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On Booksellers, Celebrities & Celebrity Authors

As another BookExpo America approaches, my thoughts have turned to celebrities. Not author celebrities, but celebrity celebrities (who, for BEA purposes, often mean celebrity authors). This year's BEA Book & Author Breakfasts include a generous helping of speakers whom you might be forgiven for considering celebrities first and authors second, including Neil Patrick Harris, Anjelica Huston, Jason Segel, Alan Cumming, Martin Short and Lena Dunham.

I'm not complaining, having watched booksellers, myself included, stalk celebrities in our own quiet way for a long time, including a pair of occasions when I witnessed Oprah Winfrey being engulfed by an adoring, bookish entourage. The first occurred in 1993 at the ABA convention in Miami, where I happened to attend a lush, downtown rooftop garden launch party for Oprah's soon-to-be-canceled memoir. Shielded by bodyguards, she moved across the floor within what was quite literally the eye of a party storm as the book crowd swirled around her.

photo: outcrybookreview.com

And in Chicago eight years later, the scene was repeated when she attended a BEA Author Breakfast where her friend Quincy Jones was speaking. Afterward, she left for a quick tour of the trade show. Her passage through the corridors from banquet room to convention floor became a procession, with Oprah leading and booksellers trailing in her wake.

On their home turf, most booksellers are generally more circumspect. The first unwritten rule at the bookstore where I worked for many years was that if you spotted a celebrity in the stacks, you left them alone and respected their anonymity unless they broke the ice first. The second rule was that it didn't count as a genuine sighting without credit card name confirmation.

Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., sums up the "celebrity browsing" dynamic nicely: "Over the years, we've learned to expect a bit of celebrity here at Auntie's, and not just our own! Many community figures, actors, singers, artists and other performers are also avid readers. We don't stalk our visitors while they're here, but once in a while we feel comfortable requesting that we be allowed to take a photo."

I've noticed recently that the gossip media tends to be inordinately thrilled when it catches celebrities in bookstores:

"Taylor Swift shops at McNally Jackson, will save book publishing."
"Amber Heard celebrates birthday with Johnny Depp, couple visit a bookstore."
"Ellen Page strolls arm in arm with rumored girlfriend... Together, they hit up several neighborhood spots, including the McNally Jackson bookstore."
"She's one literary lady: Geri Halliwell wears grey trouser suit to visit a book store in North London
"Selma Blair cruises to the bookstore in carnival capri pants to pocket some great summertime reads."

Julianne Moore, BEA 2013

Generally, indie booksellers are content to practice a bookish version of catch-and-release when it comes to celebrity sightings. It's not that we don't care. No one could deny the buzz that sweeps through a bookshop when a celeb is on premises, so we're not completely jaded when it comes to celebrity encounters.

I remember a great conversation I had several years ago at BEA in Chicago during a Farrar, Straus & Giroux dinner with Paul Yamazaki, head book buyer at City Lights, San Francisco, Calif., and Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins lead singer who was about to publish a collection of poems. We discussed books and places to eat; just three dudes talking poetry and the best bratwurst vendors on the streets of Chicago.

John Stockton at BEA 2013

I'll even confess that last year at BEA, I made two special, somewhat star-struck pilgrimages to hover briefly around the signing tables of National Basketball Association legends Kareem Abdul Jabbar and John Stockton.

My all-time favorite celebrity-turned-author moment involved Bill Murray's appearance at a BEA Author Breakfast panel in Los Angeles 15 years ago for his book A Cinderella Story. After confessing that he "became a writer back in 1999. I had approximately, uh, the rest of the month to finish it," he offered a little Murrayish retail perspective for the indie booksellers in attendance: "I've never gone to the Internet and sat down and read anything, but I've never gone to the Internet and shoplifted, either."

Ultimately, I can only hope my strategy for dealing with celebrities in the book world falls well short of stalker territory and more in line with that sense we often get while on vacation of not wanting to be mistaken for a tourist. Pretend like you belong and it's all part of your everyday routine. Maybe you'll at least fool yourself.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2253.


