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Happy Birthday to the 'Professor of Books' 

If you would know what nobody knows, read what everybody reads, just one year afterwards... --Ralph Waldo Emerson, who turned a spry 213 years old on Wednesday

Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a reader, I don't think I'm that hard to please, despite the fact that so many of the ARCs I pick up can easily be put down again. Of course, there's never been a chronic shortage of putdownable books. Consider Henry David Thoreau at his caustic best in 1854:

They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sephronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth--at any rate, how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on!... All this they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-covered edition of Cinderella.


Or that other legendary reader of Concord, Emerson. He estimated that in 1858, the number of printed books in the world might easily exceed a million volumes. Seems a manageable number now, doesn't it? He also wrote of the challenges inherent in tracking down a great new read:

It is easy to accuse books, and bad ones are easily found; and the best are but records, and not the things recorded; and certainly there is dilettantism enough, and books that are merely neutral and do nothing for us.... The bookseller might certainly know that his customers are in no respect better for the purchase and consumption of his wares. The volume is dear at a dollar, and after reading to weariness the lettered backs, we leave the shop with a sigh, and learn, as I did without surprise of a surly bank director, that in bank parlors they estimate all stocks of this kind as rubbish.


I work in the book trade, where titles of every description and quality are the key to survival for publishers and booksellers and writers. Too many of the ARCs I sample, "buffet reading" 50 pages or so, just don't connect. ("It's not you; it's me." Sometimes that's the reason. Not always.) When someone asks me to recommend a new book that "you really loved," and I haven't read anything recently that genuinely qualifies, I can't lie about it. Is the art of reading too sacramental for deceit? Probably not, though it does often feel that way. As a bookseller, I was no literary shaman, but I tried not to be a hinky used car salesman either. If a book really got through to me, my longtime patrons could hear the enthusiasm in my voice, just as they picked up on the slightest inflection when a recommendation was hesitant.

Emerson's study at his home in Concord, Mass.

Once upon a time, I thought I could find everything I needed in Emerson's works, turning to them as other people leaned on astrology or the I Ching, seeking counsel, solace or wisdom, whatever was needed. I even fantasized about living in 19th-century Concord, accepting invitations to dinner with Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, maybe a surprise visit from Margaret Fuller. Gradually, however, I realized that given my working-class heritage, I would probably have been serving them soup.

Emerson did, however, create my ideal job description:

Meantime the colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and, I think, no chair is so much wanted. In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends, but they are imprisoned by an enchanter in these paper and leathern boxes; and though they know us, and have been waiting two, ten, or twenty centuries for us--some of them--and are eager to give us a sign, and unbosom themselves, it is the law of their limbo that they must not speak until spoken to; and as the enchanter has dressed them, like battalions of infantry, in coat and jacket of one cut, by the thousand and ten thousand, your chance of hitting on the right one is to be computed by the arithmetical rule of Permutation and Combination--and not a choice out of three caskets, but out of half a million caskets all alike. But it happens in our experience that in this lottery there are at least fifty or a hundred blanks to a prize. It seems then, as if some charitable soul, after losing a great deal of time among the false books, and alighting upon a few true ones which have made him happy and wise, would do a right act in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.


Professor of Books. Maybe that's what I became after all--in a sense... nontenured. Thanks, R.W.E. And happy birthday.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2763


'The New Localism Challenge' at #BEA16

This year's BookExpo America opened with "Meeting the New Localism Challenge: Protecting and Promoting Communities and Local Economies," a plenary talk by Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a leading expert on small business and healthy local economies. After the presentation, booksellers were divided into breakout sessions by region to discuss the issue further.

American Booksellers Association president Betsy Burton, owner of the King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, introduced Mitchell, noting that with her "passion and singleminded devotion" to the cause, "she's the Joan of Arc of Localism.... She's knowledgeable, she's impassioned, she's brilliant."

