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Sunday
Jun282015

Patience and Fortitude, Libraries & Revelations

I like revelations. As I read Scott Sherman's Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate and the Fight to Save a Public Library, it occurred to me that I had sincerely believed I was paying attention to an important controversy as it played out over the past several years. What I'd actually done was read occasional media coverage of the New York Public Library's proposed Central Library Plan, which the author describes as a "wide-ranging reconfiguration of services" that "had been born in June 2007 and was announced to the public nine months later at a little noticed press conference." 

Because some of the most critical decisions regarding the CLP were reached behind closed doors, the issue tended to drift in and out of my field of news-vision. Fortunately, some people cared deeply and for the long haul. Sherman's book eloquently chronicles the back-room scheming and eventual blowback protests.

The CLP's goal was to consolidate three midtown libraries "into one colossal circulating library inside the 42nd Street building, which would undergo a $300 million renovation by Norman Foster, the British architect," Sherman writes. In addition to selling off two valuable properties (the Mid-Manhattan branch library on 40th Street and the Science, Industry and Business Library on 34th), NYPL would remove "the entire collection of [three million] books from the iron and steel stacks inside the 42nd Street building and send them to an offsite storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey."

Sherman first brought the issue to the public's attention in 2011, when he was asked by the Nation magazine to write a profile of incoming NYPL president Anthony Marx. "Today, top NYPL officials talk about the CLP--announced in late 2008 but delayed by the economic downturn--as a done deal," Sherman noted in the piece. "But Marx says the NYPL's powerful board of trustees has not yet given its final stamp of approval; he adds that he is still analyzing the plan."

Scott Sherman
(photo: Emrah Gurel)

In a recent e-mail exchange, Sherman told me: "Indeed, the recession of 2008 was crucial in derailing the plan for about 3-4 years. If not for the Great Recession, it is very possible that the Foster renovation might have been completed by the time Bloomberg left office."

Patience and Fortitude reads at times like a suspense novel for bibliophiles, with power and big money acting unilaterally until being challenged by citizen's groups, prominent architects (and, notably, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable) and researchers; as well as an all-star cast of writers and celebrities including Salman Rushdie, Donna Tartt, Gloria Steinem, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tom Stoppard, Garrison Keillor, Malcolm Gladwell, Ann Patchett and Susan Sarandon.

Did the CLP backers assume the deal could be railroaded through as long as the public--and NYPL's staff--was kept in the dark as much as possible while decisions were made? "Yes," Sherman replied. "This is not in the book, but an NYPL staff member told me in 2012: 'We were made to feel old and against change.' A few trustees did call for open discussion at the start, but they were greatly outnumbered. The mission was to stifle discussion and get this thing done before anyone could stop them."

He added: "The takeaway for those who didn't follow the debate too much is that the public should be consulted before libraries and museums launch $500 million construction projects."

What I love about Patience and Fortitude is the way it coalesces all of the disparate bits of information I'd gathered over the years, adds pertinent facts I knew nothing about, and then offers readers the whole story. Sometimes narrative arcs are clearly visible only in retrospect.

And while there are plenty of villains in this tale, heroes abound as well. "Katz had an emotional attachment, colored by romanticism, to the library at 42nd Street," Sherman writes, describing legal historian (and much more) Stanley Katz, who co-authored a key protest letter shortly after Sherman's 2011 Nation article appeared. 

How rare, I asked, is it for "emotional attachment, colored by romanticism" to win a battle over power and money? "Activism is about deep passion," Sherman said, "and the critics were deeply, deeply passionate about the fate of NYPL in general and the 42nd Street building in particular."

Patience and Fortitude is, in its way, a complex love story about "an institution that mattered to me personally," as Sherman notes in his preface. It is also, as he observes in the final chapter, the tale of "a brawl about democracy, architecture, and, crucially, the role of books in the digital age." The ending is a little bittersweet, but so is the world, even on its best days. The book itself is revelatory. And I like revelations. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2537

Friday
Jun192015

Au Revoir, La Hune

A bookshop closed this week.

