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Friday
Sep262014

The Quotable Banned Books Week 

Which banned book am I? How many banned books have I read? How well do I know my banned books? How scandalous is my reading history? Banned Books Week raises a lot of questions (and eyebrows) annually. In the midst of all the events, media coverage, infographics, lists and quizzes, I found myself collecting some words of Banned Books Week wisdom during the past few days.

But let's begin with this year's epically bad timing prize, which goes to Highland Park High School in Texas, where seven titles assigned as required class reads were suspended on the ironic eve of Banned Books Week after parents complained about content. In addition to Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain (which students were reading at the time of the ban), the list includes The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, who is scheduled to be keynote speaker at the district's annual literary festival in February. Ouch.

"My book has ugly elements to it, but it's about hope and resilience, and I don't know why that wouldn't be an important message," Walls said. "Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.... What I worry is that in order to protect them, we may be taking away the tools they need to protect themselves later on."

In keeping with the spirit of autumn, here are a few more Banned Books Week quotes I harvested:

Benjamin Rybeck, event coordinator at Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.: "I wrote about The Giver. It seems to me that the exact kind of young-adult novel that gets banned for being 'dangerous' ends up being the exact kind of novel that would wind up making a teenager read more books, and read more deeply. I don't know if it's my favorite banned book, but I remember reading it as a teenager and being kind of blown away, not knowing books could ask darker or stranger questions."

Tony Diaz of Librotraficante: "Every week is banned books week for Chicanos.... The Arizona book banners aren't afraid that the next Julius Caesar will simply go by the name 'Julio.' They're scared that their next governor might."

Carolyn Chipley-Foster, media specialist at Muriel Williams Battle High School, Columbia, Mo., which is rewarding students who check out one of its top 10 banned books: "We support everyone's right to read and believe in the power of change that books can bring. We like to bring in new ideas and share ideas so that students can have the opportunity to grow their brains."

Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants series (#1 on the ALA's most banned and challenged book list): "So what's the big deal? Well, most of it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person. There are some adults out there who are not amused by the things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp these things out. We've all met people like that, haven't we?"

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith, author of the graphic album series BONE (#10 on the 2013 list): "Reading lets our imagination grow, and helps us find the paths that will inspire us for the rest of our lives. That kind of inspiration should never be taken away. But when a book is banned, that's exactly what happens."

David L. Ulin in Jacket Copy: "First, I think, we must acknowledge that books can be dangerous.... When a parent group goes after Dav Pilkey, for instance--or John Green, or Toni Morrison--it's not necessarily because they're ignorant, that if they knew more, or understood more, they would see things through a more accepting lens. They understand the power of books and are reacting to it, if not in the manner we might prefer."

Laila Lalami at the PEN America website: "I wonder if the deeper reason for the ban is that The Bluest Eye makes some people uncomfortable. It says plainly what many among us refuse to admit: that our aesthetics are not entirely our own, but are at least in part a function of the racist culture in which we live.... Rather than 'protecting' high school students from The Bluest Eye, educators can use the novel to start discussions about body image, self-esteem and the power of cultural narrative."

I'll end with a little historical perspective from a September 1936 New York Times article on the removal of novels by Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas from the required reading list at three high schools in Bridgeport, Conn.

"I feel it is rather ridiculous to deprive children of very fine pieces of literature because one particular sect has some objections to a few passages," said Mrs. William Cohn, president of the Parent-Teacher Association. "I looked at the books last night after I learned they had been removed from the list. There are a few things which if you are very fussy, might be objected to, but the good features of the books, the beauty of the literature, far over-balance the objectionable." Or, to be more succinct, FREADOM. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2351.

Sunday
Sep212014

Octavia Books & NOLA's Cycling Community 

"We just installed a new bike rack," Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books, New Orleans, La., e-mailed me recently. Reading his words and opening the attached photo offered brief and welcome respite from the latest update on Hachette vs. Amazon or a book banning somewhere or yet another article on declining book readership planet-wide.  

Lowenburg also told me that New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella, who "has always ridden his bike to the book launches we've hosted for him at Octavia Books," had posted an early positive review for the bike rack on Twitter: "I love it. For the first time, the mundane act of locking up a bike will become playful and engaging--very, very well done." 

So I asked the question I always ask when something in the book business intrigues me: What's the backstory?

"When we opened Octavia Books almost exactly 14 years ago, my mother--a passionate bike rider into her 70s--gave us a bike rack as a housewarming present," he replied. "It lasted in good shape a few years until a customer backed her car into it one day. And then it held on in not so good shape until we finally had to take it down."

