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Retail Mourning: 'I Sell Dead People'

"Death doesn't lend to easy commercialization. Which isn't to say that it can't, or isn't, harnessed in the commercial realm to great effect, but those who treat the dead without respect can do great harm to the living. How do we booksellers deal with the death of a prominent figure? There have been many conversations behind the counter (and everywhere else) with the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, which raised the specter of retail and death in my mind." --New Zealand bookseller Marcus Greville in a January post at the Booksellers NZ blog titled "I Sell Dead People"

At Sundog Books, Seaside, Fla.

I've been thinking about Greville's column a lot since I first read it. Every week there seems to be another reason or two or three to stoke this contemplative fire: Michel Tournier, Margaret Forster, Nigel McDowell, Harper Lee, Umberto Eco, Rosario Ferré, Louise Rennison, Pat Conroy and more.

Perhaps it also has something to do with some of the books I've been reading in recent months, including Paul Kalanthi's When Breath Becomes Air, Diane Rehm's On My Own, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, Clive James's Sentenced to Life, Katie Roiphe's The Violet Hour and several essays by Jenny Diski, whose new book, In Gratitude, will be released in May.

Most authors outlive their books and watch them vanish from print (even if digital ghosts remain to haunt) long before the writers themselves have been shipped back to that great remainder house in the sky. Sometimes, however, books outlive their authors. When that happens, a phenomenon known as retail mourning occurs. NPR, newspapers and other media (including Shelf Awareness) run high-profile obituaries and follow-up pieces.

I remember scowling many years ago the first time I noticed one of those headline links on the news section of a distributor's books-in-print site: "[Writer's name] has died. Here is a list of some of this author's books."

Cold, man.

Memorial displays at Quail Ridge Books.

And yet, a sales floor wake is traditionally held. Bookstore buyers react to the news by immediately casting their lines into the murky waters of the biblio-Styx, ordering multiple copies of the author's backlist, including early titles from small and university presses that the shop might not have carried for years. Bookshop merchandisers build display memorials with whatever stock they have and appropriate signage. Everybody sells out, literally and figuratively, but in a nice way, I think.

"I have felt dirty displaying the books of a recently departed author; tainted by the commercial act," Greville wrote. "I was quite cynical when Terry Pratchett died, hoarding remaindered copies of his books in advance and waiting for his death. Yet in other instances I have reverently displayed the books of the dead, alongside photos and quotes. When Jose Saramago died in 2010, or Maurice Sendak in 2012, I went to great lengths to promote their books, because I loved them and wanted others to read them and love them too. I also loved Pratchett's work but felt guilty that I prepared for his death. Is it premise or practice that makes the act one of respect or disrespect?"

Upon learning that an author has passed, many readers head to bookstores because they feel compelled to seek out "books by that writer who just died. I never heard of him, but he sounds interesting." Or because they can't find the copies they bought years ago (which they know are hiding somewhere on their bookshelves or in boxes in that dry crawlspace in the cellar or were loaned to friends/relatives and never returned).  

This blend of mortality and marketing may seem like a summer stock production of Death and a Salesman, but it does have a proper ceremonial air. Booksellers honor living writers by finding readers for their work. Wouldn't they honor recently deceased writers the same way?

Reading helps us deal with adversity, so it makes sense that when authors die, particularly those who once deeply touched our mind and soul, a need to seek out their books again is a natural reaction. And isn't reading a traditional and essential part of memorial services? I once saw a list of tips for friends and relatives who would be reading at a funeral service. It included these two recommendations: 1) Readings are proclaimed from a suitable book. 2) Remember to read more slowly and deliberately than you would in normal conversation. Sound advice.

"Drawing attention to the works of an author, or a biography of a recently deceased person, rarely has a profitable aspect to it," Greville wrote. "It could well be argued that by making space for such displays one is taking prime space away from other more commercial titles. So what is being accomplished? A store is simply telling the world what it cares about, what it respects and loves. It's not about premise and/or practice, as a bookseller your premise is your practice; just keep it in alignment."

