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Friday
May242019

1969 ABA Convention--4 Days of Peace & Books 

They don't make time machines like they used to; these new self-driving models still have some glitches. For example, last week I traveled back to the 1919 American Booksellers Association Convention, but when I tried to return to present tense I was suddenly rerouted to the convention held 50 years ago. What else could I do? I checked it out.

Yes, that 1969. You know the high- and low-lights, including the fact that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair would be held in upstate New York just a couple of months after a very different gathering of the clans took place in Washington, D.C.

"Three thousand booksellers, publishers, authors and book critics from several countries were in attendance today as the 69th annual convention of the American Booksellers Association opened in the Shoreham hotel," Robert Cromie wrote in the June 2 edition of the Chicago Tribune, adding that the event "provides a series of seminars, press conferences with authors, and a valuable preview, for the nation's sellers of books, of new titles which will be available for the Christmas trade." 

The first day's program featured a reception for the "first-timers" attending, and Dell Publishing hosted a wine-tasting party "at which excerpts were shown from the new Secret of Santa Vittoria motion picture made by Stanley Kramer from Robert Crichton's bestselling book.... The formal program, which is augmented by dozens of receptions and cocktail parties given by publishers to woo booksellers and show off visiting authors, will end Wednesday evening with a dinner dance at which the speaker will be Rod McKuen, musician, composer and poet."

The ABA "tried every trick from the Plant Lady of Television to Marshall McLuhan, but it could not disguise the fact that the soul of its convention at the Shoreham this week is the trade exhibits," the Washington Post reported. "The books world has been described as tweedy and diffident, but the group that circulated through the hall filling shopping bags with assorted giveaways was strictly narrow-lapel and breezy."

Looking for celebrity authors? Tiny Tim (I can’t possibly explain this phenomenon; see video evidence) "did a brief interview and then went right down the hall where all the booths were and spent the day signing autographs. People lined up halfway around the room to see him in the Doubleday exhibit," the Post wrote, adding: "Exhibits relied heavily on closed-circuit TV, slides and other audio-visual aids, including a TV cartoon called Dr. Grosslap, a booth built into an airline counter with uniformed salespeople, latest books listed as 'Arrivals' on the readerboard and a felt banner announcing something called a Bookazine."

Marshall McLuhan, the "prophet of the electronic age" touting his upcoming book, From Cliché to Archetype, was one of the Book and Author Luncheon speakers. The Boston Globe reported that he told his audience "the publishing business is tragically behind in the matter of research into the reading habits of the television generation. He warned them that the printed word is the cornerstone of civilization, its only cause, and that they have a mission to maintain its dominance."

"Children of the television age read best when the page is 4.6 inches away from their eyes, which makes the average book useless to the television child," he observed, adding that the book trade seemed to be doing nothing to understand the situation or to get itself off "the hardware hook" and evaluate the significance of "soft-ware" like Xeroxing.

McLuhan also said "the book is a very special form of communication" that "will persist," but the New York Times noted that his "comments came as a surprise to some listeners.... As author and as lecturer, he is usually associated with new trends in the communications media and as an exponent of television."

"The United States is the only country founded on literacy--on the Gutenberg press," he added. "Therefore, it is having the hardest time adapting to the electronic age."

The chaotic nature of 1969 hadn't quite registered with Rutgers University president Dr. Mason W. Gross, who in a keynote that could have been delivered in 1919, contended that "an obligation to maintain the precision of the English language rests with booksellers and others who distribute books, and he decried a trend toward using words inappropriately and in improper fashion," the Times wrote.

On more contemporary ground was speaker Theodore C. Sorensen, former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy and author of the upcoming book, The Kennedy Legacy. Warning that freedom of expression in the U.S. was under attack, he "said he was concerned 'lest McCarthyism in some new and insidious form return to weaken this country's values,' and charged the book industry with a special obligation to protect the right of free speech," the Times reported.

"Freedom of expression in America--particularly on our college campuses--is under increasing pressure from the New Left and the Old Right.... It will be all too easy for the voices of reason to give way to the voices of Reagan and Marcuse," he argued, noting that a special responsibility to reverse this trend rested with those who sell and publish books "before it spreads to your own profession."

My balky self-driving time machine grudgingly returned to 2019, and now I'm looking toward the more immediate future of BookExpo in New York next week. The distant future? My time machine is still a little skittish about that ("Books? Yes, we have books.").

