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A Forest of Bookshop Christmas Trees

Living in upstate New York, I tend to take Christmas trees for granted, but every year about this time I spend a few days in Manhattan. Walking past the sidewalk Christmas tree vendors, I find myself acutely aware of the scent of freshly cut evergreens (generously seasoned with exhaust fumes and food cart aromas, of course).

I realize there's nothing unique about having Christmas trees on my mind this time of year. Last weekend I also made my annual pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see its beautiful Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. On the other hand, there was a special Christmas tree moment in a subway station while I was in the city, so my traditional holiday season trip was enhanced a bit more than usual.

I've also been monitoring the impressive growth of a bookstore Christmas tree forest in social media postings. Now it's time to share some of my finds, beginning with the arrival of Brewery Bhavana's 15-foot-tall holiday tree in Raleigh, N.C.: "We decided this year to pick naturally shaped asymmetrical trees for both Bhavana and Bida Manda to go along with our intention to lean in when things get tough and to embrace all of life's beautiful imperfections."

Tree trimming at Parnassus

The decorating process was shared by Yardstick Bookshop and Gallery in Algoma, Wis., and Parnassus Books, Nashville, Tenn ("Tree trimming in progress!"); while final results were on display at Browse Awhile Books, Tipp City, Ohio ("Come See us!"); the Open Book Canyon Country, Santa Clarita, Calif. ("It's official, the Open Book has hit peak holiday spirit."); the Mulberry Bush Bookstore in Parksville, B.C.; and Goldsboro Books in London, England ("It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...").

At Burke's Book Store

Christmas trees constructed from books seem less popular than they were a few years ago, but there are still some fine ones on display, including Burke's Book Store's creative spin in Memphis, Tenn.; a holiday bookstack at Book No Further, Roanoke, Va.; and Penguin Bookshop's befogged tree in Sewickley, Pa. ("Our event last night was so steamy our windows fogged up, creating this beautiful image of our book tree, seen from outside.").

Many booksellers decorate their in-store holiday trees with variations on the theme of book angel donation initiatives to get books into the hands of children who might have limited access to them.

Giving Tree at Read With Me

"Soon this tree will become our Book Angel tree. Tags will be hung with the names of local children who will get a gift-wrapped book for the holidays thanks to your generosity," Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, noted. "Our Angel Tree has arrived!" Page After Page Bookstore, Elizabeth City, N.C., announced last week. Read With Me, Raleigh, N.C., shared a photo of its Giving Tree, "filled with families' names who have helped us give great new books to great kids in need at the Raleigh Rescue Mission."

Mary F. Buckley, co-owner of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass., told the Enterprise that their Giving Tree has returned: "It is a wonderful program. It was Betty Borg's idea, and when Carol [Chittenden] took over the store, she kept the tradition alive, and we continued it.... We thought it was a wonderful project. It is a way to provide books to kids who may not have them during the holiday season."

Indigo Bridge Books and Café, Lincoln, Neb., featured a book tree as well as a Giving Tree program that accepts blanket donations for Prescott Elementary's Family Literacy Program: "Each family member will receive a new blanket and a book in their native language. Choose an ornament from the tree and bring your blanket back to Indigo by December 15."

Although not strictly speaking a bookstore, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., has blended the concepts: "Created from more than 1,500 children's books, this 14-foot tree symbolizes the act of book giving. Each book on this tree will be donated to local schools at the end of our Christmas display."

Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ken., is offering an alternative: "We love books AND animals so are happy to help our friends No Kill Louisville. Stop by our Frankfort Avenue store and grab an ornament today!"

For sheer Christmas tree forest ambition, however, a special shout-out must go to the Galilean Christian Bookstore in Leesville, La., which "dazzles customers with more than a dozen Christmas trees... sprinkled throughout the store," KALB reported.

All this has brought to mind a book that I used to handsell this time of year: Christmas on Jane Street: A True Story by Billy Romp and Wanda Urbanska. Every year, Vermonter Romp and his family spent December living in a camper and selling Christmas trees on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. In the book, he writes: "I'm a modest man, but I will tell you this: I have this gift for matching the right tree with the right customer... In my view, a Christmas tree is not merely a piece of merchandise, it's something worthy of respect." Sounds like he'd make a good bookseller, or at least know the perfect tree to recommend for your store.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3391


Holiday Season Re-Tale

Once upon a time every year...

