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'All Politics is Local' at the Bookstore

In the heat of an election year, you just can't get out of the kitchen. Campaign controversy is ubiquitous, and not just nationally on CNN and its cohorts 24/7, but locally as well, on the sales floors of independent bookstores. Buying, merchandising and handselling decisions often involve taking--or choosing not to take--public political stances.

Earlier this week (Shelf Awareness, July 14, 2008), we ran a piece about Bookshop Santa Cruz's new Countdown to President Obama Hope Clock, which prompted Diane Van Tassel, owner of Bay Books, San Ramon and Concord, Calif., to express her concern: "I would never ever show support for one candidate because what does that say to my customers who do not agree with me?"

Our initial discussion sparked my curiosity. As a bookseller, I've seen dozens of books and sidelines that variously amused, enlightened, bored or disgusted me. Most were creations of the moment and quickly forgotten. The day after the 2004 election, I wrote a piece, "The Case of the Silenced Rant Lit," in which I marveled at the sudden quiet in the bookstore:

"For the past seven or eight months, so many of the books up here had been screaming at one another, shouting each other down, making public nuisances of themselves, ranting across a wide chasm that had opened between two opposing sides. Books weren't being published; they were being hurled ferociously across this divide in a high stakes game of book dodgeball, in which nobody ever seemed to hit anything, despite casualties everywhere you looked. And so it went, again and again. Customers complained about the noise. Sometimes they complained more about the noise coming from one side of the chasm than the other. Sometimes they joined the screaming, singling out the booksellers for not allowing an equal number of screams from both sides."

The silence didn't last long, of course, since the 2008 presidential election seemed to begin immediately after the last vote was cast.

This week I found myself wondering how booksellers across the U.S. handle the delicate mix of politics and retail in their communities. So I asked the two catalysts for this idea, Diane Van Tassel and Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, if they would answer three questions to get a conversation started:

  1. What role do your political views play in ordering and merchandising decisions? Do you take sides? Should you?
  2. Is a community bookstore a neutral corner or an advocacy center? Can there be a, well, "third place" between the two when it comes to politics?
  3. What do you think your customers expect from you? Do you worry that some will feel excluded?
We'll begin this week with their responses to my first question:

Diane: "Political views--mine or my staff's--have no business in the bookstore. When we hire people, we tell them to leave their politics at home. Our customers are probably evenly divided between people who would buy Michael Moore and Al Franken books and those who buy Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly books. It would be unreasonable for me to decide that only liberals or only conservative books would be stocked in my store. A one-sided store would quickly lose customers to a store that had a balanced section with a wide range of titles from both the right and the left. Which would you rather frequent--a bookstore with a limited and biased point-of-view or a bookstore that has an unlimited supply of books from multiple angles?
"So it seems that taking sides on any issue would mean that some of your customers would be unhappy with your choices and that would not be good for business--or freedom of speech. We are in the business of selling books; our stock and our displays reflect opposing points of view. Customers are free to follow their own leanings and desires--not ones that we are pushing onto them."
Casey: "The main goal at Bookshop Santa Cruz is to reflect our community and since Santa Cruz is an active political town we definitely take politics into consideration when ordering. That doesn't mean that we don't stock all points of view (as we have carried books by Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly as well as conservative magazines), but we feature and order more titles that are progressive than conservative. Progressive titles and items reflect our community and sell better as well. This strategy has been important to us for many reasons: 1) we've created a strong brand around reflecting our community (which has ultimately served us well), 2) it is something that our staff believes in and 3) it has bolstered our publicity and our sales. I respect stores that don't want to take a position, but taking positions has played a huge role in keeping us alive and well so I think it should be a store-by-store decision."
What do you think?

Searching On the Road for Bookstore Reading Groups

We bring this series to a close (I think, depending upon reader response, which has been great and kept the book group theme running much longer than I anticipated) with a road trip, a patented bookstore websiteseeing tour. Today's run will be a speedy cross-country dash (though not as fast as this guy) and hyperlink frenzied, so I'll just fire up the virtual engine and hit the digital pavement.

Pedestrian readers beware.