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3502

Friday
May172019

Preparing for the 1919 ABA Convention

Later this month, we will gather by the river once again for BookExpo, a rite of spring that transforms the cold steel and glass shell of Javits Center into New York City's mega book bazaar.

For almost three decades--first as bookseller and later as media member--I've been attending the show previously known as BookExpo America/American Booksellers Association Convention. This seemed like a long time until I did a little archive exploring recently.

Consider the phrase "a century ago." It has a nice ring, so let's travel back to 1919, a year in which Sylvia Beach opened the original Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop in Paris and Christopher Morley published his iconic booksellers' novel, The Haunted Bookshop. In May of that year, the American Booksellers Association Convention was held at the Hotel Copley Plaza in Boston. Prior to the event, The Bookman published an article headlined "The Bookseller: The Reader's Best Friend" by ABA secretary Frederic G. Melcher.

This would be the ABA's 19th annual meeting and only the second held outside New York. About 200 members registered, including publishers, their representatives and retailers. Of special importance to the discussions that year was estimating the effect of war on book trade as well as possibilities for expansion under new conditions.

"There is a widespread feeling that the book is coming into its own, and the bookstore into wider recognition," Melcher wrote. "Will the bookseller be able to make good under the new opportunities; are the conditions under which he is operating suitable for meeting the needs? These are problems on which the trade wants answers."

Many of his concerns are still our concerns, including the issue that "books half distributed are books only half effective, and to the problem of better distribution the booksellers address themselves. They must work together for better basic training for booksellers, improved selling methods, wider public recognition of the importance of bookstores, higher professional standards. Better trade conditions will increase the number of bookstores, better training will increase the number of satisfied buyers. Improved selling methods will increase the outlet in a given community; increased recognition of the civic and educational importance of bookstores will bring adequate support to bookstore enterprises in cities now without them; and higher standards among store owners and managers will make such recognition possible."

He believed "there is still to be found no better way to get the right books to the right persons than by displaying them conveniently in every community under the competent comment of a bookseller. Authors, publishers, and public agree on this fact."

Why, Melcher wondered, were there so many cities without bookshops and fewer bookstores than there had been 50 years ago, despite a population increase. Not surprisingly, he blamed modern times: "While increase in wealth permits more margin for indulgence in books, the automobile and movie have cut into time available; and apartment houses and frequent family migration have made books seem an extra burden. New sources of reading have appeared on every side."

Consistently profitable bookshops were a rarity. "All statistics of the business point to the fact that while there is no retail field to compare with it in fascination, there are few that can compare with it in difficulty," Melcher wrote. "It requires breadth of study, alertness as a merchant, and a level head for finance, to build up a successful bookstore, or else a combination of such abilities in different heads. Usually it is the enthusiasm for the business that helps to overcome weakness in merchandising, though it may not quite offset weakness in financing."

The ABA Convention, however, provided an opportunity "for the pooling of selling ideas and methods," he noted. "What one manager has worked out another is quite welcome to know, and the one who will bring a good idea is likely to be rewarded by carrying away two."

Bookseller training was a key issue. Noting that at the 1918 convention the part of the program that garnered the most attention "was the reports from four speakers on bookselling education," Melcher observed: "It is the hope of many that the day is not far off when a school for bookselling may be established that will compare favorably with the best schools of librarianship--of which the curriculum could be partly paralleled."

While citing the entrance of more women into the business through "the establishment of small and individualistic bookshops" in various cities as "one of the hopeful and interesting developments in bookselling of the last few years," he also highlighted their "particular affinity for selling children's books."  

Melcher's pre-convention assessment of the bookselling world in 1919 concluded: "The small bookshop is showing increased possibilities under recent experiments. It can in no way take the place of the larger store where customers can find almost all books on all subjects, but it furnishes the opportunity for individuality and initiative. It will reach out in new areas of book usage, and tempt into the business of book distributing alert and active minds who will help to raise the level of American bookselling....

"Today brings in the greatest opportunity the bookseller has ever had, the opportunity to observe an eager and widened reading public at an epoch in the world's history. The preparation for adequate service is not complete; there are too few outlets, too few trained salesmen; but the booksellers see the way toward better things, and they ask and deserve the support and interest of the book-loving public of this country."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3497

Friday
May102019

#BookstoreDays #ThatMomentWhen...

I spend vast swaths of my workday scanning social media for news and notes about bookstores and booksellers. It's undeniably great fun seeing pic after pic of enviably gorgeous aisles with handcrafted bookcases; imaginative table, endcap and storefront window displays; clever sidewalk chalkboard illustrations and captions; crowded, successful author events with long signing lines; energetic booksellers--young, old(er) and in-between--touting their favorite handsells in photos and GIFs, and so much more. Gives one hope for the future of bookselling, to be honest.

