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Bookseller Forecast: Cloudy, but That Can Be Good

Forecasts for the book trade have always been cloudy, with at least a 50% chance of contradiction. For booksellers, however, weather is more than just a convenient metaphor; it is a tangible factor in their day-to-day business, well, climate.

What is good weather for bookselling? That depends upon what sort of shop you keep. For a New York City street vendor or a bookstore near the beach, sunny days beat the hell out of rainy ones.

Ideal bookselling weather undoubtedly varies from place to place. What, for example, is a prime weather day for a bookstore in Miami? In Austin? In Los Angeles? In Seattle? In Baltimore?

For Vermont, the best bookstore weather is often bad, depending upon the season. You watch forecasts carefully. If your bookstore is located in a tourist area, your calculations as a biblio-meteorologist must take into account a number of variables.

In winter, you hope for early week snowstorms to whet the appetite of out-of-state skiers. Ideally, those storms will abate by Friday, leaving good powder on the mountains and clear highways for easy driving.

During the summer, rainy weekends rule for visitors and locals alike. There are endless reasons to visit a bookstore on a drizzly Saturday, while a perfect summer day will send even the most dedicated readers outdoors.

Autumn is easy because foliage season and colder temperatures attract visitors who move fluidly from outside to inside. And when the leaves fall, you still have wind chill and the approaching holiday season to lure readers into your shop.

As for spring, all bets are off. Mark Twain said it best: "There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger's admiration--and regret.... But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours."

Civilians--aka non-booksellers--may not realize how important the weather is to bookstores. They might assume that since it's an indoor job, what's happening outside--short of a flood or tornado--can't possibly matter that much. It does matter, big time, in subtle ways that affect the bottom line, which doesn't care if the sun was shining last Saturday when sales were down 22% from last year.

Perhaps I should explain that I was inspired to consider this subject by the unusual number of entertaining weather references I noticed in bookstore e-mail newsletters recently. Here's just a sampling:

"It seems like it has been an unusually hot summer already, and at the GCB Blogs, we've been working on ways to stay cool in the rising July temperatures. One of our bloggers explores the merits of the patio bar on a hot summer day--in Austin, Texas--where she beats the heat with an impressive beer selection. If it's too sticky to sit outside (even with a nice cold one), curl up in front of the air conditioner with a good book."--Globe Corner Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass.

"As we approach the dog days of summer, here's something you can get enthused about: another Auntie's to love! You asked for it, and we're about to deliver a smaller version of our marvelous main store at River Park Square."--Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash.

"Before I begin, a quick update about how my life in receiving has been since you last heard from me. My friends from around the country often ask me how cold it is in Wisconsin. In particular when there is a heat wave wherever they live. It's as if they are trying to cool off vicariously through me. I have to try and patiently explain that Wisconsin does not snow throughout the year, and we are, in fact, rather hot here too. And then we inevitably get into an argument about how our 86 degrees with 70% humidity isn't as bad as their 90 degrees and 0% humidity. Sheesh. Long story short, it's really flipping hot in receiving, and it's only amplified when I have to keep moving boxes of The Passage around."--Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wis.

And from the blog at the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt.: "After a couple of long, hot weeks, my brain feels something like butterscotch pudding, so even though I've read a number of wonderful books I'd like to review, I don't see that happening today."

What's the forecast for booksellers? Cloudy, to be sure, but sometimes a little bad weather can be good for business.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1239


Remembrance of Lawn Chair Readings Past

"Beach read" seems to be the operative term for all discussions regarding summer reading lists, but many of us were landlocked during our formative years and associate hot weather reading with the cheap, sun-drenched folding lawn furniture upon which we draped our lazy bodies as we buried sunburned noses in great books.

"Get outdoors!" my mother would yell, and outdoors I went to claim reading space on the weathered, transient furniture of summer.

After writing about my first summer book last week, several readers checked in with their own recollections, including Karen Jaffe, who read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind when she "was 14 or 15." Melanie Manary, from Petoskey, Mich, called Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety "a terrific summer book. I've reread it every summer for about 15 years."

Linda Malcolm of Indigo Books, Johns Island, S.C., "can remember vividly the first time I read Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel." In 1964, as she was "reclining on a daybed between two corner windows in a wonderful old house in Raleigh, N.C., I was captured by the poetry of that great melancholy novel. I have reread it several times in the succeeding years, using a different color pen each time to underline or highlight a phrase or figure that caught my soul--a rainbow history of an oft-repeated journey."

Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar was the first summer book for Cindy Pickle of Powell's Books, Portland, Ore.: "I was still a stone's throw behind puberty. I may have read some of Brautigan's poetry first, but I can't be sure. I do know that the words on the cover--'In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.'--were to me both a poem and a promise. Right away I loved the phrasing and the immediate image of another world.

"Throughout the story the concepts of indoors and outdoors are blurred and the weather becomes another character in the story. There is mystery and an uneasiness that contrasts fantastically with the incredible beauty of a place where the sunshine is a different color every day. The dialogue is sparse, the descriptions of characters based more on how they move about than what they look like. It gives you a view through a uniquely distorted lens, like a strange dream you had on a night that was a little too hot for sleeping. I've read this book probably three or four times but not recently. I may have to read it again this summer."

Exodus by Leon Uris was the first summer book for Patricia Zeider, senior library supervisor at the Brand Library & Art Center, Glendale, Calif.: "I read my parents' Book of the Month Club copy as a teenager around the time it was first published. The story had everything--history, drama, passion, romance." She also recalled an early summer read from her childhood: "Missee Lee, part of the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. I took the public library's dilapidated old copy out of desperation when I needed books to take on a beach vacation. Kids having an adventure on the ocean with pirates really hooked me."
Children's author Natasha Wing recalled that the "first summer book I remember reading was The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. I think it was my mom's book as a kid, and because we lived a few blocks from the beach I thought it was cool that characters were also at a beach setting. After reading the story, I wished I was a twin."

Honestly, Katie John by Mary Calhoun is the book Kathy Patrick, owner of Beauty and the Book, Jefferson, Tex., read as a kid "that always reminds me of summer. Also the first book that turned me on to reading by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Boulden." Patrick shared one of her favorite summer books for 2010 as well--The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin. "Talk about a page-turner and one that is set in temperatures freezing cold."

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White was the magical one for Brenda Logan of Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio: "In late summer of 1952 I was finally 10 years old; my baby brother was getting all the family attention; small town South Carolina was miserably hot and boring; I had read all the Bobbsey Twins, the Little Maid series, Nancy Drew and Boxcar Children books in the public library, and I wanted more. I walked by myself to the library, often, and Miss White knew me as a regular. One day she handed me that rarest thing in this small, poor place: a NEW book. I ran right home, curled up under the ceiling fan (no A/C in South Carolina in those days) and read the best book ever written, and written just for me."

On her Facebook page, author and Shelf Awareness contributor Laurie Lico Albanese said she "re-read Huck Finn while pregnant with my daughter 20 years ago. It was a sweltering summer in Chicago." Commenters mentioned Freddy the Pig ("a whole summer (or seemed like it) sick with bronchitis, that pig saved me"), Laura Ingalls Wilder ("the entire series in a summer when I was 10"), the Tintin books and multiple votes for Harriet the Spy.

"Harriet was my role mode, too," Albanese noted. "She taught me young what all honest writers learn; you really can't write about friends and family and then go home again."

So many books... all written just for us. It's summer! Go find a cheap lawn chair and read!--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1233.


Spending Your Summer Reading

'Hot!' said the conductor to familiar faces... 'Some weather!... Hot!... Hot!... Hot!... Is it hot enough for you? Is it hot? Is it...?'

When I noticed these lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in the New York Times Paper Cuts blog this week, I experienced a flashback that almost matched in intensity the seemingly incessant flashes of heat and lightning that have marked these Dog Days of July, 2010.

Gatsby was my first summer book. I read it in 1968, during the swelter of another July, because it was on a required pre-semester reading list sent by the college I'd be attending in the fall. Thus, Fitzgerald's novel, a summer book in some ways already, has always been one of my primary summer books (J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country is another).

But what if I had first read Gatsby in January? Would it have been my winter novel? Probably not.

Thoughts of books and summer inevitably lead my bookseller's brain to bookstores and summer: indie bookshops with A/C; used bookshops with endless aisles and shelves in cool, damp cellars; beach bookstores with offshore breezes sifting through screen doors.

That's all been on my mind during this tropical week in which I planned each day as a series of caravan journeys from one air-conditioned oasis to another. And it's what inspired me to begin considering a question I eventually decided I wanted to ask everyone in the book world.

