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Friday
May042018

Surprise! It's Small Business Week!

Maybe I'm the only one who missed the memo, but I just realized on Monday that we'd already begun National Small Business Week, which started April 29 and runs through tomorrow. On the other hand, even a cursory glance at #SmallBusinessWeek on Twitter seems to confirm a certain... lack of enthusiasm. The tweets are dominated by local, state and national politicians cashing in some goodwill chips. President Trump and Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon issued proclamations, but in the wake of Independent Bookstore Day excitement, it all seems pretty tame.

Deciding to carpe #SBW18, I did a little last-minute digging anyway. As it turns out, booksellers have gotten some ink this week. In a feature showcasing 15 "cool small businesses," Business Insider noted that Brooklyn's Books Are Magic "is run by novelist Emma Straub and her husband, graphic designer Michael Fusco-Straub.... Why it's cool: There's no getting around it: New York City is running out of bookstores. Straub and Fusco-Straub are among a growing group of entrepreneurs trying to change that, to the delight of bibliophiles in all five boroughs."

Bob Oldfather, Bookmans.

Each day this week, Inc. magazine is spotlighting "a different competitive advantage of local brick-and-mortar companies." As an example of "exemplars of community involvement," Inc. showcased Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, with several locations in Arizona. Company president Sean Feeney said, "The confluence of customers here can be remarkable.... [Founder Bob Oldfather] "had to work there every day so he wanted it to be a cool place to hang out.... We still have a good price and an incredible selection. But now it is more about the environment."

Elliott Bay Book Company was chosen by the Seattle Times as one of "5 Seattle shops to inspire your small-biz week shopping." 

Rachel Wood, owner of Scrawl Books, Reston, Va., told the Connection: "Independent bookstores play a unique role. We are part of the community we serve, and connected to our customers through schools, neighborhoods and common experiences. Our business is built on creating connections and responding to community interests.... I'm happy to see Reston gain recognition as a place that embraces books and reading. I'm grateful for the support Scrawl has received from the publishing community, as well as our local readers and writers."

Indies rule; we already knew that. During my #SmallBusinessWeek explorations, I also noticed that statistics are addicting. 

In its Heart + Hustle: Small Business Summary, payment processing company Square found that 72% of small business owners agree they face more challenges today than five years ago; 65% feel confident they are going to meet their five-year goal; 58% say increased competition from big corporations has motivated them to adapt for the better; and 49% say cash-flow concerns keep them up at night.

Survey results from the Better Business Bureau showed that 84% of consumers trust small businesses most, with respondents citing reasons like wanting to support local businesses (60%), convenience (30%), better customer service (27%), and unique items unavailable elsewhere (24%). The BBB said there are 29 million small businesses in the U.S., employing nearly 57 million people.

For the UPS Store, Inc.'s first annual Inside Small Business Survey, 66% of respondents said they dream of opening a small business, and the primary motivators include being their own boss (38%), believing in the power of their own idea (17%) and creating their next career path (15%).

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the end of the Great Recession small businesses have created 62% of all net new private-sector jobs, Inc. reported. Among those jobs, 66% were created by existing businesses, while 34% were generated through new establishments.

The U.S. Census Bureau tweeted: "DYK there were 5.6 million employer businesses in the U.S. in 2016 that had less than 10 employees?"

Thankfully, stats also show how small business success is tied to its most basic ingredient: people. WalletHub's 2018 Small Business Owner Survey revealed that 38% of respondents said access to a talented workforce was more important than limited regulations (25%), low taxes (21%), easy access to credit (13%), and government incentives (3%).

In an interview with the American Independent Business Alliance, Adriana Paliobagis, owner of Country Bookshelf, Bozeman, Mont., said one of her biggest challenges is "maintaining staff, for an interesting reason. We have an incredible community of well-educated people (actually... I often have incredibly overqualified people working for me) but the cost of living here is really high. Housing is a problem, and I have seen my staff couch-surf and roommate with each other in order to be here. The low unemployment rate in Bozeman is amazing but it also makes competing for good employees really tough, so compared to other independent bookstores, and for the size of our community, we probably pay on the high end. To compete I also offer more benefits than a lot of other independents. The higher cost is worth it. My business wouldn't exist without my employees… these amazing people who love books... without them the Country Bookshelf is not here."

