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Sunday
Mar162014

Shoplifting Books: Stop! Thief! Oh, Never Mind

"Time: 1985 or thereabouts. Place: Shakespeare & Company Booksellers (as I remember it) in Manhattan." A New York Times "Metropolitan Diary" entry last week opened with that CSI: Bookstore intro, then shared a brief but amusing tale involving a few classic ingredients of the crime thriller: suspect, witness and potential theft, with a devilishly clever comeuppance at the end.

The witness recalls seeing "an unmistakable tall, reedlike figure with a jutting jaw and blondish hair, wearing a floppy knit hat that could not disguise him." She recognizes the celebrity and begins stalking him through the aisles until, quite suddenly, she's astonished to catch him in a criminal act: "He doesn't seem to notice me as he stops and pulls a book off the shelf. He examines it. Then, he quickly snaps it shut, slips it under his oversize coat and strolls away."

Still in shock, the witness continues to trail her suspect until his "pace, slow at first, begins to quicken as he approaches the cashier through the front exit. Wait! What do I do? Do I rat him out? I am stunned into silence."

In a dramatic plot twist, the suspect "magically flips the book out from its hiding place onto the counter along with a $20 bill. He then flashes a conspiratorial wink at me and my gaping jaw. Peter O'Toole then exits the stage, leaving this sole audience member both amused and amazed."

I love that story. It brought to mind any number of incidents from my bookselling days, including the time a new manager at the store where I worked thought he had the goods on an elderly customer who seemed to frequently walk out with unpaid books. The case was quickly solved, however, once clues were assembled and he was informed, Inspector Lestrade-like, that the suspect was actually the co-owner's mother.

As sometimes happens, the Peter O'Toole story tempted me not only to stroll along my own guilt-lined memory lane, but down the Internet rabbit hole as well, where I found a gem from the June 6, 1968, NYT:

"A film about shoplifting that included an episode about a woman slipping a vacuum cleaner under her skirt and walking out of a store evoked horrified laughter yesterday at the American Booksellers Association convention. The audience was told afterward that unexplained shortages in bookstores probably run from 2.4% to 4% of total business handled....

"After the shoplifting film, Hubert Belmont, a Washington book consultant who was a shop manager for 15 years, told the booksellers: 'Now that we have all decided to close our stores we will still go on with the program. However, we will no longer wonder why some of our friends walk away peculiarly when they are leaving the store with encyclopedias between their legs.' "

I should mention (call it a confession, just to keep with the theme) that bookstore shoplifting is a subject that has long intrigued and even haunted me, for a few reasons:

  • I often feel irrationally guilty when I'm browsing in a bookstore I haven't visited before.
  • I wouldn't snitch on another customer I saw shoplifting and I feel a little guilty about that, too.
  • When I was a bookseller, I never once caught anyone stealing, even when I was sure they had; even when they set off the security alarm while leaving. I was a master of the slightly delayed leap into action, hoping one of my colleagues would beat me to the door and the confrontation.
  • I knew I would be lousy at the chase-and-apprehend nature of catching shoplifters, so I didn't try.
  • The standard rule that you could never let suspected shoplifters out of your sight for an instant (lest they dump the goods and increase the dangers of litigation) reinforced my natural inclination to inaction.


Maybe I should have been more vigilant. Certainly I was no Paul Constant, who wrote in the Stranger: "In my eight years working at an independent bookstore, I lost count of how many shoplifters I chased through the streets of Seattle while shouting 'Drop the book!' I chased them down crowded pedestrian plazas in the afternoon, I chased them through alleys at night, I even chased one into a train tunnel."

Jerry Seinfeld was willing to rat out his own Uncle Leo for shoplifting books at Brentano's:

Jerry: Leo, I saw you steal.
Leo: Oh, they don’t care. We all do it.
Jerry: Who, criminals?
Leo: Senior citizens. No big deal.

When I was a bookseller, I just couldn't take the pressure of being an anti-shoplifting enforcer, and now I'm an oblivious bookstore customer, avoiding any temptation to snitch. Oblivious... and maybe just a little guilty.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2207.

