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The 'Act of Theatre' that Is BEA

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." --Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate

Kunal Nayyar, Lee Child, Diana Nyad & Brandon Stanton on the big stage at BEA's Adult Book & Author Breakfast

What does Brook have to do with BookExpo 2015? Good question. Ask bestselling author Lee Child, who invoked the legendary director's 1968 book during the Adult Book and Author Breakfast. Child was speaking from the very big stage in Javits Center's Special Events Hall as he recounted his early career in theater, before he moved on to TV and subsequently took his chances with the writing life.

Is BEA an "act of theatre?" Yes. Are we the audience or the performers? Both, of course. And critics as well. From my first days as a bookseller, I understood that handselling was a performance--sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, always passionate--and that the bookstore sales floor was a stage set. Ever since I attended my first ABA convention in 1993, I've seen the annual gathering as a more lavish version of what we do every day. Call it Broadway-scale handselling.

Child's conjuring of Brook's name sparked in me a more focused consideration of BEA 2015's pageantry and performances; its set designs and stars (not just bestselling authors, but actors-turned-writers like Nathan Lane and Julianne Moore). When I attend BEA, I always stay at a hotel on Broadway; I suppose that's another clue. Before the show opens, sets must be hastily constructed in the Javits Center Exhibits Hall to fill (or at least create the illusion of filling, as seemed to be the case this year) as much of that vast "empty space" as possible.

Tea ceremony at the Chinese pavilion

The most ambitious stage production this year was created by Global Forum Guest of Honor China. The country's "pavilion" (an utterly inadequate word to fully describe China's dominant presence on the floor and even in the atrium) was at once massive and spare, active yet quiet. Business was being conducted, but I also watched performers demonstrate the arts of tea ceremony, calligraphy, painting techniques and more.

BEA is a massive show, but I most clearly remember its smaller theatrical moments:

On the Uptown Stage, I saw Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach turn their "talk about our new books as fast as we can" moment into an improv stand-up act, beginning with an attempt to silence the incessant trade show din ("Hachette, keep it down!").

In the almost hidden corner where the Eastside Stage was located, Soho Press associate publisher Juliet Grimes handsold me (and others in the audience) Fuminori Nakamura's The Gun. Then Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief at Europa Editions, handsold us the works of Massimo Carlotto, while noting that in many countries, "crime fiction is a way of getting out the truth.... Crime fiction is the real social novel of our times."

Ron Charles, Geraldine Brooks

On the Downtown Stage, I heard author Geraldine Brooks tell the Washington Post's Ron Charles that the story of King David, which she explores in her upcoming novel The Secret Chord, is a precursor to the larger-than-life histories of Henry VIII or even fantasies like Game of Thrones because "it's all in there.... This is the fundamental story that underlies all those stories." Speaking of historical fiction, Brooks said, "This is what we do. We put ourselves in other people's lives."

As fate (and theatricality) would have it, Henry VIII made a return appearance Friday night, just after the curtain had come down on another BEA. At the Winter Garden Theatre, as I waited for the start of Wolf Hall, Part II: Bring Up the Bodies, the Royal Shakespeare Company's brilliant stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels, I marveled at Christopher Oram's spare and monolithic set. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley had eloquently described it as "a vast gray chamber transected by flame and shadow." And then, suddenly, there was King Henry, a flash of color in the almost empty space.

Now comes the point when I resist the temptation to quote Shakespeare's As You Like It ("All the world's a stage," etc.), but instead will share another connection. In 2013, I saw a Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night. Olivia was played by Mark Rylance--who shined as Cromwell in the recent BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Wolf Hall. It is Fabian, however, who says, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."

There are, I confess, times when BEA feels that way to me, and yet I'll return to the stage again next year to walk across its "empty space," in search of those little moments that matter. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2522


Bringing Your Home Library Identity to BEA

Binnie Klein

How I arranged my books kind of felt like the Holy Grail to my identity.

I recently heard these words spoken by Binnie Klein during an episode of WPKN radio's Home Page program, which she co-hosts with Duo Dickinson. The show focused on "Living with Books" and was recorded live at the Institute Library of New Haven, Conn. Audience members were encouraged to "bring a treasured book that has followed you everywhere."

"What's on the shelf defines you," guest Robin Black, author of Life Drawing, observed during the show, adding: "Books give your history, but they're also aspirational."

I needed to be reminded of this. Next week, we bookish folk will infiltrate New York City for BookExpo America, each of us covertly bringing our own home library identity with us, along with our book trade identity (bookseller, publisher, author, etc.).

For almost a decade, I've written pre-BEA columns for Shelf Awareness. Many of them have necessarily been about the uncertain future of the industry, especially when things looked grim. From 2007: "BookExpo America, which reminds us every spring that a promising future always trumps a muddled present." Or from 2010: "Same as it ever was. And now we're headed back to BookExpo. Handselling and handwringing will continue unabated."

