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Saturday
Aug082009

Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

I'm waiting for Variety to report on casting choices for Revenge of the Beach Reads, a futuristic summer movie in which downtrodden booksellers and librarians band together in a secret laboratory under the New York Public Library and train to become muscle-bound BookWarriors (with laser beam reading glasses), seeking vengeance upon alien electronic reading devices that can transform themselves into gigantic killer BiblioBots.

What is it about this season that provokes feverish high-budget action films and endless summer variations on the theme reflected in media headlines like Beach Buddies: Authors Pick Literary Partners for Fun, Sun; Audience Picks: 100 Best Beach Books Ever and Text on the beach--the 50 best summer reads ever?

It's viral, and many of us catch it, but I can offer an alternative prescription. Let's all take a deep breath of warm August air, listen to Frank Morgan's version of "Summertime," and check out some indie booksellers who are sharing their own sweet obsession with summer reads through events, blogs, websites and e-newsletters. It ain't just about putting up an endcap display with shells and fishnets anymore. Here's just a sampling of the many indies that have their reading toes planted firmly in the virtual sand.

Joe Foster of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, and Cathy Langer of Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, talked about "Summer Reading with a Colorado Flavor" on public radio station KCFR.

From the "only in New York" department, McNally Jackson Books held its fourth annual "The Shrinks Are Away" reading and reception, with host Susan Shapiro "gathering fellow writers for a joint reading of work to soothe crazy psyches--because when the therapists go on vacation in August, we turn to literature to cure our neuroses."

Rediscovered Bookshop, Boise, Idaho, recommends the power of being open to unanticipated summer reading possibilities: "For some reason, this summer has not really presented itself with as many awesome books as I anticipated it would, so I've been randomly grabbing books off the shelves to see what I can find. Thinking back on it, some of the greatest books I've ever read I have picked up either on accident, or begrudgingly were forced into my hands. It always makes me think at the end of a really good book that I shouldn't judge books so quickly. So, without much discrimination, here are the books that I've found in the last month that I felt iffy about, but in the end LOVED."

The blog for Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., features great coverage of its Hot Summer Nights events, but I'm particularly impressed with the passionate recommendation of titles published by Archipelago Books, as well as the willingness to share customers with this fine indie publisher: "While you could get all of these books at Skylight Books, where we try to cater to all your independent press needs, what we'd really like to encourage you to do today is to go browse and purchase a few books directly from Archipelago, through their website. It is just a small way to try to help them out in these troubled times."

Both realistic and at one with the season, the Lemuria Books, Jackson, Miss., blog concedes that "summer is almost over, but there are plenty of new books to read during the upcoming 'dog days,' whether beating the heat by the pool, on that last trip to the beach, or from you favorite reading spot at home in the AC!!"

On the website for Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City, Iowa, Paul Ingram looks ahead to some favored titles in the offing: "Wonderful books are coming in the fall. If you'd like to reserve copies when they first arrive, give us a call and we'll save you one."

And what about the hot weather book? I suspect many readers have been asked for their "all-time favorite summer read." I certainly heard the question many times as a bookseller, and I'd love to know your answer.

For a long time, mine has been A Month in the Country, a smart, sweet and bittersweet novel by J. L. Carr. "Summertime! And summertime in my early twenties! And in love!" Tom Birkin--who is not an exclaimer by nature--exclaims. "No, better than that--secretly in love, coddling it up in myself. It's an odd feeling, coming rarely more than once in most of our lifetimes. In books, as often as not, they represent it as a sort of anguish but it wasn't so for me. Later, perhaps, but not then."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #982.

Saturday
Aug012009

To Read 'Everything About Everything'

Where do authors go when they die? Like the rest of us, of course, their mortal remains are placed in coffins or urns. Often, a requisite memorial shrine of their works is erected briefly on retail mourning displays in bookshops. The New York Times or the Guardian runs an obituary summing up an entire lifetime in a single, reductive headline like "bestselling mystery writer" or "Booker prize winner" or "beloved children's author." Their books, in the best of circumstances, outlive them. Tragic, indeed, is an author who outlives his or her words.

Recently the death of two authors affected me, both professionally and personally, for vastly different reasons. The loss of Frank McCourt was certainly the more publicized one. So much has been written about him that I did not plan to add anything to the chorus, but then another author's demise jarred my reader's conscience.

