About FEN
FEN Elsewhere
Powered by Squarespace
Buy Books
Looking Backward
Shelf Awareness for Readers
Powered by Squarespace

Friday
Jan042019

'What are you optimistic about? Why?'

May we raise a toast to all you wonderful readers. May we shout our appreciation for the writers, those conjurors of words. And to the publishers, large and small, we are grateful for all your attention in bringing the finest and most enlightening of books for our reading pleasure. We are delighted to be your book purveyors and will continue to take part in the age-old alchemy of joining readers and books. To 2019! --Otto Book Store, Williamsport, Pa., in a New Year's Day Facebook post

At Sherman's Books

"What are you optimistic about? Why?"

These seem like excellent questions to begin any new year, especially when posed by a lifelong fatalist during turbulent times. In fact, I first saw them paired in 2007 as the "Edge Annual Question" (I know, two questions, but who's counting?). If you visited the Edge World Question Center then--and now, as it turns out--you found 160 responses from "a who's who of interesting and important world-class thinkers."

Among them was bestselling author Walter Isaacson, who deftly turned early 21st-century paranoia regarding the future of publishing into a mischievous, prescient fable: "I am very optimistic about print as a technology. Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution, and consumer product.... Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures onto pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the Internet."

More than a decade later, a variation of this process is happening. For example, on Wednesday the Bookseller reported that the print market in the U.K. "has grown in value for a fourth year running, with 2018 showing a marginal volume increase too." This is consistent with statistics from other countries. "We are buying books--especially the kind with physical pages--and we’re doing so, increasingly, in well-loved indie bookstores," Quartz wrote last week.

At River Bend Bookshop

As a Shelf Awareness editor, I often--by no means always, of course. Pollyanna I ain't--get optimistic readings when I check on the book trade's vital signs daily.

This even includes actual signs, like those posted recently by Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio; A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland, Calif.; River Bend Bookshop, Glastonbury, Conn.; Solid State Books, Washington, D.C.; Sherman's Books & Stationery, Boothbay Harbor, Maine; and Run for Cover Bookstore & Café, San Diego, Calif.

I'm optimistic when I see that the Writer's Block Bookstore & Café, Anchorage, Alaska, celebrated the new year and its first anniversary with a Facebook post from January 4, 2018: "Before the books, the tables, the dishes, the art, the words, the people."

Holiday season sales floor rush humor from London's Kirkdale Bookshop also sparks optimism:

Haven't tidied away any of our Christmas cards. Slack.
Customer: "This will sound weird,"
Me: thinks "yeah, probably"
Customer: "but have you got any Christmas cards?"
Me: gestures "Yep, we just do it all year long"
Turned it round, see
Retail is detail

At Solid State Books

Monitoring the heartbeat of the world of books in media coverage has sparked increasing optimism lately as well. For example:

In her New Year's resolution shared with Bookselling This Week, Angela Maria Spring, ABA board member and owner of Duende District Books in Washington, D.C., said: "In 2019, I will continue to build Duende District locations and event programming with my new partner, Nicole Capó Martínez. Nicole will take over D.C. operations when I relocate to my home state of New Mexico in January, where I'll be launching our first pop-up collaborations in Albuquerque. This is the first step in expanding the Duende experience and model nationwide."

Tim Godfray, executive chairman of the Booksellers Association of the U.K. & Ireland, told the Bookseller: "An e-mail arrived from Pippa, our membership manager. I'm not at liberty to divulge the details, but we will have a positive story to tell on bookshops for the second year in a row. This is no mean feat, after so many years of decline, and it's a sign of the renewed confidence in the sector that new, energetic and creative people are entering it.... We believe the tide is continuing to turn in favor of printed books and bookshops."

Digital life got some bad press in a recent New York Times op-ed ("In Search of Lost Screen Time"), which reported that the "average reader, reading at a speed of 280 words per minute, would take approximately 71½ hours to read the 1.3 million words in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. With 1,460 hours repurposed from device usage, a reader would get through the books almost 20 times. With the $1,380 in device-free savings, you could spend the weekend in Illiers-Combray, the setting of Proust's first madeleine-soaked memories, and see if he got it right."