Mother's Day Is 'A Very Booky Holiday'

Do you know what the first rule of Mother's Day is at Hallmark? "Don't make fun of your mom."

Dad? It's always open season on him. Even Mother's Day isn't a safe paternal harbor (please refer to Exhibit A--this great card featured by Chapter2Books, Hudson, Wis.). Tina Neidlein, a Hallmark greeting card writer, told Bloomberg Businessweek: "On Father's Day, you can say, 'Dad, all you want is a sandwich!' or 'Dad, you nap a lot.' But if you make fun of your mother, she's going to cry. And you can't even make fun of that."

Just to be safe, we'll opt for the "be grateful" strategy, as in "Thanks Mom for Being My First Storyteller." The new video from HarperCollins features several authors--Veronica Roth, Soman Chainani, Lauren Oliver, Ann Patchett, Dan Gutman, Rita Williams-Garcia, Adriana Trigiani and more--expressing their bookish Mother's Day gratitude.

Books. That's the ticket. While the don't-make-fun-of-mom edict is probably based more on Hallmark's penchant for sentimental typecasting than scientific research, it did remind me that indie booksellers have long made a point of breaking away from traditional (i.e., cliché) merchandising options in their Mother's Day displays. For example, this year the Book Nook, Ludlow, Vt., showcases Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, & the Will to Lead and Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance on its Mother's Day table. And then there are the delightfully entomological sentiments expressed on the cover of a greeting card featured by Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y. ("Eating her young meant fewer Mother's Day cards to open")

Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., created a video of personal staff picks for their mothers, with a nice range of choices: A Fighting Chance, Sibley Birds, A Platter of Figs, Journey, Ethics for the New Millennium, Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart and Flour, Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe's Most Loved Sweets & Savories.

"Mother's Day is a very booky holiday," the New York Times observed. "A book isn't too much, it doesn't have to be prominently displayed, it doesn't demand a conversation about how calories-don't-count-because-whatever and it doesn't wilt--or it goes nicely with more traditional gifts, which do do some of those things. Mother's Day is a fun time to give a book she will love to a friend, too: maybe a friend whose spouse and children don't 'get it' quite as well as you do."

Last year, Kobo released a Mother's Day video featuring moms from many countries reading with their children, ending with: "She gave you the gift of reading. On Mother's Day, give it back."

Once upon a time (let's call it the early 1950s), when I was three or four years old, a fierce thunderstorm hit our town. Through the haze of memory, I can still feel the intensity of that storm, but I mostly remember the shelter my younger brother and I found on my mother's lap while she read us a story to take our minds off what she called "God bowling in the sky."

I was reminded of that moment when I recently encountered a lovely and very bookish e-newsletter column by Nancy Page, owner of Island Books, Mercer Island, Wash.: "With our youngest, Lewis, leaving home in the fall to attend college in the Midwest, this Mother's Day takes on a special meaning and gives me pause to reflect. The school-age years have been full, as I watched our children forge their own friendships and become the young adults that they are, but it was the early years when we hunkered down on the couch and read piles of books for hours at a time, completely absorbed in stories, that hold the fondest memories. I liked to read aloud and my kids loved to listen--a match made in heaven."

Page then chronicles a title-rich reading life with her children before concluding: "So maybe I could have done this mothering thing differently and my children would be practical scientists or mathematicians in the making, but instead they are exactly as they always have been and really in my opinion, should be, the sorts who love stories, bookseller's children. I am forever grateful for those years spent reading to them. So if you are at home with little ones, I suggest you make time to read. Read a lot to them. Punctuate your days with books, piles of books on the couch. You will never regret it. Happy Mother's Day." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2248.


Parapalooza! & the Speed of Kipling's Pen

How could you pass up an invitation like this one? "Parapalooza! with Tim Federle and his Are You There God, It's Me, Margarita. Enjoy a cocktail while authors read, with meaning, feeling and enthusiasm, a single favorite hand-picked paragraph from their book."