The popularity among Shelf Awareness readers of regular features like Image of the Day, Chalkboard of the Day, Cool Idea of the Day and Favorite Bookseller Moment of the Day also speak to need we all have for, and pleasure we take in, sharing good news about the bookselling community online. Why wouldn't we?

Still...

If all those great photos are the bookselling angel on one shoulder, I must confess that the devil sitting on my other shoulder wonders sometimes where the alternative pics are filed away. You know the ones I'm talking about. Bookselling isn't all #JustAnotherFunDayOnTheSalesFloor.

So the mischievous bookselling devil on shoulder #2 has prompted me to imagine some of those pics, along with less cheery responses to the incessant grilling from Twitter ("What's happening?") and Facebook ("What's on your mind?"). I'm sure you have your own, but here are a few of mine:

Pic: Book cart on the sales floor, absolutely packed with multiple copies of newly received stock, including horizontal overflow piles across the top.
Post: Night shift strikes again!!! #Doesn'tAnybodyShelveAfter5pm?

Pic: Small office desk awash in papers surrounding a computer, which displays on the screen mysterious bookkeeping software in operation.
Post: Battle Royale: Sales Figures vs. Unpaid Invoices. #UnfairFight #LiterallyOutnumbered

Pic: Stained and wrinkled shelf talker beneath faced-out book.
Post: What's the deal with shelf talkers by former staff who haven't been here for more than three years? #GoneNotForgotten #PaperTrail

Pic: A group of sleepy-eyed booksellers gathering near bookshop's information desk.
Post: tfw morning meeting and nothing new to say? #NoNewsNotGoodNews #NeedMoreCoffee

Pic: View out bookshop's front door across the parking lot.
Post: It's 6:55pm. The talent hasn't arrived yet. Too early to panic? #Where'sOurAuthor?

Pic: Shot taken from behind several rows of sparsely occupied chairs at an author event.
Post: If a tree falls in the forest... #Where'sOurAudience?

Pic: View of bookstore's low ceiling, where two of the recessed lighting bulbs are out, adding a twilight atmosphere to sections they are supposed to illuminate.
Post: Day 6 since the second bulb blew. Anybody know where we keep the spare bulbs? #TooDarkToRead #TooDarkToShelve

Pic: Empty mug with bookshop logo positioned next to cash register.
Post: Is the new policy that customers must bring their own writing utensils?!! #WhoStealsAllThePens?

Pic: Staff member standing at register, staring at cell phone.
Post: Day-to-day grind. Clock watching. #IsItLunchYet?

Pic: View from behind of unidentifiable person walking out of the back office.
Post: Unfortunately, not everyone can be a bookseller. #TerminateWithExtremeJudiciousness

Pic: Bookstore's public bathroom in a state of... disarray.
Post: Whose turn to clean the restroom? #NotInJobDescription #GotToDoItAnyway

Pic: Sink in bookshop's staff break room filled with dirty cups, dishes and flatware.
Post: This is getting REALLY old!!! #CleanYourOwnDishesPeople.

(via)

Pic: Hand lifting lid of cardboard coffee cup, which contains the fuzzy/moldy remnants of an ancient latte.
Post: Look what we found while pulling returns. #BookshopScienceProject

Pic: Kids' picture book section, where strange, brownish abstract design obscures the cover of a copy of Goodnight Moon.
Post: Ice cream cone vs. picture book. No contest. #GoodnightChocolateIceCream

Pic: Disgruntled man at cash register, pointing at clipboard.
Post: That moment when dude from another town who's never been in your bookshop aggressively requests charity donation. #Nope!!

Pic: POS gift wrap station, where one of the three dispensers is empty and the other two are low.
Post: One down, two to go. #WorstGiftWrapDesignChoicesEver

Pic: Bookstore cat nestling in corner of back room with unexpected litter of newborn kittens.
Post: #PlotTwist.

