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'The Thin Ice of a New Day'

Meanwhile back in the year one.

As 2009 begins, I find myself channeling Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. I'm not sure why, but I hope it presages more of a "Songs from the Wood" kind of year than an "Aqualung" one for all of us.

In my final column of 2008, I posed the giddily optimistic--under current circumstances--question, "What if it all works out?" Author and marketing wizard M.J. Rose asked if she could reprint it on her great blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype. I said yes, and then discovered that the request triggered a strange sort of nostalgia. I started a blog in the fall of 2004 called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal. This was during the Paleolithic era, when there were only a few million instead of a gigazillion blogs roaming the virtual savanna. M.J. was there long before I was, and her request made me wonder what was on my blog mind in January, 2005, when I was still a full-time bookseller and buyer. What follows is a blend of quotation and paraphrase, but since the words are mine, I'll go light on the punctuation:

2005: As a bookseller, I've met people at every level of the so-called publishing pipeline, though of course I spend the bulk of my time with that most elusive of creatures, the reader. I voraciously ingest all news about the business. I often talk with publishing folks by e-mail or in person. I try to read the ever-altering surface of the business the way a sailor reads ripples caused by wind shifts.

I do not feel jaded by the industry, nor do I feel alienated from the publishing world, nor do I think that most publishers and editors are out of touch with the readers I work with every day. I feel weirdly hopeful in the face of every negative bar chart and snarky column, even though I'm a devoted fatalist at heart.

There's a scene in the football movie North Dallas Forty that I often recall whenever I'm thinking about my "place" in the publishing industry. Wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) has been summoned a meeting at the corporate, high-rise headquarters of the team's owner, Conrad Hunter Enterprises (Oil, Electronics, Chemicals, Construction, Export-Import, Hotels, etc.).

In the lobby, Elliott is cornered by Mr. Hunter himself, who puts a friendly arm on Phil's shoulder and not-so-subtly reminds him who the fox is in the pecking order of this big biz chicken coop. "Now, Phil, people who confuse brains and luck can get in a whole lot of trouble," Hunter says in a Texas drawl that comes across as both paternal and manipulative. "Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game."

Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game.

News about the business of books, whether positive or negative, is crucial and useful, but it's just one ingredient in an extremely complex recipe. Skill is important. Luck is important. Timing is important. Publicity is important. Everything is important.

Some of it can be controlled.

I can't help but see through the game. I still think I can win it. There is a lot of negativity out there. Writers work hard, often for little or no financial reward (so do booksellers; some choices I made, huh?). They've been hurt by rejection and less than aggressive marketing efforts from their publishers. They feel, often justifiably, that they have to do all the work themselves to get their books any attention.

Editors are swamped with manuscripts good and bad, solicited and unsolicited. Sales and publicity departments must handle too many books at once. Bookstore buyers spend hours every day looking at hundreds of titles, reciting a litany that runs something like, "five of those, two of those, no, no, no, one, no, two . . ."

Everybody's buried. Everybody thinks that no one else understands.

We need to understand, however, the positive as well as the negative. I don't think we're all whining. In fact, we're equal parts Pollyanna and Eeyore.

2009: I'll be in New York next week for a few days, and at some point in every conversation I have with people who work in this business, one of us will ask, "What are you reading?"

It's still about the books.

Skating away,
Skating away,
Skating away on the thin ice of a new day

Tie those laces tight, my friends. Maybe the ice will hold


What If It All Works Out?

Once upon a time, BookWorld was a happy land, where many volumes of good and even great works of literature were created using the Old Ways. Enlightened BookWizards took the simplest ingredients--mere letters--and conjured words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs that captured a story's light exquisitely and reflected it forever.

Then those words were passed along to the BookBuilders, who brushed the stories onto sheets of paper culled from the Secret Parchment Forest. Once finished, wise and passionate BookSellers distributed the magic tomes to thousands of BookReaders, who eagerly awaited each new treasure.

Everyone loved books. Everyone was happy. La, la, la.

