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Sunday
Dec222013

The Holiday Season: It's a Wrap

So... this happened, which led me to think about the delicate, and occasionally indelicate, art of "professional" holiday season gift wrapping. By professional, I mean the people doing the wrapping are being paid. By "people," I mean, of course, booksellers.

On Christmas Eve, sometime during the late afternoon in most indie bookstores, one final customer will arrive at the checkout counter with an armload of stuff, and a bookseller or two will accept the challenge of wrapping these almost ceremonial purchases. The gift paper choices at that point may be limited; of the three or four or six rolls on display, a couple will no doubt be simple cardboard memorials to Christmas wrap options past.

But that wrapping station scene represents the culmination of weeks of intense handiwork with paper, ribbons and bows. Some may think booksellers have it easy. I mean, how hard can it be to wrap a book? Those people, however, have never tried to make a presentable present out of a stuffed giraffe or a box-less set of Buddha bookends. There are any number of paper-resistant challenges in a bookstore. Wrapping a cat is mere child's play by comparison. And those doubters have clearly never dealt with a long line of customers armed with very specific requests ("When you wrap that third book, on the outside could you also add this candy cane and this bookmark wrapped separately... and this Virginia Woolf keychain and...?"), each of which is graciously fulfilled.
 
For booksellers who aspire to greatness this weekend, inspiration can be found among your contemporaries--Patricia Zapata won this year's Scotch Brand Most Gifted Wrapper Contest, which asked competitors to wrap items like a toy castle, a kids' go-kart or a giant two-person paddle boat--as well as your predecessors: Mrs. Juliet Koenig Smith's 1965 obituary in the New York Times called her "a specialist in gift wrapping" who "was often called upon by leading stores for difficult or important projects. She wrapped many gifts for presentation to Presidents and other officials. Once she wrapped an entire automobile for a television commercial."

Could a bookseller do that? Absolutely. Bring on the paddle boats and cars, though I guess we should concede that not all gift wrappers are created equal. Some booksellers were born to wrap; others have gift wrapping duty thrust upon them. You can train almost anyone to wrap a book, but only the truly gifted can draw gasps of appreciation for a well-wrapped stuffed giraffe.

The Australian Booksellers Association has been using the peculiar trials inherent in gift wrapping as a book-selling promotion this year with a series of posters, including "A Christmas Guide: How to Wrap Awkwardly Shaped Presents... Or You Could Just Buy a Book."

Wrapping under pressure and public scrutiny is another issue altogether. During holiday crunch time, seasoned booksellers always raise their game while wrapping endless stacks of items, in full view and following detailed instructions ("Put Harry's name on the Grisham and Patterson; Sally on the John Green; Papa on the card game..."). By the way, this is the perfect time to recite a silent, seasonal prayer of thanks for Post-it Notes.

In any endeavor where intensity and volume meet flailing arms and liquid refreshments, disasters inevitably occur. A former colleague reminded me of the time one of our fellow booksellers "jostled a cup of hot chocolate she was drinking into a shopping bag with five really big expensive art books I had just gift-wrapped. They were totally ruined. I had to sneak out of the gift wrap room and surreptitiously find duplicates on the shelf. Luckily, we had every one of them but I was terror-stricken. The customer never knew anything other than her gift wrapping took an extraordinarily long time."

On Tuesday afternoon, after that last gift is wrapped (for customers, anyway) and the bookshop doors are locked, booksellers will be free to exhale and--if I may suggest--take some holiday post-wrapping refreshment advice from chef Mario Batali, who offered the following advice last Sunday in the New York Times: "A cold afternoon of present-wrapping can use a warm touch. Heat up a cup of skim milk with a teaspoon of vanilla and then make a double espresso. Mix the two in a large goblet, then add a shot each of peppermint schnapps and Jack Daniels. Stir gently, then get back to work."

