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Friday
Nov272009

Remembrance of Black Fridays Past

With apologies to Proust (as I imagine myself nibbling turkey-shaped madeleines), I'm in a retrospective mood as Black Friday approaches this year. I guess I'm still not used to the idea that I won't be immersed in the BF handselling hustle after working 15 crazy busy Black Fridays (beginning in 1992) at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt. For such a long time, it was part of my holiday DNA.

I was already contemplating this fact when I read a Facebook message posted by author Connie May Fowler yesterday: "Want to avoid Black Friday? Easy! Pre-order How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly for everyone on your holiday list. Send me names and addresses and I'll write them a lovely holiday note, notifying them of Clarissa's April arrival. I'll also send a signed bookplate. And I'll send you, via e-mail, my knock your socks off recipe for baked Parmesan cheese grits. Even my most hardcore beloved Yankee friends ask for seconds."

I liked that, and asked Connie if I could share her offer with my readers. She said yes, adding, "If anyone pre-orders through Northshire, I'll be very happy to send the recipient a note, signed bookplate, and recipe." And your bookstore's customers are invited, too, I'm sure.

Her offer is a small indicator of how social networking is changing the rules, but we already knew that. I mention it because Connie's novels were among my handselling staples through many Black Fridays going back to the mid-1990s, so she is part of my Proustian recollection here.

Adrenaline is the word that comes to mind when I recall those Black Friday experiences--bookseller adrenaline in the preparation and execution of a perfect retail battle plan; and customer adrenaline in the instinctive human drive to shop on the one day of the year when everybody else is in stores. "I can't believe I'm shopping today" is a familiar refrain from the Black Friday choral ensemble.

I wrote my first Black Friday blog post at Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal in 2004, asking: "Is anybody ever ready for Black Friday. Ready is not the word. It's more a kind of constructive paranoia--generously mixed with terror--that propels us to take every precaution we can think of to insure success. The bean counters upstairs will hold their breath because so much is riding on this day and so many things can go wrong. They can't prepare. They can only add up the damage afterward."

The adrenaline rush began in the weeks leading to BF. We built up key inventory. Work schedules were meticulously gridded to make sure there was adequate floor coverage for every minute of the day. Sections and displays were given the "dress right dress" treatment. A "soup kitchen" was organized so staff wouldn't have to brave the crowded cafes and sandwich shops downtown.

In Vermont, even weather patterns were closely tracked because a bad storm could wipe out everything. The perfect retail weather pattern here was a nice snowstorm on Monday, roads cleared by Tuesday and cold, sunny weather from Wednesday (travel day) through Sunday. This combo drew both the relatives (who have to come) and the more elusive ski/snowboard contingent to Vermont's mountains.

And while that tense half-hour before a Black Friday opening might not have the anticipatory terror of a Wal-Mart door-bashing stampede, it was still a time to take a deep breath and put on your bookish game face. 

Dennis Johnson's MobyLives Radio interviewed me on Black Friday, 2005, while I was working the sales floor. "Every now and then you'll see someone who actually has a sane expression on their face," I said, "who has found a quiet corner in fiction and is just thumbing through a book, but for the most part it's engulf and devour. . . . It doesn't feel like the image of a bookshop where the bell rings over the door and the cat wakes up. That's just not happening today."

I wrote my first Black Friday column for Shelf Awareness in 2006, and noted: "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this post-holiday retail holy day is that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore can be part of the action, too, and that books can be quietly handsold in the swarm of bodies and cacophony of voices."

Because again and again, in the midst of that controlled chaos that was and is Black Friday, someone would say: "Excuse me, I know you're busy, but I was wondering if you'd recommend a book. I just need a great read for the weekend." And that sparked adrenaline of another kind.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1062.

Sunday
Nov222009

A Shame List by Any Other Name

He was not born to shame:
Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit.
--Juliet, Romeo And Juliet

We've been talking about definitions in an English Composition course I teach; about how easily the definition of a word can slip into the challenge of defining an elusive concept, and then release itself from your control altogether.

A word, for example, like "shame."

In his book Shame in Shakespeare, Ewan Fernie notes that the Bard used the word "shame" 344 times in his works and the word "guilt" only 33 times. "Having offered a first definition of shame, it is now necessary to distinguish it from the associated phenomena of embarrassment and guilt," Fernie writes. "Embarrassment is a weak and transient form of shame: shame is absolute failure, embarrassment failure in a given situation."

