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Storytelling, SIBA Style

"When I bought Mountain Crossings, I was journaling these stories that pass through each day," said Winton Porter, author of Just Passin' Thru: A Vintage Store, the Appalachian Trail, and a Cast of Unforgettable Characters. Speaking at the "Before We were Authors" panel during the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show last week, he noted that the Appalachian Trail literally runs through his supply store: "If you miss it, you are lost." His book came from listening attentively to stories told to him by the more than 2,000 hikers a year who find their way to Mountain Crossings.

Porter was just one of many fine storytellers at SIBA. Not all of them were authors. It's what we do--booksellers, writers, publishers, readers. I heard many great stories from podiums and at dining tables, on the trade show floor and in the Carolina First Center's hallways and meeting rooms.

We are, as Garrison Keillor might say, a storytelling people.

Now I'm in Cleveland for the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show, where I know more stories are headed my way this weekend. In upcoming columns, I'll share tales from both shows, but I decided to start with one about social networking, since that seems to be on everyone's mind lately.
As I mentioned last week, I was on a "Social Media and the Independent Bookseller" panel at SIBA with Rich Rennicks (Unbridled Books/Malaprop's Bookstore) and the ABA's Meg Smith. I've been on similar panels over the past five years, watching the discussion evolve from bookstore blogging and websites to include options like Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter (and, briefly, MySpace).

In olden times (2005?), 75% of the audience was skeptical, engaging in these online options reluctantly or not at all. Now that percentage seems to have reversed, and many--certainly not all--of the skeptics have edged toward the "Why should I?" camp rather than a flat out "No!"

But love it or hate it, social networking is a key tool in our business. At one point during the session, while Meg displayed the blog I'm an Avid Reader as an example of how even prospective booksellers are using social media effectively, we discovered that Janet Geddis--the blog's creator, who hopes to open Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., in the not-so-distant future--was sitting in the front row.

Once in the discussion, she made some excellent contributions. Afterward, I asked her to tell her own social media story: "I dream of the day I can run events, handsell to curious customers, and organize Avid Bookshop's shelves--but for now I have to bide my time and wait for the stars (and dollars) to align. Though I'm usually rather impatient, this process of planning a bookstore has taught me to take my time and lay the proper groundwork before jumping in. Because I am not flush with cash and know no rich benefactor who wishes to bestow her wealth unto me, I chose instead to get in touch with my customers before the opening date is set. Through my blog and personal Facebook page, I'm attempting to engage people in dialogues about literature and reading; so far, it's working and gaining momentum every day. More people keep spreading the word on my behalf, which is humbling and exciting. I've gotten to the point where strangers recognize me and have heard about the bookstore."

Geddis praised her Twitter account for allowing her to "join a really strong network of independent booksellers, writers, readers and publishers. To start a business from scratch is a huge undertaking, but being able to harness social media outlets means that lots of the pesky questions that bog new people down aren't bugging me so much."

She cited the recent example of working on her business plan and wondering about staff discounts. "I Tweeted my question and had several answers within minutes."

"My feeling is that social media tools are indispensable to prospective booksellers," Geddis concluded. "What better way to get your feet wet and start conversations with people you might not come across in your day-to-day life? Athens has no indie that sells new books, which means I have to go on long drives to meet booksellers face to face. Through my Twitter account I've been able to befriend people all over the country who own and/or work in independent bookstores."

The story of Avid Bookshop is still being written and we'll get to watch the creation of an indie bookshop through the window of social networking. Our book community is always telling new stories.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1022


Social Media for the Not-so-social

The world in present tense: Shortly after my column hits the virtual presses today (perhaps even as you read this), I'll be on a panel at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in Greenville, S.C.

I'm joining Rich Rennicks--of Malaprop's Bookstore and Unbridled Books-- and the ABA's Meg Smith to explore the topic: "Social Media and the Independent Bookseller." Assuming all goes well, this will be a conversation about how "social networking sites have fundamentally changed the way people approach not only their private lives but, also, their business transactions."

If you are reading my column on your laptop or BlackBerry in Room 101 B of the Carolina First Center this morning, please raise your hand because you are truly an example of living in the social media moment. Better yet, fire off a tweet to @IndieBoundMeg, @RichRennicks or @Fresheyesnow. Maybe we'll respond. Or maybe not, since we're presumably too busy listening, talking and trying not to sneak furtive glances at our own handheld devices.