But don't go back to work too soon. Try to get some rest before Thursday because, well, you know the drill. What do most booksellers have to look forward to on the day after Christmas? You'll arrive at work to see a line already forming outside your bookstore in hopes of snatching up discounted gift wrap for next year's holiday season. Next year?!!!--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2154.

Sunday
Dec152013

Colin Wilson & 'The Philosopher's Stone'

It struck me that the popularity of Christmas is a matter of web-like consciousness. Childhood conditions us to relax and expand at Christmas, to forget petty worries and irritations and think in terms of universal peace. And so Christmas is the nearest to mystical experience that most human beings ever approach, with its memories of Dickens and Irving's Bracebridge Hall.

Colin Wilson, who died December 5 at the age of 82, wrote these words in his novel The Philosopher's Stone, first published in 1969 and a book I never considered handselling when I was a bookseller, even though I first read it nearly 40 years ago and have had a copy somewhere on my shelves ever since. Curious.

The Guardian's obituary called him "Britain's first homegrown existentialist star." Like most other obits, it focused upon his first book. Published in 1956 when Wilson was 24 years old, The Outsider garnered "phenomenal reviews and sales" and "led him to be seen as a potential savior of the human spirit, a thinker who might find a way through the spiritual nullity of the postwar years." Recently, David Bowie included it on his highly-publicized "Top 100 Must Read Books."

Wilson's "passionate inquiry into his themes continued but critics deserted him," the Guardian noted. "He went out of fashion and--though he published more than 100 works--he survived financially only because many of those dealt with murder or the occult as pathways to the insights that fascinated him."

Why should I care? I never thought Wilson was a great writer, but one of the reasons his death struck me is tied, I suspect, to a list meme that has been dominating Facebook lately, at least among its bookish members. You may know the drill. A Facebook friend tags you and shares a list of "10 books that have stayed with you in some way." You craft your own, tag some of your bookish crew, and the virtual world grinds on, literary karma intact.

I was tagged a few times and dutifully created a list. After posting, however, I began to think about that phrase "stayed with you" and Wilson's death. I hadn't listed The Philosopher's Stone, and suddenly realized the book had indeed stayed with me for decades.

It isn't as if Wilson disappeared from my reading life. As recently as 2011, I mentioned him in a Shelf Awareness column, noting that I'd discovered Bruckner's symphonies in the pages of The Philosopher's Stone, which also introduced me to composers Sibelius and Elgar; philosophers Bertrand Russell and Hegel; and even the psychologist Abraham Maslow.  

There are some books you can only read in your 20s. Maybe this is one of them, but certain passages do still resonate: "Then I looked across the room at my bookcase.... The sunlight on the bright paper covers produced a sense of euphoria for a moment, but it vanished almost immediately... The sight of the books caused an after-image on the inside of my eyelids. And then, in a flash, I saw with perfect clarity the solution of the problem that had almost driven me to suicide. It was as if I had seen to the inner-nature of the books, and understood that they were not books at all, but a part of the living universe. Each one of them was a window on 'other-ness,' on some place or time not actually present."

So the Philosopher's Stone has stayed with me, weaving that spell certain books cast, as most readers will understand. "Through books, man has conquered time," Wilson wrote. "The insights of poets and saints are still alive. For two million years, man ascended the evolutionary ladder slowly and painfully, changing hardly more than an ape of the horse. With the invention of books, he took a giant step into the realm of the gods."

In her foreword to an American edition of the novel, Joyce Carol Oates praised John Fowles, Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble and Wilson for "consciously attempting to imagine a new image for man, a new self-image freed of ambiguity, irony and the self-conscious narrowness of the imagination we have inherited from nineteenth-century Romanticism."

That was a tall order, written on the cultural tailwind of the late 60s, but it may well have pushed me closer to The Philosopher's Stone. In an obituary published this morning, the New York Times notes Wilson "argued that it was possible for mankind to achieve this exalted state through the kind of transcendent experience that comes, for instance, in the presence of great works of art."