But then came the BadTimes, and the BookReaders began to disappear, lured away by the siren songs of WebWorld, the hypnotic glow of E-Readers and the firebreathing Economic Dragons that finally decimated the landscape.

Where were the BookWizards? Shunned. Where were the BookBuilders? Downsized. Where were the BookSellers? Petrified.

The End?

No, you're just imagining things.

Since this is my final column during a year that has seemed fully in tune with that old curse, "May you live in interesting times," I decided to end on a positive note by considering the role imagination plays in our lives as professional book people.

Look it up. In the Oxford American Dictionary, imagination is "the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses." It is also "the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful."

We are in the imagination business by either definition, and because of this we, more than most people, should be aware of the dangers and possibilities inherent in that magic word.

For starters, BookWorld has always been crumbling, readers have always been too few and the dragons have always been breathing fire at our gates. Consider this excerpt from the recently published fourth volume of A History of the Book in America, edited by Janice A. Radway and Carl F. Kaestle:

Worries that book buying was increasing insufficiently prompted the Joint Board of Book Publishers and Booksellers to pass a resolution in 1940 calling for a campaign to increase book reading in the United States and creating the American Book Council to foster such efforts. The failure of earlier efforts to increase book sales prompted skepticism among some in the trade. Indeed, it had become common to bemoan the state of book distribution ever since the publication of O.H. Cheyney's Economic Survey of the Book Industry in 1929. Cheyney had concluded that the operations of the book industry were haphazard and wasteful, that book distribution was ineffective, that educational provisions were weak, and that more could be done to promote book buying and reading. . . . Worries about the extent of reading in the United States were exacerbated not only by the political atmosphere but also by the appearance of new media. Radio and movies not only competed with books and print for the attention of Americans but also, some thought, seemed to provide more titillation than thoughtful analysis.

And what of the vanished herds of brilliant BookReaders that once roamed the literary plains? In The Locusts Have No King, Dawn Powell's brilliant satire of the New York publishing world in the late 1940s, a "contemporary novel-writing" class at the League for Cultural Foundation is described as involving "a careful survey of the Sunday book review magazines and keeping up with guest authors on radio programs for inside information."

During a group discussion that leans heavily on secondary sources (Miss Corey opines that The West Waits "was long-winded and not what the public expected of Nackley. . . . It didn't live up to the promise of his other book, The Nevada Moon, at least not for me. That's what the New York Times said."), one of the participants dares to say, "I liked it," which inspires a stern rebuke: "I suppose you'd set up your opinion against the nation's leading critics. I don't need to read the book to know it isn't up to standard . . ."

As 2008 comes to an end, I mourn neither the hazardous present nor an illusory past. For 2009, I'll simply begin a new conversation by imagining possibilities:

  • What if the shop local movement continues to gain momentum nationwide?
  • What if we work even harder to nurture the readers we have instead of bemoaning those we've lost?
  • What if we begin paying more attention to all the fine books, including translated works, being published by independent and university houses?
  • What if some of those bright minds and good people who are unfortunately no longer working for major publishers decide to create more smart, dynamic and lean indie presses?
  • What if, with common sense, fierce adaptability and, yes, imagination, it all works out?

Here's to an imaginative New Year.


Outrunning the Grinch

Since I haven't fired up my bookstore website-seeing tour bus for a while, I decided to take a brief, pre-Christmas virtual flyover, just to see what sort of holiday promotional decorations booksellers were displaying online to put folks in the seasonal buying spirit.

Inspiration for this trip came from an editorial cartoon I saw Tuesday that depicted Santa trying desperately to stay just ahead of the looming maw of the biggest Grinch of all time, otherwise known as our mega-Scrooged economy. Forget the magic reindeer. We may need to go warp speed to outrun this beast.

As the countdown to Christmas Eve--the busiest shopping day of the year for many bookstores--continues apace, I've noticed a distinct uptick in the volume of promotional e-mails offering last-minute shopping incentives, including coupons, discounts, special events and more.

As Tiny Tim might have said, "Constant Contact bless us, every one."