Well, I didn't pass it up and had a front row seat for last fall's Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show debut of Parapalooza! in New Orleans. Emceed with humor and enthusiasm by Federle (Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist & the Nate Foster series of children's books), the program featured a wide-ranging baker's dozen of alternately serious or funny, but always fascinating, literary voices

So I was pleased to learn that Federle will return to host and emcee the second edition of Parapalooza! during SIBA's Fall Discovery Show this year in Norfolk, Va. His next book is Hickory, Daiquiri, Dock: Cocktails with a Nursery Rhyme Twist (Running Press).

Parapalooza! is a great concept, putting writers in the position of highlighting passages from their own new works. That Margaritas were the beverage of choice for last fall's event may have heightened the audience's appreciation quotient measurably (Even our host opened with: "My name is Tim Federle and I'm drunk already!"). Having the opportunity to experience a wide range of narrative styles and reading voices in such a condensed format (especially at the end of a long show day), turned out to be a marvelous, word-drenched twist on Happy Hour.

Lisa Patton

Lisa Patton, who read an amusing passage featuring three characters from her novel Southern as a Second Language, told me she chose her paragraph "because it showed the humorous side of my novel and I wanted the audience to get a sense of the comedy that is so important to me in all my books. Plus, I felt it would allow me to be animated while reading. I really enjoyed Parapalooza!, but if truth be told, I may have cheated a little and read several lines of dialogue, which are technically paragraphs in and of themselves."

Danny Ellis

One of my favorite moments occurred when singer-songwriter Danny Ellis chose not to read a paragraph, but to perform, a cappella, "Tommy Bonner," a song about one of the characters in his memoir, The Boy at the Gate (see it at the 13-minute mark on the Parapalooza! video). "Wow! So that happened," Federle said afterward. "Anything can happen with these paragraphs."

But Parapalooza! is more than just authors and Margaritas. SIBA created the concept "around the impulse readers have to share a favorite paragraph from their favorite books" and it has become an ongoing project for the organization, which encourages the reading public to participate by sending links to short videos of them reading a paragraph from one of their favorite books. The only requirement is that, like the author event, paragraphs be "read with enthusiasm and feeling." Videos and links can be sent to parapalooza@sibaweb.com, and will be archived on the Parapalooza! Youtube channel and on the website.

"We invite one and all to submit their own Parapalooza! video for the website," said Wanda Jewell, SIBA's executive director.

A couple of things came to mind when I started thinking about Parapalooza! this week. The first was a memory from more than a decade ago, when I was at an event where Elizabeth Cox read from her story collection Bargains in the Real World. As she was being introduced, I noticed her marking up a page with a pen. She later said she had been rewriting a paragraph in her already published book before reading it. That image of writer as eternal reviser, even of "finished" sentences and paragraphs, stayed with me.

The second was a question: What paragraph would I choose to read for a Parapalooza! video? It's hard enough for an author to select a passage from a single book, so how do we readers possibly narrow down a lifetime of book encounters to such a pinpoint?  

Quite suddenly, however, I recalled a surprisingly appropriate choice: a paragraph that nests deep within Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, when Hana is reading Kim to her patient, who says: "Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2243.


All the World Book Night's a Stage

"Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those/ that are fools, let them use their talents," Feste says in Twelfth Night. He is, I confess, a role model, though I've generally found more practical applications in my life for foolery than wisdom. That said, a belated Happy Birthday wish goes out to William Shakespeare, who turned an ever-wise and ever-foolish 450 years old Wednesday.

Although World Book Night was originally scheduled on April 23 precisely because it is the Bard's birthday, so much WBN news is being made that Will sometimes gets lost in the wings. So it seems only fair to give him--yes, I'm going to say it--his hour upon the stage.

Garrison Keillor at the World Book Night kick-off at the New York Public Library.

As Garrison Keillor, author and proprietor of Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn., observed on the Writer's Almanac this week, Shakespeare "created some of the most unforgettable characters ever written for the stage, and was a master of the language of various social classes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, he coined 3,000 new words, and he has contributed more phrases and sayings to the English language than any other individual."

