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Friday
Mar302018

'Waiting Sharpens the Senses' in Surfing & Reading

I'm waiting for a book. Tim Winton's novel The Shepherd's Hut was released earlier this month in Australia, and will be published June 19 by FSG in the U.S. I don't have to delay the pleasure of reading one of my favorite authors. There are magic spells and secret portals in our book world through which I could acquire this title in some form, but I won't do that. Sometimes waiting is part of the process, part of the pleasure.

It's like... surfing.

In addition to being one of Australia's greatest authors, Winton is a lifelong, dedicated surfer. "Waiting sharpens the senses," he writes in Island Home: A Landscape Memoir.  On the surface of that sentence, he's contemplating the long moments spent patiently waiting to catch the right wave before springing into short-lived action. Beneath the surface, and because he's Tim Winton, there's so much more at stake. The sentence is bookended by these words:

This was how I came to understand nature and landscape. By submitting. And by waiting. Waiting sharpens the senses. Which is to say it erodes preconceptions and mutes a certain kind of mental static; the clutter and glare in the foreground recede. Immersion and duration are clarifying. While waiting for the next set, for the wind to change, or the tide to turn, I had thousands of hours in which to notice things around me.

What does surfing have to do with reading, or with me? Well, for five years in the 1980s, I was managing editor of a windsurfing trade magazine called Sailboard News. I spent more time than I would ever have previously imagined with surfers. For many of the retailers I interviewed, surfing, windsurfing and sailing were inextricably linked. Reading the water and wind was their job description. Once, flying over the West Indies, I was sitting beside two colleagues who excitedly read island wave breaks thousands of feet below us.

So it's no accident that surfing/reading analogies might bob to the surface of my brain decades later, as I think about why I sometimes choose to wait for a new book the way Winton lets the right wave to come to him.

Although I'd known this novel was on the horizon for some time, my anticipation for The Shepherd's Hut really started to build early this month as I watched a digital wave of excitement wash over Aussie booksellers on social media:

Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane: "It's here! Tim Winton's latest book The Shepherd's Hut has officially hit the shelves."
Pages & Pages Booksellers, Mosman: "Your weekend reading. Sorted."
Abbey's Bookshop, Sydney: "When you enter #abbeysbookshop #131york #sydney this is what you're looking for. NEW TIM WINTON."
Fairfield Books, Fairfield: "We are open today until 3pm so you have plenty of time to get the new Tim Winton!"
Not Just Books, Burnie, Tasmania: "The new book from Tim Winton--The Shepherds Hut has arrived."

Winton signing at Imprints Booksellers in Adelaide.

Then another wave gathered force with reviews and as Winton started making appearances in shops like Imprints Booksellers in Adelaide ("The one and only Tim Winton and a whole lotta signed copies of The Shepherd's Hut. Hurry in before they race out!") and many others ("Thanks to everyone for coming out to meet Tim Winton to celebrate the release of The Shepherd's Hut in Perth and Fremantle on the weekend. Collins Booksellers Cottesloe, Lane Bookshop, Beaufort Street Books, Diabolik Books & Records, Dymocks Karrinyup, Collins Booksellers Southlands, Dymocks Garden City & New Edition Bookshop.").

"I really think it's one of the best books of the year," Scot Whitmont of Lindfield Bookshop & Children's Bookshop in Sydney, said in a radio interview. "He really is a master.... I knew this was a great book when I was still thinking about it three or four days after I'd finished it."

In the Sydney Morning Herald, reviewer Michael McGirr concluded: "After three readings, The Shepherd's Hut was still yielding the riches of its unblinking vision of hope, a vision that will renew readers for generations to come."

This week, author Cynthia Banham told the Guardian that The Shepherd's Hut was the next Australian book on her reading list: "I read my first Tim Winton novel for HSC English in 1989, An Open Swimmer, and love the rawness of his writing and the way he brings the landscapes and characters of Western Australia alive. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does this in his latest book."

