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Friday
Sep082017

'Everything About Everything'

I don't think of myself as a nostalgic person, despite miraculously cobbling together a decent life through nearly seven decades on the planet. Yet recently I noticed a Guardian headline ("Final chapter for Pears' Cyclopaedia after 125 years in print") that opened a kind of reader/bookseller time portal and a just little nostalgia managed to creep through.

The piece reported that 120 years after Pears' Cyclopaedia made its first appearance in England, offering "A Mass of Curious and Useful Information about Things that everyone Ought to know in Commerce, History, Science, Religion, Literature and other Topics of Ordinary Conversation" for a shilling, Penguin had announced that the 2017-2018 edition would be the last.

The publisher attributed its decision to the retirement of longtime editor Dr. Chris Cook, as well as "the ready availability of electronic information [that] has made the printed reference book no longer commercially competitive.... Chris Cook has been editing Pears' Cyclopaedia for 40 years and we are incredibly grateful to him for the tireless work that has gone into making it a book of extraordinary longevity, durability and value. In the age of the Internet, Pears has continued to be a uniquely British almanac, reaching readers across generations. It is with great sadness that we stop publishing it as Dr. Cook retires but we celebrate his dedication and generosity over the past four decades."

The Bookseller cited Nielsen BookScan stats that revealed "volume sales of the work have sharply declined in recent years: the 2001/02 edition sold 24,229 copies whereas the 2016/17 edition sold only 2,854 copies."

I've never even seen a copy of Pears' Cyclopedia, which was first published in 1897 by Pears Soap as an advertising scheme, and contained "an English dictionary, a medical dictionary, a gazetteer and atlas, desk information and a compendium of general knowledge," the Guardian wrote.

So why did I care about this "Cyclopedia," which hasn't been connected to Pears Soap since 1960? I like to think of myself a 21st century guy. I haven't bought a print world almanac or movie guide or encyclopedia or even a dictionary for a long, long time. I regularly, if furtively, use Wikipedia. Near the end of my bookselling career more than a decade ago, I could see that print reference works had lost significant ground to online options. Remember the paperback Rand McNally Zip Code Finder?

Here's why I cared: There's a note in the final edition Pears' Cyclopaedia that says: "Many will miss the passing of a famous book that in its heyday had become not only a national institution but also the reliable pathway for successive generations of working-class families to a better education."

That Guardian article turned out to be a mnemonic, conjuring memories of the late Frank McCourt, author of the 1990s bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes. I was one of the lucky booksellers who happened to read an ARC of Angela's Ashes in the spring of 1996 and knew immediately, after a dozen pages, that we had to do whatever we could to get this writer I'd never heard of to our bookstore for a reading. I don't know if we were among the first bookshops to put in an event request, but we were lucky enough to be successful. By early fall, as word-of-mouth momentum began to build for the memoir and bestsellerdom loomed, everybody wanted Frank. We got him.

On my desk as I write this is a first edition of McCourt's book, with an inscription:

4 Dec. 96
For Bob
Frank McCourt
With thanks for your warmth.

Maybe Frank signed everybody's book with the same words. I don't care. On a cold night in a quaint Vermont tavern 20 years ago, I introduced him to a couple hundred people who were as enthusiastic as any audience I've ever seen at a reading. The pub atmosphere helped a bit, no doubt. Moments earlier, as I escorted him through the packed crowd to an improvised podium, people had applauded, shaken his hand and patted him on the back. Frank laughed and said: "I'm not even running for office." Introducing him was like introducing a rock star. I could have said, "qua, qua, qua," and they would still have applauded wildly as soon as I ended with, "Please welcome Frank McCourt." His reading was perfect. Afterward, he signed for a long line of fans and was an absolute pro, engaging each person in a brief conversation while his hands reached toward me for the next book.

Now that is pure nostalgia, though the Guardian article was also a mnemonic for something else--a particularly evocative sentence in Angela's Ashes. McCourt is recounting a singular boyhood moment that is at once ordinary and extraordinary: "There are bars of Pears soap and a thick book called Pears' Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that's all I want to know."

Everything about everything.

Reflecting on his retirement as Pears' Cyclopedia editor, Dr. Cook said: "I've had a very large amount of mail over time, from all over the world--I am grateful to those who have been contributors through letters informing me of things they think should be in the next edition of Pears.... I'll find it difficult to not reach for a notepad and pen to write things down to include in the next edition, every time I read a newspaper."

That's all I want to know.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3082

Friday
Sep012017

Labor Day & a Broken Gold Pen that Still Works

"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that's just what
I've gone and done."

