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That Elusive 'Red Cover' Book, Revisited

In a New York City bookshop where much of the action occurs in Sheridan Hay's 2007 novel The Secret of Lost Things, the staff is adept at a game called "Who Knows?"--pooling their varied and idiosyncratic skills to answer otherwise unfathomable book requests, including the customer whose "hands might move apart, as if to say 'it's about this thick'... [T]he only reliable source of reference was the staff and their collective memory."  

We know the drill.

What prompted my recollection of the "Who Knows?" game was a bit of clever sales floor merchandising recently at Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex. A photo posted on Facebook showed their "Blue Display," featuring a slate on which the following words, all-too-familiar in their infinite variations to booksellers worldwide, were written: "I don't remember the title, but it's blue."

This sparked my memory and a little research. I recalled that Blue Willow's owner Valerie Koehler had mentioned a few years ago (also in 2007, as it happens) that while she'd been giving a lot of thought at the time to online searching as it related to the game, she believed a discerning human element was absolutely critical. She trained her staff to field vague title requests with a healthy dose of well-masked skepticism.

"When searching, use unique keywords, ask leading questions," she advised. Assume, without letting your customers know it, that they might be just a little confused or misinformed. She cited the example of someone who'd been reading a great book, wanted additional copies for friends, and described it as "a memoir with 'I Remember' in the title, in which a retired man is dying and telling his life story and he was a historian and he studied war and he lived on an island." Using these clues, Koehler had "gently" enlightened the customer that she was actually reading Rules for Old Men Waiting, a novel. Result: pleased customer and two books sold.

We've all been there, finding infinite ways to merge available technology with a bookseller's ability, instinct and well-honed memory. It's reassuring that humans can often still reign supreme in the realm of "blue cover" inquiries. Social media helps now, of course; I often see "calls for a title" on Twitter and Facebook as booksellers crowdsource in a digital version of the "Who Knows?" game.

Same as it ever was? Absolutely. In 1936, George Orwell described "the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover."

Despite my occasional suspicions, I don’t really believe people consciously make up their endless stream of misheard, misread or misremembered titles. On the other hand, I did unearth a condescending New York Times piece from 1909 that featured the Office Philosopher and the Office Radical setting out to test the mettle (aka belittle) local booksellers after this exchange:

Their bookish quest begins when the Philosopher shares a joke "told by a book clerk to the effect that somebody went into a bookstore and asked the long-suffering clerk for a copy of John Stuart Mill on the Floss. Now I consider that a high-class joke."

Unamused, the Radical says he has "read a bushel of these jokes at the expense of the bookshop customers... and I'll bet they are fakes. For this reason: not one-tenth of the clerks in bookstores would know the difference. If a customer went into a book store and asked for a copy of John Stuart Mill on the Floss, it would be dollars to donuts that the clerk would reply, 'We haven't got it in stock, but we can order it for you.' " The two gentlemen wager dinner and then proceed to stump and humiliate bookseller after bookseller in the city.

Seeking balance in my bookselling universe, I soon discovered another NYT piece, from 1914, in which the death of one of the founders of Leggat's Bookstore was noted, followed by an observation that the shop's clientele included "all the famous literary and public men of his era. But they also included many thousands who had no fame but knew where books could be got for the most reasonable price and where they could be quickly served by clerks who knew something about every book that was ever published."

Take that, Philosopher and Radical. Leave them "clerks" alone. By the way, they're called booksellers, and one of the best parts of this vocation is the opportunity to serve as "customer request decoder," a mystifying, Holmesian task in which clues are presented and deductions made, elementary and otherwise. --Published by Shelf Awareness, #2191.


'Love Letters': Common Good Books' Poetry Contest

I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
Don't waste my time and I won't waste yours.
You are the woman I love, of course.
I'm crazy about you and always have been.
And don't make me say it again.
Cause I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
A man of monumental brevity.
That's me.

