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Slow Art & Seeing Bookshelves

"But slowness is also essential to grasping the experience of modernity--if only because the hallmark of modernity is speed." --Arden Reed, Slow Art: The Experience of looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell

I'm reading Slow Art, which has somehow inspired me to think about bookshops, or more specifically the walls and aisles of shelves lined with titles and how we interact with them. Slowly, with focus. 

Bookshop as a museum? Bookshelves as art? Why not?

The genesis of Slow Art was Reed's personal response, over the course of eight years, to Édouard Manet's painting "Young Lady in 1866": "Gradually I came to understand that the image displayed--or, better, performed--a certain mystery. Not the hidden, but the visible.... I found myself drawn to the picture, resisted by it, and then drawn back. How long, I mused, could I sustain this conversation? I hardly thought about where I was being led, and certainly never imagined how often I would return to the spot, whether in my imagination or in fact."

Again, I think of bookshops. As a bookseller, I seldom had the luxury of engaging with the stacks in such a conversation. My encounters were often brief, practical chats about shelving, dusting, straightening, ordering or culling.

But in the decade since I reclaimed my role as bookstore customer, I've also regained the ability to slow time in the presence of a wall of books; see the whole; move in for a closer look at the spines, scanning titles with that signature head-tilt; pull a book from the installation and examine it; sit in a nearby chair and read a passage before returning it to the shelf; step back and see the broader canvas again.

"When life is tumbling out of control, I go to my happy place, where I can dream, remember and find order in chaos: I gaze upon my bookshelves," Patrick Barkham wrote this week in the Guardian.

This slow engagement can also be focused on a single book. In a recent Quartz essay, Thu-Huong Ha made the case for "the ultra slow site-specific read," observing that "the active ritual of reading one book extremely slowly, patiently, in the same place, over an unreasonably long time, has changed the way I see. It's a measured meting out of a book, like nibbling one piece of chocolate each night in the same chair over a year. It's a refusal to hurry up or to turn reading into a life hack; it's the anti-summer reading, the anti-binge read. It's site-specific, intensely slow reading, for no other reason than to bask in what's good."

By contrast, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that "speed listening" to podcasts is now a thing, with impatient listeners bumping programs up 1.5x, 2x and even 3x normal speaking pace: "The average podcast listener gets through five a week, says Edison Research, which studies media. People who listen most, the 21% squeezing in six or more, tend to listen fastest."

Slow down, you're moving too fast. Summer may be the best time to make a case for taking your foot off the reading pedal. Isn't languor a synonym for "summer read"?

Another question: "What happens when we run out of time?" asked Mads Holmen in Monday's edition of the Bookseller. "This might sound like a philosophical question, but with the explosion in content and entertainment offerings such as social media and freemium games, we are rapidly approaching a state of peak attention. I define peak attention as the moment where the competition for our attention reaches a saturated point--when there is no more time to spare and something else must miss out."

WWDD? (What would DeLillo do?) Near the end of Point Omega, a woman and a man study Douglas Gordon's video installation "24 Hour Psycho," which projects the Hitchcock classic film on a translucent screen and slows it down to the duration of a full day. "She told him she was standing a million miles outside the fact of whatever's happening on the screen," DeLillo writes. "She liked that. She told him she liked the idea of slowness in general. So many things go fast, she said. We need time to lose interest in things."

I saw Gordon's work at MoMA in 2006, the same year I happened upon Carsten Höller's "Amusement Park" at MASSMoCA. That installation featured refurbished carnival rides moving at barely discernible speeds. Museum director Joseph Thompson said: "Although this work is experienced through sight and sound, our staff has been surprised how visceral and physical the effect can be. Your body enters a space of shifting times and places, and your mind follows."

In Slow Art, Reed asks: "Is there a particular kind of art, whether still or moving, that compels rapt attention, or at least cultivates patience, that can lead us to look carefully, indulgently--even, [Peter] Sellars would say, with love?"


I'm no art critic; I barely know what I like. But I do know there's a deep connection between the art and the books in my life. Whenever I'm in a bookshop, I turn my attention to book installations and the slow conversation begins again. 

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3048


Pre-Ordering a New Bookshop Movie Allusion

There seems to be an unwritten rule that any media story focused upon the theme of independent bookstores must, at some point, allude to You've Got Mail (YGM), the 1998 romcom film starring Tom Hanks as Joe, a member of the family that owns mega-bookstore chain Fox Books; and Meg Ryan as Kathleen, who operates a small indie that is being put out of business by the biblio-monolith. AOL co-stars in the role of a non-bookselling online dating service.