Unanticipated transcendence is precisely what I recall about reading the novel in my youth. Maybe this year's Christmas season is the perfect time to sink again into that "web-like consciousness" and re-read The Philosopher's Stone, one of those precious books that just "stay with you."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2149.

Sunday
Dec082013

Potluck Supper with Author Event to Follow

I first heard about Andy Sturdevant's new collection of essays, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow (Coffee House Press), in connection with a series of author events he'd been doing in the Twin Cities area, beginning with a potluck launch at a Polish church hall in Northeast Minneapolis.

"I like to think of Andy as the hardest-working man in the art business in the Twin Cities," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's bookstore, St. Paul, Minn. "For years, he's been tireless in his support and work for artists of all stripes here. So it has been a joy to watch him do events and work for his own book."  

Sturdevant, Coffee House and artist collaborative Works Progress have been partnering on "Potluck Supper with Projects to Follow," through which artists create works inspired by the essays and exhibit them around the area.

"These have included a poetry reading done with semaphore flags by the Mississippi River, a movie screening series in a parking lot, a game show in an Eagles Hall about historic American flags and projecting a short film on the side of a neighborhood bar during the first blizzard of the season," Sturdevant said. "I've done walking tours, too, of sites around bookstores where we've had readings. A walking tour gives the attendees something fun to do beforehand, and a chance to escape unnoticed if they get bored before the reading actually begins. I've always liked doing art and culture-related activities out of the traditional venues. It's fun to have an excuse to do those kinds of things around town because they related loosely to a book."

Weyandt described just such an event, held recently at--as well as near--his bookshop. Sturdevant and Carrie Elizabeth Thompson, who shot the photos in the book, "led a group of us on a short tour of the blocks near Micawber's. We saw a house built in 1917 by some artists who became Charles Schulz's mentors. And he told us about the artist whose wood sculpture adorns a church up the street and compared it to some of his work, which is near the Minnesota/Canadian border. It was, in short, no normal event. Then we returned to the bookstore where he read from his fictional letter correspondence with a management type at Buffalo Wild Wings."

I like that. It speaks to the ambition and range I discovered while reading the book. I'd probably anticipated (though would never admit so publicly) that this would be a "regional" read when I first opened it. I love the Twin Cities, so that wouldn't have been an issue, but Sturdevant's narrative voice challenged my assumptions from the first line of his acknowledgments page: "This book is named Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow for an agenda item in a Maoist newsletter published on the West Bank of Minneapolis in the seventies..."

"I didn't write it for a local audience specifically, though a lot of the material is directly about the area," Sturdevant explained. "But some of my favorite books, both growing up and currently, have been about places where I've never lived or even visited. A lot of what I'm writing about in the book is true of anywhere--the way you see it from foot versus car, the layers of history in terms of architecture or other pieces of physical culture, the billboards and advertisements you come across, the weird stories you hear about the city from people you meet at parties or at bus stops. I hope people see where they live reflected in what I've written."

On Small Business Saturday, Sturdevant participated in Indies First by helping out at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. "I haven't had my post-work performance review yet, so I can't really say if I'm any good at it or not," he reported. "But it did come to me very naturally. I worked for many years as a sales clerk in an art supply store--there's an essay about it in the book--and it's very similar, in the sense of listening to what people are interested in, and making recommendations based on your experiences using the products you're selling.

"Thinking on your feet that way is really enjoyable. It's kind of performative, like being on stage and interviewing someone and trying to figure out what to say next so you're not just looking at them blankly and saying, 'Uhhhhhhhhhh.' That's important, and so is knowing where the bathroom is. And I certainly helped a number of people find the bathroom."

Weyandt observed that "the thing I most love about Andy's work and his artistic presence is that it's nearly impossible to describe it in a way that properly showcases its power. On the face of it, the essays can seem simple. But they aren't. His willingness to do events all over town (at bookstores, in parking lots of coffee shops, you name it) goes way beyond the call of duty. He is our true artistic patron saint." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2144.