Pic: Lovely overstuffed chair in bookshop's reading nook with large tear in cushion. Stuffing pokes through.
Post: Wanted: Full-time bookseller and part-time upholsterer. #JackOfALLTrades

Pic: Shot of bottom side of once-expensive hardcover art book with black magic marker slash.
Post: Customer trying to return birthday present for exchange. Three years since pub date. #RemaindersDon'tMakeGreatGifts

Maybe it's for the best that we keep these images on file. I'd rather see the good ones anyway. Bookselling life may not be perfect, but bookshop posts sure beat most of the alternatives in my social media feed. #You'veGotToReadThis

Next week: Censored first drafts of sidewalk chalkboard signs #JustKidding.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3492

Friday
May032019

Poetry Month & the Art of Paying Attention

People often say that the greatest pleasures of traveling are finding a sage hidden behind weeds or treasures hidden in trash, gold among discarded pottery. Whenever I encountered someone of genius, I wrote about it in order to tell my friends. --Bashō, "The Knapsack Notebook" (translated by Sam Hamill).

Ross Gay

I haven't written about National Poetry Month this year, but that's not because I wasn't paying attention. Bashō's works taught me how to do that a long time ago. In fact, the art of paying attention has been on my mind frequently since last fall, when I heard award-winning poet Ross Gay speaking at the Heartland Fall Forum in Minneapolis about his essay collection, The Book of Delights.

"People often ask me, 'How is it that, in the midst of things, you're writing about joy?' " he said. "And my response is always--and certainly relative to events now--along the lines of: There's nothing more important than thinking about and writing about and meditating on what you love. So, this book is kind of a gesture toward that, or an exercise in cultivating the possibility of delight, building the possibility of delight."

Bashō's travel journal entries and haiku have long been among my "pay attention" readings. What Gay describes as his "essayettes" are a new addition on that particular bookshelf.

"It didn't take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle," Gay writes, adding that he "felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight."

His essay "House Party" casts a delightfully skeptical eye on theories about the presumed hatred, death and/or uselessness of poetry in our world. He cites numerous examples to the contrary, adding: "So, truth be told, I give almost nary a shit about the hatred of poetry given the abundant and diverse and and daily evidence to the contrary."

I agree. You just have to pay attention.

Tracy K. Smith

As Poetry Month began, U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith told NPR's All Things Considered: "You're not arguing something down when you're talking about a poem. You're saying, let me listen to this. Let me think about how it speaks to me. Let me think about how I feel different as a result of what you've just said. And I think that's a really healthy way of approaching other people, especially people whose perspectives might be different from yours."

Danez Smith

Wrapping up the #NPRPoetryMonth initiative, guest poetry curator Danez Smith shared some of their favorite original, tweet-length poems written by listeners. They observed that the "reason I think so many of us come to poetry or writing or any type of expression that we have for ourselves because we have those sharp words, those sharp ideas that hurt to keep them inside. And eventually, something, whether it be the page or the tweet or the microphone or the dance floor, something begs us to finally let it out, even if letting it out is saying, I have been silenced or I don't know how to use my voice. Even that first utterance is such a powerful statement."

This week I noticed a tweet alerting me to Poetry Day Ireland, which I'll confess I'd never heard of: "To mark #PoetryDayIRL tomorrow, Thursday 2 May, poets across the world will be leaving literary labels in unexpected places for the unsuspecting, to delight, surprise, engage and gladden a few hearts so anyone can take a poem home. Keep your eyes peeled!"

In the Maldives yesterday, "Barefoot Bookseller" Aimée Johnston tweeted: "Celebrating #PoetryDayIrl by reading The Maldive Shark to sharks in the Maldives. Were not huge fans. This limited edition of-course-I-dropped-it copy is now on sale in the Barefoot Bookshop. Get it before it dries out!"

How about poetry for the mind and body? John O'Donnell and Stephen Connolly led a 5K "Poetry Run" featuring "poetic pitstops around Dublin." It started at Run Logic shop with a reading of Peter Sirr's "Essex Street" and ended there as well with a reading of Colette Bryce's "Great North."

Fifteen years ago, I invoked the spirit of Bashō in the first entry for my blog Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal: "In a way, this blog will be a kind of travel journal. Reading is as much a journey as any package tour European vacation--six hundred pages in six days; if it's Tuesday, this must be Chapter 12.... Thoreau once wrote that he could travel the world without leaving Concord, or something like that. Sam Hamill's The Essential Bashō is an excellent collection of writing by the 17th century Japanese poet, whose 'The Knapsack Notebook' and 'Narrow Road to the Interior' are travel writing templates."