Stacy Mitchell (photo: Bookweb.org)

"Local is really on people's minds in a way it wasn't 10 years ago. People are not only buying locally; they're investing locally," Mitchell said, adding that there are currently more than 150 local first organizations in the U.S., and increasingly "what's wonderful is the neighbors and local businesses actually own their buildings." Noting that "cities are also getting in on this," she cited programs like local purchasing preferred in Cleveland, local business leasing preferences in Seattle, the adaptive reuse program in Phoenix and a formula business restriction in San Francisco.

What has driven the movement? Mitchell mentioned several factors, including campaigns to improve people's knowledge of the Localism trend, some broader cultural movements ("Millennials shopping as a cultural experience."), as well as local businesses just "getting better at what they do."

Having come this far in a decade, Mitchell posed the next logical question: "How do we make Localism central to the conversation about the future of the economy?"

Noting that there is still enormous corporate consolidation going on in many industries, she said this could be "an opportune moment for going to the next level" with Localism. Mitchell suggested a number of options for doing so, including leveraging "this amazing body of scholarship" that has been collected; creating a well-defined localist policy agenda ("This is what we need to do..."); reviving anti-trust policy ("There seems to be this shift that's beginning to happen... I think there's an opening."); eliminating tax breaks and subsidies to large companies; expanding access to credit; making more investment funds available from states and cities; rewriting local zoning codes to favor independent businesses (more walking friendly streets, for example); and maintaining affordable spaces.

"We need to reinvest in a new generation of entrepreneurs," Mitchell said. "We need to cultivate stronger networks and initiatives among elected officials. We need to engage with our customers not just in their role as customers, but as citizens... engage with them as advocates.... We need to do a better job of telling this story."

After Mitchell's speech, booksellers were divided into regional groups for breakout sessions to discuss Localism. One of the facilitators was ABA board member John Evans, co-owner of DIESEL, A Bookstore, with locations in Oakland, Larkspur and Brentwood, Calif. I asked him to share highlights of his session:

"There was obviously much that could be discussed after Stacy Mitchell's talk," he recalled. "Since the breakout sessions were divided geographically, our California group met and immediately diverted from the discussion group structure graciously provided by the ABA. The initial topics and discussion points revolved around the Localism presentation and Amazon studies, with talk of how Amazon leverages their power over the whole ecosystem, for example price devaluation of the book and negotiating radically cheaper freight costs. Attempts to solve those inequalities led to inquiries about whether group rates for freight could/should approach some kind of equity with their rates. Also, more abstract notions such as no prices on books or MSRP pricing of books, common in other industries.

"We also discussed how to increase the awareness of the importance of Localism: the stories of local stores' places in our communities; customer stories; and other local businesses with similar stories. Spreading this news--economic and cultural--to local and state officials, was discussed as another aspect of informative storytelling we all should engage in. Energizing the whole community from customers to other business leaders, elected officials to media, about the relevance and importance of the new Localism and how it has to impact zoning, city contracts and council giveaways Stacy discussed and the economic studies show.

"The conversation then moved from the more general to specific tactics for effectuating change including: marketing to Airbnb, realtors, Yelp, Google, other local businesses; broadcasting the notion of bookstores and other businesses as advocates and good citizens with regard to real life, where we all live, and the things that only can happen in real places like bookstores; working with schools and merchant crawls to tie different aspects of our communities together better. We ended with a discussion of the challenges of financing for new stores and established stores, including the benefits of local credit unions; educating banks; SBA; and reducing credit card fees and reviewing them annually.

"It was a very satisfying breakout with wide-ranging contributions by the dozen or so people attending, organically moving from the more global to the more granular issues, concerns, and actions to be taken. It made me proud to be a bookseller, and also a California bookseller, surrounded by other local, engaged book people. I think it was beneficial in various ways to everyone attending. Plus, we all got to know each other better. Thanks to Pete Mulvihill (Green Apple Books) for co-hosting with me, and Steve Salardino (Skylight Books), who took excellent notes. A fine time was had by all."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2758


Daniel Berrigan & 'Time as Verb'

Since Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., died last weekend, there have been hundreds of beautiful reflections and obituaries published, many by people who knew him well. I add my small voice to this chorus only because I'm a reader, and his books have been nearby, wherever I might be, for more than half a century. And I met him once.

