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Looking Busy, Until It Gets Busy Again

Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven, Mass.
photo: Timothy Johnson/Vineyard Gazette

"Winter is icumen in." Quick, look busy!

Do you still recall those merry, intense times on the sales floor during the 2014 holiday season? Every day, you could feel the momentum as you fed off your customers' energy and soared to handselling performance heights that touched upon retail greatness. Was it really just last month? Now, another cold, bleak January has arrived and far too many of those motivated customers seem to be hibernating. The bookstore is quiet, too quiet, and you're looking for something to do to pass the hours.

That, my friends, is where the art of looking busy comes into play.

I know, I know. You have plenty to do. You can recite, on demand, a long and ever-expanding litany of items clamoring for your immediate attention, like a sword of Damocles--forged from reminder notes, to-do lists and publisher catalogues--that hovers over your teetering stack of to-be-read ARCs.

Ignore all that. The angel on your shoulder may be advising you to get to work, but the devil offers a more tempting alternative, whispering that you've earned a January break. This time of year, a subtle strain of bookseller cabin fever can set in. It's not the good, permissible kind that involves drinking a mug of hot cocoa while reading a fine book next to a blazing fireplace at home after a hard day of work.

No, this version is the devil's counsel: Just look busy. Your boss or staff or customers won't even notice if you do it right. A delicate subject, I concede. On a bookstore sales floor in January, however, looking busy can sometimes be elevated to the level of survival skill, perhaps even fine art.

If you want to do this properly, there is a learning curve. From the customer's perspective, you should always appear occupied, yet approachable. This means no reading books when you're working behind the counter and limited socializing with other booksellers on the sales floor. Stroll whenever possible. Carrying a small stack of books is your passport because it appears you are on a mission. Idly straightening shelves and displays works well as a diversionary tactic. You're a little busy, but available if needed. On the other hand, shelving books as if your life depended on it is frowned upon.

Maybe you recall the old days, when staring at a checkout counter computer screen was a looking busy option? To the uneducated eye, you appeared to be doing something constructive--ordering a book for a phone customer or searching inventory. That, of course, was before social media and the age of cyberloafing. Now, even if you're legitimately tracking comparative section sales on Above the Treeline, you will appear to be checking personal Facebook updates or tweeting about customer fashion choices as they showroom your bestseller list with smartphones.

As might be expected, retail experts (as well as would-be experts) have addressed the "look like you're busy" issue from every angle. Don't go there for guidance. For every well-intentioned "50 Things Retail Employees Can Do When They're Not Busy" ("If you let them just wait for customers, the entire energy in your store will suffer."), you will find a "How to Look Busy When You Really Aren't" ("The key to looking busy is to keep moving, and the faster you're moving, the busier you look.")

It is also recommended that you resist the advice of perennial get-a-life coach George Costanza: "Right now, I sit around pretending that I'm busy.... I always look annoyed. When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you're busy."

Okay, I confess. The art of looking busy is really just a forgery.

Bookstores are expected to be a quiet refuge from life's clamor, but the post-holiday season lull can be a little disquieting. You do need a momentary break, even as you miss those jam-packed aisles and the smart cacophony of cheerful voices as patrons talked--and purchased--books. Their abrupt vanishing act can make your sales floor look as if it has been vacuum-sealed until spring.

Great bookselling requires focus, energy, financial sacrifice and... well, you know that list, too. Sustaining this level of commitment is a challenge, and yet you continue to meet it and to resist the lure of surrendering to routine. You deserve a moment to exhale in January. And if you take a little more time to get the engine revving on these chilly mornings, that's okay, too. Sometimes, if only briefly, it's better to look busy than to be busy.


Working It Out, 2008-2015

Maybe the book trade's sky wasn't falling in 2008, but the cloud ceiling was low and visibility limited. "With some exceptions, news about general holiday sales was grim, all for obvious reasons: the economy, bad weather, the economy, heavy discounting, the economy," we noted in our first issue of 2009.  

And yet, for reasons I still don't quite understand, I wrote the following in my last column of the year:

As 2008 comes to an end, I mourn neither the hazardous present nor an illusory past. For 2009, I'll simply begin a new conversation by imagining possibilities:

  • What if the shop local movement continues to gain momentum nationwide?
  • What if we work even harder to nurture the readers we have instead of bemoaning those we've lost?
  • What if we begin paying more attention to all the fine books, including translated works, being published by independent and university houses?
  • What if some of those bright minds and good people who are unfortunately no longer working for major publishers decide to create more smart, dynamic and lean indie presses?
  • What if, with common sense, fierce adaptability and, yes, imagination, it all works out?

Here's to an imaginative New Year.