When AMIBA asked, appropriately enough, what book every small business owner should read, Paliobagis recommended Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business by Paul Downs: "I consider this book to be an incredibly honest depiction of what it's like to run your own business. It's warts and all--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unexpected."

I agree. In fact, I'm on record, too. Maybe rereading Boss Life is the perfect way to celebrate #SBW18.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3242

Friday
Apr272018

IBD & Measuring Success by Relationships 

"You can find many ways to feel depressed about being an author when you measure your success by bestseller lists and money. But if you measure it by these relationships, by time spent wandering through the unique stores, their regional sections, their staff picks, there is nothing better than being an author on book tour." --Susan Henderson

Tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day, and if I were still a frontline bookseller I would be handselling the hell out of Susan Henderson's new novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams (Harper Perennial). The narrator is Mary Crampton, a mortician in a once prosperous Montana prairie town where the population has dwindled to less than 200 due to economic changes and one particularly devastating tragedy.

She has dreams ("Secretly I think of myself as an artist.... A mortician is an illusionist.") that are tempered by circumstance ("I'd developed an expertise in my work, and staying in Petroleum allowed me to keep an eye on my father.") and habit ("You think a life is built of dreams when, really, a life is made up of daily to-do lists."). The arrival of a stranger--who isn't really a stranger--shifts her small world out of orbit.

Since The Flicker of Old Dreams is one of my favorite books this year, and I know Henderson is a passionate supporter of indies, I thought asking her a few questions would be a good way to start my own IBD celebration. So that's what I did.

"The first thing I do when I go to a person's house is stand in front of a bookshelf. Right away, I get a sense of them," Henderson told me, adding: "This is the great pleasure of walking into an indie bookstore. From the name the owners chose for the store, to how they selected and organized the books, you have an intimate look at a personality and a community's values. Sometimes it's in a dark cave, books all around you and having to walk slowly so as not to knock over piles. Sometimes deep inside that cave, you'll find an old beat-up chair and a standing lamp. I've spent whole afternoons in these colorful caves, in well-lit stores, in musty stores full of used books, stores with cats, stores with dogs, stores full of mismatched furniture and threadbare carpets. Sometimes the owner is shy and it takes several visits to have that first conversation."

Susan Henderson with Carol Hoenig at Turn of the Corkscrew.

Henderson's book tour for The Flicker of Old Dreams began with a March launch event at her home bookshop, Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine in Rockville Centre, N.Y. "How can you not love a bookstore that plays off of a Henry James classic and a love of wine?," she asked. "Turn of the Corkscrew is a gorgeous series of connected nooks that lead you to the bar and café in the back. The co-owner, Carol Hoenig, is hands on, sometimes chopping vegetables, sometimes at the cash register, and always cultivating a community. She hosts book clubs and writer workshops and events with local libraries. When she falls in love with a book, she presses it into your hands and tells you why you might love it too.... Whenever I need books, I try to order them through Carol's store because authors and bookstore owners both survive and thrive on word of mouth."

Reflecting on how The Flicker of Old Dreams has found its readers, Henderson said: "Everything about the life of my current book has come through indie booksellers, one reader and bookseller at a time." For example, she is "becoming familiar with a number of indie bookstores throughout Montana as booksellers and members of the community discover my book and bring it to the others' attention."

Susan Henderson during her event at Book Show in Los Angeles

At Book Show in Los Angeles "I was warmly greeted by Jen Hitchcock, who was enthusiastic about my book, especially the inside look at embalming dead bodies," she noted. "Walking into her store was like walking into the freak show tent at a carnival. It was quirky and comically morbid, and filled with books for misfits. Like most bookstore owners, she was a great resource for recommending a place to grab dinner."

Seth Marko, co-owner of the Book Catapult in San Diego, "hosted our discussion about the dead and dying with an audience that included people who had worked in or grown up in funeral homes and a woman who operates a local death café," Henderson said. "They are still uncovering their community as each new author event brings out another selection of locals. You see the relationships happening--I was here last week. This is my friend. These are the books we love. It was so great to see that happening in real time."

Recalling her event at Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., she said, "I'm so glad I've learned the habit of meeting the owners because they always have interesting back stories. Take Emily Hall, who had a good number of birds about the store (Megan Mayhew Bergman's Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a finger puppet of Edgar Allan Poe's raven, and excitement about Alex London's soon to be published YA fantasy, Black Wings Beating). It turns out Emily was a trainer and a naturalist at World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Mo."