By Thanksgiving weekend, you already had your hundred-yard stare (a pleasant, customer service-friendly version) fully engaged as you scanned the bookstore sales floor, keeping watch for challenges and opportunities. You were on your game.

Shoppers at Scout & Morgan

But now you have to talk one of the new booksellers off a ledge. It happens at some point to every rookie this time of year, especially at the beginning of the long run to Christmas Eve. How can anybody be prepared for this the first time around?

The two of you stand together in the ever-shifting eye of the customer hurricane. The store is churning with book hunters and sidelines harvesters. Queues thread out from the POS/information counter, customer questions and demands are echoing off the walls, and have been since the doors opened. It's a glorious sight if you can handle it.

I'm looking for a book for my uncle.
What does he like to read?
He doesn't read.
How about a blank book, pal?

No, you wouldn't say that. But what can you tell the kid to ease his jitters? He's a quiet person and was a little intimidated from the start. He's been burned a couple of times already today. An idealist, he chose to work in a bookstore for some intellectual stimulation and to be with other readers. He never expected... this. You can tell he isn't sure now if he'll survive until the end of the day, much less the season. Maybe he is worried he'll turn coward under pressure, abandon the sales floor and hide in the staff restroom.

"This is amazing!" he says, masking uncertainty with enthusiasm. "Why do they do it? Why do they all shop at the same second? What are they, lemmings?"

Your expression never wavers. You look the kid in the eyes and co-opt (or regift?) Robert Duvall's classic line from Apocalypse Now, make it your own by whisper/shouting: Lemmings don't shop for books! He has no idea what you are talking about. Never saw the movie. Probably thinks you've lost it, too. He edges back into the fray, almost crowdsurfing a sea of readers, apparently thinking he is safer out there. Immediately he's confronted by a wild-eyed man brandishing a single bronze "reading child" bookend:

Can I help?
I can't find the match for this!

The kid nods, and calmly escorts the customer away in search of the missing bronze child. You lose sight of them, but decide he'll be okay. He just wasn't ready.

Is anybody ever ready for holiday season in a bookstore? Ready is not the word. The key is a kind of constructive anxiety that propels you to take every conceivable precaution you can think of to insure success, or at least avoid disaster. Even then, you hold your breath because so much is riding on this time of year and so many things can go wrong.

It's a retail storm front. You can't fully prepare, though you must try, and you do. You order in extra stock, then second guess yourself and order more. You check and double-check IndieBound and New York Times bestseller lists, keep up with daily reviews and the radar blips you get from sources like NPR's Fresh Air or All Things Considered

Do you have that book that was on Terry Gross this week... or last week?
Yes we do!

You even check actual radar obsessively, charting storm patterns online at the National Weather Service or Weather Channel, hoping that any current predictions match your ideal conditions for every weekend during the holiday season. You're always on the lookout for those ominous dark green, gray/white or pink radar blobs skimming across the country. Weather is a critical factor in holiday season success. An ill-timed weekend ice or snow storm and well...

Staff is precisely scheduled so that your customers are as overwhelmed by great service as you are by them. Maybe you even set up a soup kitchen or pizza run for staff on the weekends because no one has time to brave streets jammed with holiday revelers and overwhelmed local eateries.

You'll be fine. You've done this so many times before. You remember when there was no such thing as rapid replenishment programs; you even remember... backstock. Although you'd hesitate to say you're ready, you do look forward to this intense month with a perhaps unhealthy enthusiasm.

Suddenly the new kid appears again, emerging from the melee with a different customer, a woman who is holding a book in each hand and appears to be handselling them to him. He's courteous and patient. Most importantly, he is listening. An older man, brandishing a roll of wrapping paper, approaches them shouting "Excuse me!" The kid seems to be handling it all well.

You're more than a little addicted to the holiday energy in this space. But sometimes, in the midst of the pandemonium, someone politely asks if you're busy. You smile. The person smiles back.

I was wondering if you could recommend a book.
For a gift?
No, for myself. I just need a great read for the weekend, something that will shut out all my relatives, but I know you're really busy...
I only have one customer at a time.
Can you tell what the best book you've read this year is?
Sure, I have many. What've you read lately you really loved?

That's why you're here.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3386


Books & Booksellers Are, Indeed, My Bag

In a week when the National Book Awards are dominating book prize attention in the U.S.--and deservedly so--my thoughts also turned to the Booksellers Association in the U.K. & Ireland, which held its annual Books Are My Bag Readers Awards Tuesday night at the "beautiful and iconic" Foyles Charing Cross Road store in London. The #BAMBReadersAwards are sponsored by National Book Tokens and "are part of Books Are My Bag, the annual campaign celebrating the vital importance of bookshops."

