunch, "taste some of Jenny Hedley's famous soup and hear the favorite poems of ten people from the Masterton community: politicians, bankers, business people and members of community groups. Some of the poems will be familiar favorites but you may discover some new poems too. You can expect to be surprised, entertained and delighted."

While I've heard many, many opinions--positive as well as negative--over the years about setting aside a specific day or week or month to acknowledge the existence (or absence) of poetry in our lives, as a reader of poetry year-round I don't really have any qualms about these lit-markers because public festivals often lead me to unexpected writers.

This happened last year when I wrote a column about National Poetry Day NZ that began: "I don't know anything about New Zealand poetry, relatively speaking." In preparing for the piece, I read many poets who were new to me. This, of course, was the point, but something else happened subsequent to the column's publication that has prompted me to consider how our world of books, using words as thread, can weave readers and writers together.

After the 2014 column appeared, I received an e-mail from author Terese Svoboda that included a pair of amazing poetry book recommendations with New Zealand roots: Lola Ridge's Sun-Up and Other Poems, and Tusiata Avia's Wild Dogs Under My Skirt ("My Uncle once broke a man's hands/ quietly, like you would snap a biscuit/ in half").  

More recently, I've been reading an ARC of Svoboda's terrific upcoming biography, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet (Schaffner Press, January 2016). A human rights activist and acclaimed poet, Ridge lived what Svoboda described as "a very formative 24 years" in the New Zealand gold mining town of Hokitika before eventually ending up in 1920s New York City. Her friends included Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, while Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger were among her mentors. Hers was an extraordinary international life distilled into striking poems.

"Finding my local poetry community was like finding my tribe. And it's a tribe that spans the globe," said Miriam Barr, national coordinator of National Poetry Day. "When I visited New York recently, I found the same tribe there, bunkered in from the snow at the Bowery Poetry Club's open mic and at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe's slam. People hanging on each others words, leaning in to uncover the layers. Reading or listening to poetry gives me glimpses into other peoples' experiences, traces the borders of our differences, holds mirrors up to our similarities. It's inspired me when I've been lost. It has recorded the special moments and contained the painful ones. It's what I always come back to."

One stitch leading to another and another still. If not for National Poetry Day, I might never have read Lola Ridge or Tusiata Avia, and that would be my loss. We need all the poetry days and weeks and months we can get... for many reasons. I tie off these threads, for now, with Lola Ridge's poem "Scandal":

Aren't there bigger things to talk about
Than a window in Greenwich Village
And hyacinths sprouting
Like little puce poems out of a sick soul?
Some cosmic hearsay--
As to whom--it can't be Mars! put the moon--that way....
Or what winds do to canyons
Under the tall stars...
Or even
How that old roué, Neptune,
Cranes over his bald-head moons
At the twinkling heel of a sky-scraper.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2586


Art Meets Commerce on Sidewalk Chalkboards

"The humble and ubiquitous chalkboard placed outside coffee shops, cafes, bars, restaurants or boutiques has slowly grown from a mere way to advertise that night's specials or happy hours to a kind of showcase of wit," the New York Times noted yesterday in a piece headlined "Sidewalk Blackboards Offer Some Chalk 'n' Chew."

They forgot to mention bookstores, but we know better. This summer, Shelf Awareness has occasionally featured a "Bookstore Chalkboard of the Day," highlighting booksellers who creatively occupy the sidewalks outside their stores with humor, puns, quotations, advice and bits of "shop local" wisdom. This strategy isn't new, however. Here are a few highlights from recent history:

2011: A power outage at Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif., compelled the booksellers to "put a chalkboard out front proclaiming, 'Open Until Sundown!' "

2013: With power long restored, Book Passage created a "striking sign" promoting an appearance by legendary tattoo artist Ed Hardy.

At the Lopez Bookshop, Lopez Island, Wash., "the biggest attention-getter was a chalkboard beside the shop's front door that listed a literary question each day." Co-owner Karen Barringer told us: "It's a great conversation starter, and it's fun to see customers' excitement when they get a candy treat for answering the question correctly."

2014: The Owl & Turtle Bookshop, Camden, Maine, issued a retail storm warning July 4 via the store's sidewalk chalkboard, which noted: "Working hypothesis: Putting this chalkboard out on the sidewalk causes rain (We're 50% sure)."

"A simple message on our sidewalk chalkboard is shared (and re-shared, and shared some more) by bookstores and libraries across the country on Facebook last summer, one very warm day," Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass., recalled in its year-end highlights.

2015: Many bookstores have an artist in residence. In June, we featured the work of Madeline Gobbo of the Booksmith, San Francisco, Calif., who "illustrated the shop's sidewalk chalk board Friday to celebrate and thank the five Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of marriage equality."

These are just the tip of the chalky iceberg, of course. Buzzfeed has showcased "15 hilarious bookstore chalkboards" while asking the eternal question: "Who knew the sidewalk could be such a weird and witty place?"

There are, inevitably, dissenters. Last May, Slate's Heather Schwedel took on the chalkboard musings of bars, coffee shops, and boutiques: "Long after the printing press rendered town criers obsolete, that other ancient form of information dissemination, the sidewalk sandwich board, quietly persists.... But perhaps you too have lately noticed a certain creep away from the practical toward a softer sell: jokes, puns, quotations, drawings, and other creative expressions of branding. Too often, the results are cringeworthy."

And in June, Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty pushed for a review of city regulations: "I think sandwich-board signs are an effective tool to encourage new business and attract pedestrians and highlight specials. But if I go out with an 8-by-10 board on my sidewalk, and then you have a little rinky-dink board next to mine, we need absolute rules for that."

The sidewalk chalkboard cannot be stopped by a little negativity, however. Chalk and slate are ancient tools; sidewalk sandwich boards date back at least to the 19th century.

In the Atlantic three years ago, Charles R. Wolfe noted that the "sandwich board" was making a comeback. "As a lawyer interested in the 'on the ground impact' of policy and regulation, I find implementation more interesting and dynamic than the actual permit criteria," he wrote. "With a return to a neighborhood base built around multi-modal street life, the images here show sandwich boards as both fascinating symptoms and emblems of the changing city.... Perhaps because of business necessity and the simple, homespun nature of sandwich boards, users assume flexible placement of such signage is appropriate."

Wolfe proposed five criteria for the viability of sandwich boards:

  1. Homespun simplicity sells.
  2. Artisans need work and small businesses need affordable ways to shine.
  3. Well done signs bring character to neighborhood.
  4. Sandwich boards can supplement permitted facade signage and increase the prominence of a small business.
  5. Perhaps most important, like other forms of pop-up urbanism, removal is an option.

In yesterday's New York Times piece, artist Tyler Patty considered the "learning curve" involved with working in chalk on a blackboard: "It's inverted, so you have to think about light in a different way--you're putting on light instead of shadow. I'm drawn to it because of that."

Art meets commerce... at downtown independent businesses. What's not to like? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2581