I've devoured many of his books since opening my first Winton novel, Breath, in 2008. I can't believe it took me so long to "discover" a major author, but it did. Shame on me, though late converts are often the most passionate followers.

My anticipation for The Shepherd's Hut has been heightened further recently by news of the first Australian International Screen Forum, which included the New York premiere of the highly anticipated (by me at least) film adaptation of Breath, directed by and starring Simon Baker.

I think reading is a form of surfing--watching, and waiting, for the next good book, riding it out, then seeking another, even better read. Having the patience, using your skills. "The watching and waiting are the bulk of what it means to be out surfing. It's about observation as much as anticipation," Winton writes in Island Home. And now I'm waiting for The Shepherd's Hut... because I want to; because I know the wave will be worth it.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3216

Friday
Mar232018

World Poetry Day: 'Thank You for the Words'

Tomorrow will be
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 99th birthday.
Wednesday was World Poetry Day.
Just two sentences
could be this week's column
or a poem.

"Why San Francisco?" the Chronicle asked Ferlinghetti in a recent interview.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Books, 1955

"It seemed like it was still the last frontier, which it isn't anymore," he replied. "I mean, in 1951, it was a wide-open city, and it seemed like you could do anything you wanted to here. It was like there was so much missing that if it was going to be a real city, there was so much that it had to get, that it didn't have. And, for instance, as far as bookstores go, all the bookstores closed at 5 p.m. and they weren't open on the weekends. And there was no place to sit down. And there was usually a clerk on top of you asking you what you wanted.

"And so the first thing I realized, there was no bookstore to become the locus for the literary community.... So, from the very beginning, when we started City Lights in June 1953, the idea was to make it a locus for the new literary community that had developed out of the Berkeley Renaissance, so called, and it proved to be true. People just flocked to it because there had been no locus for the literary life."

Why World Poetry Day? To open her annual message celebrating the occasion, UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay quoted the Langston Hughes poem "Dreams," and said: "This poem is about the extraordinary power of words that open up infinite horizons, enhance our lives, change reality, embellish it, show it in a new light which has never been seen before. Poetry is not a trivial game of sounds, words and images: it has a creative, transformative power."

During #WorldPoetryDay, I kept watch on social media's explorations of the realm (Among my favorites: @doctor_oxford, @kwamealexander, @brainpicker, @BBCAfrica, @britishlibrary, @SpursOfficial).

I was looking for signs of "transformative power," and found one in "Dear Vikram Seth," Ishita Sengupta's "open letter to my favorite poet," published by the Indian Express.

"You might not remember this, but the year was 2014 and the place was Victoria Memorial. A crowd, buzzing with anticipation had gathered to hear Naseeruddin Shah read Manto," Sengupta begins, then tells the story of being with a "giggly crowd of college students" when she spotted Seth, "sitting, alone in the last row."

Having just bought his poetry collection All You Who Sleep Tonight, she, along with her friends, "finally mustered some courage to put up a collective front. Perhaps recognizing the awe writ large on our faces, you stood up the moment we came near to your seat. Almost overwhelmed, I asked you to sign your name for me. 'But where, Miss?' you asked. It struck me, and perhaps, all of us then, that we had walked up to you without a shred of paper in hand." She quickly found some and returned.

"It has been four years since then," Sengupta wrote. "I do not live in the same city anymore.... Your note, however--now tattered and a bit incomprehensible--has remained with me. And so have your words. The puny book, which I have gifted to more people than I can count, was brought by me while I was shuffling cities. And while I have gushed over your words with friends within the safe confines of university, they spoke to me later. They spoke to me when I read them in isolation, crippled with nostalgia and yearning, and on nights, I could not and had resolutely decided that I would not sleep."

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love
Know that you aren't alone
The whole world shares your tears
Some for two nights or one
And some for all their years.

"Your words acknowledged my grief but also assured me, comforted even by telling me that I was not the only one," Sengupta observed. "Perhaps never will be. Grief might be private but it was not unique.... Thank you for the words, Mr. Seth."

It's a big world in a bigger universe. Gratitude seems to be the best response.