There were a couple of reasons why my attention was drawn to the celebration, including the news last week that the BA would abandon its backing of Civilised Saturday/Saturday Sanctuary to focus on promoting these award winners during the holiday season, as well as the inclusion of prize categories for "Outstanding Contribution to Bookselling" and "Beautiful Book."

"The book awards, now in their third year, are curated by bookshops, with booksellers selecting the shortlists in each category," the BA noted. "The public is invited to vote for a winning title from each shortlist, apart from the Beautiful Book category which is decided purely by a bookshop vote. The Readers' Choice category is decided by an open public vote with no shortlist."

And now, the envelope please. This year's BAMB Readers Awards winners are:

Novel: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Nonfiction: The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken by The Secret Barrister
Poetry: The Last Hedgehogby Pam Ayres, illustrated by Alice Tait
Breakthrough author: Sarah J. Harris for The Colour of Bee Larkham's Murder
Young readers/middle grade: The Storm Keeper's Island by Catherine Doyle
Young readers/YA: La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One by Philip Pullman
Beautiful book: Virago Modern Classics 40th anniversary series, designed by Hannah Wood, illustrated by Yehrin Tong (Little, Brown)
Readers' choice: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Outstanding contribution to bookselling: Vivian Archer, Newham Bookshop, East London

Here are a few social media highlights from the evening:

BAMB live-tweeted: "The Outstanding Contribution to Bookselling Award goes to Vivian Archer @NewhamBookshop! Vivian began her Bookselling career in the late 1970s and has been at the helm of @newhambookshop for 31 years of the shops 40 year existence. Congratulations!"

Newham Bookshop noted: "So proud to have won this last night. Thank you all our wonderful staff, our great customers, publishers and authors. Makes it all worthwhile."

The Secret Barrister, anonymous blogger and now award-winning author, tweeted: "This is absolutely crazy. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who voted. You're all brilliant, magnificent creatures. And a huge thank you too to @booksaremybag and all the wonderful independent booksellers who nominated us."

The Publishers Association captured the "brilliant moment" when "The Secret Barrister" showed up to accept the award, only to confess: "I have to tell you all that I'm not the Secret Barrister."

Erica Jones (@bookshopblogger) praised the "excellent book award presenting tonight by indie bookshops: @NewhamBookshop, @RedLionBooks, @booknookhove, @7OaksBookshop, @gaystheword and @mrbsemporium. I've been to all but one of you and must rectify that soon."

The London Book Fair tweeted: "We're enjoying the fact that all the winners tonight are paying big thanks to all the booksellers who have got their books into the hands of readers."

Bertram Books highlighted BA president Nic Bottomley's mention of another major indie bookseller triumph this week: " 'The best small shop in the country is a bookshop!' Well of course it is! @mainstreethare thanks Nic @mrbsemporium and the #BAMBReadersAwards for a great evening."

"In a reading rut? Want to health-check your reading habits?" #BAMBReadersAwards Novel Award-winning Turton "prescribes five books for any mood or occasion over on @book_tokens' Caboodle." I've never read him, but I liked his take on reading (e.g., "First things first, cheat on your favorite genre."). Maybe I'll read him now. That's how these things happen, as you know so well.

He also seems to be intrigued by the inner workings of book trade, which I count as a plus. "I think there is more of an appetite for high concept murder mysteries than before," he told the Bookseller. "When I was trying to find an agent, there were very few who I could submit to for this, and some rejected it because they wanted it either to be sci-fi and high concept or be a murder mystery. Now I think there are more authors writing books that combine the two.... The industry always seems to be cyclical, and there is a big wellspring at the moment in the gothic and the supernatural. The trick--and what my [U.K.] editor Alison [Hennessey, editorial director of Raven Books] has done--is to see what is coming so as to commission and help create the trend."