There is, of course, much to discuss when it comes to social media and bookselling. All we'll be able to do is nibble at the edges, but every conversation helps. In a recent post on his blog, The Word Hoarder, Rich offered a handy, condensed version of his thoughts on "Engaging Your Customers Through Social Media." The ABA has terrific materials available as well.

As Rich suggests, "you need to go where your customers are and engage them, and that means online. The fact is customers are coming into our stores less often than before. They're getting their book fix online: reading about books, talking about books and buying books. This is where social media can help booksellers. . . . I have two book industry jobs and do a bit of freelance graphic design on the side; for people like me (and you) social media is a set of tools to help me get my work done."

I agree. He also wisely observes that booksellers must become "part of the conversation" that is already happening online and will continue to expand, with or without them.

So, here we are, in South Carolina, in Room 101 B, and I'm sure there is someone in our audience (which by now is no longer an audience but, we hope, a gang of active participants in the discussion) still resisting social media's siren song. Objections may already have been raised about what has been called "the great time suck" of social networking sites, about monitoring staff usage or any number of other valid concerns.

From past experience, I suspect no one will just say that they're really not all that social to begin with. So I'll say it here, because there was a time not so long ago when this seemed like a great excuse to me. Despite the fact that I work for an online book trade newsletter, started a bookseller blog five years ago and now have active accounts with the usual social media suspects, I'm not a particularly adept social animal myself.

And you want to know a secret? It doesn't seem to matter. As madcap as the pace can be (type "book" into Twitterfall for a daunting peek), you really do have some control "out there." Want to know something else? I think social networking has improved my social skills in the non-virtual world. Some of you who know me may disagree, but I have a hunch it's true.

Booksellers, like readers and writers everywhere, value privacy and quiet. The prospect of living in a 24/7 social media world, even in a business context, may seem unappealing. But I've learned to use these tools because, in my chosen profession, that's where the people are--just as Willie Sutton once said he robbed banks because that's where the money was.

I post regularly, but not incessantly, on Twitter and Facebook. These contributions reflect my personality, and maybe that's the best advice I can share with the not-so-social among us who are eyeing social media with suspicion. You can be yourself online, personally as well as professionally. 

My approach is a hybrid of what I've learned and what I continue to discover every day. The fact that I still use the phrase "hit the presses" to describe the daily release of this online publication already carbon dates me. When I search for possible additions to the Shelf Awareness news notes section, I persist in using the phrase "checking the wires." Maybe I'm just old school new media, but it works.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue# 1017


A Book Un-banned

Their books served the people; were published in huge editions; were supplied by a system of automatic mass distribution to all libraries; and months of promotion were devoted to them.

You already know that Banned Books Week, the annual cautionary celebration of our Freadom, will be held September 26-October 3. My contribution to the discussion this year is to point out a recently un-banned book in another country.

The opening sentence of this column, which expresses the thoughts of an "acceptable" writer bristling under Soviet censorship, is from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel, The First Circle. That paragraph concludes:

Of course, they couldn't write much of the truth. But they consoled themselves with the thought that someday things would change, and then they would return to these times and these events, and record them truthfully, revising and reprinting their old books. Right now they must concentrate on that quarter, eighth, sixteenth--oh, all right, that thirty-second--part of the truth that was possible. Even that little bit was better than nothing.

Appropriately enough, as Banned Books Week approaches and the "better than nothing" question continues to be a relevant dilemma for readers, writers, booksellers, teachers, librarians and publishers internationally, Solzhenitsyn's name has appeared in the news again.

According to the Associated Press, the "book that made 'Gulag' a synonym for the horrors of Soviet oppression will be taught in Russian high schools, a generation after the Kremlin banned it as destructive to the Communist cause and exiled its author." Russia's Education Ministry has ruled that excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's three-volume indictment of the imprisonment of tens of millions of people--and deaths of millions as a result of privation and forced labor--will be added to required reading lists.

Like most of Solzhenitsyn's early work, Gulag circulated underground in his country while being translated and published in the West. It also played a substantial role in the Kremlin's decision to expel the dissident author in 1974. He spent the next 20 years in exile and, as the AP noted, when he returned home in 1994 after the fall of the Soviet Union he "expressed disappointment that most Russians hadn't read his books."

Perhaps some of them will now.

The politics of this recent decision are muddy. Russia's economy is in bad shape, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "is pushing to restore pride in the Soviet past." Thus, the AP observed, "the decision could be a reflection of the Russian establishment's struggle to reconcile that pride with the freedoms that Russians take for granted nearly 20 years after dumping communism and embracing democracy and the free market." Further complicating the issue are communism-redux incidents: Josef Stalin "was recently voted by Russians as their third greatest historical figure, and lyrics praising him have been inscribed in the vestibule of a prominent Moscow subway station," the AP reported.