The ongoing use of YGM as editorial shorthand for the challenges of independent booksellers is not in itself wrong; it's just tired. Forbes magazine used it as recently as this week in a piece on Amazon's new physical stores, as did Mashable in June. CBS News, the Chicago Tribune and the Huffington Post are other examples, though the list is endless and has also gone international, from Greece to Malaysia ("Straight out of the Hollywood movie You've Got Mail, a privately-owned book store in Sabah has been forced to wind-up after conceding defeat to bigger book store chains in shopping malls there.")

YGM has even shown up in articles on a Canadian hardware store and American bridal boutiques, the latter offering an admittedly pertinent Kathleen quote: "When her friends tried to console her, the shop owner responded, 'People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they're really saying is that something you didn't want to happen at all... has happened.' "

Reality check #1: The bookselling business has undergone a lot of changes since 1998, positive as well as negative. One undisputed fact, however, is that independent booksellers who have, as the media also likes to say, "survived and even thrived" during these two decades of turmoil have retained their passion for books while becoming even more adept local business owners and community leaders.

Last summer, an MTV-produced YouTube video, If Famous Movie Romances Were Feminist, rewrote the ending of YGM:
Joe: Don't cry, Shopgirl.
Kathleen: I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.
J: Really?"
K: F**k no! You ran my business into the ground, and you lied to me for weeks! I'm going to find someone who respects me and my career.
J: Yeah, that's fair.

Reality check #2: Maybe it's time for an official change of allusion, a bookseller film made of sterner stuff. For me, it might turn out to be The Bookshop, an upcoming adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's brilliant short novel about Florence Green, who opens a bookshop during the late 1950s in the fictional English village of Hardborough, Suffolk.  

The story is by turns charming, fierce, funny and heartbreaking, yet always sharply observant. If these also sound like the qualities of many booksellers you know, then my work is done here. Fitzgerald herself was a bookseller for a time in Southwold, so she offers something of an insider's perspective.  

The film, which has not yet been released, is directed by Isabelle Coixet (Paris, je t'aime), and stars Emily Mortimer as Florence, Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Violet Gamart, Bill Nighy as Mr. Brundish, Honor Kneafsey as Christine and James Lance as Milo North, whose recommendation that Florence stock Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita generates one of my all-time favorite plot twists.

Coixet told Screen Daily: "The Bookshop is the story of a woman whose light, innocence and perseverance pose a threat to the powers that be in a small town plagued with petty schemes and darkness. This is a film about passion, for books and for life."

During a recent Guardian webchat, Fitzgerald's biographer Hermione Lee said, "I am looking forward to the film of The Bookshop mainly because Bill Nighy is playing Mr. Brundish. And I am fascinated to see what they do with it."

In his introduction to the 2015 edition of The Bookshop, novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls wrote: "I have, at times, adapted books into screenplays, and a small but persistent voice often accompanies my first reading of a book, asking 'how might this work on screen?' The Bookshop is an example of what is called 'a hard sell', though an adaptation, starring Anna Massey, was once mooted and another may happen soon. It could make a fine film, but a faithful adaption would have to take on board the author's refusal to provide easy or comforting answers.... Penelope Fitzgerald defies those clichés with glee, and this is precisely what makes her a great novelist. Expectations are constantly denied, explanations withheld."

(Note to self: In the future, always list under indie booksellers' key personality traits: "defies those clichés with glee.")

Nicholls observed that with "typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop 'a short novel with a sad ending,' which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald's wit and playfulness."

Can The Bookshop become a viable, 21st-century movie allusion alternative to YGM? We shall see. 

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your suggestions for a YGM replacement (if you think one is needed) and the reasons why.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3043


The Quotable GraphicNovelSeller

As far as handselling graphic novels is concerned, my connection began in another century when I read Art Spiegelman's Maus, which we shelved in biography/memoir section. But that was the extent of my knowledge in the early 1990s. More than two decades later, I'm still no expert, though one of my favorite books this year, Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke, is a graphic memoir. I am, however, intrigued enough by the medium to have attended two education sessions during BookExpo on graphic novels, featuring booksellers who know a lot more about the subject than I ever will. Here are some highlights from their discussions.