--Gary Snyder, "Hay for the Horses"

In 2010, I saw one of my life and literary heroes, Gary Snyder, walk slowly to a podium and gaze out at an audience of at least 600 writers, writing instructors, writing students and writing program administrators before reading from his work at an AWP conference in Denver, Colo.

"I can't believe how big this is," he said. "Go for it, kids. America needs more good writers," 

Like many people, I stumbled on Snyder's work in the early 1970s by way of Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, in which he was loosely reimagined as the character Japhy Ryder. I still have my copy of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. I picked it up back then for $1.50 and read "Hay for the Horses" for the first of hundreds of times.

Monday is Labor Day.

Work. I'm 67 and I haven't "bucked hay," literally or figuratively, all my life. Over the past 25 years, I was a frontline indie bookseller for a long time, and then an editor at Shelf Awareness. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance writer/specialty food sales rep (two years), a windsurfing trade magazine editor (five years) and a freelance writer/prep cook (five years).

I bought Riprap in '71, just before my senior year in college. I was working part-time at a Grand Union supermarket in my hometown. The following spring, the store manager offered me a full-time position "until you figure out what you want to do with your life," as he put it. Nine years later, I was still there, doing a good job, but thinking: I sure would hate to do this all my life.

In 1979, I published a poem in a tiny literary journal called Lacuna and made what seemed at the time like a logical professional decision: I should figure out a way to write for a living. I didn't know any other working writers, but I thought it was a now or never situation if I was ever going to stop "bucking hay."

That fall, I gave a month's notice and my supermarket co-workers threw a party to wish me well in my glamorous new career as a writer. They didn't know exactly what that meant. I pretended I did know. We drank a lot, remembered good work stories and bad, and they gave me a small, gift-wrapped box that contained a gold Cross ballpoint pen. It had an inscription. On one side was "R.H. Gray 12-20-79" and on the other "1116," which was the store's corporate identification number.

And now, almost 40 years later, I hold that same Cross gold pen in my hand. It hasn't worked for decades and I've never tried to fix it. No, I take that back. As an icon, it has never stopped working. Grand Union store #1116 was once my work space; as was the frigid apartment where I lived during my first winter as a "full-time" writer; as was the café where I took a job as a prep cook just three months after leaving the grocery world. Writing, I quickly discovered, was scary work; scarier than the supermarket.

A decade ago, I taught an English Comp. course at a local community college for awhile. Many of my students had lousy jobs or were unemployed; just looking for a break, another chance, a fresh start, whether they were 23 or 43. Work was one of the things I asked them to write about. We read Snyder's "Hay for the Horses" and Philip Levine's "What Work Is" together. They already knew what work was. Levine's poem is intricate, but they worked their way through it with me. If a poem can be "gotten," some of them got it. And if they never read another poem, they really read that one.

In a Paris Review interview, Levine described Detroit in the late '80s as a city where "nothing grandly heroic is taking place... Nothing epic. Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn't give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It's the truly heroic."

I get that. As a bookseller, I naturally loved handselling, but I also took pleasure in stocking shelves and in the awareness of my fingers dancing instinctively across a keyboard, ringing up purchases during a rush. It was an echo of my Grand Union days, and even before that, in high school, of working part-time at an A&P store. Customers would line up at my cash register because I was fast and accurate... and proud of it.

I've been lucky in my work, even if I didn’t always know it at the time. I've still got that Cross gold pen. And Labor Day is one of my favorite holidays.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3078

Friday
Aug252017

Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day

 

Gregory Kan with "This Paper Boat" poetry poster

Here's New Zealand poet Gregory Kan, standing on Symonds Street, Tāmaki Makaurau, with a Max poster of his poem "This Paper Boat," which includes the lines:

You are watching the brown-paper covers of books grow/ out around your father, as he dreams there/ against the wall, thinking perhaps/ how rocks are not quite lands.

"Let us now praise Phantom Billstickers for sticking up really f**king big posters of New Zealand poetry." That was the Spinoff Review of Books' apt headline for a piece this week about street poster company Phantom Billstickers, which has been putting poems on posters since 2005. For the past two years, the company has also sponsored National Poetry Day, which is/was (depending on your time zone) being celebrated Friday across New Zealand.

Governed by the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Dayis an annual "poetry event extravaganza" that is marking its 20th anniversary this year. The more than 100 events (a record) being held nationwide are organized by "poetry-loving volunteers" and involve thousands of people in more than 30 towns and cities all over the country. There are also numerous competitions both nationally and regionally.