E-mail is potential instant retail gratification, I suppose, but I'm also curious about bookstore websites, which have begun to seem oddly stolid and archaic in our age of texts and Tweets. Where are you? What are you doing now? These are the questions of our time, or at least of our moment.

Call me nostalgic. I miss the good old virtual holidays of, well, last year.

Speaking of nostalgia, I recently found an advertisement placed by the American Booksellers Association in the December, 1947 issue of Harper's magazine. Here's the text:

A New Free Service Offered by America's Foremost Booksellers
Give-A-Book Certificate
"The Gift That Can't Be Wrong!"
Here is how you can give a gift to anyone, anywhere--and be sure it will be right! Just send GIVE-A-BOOK CERTIFICATES, which your friends can exchange for just the books they really want!
GIVE-A-BOOK CERTIFICATES are on sale--and can be redeemed--at the book and department stores throughout America which display the ABA emblem shown here. Take advantage of this service today!

Hyperventilating italics and exclamation marks aside, this 60-year-old ad made me realize how often we still rely on traditional slogans and phrases. So I went looking for a few bookstore websites that might shake things up a just bit.

And I found some.

In addition to promoting its gift cards ("One size fits all!), Idlewild Books, New York, N.Y., suggests customized gift packs for the traveling reader: "Know where you're going, or looking for a gift for a traveler? Let us put together a custom-made Destination Kit of guides, novels and more! You tell us where you're going, your interests or travel style, and what you like to read and let us do the work!"

The Booksmith Holiday Catalog, which is showcased on the home page of the San Francisco, Calif., shop's website, offers "independently selected & thoughtfully curated" staff recommendations. "Our booksellers have spent months agonizing over the process of selecting only 70 out of 200,000 new books published this year for inclusion in this catalogue. The result is a carefully curated selection spanning a range of reading interests and prices."

The Booksmith's staff has also mastered the art of the six-word book review: "In the age of information overload, we believe in 'less is more.' That's all we have to say."

"Season's Readings!" are featured in Joseph-Beth Booksellers' "Holiday Store," which complements "hand selected top books for this holiday season" with a more personal online handselling option: "Looking for something but can't find it? Need a suggestion for that tough-to-please friend or family member? Just let us know by filling out the form at the end of your transaction and we'll locate it for you."

Powell's Books, Portland, Ore., highlights staff picks from its holiday catalogue, offering discounts on selected titles. Best of all, Powell's is sponsoring a contest that customers can enter by submitting their favorite words. The prize? A 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, natch. If you scan through the nearly 700 entries sent thus far, you'll notice an energetic engagement with the task at hand, a wide-ranging vocabulary and a curious recurrence of the word "defenestrate" (see Nabokov, Vladimir).

So, I did see some good website stuff, and I probably missed your good website stuff, but my wide-ranging whirlwind tour was a little disappointing, I must admit. Maybe I've become, rather than outrun, the virtual Grinch; or maybe I'm still waiting for a visit--an e-mail? a text? a Tweet?--from those Dickensian Christmas ghosts.

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the Web, not a creature (or not many) was stirring, not even a wireless mouse.


What Do You Do?

That's always the question, isn't it? For better or worse, what you do is your primary way of connecting with people. If home is refuge, work is prospect and you need both to thrive.

From 1992 until 2005, this was an easy question for me to answer. I said I was a bookseller. Now it's a bit more complicated, since I work as a writer, editor, bookseller or teacher, depending upon the day and the hour and my mood. Other answers I've given over the years include student, marble mill worker, grocery store clerk, prep cook and route sales rep.

Always and everywhere, however, I've been a member, born and bred, of the working class. And Jenny Brown's great article (Shelf Awareness, December 9, 2008) on the recent tribute to Studs Terkel in the Great Hall of Cooper Union got me thinking.

Did anybody understand work better than Studs? That question--"What do you do?"--when asked by him was a measure of his fascination rather than a statement of competitiveness or elitism.

Ah, that word again--elitism.

I've been reading Studs Terkel since the late 1960s, which means throughout my working life. No matter what kind of good or lousy job I had, his writing, along with the brilliant growl I heard on radio and TV, always spoke to me, had my back, nudged me in the ribs sometimes, reminding me to take the world very seriously but myself less so.

