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Sunday
Jan042015

Working It Out, 2008-2015

Maybe the book trade's sky wasn't falling in 2008, but the cloud ceiling was low and visibility limited. "With some exceptions, news about general holiday sales was grim, all for obvious reasons: the economy, bad weather, the economy, heavy discounting, the economy," we noted in our first issue of 2009.  

And yet, for reasons I still don't quite understand, I wrote the following in my last column of the year:

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.

Acknowledging that objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear, let's revisit 2008 and the economic meltdown that at the time seemed quite possibly the death knell for any number of businesses, large and small. In October of that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its biggest one-day decline, responding to a report that retail sales had reached a three-year low as well as a prediction by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that economic recovery would be slow.

Earlier that month, I'd attended some of the fall regional bookseller shows. My notes from 2008 indicate a disconcerting pattern, with far too many bookstore owners telling me they were seriously considering the possibility of closing. It seemed, at the time, like a trend. The conversations and education sessions were often about survival. A panel at MPIBA's fall show was appropriately titled "Bookselling in Challenging Times."

That was then.

Bidding farewell to 2014, we have to like much of what we saw.... all things considered. New indie bookstores opened and longtime indies expanded; James Patterson doled out a million bucks and e-book sales leveled off. During the fall bookseller trade shows, conversations and panel discussion topics focused on getting better rather than just getting by. And, once again, the sky did not fall.

The industry's mood, which we try to gauge daily with our Shelf Awareness Booksellerometer (patent pending), has generally been positive as well as hearteningly realistic. Those two words seem well matched to me. It's too early to talk about phoenixes rising from ashes, but we didn’t become a flock of Icaruses either.

As Dan Cullen, American Booksellers Association senior strategy officer, observed during the Heartland Fall Forum general meeting, booksellers at all of the regionals he'd attended in 2014 "have been incredibly upbeat, incredibly energized.... There is a real resurgence of indie bookstores in America.... We are finally seeing the media decouple the word 'beleaguered' from indie bookstore."

This is not to say that bad news took a holiday in 2014. Wonderful book people passed away and they will be missed. Some bookstores had to close, while many others sought help locally and through crowdfunding. Amazon's retail floodgates remained open, even as Mr. Bezos absorbed staggering personal and corporate losses. Well, you know the headlines.

What's next? My 2008 year-end column was titled "What if It All Works Out?" I'm still not sure why I took the optimistic route. Anyone who's known me for 10 minutes can attest to the fact that I'm a devoted fatalist. In so many ways, 2008 made perfect sense for my Eeyore-ish worldview, but this is what I wrote:

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.

Happy New Year! Here's to a creative and resourceful 2015. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2413

Sunday
Dec212014

A Bookstore Cat Guy's Christmas Story

"A Fur Person must be adopted by catly humans, tactful, delicate respectful, indulgent; these are fairly rare, though not as rare as might be supposed." --from May Sarton's The Fur Person, which isn't technically about a bookstore cat, though protagonist Tom Jones is a very literary feline indeed.

Bookstore cats and booksellers share many traits, perhaps none so much as a keen awareness and appreciation for the homes they ultimately find in bookshops after long and arduous journeys.

Molly, a Shelf Awareness editorial cat, finds a copy of Wendy Welch's The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap in the stacks.

It was destiny, I suppose--a crucial moment in infancy--that sealed my fate as a bookstore cat guy. For my first Christmas, when I was eight months old, one of my aunts gave me an autographed and inscribed copy of The Blue Cat of Castle Town by Catherine Cate Coblentz, illustrated by Janice Holland. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 1950, the year of my birth, though of course I wasn't aware of that at the time. My initial review was probably that it tasted good when I chewed the cover.

My aunt lived in Castleton, Vt., which served as the 19th Century setting for this tale of a blue cat searching for "a hearth where a mortal understood and sang that song" of beauty, peace and contentment.

Unfortunately, I never worked in a bookstore that had a resident cat. Some of my favorite bookshops do, but I couldn't begin to showcase them all. We occasionally highlight bibliocats of note in Shelf Awareness, like the award-winning Amelia of the Spiral Bookcase, Philadelphia, Pa.; petcam-wearing Molly Bloom at Annie Bloom's Books, Portland, Ore.; or Franny the Instagram sensation at Skylight Books, Los Angeles.