In addition, the Trust is highlighting the current range and diversity of the country's poetry and poets with a 20/20 Collection. Twenty acclaimed poets were invited to select a poem they felt particularly spoke to New Zealanders, and to highlight an emerging poet or writer they considered to be essential reading. Trust member Paula Morris told Stuff: "This list speaks to a 'new' New Zealand literature, and reflects how much our culture is changing and growing."

These are a few of my favorite PBNPD 2017 things:

Auckland's Time Out Bookstore is featuring "All Tomorrow's Poets," showcasing cutting-edge New Zealand poetry and "situating it in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand's literary history."

The Nelson Poetry Map, created by Volume bookstore, "records and shares connections between poetry and places. Contribute poems to our open-access map, tagged to the locations you associate with those poems.... Visit the locations and read the poems on your mobile device (or to take a virtual tour without leaving home).... It is anticipated that wandering poetry readers on National Poetry Day... will encounter fellow poetry readers at various locations."

National rugby team poet: The N.Z. Herald reported that "two of the driving forces behind PBNPD, award-winning novelist Paula Morris and Phantom Billstickers' Jamey Holloway, have laid down a challenge" to the country's legendary All Blacks rugby team to "take a poet on tour with you." They contend that "an official All Blacks poet could continue poetry's momentum and promote another side of our culture at home and away."

Celia Muto of Grolier Poetry Book Shop

Poetry and donuts. Bam!

At the National Library in Wellington, a "giant paper origami boat--waiting to be filled with words from the public--will anchor in the library's foyer as part of National Poetry Day."

Just so we don't have to feel left out, Phantom Billstickers co-owners Jim and Kelly Wilson are "currently chugging around the U.S.," working their magic: "Here's Celia Muto posing with Geoff Cochrane's poem poster, 'For Lenny' at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts today. The Grolier is a small bookshop dedicated entirely to poetry and it is directly opposite Harvard University. It is a Little Beauty of a shop. Celia put in the front window two Phantom Billstickers poem posters by Kiwis: 'For Lenny' and also David Merritt's 'Sad rocks...' She loved both. The Grolier also stocks the Phantom Billstickers Cafe Reader."

Meanwhile, across the street from the Northshire Bookstore, scene of my bookseller days gone by: "Phantom Billstickers poem poster, 'Ground Zero' by Geoff Cochrane on a pole just made for it on the main street of Manchester in beautiful Vermont, USA today."

And: "We've sometimes noted that the Phantom Billstickers Cafe Reader gets into some far flung and interesting places. Here's James Conrad of The Golden Notebook (a fine bookstore) in Woodstock, New York State, USA, devouring a copy today. The store has extra copies. Step on in and get your dose of New Zealand Arts & Culture if you are in this neck of the woods."

Poet and children's author Paula Green, who was this year's recipient of the Prime Minister's Literary Award for Poetry, summed up the spirit of National Poetry Day nicely in sharing a great story about her cab ride in Wellington on the day she was to receive her award:

"The taxi driver asked me what I did. I am a poet, I said. Well you must tell me a poem, he said. I loved hearing poems when I was a little boy, and I haven't heard one since then. I can't, I can't, I kept insisting. You must, you must, he said, and it must be a lovely poem. I want to hear lovely poetry. So I pulled out my brand new children's poems and my copy of New York Pocket Book, and read to him until we got to the hotel. He parked the car, lifted both hands from the steering wheel and clapped. It was my once-in-a-lifetime private poetry reading in a taxi. I didn't tell him I was getting an award that night, and I didn't have time to ask him his story, to take me back to the little boy listening with such devotion to poetry somewhere else in the world. I felt sad about that. I feel like ringing Combined Taxis, so on my next ride in Wellington, it is his turn to talk."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3073

Friday
Aug182017

#LoveYourBookshopDay Down Under

''I think that you can feel at home in any bookstore if it's got a good bookseller.'' --Geraldine Brooks, author and Love Your Bookshop Day ambassador on the magic of bookshops.

For 2017, the Australian Booksellers Association rebranded National Bookshop Day as Love Your Bookshop Day, and last Saturday booksellers across the country celebrated. "Think balloons, bunting, streamers, fairy lights, cake, dressing up, discounts and prizes--the sky's the limit just as long as it's a party for your shop," the ABA had said when it officially launched LYBD during its annual conference in June. One bookseller noted that the name change made it sound "less like a government program and more like a fun event."

