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Sunday
Apr062014

The Home Opener

As you read this, Nan Sorensen, administrative coordinator at the New England Independent Booksellers Association, is either preparing to head over to Boston's Fenway Park or is already there, psyched for the home opener of her beloved World Champion Red Sox. Nan is one of the most passionate Sox fans in the book business and I wondered about her game prep because baseball is, after all, a sport of rituals.

"I always wear a Red Sox T-shirt, but most important is I will have a soft ice cream before I enter Fenway," she said. "Regardless of temperature, I always do. Usually I wear shorts and a Fenway Park (I love Fenway as much as I love the Red Sox) T-shirt, but in the heat of the summer I sometimes get brave and wear my pink Dustin Pedroia T-shirt." Would she dare bring a book to a game? "No book. I buy a program at my first game of year. There is always too much going on at Fenway to have a book."

The Red Sox season officially began earlier this week in Baltimore, and even ESPN couldn’t resist a bookish lead in reporting on the game: "No need for Grady Sizemore to embellish his story. It's already just a couple of ticks shy of Roy Hobbs as it is. No need for Jackie Bradley Jr. to embellish his story, either. These days, it seems like Stephen King is ghostwriting it."

Baseball remains the sport that lies closest to our literary souls. Even an impromptu starting lineup card of authors is an all-star team: Roger Angell, W.P. Kinsella, Don DeLillo, Bernard Malamud, George Plimpton, Donald Hall, David Halberstam, Thomas Boswell, Roger Kahn. Creating that list off the top of my head should spark another great baseball tradition: the "rhubarb." What about Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King and David James Duncan and Chad Harbach? Or old school legends like Ring Lardner? Since it's also opening week for Poetry Month, how about Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" or John Updike's "Baseball"?

In other words, books and baseball make a good team:

  • The Baltimore Orioles are sporting a patch on their uniforms honoring the late Tom Clancy.  
  • April 23 marks the 100th anniversary of the first professional baseball game at what is now Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. "Only florists and chocolatiers love anniversaries more than book publishers do," the Tribune noted.
  • Derek Jeter, who will have his own imprint at Simon & Schuster by this time next year, began his Yankee career farewell tour in Houston this week.
  • MLB Network unveiled its new opening sequence, which takes "a page straight out of another American tradition: comic books."

For Nan, however, it's all about the Sox. The team was honored this week at the White House by President Obama, who named Mike Napoli to the newly-created (as of April Fool's Day) President's Council on Beards. Even press secretary Jay Carney "bearded up" for the occasion to celebrate the barbigerous champs--as, by the way, had Nan last season (and we have the photographic evidence), putting on her game face when it mattered.

She did confess, however, that when she was growing up in New Jersey, she was a Yankee fan: "I loved Joe Pepitone!" Later, while working for the publisher David R. Godine, "we used to go to Opening Day at Fenway. George Gibson and Andre Dubus II would buy a big block of tickets and we'd take the afternoon off. That was my introduction to the Red Sox. Now I love Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi (David Ortiz) and Shane Victorino."

There are far too many Red Sox fans among NEIBA members to list, but Nan said that "standouts include Mark Lamphier of Harvard Book Store, Cambridge; and Dawn Rennert of the Concord Bookshop." She also gave high marks to Random House district sales manager Lesley Vasilio, "with whom I go to the games, though sadly not for Friday's game." I couldn't resist asking if there are any Yankee fans hiding out among NEIBA members, and she cited Michael Herrmann of Gibson's Bookstore, Concord, N.H., adding that "he doesn't hide it."

The columnist psyched up for opening day, Little League edition, circa 1959.

Although I'm not a Red Sox fan, I do have genuine Sox street cred. My parents spent their 1949 honeymoon in Boston and saw a few games. Since I was born almost exactly nine months later, you could say I was conceived in the shadow of Fenway Park. And I certainly spent uncounted hours of my youth consumed with becoming a "real ballplayer," as my father, who worshiped Ted Williams, called the good ones.

