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Friday
Oct262018

On the Book Path: Bridging the Shows

My path from the Heartland Fall Forum in Minneapolis to the MPIBA Fall Discovery Show in Denver was bridged by a few non-show experiences, including a couple of visits to the extraordinary space that is Open Book, which I'd previously visited for Wi12's opening-night celebration in 2017. But seeing this great facility without being surrounded by hundreds of bookish colleagues was revelatory.

Hans Weyandt and Joanna R. Demkiewicz

I met with Milkweed Editions marketing director Joanna R. Demkiewicz, then explored the building with Milkweed Books manager Hans Weyandt. I later returned to Open Book for a great poetry reading that featured Ada Limón, William Brewer & Parneshia Jones. "These are people who really have your back," Limón said of Milkweed.

I like that thought, and it segues nicely to the perfect finale I experienced the Saturday night before I flew to Denver. I was able to snag a last-minute ticket to a concert featuring singer/songwriter Dessa, author of My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love (Dutton), performing with the Minnesota Orchestra. Watching her read briefly from her book to a packed concert hall put an exclamation point on my HFF '18.

In Colorado, I spent a couple of days up in the mountains before coming back down to Fort Collins and eventually to Old Firehouse Books, where I bought a copy of Ross Gay's award-winning poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (U. of Pittsburgh Press). I'd heard him speak brilliantly at HFF about his upcoming The Book of Delights (Algonquin). This is from his poem "feet":

But what I do know is that I love the moment when the poet says
I am trying to do this
or I am trying to do that.

MPIBA Fall Discovery Show Children's Author & Illustrator Breakfast speakers Adam Gidwitz, Joseph Bruchac, Ellen Hopkins, Mac Barnett & Andrea Beaty

I'm no poet, but I am trying to tell you that by Thursday morning, I was ready to get back on the Bookseller Trade Show World path again at MPIBA's Children's Author & Illustrator Breakfast. It began, perfectly, with co-hosts Abbey Paxton of the BookBar and Bethany Strout of Tattered Cover Book Store leading their groggy-but-game audience in a spirited, author-themed rendition of the Hokey-Pokey.

Then Mac Barnett delighted the crowd with an inside look at his "memoir," Mac Undercover (Scholastic/Orchard), after noting: "It's really good to be back here. Mountains and Plains breakfast was the first event that I ever did for anything for my first book ever. It was literally the first time I ever left my house to talk about a book, and it all started here.... It's so good to be back here. It feels really cool."

Andrea Beaty (Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters, Abrams/Amulet) said that for her, "the glorious, glorious thing about an independent bookstore is that whatever it is a person needs--whatever that kid, or their parent or their teacher, whoever comes into your beautiful shops needs--there is the thing they need. I always tell people go shop indie because that's how books, like my books originally, that's how all books find their kids. And you guys do that."

Appearing at the breakfast together were Adam Gidwitz & Joseph Bruchac, co-authors of Unicorn Rescue Society: Sasquatch and the Muckleshoot (Penguin Books for Young Readers). Paths were crossing for me now. I'd just seen Gidwitz speaking at HFF, and I first met Bruchac during the 1990s at the Vermont bookstore where I worked. We often hosted events celebrating his new titles.

"Joe is a legend in the storytelling and the music making and the writing communities, both for Native Americans and generally and getting to work with him is just incredible," Gidwitz said, adding: "When we were first writing this book, Joe wrote a line in it which stayed because it's great. He said, 'Folks often forget that we have two ears and one mouth, which means that we should listen twice as much as we speak.' I had never heard that before. The process of writing this series for me has been about trying to adopt that as my new mantra. And I think today with the people that we hear on the television and radio I think listening twice as much as we speak is probably a good mantra for a lot of us right now, especially those of us whose voices have been amplified at the expense of those whose voices have been quieted or silenced."

Bruchac, whose latest work is Two Roads (Dial Books), is a solid bridge between cultures, between past and present. "Whenever I travel, I try to acknowledge those people who were here first," he began, asking us to turn our minds to the tribes "whose lands we are on as we speak."

He concluded the presentation with these words: "We are all human beings. We need to be tolerant of each other. We need to listen to each other. We need to remember we all have the same heartbeat, we all breath the same air, we all have the same two eyes to look twice before we speak, the same two ears to listen twice as much as we talk. And we as human beings together when we join our hands in cooperation can do great things.... and what comes out is more than any of us could have done alone without the help of those who have guided us along the way. I thank you for listening to us."