For World Poetry Day, the Independent featured a video of Stephen Hawking, who died last week, reading Sarah Howe's poem "Relativity."

"I'm there in spirit all the time," Ferlinghetti said of City Lights.
"How about in reality? How often is he at the shop?" the Chronicle asked.
"As a poet, I don't deal in reality," he replied with a laugh.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3211

Friday
Mar162018

Bullet Points & Robot Booksellers--A Collage

  • "Late night shoppers looking with a need to buy books will have their very specific conditions met in Beijing as 20 new staffless bookstores that will operate 24 hours a day are expected to open throughout the city this year.... Like other staffless stores, the 'Xinhua Lifestyle Store' requires all customers to register their real names using their WeChat accounts and have their faces scanned before entering. And because the store has access to all their users' purchasing information, it can offer 'precise and humanized' book suggestions to all of its customers."
  • "The 10,000 square foot store on M Street Northwest, which opened March 13, is a bookstore the way Walgreens is a pharmacy: Sure, you can get drugs there, but the real draw is everything else. At Amazon Books, that everything else could be a juicer, an espresso machine, a Vitamix or one of a slew of voice-controlled Echo gadgets. Retail consultants might call the merchandise mix unfocused. Mariana Garavaglia, Amazon's head of store management and operations, calls it 'holistic.' "
  • "[W]e shouldn't only be asking ourselves, 'Can we build it?' But we should also be asking ourselves, 'What idea of the human do we want to have reflected back to us?' "
  • "Boston will win Amazon's second headquarters, according to an artificial intelligence system developed by Wells Fargo Securities. The bank's stock-picking robot, called Aiera, thinks the city is the likely choice to host HQ2."
  • "Amazon plans to open its first Missouri fulfillment center, in St. Peters, near St. Louis; the center will employ more than 1,500 people who will have 'opportunities to engage with Amazon Robotics in a highly technological workplace,' the company said."
  • "Imagine robots working for a few years as bookstore clerks until they finish their novels and become robot authors."
  • "Fabio, the Pepper robot, who was deployed as a retail assistant at the upmarket store Margiotta in Edinburgh, Scotland, was let go after only a week at the job after it was found that the robot was confusing the patrons, who preferred assistance from its human colleagues."
  • "The key to integrating these technologies successfully is to break down each role's workflow and look for automation opportunities. Jobs that have elements of retrieving information, scheduling, and calculating numbers lend themselves to being enhanced by automation. By taking those tasks out of the workday, employees can spend more time on activities that are harder to automate, such as interacting with people..."
  • "In retail and, specifically, the supply chain, we're seeing a lot of automation, and I can envisage some of the job titles will have 'hologram' in them. Head of hologram services, or anything to do with robotics."
  • "The bookshop of the future, therefore, needs to be an experiential hub for all things literary. It needs to be a place where writers can talk with and meet their readers. It needs to be a physically engaging place in which readers can drink tea or eat while browsing.... Curation is key.... Trust, an increasingly scarce resource in today's world, is essential. Trust trumps price. It's the essential commodity for the book retailer of the future."
  • "[T]he problem of automation isn't automation, but as ever, it's us."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3206

Saturday
Mar102018

Dwell Time, House Stark & Airport Bookshops

"Winter is coming" is no longer a fictional warning from the pages of Game of Thrones for those of us who've just experienced our one millionth major "snow event" of 2018. House Stark didn't have to deal with more than 2,600 canceled flights and the stranding of who-knows-how-many passengers in A-B-C-D Concourses region-wide.

Ink by Hudson at TUS.

Yesterday, as I scanned the treeline outside my office for signs of White Walkers, I was also thinking about airport bookstores and "dwell time." A press release on my computer screen was headlined "Hudson Group Awarded 10-Year Contract Extension at Pittsburgh International Airport." It announced that "with over 10,900 sq. ft. in concession space, the contract includes the renovation of six stores." Among the brands represented is Ink by Hudson, the company's "latest bookstore concept featuring a contemporary style and indie-inspired ethos."

