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Art Meets Commerce on Sidewalk Chalkboards

"The humble and ubiquitous chalkboard placed outside coffee shops, cafes, bars, restaurants or boutiques has slowly grown from a mere way to advertise that night's specials or happy hours to a kind of showcase of wit," the New York Times noted yesterday in a piece headlined "Sidewalk Blackboards Offer Some Chalk 'n' Chew."

They forgot to mention bookstores, but we know better. This summer, Shelf Awareness has occasionally featured a "Bookstore Chalkboard of the Day," highlighting booksellers who creatively occupy the sidewalks outside their stores with humor, puns, quotations, advice and bits of "shop local" wisdom. This strategy isn't new, however. Here are a few highlights from recent history:

2011: A power outage at Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif., compelled the booksellers to "put a chalkboard out front proclaiming, 'Open Until Sundown!' "

2013: With power long restored, Book Passage created a "striking sign" promoting an appearance by legendary tattoo artist Ed Hardy.

At the Lopez Bookshop, Lopez Island, Wash., "the biggest attention-getter was a chalkboard beside the shop's front door that listed a literary question each day." Co-owner Karen Barringer told us: "It's a great conversation starter, and it's fun to see customers' excitement when they get a candy treat for answering the question correctly."

2014: The Owl & Turtle Bookshop, Camden, Maine, issued a retail storm warning July 4 via the store's sidewalk chalkboard, which noted: "Working hypothesis: Putting this chalkboard out on the sidewalk causes rain (We're 50% sure)."

"A simple message on our sidewalk chalkboard is shared (and re-shared, and shared some more) by bookstores and libraries across the country on Facebook last summer, one very warm day," Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass., recalled in its year-end highlights.

2015: Many bookstores have an artist in residence. In June, we featured the work of Madeline Gobbo of the Booksmith, San Francisco, Calif., who "illustrated the shop's sidewalk chalk board Friday to celebrate and thank the five Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of marriage equality."

These are just the tip of the chalky iceberg, of course. Buzzfeed has showcased "15 hilarious bookstore chalkboards" while asking the eternal question: "Who knew the sidewalk could be such a weird and witty place?"

There are, inevitably, dissenters. Last May, Slate's Heather Schwedel took on the chalkboard musings of bars, coffee shops, and boutiques: "Long after the printing press rendered town criers obsolete, that other ancient form of information dissemination, the sidewalk sandwich board, quietly persists.... But perhaps you too have lately noticed a certain creep away from the practical toward a softer sell: jokes, puns, quotations, drawings, and other creative expressions of branding. Too often, the results are cringeworthy."

And in June, Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty pushed for a review of city regulations: "I think sandwich-board signs are an effective tool to encourage new business and attract pedestrians and highlight specials. But if I go out with an 8-by-10 board on my sidewalk, and then you have a little rinky-dink board next to mine, we need absolute rules for that."

The sidewalk chalkboard cannot be stopped by a little negativity, however. Chalk and slate are ancient tools; sidewalk sandwich boards date back at least to the 19th century.

In the Atlantic three years ago, Charles R. Wolfe noted that the "sandwich board" was making a comeback. "As a lawyer interested in the 'on the ground impact' of policy and regulation, I find implementation more interesting and dynamic than the actual permit criteria," he wrote. "With a return to a neighborhood base built around multi-modal street life, the images here show sandwich boards as both fascinating symptoms and emblems of the changing city.... Perhaps because of business necessity and the simple, homespun nature of sandwich boards, users assume flexible placement of such signage is appropriate."

Wolfe proposed five criteria for the viability of sandwich boards:

  1. Homespun simplicity sells.
  2. Artisans need work and small businesses need affordable ways to shine.
  3. Well done signs bring character to neighborhood.
  4. Sandwich boards can supplement permitted facade signage and increase the prominence of a small business.
  5. Perhaps most important, like other forms of pop-up urbanism, removal is an option.

