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In Praise of Bookstore E-Newsletters

There may be people who receive more indie bookstore e-mail newsletters than I do, but not many. In the instant gratification age of social media, this traditional format is apparently retro enough to have become hip again. Think Steampunk, with a brass "Subscribe" button.

"E-mail newsletters are so hot right now," wrote Klint Finley in TechCrunch last month, adding: "Two or three years ago every site on the Web was doing all it could to trick coax readers into 'liking' them on Facebook. Today much of that focus has shifted towards getting readers to sign-up for an e-mail subscription."

I have a particular interest in the topic since I work for Shelf Awareness, which partners with more than 80 indie booksellers to send out co-branded editions of Shelf Awareness for Readers. But I've also been subscribing to indie bookstore e-newsletters for a long, long time, dating back to my years as a bookseller. They are a digital wellspring. One of the best ideas I ever heard came from an "Authorless Events" seminar at the 2008 Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association fall show in Colorado Springs: Bookstores should subscribe to one another's e-mail newsletters so they can steal (well, share) great promotional concepts.

"So why all this effort to herd readers into a medium that is supposed to be dying? And why are we, as readers, so willing to invite even more e-mail into our lives?" Finley asked, then offered five good reasons:

  1. E-mail Gives Publishers More Control
  2. Readers Pay More Attention to E-Mail
  3. E-Mail Is Cross-Platform
  4. E-mail Keeps All Your Clutter in One Place
  5. E-mail Is the Original Social Media

"For years, those of us who have advocated the indie or federated Web have called for social networks to be more like e-mail, but it turns out e-mail itself is a pretty good social media platform," he observed.

A well-conceived and executed bookshop e-newsletter feels like a personal message in ways Facebook, tumblr, Twitter or Instagram posts don't (though I love those as well). And Russo's Books, Bakersfield, Calif., shows that e-newsletters can even be used to invite further interaction: "Booklovers, engage with us.... Keep the Conversation Going. Our homepage features our Twitter and Facebook feed, plus a 'book video of the day.' We encourage you to visit us daily and contribute to our content."

At their best, e-newsletters are informative and entertaining--quick, welcome updates from good friends (who happen to read great books). Consider a recent sampling from my inbox:

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.: "You know that feeling of a freshly painted and re-carpeted room? We do. That's because our downstairs space, where we hold our events, is all done up nice with new paint and carpeting. Folks on staff have put in hours of work to make this update happen (we're not JUST booksellers, you know)."

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan.: "Roger & Vivien celebrated the [Labor Day] Holiday in the mountains along the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, and brought the cooler weather back Home to Kansas City with them. They wanted great weather here to launch their autumn season of Author Events!"  

Broadway Books, Portland, Ore.: "After one of the warmest, sunniest summers we can remember, there at last is a tiny chill in the morning air and we find ourselves sliding into fall. And here's a bookseller's not-so-secret confession: it's our favorite time of year. Many of you know why. September marks the beginning of the fall publishing season, when the majority of new books for the year come out.... We greet our UPS and FedEx delivery people like conquering heroes this time of year, because of the bounty they bring to our shelves. So exciting!"

Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, Calif.: "Also David Bajo's medical thriller, Mercy 6, is hot off the press for tonight's launch party at MGSD. Read more about how this 'great reads genre' novel affected Shelf Awareness's contributing editor Robert Gray here." [Note: Even my ego occasionally gets unanticipated nourishment from reading bookstore e-newsletters]

McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich.: "Anticipating new books must be one of the greatest pleasures in life. The delayed gratification probably has something to do with it. There's something about finding a book on the shelf that you've been waiting for and then having that, 'You are JUST what I was looking for!' moment."

Agreed. And I often feel that way when a new bookstore e-newsletter edition arrives, too. How about you?

Perhaps, as Alexis C. Madrigal wrote in the Atlantic recently, e-mail has become "a refugee from the open, interoperable, less-controlled 'Web we lost.' It's an exciting landscape of freedom amidst the walled gardens of social networking and messaging services. Yes, e-mail is exciting. Get excited!" --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2341.


When Bookshelves Make a House a Home

We are currently in the planning stages of an ambitious bookcase-building project in the house we had rented since 2010 and purchased last year. That means four years have passed during which our substantial book collection, while readily accessible on temporary shelving in the finished basement, has lived in relative exile. This will change soon and our home will at last be fluent in the language of books.  