This year, however, I've been reminded by the "Living with Books" broadcast of something that struck me during my first book trade show, at the moment I walked into the Miami Beach Convention Center in 1993 for ABA's annual event. I'd been a bookseller for less than a year, but knew at once I belonged there. Maybe that was just my home library identity overcompensating, but it was a useful survival tool nonetheless.

Listening to "Living with Books" has helped me prepare for yet another BEA, where the seeming infinity of potential reads can reach Borgesian levels. Even the limitless imagination of Borges might have struggled to conjure the bookish sensory overload that is Javits Center during BEA.

But I digress. In addition to Home Page, Binnie Klein also hosts A Miniature World, a music and interview show (upcoming guests include Elizabeth Alexander and Jonathan Galassi) and is a writer. Her 2010 book, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind, is a great read.

After hearing the "Living with Books" segment, I wondered if she'd ever been to BEA. Then I stopped wondering and simply asked her.

"I found myself at BookExpo in the spring of 2010, as the guest of SUNY Press, who had just published my book," Klein replied. "I felt like I should have arrived with my ISBN tattooed somewhere on my body--that's how excited and proud I was, especially as a 'late-bloomer.'  Instead I arrived with an immediate concern--was I wearing comfortable enough shoes? I'd been warned that there would be a fair amount of walking. The place was huge, and everyone looked like a celebrity or near-celebrity to me." Afterward, she recalled that the "designated shuttle back to Grand Central, with its nametag-wearing passengers, felt like the camp bus home. We'd all been through something, and now we were going home with bags of book swag. My shoes had done their job."

Dickinson, Klein & Black during WKPN's Home Page "Living With Books" live broadcast (photo: Brian Slattery/NewHavenIndependent.org)

I reminded Klein of what she and Robin Black had said in discussing the role books played in forming identity and self-definition. Noting that even when I'm in the middle of the BookExpo free-for-all next week, there will still be a part of my own home library identity that gives me needed perspective, I asked: Do you take your home library identity "on the road" when you travel, too?

"We carry within us the memories of phrases, characters, surprise endings, narrative drive that keeps us up at night, multiple insights within sentences that astonish," Klein replied. "My home library identity (Shall we dub it HLI?) is vast and thoroughly incomplete. It starts in childhood with Eloise and Golden Books and Rudyard Kipling and meanders through adolescence with Salinger and Hesse and poetry journals and lands more recently, at Tana French, George Hodgman, Paul Auster, Daniel Menaker, Walter Kirn, Will Wiles and the stack of new authors on my desk waiting, like little soldiers, to be called into service. I am very lucky to be a radio interviewer who can both read them and sometimes 'meet' them. We meet at the borders of their interests and mine, and when the magic happens, I'm again that little girl with crooked bangs reading Eloise in my room."

And that has now become my BEA 2015 goal: to "meet at the borders of their interests and mine," and hope for a few key moments "when the magic happens." Hope to see you, and your own wonderful HLIs, next week. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2513


Canadian 'BookManager Academy' Set for June

The inaugural BookManager Academy will be held June 12-14 in Kelowna, B.C. That may seem like a simple announcement, but the backstory for this event, which features BookManager and general bookselling education programs, roundtable discussions and brainstorming sessions, along with social events and networking opportunities, is considerably more intricate.  

Michael Neill, president/head programmer of BookManager and owner of Mosaic Books, said his company "has been a smaller part of some previous Western Book Reps Association fairs. When they mentioned the idea of holding the fair in our hometown of Kelowna, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to expand the audience and include everyone using BookManager. Part of the draw for any conference is the location and what to do after the meetings. Kelowna is a pretty amazing medium-size city to explore."

Michael Neill

Thus far, BMA has received "an overwhelmingly positive response from booksellers across the country," noted Diana O'Neill, who handles sales and technical/data support for the company. "We currently have just over 100 booksellers registered, with 50-plus stores taking part. Besides all the B.C. stores coming, there are booksellers flying in from across the country--and there are even a handful coming from Oregon and California. What started out as a small initiative has grown into something that is going to be really great."

The American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute played a significant role in the genesis of BMA 2015. "Diana and I attended the [2014] Seattle event to introduce BookManager to U.S. booksellers," said Neill. "My daughter, Alicia, manages our bookstore and she has also attended past Winter Institutes, including Asheville. The different perspectives and experiences from people who share similar passions and challenges is the most significant take-away."

O'Neill recalled a pivotal WI9 moment for her: "One thing that really resonates with me still to this day, from Seattle's 2014 WI, is an International Booksellers Workshop that Michael and I stumbled into. This room was filled with the minds of what could easily be considered a tiny snapshot of a 'who's who' of the American bookselling industry, but we didn't know that at the time. We simply thought the discussion would be somewhat relevant to us, seeing as we're a part of the Canadian bookselling community.

