There is a marked trail of books that you can see clearly when you look over your shoulder, and a pair of recent deaths has reminded me once again how important that well-read path can be.
A college friend, with whom I'd had only minimal contact through letters and then e-mails over the past 40 years, died suddenly October 2 of natural causes in Ottawa. He was 64. I didn't know about it until a couple of days ago, when his daughter found me in the traditional 21st-century manner--scanning Facebook for matching names until the right one appeared.
When we were in college, my friend and I used to have long conversations about the ideal bookshop we wanted to run someday. That our store was conjured from dreams became clear many years later when I started working full-time as a frontline bookseller.
Several days before I learned of his passing, I happened to recall those conversations in a quiet moment as I was working at my desk. I don't believe in ghosts, but the timing of that recollection was, in its way, almost empirical evidence. Our Borgesian bookshop is apparently still open.
Then there's Alex Karras, a former All-Pro defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions who died October 10 at the age of 77. His death touched a different nerve and an earlier book memory. I was in high school when I read George Plimpton's Paper Lion, a humorous account of his brief research stint in 1963 as "last-string quarterback" for the Lions during their summer training camp.
Paper Lion was one of my earliest "bridge books." Although I was a good student in high school and college, I was also an athlete and bridging the gap between those disparate worlds became increasingly complicated in the late '60s and early '70s. Reading helped.
In my memory, Karras was the real star of Plimpton's narrative, not just for his athletic ability, but also for his intelligence, sense of humor and, well, presence. He was a wise-ass and a storyteller (two of my favorite attributes), specializing in tales of his own reincarnations: "General Washington was beautiful. I was at Valley Forge, you know, real cold...."
Rereading Paper Lion (a 45th-anniversary edition from Lyons Press) this week for the first time in nearly half a century, I was surprised to discover--or be reminded--that Karras hadn't even been in training camp that year. He was under indefinite suspension by the NFL for "placing a series of small bets during the season," as Plimpton delicately put it.
Yet Karras still manages to be the centerpiece of the book. Plimpton never misses a chance to sneak in anecdotes about him, and the final third of Paper Lion is practically handed over to flash-forward accounts of time spent with Karras later. Absence somehow becomes a kind of presence.
As Plimpton observed, "His presence had not only been missed on the field but also in the social life of the training camp--particularly in the dining room, where he put on his skits and monologues.... He had an absolute flow of free association, and his fantasies seemed to spring forth, never set pieces, but spontaneous and extemporized."
So Paper Lion became a trail marker on my book path, though I'm not the only one. In an introduction to the 1993 edition, Plimpton wrote: "The most heart-warming reaction to Paper Lion over the years has been the reaction of high school and grade school teachers who have spoken to me to say that they often assigned the book to students with little interest in literature who were subsequently turned on to reading."
When it went out of print for a time, Plimpton received letters from many teachers who mourned the absence of a book that offered certain students "the affirmation that there could be a strong aesthetic link between what they loved foremost, far more than classroom work--football, say--and reading about it in something other than the sports magazines and the newspapers."
These are not Shelf Awareness obituary notes in the usual sense of the term. They're just memories of a bookstore and a book, and the power of absence.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1852.
There is a marked trail of books that you can see clearly when you look over your shoulder, and a pair of recent deaths has reminded me once again how important that well-read path can be.
You have to love a regional trade show where one of the country's best-known bookstore owners, Garrison Keillor (Common Good Books), leans forward and confidentially (albeit in front of an audience of more than 350 people during the Heartland Fall Forum's opening reception at the Depot in Minneapolis) asks another celebrated author/bookseller, Louise Erdrich (Birchbark Books), the following question:
"Your business is okay?"
This was something of a signature moment for me during the inaugural HFF, a combined regional show for members of the Midwest independent Booksellers Association and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. Business was indeed okay among most of the booksellers I spoke with, and their reaction to the show was enthusiastic without reservation.
David Enyeart, assistant manager and event coordinator at Common Good Books (and the newest member of MIBA's board), "had a blast and everyone I talked to there did, too. The optimism and enthusiasm were palpable. Meeting a wider array of booksellers at the expanded show helped us all remember that we're part of a huge, vibrant and successful community. We were able to share more experiences, hear more ideas, and fall in love with our jobs all over again. I was awed by all that our region's bookstores have accomplished and inspired to do even more in the year ahead."