Rachel Person, Geo Ong, Terence Irvins

Handselling Graphic Novels to Your Non-Comics Reading Audience
Rachel Person, events manager at the Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: "A kid will come in wanting a graphic novel and the parent or the grandparent or the teacher will be the reluctant one. So it does sometimes take some gently pulling of that adult along to where the kid already is. One of the things I talk to those adults about a lot is visual literacy. I also bring up, from personal experience, my children and how every time I've seen them waiting, ready to make a leap to the next reading level, it's a graphic novel that gets them there. That's something you can talk about.... And it does often get the adults to see there's real value in a comic for a kid."

Session moderator Gina Gagliano of First Second Books, Maryelizabeth Yturralde

Maryelizabeth Yturralde, co-owner of Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, Calif.: "Maybe it's because, as a specialty genre store, our culture is so much geek culture, the grandparents are not necessarily an issue because they're my peers. And like me, they've been reading comics that they understand.... For us, more than anything else, what we're relying on is trust in our booksellers. If our bookseller who's a great handseller of middle grade novels is someone that the parents have learned to trust for recommendations, they're going to take it regardless of format, with a little more conversation sometimes about how does this work."

Geo Ong, manager of Greenlight Bookstore in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "I'm just really lucky. This situation isn't as difficult as I would assume it to be.... Our customers tend to really trust our booksellers and we have a lot of people on the staff who do love graphic novels and speak about them enthusiastically. And so the adults and parents and grandparents who may or may not have read graphic novels before will entertain the notion because we can speak about it and they can see that their kids are enthusiastic about reading."

Terence Irvins, assistant manager, graphic novels & comics, Books Kinokuniya, New York City: "I think the only difficulty is when you have parents who have some issues with content, so their inexperience with what's actually done in the medium shows in the choices they want to make for their kids. Especially when the kids are actually reading on their own and have advanced towards stuff that their parents might have some hesitation about. Overall, however, I see an enthusiasm from parents because they see what their kids are enthusiastic about themselves and they want to be closer to that."

Michael Link, Michael Bender, Marika McCoola, Zazu Galdos-Shapiro

Graphic Novels & Nonfiction: Providing a Refuge in an Uncertain Climate
Michael Link, publisher relations & events manager at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, Ohio: "As we talk about the moment that we're in politically, it seems like some of these books--some new, some old--have an important role to play. And we can bring them to the forefront and find new audiences.... One of the things we're doing with display tables is making the intentional choice to try to include graphic novels where it makes sense.... Putting titles on display that might not have the same name recognition; that may not be something someone is coming in specifically to buy."

Michael Bender, buyer at Community Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Our whole graphic novel section has a lot of faceouts and I've definitely been trying to highlight some of these titles. But actually, my co-worker Dana, shortly after the inauguration when the travel ban kicked in, made an amazing table that was maybe a third books about illegal immigrants, a third books about refugees to the U.S. or other places, and a third books from countries that were part of the travel ban. That was not just graphic novels, but we still have that area, so it's almost like its own mini-section."

Zazu Galdos-Shapiro, buyer at the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass.: "To educate our booksellers, one of the things I've been doing is pulling books that I think will appeal to people based on their general reading habits regardless of format. Threads [by Kate Evans] is something I was totally blown away by. There are a couple of people in the store I'm going to hand it to because it's not something they would necessarily pick up.... but based on what they've read in the past I think they would really gravitate to it."

Marika McCoola, buyer at Porter Square Books, Cambridge, Mass.: When customers are hesitant about graphic novel price points, "I think there's a really important thing to point out which is that rereading things is perfectly legitimate and it's actually very good for the kids to do.... They're getting different things out of it. There's something special about following up with a story and living in it and reading it and keep rereading it. Sometimes when I hear parents say, 'No, you've already read that one,' I try to talk them out of that because there's nothing wrong with rereading a book."

"Mostly," Maryelizabeth Yturralde observed, "I'm still selling on story, just because I'm a words girl."


UNESCO Names Sharjah World Book Capital 2019

Earlier this week, UNESCO named Sharjah (UAE) the World Book Capital for 2019 "because of the very innovative, comprehensive and inclusive nature of the application, with a community-focused activity program containing creative proposals to engage the very large migrant population."

In her declaration, UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said, "I applaud the nomination of Sharjah as the World Book Capital as well as the efforts undertaken by the city in order to make reading available to as many people as possible, in particular the marginalized populations, as a motor for social inclusion, creativity and dialogue."