--Garrison Keillor's poem "That's Me," from O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound (Grove Press)

Love is in the air today, but who says it can't continue through spring if you're up to the challenge of entering "Love Letters": Common Good Books' Second Annual Poetry Contest"? Author, entertainer and indie bookstore proprietor Garrison Keillor is "putting up some serious cash" in support of good verse, with a $1,000 first prize and four $250 runner-up prizes. Judges for the contest are Keillor, Tom Hennen and Patricia Hampl. Finalists will be named April 20 and winners announced April 27 at a celebration of poetry in St Paul, Minn.

"Proclaiming one's love is the great test of a poet, to put irony and satire aside and the great everlasting litany of complaint and to put your heart on the line. That is where you reveal yourself as a human being. It's not for the timid," said Keillor.

David Enyeart, the bookstore's event coordinator and assistant manager, explained that transitioning from a regional contest to a national one has been a natural evolution for the store: "Having fun and drawing some attention to poets sounds like a good day to me. But this isn't altruism. We're living up to our motto--'Live Local, Read Large'-- by showing everyone that reading and writing are important because they connect us with each other and with the whole world. That message is worth a little effort, we think."

He also noted Common Good Books "is fortunate among bookstores to have a solid base of poetry fans among our customers. So of course, we're serving them by running this contest and helping them to become better writers and readers of poetry. Last year's contest was well received here in St. Paul, and we're pleased to continue our burgeoning tradition with this year's bigger prizes.

Colin McDonald in promo video for this year's Common Good Books' Poetry Contest

"Poetry isn't just something that Minnesotans like; it's for everyone. The more people are talking about poetry and writing, the better for all of us in the book world. If our contest sends someone into a bookstore in Wichita, Kansas, or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, looking for a writing guide or a slim volume of inspiration, we'll be happy. If a bookseller in Michigan can use our contest to lure a customer into their Poetry section, our efforts will not be in vain."

Poets, aspiring poets and even non-poets are welcome to enter. For those who need a little help, the Common Good Books tumblr features a contest advice page, where tips will be shared "on how to win at (writing) love from some of our country's best poets," including Tony Hoagland, Deborah Garrison (poetry editor at Knopf), Richard Blanco, Henri Cole, Sophie Cabot Black, Kathleen Flenniken, Jim Moore and Kristin Naca. Sage counsel on "How to Write a Love Poem" begins today with Graywolf Press executive editor Jeff Shotts.

Last year's poetry finalists on display at Common Good Books

To enter the Common Good Books Poetry Contest, "just craft a paean to your favorite person, place, or thing. Pour your love onto the page, shape it well, and mail your love letter to Common Good Books before April 15. Fame and fortune could be yours," the organizers proclaimed.

Why snail mail entries in a digital age? The answer is both traditional and practical, according to Enyeart: "I'm going to make entrants mail us their poems because we are proponents of ink on paper and because I need a signed release so we can publish their work."

The rules:

  • The contest is open to anyone living within the United States.
  • The poem must be a declaration of love for a specific person, or being, or object, or place--i.e., something tangible.
  • The entries must be unpublished anywhere, and the author must have full rights to the material.
  • Only one entry per person.
  • Entries must be mailed to Common Good Books (38 S. Snelling Ave., St Paul MN 55105), postmarked no later than April 15, 2014.
  • Entries must include a signed release, available at http://commongoodbooks.tumblr.com/advice

"My dream is to spark a nationwide conversation about poetry. I'd love to see grandparents and grandchildren sitting down together and writing odes to breakfast cereal or mud puddles," said Enyeart. "I'd like to know that lovers across the country will craft slightly better text messages because they honed their skills writing poems for our contest. I want to eliminate the wrinkled noses and shy stammers that come when you say the word 'poetry' in airports and shopping malls. I want to discover the next Poet Laureate in an overlooked ZIP code.