And so it was. More than 100 bookshops registered details about their in-store events on the LYBD website, and then documented the fun on FacebookInstagram and Twitter with the #LoveYourBookshopDayhashtag. Customers were also invited to post #WhyILoveMyBookshop notes. Here's a small sampling from the festivities:

Continuous storytime at the Little Bookroom in Carlton North

Display windows
"The #loveyourbookshopday graffiti window at Farrells Bookshop is for book lovers of ALL ages."

Beachside Bookshop, Sydney: "Show us your bookshop love. Love our beaches' authors (check out our window showcase of this talent)...."

Fairfield Books, Fairfield: "Favorite books covering the window except for the part where Scott Edgar #supermooper ed!! Harry Potter featured rather prominently but there were some interesting inclusions as well."

Cake!
Mary Who? Bookshop, Townsville: "We have Love Your Bookshop Day... CAKE... thanks for the love Townsville readers and to Text Publishing for the yummy stuff... and their GREAT books.--with Jessica Gautherot."

The Bookshop Darlinghurst, Sydney: "Let them eat cake! It's our 35th Birthday! Hip hip hoorah! #loveyourbookshopday--attending Love Your Bookshop Day--and celebrate our 35th Birthday!"

'Wall of Love'
Sun Bookshop, Yarraville: "This might be one of our favorite reasons on the wall of love!"

In character at Berkelouw Books

Characters
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney: "Today we're celebrating #LoveYourBookshopDay at the Gallery Shop! There's a full day of excitement planned.... Plus, see which literary personalities the Gallery Shop staff have dressed up as!"

Berkelouw Books Hornsby: "To celebrate Love Your Bookshop Day, our staff dressed as their favorite book characters. Can you recognize who they could be?"

Sidewalk chalkboards
"What will you discover today under the Book Tree at Potts Point Bookshop?"

Balloons
"Oh my word, Avenue Bookstore is literally packed to the rafters with balloons for #loveyourbookshopday."

"Better Read Than Dead are ready for #loveyourbookshopday & they have Catherine Moreland at the door ready to greet book/Austen lovers!"

LYBD balloons in Farrell's Bookshop Mornington

Debate
'Bookshops are an unnecessary indulgence: A debate between local authors" at Blarney Books & Art: "Port Fairy (and surrounds)--you are awesome!!! THANK YOU for such a great turnout!... Of course the team who argued in favor of bookshops (or dens of iniquity, as the dark side suggested) won the debate, but it was frighteningly close. P.S.: we have also received some very eloquent love letters!"

Dog selfies
Dillons Norwood Bookshop: "Our Dog Selfie spot is open!! Bring your doggo or pupper in to our store, take a photo in the spot, show us on your phone or camera and we'll enter you into the draw to win an amazing hamper!!"

Music
Books for Cooks, Melbourne: "Our bookstore is now complete--live jazz in store:)#nevergoinghome #lovemybookstore #loveyourbookshop day @vicmarket #jazz #melbournemoment #next generationinjazz #heavenly...."

LYBD-themed nails
"Ok, @booksandmanicures wins hands down for best #loveyourbookshopday themed nails! Also for best color coordination with Beachside Bookshop."

Politicians
Senator Penny Wong‏: "It was great to visit @Mostly_Books on Love Your Bookshop Day. Get out and support the champions of the written word."

Authors
"Who loves books? Text does!" Text Publishing asked some of its authors "to tell us about their favorite bookshops." 

Sarah Ridout‏: "Happy #LoveYourBookshopDay no2 & everything else advice from the Fabulous Cass M #partingwords @avidreader4101 September 1! Go Cass."

Frané Lessac‏: "Everyone loves a good book! #loveyourbookshopday @beaufortstbooks @WalkerBooksAus #aisforaustraliananimals."

Sidewalk art at Book & Paper Williamstown

Gratitude
Farrells Bookshop, Mornington: "Wow, what a day it's been!! A huge thank you to all our wonderful customers young & old that joined in with us celebrating Love Your Bookshop today!! A great big thank you to the local Authors and our face painter for giving your time! Fantastic day all round."

Squishy Minnie Bookstore, Kyneton: "Holy moly, we had the most awesome dayyesterday and we're feeling very loved (and very tired!). Thank you so so SO much to everyone that came and showed their support to us. We've been open for about 4 months and in that time, we've gotten to know so many wonderful and kind folks.... We hope everyone's experiences yesterday give yet another reason to love reading and to Love their Book Shop."

New Leaves, Melbourne: "Wow what a weekend! A HUGE thanks to everyone who came in store and joined in the fun of Love Your Bookshop Day!