Read in Peace. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2708


Taking the Bookish Leap 

"You should. It's Leap Day. Real life is for March."

I don't think about Leap Year any more often than you do--once every four years, on average. But if we didn't have Leap Days, this week would actually be in mid-July of 2017, with summer "starting sometime in December--and we'd be in for white June next year." I was intrigued when I read that. As is my way, I first sought out irrelevant cultural ephemera:

  • "The hero of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Pirates of Penzance is indentured to the pirates until his 21st birthday. Then it's discovered he was born on February 29, meaning he must remain in servitude until he is 84. Much hilarity ensues."
  • On February 29, 2004, the final part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, "swept the board, picking up a record-tying 11 trophies including Best Picture and Best Director for Peter Jackson."
  • "On the traditional day for women to propose to men," the Guardian once offered a "Leap year quiz: literary proposals."

But then I realized I had a column to write and refocused my curiosity toward finding variations on a Cool Ideas of the Leap Day theme by indie booksellers nationwide:

Upshur Street Books, Washington, D.C.: From Petworth News--"Gonna drop a logic bomb on you, get ready... Every four years we elect a president, and every four years we celebrate Leap Year. This year is an election year for president. And this year President Obama visited Upshur Street Books... Therefore, THE place to be this Leap Year Day must be Upshur Street Books. BOOM! (Logic explodes everywhere like confetti. It's messy and beautiful at the same time.).... Come by Upshur Street Books... and get a great discount on everything in the store, while feeling proud you're supporting a Petworth independent bookstore. It's the logical thing to do!"

Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga.: "Happy Leap Day! February is almost over, which means warm weather is around the corner. It's the perfect time to sit on your porch with a good book (before you have to deal with the very real possibility of sweat ruining everything). Enjoy these few weeks of perfection."

Changing Hands Bookstore: "We're celebrating 2016's extra day with Happy Hour prices all day at First Draft Book Bar. Also, find a book or gift at our Tempe or Phoenix locations with 'leap' or 'year' in the title and get 25% off that item!"

Fact & Fiction Bookstore, Missoula, Mont.: In a Missoulian column headlined "February offers an additional day for reading," store owner Barbara Theroux wrote: "Here are a few titles to consider adding to your bedside table, as you celebrate leap year 2016."

Booksellers at Little Shop of Stories "spent our extra day in our pajamas."

Little Shop of Stories, Decatur, Ga.: "Leap Day Storytime and Party! Lucky us! We get an extra day this year! Hope you will join our celebration of stories and activities that will make you wish every year had an extra day."

Watermark Books & Café, Wichita, Kans.: "You've got an extra day. Spend it reading! HAPPY LEAP DAY! To celebrate this leap year, Watermark wants to help you spend a little extra time reading. Enjoy 20% off one, in-stock book of your choice on Monday, Feb. 29.... We hope you have a wonderful EXTRA day in 2016, and we'll give you the extra time to read."

Broadway Books, Portland, Ore.: "Leap into March! Leap Day only comes around every four years, so we think it's worth a special pop-up sale: Come shop with us on Monday, February 29th, and get 20% off your entire purchase!"

Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, Calif.: Join us for a special leap day evening MG Gathering of Young Adult Authors.... Don't miss this special event!"

Books & Company, Oconomowoc, Wisc.: "In an effort to increase your odds of experiencing extraordinary reading during this leap year, we offer you this lucky coupon. Stop by Books & Company between Monday, February 29th and Thursday, March 3 to redeem this tantalizing opportunity for 29% off on one in-stock book. Now, go forth and leap into a book that will amaze you."

I hope you found your own ways Monday to take a bookish leap. Mine eventually led me back to a poem by Jane Hirshfield in her most recent collection, The Beauty. From "February 29":

An extra day—

Not unlike the space
between a door and its frame
when one room is lit and another is not,
and one changes into the other
as a woman exchanges a scarf.

