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Between the Pages--Collecting Bookmarks

What is the common link between Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave and an exhibition of Renoir paintings at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; between Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins and Vanessa Redgrave's performance in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking on Broadway?

As I fanned through the pages of my books while researching a recent column on bookmarks, I noticed a startling number of sheltered ticket stubs to theater, art and music performances. I'm not a collector by nature, but apparently I am a hoarder of bookmark stubs.

Lauren Roberts, on the other hand, is a genuine collector of bookmarks. The founder of BiblioBuffet, where she co-writes a column, "On Marking Books," with Laine Farley, Lauren has also teamed with Alan Irwin of the Bookmark Collector blog to organize the first Bookmark Collectors Virtual Convention, a 24-hour online event scheduled to begin next February 20.

"I collect them, and I love discovering the stories behind them, or at least about them. My collection actually began with a clump of hair that had been acting as a bookmark in a book for so long it had left its own mark," Lauren recalled. "Currently I own more than 1,300 bookmarks. Most but not all are antiques that are past their days of work. Too heavy for today's book paper or too fragile to risk, they sit either on display or in their own special acid-free albums."

Among her collection's prizes are "two silk bookmarks from the 1936 Olympics; a brass one whose top is in the shape of a lobster claw, one side being a lovely stone, the other brass; a die-cut vase with flower bookmarks that can be removed from it (and which has no indication of who made it, why or what it's purpose was); a World War II propaganda bookmark; an old typewriter bookmark; government bookmarks; women's suffrage (my research indicates to me this might--might--be Carrie Chapman's mother); a hero who had been unknown to me before I acquired this bookmark; stockings; Paisley flour; gloves; commemorations of the death of Prince Albert; the opening of the Cabanne Public Library; a bookmark to mark a theatre production; and tea (I especially like the older woman)."

In the U.S., the bookmark collecting field was "so small it was nearly non-existent" until a few years ago," Lauren observed. "Now, however, interest in them has increased. That's good in one way--more antique ones are being saved--and less so in another because the better ones are increasing in price."

I wondered whether she is a bookmark watcher in public places, as most of us check out what other people are reading. "Oh yes," Lauren admitted. "I am curious about what people are reading and what, if anything, they are using for bookmarks. Thankfully, I haven't seen any physical bookmark that gives me the willies. Most people, at least in public, seem to use either the book jacket's flap, a Post-it, a business card or a piece of newspaper ripped out from their morning's read. I don't consider dog-earing a page as a bookmark, though some use it for that reason, but I do see that. It makes me shudder."

Naturally I couldn't resist asking her what a bookmark collector uses to mark her own place when reading. She confessed that while she now primarily uses BiblioBuffet bookmarks, she "used to go through my collection, when it was a lot smaller, and choose a bookmark for each book I read. I tried to tie it to the book. I can't remember most of them, but I do remember choosing a red maple leaf for Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. (Now a maple leaf is not a bookmark per se, but it had been part of a large bookmark collection I bought on eBay so it became one of mine.

"What I found though, especially as I bought more expensive ones, was that they were not suited to today's books. Many of the metal ones that were so common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were heavy by today's standards and would damage modern books. Many of the paper or silk ones were fragile too. Generally they weren't treated all that well--they are, after all, ephemera--and by the time they get to the collectors' hands today they have been through a lot."

My favorite bit of ephemera from my bookmark search turned up in a first edition of Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom, where I found the ticket stub for a soccer game I attended in 1966 between Santos of Brazil and Inter Milan of Italy at Yankee Stadium. That one marks a book, a place and a time.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1078.


Marking Books, Marking Time

There are few objects in a reader's life that are more ubiquitous yet personal than the common bookmark. This realization was reinforced last week as I read Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's story, "The Bookmark," from his wonderful collection, Memories of the Future (translated by Joanne Turnbull for NYRB Classics).

When the story's narrator rediscovers a favored bookmark with "a flat body of faded blue silk and needlepoint designs trailing a swallowtail train," he recalls, "We hadn't seen each other in a long time: my bookmark and I."

Books had crossed his path in the interim, but "they did not need bookmarks. . . . One consumed these texts posthaste, without reflecting or delectating: both books and two-wheeled carts were needed then strictly to supply words and ammunition. The one with the silk train had no business here."

He thinks fondly of "all the voyages we had taken together--from meanings to meanings, from this set of signatures to that." Now, he resolves, it is time again to "include my old friend in my next reading; instead of a series of memories, I should offer my guest another bundle of books."

Despite the fact that you can mark your place in a novel with Post-its, scraps of paper, napkins, template letters addressed "Dear bookseller or reviewer," dog-eared pages or repositioned end flaps, traditional bookmarks persist.