The National Retail Federation predicted that the "challenge for retailers in introducing more experiential elements is avoiding 'Instagrammable' gimmicks and keeping it authentic: Values like sustainability and transparency are becoming key product features. In a survey, nearly 60% of consumers said they would stop shopping one of their favorite brands or retailers if they found out the company's values didn't match their own." Indie booksellers weren't just ahead of that curve, they held the pen that started sketching it.

What am I optimistic about? Book people, and the world of words they create, share and fiercely protect. Why? Because I'm a book person, too.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3404

Friday
Dec212018

Too Many Books for the Holidays? Bah! Humbug!

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.... The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading.

While I'm not exactly Scrooge, I'll confess that on a scale of Scrooge-to-Hallmark Christmas movies, I'd scan more toward the former than latter. That said, each year I do find a way to re-engage with Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, whether by watching one of the zillion film/TV adaptations, listening to an audio performance (Neil Gaiman and Patrick Stewart are personal favorites), or making a pilgrimage to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, where the original manuscript is displayed annually.

This year I've been reading a lovely new edition of A Christmas Carol: and Other Stories (Oxford University Press). In his introduction, editor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst notes that the classic tale, published in 1843, sold 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve and "kept on selling well into the New Year," though the high cost of production meant that Dickens "received less than a quarter of the profits he had been expecting." In the book trade, we care about the numbers. Think Scrooge, but in a nice way.

Any personal quest for the spirit of the holiday season is complicated by the fact that the reader in me tends to identify with the boy Scrooge reading by the feeble fire, while the business person in me, whose livelihood depends upon the success of the book trade, can't help but feel just a little sympathy for old Ebenezer, who "beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker's-book."

For booksellers, the holiday season can be an ongoing drama of comparing daily sales figures to last year's numbers. This is at once an exhilarating and intimidating time of the year. Some days "bah, humbug" doesn't seem like an overreaction to unpredictable weather, late deliveries or demanding customers. Wise ghosts of past, present and future seldom visit with neat, plot-twisting solutions to multilayered challenges.

So how do we remember in such times that this mad world we've chosen to live and work in is still primarily about something as simple and complex as putting the right words together so that someone will buy and read them?

When I was a kid, "holiday spirit" was beautifully gift-wrapped in stories I read and heard, including Dickens, of course. These tales reminded urchins like me that the holiday season was about much more than tinsel and toys.

As adults, we read to live. We read to find our way in the world. This time of year, we read, handsell and exchange books as gifts to encounter, if we can, a holiday spirit that is not always apparent around us.

I've been imagining an alternative Scrooge, who inherited Old Fezziwig's Bookshop and made a go of it. Each year at Christmas Eve, he would host a party for his beloved staff, always remembering his days as a young apprentice bookseller and honoring his kind mentor:

"A small matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
"Small!" echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said, "Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"
"It isn't that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

If only the Scrooge who, as a child, found refuge in The Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe had kept reading, had run a bookshop instead of a counting-house, had let Bob Cratchett eagerly handsell beautiful tomes in a fireplace-warmed, festively decorated storefront location downtown.

Bookseller Scrooge would have had a perfect response to the absurd notion that there could be an excess of books in anyone's life before, during or after the holiday season: Too many books? Bah! Humbug!

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!" The capital letters and the exclamation point belong to that old rascal Mr. Dickens. Feel free to copyedit and paraphrase to suit your own needs and beliefs. I wish you great reading for the new year.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3401

Friday
Dec142018

The Wizardry of Bookshop Holiday Windows

By 1897, holiday window dressing was such a heated enterprise, L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz and was thereby an authority on all things magical, began publishing Show Window, a magazine devoted entirely to holiday window displays, which awarded prizes to the best designs. Baum saw the artistry in each window and aimed to raise 'mercantile decorating' to the status of a profession by founding the National Association of Window Trimmers. --Lucie Levine in a 6sqft piece chronicling the history of New York City's legendary holiday windows

After last week's virtual sleigh ride through an independent bookstore Christmas tree forest, it seemed only natural to bookend the adventure by heading downtown for a complementary tour of another retail tradition, the bookshop holiday season window display.

David Hoey, senior director of visual presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, told the New York Times what his holiday store window goal is: "Here's what we're looking for: We're trying to induce aesthetic delirium."