"More realistically, we'd like to show everyone that poetry is not only something that you read, it's something that you can make. And whether a poem earns a thousand dollars or just one smile, our contest aims remind people that words on paper can change lives. As booksellers and book lovers, we're big believers in the power of words on paper to move people."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2187.


'Winter Is Coming' Here: Bookshop as Warming Hut

You know the feeling: irritability and listlessness resulting from long confinement or isolation indoors during winter. Diagnosis: cabin fever. Prognosis: according to Punxsutawney Phil, six more weeks. Prescription: Wendy Welch, co-owner of Tales of The Lonesome Pine bookstore, Big Stone Gap, Va., offered a delightfully vengeful Groundhog Day recipe variation on Mulligatawny, though I'd suggest we consider the medicinal benefits indie bookstores provide as warming huts.

For those who live in toastier climes, a warming hut is a small building with perpetually burning log fire. Hikers, skiers, snowshoers and their kindred winter spirits are invited to stop in and thaw out their feet for a while. There's one in the state park where I walk, and even the distant smell of wood smoke can take the edge off an arctic blast.

During our current winter of discontent, I've also been warmed by reading cozy e-mail newsletters and social media posts from indie booksellers to counter the mind-numbing cold. Gradually, I began thinking of bookstores as warming huts, too. Here are just a few of many entries that focused on the three Cs: coping with nasty weather, communicating with snowbound customers and conjuring up snug, put another log on the fire, imagery:

Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.: "'A Polar Vortex is best spent inside a bookstore'--Note left on our typewriter. Even our paper snowman agrees."

WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Shake a fist at the polar vortex and warm up at our JC café with some butternut squash soup (courtesy @RomanNoseJC catering) or a mocha!"

Norwich Bookstore, Northfield, Vt.: "Our intrepid booksellers Kathryn and Katie made it to the bookstore in time to open this morning. We might close early depending on the storm, so call ahead if you are in need of reading materials today! Liza is going to hole up at home, feed the woodstove and work on the website upgrade. Enjoy the snow..."

Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex.: "If you are wondering. YES we are open! Alice and Girlboss don't take snow days. They would walk to work in the snow if they had to--Maria."

Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y.: "Is there a bookstore in your thoughts today? Come and see us!"

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan.: "Looks like we are all going to be snowed in tomorrow. Any reading suggestions???... 'Snow is falling. Books are calling.' From our friends @literacykc--'That's right! Stay warm and safe on this snowy day.' "

Bank Square Books, Mystic, Conn.: "We will be open no matter what tomorrow as we have staff who can WALK to work. That's why we love being in Mystic. Not sure what the hours will be so best to check or give us a call before you come. You can also shop our website anytime or give us a call and we will deliver on Thursday, within a reasonable drive. Thanks for supporting your locally owned and fiercely independent bookstore.... We are open. I think the only store in downtown Mystic that is but don't you need a book to curl up with on this snowy wet day or some cards to write to your faraway friends?"

McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich.: "The bravest book club in Northern Michigan! The Dinner by Herman Koch got over 35 members to battle the weather this morning!"

Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: "It's a snow day, but we're open. Come beat cabin fever with an Eric Carle-inspired art project from 11:30-12:30--an impromptu activity for kids ages 4-14 and their grownup assistants."

via LittleFreeLibrary.org

Charis Books and More, Atlanta, Ga.: "L5P is still a bit of a winter wonderland but we are here and open today for all of you bookworms who are running low on reading supplies. We have decided to postpone tonight's event because of concerns about the roads after dark. Thank you!"

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, Ohio (e-mail): "Snow Day! Get great deals today only! Take an extra 10% off any kids book. Free kids meal with purchase of an adult meal at Bronte Bistro. Enjoy a delicious cup of hot cocoa or specialty drink--Yum! Make this snow day special!"