They must have been among the first sideline items ever sold in bookshops and still hold a place of honor for reliable inventory turns, especially during the holiday season. Bookmarks are a gift that keeps one--especially if the one in question is a hard-to-buy-for reading relative--literally in one's place.

And what other item is both sold and given away free in the same retail environment? Many, if not most, bookshops offer their patrons complimentary bookmarks with the store's logo, contact information and sometimes a pithy quote (perennial favorite: "So many books, so little time") as a promotional tool.

And though computer programmers have attempted to co-opt the term ("Bookmark this page," "Bookmark this item," "Organize Bookmarks," "Bookmarks Toolbar"), the simple act of slipping a flat piece of cardboard or leather or even silk between the pages of a book to save our place remains an important ceremony for readers.

Included among the features on the website for Mirage Bookmarks are a history lesson, bookmark exhibition, link to a Flickr group for vintage bookmarks, as well as a collection of relevant quotations. Two of my favorites:

  • Why pay a dollar for a bookmark? Why not use the dollar for a bookmark?--Steven Spielberg
  • I just got out of the hospital. I was in a speed-reading accident. I hit a bookmark.--Steven Wright

Clearly bookmarks have been on my mind lately. Krzhizhanovsky's story inspired a journey round my office. Moving from shelf to shelf, I ran my fingers along the tops of volumes as I scanned for the presence of my "old friends" and quickly found one marking my place in Fusion Kitsch: Poems from the Chinese of Hsia Yu (translated by Steve Bradbury), a recent acquisition from the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Cambridge, Mass. The store's bookmark features a blurb from Robert Creeley: "Poetry is our final human language and resource. The Grolier is where poetry still lives, still talks, still makes the only sense that ever matters."

Hidden in an old, broken down Modern Library edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden was a bookmark from the Hartford Bookshop, Rutland, Vt. Although the bookmark reassured me that the shop was "est. 1835," the sad truth is that the Hartford did not make it beyond the 1970s.

A 17-year-old copy of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient preserved a black bookmark from Vintage International promoting Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières by linking it back to back with the Booker Prize winner. I must have kept it because I was a handselling fool for both books.

M.J. Rose's The Reincarnationist sheltered a bookmark from Partners & Crime mystery booksellers in Greenwich Village, where I'd attended a signing. Dava Sobel's Longitude had a glossy bookmark featuring color photos of "John Harrison's Timekeepers" from his 18th century pursuit of the longitude prize. There was an Adelphi University bookmark in my copy of Graham Greene: A Life in Letters and a beautifully understated Archipelago Books card resting in the pages of Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury.

Each one reminded me of "voyages we had taken together." So I invite you to take a journey round your shelves and see what ancient bookmark treasures are hidden there. Let me know what you find.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1067.


Remembrance of Black Fridays Past

With apologies to Proust (as I imagine myself nibbling turkey-shaped madeleines), I'm in a retrospective mood as Black Friday approaches this year. I guess I'm still not used to the idea that I won't be immersed in the BF handselling hustle after working 15 crazy busy Black Fridays (beginning in 1992) at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt. For such a long time, it was part of my holiday DNA.

I was already contemplating this fact when I read a Facebook message posted by author Connie May Fowler yesterday: "Want to avoid Black Friday? Easy! Pre-order How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly for everyone on your holiday list. Send me names and addresses and I'll write them a lovely holiday note, notifying them of Clarissa's April arrival. I'll also send a signed bookplate. And I'll send you, via e-mail, my knock your socks off recipe for baked Parmesan cheese grits. Even my most hardcore beloved Yankee friends ask for seconds."

I liked that, and asked Connie if I could share her offer with my readers. She said yes, adding, "If anyone pre-orders through Northshire, I'll be very happy to send the recipient a note, signed bookplate, and recipe." And your bookstore's customers are invited, too, I'm sure.

Her offer is a small indicator of how social networking is changing the rules, but we already knew that. I mention it because Connie's novels were among my handselling staples through many Black Fridays going back to the mid-1990s, so she is part of my Proustian recollection here.

Adrenaline is the word that comes to mind when I recall those Black Friday experiences--bookseller adrenaline in the preparation and execution of a perfect retail battle plan; and customer adrenaline in the instinctive human drive to shop on the one day of the year when everybody else is in stores. "I can't believe I'm shopping today" is a familiar refrain from the Black Friday choral ensemble.

