About FEN
FEN Elsewhere
Powered by Squarespace
Buy Books
Looking Backward
Shelf Awareness for Readers
Powered by Squarespace


The Beat Goes On for Booksellers

You know how sometimes, when you're listening to an album and the right song comes on (well, to be precise, Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night"), and you just keep hitting replay? Maybe--in a Twilight Zone kind of way--this is what's happening now, though instead of an album it's my column, and instead of one song it's an ongoing theme--booksellers and music. The beat goes on.

I loved the recent blog post by Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wisc., on his personal history with vinyl records. "Now there's a vinyl resurgence, but a lot of folks have sold off, or even dumped their collections, and some people want them back," he wrote. "I can understand this, though I kept a good bit of mine. I'm a hoarder. But I still took to Eric Spitznagel's new memoir, Old Records Never Die: One Man's Quest for His Vinyl and His Past. Spitznagel, who decided that he was not only going to rebuild his collection, he was going to find the exact copies he lost. He thought it was possible. Whether it was possible is beside the point. It's all about the quest."

And this week, in a Wall Street Journal review of physicist John Powell's Why You Love Music, Peter Pesic noted that he found himself "intrigued by many of the studies he summarizes. Certain kinds of background music in stores measurably induces people to buy more: Classical music increases high-end buying by making people feel 'posh,' as Mr. Powell puts it.... What is more, playing French music will stimulate the purchase of French wine, as German music does for German wine. Using this effect in reverse, city officials in Sydney repelled teenage loiterers by playing 'uncool' music--the songs of Barry Manilow, to be precise; one wonders what would have happened had they chosen Mozart."

Which leads nicely to an e-mail I received from Angela Cozad, owner of Real Books, in response to my piped music columns: "I used to be a manager for Tower Books, a division of Tower records, in Concord, Calif. We had unlimited music to play, as you can imagine, because of the record stores. We used music to move our customers. During the day, we played classical, Bach, Beethoven and the boys as it was. In the afternoons we played light rock as our clientele started to shift to a younger crowd. In the evening, we sometimes played jazz or metal on the weekends but when we wanted to close the store at night--Mantovani cleared the store every night."

Speaking of clearing the store, John Evans, co-owner of DIESEL, A Bookstore, in Oakland, Brentwood and Larkspur, Calif., recalled that his first bookseller job was at Pellucidar, the original of the Berkeley Pegasus bookstores: "I would work Friday nights with Gerry Kleier. We sold records in that store, mostly used, and we would have duels with music. He had particular dislike of Reggae which I would slip in occasionally, hoping he would like some of it. We were really trying to blow each other's minds, not torture each other. But he always had the trump card: William Shatner's psychological renditions of pop songs, illustrating psychological states! 'Mr. Tambourine Man' won every duel."

To which I could only reply: "Ah, Mr. Shatner's golden tones. I do remember. I, however, cannot be too cynical, since in the 1960s I was the proud owner of two albums featuring David McCallum (of Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame). So there..." I never shared Illya Kuryakin's symphonic rendition of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" with my bookstore patrons, however.

"I've been enjoying the music focus in your Shelf Awareness pieces," Evans also observed, "It's a sideways kind of solidarity with the booksellers around the country, through the music played in their stores; the ASCAP ridiculousness (yes we pay them for the music we now play through Spotify); and the changes in customer preference, bookseller choice, and technological apparatus.

"We had vinyl in our Oakland store from 1989 to around 2005; switched to CDs and tapes throughout that decade; and then to Spotify (and the occasional tape!) today. We've never allowed opera or very 'out' jazz (too compelling, attention-grabbing). Our store in Santa Monica plays no music, but there is music outside that is a curated list by an independent DJ and which is often as good as we ever would choose on our own. Our Larkspur store uses Pandora, largely overseen by our manager there Rod Froke, but expanded by contributions from other booksellers.

"Personally, I liked most the periods of both my first years in bookselling at Pellucidar in Berkeley (which also sold LPs and so had a vast range of options) and the first years of DIESEL when personal choice, carefully chosen, ruled the airwaves and where compliments from customers were common. The interplay of music and books was part of a fading cultural time of more open conversation about these two vital parts of our everyday imaginations--unmediated by other personal devices and cultural trends now dominating how we live.