An extra day—

Extraordinarily like any other.
And still
there is some generosity to it,
like a letter re-readable after its writer has died.


--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2703


Readers, Meet Lola Ridge... You're Welcome

There are too many writers I haven't read or even heard of, despite more than six decades of chronic book addiction. It's embarrassing. Sometimes, however, I do manage to stumble upon an author whose work and life absolutely stun me. This occurred last fall as I read an ARC of Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet by Terese Svoboda (Schaffner Press), but the tale actually began in late 2014 when I first learned the bio was in the works, became intrigued and ordered a copy of Ridge's Sun-Up and Other Poems. From "Train Window":

Small towns
Crawling out of their green shirts...
Tubercular towns
Coughing a little in the dawn...
And the church...
There is always a church
With its natty spire
And the vestibule--
That's where they whisper:
Tzz-tzz... tzz-tzz... tzz-tzz...

Questions occurred to me then, the primary one being: Who the hell is Lola Ridge and how could she have never hit my radar before? I know. It's a question we ask ourselves all too often, but in this case it is eloquently answered in Svoboda's biography of Ridge, a human rights activist and acclaimed poet who lived what the author describes as "a very formative 24 years" in the New Zealand gold mining town of Hokitika before eventually ending up in 1920s New York City. Her friends included Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, while Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger were mentors. Hers was an extraordinary international life distilled into striking poems.

Chronicling Ridge's world is daunting enough, but I wondered how Svoboda is now approaching the challenge at author events of introducing contemporary readers--like me--to an author whose work should have been an intrinsic part of our lives already.

"I touch on the highlights of her life in the opening few pages: starting with her immobile under rearing police horses at the demonstration against execution of Sacco and Vanzetti," Svoboda told me. "I talk about her trek from New Zealand, dropping her son off at an orphanage, working for Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, and turning into the doyenne of poetry as a friend of Williams, Moore, Jean Toomer and Hart Crane--but then I have to go off book and summarize about her struggle with the wealthy Harold Loeb to keep the modernist movement going, her drug use, wandering penniless through Baghdad and taking a lover in Mexico, and the various shenanigans of the poetry world. While daunting, that's what I use to tease them into the q&a. Unlike the biographies of many other writers, hers is so full of incident it seems to have been lived by at least two people."

Svoboda, whose own collection When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems, was also published recently, had a launch event this month for both books at Astoria Bookshop in Queens, where owners Lexi Beach and Connie Rourke "were very welcoming. The rain stopped for just the right amount of time and the place filled up nicely," she said. "We served champagne and chocolate to a good mix of old friends like novelist Dawn Raffel and poet Stephanie Strickland, and people dropped in from the neighborhood."
At Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore, Md., she "felt a great sense of awe after the reading. Two young female rebels came up for autographs afterwards, saying things like 'I had no idea!' The staff was particularly welcoming and well-prepared and had their own questions about the book. Paired earlier in the day with Morowa Yejide at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, I met a number of women very excited to discover a modernist who had figured out how to write on issues of race and homelessness and sex."

On Sunday, there will be a free Modernist Ball/Hangover Tea at Bob Holman's Bowery Poetry Club "in honor of all the parties Lola gave to keep the modernist flame going," Svoboda said. "Redecorated a couple of years ago into a more '50s nightclub look, the place is serving cake and Prohibition 'tea.' Anyone who comes looking like any of the modernists--Williams, Moore, Toomer, Crane, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhaven, and of course Lola--may read a poem."
For booksellers, handselling titles they love means honing the irresistibility factor so potential readers feel they need a particular book. I asked Svoboda how she would approach the handselling challenge with Anything That Burns You. "I'd say the book turns on its head the idea that poets are extraneous to the cultural conversation," she replied. "Lola lived her wild life dedicated to freedom, and that's what America was founded on, and that's what modernism in America was all about, and that's what poetry encourages." From Ridge's poem "The Ghetto":

Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat,
Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob...
Or dances madly at a festival.
Each dawn finds her a little whiter,
Though up and keyed to the long day,
Alert, yet weary... like a bird
That all night long has beat about a light.