Here are some highlights from my purely subjective tour, a sampling that would have been labeled "stuff I liked" on the postcard I forgot to send you:

As might be expected, most bookstores offer discounts (generally 10%, 15% or 20%, though one shop mysteriously gives 21%) to local book clubs willing to pre-order titles in quantities as small as five copies. Some shops host in-store, staff-led discussion groups while others tend toward serving the needs of private reading groups. Some do both, and even though a few seem to offer neither, this impression could be misleading, since bookshops don't necessarily reveal everything about themselves online.
One of the most common questions I'm asked in the bookstore by newcomers to our area is, "Do you know any local book groups I might join?" It's a tough one to answer, since many groups are private and have a circle-the-wagons approach when it comes to adding members they don't already know. This is understandable, given that a mismatched addition to a discussion group might well tip the balance. Still, bookshops can help. I like the fact that Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., offers a matchmaking service to "bring like-minded people together and provide resources to make some lively and successful book groups."

The art of naming a book group is worth considering. I think I've even become a connoisseur during this trip. Page Turners, Mother-Daughter Book Club and Happy Bookers are among the most popular monikers coast to coast. Some of my favorite discoveries include book groups at Schuler Books, Grand Rapids, Mich. (Bibliobabes, Dissident Daughters), Books & Company, Oconomowoc, Wis. (Between the Sheets, Wine & Spine), the Learnéd Owl Book Shop, Hudson, Ohio (Yada Yada Book Club), Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex. (Tough Broads Out At Night Book Club), The Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass. (Manhattan Transfers) and Books Inc., San Francisco, Calif. (The Quick & the Read, Oh My Gosh! Stories!!).

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., wins the overall prize for its treasure trove of local book group names, among them Bodacious Bibliophiler, Book Whine & Thinkers Book Group, Bookies & Cookies and Not Now I'm Reading.

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., features a Top 10 Book Club Bestsellers list and, taking advantage of the fact that Rainy Day hosts more than 300 events annually, offers "Book Club Author Events." Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, N.C., also highlights its "meet your favorite authors" option.

The plot thickens. I love the fact that Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah, hosts a Nancy Drew Mystery Monthly Bookclub as well as a Hard Boiled Bookclub.

Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C., has one of the most wide-ranging lists of store-sponsored discussion groups, including Capital James Joyce Club, Fascinating History, Futurist, Poetry, Public Affairs, Spanish Language, Travel and more.

We end by considering a simple fact of bookselling life. Independent booksellers know that sometimes the biggest challenge we face is getting people simply to open that front door and walk in for the first time. There are doors on bookstore websites, too. McLean & Eakin, Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., holds theirs wide open, adding a homey welcome mat to entice potential book club members inside. It's worth quoting in full:

"Reading a great book and then not being able to discuss it is like winning the lottery and telling no one. Hence, the creation of the book group. Designed for individuals passionate about great literature and interested in pushing their usual literary boundaries (for some, nonfiction=dentist office visit), the McLean & Eakin book groups are not intimidating; no one will ask for your highest level of education completed. There is no pop quiz. Selected works are diverse but not obscure. You may read a new release one month and a classic the next. But do come fully expecting to be surrounded by very avid readers."


Celebrating Interdependence Day

If you own a bookshop, or work in a bookshop, or sell your books in bookshops or even--may Gutenberg's ghost bless you--buy your books in bookshops, you may have heard a certain word once or twice before.


We really like the word; it's how we define ourselves. We hold that truth to be self-evident and don't care who knows it.

Whatever else may be happening in our mad, mad, mad, mad book world (see IMDB and Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman): "Now what kind of an attitude is that, these things happen? They only happen because this whole country is just full of people, who when these things happen, they just say these things happen, and that's why they happen! We gotta have control of what happens to us."), our independent spirit does give us a sense of control over our immediate, if not long-term, destiny.

Without it, who are we? Why bother? An independent bookstore is not just a concept or a blind hope. It is a statement.

Okay, a declaration.

And yet, we are also charter members of many diverse and ever-changing communities, as exemplified by our oddly complementary recent impulses toward social networking online and shopping local on-ground.

IndieBound's new website invites us to become "part of the story," noting that "each page of a book carries something totally incredible and unique, but when they are all brought together, they build something infinitely greater." A Declaration of IndieBound suggests we "are linked by the passions that differentiate us."

For a long time I thought we should give equal weight to the word "dependent" when talking about bookshops because we rely so heavily on the kindness, cooperation and generosity of, if not strangers, then certainly of all those equally independent consumers who choose to enter independent bookstores. That's such an amazing impulse, a declaration on their part that we matter to them; that we depend upon one another.