"I still love music as a part of the everyday of our bookstores and know that for some of our customers this just one of the many pleasures of shopping at indie bookstores." Who says you can't get no satisfaction?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2787


Independent Bookshop Week in U.K. & Ireland

When the world feels senseless, idiotic and unreasonable... the only answer is to go to a bookshop. --Lauren Laverne

Although they may be nursing a Brexit Vote hangover today, along with some uncertainty regarding how the referendum vote to leave the E.U. will affect business, nearly 400 booksellers in the U.K. and Ireland have been celebrating the 10th annual Independent Bookshop Week (June 18-25). The Booksellers Association noted that IBW2016 is being held at a time of "increased optimism and a more buoyant market for independent bookshops.... [Bookshops] are creating incredible social and cultural spaces on their high streets--offering events, literary lunches, children's storytelling, schools outreach, reading groups, festivals and meeting spaces." Here are a few highlights from #IBW2016:

Favorite bookshop stories: In a video, Jen Campbell, author of The Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and The Bookshop Book, shared anecdotes from her life in bookselling.

Inevitable Brexit vote reference: "Take a break from #EUref and join @TwoRoadsBooks on our #IBW2016 tour." Hodder & Stoughton imprint Two Roads Books is chronicling its Indie Bookshop Tour, "celebrating independent bookshops and their booksellers."

Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath: "It's indie bookshop week #IBW2016. Us bookshops have huge independent spirit, but we love being members of the same wider tribe. Just saying."

The Bookshop Kibworth: "Here's one of our @BookshopWindows combining @UEFAEURO, @KibBookFest AND #IBW2016! @booksaremybag @BAbooksellers."

The Gifts of Reading: Robert Macfarlane's specially commissioned essay is being sold by indies, with proceeds going to his nominated charity. He told the Bookseller: "Our bookshops--like our libraries--are simply vital to the reading life of this country. I know from my own meetings up and down the country, and over the years, what passion, knowledge and expertise gets shown and shared in independent bookshops. To write an essay in praise of the book-as-gift, to have the essay published by Penguin and sold in all indie bookshops, and to have all profits going to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station is just a huge privilege and pleasure."

Bookshop Crawl: @booksaremybag: "Saturday 27th June, the annual IndieBound UK Independent Bookshop Week #‎bookshopcrawl. Put it in your diary!"

Making #IBW2016 lists:

Anne Enright: Ireland's fiction laureate and Independent Bookshop Week Award winner for The Green Road said, "It was such an honor to be selected for this award by my favorite people--booksellers. Long may they remain. Four or five years ago, we were all in a panic that the internet would eat booksellers and paper. But they've battled on and they're starting to flourish."

Booksellers as movie action heroes: London Review Bookshop tweeted: "To celebrate #IndependentBookshopWeek, here's our bookselling team matched against Independence Day characters."

Oxford University: "It's #IndependentBookshopWeek! Oxford is bookshop heaven, we especially love @albionbeatnik."

Emily MacKenzie: winner of the IBW Award for children's picture book: "I love visiting independents because each shopping experience feels unique. Cozy and welcoming, I love that independent bookshops give you a glimpse into the personality and passions of the booksellers behind them. I always leave an independent bookshop with an unexpected find, feeling recharged and inspired, which is a wonderful thing."

Chicken & Frog Bookshop, Brentwood, Essex: "Rocking our #IBW2016 t-shirts today! @BAbooksellers."

Shore to Shore Poetry Tour Diary: "Embarking on a nationwide poetry tour, Carol Ann Duffy and her fellow poets Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Jackie Kay and John Sampson document what they see as they travel and share poetry around the U.K."

Authors' fave indies: @simonschusterUK: "This week we're asking our authors about their fave independent bookshops. We'd love to know yours, too! #IBW2016."

Finding the perfect book: Canongate: "Looking for your next reading material? Let us find your perfect book, using this simple matchmaking tool. #IBW2016"

A Love Letter to Bookshops: in an IBW essay, Veronica Henry wrote that the title of her latest novel, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, "is not just about finding romantic love. It's about the love of books: something that can sustain you throughout your life, and provide escape, entertainment, education, comfort, wonder. And it's a love you can share. There is nothing more satisfying than recommending something you have read to someone else, knowing they will love it as much as you do.... But if we are to keep bookshops alive, we need to use them, and to encourage the next generation to make them part of their life and view bookshops as a treat, a pleasure, an adventure, a gateway. So they become a necessity. Something we can't live without."

