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Booksellers' Private Beach Reads, Part 3

Sometimes a bookseller's thoughts turn to beach reads even in winter. Back in February, Renee Barker of Just the Bookstore, Glen Ellyn, Ill., wrote to me in response to a column about handselling and offered "a term I have begun using with bookstore customers who seem almost embarrassed to ask for something light to read. Most book clubs in our area read a lot of literary fiction that tends to explore the darker side of human nature, and some of our staff also prefer those books and tend to recommend them. So I am now using the phrase 'palate cleanser' for books that are purely for the pleasure of reading, in between the heavier literary courses."

More recently, Barker shared her "personal beach bag of books for this summer: One Plus One by JoJo Moyes, My Family & Other Hazards by June Melby (we're heading for Wisconsin, and mini-golf is a must on our vacations.), Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, The Mockingbird Next Door: My Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills, Positive by Paige Rawl with Ali Benjamin. And my guilty-pleasure read: Having finally read Still Life by Louise Penny not long ago, I am really looking forward to the new Three Pines mystery (The Long Way Home) featuring Inspector Gamache. I have no trouble coming up with palate cleansers!"

Some booksellers told me they had focused on a particular genre this summer. For Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Café, Wichita, Kan., it has been nonfiction, including The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America by Edward White and Jonathan Swift by Leo Damrosch. "These entertaining, literary biographies thoroughly transport you to the world and minds of their subjects, and inform your own world along the way," she said.

For Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction, Greenville, S.C., kids' books have been at the forefront: "Recently, I've been reading galleys of forthcoming children's books. They are so much shorter than adult novels that they make for easy beach reads. One that would make a great crossover read is Murder Is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens. It is the delightful start of a mystery series set at a 1930s English boarding school. Teen sleuths Hazel and Daisy soon have the perfect case for their secret detective agency (the Wells and Wong Detective Society)--the murder of their science teacher, Miss Bell. It releases April 21, 2015, just in time for 2015's beach reading season."

The book Karen Bakshoian of Letterpress Books, Portland, Maine is "now recommending for a beach read is The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen--this book is such fun! A dystopian fairy tale for grownups (and not-so-grownups too.) I enjoyed every page. And second, read Cinnamon & Gunpowder by Eli Brown: pirate shenanigans, gourmet cooking with limited resources--a yummy delight! And don't miss The Martian by Andy Weir. It is not out in paperback yet, and our customers love taking paperbacks to camp, but this book is a delight."

Porch reads: Under the e-mail subject line "Vacation? What vacation?" Pamela Grath of Dog Ears Books, Northport, Mich., noted: "I don't know if we'll get away anywhere in September or not--never manage it before Labor Day!--but I'm setting aside some porch time to read James Lee Burke's new book, Wayfaring Stranger. Big fan of his!"

Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., said, "I've always got grand ideas of all the books I'll be able to read when I'm away from work, but as I've gotten (ahem) older yet wiser I've become better at being realistic about how much I'll really get read. What's been working for me is to bring one classic I've never read or a favorite that bears re-reading, along with a couple of other books I've been meaning to read but couldn't rationalize doing so because of bookselling-related commitments and deadlines.

"I've not actually made it to the beach this year, but I do have some time in the N.C. mountains coming up. Here's what I plan to bring: I'm going to re-read Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. I love to read cookbooks; weekend morning coffee is best spent on the porch with my cat and a stack of sticky notes reading a cookbook and marking future meals. I've not had many free weekend mornings this year, so I have set aside some cookbooks to take with me on vacation, among them Joe Yonan's Eat Your Vegetables and Einat Admony's Balaboosta. Margot Livesey read with us several years ago for her novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy and I've never been able to get her writing out of my head, so I've procured myself a copy of Eva Moves the Furniture and look forward to reading it. And Graham Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale--I read the galley for his upcoming novel The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit and instantly realized I'd been missing out on something special."

As Labor Day weekend begins to loom ominously, beach read pressure is rising with the August heat. So we'll close this series with some words of vacation wisdom from Allison Hill of Vroman's Bookstore (Pasadena, Calif.) and Book Soup (West Hollywood), who recently wrote about her own summer reading plans in the Huffington Post: "As far as I'm concerned, there are only three necessary decisions to make when it comes to vacation: Beach or pool? SPF 15 or 30? And which books should I bring? More important even than my destination, are the books I'm taking with me." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2315.