"In this room chowing down on sandwiches and throwing ideas around were Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, BookPeople's Steve Bercu, Chuck Robinson from Village Books and a handful of others. As cheesy as this sounds--and I admittedly lack a better description--I left that room optimistically fired up from the exchanging of the 'big picture' ideas. And not just that, but I felt really lucky to be a sponge soaking it all up.

Diana O'Neill

"So what I ultimately took away is we have booksellers just like that here in Canada. And in my job, I'm so very fortunate to speak to loads of them, day after day. A few years ago the Canadian bookselling industry felt all doom and gloom, but we have some strong, smart booksellers up here doing solid work and turning things around. So this BMA is our opportunity to have sessions just like that, with booksellers from across the country to hopefully inspire each other and keep us on this steady, forward-thinking, positive track."

She added that BMA's organizers "are essentially testing the waters with this event in June; we are striving for a mini (or modest) Canadian WI of sorts, possibly something to grow along the lines of what the ABA successfully does each year. We are even copying what the ABA did this past year with their 'Town Hall' type forum, which we are going to open up to reps and booksellers. The staff here and all booksellers we have talked to are very excited about what this is shaping up to be. Depending on how everything goes, we are essentially looking at this as a pilot project for possible future events designed to inspire booksellers to start thinking about the brighter future that is currently upon us."

When I asked Neill what he hoped to accomplish with the inaugural BMA, he replied: "Too many of us no longer communicate face-to-face with our peers. The BookManager education will be valuable for many, but it will also be a catalyst for discussion during the social events where ideas for change really happen. The book industry had been fighting a few years of erosion both in numbers and morale. Many stores have since turned things around and I hope to see those booksellers sharing their enthusiasm and thirst for change." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2508


A Booktopia Thank You Note

Something amazing is happening right now at independent bookstores all over the world. These moments range from the private--a child reading quietly in the children's department, or an extraordinary handselling session between bookseller and reader--to the very public, like an unforgettable author event. Last weekend, in the midst of the Independent Store Day frenzy, I had to miss Booktopia Vermont, one of these wonderful, bookish moments, but I don't want it to pass unremarked upon.

In Manchester Center, home of the Northshire Bookstore, Random House sales reps and Books on the Nightstand co-hosts Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness held their next-to-last Booktopia event. I covered their first Booktopia in 2011, and since then Booktopias have been held in several cities in partnership with some great indie booksellers. After the inaugural event, Ann told me: "We started with the reader. Every plan we made, every idea we had, started with the reader in mind. We did this for them, not for the authors and not for the bookstore. I didn't realize this really until one of our guests said, 'It was a reader's retreat, not an author's retreat.' "

Ann Kingman (l.) and Michael Kindness (r.) bookend the authors who participated in last weekend's Booktopia Vermont

I liked her words then and I like them now. Thank you notes are in order. One came in a video by Ryan Ludman, a multiple-time/multiple location Booktopia attendee. Another can be found in the words of Northshire buyer Stan Hynds, who spoke on behalf of the bookstore to open Saturday night's Celebration of Authors event. I'd like to share the transcript of his thank you note:

"We are going to try to say thank you now which is going to be very difficult to do. I can't come up with a few well-constructed sentences, string them together in one lovely paragraph and adequately express how grateful we are to Ann and Michael.... The best I can do is make a list. Maybe the cumulative effect of a detailed list will come close to being adequate. First, Thank You. For the podcast. That's a good place to start. We certainly wouldn't be here if it weren't for that. You started with a great idea. You have executed it well and it is a pleasure to listen to every week.

"Thank You also for all the hard work and countless hours it takes in creating that podcast. Among ourselves, we always say we don't know how you have time to do everything you do. Somehow you do it plus your regular more-than-full-time job. I, too, have a full-time job and wonder what would happen if I told my boss and family that in addition to the bookstore, I'm going to create an audio product about my interest in books, baseball and 70s pop music. I'll do one every week and put it out there and see if anybody listens. Well, I'd never do that. But you do. So we're making headway but we're not there yet because...

"Thank You. For simply having the idea of a Books on the Nightstand retreat and having the guts to give wings to it. And talk about your hard work. 'Hey boss and family. In addition to the audio product, I'm going to invite 80 of my best listeners to a weekend--no, weekends--around the country in towns with baseball stadiums. I'll plan the programs, catering and lodging. It'll be great.' Never. But you do.

"Thank You--and we say this at the Northshire all the time--for having Booktopia here. You bring wonderful authors and dream customers into our store. Yes, the sales are much appreciated, especially this time of year, but the energy and passion of the Booktopia crowd is absolutely inspiring to us and we are extremely grateful. Maybe we're getting close but we're still not there because...