There may be some lingering effects, so I completely understand Nan's emotions yesterday, when she told me: "Today is like the day before leaving on vacation. Ready to burst with excitement! Glad the gates open early so I can get out of the house and head over. For the past few years I've gone to all the games with Lesley, but could only manage to get the one ticket for this. Going to feel weird, but I'm sure I'll find a few people to cheer with; and sing 'Sweet Caroline' with--one of my favorite parts of the game!"

And is there a connection between baseball and booksellers? "Baseball players, like booksellers, 'fight' everyday for the good of the 'team,' " she replied. Play ball!

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2222.

Sunday
Mar302014

March Madness: 'There Is Method In't'

"Though this be March Madness, yet there is method in't," Polonius almost said in Hamlet. For the record, the poor guy not only didn't make it out of the play alive, he was also defeated in the second round of 2012's Shakespeare Character March Madness Tourney by King Lear ("O, that way March Madness lies; let me shun that").

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, 'tis the season of March Madness and there are brackets, brackets wherever we turn--online, on refrigerators, on bulletin boards, on everything. It's been a long time since bracket fever afflicted only obsessed NCAA college basketball tournament fans.

"Bracketology--the practice of parsing people, places, and things into discrete one-on-one matchups to determine which of the two is superior or preferable--works because it is simple. What could be simpler then breaking down a choice into either/or, black or white, this one or that one?" wrote Mark Reiter, co-editor (with Richard Sandomir) of the 2007 book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything.

Ben Yagoda, who contributed a "sins against the language" bracket to the book ("I put the phrase in quotation marks to indicate it should be taken with a measure of irony."), observed more recently: "I think we can all agree that March Madness has jumped the shark."

"When did filling out a March Madness bracket become popular?" asked Smithsonian magazine recently, noting that "NCAA bracket madness has also spawned a social phenomenon: The Wire, proclaiming March the 'bracket-iest month of the year,' is rolling out competing brackets each week in a 'tournament of everything.' Even the federal government is getting in on the madness, betting that a bracket will make the Affordable Care Act relevant to millennials. It's hard to turn anywhere on the Internet without running into a bracket of some kind."

The book world is not exempt, of course. Inkwood Books, Tampa, Fla., has its own Staff Pick Madness. Early in the month, Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, advised: "Looking for your own March Madness? Check out Tournament of Books sponsored by The Morning News. Bracketed book bouts."

Launched in 2005, the ToB has inspired many variations on a theme, including the Tournament of Sidekicks from Half Price Books, Out of Print's Book Madness, the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, Game of Thrones March Madness Bracket, io9's SciFi Versus Fantasy Madness, Picture Book Bracketology, Bracketology for Female Book Characters, and even a Quidditch World Cup bracket challenge contest. The Medina County District Library featured Book Madness, challenging readers "to pick the top winners as the Best Books of 2013 go head-to-head with the Books That Stand the Test of Time."

March Madness also erupts annually in the sidelines department for the lucky few college bookstores whose teams win and progress through each round. Right after the University of Dayton was awarded an NCAA tournament berth last week, the bookstore "reported having between two and three hundred online orders for 2014 March Madness t-shirts." (Sideline sales for the sidelines?) And with the Flyers still in the mix, staff member Taylor Seidl said the retail outlook remained upbeat: "As long as we keep winning we have orders coming in for Sweet 16... Elite Eight." Same story at the University of Virginia bookstore, where executive director John Kates said, "In the thirty years I've been here... I've never seen anything like it."

Speaking of the Elite Eight, there was an unfortunate digital retail slipup on Wednesday when the University of Arizona's bookstore had to issue a public apology for accidentally displaying a page featuring T-shirts that heralded the team's advancement to the next round before they had even played their Sweet Sixteen game against San Diego State last night. They won anyway.

And just so you know, in Las Vegas March Madness means "busy hotels, Bud Lite and bustling books," but not our kind of books.

The endgame of NCAA tournament bracketology is almost always defeat and befuddlement. What began March 16 on Selection Sunday with unsullied brackets and 68 optimistic college basketball teams simply cannot resist the tidal pull of a cresting Shakespearean wave ("The ides of March Madness have come."/ "Yes, Caesar--but not gone."). Maybe it has something to do with March itself, that most confusing of months.