Booksellers' Private Beach Reads, Part 2

Where are you spending your summer vacation? For David Enyeart of Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn., this year's destination is directly connected to his choice of "mountain read."

Fire lookout
David Enyeart's summer reading getaway spot in Montana.

"I am eagerly anticipating a galley of All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors," he said. "I'll be reading it on vacation in a decommissioned fire lookout in the mountains of Montana, and I'm going there in large part because I read and loved Connors's previous book, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. That first book tells of his time honing his writing craft while working as a firespotter in New Mexico. In his new memoir, Connors looks back a bit farther, to the period when he'd lost his way in the wake of his brother's suicide at 22 and was struggling (and failing) to connect with people, work and his new home."

It's hard to top a decommissioned fire lookout in the mountains of Montana as a reading venue, so let's backtrack momentarily to where we left off last week and share three personal favorites from Emily Crowe of the Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass., beginning with The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan.

"Full disclosure: this book is the debut novel from my co-worker," Crowe admitted. "But even if I didn't work with Chrysler, I would have thought that The Hawley Book of the Dead was fun from start to finish. Filled with 'real magicalism,' including a mysterious falconer, a prognosticating length of twine, and names brimming with double entendre, this debut novel is an uncanny blend of The Night Circus meets The Crucible.  

"David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks was like nothing I've ever read before. I'm told that if you loved Cloud Atlas, then there's an excellent chance that you'll love this one, too, so now it's time for me to read some David Mitchell backlist. The character of Holly Sykes is one of the great females of 21st-century literature so far. I don't read very much short fiction, as I prefer to really sink my teeth into a book and get absorbed by its world. However, if all short stories were as good as Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's Invisible Loves, I would have to change my reading habits. These stories are exquisite, elegant, and enchanting--perfect little gems of literature that are full of philosophy and quiet moments of epiphany."

Two booksellers praised Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Sarah Pishko of Prince Books, Norfolk, Va., said the author's "writing is beautiful and very evocative about a girl amidst the backdrop of World War II." And Lynne Reed of Misty Valley Books, Chester, Vt., called it a "lyrical story of how war affects two young people from opposing sides."

"Why would you choose light reading, when your vacation is the only time you have to really get into a wonderful book?' Reed asked. "I'm always looking for that one (or two) book that is different." Her other selection was I'm Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum, a "love story in reverse between a British artist husband who tries to woo back his wonderful French lawyer wife (and their child) after an affair. It could be a trite book but it's not, and I couldn't put it down, wondering if he'd get her back... you'll root for both of them! A great summer read."

Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Bookstore, Petoskey, Mich., said his "great escape this summer has been Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land. It's not fair, you see; I've been pre-wired to love this series. At age eight, I was given the complete Chronicles of Narnia on tape and literally wore out the cassettes that gave me the adventures of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. Lev's series has brilliantly brought back the wonder I felt on those late nights listening to Lewis, but this story is definitely not for little boys and girls. Like the previous two novels, The Magician's Land packs enough twists, turns and surprises to fill several books, but it's greatest feat lies in how the story is brought to an end. This is one of the most satisfying ends to a series I have ever read, and although that in and of itself is deserving of high praise, the fact that it can make you feel the excitement and wonder of childhood makes it truly magical. Happy late nights!"
The final words this week go to Matt's wife, Jessilynn. In McLean & Eakin's e-newsletter, she observed that "it's been more of a 'reading day summer' than a 'beach day summer,' but we are confident that more beach days are on the way in August.... June and July flew by so quickly, that it almost feels like they were both a week shorter this year! Everything has been so fast and furious that we are worried there hasn't been enough focus on fun, relaxing, and lightening up for the summer. Here's to a lazy August, full of beach days, beach reads, and most of all s.l.o.w.i.n.g. down and relaxing in the sun." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2310.