And... words to live by for readers worldwide.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2782


Retail Music Redux: What's that Sound?

Among the responses I received to last week's column about piped music in bookshops was this one from a bookseller who wished to remain anonymous: "ASCAP is chasing us for our open mic programs. We have one for poets and one for songwriters; it's hard to fathom their complaint. I'd love to hear from others on that issue."

ASCAP's beef concerns "live music": "They want a general contract for musical venue. Supposedly, this would mean the Beatles would get a couple pennies if someone covered 'Hey Jude,' but in reality they wouldn't even know whose songs might be covered, so I doubt anyone would be paid except ASCAP. Our open mic is a songwriter's forum however, so local no-names are trying out their new compositions. We announce at every monthly session that only original tunes can be played, but ASCAP still worries some songwriter might make an allusion to 'Jude.' We're still working it out, but if we can't, I'll just cancel all live music."

Any other booksellers running into that challenge?

from Dancers Among Us (Workman) by Jordan Matter

On a lighter note, I also heard from legendary book-biz music guru (and PGW Party at BEA icon) Keith Arsenault, director of sales, Canada for Ingram Content Group. He recalled that the highlight of his early bookselling career was "the Christmas mix we played at College Hill Bookstore (RIP), which featured this classic track: Ren and Stimpy--'Fleck The Walls', courtesy of Mike Katz."

Renee Barker of The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn, Ill., told me: "We have music playing often, but certainly not always. Some of the employees try to keep music going, but some choose quiet. Years ago we had a cassette player, so we played and sold some cassettes of a particular pianist. Now we use an old donated iPod with a limited amount of music on it (that we are all getting tired of), mostly classical and mostly baroque, almost all instrumental only. For fun, we put on the waltzes or ragtime or klezmer playlists. We do play Christmas songs, usually without singers, and some Celtic music in March."

She added that the bookstore is considering changing to Spotify, and she would like to hear from other bookstores about that option. "There are two playlists that I like to use sparingly, but deliberately. One is The Killers Strings (for 25- to 30-year-olds; they nearly always perk up at one point and say out loud 'Wait, is that what I think it is?') and the other is orchestrated versions of the Disney movie theme songs, which the teenagers-to-20s in particular seem to love."

Karen Bakshoian of Letterpress Books, Portland, Maine, noted: "Well, after reading your article about Waterstones (an opinion leader if I ever knew one!), I feel guilty about playing our Celtic music however softly... and we don't even sell CDs. Several customers have remarked that they enjoy the music. When we play the Beatles on Tuesday, our Senior Discount Day, the customers whistle, dance and sing along."

Pageturners Bookstore in Indianola, Iowa, opts for Pandora radio. "I get to choose favorite artists (as many as I like) and Pandora Business plays those and similar artists and takes care of the pesky copyright fees too," said Kathy Magruder. "My store is too small to sell music, so this seemed the best option. Today we've had John Prine, the Oysterband, Yo-Yo Ma and the Nadas. Oh, and Great Big Sea singing 'Never trust a fella with a helmet on his head' (words to live by!)."

Charles Bottomley of the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., recalled that a few years ago, they "switched from the floor manager's iPod to Pandora. We appear to have settled on a baroque playlist which is now played at an almost negligible volume--clarinets are burbling right now as I type this. This arrangement has brought a certain degree of peace to the bookstore. During the iPod years, there would be periodic revolts against the playlist, which usually involved a dose of Leo Kottke that was perhaps too robust for most people--some of the new age pudding that seeped out from the speakers on a daily basis may never leave my ears. The drawback of Pandora is that now when customers ask what CD is playing, we have to explain it's a streaming service--and often even when we identify a track and performer for them, we don't have the music in the store to handsell to them."