I didn't really know Frank. I bought him a beer once. He ordered a Heineken, which shattered all my illusions about Irish writers. But I was one of those lucky booksellers who happened to read an ARC of Angela's Ashes in the spring of 1996 and knew immediately, after a dozen pages, that I had to do whatever I could to get this writer I'd never heard of to the bookstore for a reading.

I don't know if we were among the first bookshops to put in an event request, but we were lucky enough to be successful. By early fall, as word-of-mouth momentum began to build for the memoir and bestsellerdom loomed, everybody wanted Frank.

On the desk beside my laptop as I write this is a first edition of Angela's Ashes, with an inscription:

4 Dec. 96
For Bob
Frank McCourt
With thanks for your warmth.


Maybe Frank signed everybody's book with the same words, but I don't care. On that cold Vermont night, in the Marsh Tavern at the Equinox Hotel, I introduced him to a couple hundred people who were as enthusiastic as any audience I've ever seen at a reading. The pub atmosphere helped a bit, too.

Moments earlier, as I escorted him through the packed crowd to an improvised podium, people had applauded, shaken his hand and patted him on the back. Frank laughed and said: "I'm not even running for office." Introducing him was like introducing a rock star. I could have said, "qua, qua, qua," and they would still have applauded wildly as soon as I ended with, "Please welcome Frank McCourt."

His reading was perfect. Afterward, he signed for a long line of fans and was an absolute pro, engaging each person in a brief conversation while his hands reached toward me for the next book.

Yesterday I opened a glass-enclosed bookcase in my office where I keep the signed copies of books that I've acquired over the years. I took out Angela's Ashes and flipped through until I found my favorite sentence:

There are bars of Pear's soap and a thick book called Pear's Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that's all I want to know.

In 1999, at BookExpo in Los Angeles, I saw Frank again at an author breakfast. He was a star by then, but I will always know that I was one of his first readers.

Like writers, however, readers rest on laurels at their peril. Last weekend, British author Stanley Middleton died. Here was a man who wrote 44 novels, won the Booker prize in 1974, and, according to Philip Davis in the Guardian, "went his own way, diffidently tough, formidably serious and unshowily learned."

Davis noted that in a poem, Middleton "recalls the names of all the long-gone families he knew in the gas-lit Bulwell street where he lived as a child":

They had their moment, these folk,
unearned
Centres of verbal interest. Now
they're dead,
I guess. One family I can't put even
vague
Figures to. I am somewhat equivalent.
Somewhat. A circle of light, a centre of
Talk. My name is loosely attached.
Fifty years hence somebody will pull
me
Out of his head. I am not displeased.


Here's my confession. Until I read the Guardian obit, I'd never heard of Middleton. My remedy has been to order two of his books; my remedy is that I will read him now.

Maybe that is eulogy enough.

Where do authors go when they die? They go, if they're lucky, to their readers.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #977.

Saturday
Jul252009

The Future in Retrospect: Portable Indispensables

"The bookstore, when we arrived there, proved to be the most extraordinary sort of bookstore I had ever entered, there not being a book in it. Instead of books, the shelves and counters were occupied with rows of small boxes."--From the story "With the Eyes Shut" by Edward Bellamy, published in 1898.

This cautionary tale begins with a narrator traveling by rail for the first time in years. His regret that he can't read on a moving train is quickly remedied by the offer of "a book which you can read with your eyes shut. . . . We've been furnishing the new-fashioned phonographed books and magazines on this train for six months now, and passengers have got so they won't have anything else."

A list of "the latest novels" is proffered, and he picks "one which I had heard favorable mention of." A small box at the side of his seat is unlocked and 15 cents paid for three hours "reading" time. Soon he hears "the tinkle of a bell," takes "a sort of two-pronged fork with tines spread in the similitude of a chicken's wishbone" from the box, and, for the remainder of his trip, "scarcely altered my position, so completely was I enthralled by my novel experience."

Nineteenth-century audiobooks. Big deal, right? But wait, there's more. He learns that the train cars will soon be equipped with phonographic guide books, connected to the running gear of the cars so that the books "call attention to every object in the landscape, and furnish the pertinent information--statistical, topographical, biographical, historical, romantic, or legendary."

Once at his hotel, a recorded, "charming" female voice wakes him and he hears his friend speak through a personal message machine at the front desk. He also learns a new term when he asks the clerk what happens if a message is sent and "there is no little machine like this at hand to make it speak?":

"In reply the clerk directed my attention to a little box, not wholly unlike a case for a binocular glass, which, now that he spoke of it, I saw was carried, slung at his side, by every person in sight. 'We call it the indispensable because it is indispensable, as, no doubt, you will soon find for yourself.'"