Booksellers' Private Beach Reads, Part 1

Hey booksellers! What are you reading on your vacation this summer? In response to last week's Brief History of Beach Reads column, Ellen Stimson, author of Mud Season and the upcoming Good Grief! (Countryman Press, October), suggested: "Now we need a wrap-up of our actual private summer reading. What do booksellers read on the beach?"

So... I asked.

"Every July I drag out my favorite bookish T-shirt with the New Yorker cartoon of a law officer addressing a man reading in a beach chair: 'I'm sorry sir, but Dostoyevsky is not considered summer reading. I'll have to ask you to come with me,' " said Cheryl Krocker McKeon of Book Passage, San Francisco, Calif.

"As a bookseller I often deprive myself of popular titles because these books don't 'need' me, so this summer I think I'll read Gone Girl and Unbroken," she added. "And for sheer fun I'll bring The Best of Connie Willis, because the stories are surprising and thought-provoking, funny and profound, and include the author's afterword to each story, so it's like a bonus of having her as a travel companion! Oh, and Travels with Charley, finally; since I won't see the whole USA I can enjoy 1960 America with Steinbeck and his poodle. I think I am going to run out of vacation hours."

Noting that "a 'beach vacation' sounds nice, but I'm going to be more on the 'days off' end of the spectrum this year," Jeff McCord of Bound to Be Read Books, Atlanta, Ga., said his "vacation is being lived vicariously through the wonderful stories our customers tell me about their vacations (including trips to London, Germany, Sweden, a month-long driving tour of New England, etc.... awesome!).

"I waited to start the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters until the third book was about to be released July 15, and it has been a great summer read. I started last month with The Last Policeman, a murder mystery set in pre-apocalyptic New Hampshire. I'm finished now with book two, Countdown City, and was waiting on my staff to finish the ARC of the third book, World of Trouble, but since it was released last week, I have my own copy now--as do several of our customers who have also jumped on board. It's a great series, with an Edgar Award to recommend it as well. Can't wait to finish it!"

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, observed that "summer is my time to catch up on the books that all the other booksellers loved and I, somehow, just didn't get to for whatever reason. So my stack for that 'project' includes Atonement, The Shadow of the Wind, A Visit from the Goon Squad and Olive Kitteridge. I don't often read anything twice; too many books, too little time. But The Rosie Project just makes me happy. Open it to any page and read a paragraph and you will laugh out loud, I guarantee. It's not deep; there are no hidden messages to decipher and discuss endlessly. It's simply an invitation to inhabit someone else's life (Don Tillman) who is so different from me and yet not, that it gives me great hope for the human race (and also cocktails)."

Planning for an upcoming vacation, Connie Brooks of Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y., said her "new book" will be The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness: "Anyone who has been reading this wonderful trilogy knows that the third book is highly anticipated. I have two customers--a mother and a daughter--they bought one copy of The Book of Life--and they are both trying to read it at the same time--they keep stealing it back from one another. The Book of Life is my kind of beach read--a large tome that will utterly transport me out of myself!

"I will also be reading The Shadow of the Wind. This is our Book Club pick for next month, and while it might not fit the classic 'beach read' definition, it is summer reading perfection. Dark, atmospheric, scary and erotic--what better for when you actually have time to completely give yourself over to a novel. And, finally, since I have a six-year-old, we have another trilogy ahead of us this summer: the graphic novels Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. I will also be adding in The Outermost House by Henry Beston. Now in a 75th-anniversary edition, this is considered a classic nature book, and since we will be in Cape Cod soon, it is perfect."

Emily Crowe of the Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass., just returned from her two-week beach vacation "where I spent a lot of time reading. In fact, I spend almost as much time planning my vacation reading as I do planning the vacation. I 'test drive' the first 50 pages to make sure the book is worthy of inclusion in my suitcase. My husband and I take about a dozen physical books between us and I also load up my e-reader with e-galleys. My beach reading reflects my general reading; it's just more concentrated. I was lucky this trip; everything was good, but some of it was outstanding."

More about Emily's favorite vacation reads coming in next week's column, along with warm weather contributions from several other booksellers. As always, you are more than welcome to join the conversation if you'd like to divulge your private beach reads for 2014. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2304.