The inspiration for creating a new "fun bike rack" had occurred to Lowenburg and his wife/co-owner Judith Lafitte "as far back as when we stayed at 'Hotel ABA' in Brooklyn, where we saw a couple of examples right in front of the hotel in the form of brightly colored mounted bikers with long-flowing hair. I started researching bike racks and collecting images, but none were exactly right. Online, I found a commercially available rack in the shape of a book--but it was very two-dimensional and not interesting. So, I called on my local ironworks guy."

The original plan was to craft a 3-D book icon with words on the cover, but Lowenburg said "my iron guy had a backlog of jobs and months became years. Finally he turned me over to Scot Evert, who enjoys the challenge of building unique projects. I settled on the idea of angling the book and adding pages to accommodate more bikes. We decided that the cover should be our logo, and Scot said he could cut it out of a sheet of steel by hand."

On Facebook, Evert noted: "I don't normally do this kind of stuff, but sometimes I do...because I actually ride my bike to this book store!"

Lowenburg added: "Working in his back yard, he did a great job of sculpting the frame out of square tubing; and added special touches such as the curved page. The finished rack, painted our store colors, now proudly sits on the corner of Octavia and Laurel Streets in front of our building, which has housed independent businesses for well over a century."

Octavia Books Bike rack
photo: James Wilson

James Wilson, a bookseller at Octavia for the past six years, is also president of the board of directors for bicycle advocacy group Bike Easy. "With our brand new unique and very stylish bicycle rack, I'm very excited to be able to provide bike parking for our customers," he observed. "Bicycling magazine just came out with their ranking of the most bicycle friendly cities in America, and New Orleans is now ranked 22 (in 2012 we were ranked 43). Lots more people are biking, and there is a huge demand for bicycle parking all over the city. I'd say we have several customers a day who ride their bike to the store."

A handseller at heart, Wilson noted that Octavia features "the best selection of books on bicycling in New Orleans. Tom always asks my advice and I'm constantly scouring catalogues and the Internet for the newest and best titles, whether it be Grant Petersen's Just Ride (a personal favorite), Velominati's The Rules or the excellent Life Is a Wheel by Bruce Weber. Or even a classic bicycle maintenance book like Chainbreaker Bike Book, written by local bike mechanics Shelly Jackson and Ethan Clark. I'm happy to talk to anyone about bikes and books."

Octavia also offers New Orleans Bicycling Maps created by Bike Easy, as well as "information about great weekly rides hosted by NOLA Social Ride," he said. "And yes, I ride my bike to work every day, rain or shine--but it's easy, I only live two miles from the store. I'd like to think Octavia Books is helping New Orleans become even a more bicycle friendly city."

Lowenburg agreed: "A bike rack is an essential feature for an urban, neighborhood-based bookstore like Octavia Books and it is a welcoming beacon to all who come our way."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2346.

Sunday
Sep142014

In Praise of Bookstore E-Newsletters

There may be people who receive more indie bookstore e-mail newsletters than I do, but not many. In the instant gratification age of social media, this traditional format is apparently retro enough to have become hip again. Think Steampunk, with a brass "Subscribe" button.

"E-mail newsletters are so hot right now," wrote Klint Finley in TechCrunch last month, adding: "Two or three years ago every site on the Web was doing all it could to trick coax readers into 'liking' them on Facebook. Today much of that focus has shifted towards getting readers to sign-up for an e-mail subscription."

I have a particular interest in the topic since I work for Shelf Awareness, which partners with more than 80 indie booksellers to send out co-branded editions of Shelf Awareness for Readers. But I've also been subscribing to indie bookstore e-newsletters for a long, long time, dating back to my years as a bookseller. They are a digital wellspring. One of the best ideas I ever heard came from an "Authorless Events" seminar at the 2008 Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association fall show in Colorado Springs: Bookstores should subscribe to one another's e-mail newsletters so they can steal (well, share) great promotional concepts.

"So why all this effort to herd readers into a medium that is supposed to be dying? And why are we, as readers, so willing to invite even more e-mail into our lives?" Finley asked, then offered five good reasons:

  1. E-mail Gives Publishers More Control
  2. Readers Pay More Attention to E-Mail
  3. E-Mail Is Cross-Platform
  4. E-mail Keeps All Your Clutter in One Place
  5. E-mail Is the Original Social Media

"For years, those of us who have advocated the indie or federated Web have called for social networks to be more like e-mail, but it turns out e-mail itself is a pretty good social media platform," he observed.