Sadly, not my library

Whenever I think of the power of bookshelves, I recall a passage from Frederick Buechner's The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found: "The Magic Kingdom is my haven and sanctuary, the place where I do my work, the place of my dreams and of my dreaming.... It consists of the small room you enter through, where the family archives are, the office, where my desk and writing paraphernalia are, and the library, which is by far the largest room of the three. Its walls are lined with ceiling-high shelves except where the windows are, and it is divided roughly in half by shoulder-high shelves that jut out at right angles from the others but with an eight-foot space between them so that it is still one long room despite the dividers. There are such wonderful books in it that I expect people to tremble with excitement, as I would, on entering it for the first time, but few of them do so because they don't know or care enough about books to have any idea what they are seeing."

It was not until early adolescence that I began to understand the influence bookshelves could have upon living space. Although my family did not collect books, my father built me a small bookcase. This modest addition altered my room, and life, forever. I've been surrounded by books since then.

"Any home, especially one that has been lived in for quite a while, is a three-dimensional text," Alison Lurie writes in The Language of Houses, adding: "For many people, the home is a kind of sacred site, one that is chosen carefully and honored in memory; sometimes it may be revisited long after they have moved away."

I think about the amazing book conversations Kathy Murphy--founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club (now with more than 550 chapters)--must have had in the Jefferson, Tex., house she is currently selling. Murphy recently told me that in 2000, she opened Beauty and the Book "on the bottom level of my house, out in the woods. Pulpwood Queens Book Club meetings were held in my home as we outgrew my tiny shop downstairs. I ran my shop and my book club there for years until I moved into an old house in town, which sold, then moved into the restored gas station." She has since relocated her business and book club to nearby Hawkins and will host the 15th annual Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches this January.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's study in Concord

Or consider legendary authors' homes. When we visit these "sacred sites," I suspect that even those of us who profess not to believe in ghosts may make an exception for the houses, and perhaps more so the personal libraries, of writers who matter to us. I know a discernible chill ran up my spine when I first visited Ralph Waldo Emerson's study, even though it is housed at the Concord Museum.

Real estate probably complicates matters a bit. In recent months, the former residences of John Cheever and J.D. Salinger have hit the market, along with Judy Blume's Martha's Vineyard waterfront retreat and even the "house that inspired The Adventures of Pinocchio's author." But I'm much more intrigued by the volumes that were shelved along the walls of these sacred sites than the people who lived there. It is the books that haunt.

"A building is an inanimate object, but it is not an inarticulate one," Lurie observes.

Maybe that is why I also love bookshops located in old houses, where the current inventory forms a kind of biblio-palimpsest over decades of bookshelves owned by former residents. Wendy and Jack Welch founded Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookshop, Big Stone Gap, Va., a few years ago in a century-old house. In The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, her book chronicling their adventures and misadventures, Welch coined the term "B-space" to describe bookstores where "book-lined walls buffer against the world's bustling while browsing calms the soul and satisfies the mind."

I think that will soon describe our house, too, now that the books are coming home once again. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2335.


Labor Day, Book Trade & River Pilots

It all began yesterday, when I read this in a blog post at Forbes.com: "So is Labor Day an anachronism, a throwback to an earlier time, and no longer a meaningful holiday? My answer is that it can be exceptionally meaningful if we redefine the holiday to be... a celebration of work, regardless of sector. Remember that labor hasn't become easier; it's just changing."

Sometimes one thought leads to another and you make the oddest connections. Even though I was working at my landlocked desk, my mind decided on its own to put out to sea in search of an analogy and returned to port with the following cargo manifest: Labor Day Weekend, New Orleans, river pilots and all of us workers who toil, with pleasure and pain, in the book trade.

Like so many of you in this business, my job requirements include a passion for discovering and cultivating productive relationships with great new reads. Whenever possible, we gently steer these titles through often arduous passage to, ideally, a fathomless sea (or, at minimum, a Great Lake) of eager readers. That doesn't sound easy, and it isn't.
The genesis for my curious line of thought this week was complicated, and included an awareness of the onrushing Labor Day Weekend; recollection of a view from my hotel room during last year's Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance fall conference in New Orleans; and an article I'd read years ago and nearly forgotten.

That hotel room featured a great view from my perch--40 stories above sea level--of the Mississippi meandering through NOLA and an endless parade of ships moving slowly upriver or down. Remembering the ships brought to mind a 2001 Times-Picayune article I'd discovered online in 2006, while presumably searching for something else entirely. Headlined "River pilot basics," the piece had prompted me to scribble some notes for future reference. I was still a bookseller then, and the parallels must have seemed worth contemplating.