That question is...

Ah, but first let me address rumors that this week's heat wave has inspired e-reader R&D teams to experiment with the next generation of devices, which will be equipped with micro-digital air conditioners designed to blow a refreshing breeze over your eyes as you read on blistering summer days (and be the perfect accessory for e-beach reading as well). Unnamed sources have confirmed that this feature will be available in our lifetime, though as yet it is not clear which particular devices will feature the "e-Air" (trademark pending) option.

See what a heat wave can do to your mind? This week put its own spin on the concept of hot summer books for a substantial portion of the U.S., as steamy post-Fourth of July weekend temperatures soared and sent most of us scurrying for shade, A/C and ice cube-filled glasses of... anything.

Was it too hot to read? No. Is it ever too hot to read? I suppose that depends upon where--and what--you’re reading. Another good question, and perhaps a bookish variation on the hot-beverages-make-you-cooler theory: Does reading a book set in a cold climate make you cooler, or is it better to read about even hotter places to gain the advantage of perspective?

All worthy questions, yet still not the ones I want to ask you. 

The first is for indie booksellers: What cool--literally and figuratively--events and promotions have you conjured to lure patrons into the cool--also literally and figuratively--book-lined confines of your shops during the next couple of months?

For example:

"It's cool here--so drop in and join us this summer," advised Kerry Slattery, general manager and co-owner of Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., in her shop's e-newsletter. Slattery wrote, "Some of our customers have been requesting a return of last summer's 'Hot Summer Nights,' so we've decided to do it again this summer--reborn as 'Hot Summer Saturdays!'--we'll stay open till midnight for seven Saturdays (July 17 to August 28) and present a little music and other themed evenings. Join us for libations, or just come and browse till midnight."

And at the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah: "We still have a few spots open in our Friday Fun for Kids at the King’s this week--Camp King’s English. Do you like to go camping? Do you like to hear stories, spooky or otherwise? Do you like to eat s’mores? Then we have a spot for you."

Or the simple but effective lure of this Facebook post from Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash.: "We've got great books, an awesome staff, and delicious cakes at the bakery. But most important, we have air conditioning."

My second question is for everyone:

What was your first summer book?

I'd love to hear from you.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1228.


Summertime & the Reading Will Be Easy

July Fourth is the official opening day of Beach Reading Season, and I've been invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (um, book) before a major league barbecue at Hampton Beach, N.H., on Sunday.

Well, no, that isn't true. But as we roll into the holiday weekend and all those languorous summer hours to follow, reading--particularly "beach reading," whether or not you're literally at a beach--does matter to more people. The pressure is building among both dedicated and seasonal readers who are searching for the perfect summer books. What should they read? What shouldn't they read? What if they don't have time to read everything they take on vacation? What if they waste time reading the "wrong" books?
To smooth this annual transition to biblio-beach mode, booksellers, publishers, newspaper columnists and bloggers compile lists of summer recommendations. As an industry, our helpful advice to the public is simple: buy lots of great books, read them voraciously, and then buy more.
For those of us in the book trade, however, it gets a little more complicated. We read for a living, so what do we do on our vacations? I'd like to share a little strategy I'm using to enhance my hot weather reading this year. I plan to read well, but slowly--Dog Days of summer slow.

Once upon a time I was a slow reader, in the best sense of the concept. I lingered over pages, paragraphs and sentences. I underlined. I copied sections into commonplace books. I read aloud to any unsuspecting soul who happened to enter the room: "Listen to this."

From Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient: "Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

Before I started as a bookseller in 1992, I was practically monogamous when I read. I could spend a month with a book, six months with an author. Pages were covered with marginalia. I lived in them for long periods, then moved on, as if strolling a narrow garden path rather than weaving through rush hour traffic.

Suddenly, however, I had to change my game and learn how to read faster without sacrificing concentration, comprehension and pleasure. At the bookstore, customers thought I was a reading machine. They would sometimes ask, with unmasked awe, "How many books do you read a week?"

The answer is, as you know, complicated. I cheated. Ours is a world with stacks upon stacks of guilt-inducing ARCs waiting for their turn; of 50-pages-and-out reading. The relevant question from my customers should have been: "How many books do you finish a week?"