He was a master at connecting the barely visible threads that hold us together.

In 2004, while I was attending BookExpo America in Chicago, I finally met Studs . . . at Bill Ayers' house.

Maybe I should explain.

A reader's life, like a worker's life, is irresistibly complicated on the good days. That year I was invited to one of those publisher-sponsored dinners that are the social staple of book shows. This one happened to be at the Hyde Park home of Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, names that have been mentioned, you may recall, once or twice during this year's presidential campaign.

Oh, and how about another plot twist here for readers who love it when incontrovertible evidence seems like deus ex machina? I first met Bill in 2001 while we were at Bennington College--in our energetic dotage--working toward MFA in Writing degrees and "palling around." As recently as last winter, we had dinner together in Bennington and talked about . . . stuff. For two people who couldn’t have lived more disparate lives when we were young, our friendship has evolved quite naturally, an outgrowth, perhaps, of something Bill suggested in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece, when he wrote that "talking and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue."

But let's get back to our story. On that night in 2004, in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, in Bill's living room, Studs Terkel held court on a sofa, looking at once frail and indomitable. This simple gem of a moment is my cherished memory of the man at work and play.

As a bookseller, I love it when I'm handselling novels, but also take a certain pleasure in the awareness of my fingers dancing instinctively across a keyboard, ringing up purchases during a rush. After all, if I add up the number of years I've spent in retail as a grocer and bookseller, calling myself a cashier might be the more honest response to the seminal question.

When I was 17 and working for the A&P, customers lined up at my register because I was fast and proud of it. One of my favorite stories from Working is of Babe Secoli, the supermarket checker who says, "It's hard work, but I like it. This is my life. . . . I'm just movin'--the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register . . . You just keep goin', one, two, one, two. If you've got that rhythm, you're a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you're turning your head back and forth. . . . If somebody interrupts to ask me the price, I'll answer while I'm movin'. Like playin' a piano."

So, what do I do?

I work.

And I agree with Studs about doing something you love. Of his own vocation, he wrote, "Though my weekends go by soon enough, I look toward Monday without a sigh."


Positive Shades of Gray on Black Friday--Part II

It may not have been the best of times for booksellers on Gray Friday, but the good news is that it doesn't seem to have been the worst of times either.

Business at the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., "far surpassed" Linda Ramsdell's expectations during what turned out to be the "best Black Friday sales in five years, more than double last year."

Good news was also riding the post-Thanksgiving retail winds for Russ Lawrence of Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton, Mont.: "For the weekend after Thanksgiving, we were up 28% versus last year, which exceeded our expectations by about 33%. We couldn't be more pleased, but we're not going to let up in our efforts to remind people that books make the best gifts and shopping local first builds stronger communities. I think those messages are resonating with people, in spite of Black Friday coverage in the Missoulian (the regional paper with the largest circulation) that focused exclusively on box store sales. In fact, given the news of stampedes and the nature of the comments from box store shoppers, they might not even have needed to mention local independents--the conclusions were there, for thinking people to draw."

Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., said, "Our sales were up about 10% over last year. We're a new store, still growing, so this is about what we expected. We hope that number increases a bit as we get closer to Christmas, but considering all that's going on, we're just happy to be selling books. Foot traffic seemed about the same, but most people were actually shopping rather than browsing. We found that our discounted books are doing better this year than last, and many more people are taking advantage of our frequent buyer program. I think this weekend was a good indication that the Christmas season won't be as difficult as we had feared."

At Sam Wellers Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah, "We did better than I thought we would," said Catherine Weller. "Not only did we exceed my expectations, we exceeded our sales projections for the day by a healthy percentage. In fact, we kept the store open an hour later than scheduled to serve the customers who favored us with their patronage. I should note, however, that Black Friday does not hold the significance for Wellers that it seems to have for other stores. In fact, over the years I have begun to view it as a creation of, by, and for the big box/chain retailers. I have heard other independent retailers inside and out of the book industry express similar, though perhaps not as hard-nosed, sentiments. The biggest sales day of the year for us is the Saturday before Christmas. This has been true since at least the 1970s."