On a chilly March night in 2013, my wife and I left our Paris apartment (rented just for the week, alas) on Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts and strolled down Rue Bonaparte, heading for dinner at La Bastide d'Opio, a bistro that had been highly recommended by a friend. If this sounds like the beginning of a novel (or a deleted scene from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris), it definitely felt that way, too.

We weren't necessarily seeking an oasis of warmth during our long walk, but when we noticed incandescent windows in the distance and discovered they belonged to a bookshop, we surrendered happily to temptation. Dinner could wait.

We entered Librairie la Hune, where a considerable amount of our time and money was soon well spent. The shelves and display space were open, bright and well-stocked. I retain the distinct image of a woman climbing stairs to the second floor, where an author event was about to begin. In her left hand she carried two bottles of wine, their necks held casually between her fingers, the glass clinking like wind chimes with each step. Outside, twilight enveloped an unfamiliar street in a country that was not ours. Inside, we were at home.

A bookshop closed this week.

This is how France 24 reported the end: "La Hune, the iconic Parisian bookshop which was the focal point for intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus for more than 60 years, closed for the last time on Sunday after a long struggle to make ends meet." Calling La Hune "one of the French capital's most loved bookshops, famed for its vast collections of French and international literature, history, art and design," France 24 also noted that it was "founded by a group of resistance fighters in 1949" and had been "originally located between the famed Café de Flore and the equally frequented Les Deux Magots in Paris's sixth arrondissement, [where it] became a landmark meeting place for France's intelligentsia."

The challenges La Hune faced in recent years were variations on a familiar theme: Olivier Place, director of La Hune's previous owner Librairies Flammarion, which sold the bookseller to Gallimard three years ago, said sales had fallen precipitously. The bookstore also fell prey to ever-increasing rents in the fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. In 2012, La Hune "was forced to move from its emblematic address on 170 Boulevard Saint-Germain to the nearby 18 Rue de l'Abbaye to make way for a Louis Vuitton store," France 24 wrote.

A bookshop closed this week.

"I walked through La Hune one last time, sniffing the books and looking at the posters, and found myself far more distraught than I expected to be," Adam Gopnik recently wrote in the New Yorker. "I felt a deep sense of loss, more than mere regret, and ever since I have been trying to decide why I felt this way and whether the feeling was mine alone or might have resonance elsewhere."

Acknowledging that bookstores worldwide "open and they close, following the path of bright young people as migratory birds follow the sun," Gopnick observed that in Paris, "good bookstores have opened in, or migrated to, the popular quartiers of the 15th and 19th arrondissements, just as a few independent bookstores in this city have migrated to the sunnier climes of Brooklyn."

In conversations with his Parisian friends about La Hune, he "found they shared my sense of something that it would be indecent to call grief but inadequate to call sadness. At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart."

A bookshop closed this week.

"If we try to protect small merchants, or mourn their disappearance, the last thing we are being is nostalgic," Gopnick concludes. "Books are not just other luxury items to be shopped for. They are the levers of our consciousness. Every time a bookstore closes, an argument ends. That's not good."

I'm not sure the announcement of a bookshop's closure can shock me anymore, in part because I also have the counterbalancing solace of witnessing, almost daily, so many bookstores opening, relocating, expanding or changing ownership. Perspective can be a healing gift. And yet, a bookshop closed this week. It was not my bookshop, but I had been a customer there one night, and I mourned anyway. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2532

Sunday
Jun142015

'Beach Reads' & Booksellers #1

A sure sign of late spring is the perennial blossoming of "beach read" lists. This year, however, I'm opting for a variation on the theme in the form of occasional columns focusing on my summer reads--longtime favorites as well as new discoveries--and their indie bookseller connections.