"This is the great gift of visiting real life stores that were born of passion, each store as individual as the person who dreamed it into reality," Henderson observed. "No matter the city, I know where to find my tribe. And I don't just ask them for book recommendations. I also let them lead me to the coffee shops, the restaurants, the music venues, and the art and recreation of their town. Because booksellers are the creative and intellectual heart of that community. And just as word of mouth keeps books alive, word of mouth keeps these small, vibrant bookstores and their communities alive."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3237

Friday
Apr202018

'The Best Way to Tell the Story'

On Monday, I read that during the London Book Fair's Quantum Conference, Hachette U.K. CEO David Shelley said he was "optimistic" about "people's relationship with paper" and the trend of younger generations gravitating back toward paper, along with the resurgence of independent booksellers. "If you look at what consumers are saying they want from us, they're not saying they want interactive e-books," he observed. "What consumers are saying that they want from us are really, really beautiful books."

That's true... and heartening. I'm one of those people described above who have a lasting "relationship with paper." I'd guess you are, too. It is only a slight exaggeration to say: "Books are my life." But I'm also intrigued by other voices out there. No, this isn't a ghost story, though there is a ghost story coming up if you read just a little further.

On Tuesday, I read an interview with "applied futurist" Tom Cheesewright, who contends that e-book sales statistics "are completely wrong--they only take account of established publishers, so it's measuring the wrong thing. As I say, technology breeds diversity, and that includes diversity of publishing models as well as diversity of formats." The next question posed to him was about the future of bookshops, and he was optimistic, in a futurist kind of way: "Machines remain really bad at giving us a good discovery experience."

So... that's a consolation.

On Wednesday, I read Kate Pullinger's story "Breathe" on my iPhone. It was produced in association with the Ambient Literature project, which launched in 2016 to "investigate the locational and technological future of the book. The project is focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers."

"I plan to write a ghost story to be experienced in a bedroom in a city--any bedroom, in any city," Pullinger had noted in the Bookseller when the Ambient Literature project began. And she did just that, later describing "Breathe" as "a literary experience delivered through your smartphone that responds to your presence by internalizing the world around you. Using APIs--application programming interfaces--the story leverages data about you, including place, weather, time, in order to create an experience that is personal and uncanny."

In a recent blog post, Tom Abba wrote: "Ambient Literature has been an extended conversation about storytelling, situation, audience, presence and much much more." During this year's Hay Festival, his group will be running workshops, hosting a panel discussion and making a new piece of work--"Words We Never Wrote"--that will premiere there and "explores the meaning of writing, language, and storytelling. I'm incredibly proud of this piece--it asks questions about linearity and form, art and suggestion that I've been aching to address for years."

Ambient Literature is one of many ways to answer the eternal storytelling prompt: "What if?" As a reader, former bookseller, working member of the book trade, and person "of a certain age," I am as devoted to the traditional book as I've always been. I have never become an e-book guy, but I am intrigued by alternative ways in which stories can be told using technology.

In 2016, the same year Ambient Literature launched, I saw Simon McBurney's stage production The Encounter in New York (It has just opened in London to begin a European tour). You could say that the production is "based on" Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, which chronicles the head-spinning 1969 journey by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre into a remote area of Brazil, where he became lost and literally/figuratively blew his mind.

You could say it was about that, but it becomes so much more when filtered through McBurney's imagination. He explains it better than I ever could here, and here, and here. I sat in a sold-out Broadway theater, wearing headphones like everyone else in the audience, and became part of this incredible act of storytelling. Safer than being lost in the Amazon jungle, but mind-blowing nonetheless (trailer).

On Thursday, I read an interview with Gareth Fry, a member of The Encounter's sound design team, who said: "Simon was given the book about 20 years ago and he spent a long time mulling over how to do it. He did some workshops before I came on board and began to think about the story's epic scale, its claustrophobia and its characters. That the audience wear headphones is something that evolved out of that process of trying to find the best way to tell the story." (McBurney's take on storytelling).