Eric Sprys, chief commercial officer of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, said PIT "is committed to providing passengers with an enhanced travel retail, food and beverage experience. Creating a sense of place is a major initiative as we move forward."

Dwell time is a phrase I first encountered last summer ("They're increasing dwell time"), and have since tucked safely away in my subconscious, most often recalling it when I find myself lingering in airport terminals or, more recently, sympathizing with others trapped there.

"One hour more at an airport is around $7 more spent per passenger," according to Julian Lukaszewicz, lecturer in aviation management at Buckinghamshire New University. Mental Floss noted a study that found "for every 10 minutes a passenger spends in the security line, they spend 30% less money on retail items. Last year, the TSA announced it would give $15,000 to the person who comes up with the best idea for speeding up security."

Barbara's Bookstore at ORD.

Hudson Group's bookish dwell time options also extend to joint airport relationships with several independent bookstores, among them Tattered Cover Book Store at DEN (where I've often spent money and quality time); Parnassus Books at BNA; Vroman's at LAX; BookWorks at ABQ; and the upcoming Elliott Bay Book Co. at Sea-Tac. Other concourse indies include Books Inc.'s Compass at SFO; Powell's Books at PDX; Books & Books at MIA; and Barbara's Bookstore at ORD.

"I've never had occasion to buy anything from an airport bookstore, and yet it gives me great comfort to know they're there," John Warner wrote in a 2016 Chicago Tribune piece ("There's something about airport bookstores"). "How many of you are this way? Maybe you get to the gate a bit early--I'm a two-hours-before-the-flight guy myself--and there, in the middle distance is a little Hudson's storefront. Though your shoulder aches already from your book-stuffed carry-on, you go and peruse, noting what intrigues, what you might turn toward if necessity strikes....

"While bookstores are important to me in the broader world, I think it is the opposite for many others. Being in an airport is one of the few times nonreaders may be confronted with the memory of how pleasurable reading can be. This proximity matters. Airport stores are mini-masterpieces of display, the most broadly enticing titles as prominent as possible. 'I've heard of that one,' someone might say. 'I should check it out.' "

Warner cited Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, in which a group of survivors find shelter in an airport following a worldwide pandemic. "I remember thinking what a good idea that was, that there'd be enough books to last a long, long time." I know what he means. I felt the same way reading that novel. Call it dystopian dwell time.

On a hunch, I searched through some old travel-related blog posts and found a bookish dwell time moment from 2008. I'd been waiting at Philadelphia International Airport for a connecting flight to Atlanta, where I would be a panelist at a SIBA education session during the Great American Bargain Book Show (RIP).

Wandering around the terminal, I noticed a promotional sign at the entrance to a CNBC News shop: "Read Return. Buy it, read it, return it, to receive a 50% refund." I did not, as advised, ask the sales associate for additional information. It was, however, a distinctly Airport World moment in that peculiar dimension we inhabit--briefly, if we're lucky--after passing through security and until we emerge at baggage claim. Buy, fly, read, return. Two journeys for the price of, well, 1.5.

"The incongruity of preflight shopping might in some way be connected to the desire to maintain dignity in the face of what might be our end out there on the runway or in the skies," said author Alain de Botton, who, in 2009, was invited to be writer-in-residence at Terminal 5 in London's Heathrow Airport, an experience he chronicled in his aptly titled book, A Week at the Airport.

Noticing that the terminal's large WH Smith bookstore did not stock his books, de Botton writes that he nevertheless sought a recommendation from the shop's manager, explaining "that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange." Strangely resisting the temptation to handsell, the manager wondered if he might prefer a magazine instead.

That, I can say from experience, would never happen at Tattered Cover DEN, and I have the books to prove it.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3201

Friday
Mar022018

Michael Perry, Montaigne & the 485 Singularity

Michel de Montaigne turned 485 years old February 28 and is still reading well for his age. Last Friday, I went to an author event at the Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., featuring Michael Perry, author of Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy (Harper).