I wrote my first Black Friday blog post at Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal in 2004, asking: "Is anybody ever ready for Black Friday. Ready is not the word. It's more a kind of constructive paranoia--generously mixed with terror--that propels us to take every precaution we can think of to insure success. The bean counters upstairs will hold their breath because so much is riding on this day and so many things can go wrong. They can't prepare. They can only add up the damage afterward."

The adrenaline rush began in the weeks leading to BF. We built up key inventory. Work schedules were meticulously gridded to make sure there was adequate floor coverage for every minute of the day. Sections and displays were given the "dress right dress" treatment. A "soup kitchen" was organized so staff wouldn't have to brave the crowded cafes and sandwich shops downtown.

In Vermont, even weather patterns were closely tracked because a bad storm could wipe out everything. The perfect retail weather pattern here was a nice snowstorm on Monday, roads cleared by Tuesday and cold, sunny weather from Wednesday (travel day) through Sunday. This combo drew both the relatives (who have to come) and the more elusive ski/snowboard contingent to Vermont's mountains.

And while that tense half-hour before a Black Friday opening might not have the anticipatory terror of a Wal-Mart door-bashing stampede, it was still a time to take a deep breath and put on your bookish game face. 

Dennis Johnson's MobyLives Radio interviewed me on Black Friday, 2005, while I was working the sales floor. "Every now and then you'll see someone who actually has a sane expression on their face," I said, "who has found a quiet corner in fiction and is just thumbing through a book, but for the most part it's engulf and devour. . . . It doesn't feel like the image of a bookshop where the bell rings over the door and the cat wakes up. That's just not happening today."

I wrote my first Black Friday column for Shelf Awareness in 2006, and noted: "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this post-holiday retail holy day is that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore can be part of the action, too, and that books can be quietly handsold in the swarm of bodies and cacophony of voices."

Because again and again, in the midst of that controlled chaos that was and is Black Friday, someone would say: "Excuse me, I know you're busy, but I was wondering if you'd recommend a book. I just need a great read for the weekend." And that sparked adrenaline of another kind.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1062.


A Shame List by Any Other Name

He was not born to shame:
Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit.
--Juliet, Romeo And Juliet

We've been talking about definitions in an English Composition course I teach; about how easily the definition of a word can slip into the challenge of defining an elusive concept, and then release itself from your control altogether.

A word, for example, like "shame."

In his book Shame in Shakespeare, Ewan Fernie notes that the Bard used the word "shame" 344 times in his works and the word "guilt" only 33 times. "Having offered a first definition of shame, it is now necessary to distinguish it from the associated phenomena of embarrassment and guilt," Fernie writes. "Embarrassment is a weak and transient form of shame: shame is absolute failure, embarrassment failure in a given situation."

This definition conundrum occurred to me after Dan Schreffler, the buyer at Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., observed that "the notion of a 'Shame List' has been eating at me ever since you first discussed it several weeks ago. If the Book House were the gift shop of some well-heeled cultural institution instead an independent business trying to survive this recession, I would have a different attitude. As it is, my Shame List consists of any title that customers actually want to purchase and that we do not have and cannot get in time to satisfy them. No title is sacred. If booksellers want to surround themselves with precious gems of literature (and who among us does not?), then they should collect them in their own homes. In the bookstore we are sellers of books, not curators.... I understand that every store stocks titles that do 'perform' optimally. Maybe it is just the word 'shame' which got my goat." 

He could be right. Is Shame List harsher than necessary? There are probably a dozen other terms (Guilt List? Embarrassment List?) that would do, but I heard Shame List used this fall and it seemed to raise the stakes appropriately. Maybe I've unleashed an unnecessary demon.

Or maybe not.

"I'm loving this 'Shame List' business!" noted Jennifer Moe, general book buyer for Wheaton College Bookstore, Wheaton, Ill. "Working at a college bookstore, there are certain professors' books that we definitely must have in stock in our Faculty Authors section. It can be pretty brutal to have a prof come in and ask if we have his or her title and we have to say, 'Um, not at the moment... must be sold out!' At least then that gives them a little boost while I scurry back and order another copy right away!"

And Harriet Logan, owner of Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio, admitted: "We're running around frantically updating our Shame List now, checking inventory and ordering the vacancies. Kinda fun. It's a mish-mosh of old classics and staff favorites, and the list is largest for children's picture books. We used to call it the Essential Inventory List, but Shame List is quickly taking over. It's easier to say, for one." 

She shared some "oddballs on the Loganberry Shame List, because we recommend these books all the time (just because we like 'em)."