A Brief History of Beach Reads

First, sincere congratulations to CNN as the 2014 award winner (in a very competitive field) for most egregious use of a summer reading pun: "Whatever your definition of 'beach book'--romance, mystery, gripping true-life-tale--you'll find a shore thing here."

As I dutifully pored over all the summer reads recommendation lists released during the past couple of months, I began having sun-addled visions of beach reads from the distant past (sometimes called "hammock reads," I soon learned). After some seasonally appropriate leisurely research in the archives of the New York Times, I now offer for your summer reading pleasure an ever-so-brief history of the American beach read:

1890s: "During the Summer days a table was placed in the doorway and here were displayed a selection of the paper-covered books for 'Summer reading.' For some reason lighter books were considered more suitable to the hot weather."

1897: "The reader of to-day whose knowledge of books goes back twenty years must often have been surprised with the change that has come over books intended for Summer reading.... Society and civilization may take hope from the improved quality of the Summer books.... It truly seems as if all the world were writing novels. With bad ones plentiful enough, how good the best ones are!"

1900: "But if there is one season in which the printed book might be regarded as a questionable intruder it is when the pageant of Summer has attained its full splendor and the most attractive pages of the great book of nature lie open before us.... When he would for a brief period escape the spell of the printed page, break its chain, and rise to a rarer atmosphere, lo, the whole world seems leagued against him, and from a hundred throats he hears the cry, 'Books for Summer Reading!' "

1907: "What I'm trying to discover is whether any one reads in Summer, or whether the bulk of vacation literature is really an unopened contingent.... It isn't necessary to read a book in order to be happy with it. On a steamer or in a hammock you simply have to have the book in your lap or close at hand, with the paper-cutter and pencil."

Cincinnati Public Library bookmobile, 1927
Cincinnati Public Library bookmobile, 1927

1920: "It made us wonder just how Summer Reading has progressed in a world where excitement has been the rule and where nothing has remained as it was.... Gone are the days when the unambitious reader would lie in the grass in a semi-coma and meander blankly through a volume of trashy lovemaking and trashier thrillers."

1928: "What do people read in the summer?... They read, in other words, whatever the tastes and piety of earlier generations of Summer residents have stored for them on the hotel shelves."

1950: "There is, however, one error which is disastrously popular--namely, the assumption that only 'light' books, by which is meant trivial or foolish or badly written books--are suitable for summer. Nothing is actually harder to read than that which is not worth reading, and there is nothing more likely to produce boredom than a too desperate attempt to escape it."

1953: "When an unwished beach picnic is suggested, for example, the necessity of reading a light romantic novel will not stand up as an excuse for not attending. On the other hand, the casual display of the somewhat weightier book will prove at once that even on vacation the thirst for knowledge rises superior to such casual pleasures as picnics."

1968: "There is nothing like the library of a summer house to reverse the tides of literary improvement.... It is wonderful junk--never weeded out, like other junk, because summer people just can't throw any book away, however transient its subject or purple its prose." (William Zinsser)

1971: "The reviewers must have reasoned that as we, book lovers all, packed to head off for vacation, we agonized about how to pack our limited baggage space with the most rewarding material available. Hence 'suggestions for summer reading.' " (Russell Baker)

1985: "A feeling seems to have arisen that summer is the time for light reading. I don't know where anyone got that idea. The truth about summer is this. There are an enormous number of hours in it--slow hours--and yet, before you know it, somehow it is over.... Summer is the time for heavy reading, reading that works up a sweat. I wouldn't be surprised if there were scientific studies showing that the sun's heat melts eye-glaze." (Roy Blount, Jr.)

2014: "For me, being a reader, in summer or at any other time, isn't a 'lifestyle choice.' Rather, I made the choice--if that's what it was--so long ago, it has taken on an inescapable character in my mind.... The beach is one of the few places pathological readers can pass undetected among their civilian cousins." (Zadie Smith in O, The Oprah Magazine)

And, finally, these history-transcending words of summer reading perspective from George R.R. Martin: "Winter is coming." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2299.