On Monday, I read this Facebook post from author Elinor Lipman: "Ticketing for the (New York) stage adaptation of 'The Inn at Lake Devine' is live! At $18 per ticket you can't afford NOT to buy a seat! (And it's wonderful, having seen a staged reading, as previously reported.) The run is Oct. 7-24."

photo: Michael Lionstar

That stirred the memory banks. Way, way back at the turn of the century, I began handselling what soon became one of my favorite "summer reads." Lipman's The Inn at Lake Devine features a marvelous narrator, Natalie Marx, who opens her story as a 12-year-old in 1962 this way: "It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal: They had a hotel; they didn't want Jews; we were Jews,"

Planning a summer vacation, Natalie's mother has written several letters to resorts in Vermont, "which someone had told her was heaven." One response, however, comes from Ingrid Berry, reservations manager for the Inn at Lake Devine, and concludes: "Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles."

Fascinated by "the letter's marriage of good manners and anti-Semitism," Natalie begins a decades-long quest to comprehend and address this attitude, including infiltration of the resort with a friend's family and, in 1964, mailing the inn a copy of the new Civil Rights Act. Humor plays a key role in Lipman's novel, but it never detracts from the issues and the humanity at stake.

I was intrigued by the stage adaptation notice and contacted Lipman, who remembered our first meeting. She'd been visiting Manchester Center and stopped by the Northshire Bookstore, where she immediately noticed "a stack of Inn at Lake Devines.... It came up to about mid-thigh." Lipman recalled that during our conversation then, I described her novel as the perfect answer for customers who ask: "Do you have something that's not depressing?"

Since then, she has written more fine books (most recently The View from Penthouse B and I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays), and even become a noted political poet within the Twitterverse. Her commentary on the 2012 election was collected in Tweet Land of Liberty, and she's already in great form for 2016.

Now her impressive list of accomplishments includes an upcoming theater production. Lipman traced the precise moment when this process began to June 9 last year and an e-mail "from a woman named Jake Lipman (no relation)." Having read The Inn at Lake Devine when it was first published, the actress and producer who runs Tongue in Cheek Theater in New York wrote that the novel "continues to pop into my mind as a piece that would make a fabulous adaptation from page to stage, and I wanted to find out if you would be open to discussing my company working on it, as inspiration material for a theatrical production." So it began. On April 23, Elinor saw the staged reading. "I'd always hoped that one of my books could be adapted for the stage," she said. "It was just wonderful. I grinned from beginning to end." She's looking forward to the full production in October. So am I.

And I'm re-reading The Inn at Lake Devine for the first time in years. It's still a fine summer read, with indie bookseller credentials. What more could you ask for? Lipman has always cultivated a strong relationship with indies: "When my first novel, Then She Found Me, came out in paperback, the late Carla Cohen of Politics & Prose wrote to my editor and said she'd handsold over 300 copies of the paperback so far. I had never even known there was a verb, 'handsold.' She offered to write a note to every indie bookseller in the country about it. Can you imagine?"

For many years, until she recently sold her house in Northampton, Mass., her home indie was Broadside Bookshop. "I went up for their 40th birthday in 2014, and it was tribute after tribute to the late Bruce MacMillan, its founder," she noted, adding that she had even named a college after him in The Way Men Act.  

Lipman said her connection with indies "is about personal relationships and continuity and history. And it's about the introductions on the road, too, almost always lovingly crafted and personal. One of my dearest friends is a bookstore owner, Naomi Hample, the middle of the three Argosy Books-owning sisters in New York. When I met her for the first time she said, 'I've always known I'd meet you someday.' I said, 'How come?' She said 'because I've read all your books and I felt like I already knew you.' Sigh. Is such an answer not the exclusive intellectual property of an indie bookseller?" --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2527

Friday
Jun052015

The 'Act of Theatre' that Is BEA

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." --Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate

Kunal Nayyar, Lee Child, Diana Nyad & Brandon Stanton on the big stage at BEA's Adult Book & Author Breakfast

What does Brook have to do with BookExpo 2015? Good question. Ask bestselling author Lee Child, who invoked the legendary director's 1968 book during the Adult Book and Author Breakfast. Child was speaking from the very big stage in Javits Center's Special Events Hall as he recounted his early career in theater, before he moved on to TV and subsequently took his chances with the writing life.