Rachel Person, events & community outreach coordinator for the Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and author Michael Perry

We first met in 2002, when I was a bookseller at the Northshire's Manchester Center, Vt., store and he was touring for Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. On Wednesday, Perry duly noted the curious "Montaigne and the 485 Singularity." For the record, I did not play 4-8-5 in the N.Y. State Lottery daily numbers game. I got lucky; it didn't come in.

I've been one of Perry's many dedicated readers for more than 15 years now. We've also had a few good conversations over the years, both here in the Northeast and at bookseller conferences in the Midwest. Despite the geographical differences in our upbringing (his in Wisconsin; mine in Vermont), we have some things in common and our all-too-brief chats are always a fair trade of good thoughts. I like the way he thinks, and writes, about life. And maybe that's why we both like Montaigne.

In the introduction to his new book, Perry observes that his goal was to "write of Montaigne in terms of exploration rather than declaration. I admit the angle of my appreciation lacks academic rigor, but I believe Montaigne would not object: he shares up-culture and down-culture with equivalent alacrity, operating under the hearty assumption that your appetite for Seneca's interrogatories on courage neither precludes nor prevents your giggling at a fart joke."

Introducing his younger daughter to the synergy between going to a performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and a demolition derby on the same weekend ("groundlings" is one connection), he strikes a familiar chord. My wife has noted more than once my habit of reading great, and lesser, works of literature while watching NASCAR (Those races are long, man!). 

Perry was in the Northeast for a brief drive-yourself book tour. "I'm grateful to Harper and the northeastern indies for supporting a DIY-style tour well outside my regional base," he told me. "I've been doing things that way since my first self-published book, and I think independent booksellers relate to the hustle-to-survive ethos. Working to find readers. I stretched the tour budget by operating out of a friend's farmhouse located centrally to all my New York and Connecticut stops. Lots of driving, but that is some beautiful country."

He is quick to acknowledge his debt to indies: "In 2002 I was this unknown writer from the rural Midwest hustling a book about small towns and volunteer firefighters/EMTs. Someone in New York told me they weren't sure 'those folks' would read a book. Indie booksellers on the other hand--especially those in less populous areas--understood the 'vollie' culture and how it permeated the country, and handsold me into existence by conveying that element of the book to their customers--not just in the Midwest, but all around America. They also knew when to switch gears and emphasize other elements of the book, depending on the customer. Population 485 is still alive and well and thriving thanks to indie booksellers who continue to not only tell its story but understand it."

We've talked more than once about writing as both work and calling. "At this stage in my life, I think of 'work' as anything that a.) gives me the sense that I am making some useful forward progress, and b.) simultaneously helps keep my little family fed and housed," Perry said. "So, stacking firewood and finishing a newspaper column both count. Because of my background (farming, logging) I still have a big blue-collar hangover, that whole idea (as I've written) that if you can't stack it or stack with it, it ain't real work. (And a stack of books doesn't count.) For the most part this predisposition keeps me grounded and grateful, but it can also become pathological and lead to a lot of dumb stubbornness. With each passing day I am ever more grateful to those writers and other artists in my life who help me understand the value lies not so much in what you work but in how you work. How and why."

During q&a at the Northshire event last week, a student from the local college said one of her English professors had told her she was sometimes too discursive in her essays, a little overfond of "shiny thoughts." She wanted Perry's take on that criticism. I liked his answer.

"I sometimes get very discursive," Perry replied. "So it's not so much getting rid of all those shiny thoughts, but it's knowing which ones to get rid of and then which ones to let breathe and run. In the book, I write about Montaigne saying how delightful it is when the prose goes by 'the gait of poetry, all jumps and tumblings,' and I love that.... I love the way language flows and sounds, the way I see it in my head.... and so sometimes in the books you let that stuff go."

Near the end of his talk, Perry thanked his audience members for being there: "When you show up for events like this, and you buy a book, you're not just supporting art, you're taking care of my family, and I do not take that for granted." It was a good night to be in a bookstore.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3196