That's it, really--"the best way to tell the story." Printed books have always done the job flawlessly for me, and still do every day. But there are stories that can be told in other ways. Kate Pullinger's "Breathe" is one; The Encounter another. While e-books themselves don't interest me, I'm fascinated by the technological exploration of "What if?" Ultimately, I think the best way to tell a story depends upon who the storyteller is.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3232

Friday
Apr132018

Libraries of Future Past

"We are still chasing those magical, fractal, visceral encounters with real libraries of real books." --Stuart Kells, in a Paris Review blog post titled "The Strange Magic of Libraries"

It's National Library Week, which has somehow reminded me of the 1975 film Rollerball, set in "the not too distant future" of 2018. Based on William Harrison's short story "The Rollerball Murders," the movie features a pair of library scenes that have stayed with me for more than four decades.

Rollerball imagines a corporate-controlled world in which the human instincts for competition and violence are tightly wrapped up in a single, deadly spectator sport designed to illustrate the futility of individual effort. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby snarled: "If a man's science‐fiction is a measure of his imagination, then Rollerball suggests that Norman Jewison's is about the size of a six‐pack of beer and a large bag of pretzels."

Rollerball superstar Jonathan E. (James Caan) has probably never read the Canby archives, but he has been infected with a potentially fatal virus--curiosity. Confronting forced retirement, he begins to wonder how the hell his world got to this point. It's an unexpected moment of introspection from an otherwise action-oriented guy and propels him down a dangerous path, which just happens to include a couple of library visits.

At his local "library," he encounters a vacant-eyed Circulation Unit clerk:

Jonathan: Yeah. I tried to order some books and they sent me this notice that I had to appear here at the center personally.
Clerk: That's right. This is our circulation unit. You can make your choice here or by catalogue. There must be some mistake. The books you've ordered are classified and have been transcribed and summarized.
J: Who summarized them?
C: I suppose the computer summarized them.
Moonpie (friend & teammate): What do you need books for?
J: I just want to study up on some things.
C: You could go to the computer center where the real librarians transcribe the books, but we have all the edited versions in our catalog, anything I think you'd want.
J: Well, let's see then. This is not a library, and you're really not a librarian.
C: I'm only a clerk, that's right. I'm sorry about it, really.
J: And the books are really in computer banks being summarized. Where is that?
C: There's a computer bank in Washington. The biggest is in Geneva. That's a nice place to visit. I guess that's where all the books are now.

My Rollerball flashback may also have been sparked by the release of HBO's official trailer for Fahrenheit 451 (recurrent theme: bad times for book people in the future). In an interview with Deadline, director Ramin Bahrani said that when Ray Bradbury wrote his novel in the 1950s, it was set in the distant future, and today people can read books on a "super computer in your pocket.... It's not hard to control what is on the Internet given that things are so centralized.... Bradbury said we asked for this. We asked for things to become this way.... We've turned it all over to Google, Facebook and the government. We decided we don't want to have any part in that. We've willingly given it up."

I kept reading... on my computer.

In Holland last year, the Charles Nypels Laboratory made a heat-sensitive edition of Fahrenheit 451, featuring pages that "are covered in what appears to be a soot-black, screen-printed layer. Words are only revealed when a high temperature is applied."

The Ambient Literature Project was established in 2016 "to investigate the locational and technological future of the book." In the Bookseller, Tom Abba observed: "The authorial address of The Cartographer's Confession, in which an unreliable narratorial voice from thirty years ago merges with the city around you in 2018 has specific registers, ways of linking place to voice to personal experience. That the ghosts in Breathe break down the fourth wall of the reading experience is a particularly subtle use of API data, designed to unnerve each reader."

In Rollerball, a bewildered Jonathan E. travels to Geneva in search of the "real books." He meets an elderly librarian/programmer (Ralph Richardson).

J: What about the books?
L: Books, books, oh no, they're all changed, all transcribed. All information is here. We've Zero, of course. He's the central brain, the world's brain. Fluid mechanics, fluidics. He's liquid, you see. His borders touch all knowledge. Everything we ask has become so complicated now. Each thing we ask. This morning we wanted to know something about the 13th century. It flows out into all our storage systems. He considers everything. He's become so ambiguous now. As if he knows nothing at all."

In the introduction to my copy of Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman writes that once upon a time, Bradbury crafted "The Fireman," a short story that "demanded to be longer. The world he had created demanded more. He went to UCLA's Powell Library. In the basement were typewriters you could rent by the hour, by putting coins into a box on the side of the typewriter. Ray Bradbury put his money into the box and typed his story. When inspiration flagged, when he needed a boost, when he wanted to stretch his legs, he would walk through the library and look at the books."