It was a perfect way to get back on the path. Next week, more on the MPIBA Fall Discovery Show.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3363

Friday
Oct192018

On the Book Path: Heartland Fall Forum 2

"People often ask me, 'How is it that, in the midst of things, you're writing about joy?' " poet Ross Gay (The Book of Delights: Essays, Algonquin, February) said during the Tasting Notes Dinner at this year's Heartland Fall Forum. "And my response is always--and certainly relative to events now--along the lines of: There's nothing more important than thinking about and writing about and meditating on what you love. So, this book is kind of a gesture toward that, or an exercise in cultivating the possibility of delight, building the possibility of delight."

The ongoing chronicle of my fall bookseller trade show path is a bit like that, too. I listened.  Amazing conversations occurred everywhere I turned--with booksellers, authors, publishers--on a bustling trade show floor, around dining tables and in the lobbies and corridors of the historic Depot in Minneapolis. I love--I delight--in hearing everyone's takes regarding our complicated world of books, though I tend to keep most of these exchanges confidential. I learn so much more that way.

I can say that what I heard was a generous dose of optimism about the Heartland Fall Forum and the future of indie bookselling, seasoned with a measure of caution about the future in general. So many good words--enlightening and educational, inspiring and, well, just damn delightful--were in the air at Heartland; more than enough to share, including these:

"How Not-So-Big Stores Can Act Big" panel: (front l. to r.) Daley Farr of Milkweed Books, Minneapolis; Riley Jay Davis of Common Good Books, St. Paul; Wendy Sheanin of S&S; (back l. to r.) Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio, Columbus, Ohio; Kelly Estep of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ken.

At one of the education sessions, Two Dollar Radio co-founder Eric Obenauf observed: "We had been talking about opening up a storefront [in Columbus, Ohio] for several years before the 2016 election, but that was the fuel, the impetus to actually get out into the community and try to plant a flag and say this is what we're for, to engage in conversations in the community not just about books. About what's happening in the world. And ideally not feel so alone."

I heard author Kate DiCamillo (Louisiana's Way Home, Candlewick) express her gratitude to booksellers "for what you do putting books in readers' hands. I wouldn't be sitting up here without handselling. So I'm deeply grateful to you.... I feel like it matters now more than ever what we do and it's always a good thing to remind ourselves of."

"Fun & Games" panel: (l. to r.) Aman Winslow, Erik Winslow, Zoe Malinchoc of Fair Trade Books, Red Wing, Minn.; Grant Alden of of CoffeeTree Books, Moorehead, Ken.; Zach Matelski of McLean & Eakin Bookstore, Petoskey, Mich.

In a first--at least for me--Zoe Malinchoc of Fair Trade Books in Red Wing Minn., brought two customers, Aman and Erik Winslow, to Heartland for a "Fun & Games" education session. The couple have an extensive private collection of vintage board games and partner with the bookshop to help run its community family board game nights. Aman noted the events allow participants to "get to know the different people in the community at the same time and develop more of a relationship with them.... It becomes like a community center where everybody can get together and relax and have fun."

During the session "How Not-So-Big Stores Can Act Big," Wendy Sheanin, v-p, independent retail sales at Simon & Schuster, left no doubts about her position: "I don't care what size your store is. I care how big your mouth is. And I mean that in the best way.... how passionate you are.... how you care about my books and how you champion them to your customers and how you tell us."

Daley Farr of the 600-square-foot Milkweed Books in Minneapolis noted that "part of what's been successful for our store is just really leaning in to the personality you have.... What we're able to offer that no one else can, even in a town with as many lovely bookstores as we have, is our particular personalities and mix of titles and so we're really trying to extend that impression."

Ron Koltnow, retired Penguin Random House sales rep and author of Barberton Fried Chicken: An Ohio Original (The History Press, Nov. 19) in his publisher's Heartland Fall Forum booth. The team: (l. to r.) Beth Pickens, Erin Ownes, Koltnow, Katie Parry

At the Tasting Notes Dinner, Chicago's Women & Children First co-owner Lynn Mooney introduced Nina Barrett, author of The Leopold and Loeb Files (Agate Midway) and owner of Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill.

"I was so happy to hear that Lynn was introducing me, because I have this long involvement with Women & Children First, which is where I learned everything I needed to know to open an independent bookstore," Barrett said. "I began what would become my bookselling career at the same time that I began my writing career and it was mainly to combat the isolation of writing that I started moonlighting a day or two a week at Women & Children First.... When the chance presented itself to open Bookends and Beginnings, I jumped at it. So I feel very privileged and honored to be here tonight with you, my tribe, my peeps, and I know firsthand that you can't handsell every single book in your store, but that when you do decide to put the awesome magic and power of bookselling behind a book, you can create miracles."