At breakfast, he observes that "a number of ladies and gentlemen were engaged as they sat at table reading, or rather listening to, their morning's correspondence." The waiter brings him a phonograph copy of the Daily Morning Herald.

His friend arrives at last and is amused by the narrator's befuddlement. After visiting a clockmaker's shop to inspect an array of "time-announcers," the men are walking on the street when his friend's portable indispensable rings and he listens to a message from his wife reminding him to pick up some "story-books for the children."

On the way to the bookshop, they discuss the usefulness of "these portable memories" for everything from child-rearing to business, and his friend argues "that nobody any longer pretended to charge his mind with the recollection of duties or engagements of any sort."

At the bookshop, crowds scramble for the latest titles: "'The change seems to be a popular one,' I said, 'to judge by the crowd of book-buyers.' For the counters were, indeed, thronged with customers as I had never seen those of a bookstore before."

These "customers," however, are borrowers, not buyers. His friend explains that while "the old-fashioned printed book" is damaged and devalued by use, and must be "purchased outright or borrowed at high rates of hire," the phonograph of a book can "be lent out at an infinitesimal price."

Asked if people really don't want to own books anymore, his friend counters: "What I said about borrowing books applies only to current literature of the ephemeral sort. Everybody wants books of permanent value in his library. Over yonder is the department of the establishment set apart for book-buyers."

"Everybody" may be an overstatement, since that area is much less crowded.

When the narrator contends that surely picture books can't be replaced, he is shown how, "by the simple plan of arranging them in a continuous panorama," these titles too can be incorporated into the phonograph books phenomenon.

"What has become of printers?" he asks.

You already know the answer to that one, though his friend consoles him with this thought: "Some classes of books, however, are still printed, and probably will continue to be for some time, although reading, as well as writing, is getting to be an increasingly rare accomplishment."

As might be expected, this all turns out to be a dream in the end.

Portable Indispensables--the patent, as always, impending.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #972

Friday
Jul172009

To See the World in a Bookstore Blog

People often say that the greatest pleasures of traveling are finding a sage hidden behind weeds or treasures hidden in trash, gold among discarded pottery. Whenever I encountered someone of genius, I wrote about it in order to tell my friends.--Basho, from his 17th century travel journal, "The Knapsack Notebook" (translated by Sam Hamill).

Although we've primarily been discussing blogs written by individual booksellers in this series, Pat Carrier, owner with his wife, Harriet, of the Globe Corner Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass., asked about blogs that are a group effort. I didn't have to travel far to realize that the Globe Corner's blog is one of the best examples of that option around.

"From the outset, we were concerned that the blog not become the platform of a single or handful of staffers, mainly to insure continuity and variety of content as staff personnel changed," Pat explained. "We also wanted to provide a creative outlet for the many talented folks who work (or have worked) for us while they are traveling."

With that goal in mind, and taking into account the predilection for global wandering inherent in any travel bookshop's staff, it was "decided at the outset to open the blog posts not only to all staff, but alumni staff of the store as well." Pat admitted that the shop was "a little slow out of the gate on blogs because we wanted to be sure we had a somewhat durable structure that would insure ongoing postings as the staff changed. We also spent quite a bit of time thinking about the topical organization of the blog--which turned out perhaps to be less important. Our initial blog 'categories' were: News, Book Reviews, and Notes from the Field. And finally, we wanted a structure that the staff really owned and that the owners/management had little day-to-day control over--except to the extent of making sure the overall thrust of the blog was reinforcing the positive themes of travel and inquisitiveness about the world. Once the company's management launched the blog, it really has been in the hands of the staff since then."

One additional step was to have some editorial oversight "that made sure our posts passed basic grammatical muster and didn't violate any copyright laws--we are after all in the book business," Pat observed. "By the way, most discussions I have seen about blogging and bookstores have paid scant attention to the copyright issues. I can tell you first hand that you need to pay attention because we inadvertently posted a photograph on our main website a couple years ago which we thought was copyright free, but wasn't. It was messy and expensive getting that straightened out."

The Globe Corner blog has a pair of co-editors, Llalan Fowler and Nicole Jones, who review content before it is posted.