"Nothing's worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes," Bashō observed. And: "Yesterday's self is already worn out!" His writing blends random observations, poetry and sharp imagery, all of which he captured during travels through Japan and strung together like prayer beads. "Fresh eyes. Let's begin the trip," I wrote in 2004. Bashō, and many others, remind me to pay attention along the way.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3487

Friday
Apr262019

Celebrating IBD with a Revolutionary Bookseller

In anticipation of Independent Bookstore Day tomorrow, I've been thinking about the bookselling life of Henry Knox, who was born in Boston (1750) and self-educated. According to David McCullough's 1776, he became a bookseller as a young man, and in 1771 opened his own establishment, the London Book-Store, offering "a large and very elegant assortment" of the latest books and magazines.

"In the notices he placed in the Boston Gazette, the name Henry Knox always appeared in larger type than the name of the store," McCullough writes. The Gazette also noted that his stock included "the most modern books in all branches of Literature, Arts and Sciences."

Henry Knox
(portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1806)

In his introduction to The Revolutionary War Lives and Letters of Lucy and Henry Knox, editor Phillip Hamilton portrays a bookshop environment that sounds quite contemporary, noting that Knox's store "thrived under his direction, largely due to his personality.... Knowledgeable about literature, history, and politics, he loved engaging in conversations and easily struck up friendships.... Ambitious, eager to rise above the hardships of his youth, and supremely confident in himself, Knox always engaged customers in similar discussions."

The bookshop also prospered because of his business mind, including an ability to master commercial and financial details. Hamilton writes that Knox's surviving wastebook (a financial ledger in which he wrote daily transactions) and correspondence with customers "reveal the care with which he managed the overall operation." In addition, his ties to London gave him "regular access to thousands of recently published books and magazines, as well as to the latest news regarding literary trends, social fads, and political intelligence."

Now let's talk about location, location, location. The London Book-Store was on Cornhill near the center of Boston, which "further contributed to its success," Hamilton notes. "Before 1771, the city already supported 15 book and print shops, due to the fact that its 16,000 residents were mostly literate, because of the Congregationalist's belief that all people should read the Bible for themselves."

Because it was located less than a block from the Massachusetts Town House, "not only Whigs and members of the Sons of Liberty frequented the bookstore, but Crown officials, American Tories, and British officers also stopped by on a daily basis," Hamilton observes. Prominent Boston historian Harrison Gray Otis later characterized the store as "one of great display and attraction for young and old, and a fashionable morning lounge."

McCullough adds that the clientele also included troublemakers like John Adams, a frequent patron who remembered Knox as a youth "of pleasing manners and inquisitive turn of mind"; as well as Nathanael Greene, "who not only shared Knox's love of books, but also an interest in 'the military art,' and it was thus, on the eve of war, that an important friendship had commenced."

Booksellers' lives are deeply influenced by their patrons. Sometimes the relationships become something more. Knox fell in love with one of his customers, Lucy Flucker, whom he eventually married despite objections from her Loyalist father, a royal secretary of the province.

Lucy "probably entered Knox's establishment for the first time in 1772," Hamilton writes. "Though only 16 years old, she already possessed a formidable personality. Her correspondence reveals that, even as a teenager, she had a quick mind, strong opinions, and deeply felt emotions, which she rarely hesitated to share with others.... she developed an exceptionally strong streak of independence. The historical record is silent regarding Lucy's education, but it was clearly substantial. Trained to write in the italianate hand, she learned to express her thoughts and sentiments with precision and vigor. Like her future husband, she developed a love of reading and particularly enjoyed conversations about literature and other social topics."

I particularly like Hamilton's description of their bookish courtship ritual and suspect more than a few booksellers can relate to the recollection that "at some point in 1773, they started to exchange furtive glances inside Knox's bookstore and then had flirtatious tête-à-têtes at a nearby coffeehouse."

Henry and Lucy married in 1774, but any future bookselling life together was quickly shattered. By 1775, as "the 'carnage and bloodshed' Henry feared approached, he struggled to keep the bookstore open," Hamilton writes. The last Boston Gazette advertisement for the London Book-Store featured a pamphlet titled The Farmer refuted:.. intended as a further vindication of the Congress by a man who would soon become his comrade-in-arms, Alexander Hamilton.

Knox went on to become a Revolutionary War hero, playing an instrumental role when he conceived and executed the daring relocation of more than 50 captured British cannons overland from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to Boston--an arduous winter journey of nearly 300 miles--to help end the British siege of the city. He eventually rose to the rank of Major General, and later served in President George Washington's cabinet.

The bookshop, vandalized during the war, did not ultimately survive. As bookselling lives go, however, Henry's was a particularly intense, exciting and, yes, independent one, in every sense of the word. So I'll raise a glass to his memory tomorrow as I celebrate another Independent Bookstore Day.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3482