Sophie Blackall, illustrator of Winnie's Great War (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) by Lindsay Mattick & Josh Greenhut, kept poetry on the radar during the Children's Author Breakfast by reading Gwendolyn Brooks's "Book Power," which includes the lines:

In all this willful world
of thud and thump and thunder
man's relevance to books
continues to declare.

Then she said: "I am delighted to be here in the Heartland with fellow authors and illustrators who dream up stories that feed and cure and chortle and collide; with publishers who help us turn them into books; with booksellers who help those books find their way into the arms of readers..."

Good words indeed. Next week, my book path crosses a bridge between the Heartland and the Rockies.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3358

Friday
Oct122018

On the Book Path: Heartland Fall Forum

"Oku means 'within' and 'farthest' or 'dead-end' place; hosomichi means 'path' or 'narrow road.' The no is prepositional. Oku-no-hosomichi: the narrow road within; the narrow way through the interior." --Sam Hamill, in his introduction to Matsuo Bashō's Narrow Road to the Interior

I'm writing this from a hotel room in Denver, where the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show is about to start. But the bookish path I've been on began October 2 when I left the Northeast and headed to Minneapolis for this year's Heartland Fall Forum, the annual gathering of members from the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association.

This extended westward trek is unusual for me. Normally I would return home between fall trade shows, but scheduling this year made the option less appealing. Now I'm glad it worked out that way because the path has offered unanticipated delights and surprises.

One of my longtime book/life guides has been Bashō, the 17th Century Japanese poet whose travel journals were part of the inspiration for a blog I started in 2004 called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal. He wrote: "Nothing's worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes."

"Poetry & the Heartland Fall Forum," a column I wrote a couple of weeks ago, has turned out to be even more prescient than I anticipated. So I've tried to follow this transitory path with Bashō's fresh eyes, and over the next few weeks I'll share some of what I've seen and heard.

Step onto the book path here:

During HFF's Book Awards Ceremony on the first day, MIBA executive director Carrie Obry and new GLIBA head Larry Law revealed that next year's show will be held at the historic Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. "We would like to take our show on the road," Obry said. "We looked at a lot of different venues throughout the Midwest, and we've decided to take it to this lovely urban environment in the downtown of the city."

Judith Kissner

When Jennifer Wills of Beagle and Wolf Books & Bindery, Park Rapids, Mich., introduced the inaugural Midwest Bookseller of the Year winner, Judith Kissner of Scout & Morgan Books, Cambridge, Minn., she noted that "not only is she a terrific bookseller, playing successful matchmaker between readers and books, and bringing in amazing authors... she's an important part of the collaborations and reforms that are happening in the community."

Accepting her award, Kissner chronicled the path that led to her bookselling life, which included working as a flight attendant: "For 17 years, during layovers throughout North America, I spent countless hours in every shape and size of bookstore, among stacks of the world's best literature. On every layover in every city I made my way to the sanctuaries of rational thought, critical thinking and endless possibility. I stuffed my one or two books and read during every minute of downtime. I didn’t realize it at the time that I was filing away all kinds of information regarding store layouts, aesthetics, quality of books, booksellers who were engaging and welcoming and those who weren't. I was building a business plan of what my store would look like and feel like if I ever had that opportunity.... I have never looked back, and feel so fortunate to have had this wonderful opportunity to be part of the bookselling community."

Kate McCune

Noting that "this work has always really mattered to me and you guys have always really mattered to me," Voice of the Heartland Award winner Kate McCune said, "So many booksellers have really let me live their bookselling lives vicariously by sharing their plans, their stories, their frustrations and their dreams" and emphasized "the bigger work we're all engaged in, which is a life of ideas that on its best days really gives us meaning. And it’s about a generosity of spirit, which is what reading gives us all."

(l. r.): MIBA executive director Carry Obry; award-winning authors Bao Phi, Danez Smith, Margi Preus, Michael Zadoorian, Loren Long, Chloe Benjamin; and GLIBA executive director Larry Law

Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists and winner of the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for fiction, praised indies: "Again and again you amaze me with your devotion, enthusiasm and ingenuity. No one designs a store window like an independent bookseller.... Before I was ever a writer, I was a reader and before I ever saw one of my own books in an indie bookstore as a customer, I fell in  love with indies as a customer."