Is BEA an "act of theatre?" Yes. Are we the audience or the performers? Both, of course. And critics as well. From my first days as a bookseller, I understood that handselling was a performance--sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, always passionate--and that the bookstore sales floor was a stage set. Ever since I attended my first ABA convention in 1993, I've seen the annual gathering as a more lavish version of what we do every day. Call it Broadway-scale handselling.

Child's conjuring of Brook's name sparked in me a more focused consideration of BEA 2015's pageantry and performances; its set designs and stars (not just bestselling authors, but actors-turned-writers like Nathan Lane and Julianne Moore). When I attend BEA, I always stay at a hotel on Broadway; I suppose that's another clue. Before the show opens, sets must be hastily constructed in the Javits Center Exhibits Hall to fill (or at least create the illusion of filling, as seemed to be the case this year) as much of that vast "empty space" as possible.

Tea ceremony at the Chinese pavilion

The most ambitious stage production this year was created by Global Forum Guest of Honor China. The country's "pavilion" (an utterly inadequate word to fully describe China's dominant presence on the floor and even in the atrium) was at once massive and spare, active yet quiet. Business was being conducted, but I also watched performers demonstrate the arts of tea ceremony, calligraphy, painting techniques and more.

BEA is a massive show, but I most clearly remember its smaller theatrical moments:

On the Uptown Stage, I saw Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach turn their "talk about our new books as fast as we can" moment into an improv stand-up act, beginning with an attempt to silence the incessant trade show din ("Hachette, keep it down!").

In the almost hidden corner where the Eastside Stage was located, Soho Press associate publisher Juliet Grimes handsold me (and others in the audience) Fuminori Nakamura's The Gun. Then Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief at Europa Editions, handsold us the works of Massimo Carlotto, while noting that in many countries, "crime fiction is a way of getting out the truth.... Crime fiction is the real social novel of our times."

Ron Charles, Geraldine Brooks

On the Downtown Stage, I heard author Geraldine Brooks tell the Washington Post's Ron Charles that the story of King David, which she explores in her upcoming novel The Secret Chord, is a precursor to the larger-than-life histories of Henry VIII or even fantasies like Game of Thrones because "it's all in there.... This is the fundamental story that underlies all those stories." Speaking of historical fiction, Brooks said, "This is what we do. We put ourselves in other people's lives."

As fate (and theatricality) would have it, Henry VIII made a return appearance Friday night, just after the curtain had come down on another BEA. At the Winter Garden Theatre, as I waited for the start of Wolf Hall, Part II: Bring Up the Bodies, the Royal Shakespeare Company's brilliant stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels, I marveled at Christopher Oram's spare and monolithic set. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley had eloquently described it as "a vast gray chamber transected by flame and shadow." And then, suddenly, there was King Henry, a flash of color in the almost empty space.

Now comes the point when I resist the temptation to quote Shakespeare's As You Like It ("All the world's a stage," etc.), but instead will share another connection. In 2013, I saw a Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night. Olivia was played by Mark Rylance--who shined as Cromwell in the recent BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Wolf Hall. It is Fabian, however, who says, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."

There are, I confess, times when BEA feels that way to me, and yet I'll return to the stage again next year to walk across its "empty space," in search of those little moments that matter. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2522

Friday
May222015

Bringing Your Home Library Identity to BEA

Binnie Klein

How I arranged my books kind of felt like the Holy Grail to my identity.