In yesterday's New York Times piece, artist Tyler Patty considered the "learning curve" involved with working in chalk on a blackboard: "It's inverted, so you have to think about light in a different way--you're putting on light instead of shadow. I'm drawn to it because of that."

Art meets commerce... at downtown independent businesses. What's not to like? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2581


The Bookseller from U.N.C.L.E.

Now it can be told; the last documents have been declassified. A few years ago, I wrote a column about my life in the spy game, but I didn't reveal the whole story. Last week's release of the new Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie has prompted me to finish the tale with a pair of bookish memories:

One day in the late 1990s, a fellow bookseller asked whether I'd noticed a woman who'd been staking out the reference section window seat for most of the morning, taking copious notes from a number of books. While this kind of behavior wasn't strictly forbidden, it was a misdemeanor on a par with copying recipes out of cookbooks (as compared to asking a bookseller to photocopy a page, which must be a borderline felony). The strategy in these situations was to engage the customer in pleasant, professional conversation; just to let them know you were on the case.

I casually strolled over and asked if there was anything I could do to help, but our conversation took an unexpected turn. She was a crossword puzzle maker. We talked about the primal human need to accumulate trivia. At some point, I mentioned a gold nugget of my own: While many people still remembered that the "good" organization's acronym in the 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stood for United Network Command for Law & Enforcement, I seemed to be the only one who recalled that their arch-enemy, T.H.R.U.S.H., was short for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables & Subjugation of Humanity. She laughed and admitted she didn't know that one either, but then she reached into her purse and trumped me by handing over a worn, three-decade old identification card for the Man from U.N.C.L.E. fan club.

The other spy memory involves my first bookshelf. In addition to watching every episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I read and re-read a tie-in novel series with subtitles like The Doomsday Affair, The Copenhagen Affair and The Dagger Affair. I bought new editions as soon as they were available and carefully shelved the numbered paperbacks (1-23) on top of my dresser, between wooden bookends my father had built. This was my first personal library. In more ways than I can count, those books were a bridge to the world I chose to live in as an adult--a world of books, where readers can be anyone they choose. First I was a spy, then I became a reader, a writer, a bookseller and an editor.

In an interview this week with Susan King of the Los Angeles Times, David McCallum, the 82-year-old actor (Illya Kuryakin in the original TV series; now Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on NCIS) and upcoming debut novelist (Once a Crooked Man will be published in January by Minotaur), recalled his own mid-'60s life in the spy game.

"Chatting for an hour, McCallum embodied an old-school gentleman who seemed pleased and bemused that the person sitting across from him had been devoted to The Man From U.N.CL.E. all those years ago," King wrote. "In the series, Kuryakin remained a man of mystery. McCallum said the only thing he remembered from the pilot script was that Kuryakin was Russian and had a collection of jazz records under his bed."

"If you go through the entire series, there is nothing anywhere about Illya," he observed. "Everybody had their own idea of who he was and where he came from, which gave them these wonderful images." I can appreciate the notion that TV viewers had to "read" Illya.    

Like any good spy, I search for clues and connections. Here's another: Although legendary author Harlan Ellison was only credited as a writer on two episodes of the TV series, he actually rewrote many others. In The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Book: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Television Classic, Ellison recalls that he often employed a literary device called "Tuckerisms," named after Wilson "Bob" Tucker, who would use the names of friends as characters in his books.

"When I did 'The Pieces of Fate Affair,' since it was a literary background, I thought I'll have a little fun with it and drop a bunch of my friends in here," Ellison said, citing as examples Jack Vance's Bookstore, in honor of a fellow sci-fi author; and Judith Merle, a T.H.R.U.S.H. agent and book reviewer who was "named after a book reviewer and critic of my acquaintance named Judith Merril."