Or, as Polonius sort of put it (anticipating, perhaps, Orchestral March Madness, Tuition Madne$$, Public Media Madness, Mensa Bracket Challenge Champion and even March Madness Meta-Bracket: Which Tournament Is the Best?): "A happiness that often March Madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2217.

Sunday
Mar232014

'Get Poeting' on World Poetry Day!

Every year, UNESCO celebrates those who give life to poetry as one of the highest forms of linguistic and cultural expression. Poetry is a song of freedom, enabling us to affirm our identity through creation. Poetry is also the song of our deepest feelings; in the words of the Brazilian poet and diplomat João Cabral de Melo Neto, "even unintentionally, every word that comes from emotion is poetry." Through its words and its rhythm, poetry gives shape to our dreams of peace, justice and dignity, and gives us the strength and desire to mobilize to make them real.
--Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general

 

Friday was World Poetry Day, which was established by UNESCO in 1999 and is observed annually on March 21. One of its main objectives is "to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities."

The festivities are also meant to "encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media, so that the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art, but one which enables society as a whole to regain and assert its identity."

Here's a global sampling of World Poetry Day celebrations:

Harry Man

At the 53rd Struga Poetry Evenings festival in Macedonia this week, British poet Harry Man won the Bridges of Struga award for his debut collection, Lift, while Korean author Ko Un was honored with the prestigious Golden Wreath award.

In Ghana, "they are taking the word art to a whole new dimension by spicing the shows up with the best performance spoken-word artists in the country." World Poetry Day celebrations include spoken-word workshops; flash mob and street performances; a national senior high school poetry slam championship; and a final concert, all sponsored by Goethe Institut and G3 Channels, in conjunction with the Ghana National Theatre, Talk-Fact3, Writers Project Ghana, IUB and Inkfluent.

A replica of the iconic writing shed used by Dylan Thomas will make its first appearance Saturday in Carmarthen, Wales. During the centennial year of his birth, Thomas's shed, a "bespoke replica [that] even has the curled pictures on the walls and the view over the estuary," is touring the U.K.

"It's Poetry Day! Get Poeting!" is the sound advice offered by the blog for English at the Colegio Público de Espiñeira Aldan in Spain. 

The Slovenia Times noted that to "mark World Poetry Day, the Slovenian Writers' Association will hold a poetry and musical evening at the Ljubljana Town Hall's atrium. Poems will also be read in front of the headquarters of Maribor University. Meanwhile, the Iriu Institute has selected poems by several Slovenian and foreign poets which will be served with coffee at selected coffee shops in Ljubljana and Celje."
 
In Manitoba, Canada, Brandon University is commemorating the day with an hour-long "Celebration of Dead Poets and Their Poetry," during which participants will perform their favorite works from great poets of the past.

Tulasi Diwasa

Nepali poet Tulasi Diwasa is one of more than 50 poets from around the world invited to the World Poetry Festival in New Delhi, India. The festival was organized to celebrate World Poetry Day as well as the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

On the Caribbean island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, "Cross-Generations: A Gathering of Soualiga's Poets" will be held in the Philipsburg Jubilee Library's hall. Lysanne Charles, president of Foundation 5 Square Miles St. Martin and coordinator of the event, said the island "has a long history of poets and in the last 30 years or so published poets. Cross-Generations celebrates the vibrancy of this and pays homage to the older poets and our publishing outlet House of Nehesi Publishers.... It is important that we acknowledge the word of the written and spoken word on the island and the ability it has to transform things."

Tonight, the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, Calif., will host La Poesia Festival World Poetry Day, featuring several poets and inviting people to "bring original poetry in Spanish/bilingual to share."

And Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington has asked "readers of all ages and backgrounds" to participate in Virgilpalooza, a marathon reading of Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid.

In his aptly titled poem "World Poetry Day," Polish author Tadeusz Rozewicz writes:

around noon the phone rang
"today is poetry day"
said Maria
"I can't hear you!"
"today is World Poetry Day, o poet!"
it's been established by Unesco"
Even Ionesco couldn't have thought up
something like this! this is something (something)!

Something indeed. Happy World Poetry Day. Now, go out there and get poeting!

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2212.

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.

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