"Winter is coming." That deadly long-range forecast in the first teaser trailer for HBO's Game of Thrones alerted even those of us who hadn't read George R.R. Martin's novels to the fact that in Westeros, winter lasted not for a season, but for years. Oh, the horrors! Oh, the heating bills!

And tonight, the voice of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in NBC's opening tease for its Olympic coverage will add symmetry to the season, blending cold fantasy with snowbound fact--skiers & groundhogs & White Walkers & Polar Vortices, Oh Myyy! (which is, coincidentally, the title of a book by George Takei, who shared a meme pic offering due tribute to Winterfell, the Stark clan and their family motto: #winteriscoming). Be not afraid, however. You will always find welcoming shelter in the closest indie bookstore warming hut.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2182.


College Bookstores: Amazon's 'Shot Across the Bow'

Earlier this week, the University of California, Davis, revealed that it had been partnering with Amazon since last fall on a pilot program through which the online retailer pays the school 2% of net purchases made by UC Davis Amazon Student members, or by users who enter Amazon through a storefront on the home page of the university's store.

"Whether deals like this harm UC Davis Stores sales is an open question and, now, an ongoing experiment," a Forbes article headlined "Amazon Attacking Barnes & Noble On Campus?" noted. "Less immediately clear is if such a deal will put a dent in one of Barnes & Noble's healthiest businesses. In 2013, the college bookstore segment showed modest 1.1% growth while both the company's other divisions shrank."


Concerns over B&N's fiscal health aside, the future of independent college bookstores also comes into play here. A link to the Forbes piece was sent to me by Drew Goodman, former trade book sales manager at the University of Utah Campus Store and currently a speaker, consultant and writer at Building Better Ideas. He described the UC Davis/Amazon deal as "a proverbial shot across the bow of independent college stores."

I asked him to expand a bit on his initial reaction. Goodman said he has no doubts that Amazon's incursion into the college bookstore market is a negative development. He recalled that he lost his bookselling job last April "in part due to the online competition from retail sites, particularly Amazon. I think there are those in the college store industry who continue to innovate and resist giving in to Amazon. They are trying their best to create new ways of serving the students, staff and faculties at their schools that Amazon just can't do without a physical presence. They are going to see Amazon/UC Davis partnership as a deal with the devil.

"Other stores, such as the one I worked for, started giving in. We set up associate seller accounts to try and redirect students to purchase from Amazon, but through the bookstore links. As long as we got the sales percentage from Amazon, we felt that it was better than nothing. Problem is, what you end up training your students to do is just go to Amazon in the first place."

The UC Davis/Amazon partnership, however, "is a whole new animal, and could really end up being a case of the rabbit tugging on the bear's tail," Goodman observed. "It may look good initially, but again, you're just giving away your sales for a 2% take."

He also cited a prior situation that occurred when he worked for Borders Books, which partnered with Amazon in 2001 to run its website and took a percentage cut of sales: "The problem was, it began to funnel too many sales to Amazon. Why go to Borders.com when you could just go to Amazon in the first place? By the time Borders had their 'Oh, sh*t' moment about the whole thing, it was too late. They never recovered enough to really put together a competitive website. They had trained their own customers to go to Amazon--end of story."

A primary concern for Goodman is that "in taking the leap on this deal," UC Davis could set a precedent, particularly for bookstores that "have gotten lazy about competing, relying on the students needing to come to them for their books and supplies, and not doing anything to push back against sales being taken by Amazon. Those stores who are already in precarious positions may just throw up their hands and give in to Amazon. Others may be pulled in by the siren song that Amazon is singing, only to find their physical stores drifting too close to and crashing on the rocks.

"Amazon never does anything unless it benefits Amazon," he added, noting that another article he read "had said that the reason UC Davis was partnering with Amazon was because they were one of the most successful college stores when it came to the associate program. That says to me they have already been handing a ton of their business over to Amazon. My suspicion is that Amazon wants this 'partnership' so that they can get a top to bottom, deep dive on the data for a college store, and once they have that data and no longer need a partner, they'll curb-stomp UC Davis, just like they've done so often to others."