Customers buying local helped Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va. "We did better than expected, as did our friends at the locally-owned independent music retailer Plan 9," said Kelly Justice. "We are still expecting to be down significantly for the year and have prepared for that probability, but it was a promising start to the holiday season. Looks like we don't have to cut the mistletoe budget just yet."

For Alice Meyer of Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, Iowa, "Black Friday was just about even with last year; Saturday saw about an 80% (yes!) increase; Sunday was a typically slow day (and lousy weather). When you start as modestly as we did, the increases seem exponential, but November as a whole was a great month and I'm beginning to let myself feel that December will continue the trend. Lots of special orders."

A jump in Thanksgiving weekend business at Shaman Drum Bookshop, Ann Arbor, Mich., surprised Karl Pohrt, who observed, "Sales were very slightly up this weekend from the same time last year. This is amazing considering the state of our local economy. I have no explanation."

There was also good news for another Michigan bookstore, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey. "Our Friday and Saturday sales were up slightly from last year and we were absolutely delighted," said Julie Norcross. "Sunday sales were down a tiny bit. Remember, we are in a resort area and usually have many visitors at all holidays. A blessing for us."

Joe Foster of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo., reported, "We were slightly up over last year's Black Friday, and neck in neck for the entire weekend."

Mitchell Kaplan observed that the strategy for Books & Books, Miami, Fla., "to emphasize value in our e-mail blasts seemed to work. At our Coral Gables store, which is a freestanding store and where we had the broadest discount offerings, we saw an increase in traffic. Our increases in those areas we gave special discount attention to--used and out of print and art, architecture, photography and design--were sufficient to allow for a sales increase over last Black Friday. We're planning a series of rolling discounts on different sections and will send out e-mail blasts with special value offerings, as well, throughout the week."

"Sales were about usual for us," noted Sheryl Cotleur of Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif., "not like the mall shopping, I'm told (by newspapers and the like), but fine otherwise. Our city store had a signing with Tom Brokaw Friday so they were jammed and packed all day with big crowds and book buying so they had a great weekend. We don't see an unusual bump after Thanksgiving. but we sailed through fine."

Last week, Diane Van Tassell of Bay Books, Concord and San Ramon, Calif., had anticipated "decent sales on Gray Friday, but we know that they head to the mall before they come to our store." Her prediction came true: "Our sales were about even with any other weekend--which are usually very good. We did a 20% discount on all used books and that really didn't do much for at least our more affluent store. Sunday sales at that store were below normal for even a weekday. We don't buy back books from customers on Sunday in that store--and it may have hurt us. And maybe those customers have more money to spend and were at the Best Buys of the world on Sunday. Now our other store in a more urban area (and lower socio-economics) did better than our suburban store for the three-day weekend--which is very unusual. Our expectations for the holiday season are high because we have a lot of great gift books from CIROBE."

Russ Marshalek of Wordsmiths Books, Decatur, Ga., retained his sense of humor over the long holiday weekend: "Sales were decidedly down from last year, but measurably better than expected for this year--owing, in part, to the fantastic release of the long-awaited I Can Has CheezBurger? book. In this economy, the consumer has spoken and what the royal IT wants is a book of funny cat pictures with humorous captions. Take that, Wally Lamb."

Weekend sales at the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass., were "exactly where we thought, predictably down a bit, though not as drastically as I might have thought a few months ago," said Eric Wilska. "Black Friday is never, never our big day. It's always the two days immediately before Christmas. We're doing a 'spend $100 dollars and get a gift from the Bookloft' (a customized gift certificate good after January 1) promotion and it's been very successful. Not only do our customers dig it but it's been giving us an opportunity to literally hand them a gift and say, 'No, thank you; without you, we wouldn't be here.' Many are clearly going to use it as a gift. So, in January and February, we'll at least have a few hundred customers coming in."

Sounds like the makings of a perfect greeting card for booksellers: May all your customers keep coming in throughout the holiday season and beyond.