And I have my personal favorites:

Wendy Welch, co-owner of Tales of The Lonesome Pine bookshop in Big Stone Gap, Va., offers bookstore cat internships in collaboration with a local shelter. Sporting new names with a literary pedigree, they get to roam the stacks (or perch on the branches of the Christmas book tree) while she helps them find "forever homes" via the bookshop's Facebook page. Wherever they end up, the kitties will always be honorary bookstore cats.  

I've also grown quite fond of Cake and Lemon at BooksActually in Singapore. Owner Kenny Leck's irresistible resident feline booksellers appear regularly on Facebook, but also provide a legion of fans with updates on their own Twitter accounts, @caketheking and @lemonthekisser.

Recently I learned that in China, the "20 cats that inhabit the Xinhua Bookstore entertain customers, wander freely and jump from one bookshelf to another. The bookstore, also home to the Nanjing Cat Café, has a wall covered with hydroponic flowers and luscious plants. Part of the revenue earned at the café is used to buy food for the cats that live in the store and also for stray cats outside." Nice.

To honor of bibliocats everywhere this holiday season, I'd like to offer you a gift by recommending a great read: Takashi Hiraide's small gem of a novel The Guest Cat, translated by Eric Selland (New Directions). It's one of my favorite books of 2014, and I'm not alone.

The Guest Cat, which was an unanticipated New York Times bestseller in the U.S. earlier this year, has more recently become a holiday season hit in the U.K. The Independent reported that "booksellers loved it. They placed it in their windows, on their front tables.... Just a few months after publication, it has sold 20,000 copies, an unimaginable figure for a title without a marketing campaign. It is now set to be among December's top sellers and is already the biggest-selling paperback of the year at one branch of Waterstones, in London's Gower Street."

"It's such an easy book to sell," said branch manager Alison Belshaw. "There is the physicality of the book for starters: it looks beautiful. It's also short.... And you can read it as a simple story, or see all sorts of depths to it." Belshaw recalled a man who came into the shop looking for a sci-fi novel: "And I sent him away with The Guest Cat. It's that kind of book. You want to recommend it to everyone."

Like the Fur Person and the Blue Cat and bookstore cats (and booksellers) worldwide, Chibi the "guest cat" is worth meeting, though getting to know her will be, as it must, just a little more complicated ("Chibi remained unfettered, coming and going as she pleased."). That's why she's my honorary bookstore cat of the year, and why you might consider giving her a "forever home" on your bookshelves. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2410.

Monday
Dec152014

In Praise of the Bookseller/Cashier

Scene: Me, standing behind the checkout counter in a bookstore.
Customer: Are you a cash register?
Me: No, but I'm thinking of becoming one. I hear there's a lot of money in it.

It's a bad joke, but I'll confess I used it a few times during my tenure as a bookseller. Usually it got a laugh, or at least a smile. Not surprisingly, "the most wonderful time of the year" featured prominently in most of these encounters. 'Tis the season that tends to bring out the best and worst in customers, as well as booksellers.

Holiday shoppers at Literati in Ann Arbor, Mich.

You may have noticed.

This is just a theory, but I suspect most prospective booksellers underestimate the amount of time they'll spend as cashiers. That duty tends to be soft-pedaled during the interview process, since in this vow-of-poverty, passion-driven profession, accentuating the positive is the rule. It just makes sense to showcase the glories of handselling, the avalanche of unlimited ARCS and the distinguished company of well-read colleagues, while the interviewee clings to sugar plum visions of a "dream job," featuring serene hours lost in the stacks that are occasionally, yet gently. interrupted to handsell the perfect book to its perfect reader.

The holiday season can be a serious wake-up call. In the heat of retail battle, a little voice whispers, "This isn't what I signed up for." But quickly you learn to become the person your customers need you to be in that moment. And why not? Booksellers love their customers because they can't afford not to, and because booksellers and their patrons are nice people, mostly. In fact, the worst customer I ever dealt with as a bookseller was better than the average customer I encountered working in supermarkets. People go to grocery stores because they have to. Most go to bookstores because they want to. It's a significant difference.

Cash registers at the Last Bookstore, Los Angeles.

I was a good handseller, but I was a great cashier, having started young at the local A&P during high school. Customers used to line up at my register because I was fast, and proud of it. One of my favorite chapters in Studs Terkel's Working is the profile of Babe Secoli, a 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."

I get that.