"Thank You. For helping create a community. With a good idea, hard work and a little technology…look what you did. Communities come in all shapes and sizes and this is definitely one. I know at this point Ann and Michael would prefer to deflect the praise, credit others, and have me stop talking but we can't just yet because, finally...

"Thank You. For being the kind of people you are. Good-hearted, decent, book-loving human beings. If it weren't for that I know we wouldn't be here. They wouldn't want to come and, frankly, we wouldn't want to host you. From the bottom of our hearts and the bottom of this list, we thank you, Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness."

Amazing things are happening in the book world right now; and I mean right now... everywhere. All we have to do is pay attention... and occasionally say thank you. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2503


Interdependent Bookstore Day... Citywide

"We are proudly independent, but over these dozen-plus years, we've learned how much small businesses like ours also rely on connections," Steve Costa and Kate Levinson, co-owners of Point Reyes Books, observed this week in sharing their Independent Bookstore Day "Declaration of Interdependence."

The rapid evolution of California Bookstore Day into IBD (and, in Canada, Authors for Indies Day) is another indicator of the resilience and creativity indie booksellers continue to exhibit in their collaborative efforts on both a national and local scale. We've been highlighting some of the many IBD partnerships booksellers have forged with other local businesses--bakeries, cafes, craft stores, bike shops and more. I just wanted to offer a reminder that booksellers in several U.S. cities have also found imaginative ways to showcase their interdependence tomorrow:

In the Seattle area, 17 bookstores teamed up to create the Indie Bookstore Challenge, with the winning customers receiving year-long 25% discounts at all participating stores--plus the title of Indie Bookstore Champ. The Stranger noted "one of the benefits of the project is the sense of solidarity among the participants."

"We feel a bond with other indies," said Open Books co-owner John Marshall. "Heck, Amazon has even made Barnes & Noble seem like a relative--what dark magic does that? We are pleased to celebrate shared DNA with our sibling stores."

"I love what Seattle is doing," said Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco and a driving force behind the first California Bookstore Day last year. "Stores that would normally be competing with each other are cooperating. I can't think of anything else like it. I don't think, for example, coffee shops get together and share their best techniques."

Many booksellers in the San Francisco region are honoring the Bay Area Bookstore Passport as a way to inspire informal bookshop crawls. Customers who make a purchase at three or more bookstores tomorrow can ask for a stamp in their passports. Each time they reach three new stamps, they qualify for a prize.

Sign at Main Street Books, St. Charles, Mo.

"We're looking at it as a customer appreciation day," Stephanie Hochschild, owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, told the Tribune regarding Chicago Independent Bookstore Day, in which 12 indies are banding together to celebrate. "They're the reason we flourish and it's a way to thank them. We hope to remind people of the importance of shopping local, not just at the Book Stall, but for everyone."

For Independent Bookstore Day NYC, two dozen Big Apple indies teamed up to collectively publicize IBD's citywide events, which will culminate with a Bookstore Day NYC afterparty at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn. "Show your local bookstores some love this weekend," DNAInfo New York advised.

"I think that in many neighborhoods a bookstore is an inherent part of the community," Lexi Beach, owner of Astoria Bookshop in Queens, noted. "Having that kind of space where people can come together and collectively form a community around their love of books--I think is something that is still really important."

"Of course, we have to do things differently in New Orleans," said Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books, which will team up with Garden District Book Shop and Tubby & Coo's Mid-City Book Shop to celebrate IBD next Saturday, May 9, in order to avoid conflicting with the legendary Jazz Fest, at which NOLA indies work together to operate the book tent. Among the special activities planned for their delayed version of IBD is the chance to win $75 in gift certificates for book lovers who visit all three participating bookstores as part of a scavenger hunt. 

For some of us who've been observing the book business over the past couple of decades, the notion of such a large-scale Independent Bookstore Day is still a little, well, stunning.

Trying on some of the exclusive IBD merchandise at Harvard Book Store.

Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, told Berkleyside: "Five years ago, we couldn't have done this event because the bookstores wouldn't have been involved. They would have said, 'There's too much going on and we're just trying to get by.' The idea of organizing this big thing would have sounded too overwhelming."

Landon's comment reminded me of a blog post I wrote in 2006, when the outlook for indies seemed much bleaker than it does today. "Independence and dependence are not unlike Yin and Yang, dual forces that make the world work only when they are in harmony," I noted then. "Indies are dependent. Indies depend upon their communities to value and sustain them. Their claims to independence are a meaningless whimper without the support of local residents and businesses.... Indies depend upon other bookstores, through personal friendships as well as regional and national organizations, to give them a sense that they are not fighting this battle alone and that the war is not lost."

Nine years later, I like the Point Reyes Books word much better. Here's to a brilliantly successful Interdependent Bookstore Day tomorrow for everyone. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2498

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