Another instance--
time as verb.

These are the concluding lines of a poem in Father Berrigan's Beyond Alchemy, a chapbook published in 2006 by Arrowsmith Press, a limited print run, labor-of-literary-love venture. The title was released simultaneously with an anthology, Conscience, Consequence: Reflections on Father Daniel Berrigan, edited by Arrowsmith founder Askold Melnyczuk (author most recently of Smedley's Secret Guide to World Literature).

I had contributed an essay to the anthology, and on December 2 of that year found myself at Friends Meeting House in Cambridge, Mass., for a launch celebration. During Arrowsmith's post-reading reception, I was asked to sit next to Father Berrigan and keep him company while he graciously and patiently signed books for a long line of... the best phrase that comes to mind is comrades in linked arms. So many stories were shared of past meetings, so many expressions of admiration and gratitude.

I've sat in "the chair beside the author" many times as a bookseller. I know the drill. I know how to be helpfully invisible while still keeping an author from feeling abandoned. I did my job, but I also observed Father Berrigan, who at 85 displayed remarkable grace, resilience and focus, engaging his devoted audience one by one while scribbling his name on proffered items (including, oddly enough, a baseball).

Occasionally he would turn to me and smile or make a small joke. He seemed to be--and there are few people, especially authors, in the world I can say this about--the person I'd always imagined he might be.

That singular day--when our paths crossed ever so briefly in a place where words, written as well as spoken, reflected action--also marked the beginning of an amazing moment in my life. Time, verb that it is, sent me to New York City for the rest of the week.

Ancients are writing with pencil stubs
scriptures in a cave.

So begins Father Berrigan's poem "The Prisoners, The Cave." Upon learning of his death last Sunday, I was able, miraculously, to extract some notes I'd scribbled in 2006 from the mysterious depths of my archives. Reading them, I found shadows of that brief stretch of days during which I'd engaged deeply with words and their meanings, sounds and their variations, icons and their spiritual resonance.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I had wandered among apostles and kings at an exhibition called "Set in Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture." Some of the relics were survivors of a frenzied post-French Revolution iconoclasm that essentially drove men to "cleanse" Notre-Dame cathedral of its royal and religious icons by beheading statues. Time had done its damage as well, yet the weathered icons retained their eloquence.

While at the Met, I also saw "Brush and Ink: The Chinese Art of Writing," and was struck by the pleasure of writing as art, of the visual and textual blending seamlessly in graceful brush strokes from a thousand years ago.

Marking time.

My pilgrimage then took me to the Frick Collection, where an exhibition of 18th century artist Domenico Tiepolo's New Testament drawings made ancient words appear as visions.

One night, I moved back in time to the 16th century for a concert at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The Tallis Scholars stood at the foot of an awe-inspiring altar and performed choral works by Renaissance masters.

Time as verb. Time travels. We ride along and, if we're very lucky, occasionally stop time for brief moments of grace, like the ones I experienced for a week in 2006 and was reminded of again by Father Berrigan's passing... and his poetry. Here are the opening lines of "Time as Verb":

This is the way
I describe it; what time does
To hands and face.
                   That old timer
shoots a glance that makes
like God in genesis, you--
a very image and withered

I have a treasured bit of memorabilia from 2006. Father Berrigan sent a postcard to Arrowsmith the summer before the anthology was published. On it he wrote something nice about my essay, and his brief message ended with humility: "Someday soon I'll start living up to his praise." But we all know that Father Berrigan earned every word of praise that came his way, and lived up to them for a lifetime. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2748


The Quotable Canadian Authors for Indies Day

Tomorrow, while booksellers across the U.S. host myriad events marking Independent Bookstore Day, their Canadian colleagues will be celebrating the second annual Authors for Indies Day, during which writers spend time on the sales floors of their favorite indie bookshops chatting with customers, signing books and even handselling a bit. More than 600 authors participated across Canada last year, giving bookstores an 18.5% sales boost for the day.

