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Sunday
Jan262014

Bookstores & Museums, Reading & Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday
Jan172014

Books, Girlfriend Weekend & 'Viva Las Vegas, Baby!'

As you read this, the 14th annual Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend is officially underway in Jefferson, Tex., featuring a resplendent gathering of book lovers, authors and even an Elvis impersonator or three to evoke this year's theme, "Viva Las Vegas, Baby!"

Just yesterday, founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club--with more than 500 chapters nationwide--and long-reigning Queen of Girlfriend Weekend Kathy Murphy (formerly Kathy Patrick) shared her final checklist on Facebook: "Tiara packed, check, fifty million costumes plus headdresses, check! I am on my way to Jefferson in just a few minutes and am I pumped! We'll have more Elvises than you can shake a stick at and quite a few Ann-Margarets too! See you there, channeling Nancy Sinatra!"

If there is anyone in our industry who better represents the concept of "the show must go on" than Kathy, I'm not sure who that might be. This has been a year of transition for her, including the closure of Beauty and the Book bookshop/hair salon in Jefferson and a move to Hawkins, as well challenges in her personal life. Nevertheless, she has once again gathered her Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys for another tiara-fueled Girlfriend Weekend and the show is definitely going on right now.

As far as I can tell, I first began corresponding with Kathy in 2007 when she sent me an e-mail responding to a Shelf Awareness column about reading independent press titles. Recommending Rain Village by Carolyn Turgeon, she wrote: "This is a writer to watch and Unbridled Books to me is discovering authors of extreme merit. I just could not wait to tell you about this small press book!" That "I just could not wait to tell you" about a book energy is classic Kathy, as anyone who's encountered her will attest.

Kathy and her daughters

In 2008, her own book, The Pulpwood Queen's Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life, was published, and we've been corresponding regularly ever since. I finally met Kathy and her daughters, Madeleine and Helaina, at BookExpo 2012 in New York City. She told me then she believed she had "created 'a book world,' a world where we are building lifelong friendships, relationships and community that is truly making our lives for the better." And so she has.

"Life has been about major change this past year for me with my divorce, and move to a new home and shop in Hawkins," she said recently. "The future? Sharing my love of books and mission to promote literacy, of course. My bookstore now only carries Pulpwood Queen Book Club Selections."

In a recent profile, the Longview News-Journal noted that Kathy "fills her days with what she loves: God, books and, of course, big hair"; and that "those who have watched her build the book club over several decades know her spirit, if anything, has gotten stronger."

Kathy's daughters are also an intrinsic part of Girlfriend Weekend. She said they've "been helping me on the weekend since they were little kids. Madeleine is the DJ for my Great Big Ball of Hair Ball and Helaina usually sings and will be helping me and my co-hosts. They are big book lovers like me!"

In addition to her day job working at a beauty salon, Kathy is the youth director for the First United Methodist Church of Hawkins. "I love my life here and my church members have enveloped me in big book love," she said, adding that more chapters of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club are in the works, as well as speaking engagements, including one at the upcoming Nacodoches Film Festival where For the Love of Books, William Torgerson's documentary about Girlfriend Weekend, will be screened.

She is also working on an updated and revised edition of her book and talking with a producer in Los Angeles regarding a possible film about her life in books. "Will it happen, who knows?" she said. "But what have I got to lose? I lost my home, my church, my shop this past year, so suddenly I think I'll just go for what comes my way."

Noting that she "never had a clue what I would do in my life, because of books I have had a pretty good run at adventures through reading," Kathy observed: "I still don't know what I want to be, not when I grow up, but what my life's purpose and mission is I have just turned it all over to God. Funny, but that plan of action seems to be working very well for me. I'll just keep on like Johnny Appleseed, sowing away seeds for reading. Onward and upward to Girlfriend Weekend!"

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2168.

Sunday
Jan122014

Dear FutureMe: The Universe Is Expanding... in 3D

Dear FutureMe,

Hope you've stopped worrying. I can't. There are weeks when even the most optimistic toilers in the field of bookselling have their "The universe is expanding.... What's the point?" moments. In Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall, after young Alvy Singer's mother scolds him ("Brooklyn's not expanding!") because he's stopped doing his homework under the intense pressure of cosmic destruction, Dr. Flicker waves his hand grandly through the air and says, "It won't be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we've gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we're here!"

My own universe-is-expanding-what's-the-point moment of doubt arrives annually while reading dispatches from the Consumer Electronics Show. This year, just as I'd finally come to terms with the weirdly commonplace nature of e-books floating in the virtual ether and POD titles instantly available in certain indie bookshops, I learned that I now must gear up for the oncoming ubiquity of a "3D printing trend" that "bodes a future in which shoes, eyeglass frames toys and more are printed at home as easily as documents," as AFP described it.  

At CES, musician will.i.am, speaking as "creative officer for 3D Systems," predicted that within a decade, "3D printers will be in your house like refrigerators, TVs and microwaves."

Is that true, FutureMe?

And just when I was thinking print books might be a refuge for now from this one aspect of digital nation's manifest destiny, I read in Time about the intriguing limited edition of Chang-rae Lee's new novel On Such a Full Sea, which "brings publishing into the future (or, rather, one possible future)" with a 3D-printed slipcover that "features the letters of the title rising off the surface at an angle." Time called the innovation "one direction in which the publishing industry could move, at a time when the future of the physical book remains in question: providing fewer readers who are willing to pay more for each purchase with a reason to splurge for the physical object rather than the digital version, turning books into luxury objects."

Five years ago, Brooklyn-based MakerBot was the only 3D printer company at CES. "Now, it is surrounded by rivals on a large section of show floor devoted to the trend," according to AFP. Company spokesperson Jenifer Howard said, "We feel like this is the year of 3D printing." Was it, FutureMe?

MakerBot plans to market a 3-D Replicator Mini printer this spring for $1,375. "We believe that the MakerBot 3D Ecosystem we are presenting to the world fulfills the vision of a 3D printer for everyone," said company CEO Bre Pettis. "We have laid the groundwork for everyone to be able to be a creative explorer."

Why am I worrying then? I happen to be really good at adapting. POD and e-books already seem so turn-of-the-century to me. And if we really want to get all big-picture about this, as the BBC did recently with its "Timeline for the Far Future," in a thousand years most of our words will be extinct and in a hundred quintillion years the earth will die. Young Alvy Singer didn't know the half of it.

Do you have a 3D printer, FutureMe? Are you printing out life-size characters and scenes to re-create novels in your house and backyard? What do you do with your 3D Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer after you've "read" them? Are they recyclable?

Whatever mind-boggling predictions you're dealing with in your time, FutureMe, please take solace in knowing that some of them will happen (like Arthur C. Clarke's 1974 spot-on explanation of life with a desktop computer), but not all (still waiting for those affordable flying cars). The trick is, as ever, to make our peace with The Machine without getting crushed in its gears or motherboards--or whatever the hell is being invented now to crush you/me later.  

Here, at the dawn of 2014, CES and 3D printers notwithstanding, I'm trying to worry less and be more optimistic. Why? Many reasons. Consider Greenlight Bookstore, Community Book Store, WORD, powerHouse Arena, BookCourt, Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers.... It turns out that Little Alvy Singer's mother was wrong. Brooklyn is expanding, which gives me hope for the future of indie booksellers everywhere.

Thanks for listening, FutureMe. Write when you can. I'd love to hear from you.

P.S.: How did those Amazon Prime Air delivery drones work out? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2162.

Sunday
Jan052014

Resolved for 2014: Read Lots of Great Books

You've seen the illustration again and again. The transition from one year to the next is always represented by an overconfident newborn baby and a scythe-wielding Father Time, accompanied by promises of a fresh starts and lists of resolutions that flutter through the air like Times Square confetti on New Year's Eve.

Out with the old and in with the new is the prevailing cultural myth, though author John Green contends that last year's decrepit baby should not necessarily be thrown out with the champagne-laced bathwater because "some encouraging trends and statistics about the current state of humans in the world" indicate that "there are many reasons to be hopeful that 2014 might be the best year on record for humans, even if much of this growth is not (currently) sustainable."

So we've got that going for us.

There probably isn't a book industry equivalent to the baby/old man icon, since a book published last year, if still in mint condition, looks just like a book set to be released next Tuesday (and may be much, much better between the covers). Digital books, you ask? Who knows? Perhaps they will remain forever, if virtually, young. Certainly they seem so right now, though I assume something will come along not too far down the publishing line that will make our current "state-of-the-art" e-book delivery/consumption process seem as archaic as an 8-track tape deck in a 1973 Chevy Caprice Classic.

Does that matter? At the reading core, I don't think it does. Thus my single resolution is the one I make every year. It has been further validated by the recent discovery of Woody Guthrie's 1942 "New Years Rulin's," which included "Read lots good books." For 2014, I'm upping Guthrie's ante by vowing to read lots great books.

It's that simple, and attainable. Everything else about our industry requires a well-honed ability to anticipate and adapt. We all do this, every day of the year, and it's the antithesis of a resolution. You don't resolve to be more adaptable. You are... or you aren't.

Dee Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., definitely is. On Facebook this week, she eloquently depicted our book trade challenge of living--with resolve if not resolutions--in the future, whether we're poring over advance reader copies and publisher catalogues or...: "For my non-retailer friends, so you have an idea how schizophrenic my life is: It's not 2014 yet, and I've received 3 catalogs with my 2015 calendars I need to buy, with one rep appointment to buy calendars. And on Jan 6 we go to Atlanta gift show to buy Christmas decor/ornaments for next Christmas. Happy New Year!"

The reading life, however, offers a chance for resolutions. Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich., shared one: "New Year's Resolution: Finish every book I start. (That includes you, copy of Infinite Jest sitting near my bed since 2011.)." And Brain Pickings offered historical precedent with a publishing twist in the form of a 1977 pledge by Susan Sontag to "have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. ('No, I don't go out for lunch.' Can break this rule once every two weeks.)."

New Year's Day is also a good time to offer sound advice for others to follow. In a post at Bustle, Emma Cueto wrote: "This year as you make your New Year's resolutions to get in shape and stop wasting all your time on social media, there's one other habit you ought to try cultivating: Buy your books from independent bookstores whenever possible. That's right, it's time to ditch Amazon and even Barnes & Noble and take your business elsewhere. Namely to a locally owned bookstore."

Shopping indie "is something you can feel good about, and unlike your other New Year's resolutions, it won't leave you sore from weight lifting or sitting at home alone on a Saturday because you gave up drinking so much," Cueto noted. "So take that money you were going to spend on a gym membership you know you'll stop using by April and invest it in your book shopping. You won't regret it."

Sounds like an excellent and comfortably familiar game plan to me, so here's my slightly revised resolution: I will read lots of great books in 2014 and keep buying them at indie bookstores. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2157.

Sunday
Dec222013

The Holiday Season: It's a Wrap

So... this happened, which led me to think about the delicate, and occasionally indelicate, art of "professional" holiday season gift wrapping. By professional, I mean the people doing the wrapping are being paid. By "people," I mean, of course, booksellers.

On Christmas Eve, sometime during the late afternoon in most indie bookstores, one final customer will arrive at the checkout counter with an armload of stuff, and a bookseller or two will accept the challenge of wrapping these almost ceremonial purchases. The gift paper choices at that point may be limited; of the three or four or six rolls on display, a couple will no doubt be simple cardboard memorials to Christmas wrap options past.

But that wrapping station scene represents the culmination of weeks of intense handiwork with paper, ribbons and bows. Some may think booksellers have it easy. I mean, how hard can it be to wrap a book? Those people, however, have never tried to make a presentable present out of a stuffed giraffe or a box-less set of Buddha bookends. There are any number of paper-resistant challenges in a bookstore. Wrapping a cat is mere child's play by comparison. And those doubters have clearly never dealt with a long line of customers armed with very specific requests ("When you wrap that third book, on the outside could you also add this candy cane and this bookmark wrapped separately... and this Virginia Woolf keychain and...?"), each of which is graciously fulfilled.
 
For booksellers who aspire to greatness this weekend, inspiration can be found among your contemporaries--Patricia Zapata won this year's Scotch Brand Most Gifted Wrapper Contest, which asked competitors to wrap items like a toy castle, a kids' go-kart or a giant two-person paddle boat--as well as your predecessors: Mrs. Juliet Koenig Smith's 1965 obituary in the New York Times called her "a specialist in gift wrapping" who "was often called upon by leading stores for difficult or important projects. She wrapped many gifts for presentation to Presidents and other officials. Once she wrapped an entire automobile for a television commercial."

Could a bookseller do that? Absolutely. Bring on the paddle boats and cars, though I guess we should concede that not all gift wrappers are created equal. Some booksellers were born to wrap; others have gift wrapping duty thrust upon them. You can train almost anyone to wrap a book, but only the truly gifted can draw gasps of appreciation for a well-wrapped stuffed giraffe.

The Australian Booksellers Association has been using the peculiar trials inherent in gift wrapping as a book-selling promotion this year with a series of posters, including "A Christmas Guide: How to Wrap Awkwardly Shaped Presents... Or You Could Just Buy a Book."

Wrapping under pressure and public scrutiny is another issue altogether. During holiday crunch time, seasoned booksellers always raise their game while wrapping endless stacks of items, in full view and following detailed instructions ("Put Harry's name on the Grisham and Patterson; Sally on the John Green; Papa on the card game..."). By the way, this is the perfect time to recite a silent, seasonal prayer of thanks for Post-it Notes.

In any endeavor where intensity and volume meet flailing arms and liquid refreshments, disasters inevitably occur. A former colleague reminded me of the time one of our fellow booksellers "jostled a cup of hot chocolate she was drinking into a shopping bag with five really big expensive art books I had just gift-wrapped. They were totally ruined. I had to sneak out of the gift wrap room and surreptitiously find duplicates on the shelf. Luckily, we had every one of them but I was terror-stricken. The customer never knew anything other than her gift wrapping took an extraordinarily long time."

On Tuesday afternoon, after that last gift is wrapped (for customers, anyway) and the bookshop doors are locked, booksellers will be free to exhale and--if I may suggest--take some holiday post-wrapping refreshment advice from chef Mario Batali, who offered the following advice last Sunday in the New York Times: "A cold afternoon of present-wrapping can use a warm touch. Heat up a cup of skim milk with a teaspoon of vanilla and then make a double espresso. Mix the two in a large goblet, then add a shot each of peppermint schnapps and Jack Daniels. Stir gently, then get back to work."

But don't go back to work too soon. Try to get some rest before Thursday because, well, you know the drill. What do most booksellers have to look forward to on the day after Christmas? You'll arrive at work to see a line already forming outside your bookstore in hopes of snatching up discounted gift wrap for next year's holiday season. Next year?!!!--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2154.

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