Carrie Obry (right in photo), executive director of MIBA, said she was "thrilled with my experience working with GLIBA on developing and hosting the combined show. Most everything came together according to our most optimistic calculations, and then some. With two separate associations at work (and all three employees in separate locations), there was a lot of administrative/office set-up that had to be done. That was the biggest challenge of the show, but I think we're stronger because of it. Seeing how GLIBA is run gave me another perspective and is helping me better run MIBA."
Nearly 800 people attended HFF, 358 of whom were booksellers--including 81 GLIBA members. Obry considered this "a successful number," adding that the 2013 show in Chicago "should be even better for mixed MIBA/GLIBA attendance because it's more central to both regions."
GLIBA executive director Deb Leonard (left in photo above) also thought next year's show would attract more members, but said, "I think that it worked out wonderfully for both regions. The show was well-attended, and there was definitely a positive, high-energy vibe throughout. It was a nice combination of things from both regions. The attendees seemed to work and play well together, and I think the combined show solidifies the Midwestern identity of the Heartland, especially for those publishers in New York."
Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean and Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., said he and his wife, Jessilyn, "always look forward to the fall GLIBA show as we know we'll spend several days with colleagues who understand the unique challenges of selling books in the Midwest. We hoped that the Heartland Forum would have that same sense of camaraderie, but we weren't sure what to expect. What we encountered surpassed all of our hopes. The education sessions were terrific and covered a wide range of important topics. There were terrific author signings and talks, but most of all, the show floor was fantastic."
At one point, he looked around the exhibit hall "and felt as if I'd traveled back to a show from 10 years ago. The floor was full and bustling, not only were there terrific publishers but also fantastic sidelines. The publisher support for the show was overwhelming and I saw many publishing friends that I rarely see outside of BEA. I couldn't have hoped for a better first joint show and my hat is off to all of the board members, EDs and of course Joan Jandernoa for the amazing amount of coordination. All of their efforts truly paid off and I believe it has created a solid foundation for many more joint shows."
Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan., said she and co-owner Beth Golay "were invigorated from day one" and called the Depot "the best venue for any regional show I have ever attended." She noted that ABA's Events Specialty Institute on Wednesday "set the tone for a great week," a momentum that was sustained by the HFF day of education, book buzz presentations, ABA's session on the new partnership with Kobo, roundtable discussions and book awards, "all filled with enthusiastic booksellers from both the GLIBA and the MIBA regions. And I do mean full--the rooms were buzzing."
Like Norcross, Bagby observed that once the exhibit hall opened on Friday morning, "the trade show floor was energetic--everybody gathering to talk about fall books, publisher specials and regional catalogues. A bonus was authors autographing books in the booths and a contingent of upper management from the publishing side of the industry. I plan to have booksellers at next year's HFF in Chicago and hope the two regions continue to partner beyond 2013."
Anticipation of future HFFs was on Enyeart's mind as well: "Regional shows--like bookselling itself--are all about building community, so the collaboration with GLIBA made this year's Heartland Fall Forum doubly good. They were excellent partners, and I can't wait for next year's show."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1847.
Where have you been spending your time during Banned Books Week? Maybe the best response is between the pages of a controversial book you've never read before. But I found another tempting alternative in the world I've inhabited for the past couple of days. Surrounded by indie booksellers, authors of new books and publishers, I'm in Minneapolis, Minn., where the Heartland Fall Forum, the first joint fall trade show hosted by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, ends later today.
I'll be writing more about the show next week, but I just wanted to share a little of the bookish magic that's in the air here, especially during a week in which we also contemplate the actions of people whose stated goal is denying access to certain titles. Any self-disrespecting, book-banning troll who dared to show up at HFF would immediately be banished into eternal, wordless exile. Forthwith, as they like to say in the best troll stories.
No, that's not quite right. More likely, the troll would be loaded down with generous stacks of great new books and sentenced to spend some quiet time in the nearest available reading space: "You think that book you wanted banned was unsettling? Read these!"
"It is an honor and a joy to work in a world where ideas are still valued," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's bookstore, St. Paul, Minn., during HFF's opening reception Wednesday night. He is also the editor of Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores (Coffee House Press). Although Weyandt is now often introduced at events as an editor or author, he said (with a generous measure of bookish intensity): "First and foremost, forever and always, I will be a bookseller."