Anti-Stalin activist Lev Ponomaryov suggested "the introduction of the books is a rather good way to decrease the popularity of the Communists among the young people."

They might also consider reading Invisible Allies, a 1990s work paying tribute to ordinary yet extraordinary citizens who took enormous personal risks to help Solzhenitsyn preserve and circulate his work. The book includes a moving tribute to Q (Elizaveta Denisovna Voronyanskaya), a woman who "had led an entirely conventional Soviet existence" until events in the 1960s, which included reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, inspired her to devote her life to Solzhenitsyn as a covert typist/editor and part of his samizdat distribution network until she was caught and subsequently died in what might be described as a "questionable" suicide.

"Q used to chide me in her letters after each of my sharply worded statements: 'What's the point of getting involved in a bullfight on such unequal terms? Why do you insist on hastening events?'" Solzhenitsyn wrote. "The fact is that no one hastened them more than she did. This elderly, ailing, lonely woman, gripped by fear and without meaning to do so, set the mighty boulder of The Gulag Archipelago rumbling into the world, headed toward our country and toward international communism."

In a footnote dated 1978, Solzhenitsyn observed that "Verdi's Requiem, given to me by Q, is with me in Vermont, and I play it every year at the end of August in her memory."

I'm listening to it now. The power of music . . . and of words. During Banned Books Week this year, I'll be thinking about Elizaveta Denisovna Voronyanskaya.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1012


On Not Writing about Dan Brown

I was planning to write this week's column about the anticipatory frenzy building for next Tuesday's release of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. After all, isn't everybody writing about it? And you have to love a book that generates conversation even among people who never talk about books. I wondered, however, what I could possibly add to the chatter that hadn't already been covered ad nauseam.

Then something unexpected happened, which made me aware once again of that curious, often irresistible force capable of diverting a reader's attention from the planned to the unexpected journey.

So here is my Dan Brown column.

On Tuesday morning, a strange noise, sounding like a tank, woke me. Maybe, I thought in a sleepy haze, it was a hostile takeover of our little Vermont valley by vacationing flatlanders reluctant to leave after the long holiday weekend.

From the second floor bedroom window, I saw--at the end of our lawn and less than 50 yards away--a steam shovel trundling down the center of the Battenkill River, its twin tracks clanking and spewing water. While canoes and kayaks and tubes regularly float by, this was a first. With its diesel exhaust wafting on the cool morning breeze, the machine began digging beneath the surface of the river, extracting gravel, moving fallen trees and rearranging boulders. I soon learned that the project involved shoring up the riverbank to prevent erosion and deepening the channel.

But one of the first things that crossed my mind was the question of whether these machines are stilled called steam shovels. So I looked that up online and discovered the correct term is "power shovel," though concessions are made for the fact that most people still use the original term.

As a reader and former boy-child, however, all this immediately sparked memories of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Some quick research led to the discovery that Caldecott-winning children's author and illustrator Virginia Lee Burton wrote Mike in 1939, and that August 30, 2009 had been the centennial of her birth.

A belated happy 100th birthday, Virginia.

Later in the morning I bought a copy of Mike at my local independent bookstore (I'll send it to the first person who e-mails me today) because I just couldn't resist revisiting this classic.

'Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel, a beautiful red steam shovel. Her name was Mary Anne," I read. "He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, but he had never been quite sure that this was true."

I know the feeling.

As good a steam shovel as Mary Anne was, she inevitably fell victim to progress: "Then along came the new gasoline shovels and the electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels and took all the jobs away from the steam shovels."

An old and new story if ever there was one.

I found the following on Anderson's publisher-generated website: "I literally draw my books first and write the texts after--sort of 'cart before the horse.' Whenever I can, I substitute picture for word."

Quite suddenly, this reference to pictures and words reminded me not of Dan Brown or the Mona Lisa, which might have nudged me back on topic, but of memoirist and biographer James Lord, who died August 23.

I had been planning to add an obituary note in Shelf Awareness soon because one of the many books he wrote is a favorite of mine. In A Giacometti Portrait, Lord recounts his experience sitting for the artist. I bought a copy in 2001 after seeing the Giacometti retrospective at MoMA, lost it, and just picked up another one recently to reread. It is bookmarked with my exhibition ticket for 11/19/01 at 10:30 a.m.