Happy Reading!
From the LYBD organizers: "Book lovers & booksellers, you've officially outdone yourselves!A huge THANK YOU to everyone who participated in #loveyourbookshopday. The amount of love and pure bookish joy we've seen across all corners of the internet today has been staggering. We truly believe that you can and should love your bookshop EVERYDAY but you've really made today something to remember. You earned a nice cup of tea, a pat on the back & reading time with all your new purchases! Happy reading."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3068

Friday
Aug112017

Selling a Bookshop, Moving to Scotland

My first encounter with Wendy Welch occurred in August of 2012, when she e-mailed me with a potential news item idea that "just might be weird enough to interest your readers." She and her husband, Jack Beck, were looking for a "bookshop-sitter" to run their Tales of the Lonesome Pineshop in Big Stone Gap, Va., for a couple of months, "someone who is thinking about starting a bookstore 'someday' [and] would benefit from two months at no risk; or someone who doesn't want to own one but always thought it sounded fun to work there could have the experience for their bucket list." I wrote a column about it and, well, it all worked out

Later that year, I met Wendy at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance fall trade show in Naples, Fla. She was on a panel as well as promoting her soon-to-be-published book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book.

In the years since, we've continued to correspond (often about her extraordinary, lit-themed cat rescue efforts). Earlier this week, Wendy informed me that they've decided to sell the bookstore and move to Scotland. As she put it, "We're headed home. It's time."

Wendy and Jack have a friend in Northern Ireland, Liz Weir, who runs a storytelling and ceilidh barn. "We are going to stay with her once we sell our bookstore and look around for the right property to run our bookstore and ceilidh place in Scotland," Wendy said. "That just means an event center where we can host workshops in music weekends and have some places for people to do Airbnb."

But first, they will be selling all 3,514 square feet of Tales of the Lonesome Pine. The asking price is $199,000 "if we leave the furnishings and such," Wendy noted. "You probably already know this, but if you live inside your business, the floor space equivalent to your living space is tax-deductible from your utility and mortgage bills in Virginia. In other words, the bookstore paid us to live inside it. We've lived upstairs and in the basement, and liked both."

Included with the house are the bookshelves and stock, all appliances "and if they want the beds and bedroom furniture and the cafe tables, that's fine," she added. "It could be fully ready to move into as we're leaving the blinds and stuff like that, but our stuff is from thrift stores, so 'cozy' rather than 'elegant' describes most of the store. Except the front three rooms with the oak and the upstairs sitting room--Jack redecorated those in the style of the 1903 time when the house was built. He wouldn't even use pre-pasted wallpaper; everything had to be of the period. And it is gorgeous....

Jack & Wendy

"I suppose one of my favorite memories of the house itself was when we cleaned out the upstairs apartment and discovered a crack in the wallpaper. Since Jack is a painter and decorator by trade, he started 'excavating' the paper and explaining the trends of the time as stripes gave way to fish gave way to flowers, each in more hideous color combos. We finally got down to wood—solid wood. This shop has great bones." (Jack offered a video tour in 2012)

Beyond the bookshop's physical attributes, however, Wendy cited "the intangible stuff that sounds cheesy when you try to quantify it. We've got a big cheerful supportive community that spins around the bookstore, and they're going to want to like whoever comes next to run it. They will support them as they did us, and help them get things done and make things go, and bring wine and laugh. It's not for sale; it's priceless and free at the same time. If the new owners want to inherit, they can, and if they want to forge a new path, the way is open for big changes. They're going to own the place, all four floors of it." She also said they "walk everywhere" due to the shop's convenient location. 

One of their favorite memories as booksellers occurred "the first Christmas we were here, broke and scared," Wendy recalled, "and Glenn came walking in the door two minutes before closing, snow on his cowboy hat, and handed Jack a bottle of really good Scotch that we could never have afforded back then. He said, 'I don't know what we did for fun before y'all got here.' And the tag said something like an old treasure for our town's newest treasure. After he left we cried. And Jack drank the whisky." 

Conceding that stories about their "first lean hard year might not be the way to sell the place," she stressed that Tales of the Lonesome Pine "does come with a good reputation now, and expectations from the community. We've also been part of a cat rescue that would welcome the next group continuing if they wanted to. Make fun stuff happen. Recommend books. And have fun doing it. That's what we want for the new owners. That and $199K." 

For more information, contact Wendy and Jack via Facebook, the Tales of the Lonesome Pine blog or by e-mail at jbeck69087@aol.com. They have written a great story in Big Stone Gap, and now it's time for the sequel.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3063