Overall, #BAMBReadersAwards 2018 came up a winner for me. As it did for Emma Bradshaw, head of campaigns at the BA, who said: "From first time authors to literary giants, this year's Books Are My Bag Readers Awards winners give an insight into bookseller's and the public's top books of the year. It's hugely exciting to see such a large proportion of new writers on the list, showing just how much brilliant new writing talent readers have to enjoy." Can't argue with that.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3378


Indie Bookstores Are the 'Best Places to Be'

Because I'd been thinking about paths a lot lately (paths that lead to where we are, paths forward), the end of my fall regional trade show travels left me wondering about a particular question, which I posed to Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association's new executive director, Heather Duncan, and marketing & communications manager, Jeremy Ellis.

The question was: Could you briefly sum up how your experience (and experiences) as a bookseller positioned you for your new role and how it may influence your future goals for the association?

MPIBA executive director Heather Duncan, operations manager Kelsey Myers and marketing & communications manager Jeremy Ellis

"My career at the Tattered Cover Book Store (which I fell into just out of college, never imagining a career at my favorite place to shop) prepared me for my current position in both practical and philosophical ways," Duncan replied. "Practically, my years leading a large staff, managing a significant budget, booking authors, creating large, elaborate events, and forming relationships with publishers, publicists, authors and other bookstores around the country really gave me the skill set and connections needed for the executive director position.

"Philosophically, working for Joyce Meskis, and getting to know so many indie bookstore owners, shaped my thinking about indie bookstores as colleagues and collaborators--not thinking of themselves as competitors. It is one of the things that makes our industry so special. That spirit of collaboration, and my undying love of bookstores as the best places to be, is shaping my thinking of the future of MPIBA. We are going to offer more and varied opportunities for the stores to connect and learn from each other, and build a marketing support system to spread the word to customers and the media about all of these stores as something special."

Ellis, who spent more than 20 years at Texas bookstores BookPeople in Austin, Brazos Bookstore in Houston, and Interabang Books in Dallas, said: "As a longtime bookseller, I like to think that I have a good understanding of the cycles and pressures bookstores go through each year. I really want to make my personal experiences as a marketer and manager useful for stores big and small. I am eager to support the marketing efforts of our member stores across the region, no matter their size or sophistication. My challenge will be to understand what is working for them now and find good new directions to support growth. We all want to make the association an exceptional resource that gets better and better, year after year."

During the MPIBA show, many authors echoed Duncan's belief in "all of these stores as something special" when they spoke about the increasingly important role independent booksellers are playing in their lives, in communities and in the world.

MPIBA Women's Voices Author Breakfast: Carolyn Forché, Stephanie Land, Martha Hall Kelly

Carolyn Forché, author of the upcoming memoir What You Have Heard Is True (Penguin Press, 3/19), told the Women's Voices Author Breakfast audience: "Thomas Payne believed that literature, literacy and books were essential to democracy and to its survival, and so you are on the front lines now and I commend you and I know that you know how important it is that you exist, that librarians exist, that teachers are still teaching literature so thank you very much."

At the Author Banquet, Leif Enger (Virgil Wander, Grove Atlantic) shared a story of his recent move from rural Minnesota to Duluth and an early encounter with his new neighborhood indie, Zenith Books: "I almost choked up walking around the bookstore. Look what we've moved to! We have this place and it just feels like a refuge.... And so I look out here and I see all of you and I feel the same kind of gratitude because what you're doing is not just keeping the flame alive, but you guys have made a refuge for people.... I look at bookstores and booksellers in a different way than I ever have. And I'm seriously grateful."

MPIBA Authors of Future Releases Breakfast: Tim Johnson, Greer Hendricks, Holly Goldberg Sloan, Ben Phillipe

"There's no room I would rather be in than a room with people who sell books," Holly Goldberg Sloan (To Night Owl from Dogfish, Penguin Books for Young Readers, 2/19) said at the Authors of Future Releases Breakfast. "If I could design towns, I would get rid of most things in towns and I would turn things into bookstores because that's how you change culture and community and you guys are doing that. You have boots on the ground; you are telling the community that books matter and words matter, words matter, words matter."

Jamie Harrison, who won the adult nonfiction Reading the West Book Award for The Widow Nash (Counterpoint Press), praised "the infinite generosity and richness of bookstores, the way they hold worlds without judgment and reveal those worlds--the strange and bitter, wonderful and sweet. It has always managed to remind me that being human was worth the hard times.... You booksellers must be doing it for love and you make the world a better place."