At breakfast yesterday morning, Emma Straub, a bookseller at BookCourt, Brooklyn, N.Y., whose debut novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures (Riverhead) was released earlier this month, echoed Weyandt's philosophy. Although she has taken a leave of absence while touring for her book, she lamented that "what I'll miss most is saying, 'Here, read this; read this!'.... I think every writer should work in a bookshop. I think publishers should require it."
Peter Geye, author of The Lighthouse Road (Unbridled Books), eloquently expressed his deep gratitude to booksellers during yesterday's breakfast event: "I look out across the room and see nothing but a room full of bookish saints.... Without you, I wouldn't exist as an author. How do you thank people for making a dream come true?"
He also talked about his own learning process in the world of books, noting that while being a "writer" is what he does in private to create his novels, "there's another part of the job description and that's being an 'author.' I think it's you all who have taught me how to be an author.... If I never wrote another word, I'd still have the gift of your friendship."
As is often the case when book people gather at these events, one speaker after another underlined the importance of indie bookstores. Justin Cronin, whose latest is The Twelve (Ballantine), praised booksellers for being "the opposite of hedge fund managers," while Christina Schwarz, author of The Edge of the Earth (Atria, April 2013), noted: "If every English teacher wants to be a writer, every writer dreams of being a bookseller." And Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins (Grand Central), said that her part-time job at WORD bookstore, Brooklyn, "has changed my life," adding: "I thank you for what you do, and I also get what you do."
Jim Heynen, author of The Fall of Alice K. (Milkweed), said, "I haven't been mixing with people who love the same thing I do so much in a long time. I'm just amazingly grateful to those of you who have the boots on the ground and say, 'Hey, check this out.' "
There is, of course, more to write about all the book business that was conducted here, but it's also important to acknowledge the beautiful, if short-lived, theme park for book people that a regional booksellers trade show inevitably becomes. The concept of banned books is even more surreal when you're fully engaged in all this fine conversation about writing and publishing and bookselling and reading. Here a book is an absolute necessity, a way of life. Or, as Emma Straub put it, a book is "love pretending to be a subway companion." Take that, book-banning trolls.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1843.
Maybe it's because I live in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. As Edna Ferber wrote in Saratoga Trunk, her novel set in the late 19th century, "July and August there's nothing like it in the whole country. Races every day, gambling, millionaires and pickpockets and sporting people and respectable family folks and politicians and famous theater actors and actresses, you'll find them all at Saratoga."
Maybe it's because Yaddo, the legendary colony for writers and artists, is located about two furlongs east of the top of the stretch at Saratoga Race Course; or maybe it's because of something author Curtis Sittenfeld said a few years ago in the New York Times, recalling an editor who told her: "People think publishing is a business, but it's a casino."
Whatever the reason, gambling and literature have long been interconnected for me, and this is the season--shortly after summer's thoroughbred horse races and just before publishing's thoroughbred literary prizes--when I tend to think about betting lines and their relationship to the world of books.
I frequently check in with British bookmaker Ladbrokes for the latest Man Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature odds. Just can't help myself; probably my English heritage sparking an instinctive punter's urge to handicap literature. And, of course, I work daily in one of the most odds-against industries imaginable. Publish a new book in this market? Who'd take that wager? Yet there we all are at the betting windows again and again, season after season, looking for a winner.
In England, bookmakers and book makers often share newspaper space. Just before the Booker shortlist was announced, a Guardian headline proclaimed: "Booker prize: Hilary Mantel is bookies' top tip for shortlist." Earlier this week, in an article covering the shortlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize, the Bookseller routinely added: "William Hill has already called on The Better Angels of Our Nature as the most likely winner, with odds of 2-1."
And thus to the question of the day: What are the current odds? As of this morning at Ladbrokes:
Man Booker Prize
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (9-4)
Umbrella by Will Self (11-4)
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (5-1)
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (5-1)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (6-1)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (8-1)
Nobel Prize in Literature
Haruki Murakami (5-1)
Bob Dylan (10-1)
Mo Yan (12-1)
Cees Nooteboom (12-1)
Ismail Kadare (14-1)
Ko Un (14-1)
Assia Djebar (14-1)
In what seems to be an annual rite, a "flurry of hefty bets" on Dylan for the Nobel was noted by the Guardian, which predicted that a hard rain's a-gonna fall (sorry, couldn't resist) on his chances, since "experts consider his real prospects vanishingly small." Alex Donohue, a spokesman for Ladbrokes, quipped: "We're happy to 'fill the satchel' in bookmaking terms as we expect the Dylan backers to part with their cash again this year."