I recently heard these words spoken by Binnie Klein during an episode of WPKN radio's Home Page program, which she co-hosts with Duo Dickinson. The show focused on "Living with Books" and was recorded live at the Institute Library of New Haven, Conn. Audience members were encouraged to "bring a treasured book that has followed you everywhere."

"What's on the shelf defines you," guest Robin Black, author of Life Drawing, observed during the show, adding: "Books give your history, but they're also aspirational."

I needed to be reminded of this. Next week, we bookish folk will infiltrate New York City for BookExpo America, each of us covertly bringing our own home library identity with us, along with our book trade identity (bookseller, publisher, author, etc.).

For almost a decade, I've written pre-BEA columns for Shelf Awareness. Many of them have necessarily been about the uncertain future of the industry, especially when things looked grim. From 2007: "BookExpo America, which reminds us every spring that a promising future always trumps a muddled present." Or from 2010: "Same as it ever was. And now we're headed back to BookExpo. Handselling and handwringing will continue unabated."

This year, however, I've been reminded by the "Living with Books" broadcast of something that struck me during my first book trade show, at the moment I walked into the Miami Beach Convention Center in 1993 for ABA's annual event. I'd been a bookseller for less than a year, but knew at once I belonged there. Maybe that was just my home library identity overcompensating, but it was a useful survival tool nonetheless.

Listening to "Living with Books" has helped me prepare for yet another BEA, where the seeming infinity of potential reads can reach Borgesian levels. Even the limitless imagination of Borges might have struggled to conjure the bookish sensory overload that is Javits Center during BEA.

But I digress. In addition to Home Page, Binnie Klein also hosts A Miniature World, a music and interview show (upcoming guests include Elizabeth Alexander and Jonathan Galassi) and is a writer. Her 2010 book, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind, is a great read.

After hearing the "Living with Books" segment, I wondered if she'd ever been to BEA. Then I stopped wondering and simply asked her.

"I found myself at BookExpo in the spring of 2010, as the guest of SUNY Press, who had just published my book," Klein replied. "I felt like I should have arrived with my ISBN tattooed somewhere on my body--that's how excited and proud I was, especially as a 'late-bloomer.'  Instead I arrived with an immediate concern--was I wearing comfortable enough shoes? I'd been warned that there would be a fair amount of walking. The place was huge, and everyone looked like a celebrity or near-celebrity to me." Afterward, she recalled that the "designated shuttle back to Grand Central, with its nametag-wearing passengers, felt like the camp bus home. We'd all been through something, and now we were going home with bags of book swag. My shoes had done their job."

Dickinson, Klein & Black during WKPN's Home Page "Living With Books" live broadcast (photo: Brian Slattery/NewHavenIndependent.org)

I reminded Klein of what she and Robin Black had said in discussing the role books played in forming identity and self-definition. Noting that even when I'm in the middle of the BookExpo free-for-all next week, there will still be a part of my own home library identity that gives me needed perspective, I asked: Do you take your home library identity "on the road" when you travel, too?

"We carry within us the memories of phrases, characters, surprise endings, narrative drive that keeps us up at night, multiple insights within sentences that astonish," Klein replied. "My home library identity (Shall we dub it HLI?) is vast and thoroughly incomplete. It starts in childhood with Eloise and Golden Books and Rudyard Kipling and meanders through adolescence with Salinger and Hesse and poetry journals and lands more recently, at Tana French, George Hodgman, Paul Auster, Daniel Menaker, Walter Kirn, Will Wiles and the stack of new authors on my desk waiting, like little soldiers, to be called into service. I am very lucky to be a radio interviewer who can both read them and sometimes 'meet' them. We meet at the borders of their interests and mine, and when the magic happens, I'm again that little girl with crooked bangs reading Eloise in my room."

And that has now become my BEA 2015 goal: to "meet at the borders of their interests and mine," and hope for a few key moments "when the magic happens." Hope to see you, and your own wonderful HLIs, next week. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2513