We'll have follow-up coverage next week, but in the spirit of bookish anticipation, I'm sharing a few words from participants on the meaning of #Authors4IndiesDay to them. In this case, actions do not speak louder than words; they band together for a common cause.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Authors for Indies spokeperson

"Every author I know is a reader.... For many of us, a local bookstore shaped our lives. Books can do that--and a bookstore can," Guy Gavriel Kay, author and #AFI2016's spokesperson, wrote in Shelf Awareness for Readers this week.

Linda Leith, who founded the Blue Metropolis Festival and heads Linda Leith Publishing, told the Montreal Gazette: "It's a close-knit world, the book world. We all depend on one another and need one another." She added that Authors for Indies Day "feels like a grassroots movement. A way for those of us who love reading and writing to thumb our noses at everything that's become impersonal and dehumanizing about the book world."

In a blog post, Vancouver's 32 Books & Gallery noted: "We are delighted to be hosting twice as many authors for 2016 and expect another enthusiastic response from our customers who thoroughly enjoyed the casual atmosphere and the chance to chat with some of their favorite writers without the hoopla or line-ups that are often par for the course at literary events. We added in some coffee and cookies in the morning, wine and cheese in the afternoon, and voila... what more could a bibliophile want?"

"For me, independent bookstores are like books themselves. They are places to go, for self-discovery, community, and, above all, connection," said author Anita Kushwawa, who will be at Octopus Books in Ottawa.

Barb Minett, owner of the Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario, wrote: "This year we are inspired by Canada's growing awareness about the importance of building new and meaningful relationships with our First Nations, Metis and Inuit brothers and sisters. So it is with this in mind that we celebrate Authors for Indies Day with indigenous authors of all ages and their author allies. Our journey begins on Saturday April 30 at 10 a.m. and will follow traditional ceremonies which include land acknowledgment, smudging, drumming and song. We will be using an Indigenous traditional way of learning where there is time, a place and space for families to hear stories and discuss insights and teachings as a community. You may find young Indigenous writers reading in the art section or traditional drummers on the patio. If you go upstairs there may be Indigenous authors speaking of their experience with residential schools or the land they live on and love."

Author Karma Brown, who will be at Eat Your Words in Toronto, observed: "I have quite a long bucket list (one I've been keeping since I was 17 years old) and nestled amongst the 120-or-so items is 'own a little bookstore.' In reality (and understanding what it takes) I may never get further than a Little Free Library at the end of my driveway, so am grateful for indie owners who have opened their doors within our communities for the rest of us book lovers to gleefully escape for an hour or so."

Book City in Toronto "is thrilled to again host the visits of authors to each of our four stores. Last year, we shared the day with over 60 authors, and this year, the number of authors participating in Authors for Indies is even greater. The day has been fun to organize and has given us the opportunity to learn more about our favorite writers (and their reading habits, as we've asked them for their 'desert island' reads, a few books that they simply can't live without, to hand sell to 'their' customers on event day)."

But where do booksellers without a "home" spend Authors for Indies Day? Bibliobroads Kelly Beers and Julie Maynard shared their particularly bookish tale of dilemma and resolution: "We were booksellers without a home. Home is a bookstore to indie employees & The Avid Reader was closing after 21 great years. Yes, it was on happy terms but when Julie & I (a.k.a. Bibliobroads) were told that the final day would be March 31, our first response was, 'Oh No! What about Authors for Indies?!'  Not, 'I have no job!' or something responsible. We are fueled by bookselling passion and the thought that we would lose our store, all of the wonderful customers, a place for our book club and #AFI2016 was simply too much. The ol' Bibliobroads were broken-hearted booksellers.