Human Connection Needs No Reinvention

Last month, I asked if you'd ever wondered how someone completely outside the book trade might envision the shape of bookstores to come, a question prompted by the Economist's "Reinvent the Bookshop" challenge to four leading architecture and design firms.

I was particularly intrigued by feedback I received from relatively new booksellers, whose task is as much invention as reinvention. Karen Bakshoian of Letterpress Books, Portland, Maine, which opened last fall, did not mince words: "I truly despise this idea.... 'They' are removing all the personal interaction between bookseller and customer, taking away the joy of sharing wonderful titles, and all of the fun as well. I have been a bookseller for a whole eight months now, but the best task of each day is working with my customers. They quickly become regulars. They tell their friends and family members what a super bookstore is now right in their neighborhood. They share the books with their friends. They join the book club. Isn't that cool?"

As someone who regularly interacts with new and prospective booksellers on design issues through the Bookstore Training and Consulting Group of Paz & Associates, Donna Paz Kaufman has a vested, as well as personal, interest in the topic of bookstore reinvention. In the comments section for the Economist's article, she had written: "As a designer of bookstores in the U.S. and in various places around the globe for 22 years, it seems to me that the architects miss one important point: people come to bookstores because they want a break from technology. A curated selection, beautiful displays that cater to the reading lifestyle, a comfortable setting, friendly staff, and a business that recirculates its profits in the local community matter. If people want technology, they tap those resources at home or on the road. The bookstore is a comfortable, peaceful escape from a fast-paced life."

I asked her to expand on this observation. "I was so curious about the article and was so disappointed when I finished it," she said. "Seemed they went over the edge when it came to modern design and technology. In another life, I think I was or still want to be an urban planner because the whole idea of how we live speaks so much about whom we are, what we seek, and what brings us contentment and comfort. Looking at bookstores today, I think we need more that is authentic and human to balance out the number of screens and machines in our lives."

She cited Melissa DeMotte's vision for her new bookshop, the Well~Read Moose in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, as an example: "Her store is all about human connection.... cafe with indie coffee roaster and Northwest regional wines, a seating area specifically designed as a quiet nook for book groups, Melissa's mother's rocking chair she used when Melissa and her sister were babies, and a play area for kids. We're excited about Melissa and her store since she came from the corporate world and is so full of life and love. She symbolizes all that we love about the people drawn to this business and we still need way more of them to fill in all of the gaps around the country without bookstores."


DeMotte, who told me she considered some of the "Reinvent the Bookshop" ideas to be "quite creative," has received a lot of positive feedback regarding the layout in the Well~Read Moose's 2,700 square feet. "People say they like the flow and that they can 'find new things around every corner,' " she said. "We did quite a bit of research on the local demographics. After Borders closed, we didn't have a bookstore with all new books. This just seemed 'wrong' for a wonderful community like Coeur d'Alene. Our vision was to create a warm and inviting space to browse, meet friends and try new things--a new book/author/genre, a new brewed coffee, a new wine, etc. We will host our own book clubs as well as reserve spaces for outside clubs to meet. We have a nice seating area for up to 10 people to gather comfortably, sip some wine and chat about their books. We have had many, many people thank us for opening. They are happy to have an indie bookstore and vow to support it. What more could I ask for?"

Non-booksellers also weighed in on the bookshop reinvention issue. Maureen Mills, who worked in small press/academic publishing for more than 30 years, praised her local booksellers, Mary Adams and Janice Holmes of the Annapolis Bookstore, Annapolis, Md.: "I know you hear this over and over--but it is a truly special place run by two very special ladies."

Mills stressed the importance of interconnection over reinvention: "Extend the connection between bookshop and customer to online in a way customers can connect from home, not just to a Web page to order books, but to be able to browse the store, as if you were there (yes, I'm being daring here)."

She also wished there was a better way to "grab and extend the idea of online webinars/seminars/courses, with synchronous book readings connecting groups at bookstores across the country. I'm especially fond of this idea because I can see these functioning in a way that helps people understand the many unique 'hometown' cultures that exist across the country. All this maintained by and promoted through the special personal touch of an independent bookstore. There's a nice challenge."

And challenges, as we know, are nothing new for indie booksellers. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2294.

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