Or, as @MelvilleHouse nicely summed it up: "How to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday? Perhaps by living our entire lives within the language he more or less created. Thanks, buddy."

Shakespeare was, as might be expected for a birthday boy, more ubiquitous than usual during this year's World Book Night festivities. Those attending the WBN launch event at Skylight Books in Los Angeles Tuesday night were among the first to receive a free copy of Dover's Shakespeare's Complete Sonnets in a special WBN edition. On Wednesday, Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, proclaimed: "Today's #WBN2014 (World Book Night), #Shakespeare450th, & the anniversary of Sam Weller's birth. There's no better day to read a book!" Books Inc. in Alameda, Calif., agreed: "World Book Night? Shakespeare's 450th bday? Booksellers at Books Inc. Alameda? Yes, yes, and yes. Come down and join the fun!"

Books Inc. in Alameda, Calif., brought the Bard into Book Night. The players: (l.-r.) Adrienne Reiter, Tom Galleguillos, Nick Petrulakis; (kneeling) Gene Kahane.  

In Louisville, Ky., Carmichael's Bookstore welcomed "our friends at Kentucky Shakespeare for an early celebration of World Book Night," with performers reading sonnets and "even grac[ing] us with a performance or two in honor of the Bard."

The California Shakespeare Ensemble in Pasadena, Calif., "which has been partnering with Pasadena LEARNS to 'facilitate' the John Muir High School after school Drama Club," worked on Shakespeare's Sonnets Wednesday with students as part of their WBN celebration, Hometown Pasadena reported.

Innisfree Poetry Bookstore Cafe, Boulder, Colo., featured members of the Shakespeare Oratorio Society presenting " 'Venus and Mars,' an exploration of the complicated and ever-changing relationships between women and men as seen in Shakepeare's plays."

I stopped by Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Wednesday night for their "William Shakespeare Birthday Celebration for World Book Night," featuring Skidmore College students and actors from Saratoga Shakespeare reading sonnets. The audience received copies the WBN Dover edition to keep and share. Even the Bard himself, looking surprisingly spry for a 450-year-old, was in attendance.

In New York City, copies of the Complete Sonnets were placed on theater seats during Wednesday's performances of Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, Matilda the Musical, Newsies and The Lion King. Broadway World noted that "curtain speeches and letters in the books will encourage audience members to give their book to someone who may not be a regular reader."

In addition, the Broadway League is teaming with WBN U.S. to distribute free copies of sonnets at national Family First Nights events for students and families, Kids' Night on Broadway programs throughout the country, and to students participating in the Broadway League's high school internship program.

"We are thrilled to be partnering with the Broadway League and all the great work they do," said WBN U.S. executive director Carl Lennertz. "Obviously, we share a love for the words and work of William Shakespeare, and the Broadway League is committed to increasing awareness of the arts as we are of reading, so this is a wonderfully natural fit. Theater and books bring joy and light into many lives."

I've had the good fortune to see a few magnificent productions in recent years, including Shakespeare's Globe and Mark Rylance's Measure for Measure at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn (2005), as well as Twelfth Night and Richard III last fall at the Belasco Theatre; and the Royal Shakespeare Company's As You Like It in a stunning replica of its Stratford-upon-Avon Theatre, constructed within the Park Avenue Armory (2011).

What I also love, however, is the way Shakespeare's words feel so at home wherever they are spoken, even when we don't know we're speaking them: "a fool's paradise," "dead as a doornail," "come what may," "forever and a day," "love is blind," "night owl," "wild goose chase," "into thin air."

Sustaining this tradition, World Book Night has become great international street theater for book and word people. Shakespeare would approve. In fact, at the WBN kickoff celebration in New York City Tuesday, he was even seen wearing a book giver badge. Happy birthday, Will, and many happy returns to the stage.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2237.