I did, however, learn how to be a more promiscuous reader during the 15 years I spent as a frontline bookseller and I haven't shaken that habit. Often I have three, four or five books going at once, and continue to cast my eyes with longing at the endless stream of new, tempting titles that come across my desk.

I don't necessarily like this feeding frenzy mentality, but it's what we work with in our profession. We're expected to know a little something about a lot of books; a little more about several key books; and a lot about a chosen few. We do our best to oblige.

Which brings me back to my reading plans for the summer. Beginning this holiday weekend, I'll experiment by slow-reading some of May Sarton's journals. Slowing down will take some practice after all these years, just to avoid getting the bookish bends. My transitional period currently involves a frontlist fix of Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans and Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens.

There's another paragraph in The English Patient I like. Hana is reading again, this time to herself: "She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."

Sounds good to me. It's summertime, and the reading will be easy.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1224.


Ask Me Why I'm Writing About the NBA

We don't have a sports section at Shelf Awareness, but I'm creating a temporary one this week to acknowledge a notable moment in the history of books and sport. Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship of the National Basketball Association.

You may or may not know this already. You may or may not care. And if you're a stickler for details, as we book people tend to be, you might even wonder how a team from the desert landscape of Southern California ended up with a name like the Lakers. Just to clarify that one, the team moved from Minneapolis in 1960.

So why, you ask, am I writing about basketball in a column devoted to the book trade?

Because the Lakers coach, Phil Jackson, has now won 11 NBA championships? No.

Because he has studied Zen Buddhism and Lakota spirituality and incorporates teachings from both in his life and work? No.

Because, as the widely acknowledged Zen master of the NBA, he is capable of statements like this one--"I've made up my mind I'm leaning towards retiring, but I haven't made up my mind."--which he fed this week to a national media speculating breathlessly about his possible retirement? No.

What makes Jackson's latest accomplishment resonate with me is his personal relationship with the world of books. He writes, he reads and, best of all, he recommends books. For example, it has long been a Jacksonian tradition to distribute reading material to each of his players. This season, his choices for a long January road trip were: 

Ron Artest: Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
Shannon Brown: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Kobe Bryant: Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
Andrew Bynum: Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley
Jordan Farmar: Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall
Derek Fisher: Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Pau Gasol: 2666 by Roberto Bolano
DJ Mbenga: Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur
Adam Morrison: Che: a Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon
Lamar Odom: The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley
Josh Powell: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
Sasha Vujacic: Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
Luke Walton: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

"You know, I handpick the books for the players, so they’re individually selected," Jackson told the Orange County Register earlier this month. "Some players that are new on the team I may give them a book about the offense or a book, something to do with our basketball team. But for players that I know, and I get to know players before I do that, I give them something that’s information for them. Pau Gasol, I gave him a book about Barcelona, adventure story about Barcelona. Kobe Bryant, I gave him a book about my home state, where I grew up in eastern Montana. Derek Fisher, I gave him Soul On Ice. It’s a book that made a big difference to me when I was a young man growing up in the '70s and the late '60s. So a variety of books depending on who people are and what I think they might be interested in reading."

Gasol talked about the 912-page Bolano novel on Jimmie Kimmel Live.

When Shaquille O'Neal was with the Lakers several years ago, Jackson gave him Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. In the OC Register, Jackson recalled how O'Neal "used to take the thing as seriously as anybody, writing reports on the books--usually philosophical in nature--that Jackson gave him. Jackson said that when O’Neal got in a fight in Chicago in January 2002 with Brad Miller, O’Neal went to the team bus upon ejection and lost himself in his homework. 'He got thrown out of the game,' Jackson said. 'He went on the bus and finished up his book report after that.' "

In 2007, Bryant, who has not always been on board with the book idea, credited a positive change in his attitude to Jerry Lynch's The Way of the Champion: Lessons from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and other Tao Wisdom for Sports & Life: "I read a book this summer from Mr. Phil Jackson that talked about warriors respecting other warriors. If you have respect for your opponent, the thing that you have to do is play hard every time down. That gave me a new perspective on things." Bryant and Jackson also bonded over Malcolm Gladwell's work.

Did books win the NBA championship this year? No. But if you ask me why I'm writing about Phil Jackson today, I can only reply that in a world where books often seem to matter less, there is this guy coaching in the NBA to whom they matter a great deal. And his team just won another damn title.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1218.