Readers, meet Lola Ridge.... You're welcome. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2698


Let Me Check My Paper Calendar

Is there anything sadder than a bookstore's 2016 calendar display in mid-February? Well, yes, there is--those last cardboard boxes of $1 wall and engagement calendars that end up on sidewalk sale tables during the summer. And we mustn't forget the customers who come into bookstores just before Labor Day Weekend to ask if there are any calendars left. Booksellers nationwide will dutifully plow through miscellaneous cartons in the basement or storeroom to retrieve the last three, the ones they couldn't even give away. Then the customers will say, in chorus: "Thanks, but I thought you'd have something more... interesting."  

Amazing, yes, but isn't it more amazing that paper calendars still sell? How can it be that we haven't gone all-digital-all-the-time at this point? "Despite the increasing popularity of personal and portable electronic devices, consumers are still seeking out traditional paper-based diaries and calendars," Stationery News recently observed.

This is the time of year when bookstores really have to push calendar sales with discounts and promotions. I like this Facebook deal Afterwords Books, Edwardsville, Ill., offered last month: "Happy Wednesday! It's the end of January and still no calendar? No worries, we're giving away THREE today!... For your chance to win one of these great calendars, just like this status *and* be sure to let your Facebook friends and family know about our weekly giveaway!"

Paper still has its place in my little calendar world. Although I use an iCalendar linked from laptop to iPhone to iPad for some things, every December I engage in a curious, personal holiday ritual by making a special trip to New York City to purchase a new engagement calendar. For 2016, it's the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "New York in Art" Last year, it was MoMA's "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs."

Way back at the turn of the century, I used to ritually buy my annual calendar from Ivy's Books & Curiosities on the Upper West Side. For 2004, it was "Cinema Italiano," featuring 12 months of movie posters from the likes of Riso Amaro, La Strada, Carosello Napoletano, Divorzio all'Italiana, Stromboli, and Ladri di Biciclette. That was a very good year. Bello.

I do have a confession, though. From 2012 to 2014 I had a brief fling with the digital-only calendar life. First, it was Google Calendar, but that only lasted a year. It didn't mean anything. Then my iCalendar and I went everywhere together, making big plans. Sure, we had our issues with crashes and vanishing entries, but we managed to work all that out. At some point, however, I knew it wasn't meant to last. And when I saw the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at MoMA, I decided it was time to move on--or move back--to paper.

Why? One reason is certainly tactile, and will be familiar to anyone who has followed the physical vs. e-book debate over the past two decades. In a piece headlined "Why Paper Planners Are Relevant in the Age of Smartphone Calendar Apps," Bertel King Jr. noted: "The act of picking up a pen can get your mind thinking differently from the way it does when you place your fingers on a keyboard. X-ing out previous days may help you better keep track of the date. Physically turning pages may force you to think about how time's always moving and motivate you to make better plans in the first place. Sometimes just holding something in your hands can make all the difference."

For booksellers, it's also Orwellian... literally. "At Christmas time we spent a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts," George Orwell wrote in his 1936 essay, "Bookshop Memories."

There are certainly doubters. In Talk Business magazine, Adrian Lewis observed that "those novelty calendars given as gifts every Christmas get hung on the wall and people enjoy the pictures, but few people use them for serious planning past the end of January. One has to wonder what we will be using 10 years from now to plan our lives. No doubt someone will be writing a similar piece to this saying how out of date 'old online calendars' are!"