As they used to say, you've got to keep your eyes peeled. I haven't seen the new Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie yet. Maybe I'll go this week, under cover of darkness. My life in the bookish spy game continues. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2576


International Cat Day Bookstore Prize

In case you missed it, last Saturday was International Cat Day, during which "felines take over the internet (even more than usual)," the Telegraph noted. As news-gathering organizations go, our bookstore cat coverage is pretty comprehensive, so we can testify to the clickbait potential inherent in any hyperlink that includes the words "Bookstore Cats."

See, you just went there instinctively, didn't you? Welcome back.

Today, I have the honor of both inventing and announcing the inaugural International Cat Day Bookstore Prize winner. From a long list of worthy contenders, the judges (well, me) unanimously selected Tales of the Lonesome Pine, Big Stone Gap, Va., which is currently hosting a Bookstore Cat Adoption Reunion on Facebook to celebrate all of the "forever homes" they have found for their temporary bookstore kitty interns.

"We started in June 2009, and in May of this year we adopted out our 200th cat (named Reepicheep)," said co-owner Wendy Welch. "The bookstore is a great place to get adoptions going because it acts kind of like a pet store window; people interact with the cats, pick them up and carry them, have fun with them. The tactile experience of being around them has increased adoptions, I think. We still have 'impulse' adoptions, although we are careful of those. More often now that we're established we have people contact us after viewing our Facebook photos."

Tales of the Lonesome Pine has three cat adoption rules, Welch noted: "Let the cat choose the person--they never miss; give the cats timely literary names (we named a group Harper Lee, Scout, and Boo Radley when Go Set a Watchman came out); and write about their purrsonailities on Facebook. After a cat's been with us long enough to know them, I usually do a 'if this cat were a woman/girl' post and for some reason everybody loves these. I also write a lot of 'cat voice' blogs as if the cat were writing it about his experiences at the shop. These get lots of hits and comments."

Visitors to the bookstore occasionally donate money ("a kitty for the kitties," as her husband, Jack, describes it), but Welch said, "We don't have a jar out and in our troubled economic region I would flat not ask people for money; there are people struggling to feed their families here, literally. We're not interested in taking their cash. In fact, that's who we rescue for. Some families would love a pet, be good to it, have enough to feed and care for it, if they didn't have to pay for spaying and neutering. I have friends who can sometimes be called on to 'sponsor' a family if they need it, and we let those 'kitty' donations add up to spays as well."

She also crochets for the cause: "It's a hobby I've had since childhood; I'm fast, and if I do say so myself, I'm really good at it. I can make all sorts of fun stuff; in 2013 it was the Spay & Neuter Afghan--a free online pattern called 'Rows of Cats.' I put it online with a note that said 'This is what you get if you don't spay and neuter: rows and rows of cats.' And those things sold like hotcakes; I sold them for the price of a neuter. In 2014 I must have sold 400 of these cool little trivets shaped like penguins and chicks and roosters. This year it is animal scarves and hoodies, and mermaid tail lap blankets. People buy these a lot, and they donate yarn so I can sell them at prices everyone can afford, and still make money for the kitties' kitty."

Since the 2012 publication of her book The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Welch said many readers "from outside the area have been quick to assist us, or to assist their local cat shelters in our honor. That's very cool. The farthest away we have adopted cats is Kansas and Massachusetts. Someone agreed to meet the adopter halfway, and off our babies went to life in the big city--or the American plains. Whichever. We adopted a girl recently to a family in Arlington who came to see the shop because they'd read my book and wanted to see it for themselves. And they came with the idea of getting a cat in mind. We love it when this happens."

Tales of The Lonesome Pine's official bookshop cat philosophy is summed up nicely in her book: "The whole establishment catered in design and policy to every whim of the two permanent staff cats and the myriad fosters who have found forever homes via the bookstore."