The article answered some key questions about its topic, including the most obvious:

Q: What is a river pilot?
A: Mississippi River pilots help captains of foreign ships steer their vessels from the foot of the river at the Gulf of Mexico to cargo terminals as far north as Baton Rouge.


Q: Why is a pilot needed?
A: State law requires that local pilots guide ships along the Mississippi. The theory is that foreign crews lack the knowledge needed to deal with navigational hazards on the river because they rarely visit the area.


Q: What makes a pilot's job tough?
A: Sometimes the job is monotonous. But there is always the possibility of something unforeseen. The unexpected can range from river hazards, such as obstacles, new silt bars, changing currents and river congestion, to shipboard difficulties, such as engine trouble, crew uprisings, violent stowaways, communication problems and threats of disease.

I think a comparable list of bookish dangers could easily be conjured for a new title making its perilous journey from manuscript to point of sale, with every stage of the process fraught with "the possibility of something unforeseen."

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain used steamboat pilots as an analogy for workers in the book trade (well not really, but I'm bending the analogy a bit here to suit my own purposes) when he wrote: "Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was, that in order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours.... Now I had often seen pilots gazing at the water and pretending to read it as if it were a book; but it was a book that told me nothing."

A book pilot--and we are all book pilots in this business--has to keep gazing, too. The titles we love always need our help in dealing with "navigational hazards" as we guide them to their destinations. The books tell us where they should go. We try like hell to get them there safely and then we "learn it all over again in a different way" for the next one.

Happy Labor Day, book people. Enjoy the BBQ, beach and extra time off, but don't forget to celebrate... your work. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2331.


A Reading Pilgrimage for NZ National Poetry Day 

I don't know anything about New Zealand poetry, relatively speaking. Today, the country is (or was, depending on when you read this and where) celebrating its 17th annual National Poetry Day, with more than 60 events planned, including "Poems for Pikelets in Nelson; a poetry serenade phone line; a Whistle Stop poetry tour of Otago and Southland; Operation Funny Bone--a celebration of amusing poetry in the Coromandel; poems on walls in the Wairarapa; poets on buses in Auckland and Wellington; and a day-long festival of poetry at Ashburton College," according to Booksellers New Zealand. I love the idea that morning bus commuters received "a good dose of poetry" regarding public transport etiquette ("Poetiquette") courtesy of NZ Bus.

Poet and National Poetry Day coordinator Miriam Barr observed that poetry "is for everyone.... They say every person makes poetry on a daily basis and poets are simply the people who write it down. Anyone can start writing it down and anyone can enjoy it. You are never too young or old to get involved in poetry."

"Poetry in New Zealand is in fantastic shape with a number of brilliant new poets making themselves known," said Miriama Kamo, convenor of the judging panel for the New Zealand Post Book Awards. This year's shortlisted titles in the poetry category are Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes, Horse with Hat by Marty Smith, Heartland by Michele Leggott and Us by Vincent O'Sullivan.

I pause here to consider that aforementioned troubling gap in my poetry of New Zealand reading résumé. In recent years, I have increased my focus on translated works, doing my part, with pleasure, to raise the 3% bar. It occurred to me, however, that spaces remain to be filled on my English-language poetry shelf as well. A pilgrimage was called for, and, inspired by New Zealand Poetry Day, that's what I'm working on here. Call it a new chapter in a lifelong "gap reading" initiative.

Where do I begin? I listen to poetry: Miriam Barr reads Leggott's poem "Nga Kaitiaki," Hughes's "We are experiencing a delay," O'Sullivan's "No Longer Listed" and Smith's "Black Smith."  

Janet Frame

I learn there's a tentative personal connection to consider. I've read Janet Frame's prose, but not her poetry. I discover a poem titled "Scarlet Tanager, Saratoga Springs," invoking a moment in the upstate New York town where I live and where she spent some time at Yaddo:

And then, your blood-colour furled, you flew to the highest bough and you sang
in detail, without violence, a civilized version of your story.

Poems by Hone Tuwhare find me. I like this: "I progressed from a plant, and became animal. I died as an animal and/ became man. Now... never did I grow less by dying, you understand?"