"My co-editor and I don't divide up duties, but rather share all responsibilities," noted Llalan, a student in the MFA writing program at Emerson College. "As for my role, I feel my job necessitates staying in the background a lot of the time. The writers are the key to success of this blog. Our authors' different voices are our biggest asset. We have such a wide and wonderful mix of personalities at the store that I want to make sure each one comes through in every post. Each of us looks at travel and travel books uniquely, and I feel my role as editor is to preserve the variety and vibrancy of the blog."

Nicole, who will enter Columbia University's MFA program in creative writing this fall, added that it is "a testament to Pat and Harriet and the great environment they've created at the store that so many alumni want to contribute. It's a wonderful place to work, and I think past employees like coming back and contributing to the blog because they like being a part of the community." (Here are a few examples of alumni posts from Botswana, Tokyo, Scotland and Switzerland.)

According to Nicole, "one of the fun things about our blog is that everyone has developed their own voice in writing about their travels. As a reader, not just an editor, I really look forward to reading new blogs from everyone. I think we're an entertaining group."

Pat enthusiastically agreed : "I'm sure it's pretty clear from the above that I am quite proud of the work that our staff has done in producing the blog. It's been fun to watch the evolution from the sidelines."--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #967

Friday
Jul102009

Bookseller Blogs--Write What Ya Know

As I watched Angels with Dirty Faces recently for the zillionth time, I found myself thinking about this series on bookseller blogs, especially when hoodlum Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) greets his childhood buddy-turned-priest Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien) with, "Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?"

And so, in the spirit of 1930s gangster films, I suggest that we steal the salutation and make it our motto for book trade social networking in the 21st century because, well, larceny is an art form in the information age.

Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?


Can blogs get booksellers in trouble? It's conceivable. Maybe not enough trouble to land them in the Big House, but certainly enough to heighten their awareness of how they present themselves to readers.

When and how to use your blog--whether institutional or personal--to address controversial issues is something we've all dealt with. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo (Written Nerd) notes that "there are some bloggers who have used their public/personal forum quite effectively when there is a real problem that needs to be addressed (Arsen Kashkashian springs immediately to mind). And there have been a couple of times when I've drawn attention to something I thought was wrong--or even complained when I've had a bad day. But even then, the tone is the same online as it is on the sales floor. You can be casual, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be professional. I actually like doing it--it's kind of a pleasant discipline. I've certainly slipped and made some faux pas in writing that offended someone or gave the wrong impression, but for the most part it hasn't been too difficult. There are lots of different temperaments than mine, though, and a lot of different ways of handling this issue--mine is only one."

Kashkashian, head buyer at Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, Colo., observes that on his blog, Kash's Book Corner, he doesn't "have many limits on what I write. I won't write anything that will get me fired and I try not to write anything that will jeopardize the store's position with its customers or publishers. I think I've been able to do that without much trouble. The publishers don't seem to hold my rantings against the store. My boss is quite forgiving so I don't worry much about him. Our customers seem to love the inside scoop that I give them in the blog."

He believes in the importance of candor: "I won't write about a topic if I don't think I can be completely honest about it. I also like topics that stir up some passion in me. That passion can be anger over a publisher's policy or humor over something that seems absurd. Most of all I write the blog for me. I don't want it to be a bookstore blog because I don't want to be held to a schedule and I don't want to feel required to write about anything in particular. I also think that makes finding my voice a lot easier. It has to entertain or provoke me and hopefully by extension it will entertain or elicit some emotion in others."

Writing the in-house blog for Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., Patrick Brown says he "is grateful that Vroman's has basically given me free rein to write about what I want as long as I try, whenever possible, to bring it back to books. We have internal discussions, from time to time, about the direction of the blog. For a while, there was some concern that it was too focused on publishing industry chatter. The feeling was that though these posts attracted a lot of traffic, it was more the choir than the congregation. We're trying to reach out and cover more topics of interest to the local community, as that's our core clientele anyway."

Brown strives to keep his personal blog "as separate from work as possible. I don't link to it (at least not the one I'm using now), and I treat it as my own personal space. That's not to say it's private. I mean, it is a blog, after all. I assume some readership. Even so, I don't tend to advertise on that blog that I work for Vroman's. The two blogs are maintained through different email accounts, and they link to different Twitter and Facebook accounts."

Next week we'll explore the Globe Corner Bookstore's blog, which is a group effort that even includes "alumni staff" contributors.

Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #961