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The Olympic Bookathlon


"Beach reading" takes on a whole new meaning for the next couple of weeks as the 2016 Olympic Games open in tropical Rio de Janeiro. And even though idealistic visions of Chariots of Fire dudes running in slow motion have been replaced by cautionary news reports of polluted waters, Zika virus and doping scandals, the beachy opening ceremonies will nonetheless be staged tonight with all the anticipated five-ring hoopla.

In the spirit of the Olympics and their long, if occasionally stumbling-at-the-starting-line, history, I thought I'd officially propose adding a Bookathlon competition for booksellers to the 2020 Tokyo Games, with the following events:

Weightlifting (stacks of books)
Precision Shelving (timed event)
High Jump (for books on top shelves)
Staircase Sprint (with an armload of books)
Sales Floor Speedwalking (dodging customer hurdles)

Yes, I'm just a bit of a cynic when it comes to the spectacle. Reading David Goldblatt's brilliant The Games: A Global History of the Olympics recently has only fanned my world-weary Olympic flame. But reading is my way through most things. Find the best stories, like the ones Goldblatt shares.

Signature recently featured a "Summer Olympics primer: 10 books for the Rio de Janeiro games"; and Electric Literature recommended "18 books for your Summer Olympics deep dive." The July issue of Words Without Borders, "Brazil Beyond Rio," offered a compelling and "different look at the South American giant that will host this year's Olympic Games. The writers here--both those from abroad and those from Brazil--set out to rediscover and portray the diverse Brazils within this dynamic country."

Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin reads Knuffle Bunny for One Book 4 Colorado.

On a lighter note, Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin shared her "Rio Reading List" with Travel & Leisure magazine. "I'm a huge reader," she said, adding that a visit to the bookstore is generally part of her pre-packing routine. "A few days before a trip, I have a great time researching what everyone is reading and picking the books for my flight.... I really have to make sure that I have a good library set for me before takeoff."

Don't forget the kids. "Read your way to Rio! Your family's summer Olympics primer," Brightly advised. And Changing Hands bookstores in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., have been in the spirit with a Summer Olympics Reading Program.

A Rio bookseller has had his Olympic moment, too. In June, we reported that Rodrigo Ferrari, co-owner of Livraria e Edições Folha Seca, had to remove a sign from his display window that included the word "Olympics" because of product licensing violations. "I was worried, so I took it down, despite finding it absurd," he said.

Absurdity is something of an Olympic tradition, as the amazing BBC Four series Twenty-Twelve proved in the run-up to the London Games. There's even a Rio connection in scenes where British organizers discuss the "proper gift for a visiting Brazilian Olympic delegation," and then take them on a less-than-successful bus trip to tour facilities under construction and meet Lord Sebastian Coe.

A notable 2012 Olympic bookselling moment was the Quixotic, if well-intentioned, effort by David Mitchell, owner of Scarthin Books in Cromford, to act on his belief that the Olympics "should mark the efforts of those who come fourth in their event" by creating a new medal himself. No word on whether the organizing committee set its licensing wolves after him.

The arts have long played a role in Olympic tradition. In his introduction to The Games, Goldblatt notes that Baron de Coubertin, who organized the first modern Olympics in 1912, "had long believed that sport was not antithetical to the arts, but a distinct and important component of a society's cultural life. It therefore seemed natural to him, though not too many athletes and artists at the time, that the Olympic Games should also stage artistic, literary and musical competitions on the theme of sport."

While the 2012 London Games, for example, featured an ambitious "Cultural Olympiad," Rio's efforts have been hampered by drastic funding cuts, and "for the first time since 1992, the Olympic host city has not organized a four-year cultural program to culminate in the Games. Instead, it has focused on activities throughout its Olympic year and during Games time.... Organizers admitted there had been setbacks but said the line-up would be revealed soon and would feature flashmobs and 'surprises,' " Deutsche Welle reported.

What's an Olympic cynic to do? Maybe I'll just follow the sound advice Goldblatt offered in a recent Vice Sports interview:

A good dose of skepticism, a splendid sense of humor, and a deep sense of history, I think, are the essential equipment to take to the sofa.... I'm not asking people to take the weight of guilt upon their shoulders. And I don't think we're colluding by watching. But take a critical air, read around, and above all I encourage people to think, how could it be otherwise? It doesn't have to be as it is. There are things we like about it, but there will be a thousand things one finds irritating or irksome or unjust about it. And here's the critical moment to say: how can it be otherwise? What else would we like? It's a spring to the imagination.

So lift, shelve, reach, climb, walk and, above all, "read around." You're a future Olympic bookathlete in training. Act like one.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2811


'The Idea that Somebody Is Telling Me a Story'

I've been worried about audiobooks for many years, though I'm starting to worry less, thanks to the option of purchasing digital versions through my local independent bookstore and Libro.fm. Many booksellers nationwide are on board with the service, including Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, San Francisco's Green Apple Books, Boston's Papercuts J.P and Village Books in Bellingham, Wash. It may not be a game-changing sales tool, but it's still an opportunity to show customers you're a full-service bookshop.

And that makes me happy. At the retail level, I've observed firsthand the curious evolutionary path of audiobooks, from those bulky boxes of expensive unabridged cassettes in the mid-1990s to more affordable cassettes, then CDs and digital, followed by the inevitable gobbling up of the market by Amazon's purchase of Audible.com in 2008.

Maybe I started worrying most then, though audiobooks themselves have been doing just fine. This week's AAP February sales report showed sales of $21.5 million (a 44.4% increase over 2015) for downloaded audio, compared to 2.1 million (a 36.3% decrease) for physical audiobooks. Earlier this year, the Audio Publishers Association's annual sales survey results estimated that audiobook sales in 2015 totaled more than $1.77 billion, up 20.7% over 2014. Unit sales were also up 24.1%.

As I mentioned earlier, my worries have diminished a bit with the Libro.fm option. I've always loved the sound of books. When people read aloud, I instinctively close my eyes and listen (unless I'm driving). Close listening is akin to close reading for me. One human being shares a story with another. The allure might have something to do with childhood memories of my mother reading the Oz books to us. Perhaps it is a far more ancient rite, since we were telling each other stories thousands of years before Gutenberg.

Now I can go back to worrying about the classic dilemma all audiobook listeners face: Who is reading to me? I'm very particular about the person whispering in my ear. A brilliant reader can sometimes redeem a mediocre book, but the wrong reader always breaks the spell of a good book.

Michael Kortya, Maggie Stiefvater, Terry McMillan & John Scalzi at the APA Author Tea during BookExpo America

At Book Expo America in Chicago this year, there was a great discussion about the voices behind the books during the APA Author Tea featuring Michael Kortya, Maggie Stiefvater, Terry McMillan and John Scalzi.

"You won't have to listen to my voice very long to understand just how deep my appreciation for a good audiobook reader is," Kortya said, praising the work of Robert Petkoff. "When I go on tour for readings, I have an idea of how a book sounds in my head.... I'll listen to Robert and just steal the way he approaches it as his sense of rhythm is just spectacular, and I can say in all honesty he has propped up some really wooden sentences for me.... If there's one thing that's not talked about enough, it's the idea of voice and rhythm and pacing. We read with our eyes, yes, but it's an auditory experience. And I would venture to guess that the actual sound on the page is immensely important."

"I love listening to other people's audiobooks," said McMillan. "I have a lot of respect for audiobooks because it's a very intimate experience that you have as a listener with the characters in a book.... There's a warmth that happens. It's almost as if that person is talking to you directly. You get to see it, feel it and hear it all at the same time. When you read a book, you have to imagine it and both are powerful.... Over the years, I have really come to appreciate the beauty of sound. "

Stiefvater praised actor Will Paton, who agreed to work on her audiobook because he loved The Raven Boys. "And so I like to think that when you listen to the Raven Cycle, you hear Will Patton having a great time reading it," she said. "And that's what really makes a good audiobook is when the reader is fully engaged."

Scalzi noted that "as the writer, you have to get used to the idea that your baby, the book that you created, that you hear inside your head--you hear the rhythms, you hear where you put the stops, and where you put the emphasis, and where you put the meaning--is read by somebody else.... When they read your book, it becomes a singular experience inside their own head, so with the narrator, particularly a good narrator, they take a book that you thought you knew better than anyone else because you wrote it and then they find things in it that you didn't know were there."

But Terri McMillan said it best: "I love the idea that somebody is telling me a story."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2806


You're Hired! Prospective Bookseller Quiz

Earlier this week we highlighted a New York Times piece on hiring practices at the Strand in Manhattan that focused particularly on "a final hurdle to enter its ranks: the literary matching quiz." While I don't recall whether I took a book quiz as part of my application process to become a bookseller long ago, there were certainly general questions that probed my relative bookishness. A quick scan of online indie bookstore applications yields examples that probably are close to the ones I faced:

  • Who is your favorite author? Why?
  • Can you name an author from each of these genres: Scifi, Mystery, Western, Romance, Classic Literature?
  • What is your definition of customer service?
  • In the past year, what two books have you read that you didn't like or that disappointed you? Why?
  • What do you know about us?

I was impressed by the questions Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., asks its applicants:

  • It's the weekend and you want to make plans. How do you get the information you need to plan your weekend?
  • I just read Cutting for Stone, an epic novel that spans three generations of an Indian expatriate family in Ethiopia. I really loved the sweeping family saga and the political intrigue. What should I read next?
  • What do you look for in a good bookseller?
  • What are three things a retail sales associate should be able to do?
  • Please tell us about your last customer service experience with Left Bank Books. Do you have any ideas about how to make it better?

We live in an age of online quizzes. Readers are used to being grilled daily about their book knowledge: The page 69 quiz--Can you identify the classic book from a single paragraph?; Name the book titles without vowels or spaces; Do you actually have good taste in books? Even booksellers aren't immune to the siren call of the quiz: Which independent Brooklyn bookstore are you?; Which independent Berkeley bookstore are you?

The Strand article prompted my interest in the prospective bookseller q&a, and then I stumbled across a Financial Review piece that featured a selection of "banned Google interview questions: can you answer them?" Well, no I couldn't. Google's interview brain teasers are the stuff of Silicon Valley legend, but they prompted me to consider some indie bookseller job interview alternatives. With apologies to Google, here's what I've got thus far:

  • If all of the books you own were placed end to end, in what country would the last one be put down?
  • What super power would you like to have? How would you apply it to bookselling?
  • Where do you see yourself in a century? (specifically for writers applying to be booksellers)
  • If you could choose different songs to play every time you walk into various sections of the bookshop, what would your songlist be? Give reasons for your picks.
  • How much would you charge for all the books in the store?
  • If you were to get a book-inspired tattoo (assuming you don't already have one), what and where would it be?
  • What is your least favorite section of the bookstore, and how would you improve it?
  • If unsold hardbacks are returned to the publisher after six months and paperbacks after a year, then why are there so many old books on the shelves?
  • Assume you were hired, but as a bookstore cat. Which book section would be ideal for undisturbed sleeping?
  • If you didn't have to work at all, what would you do instead besides read?
  • Explain why you love reading to someone who hates reading in a way that doesn't make them feel bad.
  • If the inventory system showed a book in stock, but it isn't on the shelf, what is your next step? Assume the customer is waiting impatiently.
  • What do you think your reason would be if you left this job after three years.
  • What is the sound of an author event when no one shows up?
  • Where is the nonfiction section in this store?
  • What scares you about bookselling?
  • How would you answer this question: "Do you have that book with the red cover and there's a woman's leg on it and it's by the same author who wrote that dog mystery whose name is Smith or Crowley or something with a D in it?"
  • Have you ever been in this bookstore before in your life?

Or... maybe the most basic question is still the most challenging. From the online application of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N/Y.: "Why do you want to work in a bookstore?"

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2801


Pokémon Go... Find Waldo!

Rumor has it that we have a Pokémon. Only one way to find out! --Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore, Big Stone Gap, Va.

At Main Street Books, St. Charles, Mo.

I see myself as the kind of guy who would never write about something like Pokémon Go. And then, quite suddenly.... Sure, I used to sell the card packs when I was a bookseller. Well, to be honest, I usually asked customers to point directly at the versions they wanted or, when Pokémon complexities arose, deferred to a younger colleague.

Then July hit, a time I assumed would be all about the fifth annual Find Waldo Local campaign. And while Waldo is hiding and being found with his usual flair nationwide, recent headlines have been dominated by Pokémon Go. (What is it? I cede the podium to Vox, which explains the game "in fewer than 400 words," and answers "9 questions about the game you were too embarrassed to ask.")

There can be compromises, of course: Cindi Whittemore of Ink Spell Books, Half Moon Bay, Calif., told the Review: "The kids are having a blast. While they're catching their Pokémon Go they are looking for Waldo."

Earlier this week, we highlighted a couple of indie booksellers on the Pokémon Go hunt. Books & Books in Coral Gables was listed as one of the "10 best places in Miami to play"; and Main Street Books, St. Charles, Mo., was "going to do everything we can to help out those intrepid future Pokémon Masters down here on Main Street."

Well, that's just the tip of the Pokémon Go augmented reality bookseller iceberg. While I won't be searching for Pikachu anytime soon, I did embark on a brief virtual hunt to capture Pokémon Go bookstore emanations:

Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C., "is a bit of a hotspot for Pokémon Go players," Fox5 reported. On Facebook, P&P noted: "Pokémon Go isn't just an excuse to get off the couch. Turns out it's good for local business."

On Instagram, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash., posted: "On trend, as usual. #pokemongo #pokemon #booksellerlife #indiebookstores #bookstore #lakeforestpark#getem #pokebomb."

via National Book Foundation

Bryan Samsone, manager of BookPeople, Austin, Tex., told Entertainment Weekly: "We expect it to be a part of what we do, if it's not too disruptive. We facilitate folks who are here in Austin looking for entertainment. I would not be surprised if BookPeople ended up with a Pokémon display sometime in the next couple weeks."

In the same EW piece, John Valentine, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C., noted that Pokémon books "are starting to sell again. It's an interesting thing, because you have both young people discovering it and older people who knew it back in the '90s. They really scored a hit on this one. People are talking about it; it is really popular."

And Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo., asked the big question: "Want an egg? We have eggs! Plus, look at all these Pokémon hanging out in our stacks! Rattata even found the VIB table! #pokemongo #gottacatchemall."

"What happened after the Strand Book Store was listed as a Pokémon Go destination?" PRWeek asked, noting that communications director Whitney Hu, a self-described "avid Pokémon fan," made the connection right away and planned ways the Strand could capitalize on the situation.

"We are such a cultural institution in the city, and we have such a large footprint that this gives us another way to work with our community and bring in some new faces, people who might just walk right by us," Hu said. The Strand also put together "Your Definitive Pokémon Go Reading List."

Themed display at Joseph-Beth Booksellers

In Lexington, Ken., Joseph-Beth Booksellers "is an avid purveyor of Pokemon goods and markets its four PokéStops and 'gym' where players gather to battle each other," the Herald-Leader noted. Merchandise manager Travis Rison said, "We're all for it, if it helps us get foot traffic in the door. It allows us to better serve customers who may not have come in before."

A sidewalk "Gotta Read'em All" chalkboard beckoned Pokémon Go players to enter Curious Iguana Books, Frederick, Md.

Coldwater Books, Tuscumbia, Ala., is a PokéStop "and we're loving it! Each day a different team will be randomly chosen (so as not to show any bias towards our own teams) to receive a special discount! Today the team we've chosen is Team Valor! Look out for lures at our PokéStop on a regular basis and feel free to stop in for some ice cold drinks as a reprieve from the heat. And of course, enjoy your journey towards becoming The Very Best!"

Nicole Sullivan of the BookBar, Denver, Colo., told us: "Wanted to share what we're doing to participate in Pokémon Go. I'm just now starting to figure this thing out. BookBar is lucky to be a PokéStop so we're encouraging people to come in and drop lures (whatever that means)."

Amy Reynolds of Horizon Books, Traverse City, Mich., and her colleagues "are trying to wrap their minds around this whole Pokémon Go phenomenon, but they figured out pretty quickly that the bookstore is a PokéStop," IPR reported. Reynolds said: "Yes, I did know that. Because I have a son playing, and my grandson's playing, as well."

A challenging literary alternative was suggested by Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.: "I've got so many Adichies, Atwoods and Murakamis, but check it out, there's a Beckett! So hard to capture Becketts. Don't know what I'm talking about? That's okay, it's probably for the best."

An observation by the Strand's Whitney Hu speaks to the challenge many booksellers are facing: "I am trying to figure out the best way to market it without seeming gimmicky. We want to organically connect with current trends; we never want to seem like the old person in the room trying to hop on, not accurately using a meme."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2796


Shore to Shore Poets: 'We Are Human Together'

Poetry "doesn't have to show its passport," British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy told the Guardian in May for a piece promoting Shore to Shore: Celebrating Poetry and Community. The campaign, presented by Picador and Book-ish Bookshop, was tied to Independent Bookshop Week. Beginning June 19, Duffy traveled across Britain and performed with "three of the fellow poets whom she most admires: Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker and, the new Makar, National Poet for Scotland, Jackie Kay." Each evening featured a guest poet and music from instrumentalist and composer John Sampson.

Through their Guardian diary, I tracked the pilgrimage because I care about poetry and booksellers, but soon found myself swept up in the approach and cresting of a dangerous wave--the controversial Brexit referendum to leave the European Union. The poets' journal entries were a compelling, deeply personal response to a moment most of us experienced as headlines:

Carol Ann Duffy
Imtiaz Dharker
Jackie Kay
Gillian Clarke

June 20 (written by Duffy): "Sometimes at poetry readings, it's possible to take the pulse of how people who love poetry are feeling. Today, the air seems bruised with hurt--perhaps because of Orlando, or the murder of Jo Cox, or the gathering tsunami of the referendum. In this moment, these events seem linked, at least in the public hurt shared by the hundreds here. And although we poets have no agenda--I am reading poems written 30 years ago--the poetry has been live-wired to this present and this public."

June 21 (Imtiaz Dharker): "Carol Ann Duffy has devised a game to keep us occupied on this four-hour journey. We have to decide which (dead) poets would choose to Leave, and which Remain, with opinions backed by quotes from the work. It all begins well enough: Donne ('No man is an island'), Larkin ('Get out as quickly as you can'), Stevie Smith, ('I was much too far out all my life'), but quickly descends to 'Brexit, pursued by a bear.' The conversation turns to Shakespeare instead."

June 22 (Gillian Clarke): "Again laughter, silent listening, a tear or two, applause. People are ready for poetry in these times. (I think I might have gone mad at home alone this week.)"

June 23 (Jackie Kay): "Our voices have now started to merge like the fields, ceding and giving way one to the other.... By the end of the night some of our eyes are tear-stained. We just don't know what this next day will bring, this day of changing or staying the same."

June 24 (Duffy): "Referendum Day. As I write, it's approaching 6 a.m. and J.K. Rowling has tweeted that Cameron's legacy will be the breaking of two unions. His unleashed genie has indeed given us our country back--torn in two like a bad poem."

June 27 (Dharker): "I wake in the same bed, expelled to another country overnight.... All of us shift our readings slightly. Gillian reads Lament, Jackie In My Country, Carol Ann Weasel Words: all poems written years ago, but relevant today. There are no overt political statements but the choices are fierce. The people who come to speak to us at the signing tell us that the poetry has helped."

June 29 (Duffy): "Arriving in West Didsbury, where we'll stay for an event in Bramhall, Cheshire, we pass an unusually huge funeral cortege approaching the cemetery. 'Who are they burying?' wonders Imtiaz Dharker. 'Our hopes,' says Gillian Clarke."

June 30 (Dharker): "The readings have become more and more like conversations between one poem and another, seeming to respond to the bizarre turns of events and the messages on Facebook.... The map of the country I thought I lived in is changing from one day to the next, before my eyes."

July 1 (Clarke): "Subtly, subversively, words speak to the heart, the hurt, the anxiety of a nation in crisis. We see it, and hear it, in every audience, every town, every stopping-place on this journey that has brought us so far from Cornwall to Corbridge, gratitude at the signing table from people who can speak to us and to each other at last. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Those who have broken Britain should hear their words."

July 2 (Kay): "We listen to each other's poems now, and realize we are comforting each other.... At the end the whole audience are on their feet--they stand clapping and cheering for so long it makes some of us cry. Someone says, 'You were like a building, each one of you held a different bit up. You lifted us.' "

July 4 (Kay): "Our bookshop partner tonight is the Mainstreet Trading Company, a winner of the independent bookshop of the year award--and deli of the year. It's been amazing to see how each bookshop in each place has felt so appreciative of our venture, Carol Ann Duffy's brilliant idea."

July 5 (Dharker): "Our bookshop here is Atkinson-Pryce, which sits at the center of Biggar among centuries-old houses. It is the kind of place that draws people in as if it were a village well."

July 7 (Duffy): "We started this tour in a chorus of celebration, but the key has changed from major to minor and we end in a psalm of consolation--poetry as the music of being human. We're up and off early next morning and part fondly at Edinburgh airport for London, Cambridge, Cardiff and Manchester. Home will be different when we get there... God bless us, every one."

Best, perhaps, to end with words from Clarke's June 27 entry: "Yet the people rise to the evening, poetry and music do their work, and we are human together."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2791

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