A well-conceived and executed bookshop e-newsletter feels like a personal message in ways Facebook, tumblr, Twitter or Instagram posts don't (though I love those as well). And Russo's Books, Bakersfield, Calif., shows that e-newsletters can even be used to invite further interaction: "Booklovers, engage with us.... Keep the Conversation Going. Our homepage features our Twitter and Facebook feed, plus a 'book video of the day.' We encourage you to visit us daily and contribute to our content."

At their best, e-newsletters are informative and entertaining--quick, welcome updates from good friends (who happen to read great books). Consider a recent sampling from my inbox:

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.: "You know that feeling of a freshly painted and re-carpeted room? We do. That's because our downstairs space, where we hold our events, is all done up nice with new paint and carpeting. Folks on staff have put in hours of work to make this update happen (we're not JUST booksellers, you know)."

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan.: "Roger & Vivien celebrated the [Labor Day] Holiday in the mountains along the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, and brought the cooler weather back Home to Kansas City with them. They wanted great weather here to launch their autumn season of Author Events!"  

Broadway Books, Portland, Ore.: "After one of the warmest, sunniest summers we can remember, there at last is a tiny chill in the morning air and we find ourselves sliding into fall. And here's a bookseller's not-so-secret confession: it's our favorite time of year. Many of you know why. September marks the beginning of the fall publishing season, when the majority of new books for the year come out.... We greet our UPS and FedEx delivery people like conquering heroes this time of year, because of the bounty they bring to our shelves. So exciting!"

Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, Calif.: "Also David Bajo's medical thriller, Mercy 6, is hot off the press for tonight's launch party at MGSD. Read more about how this 'great reads genre' novel affected Shelf Awareness's contributing editor Robert Gray here." [Note: Even my ego occasionally gets unanticipated nourishment from reading bookstore e-newsletters]

McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich.: "Anticipating new books must be one of the greatest pleasures in life. The delayed gratification probably has something to do with it. There's something about finding a book on the shelf that you've been waiting for and then having that, 'You are JUST what I was looking for!' moment."

Agreed. And I often feel that way when a new bookstore e-newsletter edition arrives, too. How about you?

Perhaps, as Alexis C. Madrigal wrote in the Atlantic recently, e-mail has become "a refugee from the open, interoperable, less-controlled 'Web we lost.' It's an exciting landscape of freedom amidst the walled gardens of social networking and messaging services. Yes, e-mail is exciting. Get excited!" --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2341.

Friday
Sep052014

When Bookshelves Make a House a Home

We are currently in the planning stages of an ambitious bookcase-building project in the house we had rented since 2010 and purchased last year. That means four years have passed during which our substantial book collection, while readily accessible on temporary shelving in the finished basement, has lived in relative exile. This will change soon and our home will at last be fluent in the language of books.  

Sadly, not my library

Whenever I think of the power of bookshelves, I recall a passage from Frederick Buechner's The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found: "The Magic Kingdom is my haven and sanctuary, the place where I do my work, the place of my dreams and of my dreaming.... It consists of the small room you enter through, where the family archives are, the office, where my desk and writing paraphernalia are, and the library, which is by far the largest room of the three. Its walls are lined with ceiling-high shelves except where the windows are, and it is divided roughly in half by shoulder-high shelves that jut out at right angles from the others but with an eight-foot space between them so that it is still one long room despite the dividers. There are such wonderful books in it that I expect people to tremble with excitement, as I would, on entering it for the first time, but few of them do so because they don't know or care enough about books to have any idea what they are seeing."

It was not until early adolescence that I began to understand the influence bookshelves could have upon living space. Although my family did not collect books, my father built me a small bookcase. This modest addition altered my room, and life, forever. I've been surrounded by books since then.

"Any home, especially one that has been lived in for quite a while, is a three-dimensional text," Alison Lurie writes in The Language of Houses, adding: "For many people, the home is a kind of sacred site, one that is chosen carefully and honored in memory; sometimes it may be revisited long after they have moved away."

I think about the amazing book conversations Kathy Murphy--founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club (now with more than 550 chapters)--must have had in the Jefferson, Tex., house she is currently selling. Murphy recently told me that in 2000, she opened Beauty and the Book "on the bottom level of my house, out in the woods. Pulpwood Queens Book Club meetings were held in my home as we outgrew my tiny shop downstairs. I ran my shop and my book club there for years until I moved into an old house in town, which sold, then moved into the restored gas station." She has since relocated her business and book club to nearby Hawkins and will host the 15th annual Girlfriend Weekend in Nacogdoches this January.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's study in Concord

Or consider legendary authors' homes. When we visit these "sacred sites," I suspect that even those of us who profess not to believe in ghosts may make an exception for the houses, and perhaps more so the personal libraries, of writers who matter to us. I know a discernible chill ran up my spine when I first visited Ralph Waldo Emerson's study, even though it is housed at the Concord Museum.