Sunday
Mar092014

Serendipity & the Festival Internacional de Poesía

We've all experienced serendipitous moments while traveling, when our plans suddenly evolve into something unexpected, profound and beautiful. Recently, Northshire Bookstore co-founders Ed and Barbara Morrow were in just such a situation during their two-month stay in Granada, Nicaragua.

Ed and Barbara Morrow with indie bookseller Troy Fuss, owner of Lucha Libro Books in Granada, Nicaragua

In February, the Morrows discovered their visit happened to coincide with the city's 10th annual Festival Internacional de Poesía (International Poetry Festival), "a week of activities and festivities, all centered around poetry--punctuated by live music," Barbara recalled. "It is held mostly outdoors in the central square of Granada, surrounded by the beautiful San Francisco cathedral, local vendors selling artisanal wares and the lovely square itself consisting of cafés, shops and restaurants, catering to locals and tourists alike.

"The festival celebrates poets from around the world, many from Latin American countries, and this year's North American honoree was Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate. It was thrilling hearing her read her poems (in English, and then deftly translated into Spanish) at the beginning of the festival; she was regal, profound and accessible."

One night, during a celebration of women poets, Dove "spoke eloquently about the abuses faced by women around the globe, and said that in a perfect world there wouldn't be the need for women's poetry and men's poetry," Barbara added.

A bookseller at heart, she mentioned two books in particular that had helped prepare her for the trip. One was Gioconda Belli's memoir, The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, "and lo and behold, she was here for the festival, so Ed and I bravely sought her out to talk to her briefly and ask her to sign my book.... The other indispensable book I discovered was Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua by Stephen Kinzer, who covered Nicaragua for the New York Times in the 80s. A friend of mine tracked him down at BU where he teaches, and we're going to all have dinner together when we get back at the end of March. Bookselling is good practice for chutzpah!"  

The Morrows also connected with Troy Fuss, proprietor of Lucha Libro Books, "who basically just landed here and decided to open a bookstore that carried English and Spanish books," she said. "It's pretty tiny, no more than 600 sq. ft. There apparently is a B&N equivalent that just shut down their Granada store. Their main--and I think only--presence is now in Managua, the capital."

Serendipity.

Shortly after Barbara contacted me, I started noticing Facebook posts about the festival by Naomi Ayala, who'd been one of the poets invited to read there. She is the author of three poetry collections, including, mostly recently, Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations (Bilingual Review Press), which I highly recommend. From "For Remembrance":

Ask me why I'm silent.
I speak the unwinding
through which the wind blows.
Listen and you will remember me.
There are echoes everywhere.
Laugh back.

I wondered what the Festival Internacional de Poesía had meant to her. So I asked.

Street corner at burial of machismo and violence against women readings (photo by Naomi Ayala)

"Nicaragua is a country that respects and values culture highly--its own and that of other nations," Ayala observed, adding that nowhere is this more evident than at the festival. "Of all the seminal moments I have had the opportunity to experience as a poet, my participation in this year's 10th anniversary will forever rank among the highest. Here Spanish, not English, was the international language that brought together 141 poets from all corners of the world. So it was that I had the great honor to exchange, at minimum, a few words in the language in which I first began to write poetry with Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Latvian, Korean, and Maltese poets, to name a few, who are beloved by their nations--and Nicaragua--in ways few American poets can imagine.

"It is dumbfounding to see how a small Third World country, with a tiny staff and a small troop of impassioned youth volunteers, can pull off an event of such magnitude--one that, besides the dozen or so nightly poetry readings, includes two art exhibits, more than half a dozen street concerts and dance performances, and concurrent book and crafts fairs."

Barbara Morrow's words echoed Ayala's: "What is so amazing to me is that in this Third World country, which has seen such violence and upheaval in its recent history, they have chosen poetry to bring people together. And that so many people turn out to celebrate poetry and what it represents: namely, the personal expression of longing, desire and gratitude."