  • The Lilac Bus by Maeve Binchy
  • Labyrinths Jorge Luis Borges
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • Rose by Martin Cruz Smith
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis


  • The Federalist Papers
  • Various and sundry titles by Thich Nhat Hanh

Children's/young adult

  • Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  • Miss Twiggley's Tree by Dorothea Fox
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson 
  • Ben and Me by Robert Lawson
  • The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (and she's local)

"Actually, I have an Excel list with several hundred titles," Logan added, "but these are in bold, and perhaps not on everyone else's list."

Betty Smith's classic novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, made Cheryl McKeon's Shame List at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash. She confessed, "I clearly recall suggesting to the customer seeking this classic, 'Perhaps it's a current school assignment and we just sold out.'"

So, if not Shame List, then what? The possibilities are many: regret, chagrin, remorse, compunction.

But there will always be those books--and those questions--and in the end, a bookseller's job is to find every way possible to say "Yes." So, in my book at least, Shame List it is.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1059.


Building a Shame List from Scratch

When I met Jamie Fiocco, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold--co-owners of Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.'s newest indie bookstore--at this year's SIBA trade show, I was immediately impressed with their knowledge and passion as booksellers, as well as their undeniable courage as business people.

Next Monday, Flyleaf will debut with a "soft opening" (a January grand opening is planned), and since we've been exploring Shame Lists recently, I thought it might be interesting to ask booksellers who've been deeply enmeshed in the process of creating opening-day stock how they approached the Shame List challenge.

"These days, at least for me, my favorite books and reading in general seem to be the last things on my mind," Fiocco observed. "I must say, though, as we’ve plowed through spreadsheet after spreadsheet of title lists, it’s a real joy to have an old friend emerge from the black-and-white lines. Land, Sarah and I had some funny conversations, usually yelled across the hallway as we were going through lists of books for opening day: 'Which knife skills cookbook do you want?' 'Oh, I don’t remember the exact name, but it’s from Norton and it’s got a white cover with an avocado at the top and every other chapter is for lefties.'"

Arnold has selected most of the adult titles for Flyleaf's stock and Carr is ordering children's books. Fiocco is "pitching in on a few categories and some nonfiction, like cookbooks. So, the merging hasn’t been too painful because we all have our 'own' categories, plus Land and I were working together at the same store [McIntyre's Books, Pittsboro, N.C.] before Flyleaf."

One aspect of the process she noticed while figuring out opening stock was that "no one quite understands we want to pick it out ourselves, from scratch. We have found wholesalers happy to create an entire 'opening-day order' for us, but not capable to just give us the data we know we need, like recommended steady sellers in specific niche categories. I’m not saying the wholesalers aren’t helpful; all of them have been incredibly supportive and very helpful, whether we were giving them business or not. It’s just that our decision to start up with stock primarily direct from publishers has been a major undertaking. And if the publisher has only an electronic catalogue, they’re the last to get ordered--just not the right medium for a collaborative approach to buying."
Fiocco shared some titles from "my personal 'shame' list, including cooking, but I’d like to say I have a penchant for cookbooks that make good reads."

  • Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary Edition (which Ethan Becker "restored" back to the focus of the original '70s edition)
  • Quick and Easy Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey (Indian cooking is neither "quick" nor "easy," but this is a great introduction to cooking the cuisine, and Jaffrey’s comments before each recipe are fun to read.)
  • Quick and Easy Chinese by Nancie McDermott (local N.C. food writer; same fun anecdotes and relatively easy recipes)
  • The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (I love cookbooks you can read, and this is one of the best. The line drawings scare off some folks but it’s just a joy to read through and learn about everyday food in the process.)
  • The Sultan's Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook by Ozcan Ozan 
  • Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual by Peter Hertzmann
  • Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John & Dale Reed (a great picture book, travelogue and just plain fun to read)
  • Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crooks Corner by Bill Smith (just another great read about food and people)
  • A Love Affair with Southern Cooking by Jean Anderson (another romp through Southern cultural history, and oh yeah--recipes, too)
  • Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This (because it explains in scientific detail why water boils faster with the top on)

She also offered some non-cooking favorites "I would hate to be without."

  • Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead
  • So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger
  • A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
  • The Last Voyage of Columbus by Martin Dugard (Audiobook version)
  • Grayson by Lynne Cox (great YA/adult crossover)
  • Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
  • Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace
  • Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
  • The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
  • The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff (the perfect foil to The Madonnas of Leningrad)

With the initial orders in place and opening day on the near horizon, Fiocco concluded that she's "never been more convinced that book buying is an art and not a science. Land, Sarah and I know that when we open our doors on Monday, we’re not going to have the correct inventory. We can look through catalogues and sort through spreadsheets until the cows come home, but until we open those doors and start talking to folks in our community, we’re not going to have the right stock, hence the 'soft opening.'"--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #1053.