And Pam Houston (Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, Norton, 1/19) summed it all up: "I feel like it's so imperative that we try to make the world we want right now. And that it's actually us who have to make it. There isn't anybody who's going to rescue us.... You guys are on the front lines and you're making a good thing happen and everybody who's making a good thing happen--an organic farmer, in a bookstore, in a dance troupe, whatever--we're the ones who are going to make the world we want. "

Indie bookstores, as Heather Duncan said, are undoubtedly "the best places to be."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3373


A Book Family Moment at the MPIBA Show

Four years ago, I wrote that if you don't work in the book trade, it's hard to explain what happens at an event like the MPIBA Fall Discovery Show: "Call it a family reunion. No, better than that--a family gathering, albeit one with more fun (think Literary Trivia night or Books & Brews afternoon) than squabbles, more friendships than rivalries; and, most importantly, a shared mission."

I was reminded of the sentiment again at this year's MPIBA show, during a heartfelt celebration to honor retiring project manager Kathy Keel. In the exhibit hall, colleagues and friends expressed love and respect for her. It was a genuine book family moment.

Heather Duncan, Eric Boss, Kathy Keel, Marnie O'Connor, Nicole Sullivan

"On behalf of the board, we don't have words--even as booksellers, as book people, there are no words--to express the appreciation and the love and the thankfulness that we have for Kathy and her more than 30 years of service to Mountains & Plains," said Nicole Sullivan, owner of Denver's BookBar and MPIBA's current board president. "I know personally when I came here just five years ago as a new bookseller, she put me at ease like that, immediately, with a big wide smile and open arms and a huge personality. We just want to thank you so much for everything that you've done."

Marnie O'Connor, former associate project manager, recalled how her work as a show volunteer evolved into a five-year temporary position with the association: "I loved every minute of it because Kathy was absolutely the best boss that I've ever had in my entire life. She's nothing but uplifting and she praises you and she makes you believe in yourself more than you could ever imagine.... We had long hours, we quarreled, we bickered, we had a few choice words with each other on occasion, but I love her with all my heart. And I have to speak on behalf of the volunteers who work side by side with Kathy to make the show an amazing event that we love and look forward to every single year. We're going to miss her very much, and I wish her only the best."

MPIBA executive director Heather Duncan's connection to Keel moved to another level this year after Duncan assumed her new role: "I kind of unexpectedly had this position available and I applied for it and had never intended to leave the Tattered Cover. When I did, I was all by myself at my house and then I had Kathy. We have worked together since January and I would never have been able to learn everything that I've learned--the institutional knowledge she shared with me, the fun that we have had working together. I've known her for 30 years, but I really fell in love with her in the last year. It has been a ball. And I was very sad when she said she was going to leave, but the timing was good, it worked, and I think she feels like she's left the association that she's worked so hard for in good hands, and we're going to make her proud."

After presenting Keel with a custom-made set of bookends, Duncan introduced Eric Boss, a retired sales rep and "one of our most dedicated volunteers, whom we also adore."

Noting that he has known Keel for many years, Boss observed: "She is a force of nature. She is a motivator. She's been the engine of MPIBA, and without her most of what we know as this trade show would not have happened, and it certainly wouldn't have happened in the form that we are familiar with and that we all like. This is a great show and everybody loves it. Kathy and I have always found a way to have fun and to find the humor in the difficulties, the struggles, the problems that arise. And she's always stepped up, whenever there was trouble or a problem, she took it head on, straight up."

Boss then presented her with a handmade "Excellence in Ability to Respond to Multiple Stimuli" trophy, featuring a little desk, upon on which are scattered telephones, a computer, a fax machine, books, newspapers, packages, memos and a cup of coffee. "So, with love and respect, this is for Kathy," he added.

"I just called to say, I love you," Keel sang as she took the stage. Then she said: "I love you all. You know me, I cry at the drop of a hat, and then I laugh, and then I get aggressive, and then I laugh some more.... But I do want to say, I'm going to miss all of you so much. I have loved working with you and being with you and sharing your births, and your marriages, and your deaths, and all the moments that make up your lives."

She expressed her gratitude to all the volunteers "for standing by me and making me look better than I really was, putting up with my big mouth. As my mother said, 'Sit down, Kathy, everyone's seen you already.' And I appreciate all of you putting up with my singing at the podium and my yelling and my behavior. I love you all. I'll miss you so much. Thank you for 30 wonderful years."

A book family moment like this one is about much more than a professional transition. It's about legacy... and love, reminding us once again why we chose this world of books, or allowed it to choose us, or some magical combination of the two. Maybe it's just book genetics.

More from the MPIBA show next week.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3368