Ayala eloquently captured the essence of her Festival Internacional de Poesía experience when she said that, in addition to "a dozen new poems, love in so many forms and friendships that will last a lifetime," she returned to the U.S. "with the unwavering knowledge that poetry is not only alive and well in places outside my purview, but that, every time I sit in a street corner, every time I hang over my desk, I am not among the world's few."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2202.

Sunday
Mar022014

Handselling Is Always a 'Trust Fall'

Handselling is many, many things, and placing the right book in the hands of its ideal reader is just the proverbial iceberg tip. Below the surface lurk intangibles like magic and instinct, tempered by experience, success and rejection. Also luck. Also trust.

Handselling at the King's English, Salt Lake City, Utah

Most of the excellent handsellers I've known--and there are many--display a natural affinity for the classic "You've got to read this!" moment with a customer, which can be repeated over and over without sounding rote. All they need is the right environment in which to be turned loose. Until I became a handseller, I never would have imagined I had the gift; didn't even know it existed.

Jill Hendrix, owner of Fiction Addiction, Greenville, S.C., is one of those great handsellers I've encountered over the years. Last week we showcased her innovative "Trust Fall" promotion as a "Cool idea of the Day." And it is.

"How much do you trust Fiction Addiction? Will you take a trust fall with us?" she asked in a January e-mail to customers. Turns out, they trusted her a lot. To date, more than 60 copies of Andy Weir's The Martian have been sold and Hendrix may survey the participants to see whether "there would be any interest in this as an ongoing idea... perhaps the Trust Fall Bookclub."

Since first learning about the promotion, I've been toying with the idea that all handselling is a Trust Fall. Those Fiction Addiction customers who were willing to pre-order the novel sight unseen, based only on the confidence they had in their favorite local bookseller, certainly exhibited a profound counter-algorithmic faith. But Trust Fall handselling also goes well beyond that example to include variations like daily sales floor interactions, telephone/e-mail/social media conversations, shelf-talkers, "blind date with a book" displays, signed first edition clubs and much more.

"To me, handselling is when customers decide to buy a book they otherwise wouldn't have based on your recommendation, whether that recommendation comes through a face-to-face conversation, our e-mail newsletter, a shelf-talker, a post on Facebook, etc.," Hendrix said.

Shelf talker at Seattle's Elliott Bay Books (photo: Northwestbooklovers.net)

I agree, and wonder how many other frontline booksellers discovered the mystery of handselling only after getting into the business. I'll admit that when I was first interviewed for a bookstore job in 1992, I was a little flummoxed by the notion that customers would even consider my recommendations. I'd been shopping in bookstores for decades and rarely spoke with the staff (yes, I was one of those). As a bookseller, however, I was amazed and pleased by the curiosity people had about the books I read. And once I'd earned their trust, even when they didn't like a particular suggestion, they still came back for more.

Hendrix, as it happens, followed a similar path. "We were big library people growing up, so the first time I remember really shopping on my own for books was in college at Yale," she recalled. "If I'm remembering correctly, Atticus Books would have some shelf talkers with suggestions. After college I lived in New York and mostly shopped at chains and don't remember even seeing a Staff Picks section so, like you, I never asked for suggestions. I depended instead on a friend who read much more than me."

Maybe great handsellers are born and made. I don't recall precisely when I realized that so many readers were taking Trust Falls with me on new books because it all seems so natural and inevitable, in retrospect. Handselling, above all, is just a private conversation--whatever form that may take--between one bookseller and one reader. You don't just "sell"; you make certain books irresistible (or try to), and trust is a critical part of that exchange.

From HudsonBooksellers.com

If all this sounds like a romantic notion of what a bookseller should be, then I stand guilty as charged; a handseller to the end. At its best, handselling can be an intricate Trust Fall dance, with the steps changing, often imperceptibly, each time the music starts--or a fine new book is released.

What's the ultimate test? Handselling to another handseller, of course. Yes, I'm currently reading The Martian, thanks to Fiction Addiction and Jill Hendrix. Now that's a Trust Fall.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2197.