Sunday
Nov242013

The Black Friday Bookselling Myth... Demystified

"Was Black Friday a Bookselling Myth?" I asked last week. Everyone has said yes. On reflection, I suspect my haunted memories are linked to the fact that the bookstore where I worked was located in a tourist town full of upscale shopping outlets. What I imagined as Black Friday throngs may well have been shoppers who wandered in either by mistake or seeking retail refuge.

"Black Friday was never our biggest sales day of the year," said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books stores in southern Florida, the Cayman Islands and New York. "It's always been like a very busy Saturday. Having a more urban store, I've found the real busy places were the malls, the suburban malls. Traditionally, going all the way back 30 years, our biggest days were always the few days right before Christmas. Small Business Saturday has changed the dynamic somewhat. We get a very big bump on that day and it outsells Black Friday for us."

Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wis., agreed, noting that he did not recall Black Friday "being as important at the bookstore as it was elsewhere. For my first floor experiences, I was at a downtown bookstore when most of the shopping had migrated to the suburbs, and most of our customers weren't working. So it was a steady but not particularly crazy day. It's a price-driven day and even when we tried to compete in that arena, we simply weren't price-driven enough for the folks that make a sport of it."

At Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kans., COO Roger Doeren observed: "Every day is just as important as any other day. The week after Christmas is normal because we are conscientious about our accurate reading recommendations for gift giving. So, the week after Christmas we have many more gift card redemptions and very few exchanges or returns. No horror stories to tell. Like Halloween, it's all treats and no tricks at Rainy Day Books! If a business is so dependent on seasonal sales to 'make it or break it,' then they might want to rethink their business model."

Just when my Black Friday myth seemed utterly demystified, Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., offered a ray of hope, noting that "it has seemed harder over the years to ignore Black Friday, as the media has made a bigger and bigger story of it and apparently convinced folks of its importance. I sometimes fear the expectation is set that folks should shop on Black Friday and they consequently spend a large portion of their allocated holiday budget on that day, leaving less for the rest of the season. Now, with the addition of Cyber Monday and stores opening on Thanksgiving Day, the rush for the retail dollars has escalated."

To counter this trend, about three years ago the bookstore launched a pre-Thanksgiving Wednesday special deal: "We began offering a $5 gift certificate with each $25 a person spent in the store that day--exclusive to our e-newsletter recipients," Robinson said. "While, at first glance, that may seem like a 20% discount, it's not. The store receives the full $25 for the retail sale and gives the customer a $5 gift certificate, the cost of which is the cost of goods for which the customer redeems the certificate--usually no more than $3 at cost, which they will spend on another purchase. If that purchase is for $25 retail, they pay $20 and surrender the certificate. They have now purchased $50 worth of books or other items and have tendered $45 in cash for a total of a 10% on a larger sale."

Although the concept has worked well, he added: "What will happen with Thanksgiving Day opening of stores is hard to predict, but whatever it is I doubt that Black Friday will take on any greater significance for bookstore owners."

Recalling that "in days of yore before the chains, Black Friday was indeed a good day but never close to the Saturday before Christmas or the Saturday before that," Anne Holman, co-owner of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, said when indie booksellers "started to talk about Local First issues and launched a huge education initiative about these issues, our community responded well. Our sales began to rise again and it's continued to be above average.

"Adding Small Business Saturday seemed to electrify the buying public. The first SBS was great and the second was as big a sales day as any in December. This year the combo of Indies First and SBS will, we're convinced, take us to new levels in terms of the importance of locally-owned indies for authors and the public, as well as sales numbers (in Salt Lake anyway)."

And nationwide as well, I suspect. My Black Friday bookselling myth now stands corrected. But just in case it does get a little crazy out there next week, I'll leave you with this backup plan: "Katniss Everdeen’s guide to Black Friday shopping."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2134.

Sunday
Nov172013

Was Black Friday a Bookselling Myth?