Real estate probably complicates matters a bit. In recent months, the former residences of John Cheever and J.D. Salinger have hit the market, along with Judy Blume's Martha's Vineyard waterfront retreat and even the "house that inspired The Adventures of Pinocchio's author." But I'm much more intrigued by the volumes that were shelved along the walls of these sacred sites than the people who lived there. It is the books that haunt.

"A building is an inanimate object, but it is not an inarticulate one," Lurie observes.

Maybe that is why I also love bookshops located in old houses, where the current inventory forms a kind of biblio-palimpsest over decades of bookshelves owned by former residents. Wendy and Jack Welch founded Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookshop, Big Stone Gap, Va., a few years ago in a century-old house. In The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, her book chronicling their adventures and misadventures, Welch coined the term "B-space" to describe bookstores where "book-lined walls buffer against the world's bustling while browsing calms the soul and satisfies the mind."

I think that will soon describe our house, too, now that the books are coming home once again. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2335.

Friday
Aug292014

Labor Day, Book Trade & River Pilots

It all began yesterday, when I read this in a blog post at Forbes.com: "So is Labor Day an anachronism, a throwback to an earlier time, and no longer a meaningful holiday? My answer is that it can be exceptionally meaningful if we redefine the holiday to be... a celebration of work, regardless of sector. Remember that labor hasn't become easier; it's just changing."

Sometimes one thought leads to another and you make the oddest connections. Even though I was working at my landlocked desk, my mind decided on its own to put out to sea in search of an analogy and returned to port with the following cargo manifest: Labor Day Weekend, New Orleans, river pilots and all of us workers who toil, with pleasure and pain, in the book trade.

Like so many of you in this business, my job requirements include a passion for discovering and cultivating productive relationships with great new reads. Whenever possible, we gently steer these titles through often arduous passage to, ideally, a fathomless sea (or, at minimum, a Great Lake) of eager readers. That doesn't sound easy, and it isn't.
    
The genesis for my curious line of thought this week was complicated, and included an awareness of the onrushing Labor Day Weekend; recollection of a view from my hotel room during last year's Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance fall conference in New Orleans; and an article I'd read years ago and nearly forgotten.

That hotel room featured a great view from my perch--40 stories above sea level--of the Mississippi meandering through NOLA and an endless parade of ships moving slowly upriver or down. Remembering the ships brought to mind a 2001 Times-Picayune article I'd discovered online in 2006, while presumably searching for something else entirely. Headlined "River pilot basics," the piece had prompted me to scribble some notes for future reference. I was still a bookseller then, and the parallels must have seemed worth contemplating.

The article answered some key questions about its topic, including the most obvious:

Q: What is a river pilot?
A: Mississippi River pilots help captains of foreign ships steer their vessels from the foot of the river at the Gulf of Mexico to cargo terminals as far north as Baton Rouge.

And...

Q: Why is a pilot needed?
A: State law requires that local pilots guide ships along the Mississippi. The theory is that foreign crews lack the knowledge needed to deal with navigational hazards on the river because they rarely visit the area.

And...

Q: What makes a pilot's job tough?
A: Sometimes the job is monotonous. But there is always the possibility of something unforeseen. The unexpected can range from river hazards, such as obstacles, new silt bars, changing currents and river congestion, to shipboard difficulties, such as engine trouble, crew uprisings, violent stowaways, communication problems and threats of disease.

I think a comparable list of bookish dangers could easily be conjured for a new title making its perilous journey from manuscript to point of sale, with every stage of the process fraught with "the possibility of something unforeseen."

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain used steamboat pilots as an analogy for workers in the book trade (well not really, but I'm bending the analogy a bit here to suit my own purposes) when he wrote: "Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was, that in order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours.... Now I had often seen pilots gazing at the water and pretending to read it as if it were a book; but it was a book that told me nothing."

A book pilot--and we are all book pilots in this business--has to keep gazing, too. The titles we love always need our help in dealing with "navigational hazards" as we guide them to their destinations. The books tell us where they should go. We try like hell to get them there safely and then we "learn it all over again in a different way" for the next one.

Happy Labor Day, book people. Enjoy the BBQ, beach and extra time off, but don't forget to celebrate... your work. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2331.