The sweetest moment of day one on my 2018 fall bookseller trade show circuit occurred when Danez Smith, MIBA's award winner in the poetry category for Don’t Call Us Dead, expressed heartfelt gratitude to their mother, who was in attendance, by recalling: "I think [she] is the reason I became a writer and reader. She's a writer herself and her torture of making me go to the library and take back library books gave me a lot of time to spend with books, and seeing you always with a book in your hands always made me want to make one to put in your hands." Then, gazing out at a huge room packed with indie booksellers, Smith added: "I just want to thank all of you strange capitalist librarians."

The HFF path--and the poetry--continues next week.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2253

Friday
Sep282018

Poetry & the Heartland Fall Forum

Next Thursday is National Poetry Day in the U.K., but I'll be celebrating in Minneapolis while covering the Heartland Fall Forum, hosted by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association.

Poetry will be in the Twin Cities air, however. As it happens, one of the featured writers at the Tasting Notes Dinner October 4 is poet Ross Gay, winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (U. of Pittsburgh Press). He'll discuss his upcoming collection of short lyric essays, The Book of Delights (Algonquin, February).   

Minneapolis is a great poetry town. I discovered this inadvertently at 19, when I was introduced to John Berryman's newly published His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in a college English class, though I wouldn't actually set foot in the city for the first time until 2008.

I always wanted to be old. I wanted to say
'O I haven't read that
for fifteen years'
or 'my copy of that
seems in the usual course to have gone astray'

I still read Berryman, and I'm fortunate that the Minneapolis/poetry connection has been a renewable resource. Lately I've been listening to Chime, a new album from Dessa, the rapper, singer/songwriter, essayist and--by any reckoning and reading of her lyrics--poet, with solid Minneapolis credentials. I'm also reading her new book, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love (Dutton).

In fact, Dessa prompted my recollection Berryman's "old" lines after I encountered this passage: "I have always been preoccupied with death--mine and other people's--since I was a kid. I consider myself the steward of the old woman I will become, and I'm aware that with every day, we are closer to the same person. My parents used to joke that I was eight going on forty."

I get that.

I also realized that many of the poetry-related books I've read in recent months have a Minneapolis connection. Graywolf Press published the extraordinary Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith, who lives in the city and recently became the youngest winner ever of the U.K.'s Forward Prize for the Best Poetry Collection. Bidisha, one of the judges, said "Smith's finely crafted poetry makes us look anew at the intertwined natures of politics and sexuality and stands as a powerful warning: this is what's happening, be alert, pay attention." Like this:

do you know what it's like to live
on land who loves you back

no need for geography
now, we safe everywhere.

point to whatever you please
& call it church, home, or sweet love.

paradise is a world where everything
is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

Milkweed Editions published two of my favorite books this year, including Ada Limón's The Carrying: Poems. From "Bust":

I'm driving alone in the predawn
dark to the airport, nerves nearly gone
when I fly now, gravity only another holy
thing to contend with, what pushes us
down squeezing out the body's air.

In an NPR Weekend Edition interview, Limón observed that "the questions just keep getting larger and larger. How do we hold all of these dualities in our minds--the daily bombardment of painful news and then the sort of sweet, little moments at home and the smallness of life? And how do we celebrate the shift in seasons or the moment you hold hands amongst all of that great tragedy? I'll ask it to myself over and over--how do we live like this? How do we find this balance?"

In her poetry, she does.

Also from Milkweed is Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship. It is at once painful and enlightening to eavesdrop on the correspondence between playwright Sarah Ruhl and the late poet Max Ritvo (Four Reincarnations: Poems, Milkweed). This is more than a collection of letters, poems, songs and e-mails between a teacher and her former student who becomes a friend. Ritvo's cancer death sentence is the shadow here, yet what emerges from their brilliant, funny, heartbreaking conversations is a frank exploration of human connection, mortality, art and much more in precious real time.

Describing his radiation treatment, Ritvo observes: "But the most heartbreakingly beautiful just-for-you thing is the sound the machine makes when the beam is emitted. Sarah, it sounds exactly like a tiny man with a tremor is opening a can of soup inside the gun.... Soup is the food that most allows your mouth to approximate silence--chewing is so very similar to speech."

Ruhl responds: "For me I think there is something about the distillation process of making soup, and knowing that you are eating something distilled by time and patient human beings." Theirs is a life and death conversation, deftly seasoned with poetry.