Sometimes people ask why they do all this. "We do it for the same reason we run a bookstore: because it's fun, because it's important, and because it's compassionate," Welch observed. "Animals can't speak for themselves, tell their own story. They need advocates, and when they get them, they reciprocate by being way more fun to watch than Netflix--plus more engaging." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2571


'Beach Reads' & Booksellers #2

I hardly feel anything at all sometimes. I do what's next. And that's the way the poor get their work done. That's the secret. --Yslea, the narrator of Raymond Barfield's debut novel, The Book of Colors

During BookExpo America, I had a long conversation with Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books. We talked, as we do occasionally, about everything in our bookish universe, but eventually the conversation turned to a project he was particularly excited about--The Book of Colors. Not long after the show, I found out why and it became one of my "summer books." which technically means certain special titles I read and love between June and Labor Day... and recommend ever after.

Our guide and narrator is Yslea, a mixed-race woman who had a tough childhood and has an old soul. At 19, she "strolled out" of "a shelter for ladies in Memphis," eventually stumbling upon what would ultimately become her community: four disparate people sitting on the porch sofas of three dilapidated row houses near railroad tracks. Yslea's simple request for a glass of water is a life-altering moment.

We are made up of pieces, but somehow we feel whole.

There is a blurb for the novel on Unbridled's website from Cathy Langer, lead buyer at the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo.: "I just finished The Book of Colors. I cried at the end, which I almost never do, not because it was sad but because it was so sweet and clear and beautifully written… different in a really wonderful way."

And there is a story behind the blurb. Langer told me that Barfield's agent, Sandra Bond, had "asked me to read the manuscript, which I did and which I found mesmerizing and deeply moving…. I can't remember what I did, if anything, when I first was helping Sandra. I believe she and/or Fred took what I wrote back then and used it themselves, which is great."

She is being modest. Ramey recalled that "when Bond sent the manuscript to me, it came with a beautiful endorsement from Cathy, and so, of course, I had to read it. And I fell for the stubborn innocence of Yslea--a solitary innocent in a real world.

"In April Gayle Shanks contacted us for an ARC because Cathy had recommended the book to her. And when she'd finished reading it, Gayle so loved the novel that she made it a staff pick at Changing Hands Bookstore. And then she reached out to other booksellers. The exciting moment came at BEA when booksellers started coming by the Unbridled stand to tell us either that they loved The Book of Colors already or had heard about it or the ARC was at the top of their TBR stacks."

I'm the kind that when it rains hard I feel sorry for the roof and if an old bike sits in someone's yard and rusts I feel sorry for the bike, too.

"Everyone seems to be moved by Yslea's voice," said Ramey. "I love not only her voice but the clarity in her struggle to understand what the world presents as good and what it seems to think is wrong."

Raymond Barfield

By the way, the author has a day job. Dr. Raymond Barfield is a pediatric oncologist at Duke University School of Medicine and an associate professor of philosophy at Duke Divinity School. He directs the Pediatric Quality of Life/Palliative Care program, and has worked with low-income children at Duke, as well as in the ERs of Atlanta and Memphis inner-city hospitals.

In an essay about this singular manuscript he was publishing, Ramey wrote that at a certain point he "understood that the empathy in the novel I had before me more likely came, not from a poet/philosopher's abstract reflection, but from the intensity of a particular kind of day-to-day experience: the still questioning emotional life of a physician."

He also noted that knowing Barfield's profession "in the context of this supremely personal novel--told in the voice of someone so different from himself--is what set me on these thoughts…. Writing is a kind of reflective feeling, like touching a hand to the murmuring chest of a child. It's personal."

Yslea's favorite book is Robinson Crusoe.

I especially liked the beginning because when he found himself on an island by himself he didn't do what I would have done back then, which is to get all worried about this and that, but instead he made a list of what he had.

"Learning to be a real doctor made it possible for me to write the book," Barfield has observed. "Writing the book has helped me become a real doctor. Point and counterpoint. Balance. Beauty, everywhere, and in everyone." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2566


Boss Life & the Bookseller

I have never lived the "boss life," so reading Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business (Blue Rider Press, August 4) was revelatory. The memoir offers an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at one challenging year (2012) in the professional and personal life of Paul Downs, an independent furniture designer and manufacturer who opened his business in 1987. There is fierce honesty here, as he chronicles the day-to-day challenges faced by a gifted craftsman who has had to learn how to be boss, small businessman, salesman, accountant and much more, with varying degrees of success.