As horseplayers say, "I wouldn't bet that with your money."
What bookies fear most is big money backing a surprise prohibitive favorite that goes on to win. This happened in 2009 for Wolf Hall, when a "rush of bets" in a 48-hour period after the Booker longlist had been announced slashed Mantel's odds from 12-1 to 2-1.
"Odds on book prizes are not a particularly sophisticated science," the Guardian noted at the time. "The bookies will generally work on a pretty simple basis--they'll chuck the shortest odds on the writers who are most famous, and work from there." The Mantel betting frenzy was "just a case of bookish betters taking advantage of the advantageous odds put on Mantel by a relatively unbookish bookie."
This year, however, "all of the momentum is with Mantel and punters are confident in her bid for the first ever repeat win," said Jessica Bridge of Ladbrokes. "She cost us dearly in 2009 with Wolf Hall and this year looks set to be no different."
In Croupier, one of the best movies ever made about gambling and writing, aspiring novelist and casino croupier Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) says, "Gambling's not about money... Gambling's about not facing reality, ignoring the odds."
If I could walk up to a betting window for well-read gamblers right now, I'd buck the odds and wager on Alison Moore to win the Booker and Mo Yan the Nobel. Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to place your literary bets--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1838.
The thing about trade shows in our business is--no surprise--that there's always a lot of print matter stacking up in all those tote bags and backpacks. This is a good thing, of course, but adding a show catalogue to the burden may sometimes feel, if you prefer your clichés with a twist, like the book that broke the camel's back.
I used BEA's mobile app this year, but didn't expect to have the option for the regionals and was pleasantly surprised to find one available at the recent Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance show.
How did that happen?
SIBA's executive director Wanda Jewell said she had long wanted an app for the show, "but the cost and commitment everywhere I looked was too much." Then she learned about MobePlace. After exploring the possibilities, she decided to give it a try.
"Since all was still in beta, it was a bit buggy and involved several do-overs but each time I needed their support (even over Labor Day weekend) they were there with a fix, help, or updates as they were needed," Jewell noted. "Having to put the content in more than once turned out to be a good lesson, and as I added content and worked with the software I figured out work-arounds and strategies to make the app work for #SIBA12. We weren't able to announce the app until the Thursday before the trade show as we were working right up till then, but I will use it again and I will encourage my colleagues to use it. It is quite an elegant yet free solution."
Reaction among attendees was generally positive. "I applaud Wanda for encouraging SIBA stores to stay technologically up to date," said Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction, Greenville, S.C. "As with any new technology, there were some bugs with the debut appearance of the app, but I love the idea of looking at my phone calendar for trade show event times and room numbers instead of having to locate my paper program among the slew of catalogues, galleys and other ephemera one carries around at a trade show."
Curiosity induced Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., to download the MobePlace app, and she "ended up using it quite a bit. The different views were nice to have--look at meals, education, social events or everything all together in a calendar format. I was very pleasantly surprised."
Although he doesn’t consider himself a "particularly 'technological' person," Jeff McCord of Bound To Be Read Books, Atlanta, Ga., also found the app helpful: "The printed SIBA show programs this year were the best ever and I tried to carry it with me everywhere I went. But sometimes it was at the bottom of my bag, or I had left it on the bedside table, or whatever, and I could just flip on the MobePlace app and find out where I needed to be in a few seconds."
Shane Gottwals of Gottwals Books, Warner Robins, Ga., had mixed feelings: "It was useful, but I liked using my printed guide since I could circle the events I wanted to attend. Yes, it was easy to use. For an event like this, though, a printed guide was much better. That's a lot of information to pack into a small mobile app screen."
Bloggers Heather O'Roark (Book Addiction) and Sandy Nawroot (You've GOTTA Read This!) offered slightly different reactions. O'Roark "didn't use it as much as I could have because I had my program with me at all times. But I did think the app was extremely convenient and a good addition to SIBA." Nawroot, on the other hand, "used it instead of the printed itinerary for the event. It was at my fingertips in a matter of seconds. This was a very handy tool."
Nathan Halter, member relationship manager at the American Booksellers Association, praised the layout of the app as "very user-friendly and I was a bit surprised by how deep the app went, how much information they were able to include."
He also noted that "other regionals might be (and probably should be) interested in developing an app for their events. One of my first thoughts when using it was that I think it would make a lot of sense for us to develop a similar app for some of the events we host (i.e., Winter Institute); it makes attending these events much easier for the attendees."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1832.