This definition conundrum occurred to me after Dan Schreffler, the buyer at Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., observed that "the notion of a 'Shame List' has been eating at me ever since you first discussed it several weeks ago. If the Book House were the gift shop of some well-heeled cultural institution instead an independent business trying to survive this recession, I would have a different attitude. As it is, my Shame List consists of any title that customers actually want to purchase and that we do not have and cannot get in time to satisfy them. No title is sacred. If booksellers want to surround themselves with precious gems of literature (and who among us does not?), then they should collect them in their own homes. In the bookstore we are sellers of books, not curators.... I understand that every store stocks titles that do 'perform' optimally. Maybe it is just the word 'shame' which got my goat." 

He could be right. Is Shame List harsher than necessary? There are probably a dozen other terms (Guilt List? Embarrassment List?) that would do, but I heard Shame List used this fall and it seemed to raise the stakes appropriately. Maybe I've unleashed an unnecessary demon.

Or maybe not.

"I'm loving this 'Shame List' business!" noted Jennifer Moe, general book buyer for Wheaton College Bookstore, Wheaton, Ill. "Working at a college bookstore, there are certain professors' books that we definitely must have in stock in our Faculty Authors section. It can be pretty brutal to have a prof come in and ask if we have his or her title and we have to say, 'Um, not at the moment... must be sold out!' At least then that gives them a little boost while I scurry back and order another copy right away!"

And Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio, admitted: "We're running around frantically updating our Shame List now, checking inventory and ordering the vacancies. Kinda fun. It's a mish-mosh of old classics and staff favorites, and the list is largest for children's picture books. We used to call it the Essential Inventory List, but Shame List is quickly taking over. It's easier to say, for one." 

She shared some "oddballs on the Loganberry Shame List, because we recommend these books all the time (just because we like 'em)."
 
Fiction

  • The Lilac Bus by Maeve Binchy
  • Labyrinths Jorge Luis Borges
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • Rose by Martin Cruz Smith
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Nonfiction

  • The Federalist Papers
  • Various and sundry titles by Thich Nhat Hanh

Children's/young adult

  • Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  • Miss Twiggley's Tree by Dorothea Fox
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson 
  • Ben and Me by Robert Lawson
  • The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (and she's local)

 
"Actually, I have an Excel list with several hundred titles," Logan added, "but these are in bold, and perhaps not on everyone else's list."

Betty Smith's classic novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, made Cheryl McKeon's Shame List at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash. She confessed, "I clearly recall suggesting to the customer seeking this classic, 'Perhaps it's a current school assignment and we just sold out.'"

So, if not Shame List, then what? The possibilities are many: regret, chagrin, remorse, compunction.

But there will always be those books--and those questions--and in the end, a bookseller's job is to find every way possible to say "Yes." So, in my book at least, Shame List it is.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1059.

Tuesday
Nov172009

Building a Shame List from Scratch

When I met Jamie Fiocco, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold--co-owners of Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.'s newest indie bookstore--at this year's SIBA trade show, I was immediately impressed with their knowledge and passion as booksellers, as well as their undeniable courage as business people.

Next Monday, Flyleaf will debut with a "soft opening" (a January grand opening is planned), and since we've been exploring Shame Lists recently, I thought it might be interesting to ask booksellers who've been deeply enmeshed in the process of creating opening-day stock how they approached the Shame List challenge.

"These days, at least for me, my favorite books and reading in general seem to be the last things on my mind," Fiocco observed. "I must say, though, as we’ve plowed through spreadsheet after spreadsheet of title lists, it’s a real joy to have an old friend emerge from the black-and-white lines. Land, Sarah and I had some funny conversations, usually yelled across the hallway as we were going through lists of books for opening day: 'Which knife skills cookbook do you want?' 'Oh, I don’t remember the exact name, but it’s from Norton and it’s got a white cover with an avocado at the top and every other chapter is for lefties.'"

Arnold has selected most of the adult titles for Flyleaf's stock and Carr is ordering children's books. Fiocco is "pitching in on a few categories and some nonfiction, like cookbooks. So, the merging hasn’t been too painful because we all have our 'own' categories, plus Land and I were working together at the same store [McIntyre's Books, Pittsboro, N.C.] before Flyleaf."

One aspect of the process she noticed while figuring out opening stock was that "no one quite understands we want to pick it out ourselves, from scratch. We have found wholesalers happy to create an entire 'opening-day order' for us, but not capable to just give us the data we know we need, like recommended steady sellers in specific niche categories. I’m not saying the wholesalers aren’t helpful; all of them have been incredibly supportive and very helpful, whether we were giving them business or not. It’s just that our decision to start up with stock primarily direct from publishers has been a major undertaking. And if the publisher has only an electronic catalogue, they’re the last to get ordered--just not the right medium for a collaborative approach to buying."
 