Noting that music "is a common subject of discussion for us, in part because my mother, who works occasionally in the store, has a limited tolerance of many genres," Harriett Logan of Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio, observed: "In general, we have a wide collection to choose from, including classical, early music, jazz, world, folk, singer-songwriter, and a speck of pop. We give albums or songs a color code for emotional power (yellow is sunny, red is spirited or even angry, blue is, well, blue), a star-rating, and notes like Staff Picks or Mom-fail, so we can create closely curated playlists. Sometimes we'll spend a whole day on Celtic music, another day we might flit widely from Dvorak to didgeridoo to dulcimer. I like mixing it up (the color coding helps avoid really jarring transitions, but they still might be surprising). And it doesn't always work for my mother, who calls Mary Chapin Carpenter rap, and who can get angry at Mozart quartets if they play in the energy-lull of late afternoon. So it's a work in progress, and requires attention.

"I never tune out the background music, and I'm the first to complain if it stops. I don't like the empty silence, the way it makes people whisper like they're in a library, and the lack of energy pulse that good music provides. Of course people have different tastes, just like in books and bookstores. But we create an environment uniquely our own."

As I write this on Wednesday night in my office, I'm working without a soundtrack. No... wait, I do hear distant music after all. Not piped music. Live. Just over the hill from my house, Mumford & Sons are playing to a sold-out crowd at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I stare at my computer screen, wondering if that muted sound is "White Blank Page."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2777


Retail Music: Do You Hear What I Hear? 

Piped water, piped electricity, piped gas--but never piped music! --Stephen Fry

I'm taking a quick international poll: If you are reading this column in a bookstore, tell me what kind of music is playing on the shop's sound system? 

Generally speaking, what do you think of "piped music" in bookstores? I only ask because music seems to be on my mind this week, thanks to the impending Tony Awards Sunday (even though the only Broadway musical I've seen in recent years is Fun Home) and Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats playlist, showcased recently on the Powell's Books blog.

More to the point, I also read that Waterstones "has been quietly pressing the mute button in its shops to give their customers some peace as they browse its shelves." The U.K. bookstore chain, which "joined the growing backlash against piped music," said more than three quarters of its almost 300 shops have imposed a ban on music in recent years, with CEO James Daunt noting that most customers want peace and quiet while visiting a bookshop, the Daily Mail reported.

The movement against piped music also gained momentum recently when British mega-retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) announced its decision to "switch off background music in stores in response to feedback from customers and staff."

Tumbling down this virtual rabbit hole, I learned that an organization called Pipedown, which was founded two decades ago by Nigel Rodgers, counts Philip Pullman, Joanna Lumley and the aforementioned Stephen Fry among its supporters. Recently, Rodgers visited the M&S flagship Marble Arch store in London, where he told the Guardian he heard "nothing. When noise is succeeded by silence, there is a sense of release."

Last December, when Waterstones CEO James Daunt first announced that the company would begin turning down the in-store volume, Rodgers advised Pipedown members "to persist with their quiet policy, congratulate the staff in each quiet branch and hand over a blue card saying 'Thank you for not having music.' (Available free to members for an SAE.) Better still, write to James Daunt himself to urge him to continue his no-muzac policy and to congratulate him on revitalizing Waterstones."

And yet...

More than half my work life was spent in music-infused retail environments, beginning with a supermarket job in the 1970s. To this day, I retain a distinct, spine-tingling memory of the butcher's band saw whining in counterpoint to Muzak. This is perhaps one reason why '60s flower children like myself remain a little bewildered. How could we psychologically process a catatonic string arrangement of "The Age of Aquarius," accompanied by steel cutting through flesh and bone?

Time moved on. By the 1990s, when I became a bookseller, there were logical retail grounds for inflicting piped music on bookstore customers in the form of increased CD sales. Playing a select rotation of CDs--soft jazz or classical or folk, minimal words--not only fostered a certain aural calm, it also consistently sparked patron's interest, despite moments of confusion:

Customer: "What's that playing? Do you have the CD in stock?"
Me (listening closely for the first time in hours, having instinctively learned how to not hear the endless music loop): "That? It's... Let me check. (quick glance at CD cases by stereo) It's George Winston's Forest."
Customer: "I think it's beautiful. Don't you?"
Me: "Um, sure... Let me show you where to find it."
(Customer follows, whistling an unrecognizable tune in the spirit of George Winston.)

Holiday season piped music. I guess I have to mention that. We sold buckets of those CDs, thanks to a lush wave of piped Yuletide tunes, ranging from solemn to jolly, punctuated at regular intervals by our PA system's semi-desperate calls for assistance at the customer service stations. Now that was an odd bit of accompaniment to carols: "Oh, Holy night, the... 'We need help at the front service desk, please!' ...of our dear Savior's birth."