Goodman also predicted that Amazon "will not stop with just one store, and by the time stores that are participating find out what kind of raw deal they may be getting it will be too late, leaving the entire college stores industry just that much weaker."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2177.


Bookstores & Museums, Reading & Art

Sometimes the stars just mysteriously align in our book universe. There's no "mind the gap" caution for readers venturing between past and present; or the diverse worlds in books we read and the "real" world. One of these intriguing alignments occurred recently in my little corner of the universe with art and literature. Here are a few of the signs I noticed:

Excellent books (read or reading now) on my desk: Within reach, and all connected in some way to art, are The Eleven by Pierre Michon (translated by Jody Gladding & Elizabeth Deshays), The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman by Sena Jeter Naslund, Secrecy by Rupert Thomson (ARC, April release), The Artist's Library by Laura Damon-Moore & Erinn Batykefer (ARC, May) and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Cool bookstore road trip: Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., just hosted what looked like a great bus trip to the Frick Collection in New York City for the exhibition "Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis," featuring Goldfinch, a 17th-century painting by Carel Fabritius that plays a key role in Donna Tartt's novel.

Art, literature & commerce: The influence of books on attendance at the Frick exhibition was phenomenal, driven initially by the presumed star of the show, Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring, which had been expected to draw art lovers as well as fans of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling 2000 novel. Goldfinch, however, soon began "hogging the spotlight," Frick director Ian Wardropper told the New York Times. "Halfway through the exhibition, we noticed a shift.... That's when we started to see book clubs coming in." As of last week, Goldfinch tote bags had outsold their Pearl competition 842 to 582.

The power of fiction: I saw the Frick exhibition in December and was also pleasantly surprised by the crowds huddled around the small work by Fabritius compared to the clear sight lines available for the Vermeer. I was not prepared for a second surprise in store for me when I entered the Living Hall to pay my respects to a pair old friends: Hans Holbein's portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, staring one another down grimly as they did centuries ago.

It had been a few years since my last Frick pilgrimage. On previous visits, I was always drawn to the More portrait, perhaps because Utopia is one of my favorite books and I love Peter Ackroyd's biography. Cromwell, by contrast, looked like that grouchy uncle at a family reunion. But last month, for the first time, Cromwell seemed to have altered dramatically; his expression was keen, his eyes radiating intelligence. I glanced over at More. He looked a bit... dyspeptic. There was no mystery; I knew immediately who was to blame for my confusion as well as the apparent touching up of these paintings after nearly 500 years. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies had clearly disarmed my longstanding prejudice against Cromwell through the irresistible necromancy of fiction.  

What remains of art & of books: In 1999, BookExpo was held in Los Angeles and we arrived a day early so we could see "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" at the L.A. County Museum of Art. I was the remainder buyer for the Northshire Bookstore then, and perhaps can lay blame on that extraordinary--once in a (my, at least) lifetime--exhibition for "inspiring" me to purchase, a few years later at CIROBE in Chicago, nearly 1,000 remaindered hardcover copies of Frederic Tuten's Van Gogh's Bad Café at a cool 25 cents each.

The good news is that we eventually sold more than 600 of them for a tidy profit before I left the Manchester, Vt., bookstore in 2006. The bad news is the remaining copies may still be buried in deep storage there, sealed away like a plot twist in an Edgar Allan Poe story. That novel is part of my bookseller's legacy, as Northshire general manager Chris Morrow jokingly (I hope) reminded me not long ago.

Centuries from now, when android archaeologists are combing through the ruins of an ancient indie bookshop, will they unearth those cartons and wonder what the hell their human forebears were thinking? One can only hope my single contribution to the art world--an installation I call "Van Gogh's Bad Café: The Boxed Remains"--will fascinate lovers of art and literature in the distant future.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2172.

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