Rebecca Fitting, co-owner (with Jessica Stockton Bagnulo) of Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore, offered early praise for Boss Life and Downs, whom she began reading years ago when he wrote for the New York Times' You're the Boss blog.

Recalling those columns, Fitting said, "I was heading into my first time being an employer (not just a manager), and they informed my overall philosophical thoughts about what kind of employer I wanted to be. He is a good employer. I would read his blog, and it would help me frame the conversations Jessica and I would have about Greenlight's infrastructure. The way that Downs writes about his employees is incredibly profound to me. He is also so self-effacing about not knowing some things, and about how that's totally okay. I'm very much a self-taught person, and his openness about ongoing learning in his business life, whether it was about HR, cost of goods or equipment purchase decisions was very comforting and reassuring."

Fitting has enjoyed "reading his book as we navigate our internal reorganization and growing pains. I read him back then as he was just starting to blog and as I was just starting to become a small business owner. Now I'm reading him again, as he's graduated to being an author and I've become a more seasoned entrepreneur. I find his ways of thinking through business challenges just as interesting and just as accessible as I did back then, but I read him now from a different perspective. I think this speaks well for the reception his book should have."

Downs told me he "wanted to tell a story that hasn't been shared before. Business journalism is almost entirely advice, not acknowledgment that the experience of business is, for both boss and worker, often difficult and confusing."

Being a boss, he observed, is "like night driving, but the car is moving at high speed and the headlights are pointing backward, while animals of various size jump into the road. The most difficult task in small business is figuring out what's going to happen next. All of your data is being collected on things that have already happened. You can expect similar results from repeated actions, but the situation at any given moment is subject to so many complex, interacting factors, with a few new ones thrown in, that there is no way to be certain what the future holds."

One of many revelations in Boss Life is his unsparing, sometimes humbling and often suspenseful account of the roller-coaster ride inherent in the "numbers game," as Downs pores over spreadsheets trying to make the figures work for another week, another month. He also shares those numbers with his staff. "I think it's incredibly important," he said. "I've found that, in the absence of accurate information from the boss, employees make up their own 'facts' about any given situation. When it comes to money, most employees think that the boss is taking home a lot more than they probably are. Giving my people a better idea of where the money is going has helped them to understand how the company is actually performing, and how their own actions affect that."

For Fitting, the "boss life" experience has come "a bit full circle now. Greenlight turns six this fall and we're in a place where we need to reinvent our infrastructure again to adjust to the change in our marketplace, and (thankfully) to adjust for growth. We're creating new positions, we're (yet again) considering how health insurance may or may not fit into the mix, and as there's all this national talk about the minimum wage and the fast food minimum wage, Jessica and I are having a lot of conversations about what kind of employer we want to be in terms of how we pay our staff. It's such a difficult balance--to be an employer that pays at a living wage but to also be a retailer in a set cost industry, and these are not light decisions."

Change, as the saying goes, is the only constant. Downs said there are two narrative arcs in Boss Life: "The first is the unbelievable transformation of the economy from the 1980s to now. When I opened my doors, the phone answering machine was cutting-edge technology. Now look at the world we live in. The second is my own maturation from tyro to adult, both in business and in my personal life, including a surprising opportunity to add a second line to my résumé: writer. That's been entirely unexpected, but a terrific experience (so far!)."

Fitting agreed: "I'm so, so proud that Greenlight is hosting Paul Downs for his book. Personally this is one of the events I'm most excited about on our calendar. Downs has no idea how much he informed Greenlight at the outset, and to host him in our store next week... it's a bit of a moment for me." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2561

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