Then I follow a new trail: The Sarah Broom Poetry Prize "is inspired by the spirit of imagination, freedom and determination" that marked the life of poet Sarah Broom, who died in 2013. She wrote this:

and if, after all,
when the world
starts to stray from me,
like a grazing animal,
nonchalant, diverted,
frayed rope trailing,

if you are still here
and still listening,

then, if you can

sing to me

C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead was the winner of this year's inaugural Sarah Broom Prize. I've met him briefly in anthologies over the years. He wrote this:

These are the stars of poetry
Too good to be true
Over the hills and in the brim-full bay;

And this, that ultimate coin
The dead exchange--

Sam Hunt was the Sarah Broom Prize's guest judge. His life maxim is "Tell the story/ tell it true/ charm it crazy." And he wrote this:

The house, without you in it,
should be condemned, too

right: there should be a law against it!
The house, to be a house, needs you.

Like every gap reading pilgrimage, this one ends somewhere along the path, with words--out of context and yet oddly pertinent--from Helen Lehndorf's review of The Lonely Nude by Emily Dobson for the Booksellers of New Zealand blog: "At times my first reaction on finishing a poem was: 'Is that it?' but then I would re-read it, and re-read it again and my question would turn into the declarative 'That's it! Yes,... that's it,' something true had been cleverly conveyed." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2326.



The Orwellian Bookseller

Like many people, I was both "appalled and wryly amused" (see below) by Amazon's recent misunderstanding, misquote and mis-invocation of George Orwell in its battle with Hachette. But the question that came to my mind was one asked last year in the Guardian by Stuart Jeffries: "What would George Orwell have made of the world in 2013?"

I have no idea what Orwell would be thinking, of course. Nor does Jeff Bezos's Amazon Books Team. In a New York Times letter to the editor, literary agent Bill Hamilton, who is also the executor of the Orwell estate, wrote that Amazon "is using George Orwell's name in vain.... This is about as close as one can get to the Ministry of Truth and its doublespeak: turning the facts inside out to get a piece of propaganda across.... I’m both appalled and wryly amused that Amazon’s tactics should come straight out of Orwell’s own nightmare dystopia, 1984. It doesn’t say much for Amazon’s regard for truth, or its powers of literary understanding. Or perhaps Amazon just doesn’t care about the authors it is selling. If that’s the case, why should we listen to a word it says about the value of books?

And while it may just be coincidence that Orwell was name-dropped in the middle of a confrontation between an online retail giant and a publisher, it is also appropriate, given that he often wrote about his relationship to books and the book business. In fact, a quick scan of my past columns made me realize I've invoked him more than a few times myself.

In his 1946 essay "Books vs. Cigarettes," Orwell observed that the "idea that the buying, or even the reading, of books is an expensive hobby and beyond the reach of the average person is so widespread that it deserves some detailed examination." After attempting to calculate his book expenditures over 15 years, he estimated that his total reading expenses had been "in the neighborhood of £25 a year," which was £15 less than his tobacco expenses.

"It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them," Orwell noted, adding that he had "said enough to show that reading is one of the cheaper recreations.... And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive."

Because of my own background, I've always been intrigued by Orwell's early work as a bookseller, the fruits of which crop up occasionally in his work. Part of this fascination, I admit, is that his booksellers tend not to be cheerful, "You must read this!" customer-service aficionados. They can be delightfully prickly, as most of us have been in our weaker moments--even while trying not to let it show--on the sales floor. Perhaps I turned to Orwell when I was a bookseller as a release because he often explored the darker side we don't have the freedom to acknowledge publicly. (Succeeding in the bookstore business is hard enough when projecting a positive outlook.) Or maybe I'm just more cynical than you are.

In any case, I have an affection for Orwellian booksellers, like the dyspeptic Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, who considers his fate among the stacks at Mr. McKechnie's bookshop: "This was the lonely after-dinner hour, when few or no customers were to be expected. He was alone with seven thousand books. The small dark room, smelling of dust and decayed paper, that gave on the office, was filled to the brim with books, mostly aged and unsaleable. On the top shelves near the ceiling the quarto volumes of extinct encyclopedias slumbered on their sides in piles like the tiered coffins in common graves."

In his essay "Bookshop Memories," Orwell recalled: "When I worked in a second-hand bookshop--so easily pictured, if you don't work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios--the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one.... Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop."

Also: "Would I like to be a bookseller de métier? On the whole--in spite of my employer's kindness to me, and some happy days I spent in the shop--no.... Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop.... Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman."

Ah, but they do try, don't they? What would Mr. Orwell have made of the book world in 2014? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2320.