Under the slogan "Read--you are in Sharjah," the program focuses on themes of inclusivity, reading, heritage, outreach, publishing and children. The objective is to "foster a culture of reading in the United Arab Emirates and birth new initiatives to meet the challenge of literary creation in the area and in the rest of the Arab world."

UNESCO also noted that Sharjah, under the leadership of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, is launching Sharjah Publishing City, an ambitious initiative to develop "a space entirely dedicated to publishing and printing. It will be the first place of the kind in the region, specifically developed to meet the needs of companies and institutions operating in the publishing field. Its objective is to reinforce the book industry by encouraging the widespread production and dissemination of publications in the Arab world."

Sharjah International Book Fair, 2016

"The new title underscores Sharjah's deep cultural experience, its achievements, projects and vision at world level," said Ahmed Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority and former director of the Sharjah International Book Fair.

During BookExpo, I had the opportunity to hear Al Ameri speak at a session called Reaching the Arab World: The New Gateway & Hub--The Sharjah Publishing City Initiative. Moderated by Simon and Schuster v-p Seth Russo, the panel also featured John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Content Group; and Steve Potash, CEO and founder of OverDrive. 

Describing SBC as "365 days of book fairs in one spot" as well as "a United Nations of publishing," Al Ameri noted that the location, on the main road between Sharjah and Dubai, places SPC in close proximity to both airports and seaports, offering the international book trade a central, focused location to provide a complete range of publishing services tax free. He also stressed the freedom to do business with "no interference from the government or any authority over what you can publish. It's a very healthy environment for a publisher, editor, translator, for printing, for distributing books to the region and outside the region."

A soft opening of SPC is planned for September, with the official launch in November. "It is the first publishing city in the world that is a free zone area," Al Ameri added. "It's been established now. It's ready.... It's going to change the whole publishing industry around the world."

In his opening remarks at the BookExpo session, Russo said he had participated in the last three Sharjah International Book Fairs "as part of their professional development program and [I] have had a chance to learn firsthand the rising prospects the region holds for publishers seeking new markets." This evolving dynamic, he continued, "is vividly found in the culturally progressive emirate of Sharjah, where the government has been in the vanguard of a number of highly successful public and private initiatives... to promote the strong publishing sector and the culture of reading. The Sharjah Publishing City is a natural next step in this commitment and will be of keen interest to the global publishing community eager to stake a claim in the development of the region whether it be for distribution, translation, licensing, sales or printing."

Sharjah International Book Fair, 2016

Al Ameri said that with SPC, "we are establishing a new market.... What we are doing is not only reaching the Arab world. We are reaching the African market, the Asian market and the rest of the world through Sharjah, which is becoming a hub for reading."

Ingram observed that "the attractiveness of the marketplace is the focus by the governments over there on literacy, on moving to a post-natural resource society, and putting a lot of money and effort behind education in particular.... The most attractive thing to me is the partnership and the relationship that I feel very fortunate to have started to develop with his highness, Sultan Al-Qasimi, as well as Ahmed and the Sharjah Book Authority. And quite frankly, to go into a new and different region I can't think of a better partner than I have in the ruler and his key people."

Potash expressed excitement "that now, for all the publishers we represent--almost every English language or Western publisher--the Sharjah Book Authority has created a channel.... thanks to Ahmed and the Book Authority, and his highness. They planted a flag and said if you want to reach hundreds of millions of readers, customers and those who want to learn from everything you're publishing... they have provided us a platform and a network, and this is what's so exciting about the Sharjah Publishing City. It's bringing together the resources to reach the whole region and dozens of countries."

Al Ameri agreed, noting that Sultan Al Qasimi "supports the industry.... He's passionate about books, passionate about reading. He established the Sharjah Book Fair. And Sharjah is considered in the UAE to be the hub for culture. When you come to Abu Dhabi, it's the political capital of the UAE. When you come to Dubai, it's the economic capital. But when you come to Sharjah, you see it as the cultural capital.... What we see in ourselves is that our growth is through knowledge, and we believe knowledge is the way to get through life... to improve humanity through reading."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3034


Booksellers Gather for Bookmanager Academy

As a big fan of small (a relative term) indie bookseller gatherings, I was pleased to learn recently that the second Bookmanager Academy, held June 8-11 in Kelowna, B.C., was a resounding success. The inaugural BMA took place in 2015, and this year's event drew representatives from more than 60 stores, with just over 100 booksellers in attendance, along with about 50 reps, publishers and industry leaders. In addition to the forums, panels and education sessions, BMA featured numerous social outings like the Usborne Houseboat Cruise, the Canadian Manda Group "BBQ" at Hanna's, the Penguin Random House Cocktail Party at Mosaic Books, and the Raincoast/PGC/BookExpress Wine tour.