Sunday
Feb232014

That Elusive 'Red Cover' Book, Revisited

In a New York City bookshop where much of the action occurs in Sheridan Hay's 2007 novel The Secret of Lost Things, the staff is adept at a game called "Who Knows?"--pooling their varied and idiosyncratic skills to answer otherwise unfathomable book requests, including the customer whose "hands might move apart, as if to say 'it's about this thick'... [T]he only reliable source of reference was the staff and their collective memory."  

We know the drill.

What prompted my recollection of the "Who Knows?" game was a bit of clever sales floor merchandising recently at Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex. A photo posted on Facebook showed their "Blue Display," featuring a slate on which the following words, all-too-familiar in their infinite variations to booksellers worldwide, were written: "I don't remember the title, but it's blue."

This sparked my memory and a little research. I recalled that Blue Willow's owner Valerie Koehler had mentioned a few years ago (also in 2007, as it happens) that while she'd been giving a lot of thought at the time to online searching as it related to the game, she believed a discerning human element was absolutely critical. She trained her staff to field vague title requests with a healthy dose of well-masked skepticism.

"When searching, use unique keywords, ask leading questions," she advised. Assume, without letting your customers know it, that they might be just a little confused or misinformed. She cited the example of someone who'd been reading a great book, wanted additional copies for friends, and described it as "a memoir with 'I Remember' in the title, in which a retired man is dying and telling his life story and he was a historian and he studied war and he lived on an island." Using these clues, Koehler had "gently" enlightened the customer that she was actually reading Rules for Old Men Waiting, a novel. Result: pleased customer and two books sold.

We've all been there, finding infinite ways to merge available technology with a bookseller's ability, instinct and well-honed memory. It's reassuring that humans can often still reign supreme in the realm of "blue cover" inquiries. Social media helps now, of course; I often see "calls for a title" on Twitter and Facebook as booksellers crowdsource in a digital version of the "Who Knows?" game.

Same as it ever was? Absolutely. In 1936, George Orwell described "the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover."

Despite my occasional suspicions, I don’t really believe people consciously make up their endless stream of misheard, misread or misremembered titles. On the other hand, I did unearth a condescending New York Times piece from 1909 that featured the Office Philosopher and the Office Radical setting out to test the mettle (aka belittle) local booksellers after this exchange:

Their bookish quest begins when the Philosopher shares a joke "told by a book clerk to the effect that somebody went into a bookstore and asked the long-suffering clerk for a copy of John Stuart Mill on the Floss. Now I consider that a high-class joke."

Unamused, the Radical says he has "read a bushel of these jokes at the expense of the bookshop customers... and I'll bet they are fakes. For this reason: not one-tenth of the clerks in bookstores would know the difference. If a customer went into a book store and asked for a copy of John Stuart Mill on the Floss, it would be dollars to donuts that the clerk would reply, 'We haven't got it in stock, but we can order it for you.' " The two gentlemen wager dinner and then proceed to stump and humiliate bookseller after bookseller in the city.

Seeking balance in my bookselling universe, I soon discovered another NYT piece, from 1914, in which the death of one of the founders of Leggat's Bookstore was noted, followed by an observation that the shop's clientele included "all the famous literary and public men of his era. But they also included many thousands who had no fame but knew where books could be got for the most reasonable price and where they could be quickly served by clerks who knew something about every book that was ever published."

Take that, Philosopher and Radical. Leave them "clerks" alone. By the way, they're called booksellers, and one of the best parts of this vocation is the opportunity to serve as "customer request decoder," a mystifying, Holmesian task in which clues are presented and deductions made, elementary and otherwise. --Published by Shelf Awareness, #2191.

Sunday
Feb162014

'Love Letters': Common Good Books' Poetry Contest

I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
Don't waste my time and I won't waste yours.
You are the woman I love, of course.
I'm crazy about you and always have been.
And don't make me say it again.
Cause I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
A man of monumental brevity.
That's me.