And then there is Raymond McDaniel's The Cataracts (Coffee House Press), which has many poems I love, especially "Pilgrims." It opens:

The poem about impermanence,
written by the itinerant poet,
comes to me translated,
as a quote in a book
in which the poet himself is itinerant,
though he resides permanently
in many equivalent quotes
in many equivalent books

As I celebrate National Poetry Day U.K. next week in Minneapolis, I'll have all these extraordinary words--and a city full of book people--for company. What more could a reader ask for?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3344

Friday
Sep212018

The Question--What Business Are You Really In?

"Good marketing makes a company look smart, but great marketing makes a customer look smart," Terry O'Reilly writes in his book This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence (Chicago Review Press), where he poses what I'll call The Question: "What business are you really in?"

For bookstores, the pat answer is, well, selling books, yet every bookseller I know would make that part of a catalogue of resources along with providing a community center, a safe space for the exchange ideas, title curation and much more. You know the list; it's probably in your mission statement.

But that's not what he's asking. O'Reilly contends that the actual answer is at once more simple and more complex than a list of objectives, services or even ideals. "Don't answer that question too quickly," he advises. "Most people get it wrong. Yet it's the most important marketing question you can ask yourself."

He offers some intriguing examples: Molson isn't in the beer business; it's in the party business. Michelin isn't in the tire business; it's in the safety business. Häagen-Dazs isn't in the ice cream business; it's in the sensual pleasure business. Whitewater rafting companies aren't in the personal transportation business; they're in the personal transformation business. Apple isn't in the computer business; it's in the personal empowerment business. And Nike isn't in the shoe business; it's in the motivation business.

Of course, Nike stands out at the moment because it has dominated sports and news media headlines in recent weeks, thanks to an ad campaign that motivated both sneaker-torching boycotts and ardent support.

Just yesterday, Reuters reported that Nike "has sold out 61% more merchandise since the controversial ad campaign featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick appeared earlier this month." According to research by Thomson Reuters, Nike sold out far more items between September 3 and September 13 than in the 10-day period before the ad came out, "discounted fewer products in the 10-day period after the ad and saw its Colin Kaepernick women's jersey sell out on September 17.... Shares in Nike have rebounded from an initial drop when the first versions of the ad were released, hitting a record high a little over a week later."

It ain't about the shoes. "Nike makes us care because it encourages us to make an important decision," O'Reilly contends, having noted earlier in the book that a "truism of business is that what you sell and what people buy are almost always two different things. Companies look to sell products, and customers look to buy solutions."

International corporate leviathans and indie booksellers may not have a lot in common, but The Question demands a unique response from every business.

"Customers are drawn to a brand--be it a product or a service--for many reasons," according to O'Reilly. "But the most important, overriding reason is how it makes them feel. Price, location, color and so on all rank well below this single criterion.... People make decisions based on emotions, then rationalize that decision with details."

"Successful retailers today do more than sell a great product. They embody values people respect and tell a story customers want to be a part of," the National Retail Foundation reported in showcasing two discussions from its recent Shop.org event in Las Vegas.

A pair of ABA Winter Institute moments came to mind as I thought about The Question.

Daniel Pink at Wi

At the end of his keynote during Wi13 in Memphis last January, Daniel Pink said: "The good news is [pointing to various parts of the audience] you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you and all the people in the back. The good news is people like you. Booksellers. People who care about the life of ideas; people who care about the integrity of the community; people who care about science; people who care about truth. And so, when I am feeling despairing about what's going on in the country, I think about people like you, the booksellers who are out there making a difference in the world, who are bringing ideas to people, who are bringing great stories to people and who are a bulwark against all the bad things that are going on. So, thank you for selling books, and thank you for being the source of good news."

And at Wi12 in Minneapolis, DIESEL: A Bookstore owner John Evans said that "historically bookstores, especially some of the older stores, have a little bit of a conflicted idea about the very idea of branding," yet when he walks "into Three Lives in New York or Watermark Books in Wichita, Kans., or City Lights in San Francisco I have three different experiences. They're particular, specific and expressive of the personalities of the people who work there and their philosophies, policies, procedures, labor practices, visions and display & design choices. This is in addition to what we tend to focus on--selection of books, curation.... This session is taking a more conscious look at the ways in which we, consciously or unconsciously, body forth our values, ideas, visions and personalities in our stores as an entity called the bookstore, as a culture of booksellers, and as a business. This can also be called how we brand ourselves."

The Question is an intriguing exercise. In a word or two, what business are you really in?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3339