Indie booksellers are not generally pressured to build window displays that induce altered states of consciousness in their customers. That's what books are for. The goal is to reflect a more tranquil atmosphere with an invitation to the coziness and even retail sanctuary within the shop (though additional sales never hurt).

Books of Wonder, New York, N.Y.: "The BoW holiday window has arrived!! Stop by the 18th St. store and check it out--and stay tuned for the 84th St decor...."

And while I did spend a few crazy hours plowing through the seasonal madness of Midtown Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, I have also been dashing through the social media snow to check out the wizardry of bookshop holiday window displays, from Downtown Books in Manteo, N.C., to Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska, and many places in between, including:

Barbara's Bookstore, Chicago, Ill., acknowledged historic--"When Macy's was Marshall Field's: Christmas store window featuring furniture; holiday shoppers on State Street. circa 1941."--as well as contemporary traditions: "Our State Street bookstore is located inside Macy's, where it's really beginning to look a lot like Christmas--especially on the seventh floor."

Poppies Howick, Auckland, N.Z.: "Our lovely Christmas window."

Two Sisters Bookery, Wilmington, N.C.: "Queen Katie, and Her need for sunshine in the afternoon, is truly testing MY need for symmetry! I curtsy. Sighhhh."

Mabel's Fables Bookstore, Toronto, Can.: "Mabel's Fables is here for all your last-minute Holiday needs! Even the mice agree!"

Books & Mortar, Grand Rapids, Mich.: "You know your signage is working when the American Book Association posts about it. It's really not a big deal. We're being chill about it... okay, okay, we may be a little geeked."

Greedy Reads, Baltimore, Md.: "Quick reminder that tonight is the second of our special evening shopping hours! Come browse the books from 5-9pm with wine, snacks, and special giveaways."

Browsers Bookshop, Olympia, Wash.: "[W]e have a wreath on our building, our staff holiday party is tonight, and we are looking forward to a bustling shop in the next couple of days."

Lighthouse Bookshop, Edinburgh, Scotland: "We have a new window display; It's... festive! Red. Raging. Revolutionary. Fitting for these days of ours. Yes, it's us doing 'Festive' while the world goes mad."

Skylark Bookshop, Columbia, Mo.: "Living Windows in The District from 6-8 tonight! Mary Poppins has a fierce game of cards going right now."

Kirkdale Bookshop, London: "Christmas Window 2.0."

At Simply Books, Bramhall, England

Simply Books, Bramhall, Eng;and: "Thank you  @CressidaCowell & @LaytonNeal for inspiring our #christmas window this year!"

Let's Play Books, Emmaus, Pa.: "According to the Conductor of the Polar Express, the weather looks good for a trip to the North Pole! See you at 2018 Old Fashioned Christmas--see you on the trolley!"

Run for Cover Bookstore and Café, San Diego, Calif.: "Our ever so talented Ferril painted our window today and we love it. We are entering the OBMA storefront window contest so keep an eye out for voting info soon!"

New Dominion Bookshop, Charlottesville, Va.: "Getting in the holiday spirit!"

Next Page Books, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: "We're ready for Deck the District this weekend in NewBo. Join us for a spot of good cheer!"

The Green Toad Bookstore, Oneonta, N.Y.: "Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot. But the Grinch who lived just North of Whoville did not!" And from the inside: "Window with your stars so bright, won't you light our books tonight?"

Bards Alley, Vienna, Va.: "Our Polar Express window display won the Town of Vienna, VA - Government 2018 Holiday Window Decorating Contest! Of course, our community of authors and book-lovers inspired us. Thank you for helping us ring in the holiday season! A special note of gratitude to Phil Charlwood for creating this magical scene!"

At the Ripped Bodice, Culver City, Calif.

FoxTale Book Shoppe, Woodstock, Ga.: "One of our holiday windows!" And: "Our kids’ themed window display!"

Lake Forest Book Store, Lake Forest, Ill.: "Celebrate your local shopping district."

And, finally, a few seasonally appropriate words from the Ripped Bodice, Culver City, Calif.: "And to all a goodnight."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3396

Friday
Dec072018

A Forest of Bookshop Christmas Trees

Living in upstate New York, I tend to take Christmas trees for granted, but every year about this time I spend a few days in Manhattan. Walking past the sidewalk Christmas tree vendors, I find myself acutely aware of the scent of freshly cut evergreens (generously seasoned with exhaust fumes and food cart aromas, of course).