Acknowledging that objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear, let's revisit 2008 and the economic meltdown that at the time seemed quite possibly the death knell for any number of businesses, large and small. In October of that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its biggest one-day decline, responding to a report that retail sales had reached a three-year low as well as a prediction by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that economic recovery would be slow.

Earlier that month, I'd attended some of the fall regional bookseller shows. My notes from 2008 indicate a disconcerting pattern, with far too many bookstore owners telling me they were seriously considering the possibility of closing. It seemed, at the time, like a trend. The conversations and education sessions were often about survival. A panel at MPIBA's fall show was appropriately titled "Bookselling in Challenging Times."

That was then.

Bidding farewell to 2014, we have to like much of what we saw.... all things considered. New indie bookstores opened and longtime indies expanded; James Patterson doled out a million bucks and e-book sales leveled off. During the fall bookseller trade shows, conversations and panel discussion topics focused on getting better rather than just getting by. And, once again, the sky did not fall.

The industry's mood, which we try to gauge daily with our Shelf Awareness Booksellerometer (patent pending), has generally been positive as well as hearteningly realistic. Those two words seem well matched to me. It's too early to talk about phoenixes rising from ashes, but we didn’t become a flock of Icaruses either.

As Dan Cullen, American Booksellers Association senior strategy officer, observed during the Heartland Fall Forum general meeting, booksellers at all of the regionals he'd attended in 2014 "have been incredibly upbeat, incredibly energized.... There is a real resurgence of indie bookstores in America.... We are finally seeing the media decouple the word 'beleaguered' from indie bookstore."

This is not to say that bad news took a holiday in 2014. Wonderful book people passed away and they will be missed. Some bookstores had to close, while many others sought help locally and through crowdfunding. Amazon's retail floodgates remained open, even as Mr. Bezos absorbed staggering personal and corporate losses. Well, you know the headlines.

What's next? My 2008 year-end column was titled "What if It All Works Out?" I'm still not sure why I took the optimistic route. Anyone who's known me for 10 minutes can attest to the fact that I'm a devoted fatalist. In so many ways, 2008 made perfect sense for my Eeyore-ish worldview, but this is what I wrote:

Since this is my final column during a year that has seemed fully in tune with that old curse, "May you live in interesting times," I decided to end on a positive note by considering the role imagination plays in our lives as professional book people.

Look it up. In the Oxford American Dictionary, imagination is "the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses." It is also "the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful."

We are in the imagination business by either definition, and because of this we, more than most people, should be aware of the dangers and possibilities inherent in that magic word.

Happy New Year! Here's to a creative and resourceful 2015. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2413


A Bookstore Cat Guy's Christmas Story

"A Fur Person must be adopted by catly humans, tactful, delicate respectful, indulgent; these are fairly rare, though not as rare as might be supposed." --from May Sarton's The Fur Person, which isn't technically about a bookstore cat, though protagonist Tom Jones is a very literary feline indeed.

Bookstore cats and booksellers share many traits, perhaps none so much as a keen awareness and appreciation for the homes they ultimately find in bookshops after long and arduous journeys.

Molly, a Shelf Awareness editorial cat, finds a copy of Wendy Welch's The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap in the stacks.

It was destiny, I suppose--a crucial moment in infancy--that sealed my fate as a bookstore cat guy. For my first Christmas, when I was eight months old, one of my aunts gave me an autographed and inscribed copy of The Blue Cat of Castle Town by Catherine Cate Coblentz, illustrated by Janice Holland. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 1950, the year of my birth, though of course I wasn't aware of that at the time. My initial review was probably that it tasted good when I chewed the cover.

My aunt lived in Castleton, Vt., which served as the 19th Century setting for this tale of a blue cat searching for "a hearth where a mortal understood and sang that song" of beauty, peace and contentment.

Unfortunately, I never worked in a bookstore that had a resident cat. Some of my favorite bookshops do, but I couldn't begin to showcase them all. We occasionally highlight bibliocats of note in Shelf Awareness, like the award-winning Amelia of the Spiral Bookcase, Philadelphia, Pa.; petcam-wearing Molly Bloom at Annie Bloom's Books, Portland, Ore.; or Franny the Instagram sensation at Skylight Books, Los Angeles.

And I have my personal favorites:

Wendy Welch, co-owner of Tales of The Lonesome Pine bookshop in Big Stone Gap, Va., offers bookstore cat internships in collaboration with a local shelter. Sporting new names with a literary pedigree, they get to roam the stacks (or perch on the branches of the Christmas book tree) while she helps them find "forever homes" via the bookshop's Facebook page. Wherever they end up, the kitties will always be honorary bookstore cats.  