In his post-show roundupBookmanager president and Mosaic Books owner Michael Neill wrote: "All said, I think the mission was accomplished. Our primary goal was to try and fill an industry gap by creating the opportunity for booksellers, and their suppliers, to meet face-to-face. I was very impressed with the professional and positive dialogue between everyone, including discussions on more sensitive and troubling issues. Kudos to all. Diana and I met with over 20 publishers and reps for three hours on Sunday morning. It was wonderful to see competing companies show each other mutual respect and focus on common ground. The interest in independent booksellers seemed especially strong this year, and they were all eager to continue supporting and improving the tools we build for booksellers. Lots of new ideas here."

Diana O'Neill, Bookmanager's head of sales & technical support, added that "a big takeaway from this event is how hungry we all are for excuses to get together, and share ideas and woes and concerns and have an audience to share with. Hopefully several action points on key things should be addressed within the coming weeks and months. It was so great to see booksellers old and new in attendance, some with sage wisdom and advice, others with keen new perspectives and ideas on things."

Black Bond booksellers on Usborne's housboat tour.

The booksellers I contacted enthusiastically agreed. Cathy Jesson of Black Bond Books (10 locations in B.C.) described BMA as "amazing. The attention to detail and frenetic pace was filled with aha moments. The ability to get booksellers from across Canada to come together was a feat. Even booksellers from the north made the trip. The education sessions were packed, loved the town hall, getting a feeling for what we need as an industry and where we can go together."

Kirsten Larmon of Munro's Books in Victoria said: "Like the previous event two years ago, it was a rare opportunity to be in the same room with booksellers and publishers from across Canada and the U.S. Each session covered a topic essential to our industry.... Probably the most memorable were the Round-table and Bookmanager Town Hall forums at the end of Friday and Saturday. In these sessions, booksellers, reps and publishers had a very frank, productive and memorable exchange of ideas. On the fun side, the sponsors of the Academy made sure we were very well treated indeed.... It was a fantastic weekend that managed to inspire, educate and rejuvenate."

Calling the conference "an incredible, mind-melting few days" of learning and fun, Erin Dalton of Lotus Books in Cranbrook praised the Bookmanager and Mosaic Books team for doing "an outstanding job of organizing and hosting the event. I took something home from every presentation. The BookManager sessions were a great confidence-booster regarding new ways of using the program to run my business more effectively. The Paz & Associates 'Show & Sell' was fascinating, and I have some great, practical ideas to implement in my store in the very near future. The bookseller round-table and town hall sessions were fantastic opportunities to share ideas, stories, and tips."

She also noted that "the opportunity to connect both professionally and personally with other book-folk from across Canada (and into the States) was invaluable. (Also, frankly, validating! Nothing like a gathering of the tribe to re-energize a person.) I think the conversations and connections will continue going forward, and I'm excited to see where that leads. I came away invigorated (well, once I caught up on my sleep), with a to-do/wish list as long as my arm. I really hope that once the BMA folks catch their breath, they feel it was worth their while, because I'm already looking forward to 2019."

Asked about the prospect of a future BMA, Neill replied: "It may be too soon to pen anything in for the next BMA. The joke was it was like asking a mother just after delivery if she would do it again. However, we could and should do it again if there is still an appetite from the booksellers and publishers (judging from the feedback we received, I think we are on the hook). We seem to be the only venue in Canada getting everyone together. That's pretty important even if it continues as a bi-annual event put together by a bunch of now semi-professional event coordinators." 

Black Bond's Jesson summed it all up nicely: "I covet what has been attained south of the border by indies. Publishers there have come to value the independent bookseller voice. Socially, all was fun, from the houseboat to dancing at the Manda party, a throwback to what indies in Canada used to like to do when we are together: talk books, drink some wine and then dance. I heard from my team the wine tour finale was great fun. Our crew gave it 10 out 10; lots learned, new friends made and old ones renewed. What could be better?"

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3029

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