I realize there's nothing unique about having Christmas trees on my mind this time of year. Last weekend I also made my annual pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see its beautiful Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. On the other hand, there was a special Christmas tree moment in a subway station while I was in the city, so my traditional holiday season trip was enhanced a bit more than usual.

I've also been monitoring the impressive growth of a bookstore Christmas tree forest in social media postings. Now it's time to share some of my finds, beginning with the arrival of Brewery Bhavana's 15-foot-tall holiday tree in Raleigh, N.C.: "We decided this year to pick naturally shaped asymmetrical trees for both Bhavana and Bida Manda to go along with our intention to lean in when things get tough and to embrace all of life's beautiful imperfections."

Tree trimming at Parnassus

The decorating process was shared by Yardstick Bookshop and Gallery in Algoma, Wis., and Parnassus Books, Nashville, Tenn ("Tree trimming in progress!"); while final results were on display at Browse Awhile Books, Tipp City, Ohio ("Come See us!"); the Open Book Canyon Country, Santa Clarita, Calif. ("It's official, the Open Book has hit peak holiday spirit."); the Mulberry Bush Bookstore in Parksville, B.C.; and Goldsboro Books in London, England ("It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...").

At Burke's Book Store

Christmas trees constructed from books seem less popular than they were a few years ago, but there are still some fine ones on display, including Burke's Book Store's creative spin in Memphis, Tenn.; a holiday bookstack at Book No Further, Roanoke, Va.; and Penguin Bookshop's befogged tree in Sewickley, Pa. ("Our event last night was so steamy our windows fogged up, creating this beautiful image of our book tree, seen from outside.").

Many booksellers decorate their in-store holiday trees with variations on the theme of book angel donation initiatives to get books into the hands of children who might have limited access to them.

Giving Tree at Read With Me

"Soon this tree will become our Book Angel tree. Tags will be hung with the names of local children who will get a gift-wrapped book for the holidays thanks to your generosity," Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, noted. "Our Angel Tree has arrived!" Page After Page Bookstore, Elizabeth City, N.C., announced last week. Read With Me, Raleigh, N.C., shared a photo of its Giving Tree, "filled with families' names who have helped us give great new books to great kids in need at the Raleigh Rescue Mission."

Mary F. Buckley, co-owner of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass., told the Enterprise that their Giving Tree has returned: "It is a wonderful program. It was Betty Borg's idea, and when Carol [Chittenden] took over the store, she kept the tradition alive, and we continued it.... We thought it was a wonderful project. It is a way to provide books to kids who may not have them during the holiday season."

Indigo Bridge Books and Café, Lincoln, Neb., featured a book tree as well as a Giving Tree program that accepts blanket donations for Prescott Elementary's Family Literacy Program: "Each family member will receive a new blanket and a book in their native language. Choose an ornament from the tree and bring your blanket back to Indigo by December 15."

Although not strictly speaking a bookstore, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., has blended the concepts: "Created from more than 1,500 children's books, this 14-foot tree symbolizes the act of book giving. Each book on this tree will be donated to local schools at the end of our Christmas display."

Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ken., is offering an alternative: "We love books AND animals so are happy to help our friends No Kill Louisville. Stop by our Frankfort Avenue store and grab an ornament today!"

For sheer Christmas tree forest ambition, however, a special shout-out must go to the Galilean Christian Bookstore in Leesville, La., which "dazzles customers with more than a dozen Christmas trees... sprinkled throughout the store," KALB reported.

All this has brought to mind a book that I used to handsell this time of year: Christmas on Jane Street: A True Story by Billy Romp and Wanda Urbanska. Every year, Vermonter Romp and his family spent December living in a camper and selling Christmas trees on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. In the book, he writes: "I'm a modest man, but I will tell you this: I have this gift for matching the right tree with the right customer... In my view, a Christmas tree is not merely a piece of merchandise, it's something worthy of respect." Sounds like he'd make a good bookseller, or at least know the perfect tree to recommend for your store.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3391

Friday
Nov302018

Holiday Season Re-Tale

Once upon a time every year...