Long ago and far away, I worked for a national supermarket chain. Most of our customers came in because they had to buy food, and they weren't always happy about it. Great customer service could drag a grudging smile from them sometimes, but it's safe to say that the average customer in a grocery store was more disgruntled than the most challenging customer I have ever encountered as a bookseller.

People wanting to--choosing to--buy books directly from us, face-to-face, is no small miracle these days. Of course, we'd love to have even more of them make that choice regularly, and we continue to search for irresistible strategies that might encourage such behavior. At the same time, as independents we fiercely resist the siren song urging us to surrender to our presumed fate, as implied in phrases like "these things happen."

So we should celebrate our independence this holiday weekend, but since IndieBound describes us as individual pages that become a story only when we are bound together, the word that seems equally appropriate to our celebrations is "interdependence."

Books & Books, Miami, Fla., used the term eloquently this week in its e-mail newsletter: "With an independent attitude and an independent spirit, Books & Books has focused on our community--from neighbors to readers, from business to business--for the past 25 years. Now, people all over the country are recognizing the value of being local, buying local. In our bookshops, in our neighborhoods, there is a sense of place, a place we call home. Not just independence but interdependence."


Tomorrow, communities nationwide will gather to celebrate Independence Day with all the traditional fixings--parades, flags, picnics, fireworks. I'll celebrate by working on the sales floor of an independent bookstore, waiting for the front door to open and members of our independent reading community to come inside for a moment, to have a conversation about books, to shop local.

That we all need one another seems so obvious, yet it still sometimes defies my limited imagination to realize how elusive the concept of interdependence can become.

But not tomorrow. Have a great Interdependence Day. Watching fireworks alone just isn't much fun.


Behaving Yourself in a Book Group

I've participated in many book group discussions over the years, and there is one unwritten rule of human interaction that I've seen play out again and again. It also seems to happen in workplaces, classrooms, business meetings and, well, any setting where people gather in large enough numbers to create problems for one another.

According to my unscientific observations, these groups often divide into three parts: a third who are fully motivated, a third who are less motivated and a middle third who tend to drift toward the stronger of the other two categories.

"Discussion" is always a tricky endeavor, and the growing number of book groups nationally increases the odds of conflict. According to BookBrowse.com editor Davina Morgan-Witts, in 2001 the site began adding bookclub specific questions to the annual visitor survey and has since "surveyed about 1,500 visitors each year, and while the demographics of the respondents have changed little, and the amount of space devoted to book club specific information at BookBrowse has stayed fairly constant, the percentage saying that they are in a book club has grown exponentially--from under 20% in 2001, to about 30% in 2003, over 40% in 2006 and 50% last year.     

"What's also fascinating is the increase in 'serial bookclubers.' In our most recent survey 16% said they belonged to two or more book clubs. The record I've found to date is a woman in L.A. who attends 5 local book clubs each month--each one with its own character and reading styles."

So how do you get these people to behave themselves?

Donna Paz of Paz & Associates, the bookstore training and consulting firm, has long been involved with book groups: "While my husband, Mark, and I launched the publication Reading Group Choices in 1995 (sold to Barbara and Charlie Mead three years ago), I remain active with my own neighborhood book group and facilitate book group exchanges for our local book festival. What's common for all book groups is things can get sticky; new members don't realize when they monopolize the conversation; some people don't see that they talk over someone else's comments; it adds tension to a group and many members (and leaders) feel uncomfortable discussing these irritating mishaps."

For her neighborhood group, she created a bookmark with "friendly reminders of how we can all contribute to an engaging, enjoyable discussion." The guidelines are simple but direct:

   1. Respect space
   2. Allow space
   3. Be open
   4. Offer new thoughts
   5. Stay on the topic

Of course, the group dynamic changes substantially when the author of a work is present. One of our guides during this series has been Josh Henkin, author of Matrimony, who like many writers actively seeks connections with book groups.

Henkin tries to let "the group determine how they want the discussion to proceed. I see it as their show and I'm simply the facilitator. This gets more complicated when there's an actual book group facilitator running the group. This person is generally paid, often quite handsomely--a phenomenon that's growing more and more common. I've been at some book groups where the facilitator did a wonderful job and at a few book groups where the facilitator did a less than wonderful job, in large part because the person was too intent on showing off, and so the conversation, despite my best efforts to steer it elsewhere, ended up being a conversation between me and the facilitator, with everyone else just watching. But usually the group members want me to take the lead, and they ask me to talk in general about Matrimony and the writing process, and then they ask questions."