Well, as it happens I was pondering the future of paper calendars almost a decade ago, and my conclusion seems to be holding its ground: "Neither cynicism nor nostalgia is really the point, however. Paper calendars are still in the game. Will they ever be rendered obsolete by the digitized alternatives that are within such easy reach in our quiver of personal electronic devices? Shouldn't they be obsolete already? Perhaps, but for now calendar season just lasts and lasts." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2693


'Read This' for Valentine's Day

He did not read much poetry until she started working at the bookshop, but he soon caught the fever from her. She was evangelical, and somehow presumed he might be a convert. He wasn't certain how or why their ceremony started, but occasionally she would approach him with a slender volume, her finger marking a page. Read this, she would say, then disappear.

"Random thoughts for Valentine's Day... Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap," Joel (Jim Carrey) observes early in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Then he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet) and the day turns... complicated yet amazing. Oh, and Clementine is a bookseller at Barnes & Noble.

Valentine's Day is complicated, but here's a little bouquet of bookseller love for the long weekend:

Astoria Bookshop in Queens, N.Y.: Co-owners Lexi Beach and Connie Rourke were highlighted in a QNS feature headlined "Fall in love with these Queens power couples." Their Valentine's Day plans: "We're planning to have a romantic dinner at home and to make bananas Foster. Any dessert we can set on fire with a kitchen torch is OK by us."

Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Calif.: "In honor of Valentine's Day--and Bookshop's 50th year--we are celebrating our role playing Cupid! Romance has blossomed for a number of co-workers over the decades. Here are some of the folks who found love working in the aisles of Bookshop Santa Cruz."

Broadway Books, Portland, Ore.: "It's February, and Cupid's aim is true--directly to our hearts. Yes, it's true, we're in love. And every day we fall in love again, with yet another newly published bright and shiny book: novels, nonfiction, poetry, kids' books--a little bit of everything. You may think us tarts for our wide-ranging amorous attachments, but we hope you'll fall in love with a few of these new goodies too!"

The Twig Bookshop, San Antonio, Tex. (from e-newsletter): "Dear Reader: Do you feel the love? Once again, it is the Month of Love and we have just the book for you! Books for children, books for teens, books for adults in all seasons! Books about friendship, platonic love, teen love, mature love, illicit love and books on how to preserve and leave love!"

Parnassus Books, Nashville, Tenn.: "Color Your Own Shop Dog Valentines!"

Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif. (from e-newsletter): "Who doesn't love a book swap?  Books and love have long gone hand in hand, from the world of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, to the contemporary prose of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Join Book Passage for a Valentine's book swap... Bring a favorite book that features a love story to swap and be ready to mingle and meet other book lovers."

Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, N.C.: "Climb between the sheets with a Valentine's Day Blind Date Book." And: "Feb. 14th... over it yet? We have your Schmalentine's Day alternatives right here. You're welcome :)"

Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington, Conn.: "Why yes, that is a Valentine's Day gingerbread house!"

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Valentine's Day is Sunday, February 14--and nothing says 'I love you' like a book! Books are a great way to show love to the children in your life, or to romance that special someone. (And as all book lovers know: reading makes you look attractive.)"

The Book Bin, Northbrook, Ill.: "You are special to us. As February arrives, along with it come displays of chocolates and flowers, everything adorned with sappy red hearts. Don't misread us--we do love these Valentine gifts--but sometimes we wish for more. We wish for someone to know us better, to think about us more deeply. Buying a book for someone implies this extra thought. It takes time (and brain cells) to choose a book for your mate, friend or family member. It implies more learning about a subject they like; more quiet time together without the television blaring; more conversation about what made you gasp aloud on page 158. Anything can happen in a book, just like anything can happen on Valentine's day. You may be surprised by a bouquet of flowers or you may indulge in that box of chocolates; but shop at a bookstore this year and you may find a book that could change your life or someone else's."

Since he didn't want to be part of a one-sided conversation, he began opening poetry collections at random while shelving books. Occasionally he would find something special and share it with her. Read this, he'd say. One day, she asked about his favorite poem. They were good friends by then. He found the book. Read this. It's beautiful, she said, and read it again. He left, afraid she would be tempted to read it aloud.

Happy Bookish Valentine's Day. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2689

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