And so I decided it would be appropriate to ring in the holiday season with words of praise for you, the bookseller/cashier. In the crazed, checkout counter nucleus of the holiday rush, you just handle it as those customers stampede your way. Often you wonder how so many people manage to arrive at your cash register simultaneously. And then they keep coming, wave after wave, until--despite your best intentions and the spirit of the season--they begin to merge into a single, multi-limbed organism, and what you see when you look out from behind the counter are piles of books, sidelines, toys, calendars, greeting cards and imposing stuffed animals bigger than the child they are meant for. You're in a Ralph Steadman drawing, and there's no escape.

Cashiers at Politics & Prose in Washington. D.C., stand ready to help

A bookseller/cashier is not a specialist. The questions hit you from all sides and some of them are repeated dozens of times: Is Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven as good as they say? Does Amy Poehler's Yes Please come in paperback? Why isn't Cheryl Strayed's Wild with the fiction bestsellers? Do you carry The Innovators by Isaac Walker? (Do you mean Walter Isaacson? No, that's not what I wrote down.) Could you page my wife, husband, kid? Where's your rest room? You are asked to wrap the unwrappable and box the unboxable.

Standing alertly behind your besieged cash register, you're the only representative of the publishing industry that most of these people will ever meet. So you do your best to smile and chat while your hands repeat a series of long-practiced, fluid and instinctive movements with the dexterity of a casino card dealer.

Sometimes, in rare moments of illusory calm, you take a break to straighten shelves and displays. You restock. You fling yourself recklessly into the throng to handsell your favorite books of the year. And you do all of this without abandoning your base camp--that at once cursed and blessed cash register. As Babe Secoli so wisely said, "I enjoy it somethin' terrible." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2405.

Sunday
Dec072014

Sacred Words & the 'Acted Book'

"I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead." --from The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

When I heard Henry (Ewan McGregor) speak those lines Tuesday night during a performance of the Broadway revival of Stoppard's play, it occurred to me that the challenge of getting the right words in the right order while adapting a book for the stage must present an intriguing challenge all its own.

Exhibit A in that regard might be the new film Birdman, in which Michael Keaton's character struggles to wrench a stage production from Raymond Carver's short stories.

As the unofficial resident show biz correspondent at Shelf Awareness, I spend a lot of time poring over articles about movie and TV projects based on books, but theatrical adaptations tend to get less attention. This despite the fact that, as the Guardian recently observed, "a new trend is threatening the long dominance of the staged film--the acted book."

I've seen and loved several book-to-stage adaptations in recent years, including Fiona Shaw in Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary and Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. High on my must-see list for the spring is the Royal Shakespeare Company's six-hour, two-play production of Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, based on Hilary Mantel's award-winning novels.

Staging acted books is a complex process. The Guardian noted that "the mistake--on either side of the footlights--is to think that the show is a walking-and-talking book. The premier modern theatrical translator-adapter Mike Poulton, whose work included Morte D'Arthur and The Canterbury Tales before taking on the Mantels for the RSC, warns in the preface to the published texts of the Cromwell plays: 'It might be thought that the sheer length of the two books [1,007 pages] might present problems. I never thought so. The way a novel is structured cannot be reproduced on the stage... they had to be completely reimagined as plays.' "

A stage version of Katherine Boo's National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers was written by playwright David Hare and is being produced by London's National Theatre. Boo told the Telegraph that during the adaptation process, Hare wasn't always open to her interventions, though she understood his reasoning: "On the first draft I made all sorts of suggestions. He took some of them, he didn't take the others. It's his work of art; it's not my medium. I don't have any intuitive grasp of theatre-making."

Simon Stephens adapted Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is now on Broadway. "The first thing he did was detach himself from Christopher's 'seductive voice' and make a list of the actual events in the story," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Then he rearranged them so they occurred chronologically, instead of through flashbacks. Then he transcribed all the moments of direct speech in the book, which were few, because so much of the book is Christopher's interior monologue." Stephens observed: "Everyone who read the book falls in love with Christopher's brain. Our job was to take the audience inside Christopher's head."

A hit musical based on Alison Bechdel's Fun Home opened Off-Broadway in 2013 and will transfer to Broadway next spring. In an interview with the Cut, Bechdel was asked whether she had had any anxieties about how Fun Home would be adapted for the stage.

"I had no idea how anyone would turn this comic book into a musical. And that's partly why I agreed to it, honestly," she replied. "There had been a movie option that I said no to, because I couldn't bear the idea of a bad movie being made about my life. But, I figured if it were a bad musical, it would just disappear. It wouldn't stick around the way a movie would.