Despite dire predictions--real as well as fictional--the libraries of my past, present and future still inspire "magical, fractal, visceral encounters." I'm glad they do.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3227

Friday
Apr062018

Canadian National Poetry Month... by the Numbers

Can poetry be a numbers game? Sure. Why not? Let's start with the number 20. This year marks two decades since the League of Canadian Poets held its inaugural National Poetry Month "to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada's culture." The Academy of American Poets launched the first NPM in the U.S. in 1996.

For 2018, the LCP is "letting you take center stage this year to celebrate National Poetry Month in ways that are meaningful to you! We will be sharing some contents, lists, and recommendations, but more than anything we can't wait to see what Canada's biggest poetry fans will celebrate this April. What will you read? What events will you organize, attend? Will you start your own poetry writing project? Will you write your first poem? Will you share your poetry on stage for the first time?"

By my calculation, poetry readers matter as much as poets do, though the theory may be tempered slightly by my personal history as a bad poet, if good reader, of poems. Nonetheless, I value the chance to discover poets I haven't read before, and Poetry Month increases those odds and opportunities.

The Star, for example, recommended "new books to kick of National Poetry Month"; and 49th Shelf "decided to go back in time 20 years to 1998 and remember some of the outstanding poetry releases of that year. We've highlighted the winners of some of Canada’s most notable poetry prizes from 1998 and we are so excited to fall in love with these works--again--with you."

There is also poetry in statistics, as Mary Cornish (who wasn't Canadian, unfortunately) explored in her poem "Numbers." It begins:

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

In Canada, the writing and reading of poetry appears to be good business for some. BookNet Canada's The Canadian Book Market 2017 reported that for the second year in a row, unit sales in the poetry category increased significantly, led by Canadian poet Rupi Kaur. Her book The Sun and Her Flowers sold the second-most in Canada in terms of volume in 2017, while her debut collection, Milk and Honey, continued to perform well.

Poetry sales increased 79% in 2016 compared to 2015, and between 2016 and 2017 units sold increased by another 154%. During poetry's slowest week in 2017, 3,907 books were sold, while the slowest week in 2016 generated only 1,715 book sales. The category represented more than 1% of all print unit sales in Canada last year, compared to 0.4% of the market in 2016.

On BookNet Canada's blog, Kira Harkonen offered perspective in a post headlined "#NationalPoetryMonth: Rupi is the new Rumi":

"We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance, and it's all thanks to the Internet," she wrote. In 2015, at the age of 22, Kaur published Milk and Honey. "Her poetry debut took the Internet and the publishing world by storm. She and other so-called Instapoets, such as Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Warsan Shire, Tyler Knott Gregson, and r.h. Sin took over bookstores everywhere, largely thanks to social media. In a world of 140 characters or less, these poets are finding a way to be heard."

According to The Canadian Book Market 2017, 93.45% of poetry books sold in 2017 were paperbacks. Of poetry books sold in this format, the top 10 were all by millennial poets. Comparing top 10 poetry book rankings since BookNet started collecting sales data in 2005 until the year before the publication of Milk and Honey (2005-2014), Harkonen observed that the "so-called Instapoets have completely knocked all literary classics from the list," adding that more traditional poets "have been bested by the powers of Instagram (for now, at least)." She also noted with pride that "Canadians love reading Canadian poetry! Hooray! Both lists are topped by notable Canadian poets: Leonard Cohen, Rupi Kaur, and Atticus."

Cohen, I suspect, would have been amused, and not displeased, to still be counted among these poets ("Thousands").

Here's a final number. On Tuesday, House of Anansi Press tweeted about the Anansi Poetry Project, "an ideas series that takes you inside the mind of a poet." This led me to another number--one. As a reader, I discover one poet at a time. What really counts during National Poetry Month, and beyond, is a simple, kind of sacred process. I didn't know Emma Healy's poetry before this week. Soon, however, I'll be reading her recently published book, stereoblind. Here's a taste:

Still, we understand the greater meaning: shards refusing to make a pattern, tiny mirror that fails to focus in small the whole of the great room. We know, too, without needing to be told that while some people might be born to be with others, others still are built to spend their nights like this, tracking a past that isn't theirs with antique, glitching equipment. Which kind are you? Stop, enhance.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3222