1.
By Thanksgiving weekend, you already had your hundred-yard stare (a pleasant, customer service-friendly version) fully engaged as you scanned the bookstore sales floor, keeping watch for challenges and opportunities. You were on your game.

Shoppers at Scout & Morgan

But now you have to talk one of the new booksellers off a ledge. It happens at some point to every rookie this time of year, especially at the beginning of the long run to Christmas Eve. How can anybody be prepared for this the first time around?

The two of you stand together in the ever-shifting eye of the customer hurricane. The store is churning with book hunters and sidelines harvesters. Queues thread out from the POS/information counter, customer questions and demands are echoing off the walls, and have been since the doors opened. It's a glorious sight if you can handle it.

I'm looking for a book for my uncle.
What does he like to read?
He doesn't read.
How about a blank book, pal?

No, you wouldn't say that. But what can you tell the kid to ease his jitters? He's a quiet person and was a little intimidated from the start. He's been burned a couple of times already today. An idealist, he chose to work in a bookstore for some intellectual stimulation and to be with other readers. He never expected... this. You can tell he isn't sure now if he'll survive until the end of the day, much less the season. Maybe he is worried he'll turn coward under pressure, abandon the sales floor and hide in the staff restroom.

"This is amazing!" he says, masking uncertainty with enthusiasm. "Why do they do it? Why do they all shop at the same second? What are they, lemmings?"

Your expression never wavers. You look the kid in the eyes and co-opt (or regift?) Robert Duvall's classic line from Apocalypse Now, make it your own by whisper/shouting: Lemmings don't shop for books! He has no idea what you are talking about. Never saw the movie. Probably thinks you've lost it, too. He edges back into the fray, almost crowdsurfing a sea of readers, apparently thinking he is safer out there. Immediately he's confronted by a wild-eyed man brandishing a single bronze "reading child" bookend:

Can I help?
I can't find the match for this!

The kid nods, and calmly escorts the customer away in search of the missing bronze child. You lose sight of them, but decide he'll be okay. He just wasn't ready.

2.
Is anybody ever ready for holiday season in a bookstore? Ready is not the word. The key is a kind of constructive anxiety that propels you to take every conceivable precaution you can think of to insure success, or at least avoid disaster. Even then, you hold your breath because so much is riding on this time of year and so many things can go wrong.

It's a retail storm front. You can't fully prepare, though you must try, and you do. You order in extra stock, then second guess yourself and order more. You check and double-check IndieBound and New York Times bestseller lists, keep up with daily reviews and the radar blips you get from sources like NPR's Fresh Air or All Things Considered

Do you have that book that was on Terry Gross this week... or last week?
Yes we do!

You even check actual radar obsessively, charting storm patterns online at the National Weather Service or Weather Channel, hoping that any current predictions match your ideal conditions for every weekend during the holiday season. You're always on the lookout for those ominous dark green, gray/white or pink radar blobs skimming across the country. Weather is a critical factor in holiday season success. An ill-timed weekend ice or snow storm and well...

Staff is precisely scheduled so that your customers are as overwhelmed by great service as you are by them. Maybe you even set up a soup kitchen or pizza run for staff on the weekends because no one has time to brave streets jammed with holiday revelers and overwhelmed local eateries.

You'll be fine. You've done this so many times before. You remember when there was no such thing as rapid replenishment programs; you even remember... backstock. Although you'd hesitate to say you're ready, you do look forward to this intense month with a perhaps unhealthy enthusiasm.

Suddenly the new kid appears again, emerging from the melee with a different customer, a woman who is holding a book in each hand and appears to be handselling them to him. He's courteous and patient. Most importantly, he is listening. An older man, brandishing a roll of wrapping paper, approaches them shouting "Excuse me!" The kid seems to be handling it all well.

You're more than a little addicted to the holiday energy in this space. But sometimes, in the midst of the pandemonium, someone politely asks if you're busy. You smile. The person smiles back.

I was wondering if you could recommend a book.
For a gift?
No, for myself. I just need a great read for the weekend, something that will shut out all my relatives, but I know you're really busy...
I only have one customer at a time.
Can you tell what the best book you've read this year is?
Sure, I have many. What've you read lately you really loved?

That's why you're here.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3386