Fiocco shared some titles from "my personal 'shame' list, including cooking, but I’d like to say I have a penchant for cookbooks that make good reads."

  • Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary Edition (which Ethan Becker "restored" back to the focus of the original '70s edition)
  • Quick and Easy Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey (Indian cooking is neither "quick" nor "easy," but this is a great introduction to cooking the cuisine, and Jaffrey’s comments before each recipe are fun to read.)
  • Quick and Easy Chinese by Nancie McDermott (local N.C. food writer; same fun anecdotes and relatively easy recipes)
  • The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (I love cookbooks you can read, and this is one of the best. The line drawings scare off some folks but it’s just a joy to read through and learn about everyday food in the process.)
  • The Sultan's Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook by Ozcan Ozan 
  • Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual by Peter Hertzmann
  • Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John & Dale Reed (a great picture book, travelogue and just plain fun to read)
  • Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crooks Corner by Bill Smith (just another great read about food and people)
  • A Love Affair with Southern Cooking by Jean Anderson (another romp through Southern cultural history, and oh yeah--recipes, too)
  • Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This (because it explains in scientific detail why water boils faster with the top on)

She also offered some non-cooking favorites "I would hate to be without."

  • Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead
  • So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger
  • A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
  • The Last Voyage of Columbus by Martin Dugard (Audiobook version)
  • Grayson by Lynne Cox (great YA/adult crossover)
  • Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
  • Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace
  • Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
  • The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
  • The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff (the perfect foil to The Madonnas of Leningrad)

With the initial orders in place and opening day on the near horizon, Fiocco concluded that she's "never been more convinced that book buying is an art and not a science. Land, Sarah and I know that when we open our doors on Monday, we’re not going to have the correct inventory. We can look through catalogues and sort through spreadsheets until the cows come home, but until we open those doors and start talking to folks in our community, we’re not going to have the right stock, hence the 'soft opening.'"--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #1053.

Friday
Nov062009

The Shame List Smackdown--'Oh, oh' vs. 'Oh!'

Consider the difference between the "Oh, oh" factor and the "Oh!" factor. For both booksellers and customers, having certain titles in stock is a measure of a shop's credibility. The Shame List I wrote about two weeks ago is something that gradually accumulates over time.

"Oh, oh" titles are those books that a customer reasonably expects to be carried by any good bookstore (Great Expectations or 1984, for example). Nobody likes to stare at an empty slot on the shelf or a computer screen's mocking 0 under the "on hand" category, and then have to mutter sheepishly, "We can special order that for you."

And "Oh!" titles? These are books that establish an individual shop's identity (its biblio-fingerprints) and include staff picks that can often be sold in casual conversation away from the section, or even as a last minute nudge at POS. When a bookseller is in full handselling mode with an enthusiastic reader, the goal is to keep saying, "Oh! You'd love this one..." and pluck it from a shelf rather than "Oh, oh" and where do we go from here?

Several readers responded with their own Shame List thoughts and recommendations.

"Having spent my professional life in the book business on all fronts, I am now working in a small store in Cable, Wis.--the home of the Birkebeiner (the world's best cross-country ski race)," noted Jane Kent Johnston of Redbery Books. "Our customers are lake home owners who come from the Twin Cities, Chicago, Madison, etc.; many are artists who have opted for life in a beautiful, nature environment; and those who have chosen the northwoods life. They are an amazingly well-read population. So, my Shame List is Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olssen, A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems."

Angela Cozad, events coordinator for Lafayette Book Store, Lafayette, Calif., "was a buyer for many years at Tower Books and we didn't call it the Shame List; we called them the 'Sacred Cows.' The turns were low but they legitimized the section and sometimes the whole store. Titles included War and Peace, Call of the Wild, My Antonia, any and all of Penguin Classics, the Sunset Western Garden book, Runaway Bunny, Fahrenheit 451, etc. It was storewide, not just fiction-based. We actually tried to have one per rack because we felt they were so important."

On Twitter, @LIBERTYBAYBOOKS wrote that although Shame List was an unfamiliar term, "one book on my list is Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins."

Another perspective was offered by Peter Ginna, publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press, who observed that he "once read a piece by an author about her 'Middlemarch test.' If she went into a bookstore and it didn't have Middlemarch, she knew it was a writeoff. Maybe that's setting the bar too low, but I would certainly agree that if there's no Middlemarch, the backlist pickings are going to be slim."
 