Maybe I imagined all of it, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas again and telling her hick relatives they had all just been with her in Oz--And you, and you, and you and you were there! Still, the memories are strong. In the 1990s, when I first started working as a bookseller, Black Friday seemed a very big deal indeed. Even as late as 2004, I opened a blog post with: "Is anybody ever ready for Black Friday. Ready is not the word. It's more a kind of constructive paranoia--generously mixed with terror--that propels us to take every precaution we can think of to insure success."

Was Black Friday just a bookselling myth I perpetuated in my imagination? It's a bit irrelevant now, of course, since the Thanksgiving retail weekend stretches out to Cyber Monday, with Small Business Saturday tucked neatly within (not to mention Barnes & Noble's recently hatched Discovery Friday).

Even the Thursday holiday itself is now an endangered, shopping-free species. "Every year, [Black Friday] infringes more and more on the holiday," retail analyst Walter F. Loeb told the New York Times this week. Referring to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he added, "Next year, I could visualize Santa Claus, instead of riding past Macy's into oblivion on 34th Street, he'll actually go into the store, and lead customers in."

I checked with several veteran booksellers this week about their ancient Black Friday memories, which prompted doubts regarding mine. I'll be sharing some of their observations over the next couple of weeks, and welcome yours as well.

"Black Friday was never our busiest day," said Steve Bercu of BookPeople, Austin, Tex. "Our busiest day has been the Saturday before Christmas for many years though it changes a little when Christmas comes on a Friday. Basically the week before Christmas is our busiest however it is configured. I have been pleased to see how much Small Business Saturday has taken off. It has become the focus of the conversation around here instead of Black Friday."

Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City noted that "Black Friday's significance has diminished. That said, according to my mother-in-law, it never was our biggest day, nor was it a make or break day for us. It was, however, a more impressive day than it is now. I can't say exactly when that changed but it was prior to the millennium."

Weller added that this was "probably due to the decline of the downtown area in which we were located, which started far earlier. By the 2000s, Main Street Salt Lake City wasn't really a shopping destination. Black Friday was also the day by which all holiday displays needed to be in place and most of the stock needed to be in and received, except for those late releasing titles. Because of that the stress leading up to Black Friday was often as great or greater than Black Friday itself. Currently it's a nicely busy day, nothing to shout about. Small Business Saturday is growing for us. CyberMonday does bring a notable uptick in e-commerce orders, though we typically have bigger e-commerce days the second week of December."

At Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz., Gayle Shanks recalled that "in the 40 holiday seasons I've lived through, Black Friday has never been a huge shopping day for book buyers. What we find is that the die-hard shoppers who want to wake up in the middle of the night or stand in line for TV sets are not our customers for the most part. Friday morning is historically slow for us, but by noon the store starts filling up with people.

"Anecdotally, some customers say they have no idea why they thought of shopping anyplace else; or why they even thought they wanted to go to the mall; or 'Thank God, I've found a haven outside of the mall,' etc. As far as our busiest day, no, far from it. We put gift cards on sale for 10% off and sell lots of those on Black Friday. It's a good day, just not anything like Small Business Saturday or the two weeks before Christmas."

John Evans of DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland, Calif., agreed: "Black Friday has never been a significant day in terms of sales. It has always been a significant day in another respect however: people showing off the store to their families over Thanksgiving weekend. Customers bring by their family and say: 'This is a great bookstore.' 'This is our local bookstore--I love it!' 'Check this great bookstore--we shop here all the time.' And so we meet the extended families of our customers.

"But, in general, this is a post-Thanksgiving stroll day, not a bust-down-the-doors consumer frenzy. People have often commented about how relieved they are to not be at the malls on Black Friday, and to just be enjoying the usually warm weather and holiday ease of strolling up the street and stopping in their favorite stores with their families."

More from indie booksellers on the (or my) Black Friday myth next week. As always, your recollections and observations are welcome, too. Maybe, just maybe, someone can confirm that I wasn't imagining everything. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2129.

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