I've also grown quite fond of Cake and Lemon at BooksActually in Singapore. Owner Kenny Leck's irresistible resident feline booksellers appear regularly on Facebook, but also provide a legion of fans with updates on their own Twitter accounts, @caketheking and @lemonthekisser.

Recently I learned that in China, the "20 cats that inhabit the Xinhua Bookstore entertain customers, wander freely and jump from one bookshelf to another. The bookstore, also home to the Nanjing Cat Café, has a wall covered with hydroponic flowers and luscious plants. Part of the revenue earned at the café is used to buy food for the cats that live in the store and also for stray cats outside." Nice.

To honor of bibliocats everywhere this holiday season, I'd like to offer you a gift by recommending a great read: Takashi Hiraide's small gem of a novel The Guest Cat, translated by Eric Selland (New Directions). It's one of my favorite books of 2014, and I'm not alone.

The Guest Cat, which was an unanticipated New York Times bestseller in the U.S. earlier this year, has more recently become a holiday season hit in the U.K. The Independent reported that "booksellers loved it. They placed it in their windows, on their front tables.... Just a few months after publication, it has sold 20,000 copies, an unimaginable figure for a title without a marketing campaign. It is now set to be among December's top sellers and is already the biggest-selling paperback of the year at one branch of Waterstones, in London's Gower Street."

"It's such an easy book to sell," said branch manager Alison Belshaw. "There is the physicality of the book for starters: it looks beautiful. It's also short.... And you can read it as a simple story, or see all sorts of depths to it." Belshaw recalled a man who came into the shop looking for a sci-fi novel: "And I sent him away with The Guest Cat. It's that kind of book. You want to recommend it to everyone."

Like the Fur Person and the Blue Cat and bookstore cats (and booksellers) worldwide, Chibi the "guest cat" is worth meeting, though getting to know her will be, as it must, just a little more complicated ("Chibi remained unfettered, coming and going as she pleased."). That's why she's my honorary bookstore cat of the year, and why you might consider giving her a "forever home" on your bookshelves. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2410.


In Praise of the Bookseller/Cashier

Scene: Me, standing behind the checkout counter in a bookstore.
Customer: Are you a cash register?
Me: No, but I'm thinking of becoming one. I hear there's a lot of money in it.

It's a bad joke, but I'll confess I used it a few times during my tenure as a bookseller. Usually it got a laugh, or at least a smile. Not surprisingly, "the most wonderful time of the year" featured prominently in most of these encounters. 'Tis the season that tends to bring out the best and worst in customers, as well as booksellers.

Holiday shoppers at Literati in Ann Arbor, Mich.

You may have noticed.

This is just a theory, but I suspect most prospective booksellers underestimate the amount of time they'll spend as cashiers. That duty tends to be soft-pedaled during the interview process, since in this vow-of-poverty, passion-driven profession, accentuating the positive is the rule. It just makes sense to showcase the glories of handselling, the avalanche of unlimited ARCS and the distinguished company of well-read colleagues, while the interviewee clings to sugar plum visions of a "dream job," featuring serene hours lost in the stacks that are occasionally, yet gently. interrupted to handsell the perfect book to its perfect reader.

The holiday season can be a serious wake-up call. In the heat of retail battle, a little voice whispers, "This isn't what I signed up for." But quickly you learn to become the person your customers need you to be in that moment. And why not? Booksellers love their customers because they can't afford not to, and because booksellers and their patrons are nice people, mostly. In fact, the worst customer I ever dealt with as a bookseller was better than the average customer I encountered working in supermarkets. People go to grocery stores because they have to. Most go to bookstores because they want to. It's a significant difference.

Cash registers at the Last Bookstore, Los Angeles.

I was a good handseller, but I was a great cashier, having started young at the local A&P during high school. Customers used to line up at my register because I was fast, and proud of it. One of my favorite chapters in Studs Terkel's Working is the profile of Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker who says: "It's hard work, but I like it. This is my life.... I'm just movin'--the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register.... You just keep goin', one, two, one, two. If you've got that rhythm, you're a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you're turning your head back and forth.... If somebody interrupts to ask me the price, I'll answer while I'm movin'. Like playin' a piano."

I get that.

And so I decided it would be appropriate to ring in the holiday season with words of praise for you, the bookseller/cashier. In the crazed, checkout counter nucleus of the holiday rush, you just handle it as those customers stampede your way. Often you wonder how so many people manage to arrive at your cash register simultaneously. And then they keep coming, wave after wave, until--despite your best intentions and the spirit of the season--they begin to merge into a single, multi-limbed organism, and what you see when you look out from behind the counter are piles of books, sidelines, toys, calendars, greeting cards and imposing stuffed animals bigger than the child they are meant for. You're in a Ralph Steadman drawing, and there's no escape.