According to Lord, "If Giacometti cannot feel that something exists truly for the first time, then it will not really exist for him at all. From this almost childlike and obsessive response to the nature and the appearance of reality springs the true originality of vision."

"Well, at least I have the courage not to be prudent," Giacometti told Lord during one of their sessions. "I dare to give that one final brush stroke which abolishes everything."

At the end of Mike Mulligan, "everybody was happy."

The steam shovel is still grinding away at the Battenkill's riverbed today.

All this happened because I couldn’t decide what to write about Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. Maybe that's just the ongoing, unsolvable mystery of a reader's life.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1006.


Vermont Foliage Season with Wallace Stegner

A sound like a big crowd a good way off, excited and shouting, getting closer. We stand up and scan the empty sky. Suddenly there they are, a wavering V headed directly over our hilltop, quite low, beating southward down the central flyway and talking as they pass. We stay quiet, suspending our human conversation until their garrulity fades and their wavering lines are invisible in the sky.

They have passed over us like an eraser over a blackboard, wiping away whatever was there before they came.

"Oh, don't you love them!" Charity says. "Sometimes when we stayed late in Vermont, or went up late for the color, we'd see and hear them like that, coming over Folsom Hill. Someday you've got to visit us there."

Maybe it’s just the time of year, but I recalled that passage from Crossing to Safety (not word-for-word, of course. I had to look it up for the exact quotation) when I heard about the upcoming Wallace Stegner Centennial. This "literary weekend" will be held during foliage season, September 25-27, at the Highland Lodge, Greensboro, Vt., a town where Stegner often summered and the model for scenes in his celebrated novel. Featured speakers include Philip L. Fradkin, author of Wallace Stegner and the American West, and Stegner's agent, Carl Brandt, of Brandt and Hochman.

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., is one of the co-sponsors and will sell books at the event. Owner Linda Ramsdell notes: "Stegner's works, especially Crossing to Safety, do still sell well, and better because of the local reference points. An earlier novel, Second Growth, also has many local reference points. Wallace Stegner was a great supporter of the Galaxy Bookshop, and in an earlier iteration of community collaboration, we were fortunate to sell books at the Greensboro Public Library when they presented him with an award."
Anne T. Molleur Hanson, organizer of the celebration, explains that the genesis was "threefold." Four years ago, the inn hosted a Reading Greensboro weekend, with a focus on Crossing to Safety and the belief that "acknowledging the many writers like Wallace Stegner who have summered or spent time in Greensboro (or even live here year round, like Anne Stuart) would be a wonderful way to celebrate Greensboro's literary legacy." In addition to Stegner, John Gunther and Margaret Mead are among the noted authors who called this village of fewer than 1,000 people their Green Mountain home away from home.

"Our Crossing to Safety night was well attended, especially by folks from here," Hanson adds. "After the event, many people--several from afar--remarked on their hope that we would do another such event sometime."
About six months ago, Hanson and Willie Smith, one of the Highland Lodge innkeepers, discussed hosting another literary weekend focusing specifically on Stegner, "who is known as a Western writer, but who had a clear fondness for the northeast, particularly Greensboro, to which his and wife Mary's friends Peg and Phil Gray (portrayed as Charity and Sid Lang in Crossing to Safety) had introduced the Stegners in the late 1930s/early 1940s. My interest in hosting a Stegner event was in part due to my nearly 20-year long regret that although I grew up here, I never attended a Wallace Stegner reading, which he offered during many of the summers he was here."

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Hanson learned that Philip Fradkin, "who had stayed here while researching his biography on Stegner, was, like me, a graduate of Williams College. I e-mailed Philip and asked if he would join us for a literary weekend celebrating Wallace Stegner. Philip agreed. He suggested we find sponsors to help us with the event. At that point I contacted our friend, neighbor, and favorite independent bookseller Linda Ramsdell, to ask if the Galaxy Bookshop would like to co-sponsor. Linda was enthusiastic and immediately on-board."

Ramsdell adds that the "Hardwick area is becoming a model for ways that businesses and organizations work together to do things that no one entity can do alone. Attention has focused on the agricultural economy, but there are many examples outside of that sector too. Especially in this economy, the importance and benefits of collaborating are extremely tangible. The other aspect of the Galaxy area, which differs from many cities with local alliance organizations, is that it is a small place where people know each other and are friends. We have a vested interest in each other's viability and success. It is very easy to see how money stays in our area and benefits accrue when we work with each other."--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #1002