"Then, it happened--the magic that's only found among independent bookstores. Mrs. Lou Pamenter, owner of Furby House Books, a gorgeous indie in the neighboring town of Port Hope, asked if we would collaborate with them for Authors for Indies. Further, they have given our beloved book club a new home--free of charge--and will stock our picks. This would never occur in the corporate book business world where reading is an afterthought and books are solely a commodity. Furby House Books knows that we are crazy about books, especially Canadian writers, and that we're fierce in our devotion to independent businesses. We read to live & live to read. The rest has become history in the making!"

And they have the video evidence to prove it. Happy Authors for Indies Day to our northern neighbors. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2743


Her Bookshop to Open in East Nashville

Sometimes it's just about being in the right place at the right time. In this case, the right place was Facebook and the right time was Tuesday, when I happened to notice a shared post that quietly announced the upcoming debut of Her Bookshop, a small independent bookstore scheduled to launch this June at the Shoppes on Fatherland in East Nashville, Tenn. Since the opening of another new indie is always my favorite breaking news, I had to investigate further.

The owner of Her Bookshop is Joelle Herr, who has worked in the publishing industry for two decades, holding editorial positions at several companies, including Running Press (where she was managing editor), Workman (senior production editor) and Sterling (senior editor). In 2011, "after a rather gypsy-like decade of moving around (including across the country and back), I returned to Nashville, where I grew up," Herr recalled. "For the past five years, I've been mostly freelance editing and writing, most recently a handful of literature-centric books for Running Press' One Sitting series and William Shakespeare Rewritten by You for Ulysses Press. Next up are a couple of Jane Austen books for Cider Mill Press. I also spent a year at BookPage, where, after years of 'creating' books, I was excited to have the opportunity to work more directly with readers, getting them excited about newly published books."

Long before she followed this bookish career path, Herr said she "harbored a desire to have my own bookstore, but I didn't give it serious consideration until very recently. I was looking to rent a small office for my freelance business, actually, and came across what seemed like the perfect spot for a bookstore. I mean, I walked into the room and had a moment. The vision was crystal clear. And it got the wheels turning. Could I do it? Was I brave enough to take such a huge risk? Would people come in and buy enough books for me to make a profit, a living? What if I failed? My mind was swirling." She subsequently reached out to former colleagues for guidance, "and the next thing I knew, I had quite a few highly esteemed industry veterans offering advice and lots and lots of encouragement."

Joelle Herr

Herr eventually determined that the space where she'd experienced her original vision of indie bookseller heaven was a little too big and expensive to start out, but she found what she described as "an even better spot" near Five Points, "which is the heart and hub of East Nashville.... It's less than a mile from where I live, a warm, absolutely wonderful neighborhood that is incredibly supportive of small, locally owned businesses. I am hopeful that Her Bookshop will be a welcome addition to the thriving community."

At 400 square feet, Her Bookshop will be compact, but the goal is "to carry a little bit of everything, with a slight focus on illustrated gift books, which have been the focus of my career," she noted. "This is where I intend to start, in any case. I'm perfectly aware that I may need to adapt my vision so that it corresponds with what my neighbors are interested in buying and reading. Thankfully, my boyfriend has been running his own business (a drum supply company) for more than 20 years and will be on hand to help me with the business side--and calming me down when I feel overwhelmed. I take over the lease on June 1 and am aiming to open later that month."

I asked Herr if there were particular indie booksellers she considered inspirations for her new venture? "Of course, Parnassus Books here in Nashville and Landmark Booksellers in nearby Franklin," she replied. "I also love Sundog Books in Seaside, Fla., Kramerbooks in Washington, D.C., and Powell's Books in Portland, Ore. These are all much, much larger spaces than I'll have, but they're inspiring nonetheless. The store I'd most like to emulate is powerHouse Books in Brooklyn. I love that most of their books are on tables--such a visual feast."

Herr's preparations for her new role include a road trip next month to a destination where she will be surrounded by hundreds of her bookselling peers: "I just made my plans to head to Chicago for BookExpo America in a few weeks. It's going to be a real pinch-me moment to see 'owner' on my bookseller badge and not 'editor!' " --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2738