DIESEL's 'Close Readers of Beautiful Writing'

Pick a poem, any poem. Well, not just any poem; pick one you have lived with a while. Now, read the poem aloud. How does it sound? Record your voice reading that poem. Add complementary video. Imagine dozens of people doing the same thing.

As it happens, you don't have to imagine this because for the past five years, California's DIESEL, A Bookstore has been releasing a new videopoem daily during Poetry Month. While booksellers are usually the featured readers, DIESEL occasionally invites a guest. Last year, even I got in on the videopoem action with my signature monotone rendition of Gary Snyder's "Hay for the Horses."

DIESEL's co-owner John Evans told me the bookstore has "always had an extra special emphasis on poetry and art. We believe they are essential parts of great local independent neighborhood bookstores like ours. I am a poet and have an M.A. in Poetics (of all things) and so want poetry to be widely, easily available and visible at our stores. We have cultivated poetry reading, and writing, at our stores from the beginning."

That said, technology is no stranger to DIESEL's mission either. "We've embraced technologies, but insisted that they further good aesthetics," Evans observed. "We created a website in 1991 and, I must say, it was beautiful. It's a challenge, as platforms change--sales gets integrated into what was originally a communications tool--to keep the aesthetics going. It's a welcome challenge. My partner, Alison Reid, has said that a good slogan for DIESEL is 'if you bought an ugly book, you didn't buy it at DIESEL.' "


When they decided to produce more book-related videos about five years ago, "we just started naturally also reading from them and then thought, What about a whole month of reading poems for National Poetry Month?" Evans recalled. "Most of us were absolutely excited by it, and some were a little more tentative. After all, hard as it may be to believe, not all booksellers regularly read poetry. But all booksellers have read, and loved, some poetry. Since we try to open things wide, we encouraged people to just read whatever poems they wanted. We were startled by the results the very first year. Several of us--me, Jon Stich and Grant Outerbridge (both very artistic booksellers)--decided to shoot some video to match with the read poems for those who didn't want to be filmed reading and out of a curiosity as to what we could come up with."

During the first year, DIESEL mixed videos of booksellers reading with some videopoems before deciding the video versions were generally more interesting. "Since then, Jon has shot most of the video and added the audio clips," Evans noted. "Pretty much all of our booksellers have contributed readings each year."

Positive feedback has come from customers, friends, publishers, other booksellers and authors, "all praising us for our commitment, for specific poem choices and for particularly effective readings," he said. "Some people look forward to the one-per-day reveal, while others listen to them in groups and a few wait until the month is over and then binge on them. It's a great annual ritual: for each of us; for all of us at the store; and for all of the other readers, of poetry or not, who enjoy getting words in their purest forms."

Evans cited two of his all-time favorite videopoems, which "come to mind every year, largely because of their combination of great reading and eerily perfect video." One is William Butler Yeats's "Lake of Innisfree," read by Nell Arnold, and the other Kay Ryan's "The Material," read by Colin Waters. He also praised Brad Johnson, "who does our blog and is a poet himself and a great reader of poetry. He floored me with his reading voice--like a young Orson Welles! I love to hear him read, but particularly love the first videopoem of his that I saw/heard: 'Sentences' by Lyn Hejinian. My favorite so far this year? Herb Bivins, who works in the Larkspur store, "beautifully reads one of my favorite poems--'The Waking,' by Theodore Roethke--and Jon intuitively marries it to an amazingly appropriate scene. The wind and Herb's breathing, and wonderfully timbred voice, bring forth so much of the incantatory magic of this poem, it just leaves me smiling." The Roethke videopoem is my favorite thus far this year as well.

"One further thing which I've really only full appreciated this fifth year: I really enjoy the sounds of my co-workers voices transposed into this intimate register of reading poems which they care about and so, care for," Evans observed. "This is not the voice of the bookseller with our enthusiasm for books and expert helpfulness, but the voice of close readers of beautiful writing and the imaginations conjoined there. It's such a pleasure to know and hear my fellow booksellers in this way."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2232.

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