Music is still in the air at most bookstores I visit now, but I like the fact that not every shop feels compelled to play only quiet stuff, the piped music equivalent of library shushing. While few bookstores would get away with cranking the volume to 11, the range of music played in-store expanded admirably, even as CD sales were losing their bookstore lives. Or maybe because they were.

What does the future hold? Would you believe Muzak for online shopping in the form of services like Feed.fm, which "is betting that music will be a default feature on retailers' mobile apps. And unlike Muzak, which used instrumental, rerecorded versions of songs, Feed is providing real tunes from real artists with playlists curated by the brands." Sci-fi authors will be hard-pressed to compete with that dystopian vision.

So, what's playing in your bookstore? I'd really like to know. Do you hear what I hear?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2772


Happy Birthday to the 'Professor of Books' 

If you would know what nobody knows, read what everybody reads, just one year afterwards... --Ralph Waldo Emerson, who turned a spry 213 years old on Wednesday

Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a reader, I don't think I'm that hard to please, despite the fact that so many of the ARCs I pick up can easily be put down again. Of course, there's never been a chronic shortage of putdownable books. Consider Henry David Thoreau at his caustic best in 1854:

They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sephronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth--at any rate, how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on!... All this they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-covered edition of Cinderella.


Or that other legendary reader of Concord, Emerson. He estimated that in 1858, the number of printed books in the world might easily exceed a million volumes. Seems a manageable number now, doesn't it? He also wrote of the challenges inherent in tracking down a great new read:

It is easy to accuse books, and bad ones are easily found; and the best are but records, and not the things recorded; and certainly there is dilettantism enough, and books that are merely neutral and do nothing for us.... The bookseller might certainly know that his customers are in no respect better for the purchase and consumption of his wares. The volume is dear at a dollar, and after reading to weariness the lettered backs, we leave the shop with a sigh, and learn, as I did without surprise of a surly bank director, that in bank parlors they estimate all stocks of this kind as rubbish.


I work in the book trade, where titles of every description and quality are the key to survival for publishers and booksellers and writers. Too many of the ARCs I sample, "buffet reading" 50 pages or so, just don't connect. ("It's not you; it's me." Sometimes that's the reason. Not always.) When someone asks me to recommend a new book that "you really loved," and I haven't read anything recently that genuinely qualifies, I can't lie about it. Is the art of reading too sacramental for deceit? Probably not, though it does often feel that way. As a bookseller, I was no literary shaman, but I tried not to be a hinky used car salesman either. If a book really got through to me, my longtime patrons could hear the enthusiasm in my voice, just as they picked up on the slightest inflection when a recommendation was hesitant.

Emerson's study at his home in Concord, Mass.

Once upon a time, I thought I could find everything I needed in Emerson's works, turning to them as other people leaned on astrology or the I Ching, seeking counsel, solace or wisdom, whatever was needed. I even fantasized about living in 19th-century Concord, accepting invitations to dinner with Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, maybe a surprise visit from Margaret Fuller. Gradually, however, I realized that given my working-class heritage, I would probably have been serving them soup.

Emerson did, however, create my ideal job description:

Meantime the colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and, I think, no chair is so much wanted. In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends, but they are imprisoned by an enchanter in these paper and leathern boxes; and though they know us, and have been waiting two, ten, or twenty centuries for us--some of them--and are eager to give us a sign, and unbosom themselves, it is the law of their limbo that they must not speak until spoken to; and as the enchanter has dressed them, like battalions of infantry, in coat and jacket of one cut, by the thousand and ten thousand, your chance of hitting on the right one is to be computed by the arithmetical rule of Permutation and Combination--and not a choice out of three caskets, but out of half a million caskets all alike. But it happens in our experience that in this lottery there are at least fifty or a hundred blanks to a prize. It seems then, as if some charitable soul, after losing a great deal of time among the false books, and alighting upon a few true ones which have made him happy and wise, would do a right act in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.


Professor of Books. Maybe that's what I became after all--in a sense... nontenured. Thanks, R.W.E. And happy birthday.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2763

Page 1 ... 4 5 6 7 8 ... 103 Next 5 Entries »