"I'm a very casual consumer of musicals. It's not like I'm passionate about the form or even know very much about the form, so I felt like it was very much alien territory. And that's partly, again, why I felt okay about doing it--because it was such a different form, it was easier for me to let go of it."  

Speaking about the musical version of his novel The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem said he had been "led to this conclusion that I never would have imagined without this experience: That theater of a certain kind is closer to the art that I practice than film, for instance, which is so literal and demanding. If you have a scene in a jail, you have to do it, you have to show the jail, a convincing set, whereas, here, we don't have to. We can let people imagine."

All it takes is getting the right words in the right order. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2400.

Sunday
Nov232014

When #SmallBusinessSaturday Is Also Game Day

Like all indie booksellers, Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., must account for the unpredictable (rogue weather systems, late book deliveries, staff health concerns, etc.) in preparing for the holiday season shopping frenzy that officially begins next weekend. But with the University of Georgia's football stadium, where the Bulldogs will face in-state rival Georgia Tech on Small Business Saturday, less than two miles from her store, her situation has an added layer of complexity.

On Tuesday, Geddis solicited ideas from her customers, noting that home games have "REALLY hurt the bookshop. This past Saturday (Auburn game), our sales were about 20% of what they were the previous Saturday."

"To ever present myself and my business as anything less than wonderfully successful is a tricky proposition, so things like this must be handled very lightly," she told me. "When I created this Facebook post, I made a point to let people know that we're doing fine and even a really crappy month (let alone a few crappy Saturdays) won't come close to doing us in. So I make a point to reassure our customers, to let them know that we value them and their decision to shop at Avid--and to let them know we value their opinions as well.

"Because people see bookstores as an especially precarious and precious type of business, I have to tread even more lightly than I might if I had a different kind of storefront. In general though, we keep our financial information private while being positive and honest with customers."

Avid is approximately a 30-minute walk from the stadium. Geddis noted that on game days, "with the exception of particularly rivalrous matches, it's almost always possible to find parking within a city block of Avid, but that can be a hard sell to the uninitiated who are used to shopping at big box stores with parking lots as big as the stores themselves."

Janet Geddis (photo: Shannon Adams)

A "longtime townie" herself, she understands people's reluctance to venture downtown, but is concerned for local businesses that depend heavily on holiday season retail sales. And with the next two Georgia games at home, the immediate challenge is: "How do we make sure we still have customers on those days when our regulars and newbies are either at football get-togethers or are avoiding said get-togethers like the plague?"

Her patrons responded with numerous ideas, including game day tailgating displays out front, online promotions, and even convincing Georgia player and noted bibliophile Malcolm Mitchell to switch allegiance from B&N to Avid. "I don't want to burst anyone's bubble, but a good number of the suggestions are things we've tried before," Geddis said, though she indulged my "helpful" recommendation--a PedalPub Party Bike to shuttle customers to the store. "Ha! I love that idea! I will file that away for sure."

Of all the potential solutions she received, a "during-the-game flash sale was one of my favorites," she said. Going forward, Geddis is "definitely leaning toward a special event between the kickoff and the beginning of the fourth quarter, though I'm reticent to make a habit of giving discounts: I believe books are valuable and worth their cover prices. So we may instead turn up the radio, offer some publisher ARCs and/or other freebie books, and have complimentary drinks for shoppers. That's definitely more Avid-style than a deep discount promotion. We may do a promotion online to coincide with this, and not just to increase sales. I find that many of my customers far and wide still don't realize that we have a website where you can buy virtually any book in print. I want to increase awareness of that side of the business, and a one-day sale online might help get our website more exposure."

And on Small Business Saturday? "One issue we have had is trying to get some of our favorite local authors to come out to be guest booksellers for the Indies First event. Many people would love to be booksellers for a few hours on this day, but the game and its traffic may prevent them from participating, which is a bummer. I do think the Saturday game will have me put a little more effort toward Black Friday, and we will make a special push to get our customers in walkable neighborhoods to visit the shop on #SBS."

Geddis praised her sales reps for being "particularly helpful in brainstorming with me whenever I confess that we have encountered a hurdle. They know my region and other indies' business patterns perhaps better than anyone else (excepting Wanda Jewell, the head of SIBA and knower of all things in the Southern bookselling world). My reps have given me some great tips and have also put me in touch with other bookstores that have similar situations."

She also noted, however, that the "confusing thing about special promotions and/or events during game days is that they are unpredictable. I guess that's the nature of bookstores overall, though--you just never can be sure what events and promotions will be hits and what will be misses. We just keep trying things out and see how they go." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2392

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