Ginna added that he is "a big history reader, and I often find that it's harder to find a good selection of history backlist titles than a good fiction section. Some otherwise good indie stores I won't even bother going into if I'm looking for a history book. Here's a random selection of titles I'd look for to see if a store had a good history buyer. All of these are important and enduring works that are also wonderful reads:

  • Plutarch's Lives
  • The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga
  • The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
  • At least something by Richard Hofstadter (my vote, The American Political Tradition, far less boring than its title)
  • A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  • Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson
  • Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

"Inevitably, as a publisher, my first test for any bookstore is, how many of my books do they have? I don't expect even a good shop to have every one of my titles, but the ones that have at least a few intelligent selections prove themselves to be smart and discriminating. Extra points for faceouts, double points if they have a couple of the new ones on the front table."

More must-have titles coming next week. And please tell me what's on your Shame List.--Published in  Shelf Awareness, issue #1048.

Saturday
Oct312009

'Ghost Amusement' & the Spirits of the Season

I'm scared--that's right, scared!--of William S. Pumpkin-Burroughs; of Halloween Bible book burnings; of loss-leader pricing specters and an innocent child whispering, "I see dead books."

Well, no, not really. I'm just trying to get into the spirit of the season with a shout out (scream out) to neglected ghosts in contemporary fiction and to present the first annual Halloween Book Spirits Awards.

First, I believe ghosts need some new PR. I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook earlier this week that, in a publishing world gone mad for vampires, zombies and werewolves, ghosts seem to be getting short-sheeted (even Anne Rice said recently that angels are the new vampires in the book trade). Those of you familiar with spectral vengeance know that we disrespect wraiths at our peril.

What made me think about ghosts was a visit last weekend to the Metropolitan Museum Art in New York to see an extraordinary exhibition, Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping. Although I knew something about his work, I hadn't realized that during the late 18th century, he painted "Ghost Amusement," a scroll depicting "a mélange of ghosts," as the exhibition catalogue so delicately puts it. "The conflation of two seemingly different worlds--evidential scholarship and fanciful supernatural narratives--is one reason why this painting continues to fascinate viewers today."

In 1772, on the day, appropriately enough, of the Ghost Festival, Luo Ping showed this scroll to his friend Zhang Xun, who added a "layer of interpretation" by observing that "ghosts were often vengeful or malevolent spirits and as such were feared by the living. But since Luo had the unusual gift of blue-green eyes, he was able to see and pacify these spirits by painting them. At the same time, through his depictions of ghosts, Luo was able to reflect on the misdeeds of humans and reveal the truth of their nature," according to the catalogue.

And where, the book guy in me wondered, is that book series? Where is the Stephenie Meyer of the ghost world lurking, and wouldn't this be an appropriate week for his or her manuscript to emerge from a slush pile graveyard somewhere? When I was a kid, becoming a ghost was as easy as cutting eyeholes in a white sheet. Perhaps there's a page-turning novel about a "mélange of ghosts" nested in those memories. Bestseller lists and loss-leader tables here I come.

And now to the awards ceremony. As the fates would have it, one category winner for this year's purely subjective and hastily organized Halloween Book Spirits Awards appeared just as I was pondering these questions.

Best Facebook Comment on My Post About Absent Ghosts in Contemporary Fiction

Rich Rennicks of Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, N.C., and Unbridled Books: "I'm reading a manuscript of a kinda creepy historical fiction about seances, hauntings and skeletons of murdered peddlers buried in cellars (Captivity by Deb Noyes, due in May from UB). Maybe ghosts and mediums will be the big thing next year. They're due a resurgence."

Best Halloween Bookstore Event Promo Copy

McNally Jackson Books, New York, N.Y. for the McNally Jackson Halloween Embarrassment: "This Halloween we hope book nerds of all sorts will join us to act like costumed fools amid our stacks. We're hosting our annual Halloween party, and that means it's time to dust off your spats and clichés, grab those fangs and poorly executed allegories. We're inviting all attendees to draw on their bookish lore to dress up as a favorite character. Or theme. Or setting? Even a title will do. Anyhow, we expect you to impress us with your book-themed costume. Uncostumed book nerds are welcome, too, they just won't have a shot to win fabulous prizes. Even our friends at The Desk Set, those nerdiest of hip librarians, will be here to get in on the action."

Best Bookstore E-newsletter Subject Line

Cornerstone Books, Salem, Mass., for the subject line to Wednesday's bookstore e-newsletter: "Fantasy Freaks Costume Party and Bernie Madoff Finish Off A Very Scary October!" If I had ever done these awards before, Cornerstone would probably be a perennial favorite due to their location in a village renowned for its witchery. But this year they earn kudos for that line promoting a pair of Thursday night events at separate venues featuring Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms; and Erin Arvedlund, author of Too Good to be True: The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff.

Congratulations to the winners (and the ghosts, of course) and Happy Halloween!--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1043.