--Garrison Keillor's poem "That's Me," from O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound (Grove Press)


Love is in the air today, but who says it can't continue through spring if you're up to the challenge of entering "Love Letters": Common Good Books' Second Annual Poetry Contest"? Author, entertainer and indie bookstore proprietor Garrison Keillor is "putting up some serious cash" in support of good verse, with a $1,000 first prize and four $250 runner-up prizes. Judges for the contest are Keillor, Tom Hennen and Patricia Hampl. Finalists will be named April 20 and winners announced April 27 at a celebration of poetry in St Paul, Minn.

"Proclaiming one's love is the great test of a poet, to put irony and satire aside and the great everlasting litany of complaint and to put your heart on the line. That is where you reveal yourself as a human being. It's not for the timid," said Keillor.

David Enyeart, the bookstore's event coordinator and assistant manager, explained that transitioning from a regional contest to a national one has been a natural evolution for the store: "Having fun and drawing some attention to poets sounds like a good day to me. But this isn't altruism. We're living up to our motto--'Live Local, Read Large'-- by showing everyone that reading and writing are important because they connect us with each other and with the whole world. That message is worth a little effort, we think."

He also noted Common Good Books "is fortunate among bookstores to have a solid base of poetry fans among our customers. So of course, we're serving them by running this contest and helping them to become better writers and readers of poetry. Last year's contest was well received here in St. Paul, and we're pleased to continue our burgeoning tradition with this year's bigger prizes.

Colin McDonald in promo video for this year's Common Good Books' Poetry Contest

"Poetry isn't just something that Minnesotans like; it's for everyone. The more people are talking about poetry and writing, the better for all of us in the book world. If our contest sends someone into a bookstore in Wichita, Kansas, or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, looking for a writing guide or a slim volume of inspiration, we'll be happy. If a bookseller in Michigan can use our contest to lure a customer into their Poetry section, our efforts will not be in vain."

Poets, aspiring poets and even non-poets are welcome to enter. For those who need a little help, the Common Good Books tumblr features a contest advice page, where tips will be shared "on how to win at (writing) love from some of our country's best poets," including Tony Hoagland, Deborah Garrison (poetry editor at Knopf), Richard Blanco, Henri Cole, Sophie Cabot Black, Kathleen Flenniken, Jim Moore and Kristin Naca. Sage counsel on "How to Write a Love Poem" begins today with Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts.

Last year's poetry finalists on display at Common Good Books

To enter the Common Good Books Poetry Contest, "just craft a paean to your favorite person, place, or thing. Pour your love onto the page, shape it well, and mail your love letter to Common Good Books before April 15. Fame and fortune could be yours," the organizers proclaimed.

Why snail mail entries in a digital age? The answer is both traditional and practical, according to Enyeart: "I'm going to make entrants mail us their poems because we are proponents of ink on paper and because I need a signed release so we can publish their work."

The rules:

  • The contest is open to anyone living within the United States.
  • The poem must be a declaration of love for a specific person, or being, or object, or place--i.e., something tangible.
  • The entries must be unpublished anywhere, and the author must have full rights to the material.
  • Only one entry per person.
  • Entries must be mailed to Common Good Books (38 S. Snelling Ave., St Paul MN 55105), postmarked no later than April 15, 2014.
  • Entries must include a signed release, available at http://commongoodbooks.tumblr.com/advice


"My dream is to spark a nationwide conversation about poetry. I'd love to see grandparents and grandchildren sitting down together and writing odes to breakfast cereal or mud puddles," said Enyeart. "I'd like to know that lovers across the country will craft slightly better text messages because they honed their skills writing poems for our contest. I want to eliminate the wrinkled noses and shy stammers that come when you say the word 'poetry' in airports and shopping malls. I want to discover the next Poet Laureate in an overlooked ZIP code.

"More realistically, we'd like to show everyone that poetry is not only something that you read, it's something that you can make. And whether a poem earns a thousand dollars or just one smile, our contest aims remind people that words on paper can change lives. As booksellers and book lovers, we're big believers in the power of words on paper to move people."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2187.