Cashiers at Politics & Prose in Washington. D.C., stand ready to help

A bookseller/cashier is not a specialist. The questions hit you from all sides and some of them are repeated dozens of times: Is Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven as good as they say? Does Amy Poehler's Yes Please come in paperback? Why isn't Cheryl Strayed's Wild with the fiction bestsellers? Do you carry The Innovators by Isaac Walker? (Do you mean Walter Isaacson? No, that's not what I wrote down.) Could you page my wife, husband, kid? Where's your rest room? You are asked to wrap the unwrappable and box the unboxable.

Standing alertly behind your besieged cash register, you're the only representative of the publishing industry that most of these people will ever meet. So you do your best to smile and chat while your hands repeat a series of long-practiced, fluid and instinctive movements with the dexterity of a casino card dealer.

Sometimes, in rare moments of illusory calm, you take a break to straighten shelves and displays. You restock. You fling yourself recklessly into the throng to handsell your favorite books of the year. And you do all of this without abandoning your base camp--that at once cursed and blessed cash register. As Babe Secoli so wisely said, "I enjoy it somethin' terrible." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2405.


Sacred Words & the 'Acted Book'

"I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead." --from The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

When I heard Henry (Ewan McGregor) speak those lines Tuesday night during a performance of the Broadway revival of Stoppard's play, it occurred to me that the challenge of getting the right words in the right order while adapting a book for the stage must present an intriguing challenge all its own.

Exhibit A in that regard might be the new film Birdman, in which Michael Keaton's character struggles to wrench a stage production from Raymond Carver's short stories.

As the unofficial resident show biz correspondent at Shelf Awareness, I spend a lot of time poring over articles about movie and TV projects based on books, but theatrical adaptations tend to get less attention. This despite the fact that, as the Guardian recently observed, "a new trend is threatening the long dominance of the staged film--the acted book."

I've seen and loved several book-to-stage adaptations in recent years, including Fiona Shaw in Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary and Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. High on my must-see list for the spring is the Royal Shakespeare Company's six-hour, two-play production of Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, based on Hilary Mantel's award-winning novels.

Staging acted books is a complex process. The Guardian noted that "the mistake--on either side of the footlights--is to think that the show is a walking-and-talking book. The premier modern theatrical translator-adapter Mike Poulton, whose work included Morte D'Arthur and The Canterbury Tales before taking on the Mantels for the RSC, warns in the preface to the published texts of the Cromwell plays: 'It might be thought that the sheer length of the two books [1,007 pages] might present problems. I never thought so. The way a novel is structured cannot be reproduced on the stage... they had to be completely reimagined as plays.' "

A stage version of Katherine Boo's National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers was written by playwright David Hare and is being produced by London's National Theatre. Boo told the Telegraph that during the adaptation process, Hare wasn't always open to her interventions, though she understood his reasoning: "On the first draft I made all sorts of suggestions. He took some of them, he didn't take the others. It's his work of art; it's not my medium. I don't have any intuitive grasp of theatre-making."

Simon Stephens adapted Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is now on Broadway. "The first thing he did was detach himself from Christopher's 'seductive voice' and make a list of the actual events in the story," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Then he rearranged them so they occurred chronologically, instead of through flashbacks. Then he transcribed all the moments of direct speech in the book, which were few, because so much of the book is Christopher's interior monologue." Stephens observed: "Everyone who read the book falls in love with Christopher's brain. Our job was to take the audience inside Christopher's head."

A hit musical based on Alison Bechdel's Fun Home opened Off-Broadway in 2013 and will transfer to Broadway next spring. In an interview with the Cut, Bechdel was asked whether she had had any anxieties about how Fun Home would be adapted for the stage.

"I had no idea how anyone would turn this comic book into a musical. And that's partly why I agreed to it, honestly," she replied. "There had been a movie option that I said no to, because I couldn't bear the idea of a bad movie being made about my life. But, I figured if it were a bad musical, it would just disappear. It wouldn't stick around the way a movie would.

"I'm a very casual consumer of musicals. It's not like I'm passionate about the form or even know very much about the form, so I felt like it was very much alien territory. And that's partly, again, why I felt okay about doing it--because it was such a different form, it was easier for me to let go of it."  

Speaking about the musical version of his novel The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem said he had been "led to this conclusion that I never would have imagined without this experience: That theater of a certain kind is closer to the art that I practice than film, for instance, which is so literal and demanding. If you have a scene in a jail, you have to do it, you have to show the jail, a convincing set, whereas, here, we don't have to. We can let people imagine."

All it takes is getting the right words in the right order. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2400.

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