A shared vision may be one of the best ways to transcend the "rule of thirds" and have meaningful group discussions.

I had that feeling when I heard from Susie Neubauer, head of technical services at Robbins Library, Arlington, Mass.: "It's time to write to you about the book club I love belonging to, a group which has changed my life. The Daughters of Abraham book group was born in the aftermath of 9/11. We are Jewish, Muslim and Christian women who want to learn more about each other's faiths. We read both fiction and non-fiction--the only criteria is that the book reveals something about one of the three Abrahamic faiths. We began in Cambridge, Mass. in the fall of 2002, and there are now nine groups in the Boston area and others in Washington, D.C., and other cities. Some of us have traveled to Jerusalem together."


Wild & Crazy Book Groups

How wild? How crazy? Maybe not so much, but some readers did share great alternatives to the common "talking circle" model of book discussions. And so, to my third test question:

What is the most innovative or unusual book group you've seen?

"The most unusual book group I know about is the e-mail 'cousinette' book group one of our customers belongs to," says Mary Gleysteen of Eagle Harbor Books, Bainbridge Island, Wash. "They select their books like other groups, read one a month, and have someone responsible for coordinating the round robin discussion. They have been discussing books this way for three or four years and, according to my source, it's a way for cousins of various ages and political persuasions around the country to keep in touch despite vast distances and differences."

Author Patricia Wood, whose novel Lottery was shortlisted for the Orange prize this year, checked in with an "aloha" from her sailboat in Honolulu: "I do about two book clubs a week all over the country by speaker phone, SKYPE, iChat and in person. Living in Hawaii and being so isolated has made my participation in these groups critical to my outreach as an author in the development of my career."

Wood has "met with a California group who did not disband when a member moved away, but who flew out here and met in Hawaii and chose Lottery as their selection. I was on layover in Seattle on my way to Calgary and met with the Northwest Airlines Book Club at a hotel in Renton. There's a network that is created. Author friends recommend my book to a club they have talked with and I recommend their book to my groups. My favorite group was one that met on a 50-foot motorboat moored across the harbor. Some had never been on a boat. It was a great evening."

She calls the Writerly Pause her "beta book club" because they were her first experience with the concept. Check out their video at the end of the post. Kanani Fong, one of nine writers and readers who comprise the group, says that from the beginning they "decided to see if writers would talk to us about not only their book but about writing. Some said no, others said yes. We read everything they'd written, including their most recent book. We went to great lengths to get things arranged, then we huddled around a speaker phone, usually filched from someone's work. As much as we wanted not to impose on the writer's time, we found the conversations often went on for an hour. So I think we're pretty lucky. I can't imagine a writer not wanting to talk to a book group, especially today when so much of the buzz doesn't come from either magazines, journals or newspapers, but from blogs."

Folio Literary Management's Ami Greko confessed that she is "always quite envious of the groups that meet to discuss a great work of literature in-depth over a long period of time. Pacific Standard in Brooklyn has a fabulous one that is currently reading Finnegans Wake."

Mary Alice Gorman of Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., is "not surprised to find these groups anywhere--courthouse, hospital, school, neighbors, affinity (sorority, club, occupation, etc) and more. One that we supply is parents in a school district."
Like any human endeavor, sometimes things can get a little too wild and crazy. Marie Leahy of the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt., notes that "one of the members of my book group belongs to another group that developed something appalling: bylaws! The guidelines require that everyone come with a typed list of questions to present; if you don't attend four meetings in a row, you may be kicked out; and there has to be a birthday celebration for each member. One person developed these guidelines and others went along with it, until my friend put a stop to it. People barely have time to read the book; how is everyone going have time to type up questions for each meeting?"

Variety spices book groups. Josh Henkin, author of Matrimony, has found "the whole enterprise eye-opening in the best sense. I went into the process with my fair share of prejudices about book groups--that it was a kind of ladies-who-lunch enterprise and that I would be dealing with some pretty unsophisticated readers. But what I've found is that I've met some incredibly smart and sophisticated readers in places that I wouldn't necessarily have predicted."