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'Our Shared Language' at NEIBA's Fall Conference

"It's really wonderful to look out and see many familiar faces, but even better, new faces, the next generation coming up," said Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, in his opening remarks at this year's Fall Conference. Some 42 booksellers attended the show for the first time this year.

Words are our business, so it’s not surprising that a couple of words struck me during the conference--conversation and neighborliness. Both came up early, in the opening keynote, which featured "bookseller emeritus" Linda Ramsdell, former owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., in conversation with Bill McKibben about his upcoming book, Radio Free Vermont (Blue Rider Press, November 7).

"It's very good to be here, and very good to see lots of old friends," McKibben said. "I wrote a book 10 or 11 years ago called Deep Economy about localism and smallness..... A Pollyanna I'm not, but two things that consistently cheer me up are 1) you can now get delicious bottled beer from almost every town in New England; and 2) somehow a lot of independent booksellers survived, in spite of everything that came at them."

McKibben noted that he and his wife, author Sue Halpern, "go to the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, and we know what a center of life it is.... It's abundantly clear that independent booksellers don't really do it for the money. So thank you guys, for providing extraordinary help for all the communities that I know of."

He also talked about "neighborliness," a word that initially sounded a little old-fashioned and then, quite unexpectedly, appropriate and timely. (I'll write more about that next week.) "Conversation," however, is ubiquitous at an event like NEIBA's Fall Conference, as you know. Booksellers, reps, writers and publishers gather in small groups for events like the Publisher's Pick-Nic Lunch and the Author Cocktail Reception; share meals at author breakfasts or the awards dinner; and congregate "after hours" for post-show gatherings. Not to mention the buzz of animated conversations about books that echoed throughout the exhibit hall on Tuesday. 

     Lara Phan, Pamela Jaffee, Deb Seager & Annie Philbrick



We are in the conversation trade, and the importance of communicating was a recurring theme. For example, at an education session called "Unlocking the Grid: Secrets and Best Practices of Events," Pamela Jaffee, senior director of publicity for Avon/Harper Voyager, said she continues to learn from booksellers every day: "The conversation is evolving.... The communication should be going both ways, and I think that's something we'd like to strive to improve upon.... That's why my name is on the galleys. E-mail me and we'll have a conversation.... You have to create the connection. I chase the media; you chase me."

     Mike Katz, Megan Sullivan, Liza Bernard, Stacie Williams & Jill Cadogan  


During the panel "View from the Other Side: Reps Who Were Buyers," Stacie Williams of Ingram Content Group noted: "Being a bookseller informs almost everything I do as a rep.... I do leverage my bookseller experience a lot in order to earn a little bit of trust as far as what I would sell, [which] allows us to talk about books and find our shared language so that we know how to interpret needs and sales."

And Jill Cadogan, who reps for Chesapeake & Hudson, considered what she would have done differently as a buyer now that she has seen the process from a sales rep's perspective. Opening additional avenues of conversation was a central theme: "When I was a buyer, I really would have benefited from more interaction with other buyers.... I've learned so much from other people.... I definitely would have involved my other booksellers in the store more in the buying process because I've seen stores that do that and it seems to be really effective."

During the Author Awards banquet, New England Book Awards fiction category winner Jessica Shattuck (The Women in the Castle) said: "This was a fantastic experience, to have so much support from independent booksellers.... It's been an amazing thing to be out there with this book and having the conversations that it's inspired.... I met so many independent booksellers... and felt that you were doing this really important work fostering these conversations and fueling the life of the mind."

I particular loved something Michael Finkel, who won in the nonfiction category for his book The Stranger in the Woods, recalled from his youth. "Even in elementary school, I took my mom's money and often went to a bookstore," he said, noting that the owners were "the first people to treat me like an adult. I remember them saying, 'well, what book did you read that you liked; and what didn't you like?' They respected me and they introduced me to new books, with which of course I traveled around the world. I was enlightened. I was informed. I was entertained. And because of this I've been a reader all my life and I wanted to become a writer."

The conversation, in our "shared language," continues.

Shortly after the NEIBA Fall Conference, Fischer told me: "From my point of view, it was everything we had hoped for in our planning: great education, lively rep picks, a very busy show floor from opening to closing and wonderful authors." Noting that all of the meal events sold out, he observed: "The New England Book Awards banquet really stood out, and having John Irving there in person to accept his President's Award was really the icing on the cake!"

Accepting the honor, Irving said, "I am extremely grateful for this award because you guys are more important than you ever were, and you always were." Now there's a conversation starter.

--Shelf Awareness, issue #3097


When the Magic Happens

There are special moments at every book trade conference that compel you to pause and consider the extraordinary business we are fortunate enough to be part of. Quite often these moments are subtle, existing within the fabric of a show like a well-made seam.

The New England Independent Booksellers Association's Fall Conference was held this week in Providence, R.I. I'll write about the show as whole soon, but for today I wanted to focus on one of those magical "seam" moments.

Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., won the 2017 Independent Spirit Award, given annually by the Book Publishers Representatives of New England to honor the region's indie bookstore of the year. During the awards banquet on Tuesday night, BPRNE president Megan Sullivan introduced owner Dan Chartrand. He began his remarks with an acknowledgment of Exeter native John Irving, who was there to receive NEIBA's President's Award: "I am painfully aware that I am one of the speakers standing between you and hearing from one of our greatest American writers."

Dan Chartrand & Stefanie Kiper Schmidt

And then the magic happened. Chartrand accepted the Independent Spirit Award "on behalf of our mission. About five years ago, [manager] Stefanie [Kiper Schmidt] went into a room with some of our core patrons and a couple of our best local authors and she came out with a mission. That mission was to build a vibrant and diverse community around the written word. Full stop. So, thank you Stefanie. We test everything we do against that mission, and I accept this award on behalf of it."

He expressed his gratitude to several people who were part of the bookstore's founding group, including co-founder Bob Hugo, who died last year ("I miss him every day.") and the late Rusty Drugan, the longtime NEIBA executive director "who was my New England bookselling mentor and who drove me to found my own store."

Smiling, Chartrand then looked toward the center of the Biltmore Hotel's elegant ballroom and a table that was occupied by Water Street booksellers. "You know, the bookstore is never closed except for weather events, but we closed our bookstore today at two o'clock because we have these amazing booksellers, who are here at the table." After an enthusiastic round of applause, he continued: "We closed so the angels that took that mission on five years ago and have made it their mission and their living could be here. I can't tell you how much I love you all and how grateful I am."

He offered more praise for Stefanie Kiper Schmidt's contributions, noting in particular that "what I love most about you is that you are one of the greatest and most discerning and tasteful readers that I have ever met. And you write beautifully about your reading. I've never met anyone who writes as beautifully about reading as you. So thank you so much for being a part of our store. it's yours and mine."

Readers and patrons of Water Street Bookstore were recognized: "Without them, obviously, we would not be a vibrant and diverse community.... And not just readers from Exeter, but readers from across the country and the world." Chartrand noted that when parents stop by the shop while visiting Phillips Exeter Academy students, "they walk away from our bookstore and they become lifelong fans. And that's really a testament to our booksellers. Having that diverse and vibrant and national and international patron group is just the most remarkable thing."

He thanked authors, beginning with Irving and A Prayer for Owen Meany: "Thank you so much for writing that book. It has been a guiding spirit for me, especially that spirit of Owen Meany, in my work in the bookstore." He cited Ta-Nahisi Coates, "who wrote a book [Between the World and Me] a few years ago that commanded us to begin a One Town, One Book program in Exeter. And I want to thank Roxane Gay, who attended the Academy a number of years ago and in her most recent book wrote a searing passage that made me realize we have much work to do to build that beautiful, diverse and vibrant community in Exeter."

Calling them "my two author mentors," Chartrand said Dan Brown and Joe Hill, while technically local writers, "teach us every day what it means to build community with their readers and their fans and they give us an opportunity to work in that space. I'm so grateful to both of them. And I'm also grateful to Howard Mansfield and Sy Montgomery, who are the very height of great New Hampshire authors."

Finally, he thanked BPRNE members, calling them "the leading edge of publishers. And publishing personnel are such an important part of our diverse and vibrant community. Without you, we would not have the voice we have within the houses, and those voices that are being developed in the houses would not be transmitted to us without you. You are part of our beautiful community, and to be honored by all of you... is just the highest praise for all of us."

Chartrand concluded with an inspiring observation: "We hear a lot about how what we do is hard. And there are moments when it is hard. But I contend that what we do is nothing less than to build the beautiful community in this country and around the world. The life of the mind. Finding dimension through these great works, like John Irving's work, is just the most beautiful work. And I believe that it is the closest we can come to heaven on earth."

It's nice to be there... when the magic happens.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3092


Taking the Time for a 'Reading Hour'

"If people don't like reading, they're reading the wrong book." --Mem Fox, children's author and literacy advocate, in an interview with ABC Radio National for the launch of Australian Reading Hour

If you like deceptively simple concepts--and I do--then yesterday was your kind of day. For the inaugural Australian Reading Hour, organizers encouraged Aussies to "stop what you're doing for one hour and pick up a book. We want Australians to either rediscover or introduce themselves to the benefits of reading."

More than 330 libraries and bookshops registered to participate in activities, with over 100 Australian authors taking part in events in their local communities, Books+Publishingreported. The campaign was supported by the Australian Library & Information Association, the Australian Society of Authors, the Australian Publishers Association, Australian Booksellers Association and the Copyright Agency. It is an extension of ALIA's Reading Hour event, which ran annually from 2012 to 2016.

"As an industry, we can encourage Australians to read Australian stories for pleasure for an hour," Louise Sherwin-Stark, Hachette Australia managing director and chair of the Australian Reading Hour committee observed, adding: "As an industry, we can spark a love of reading in children and set them up for a successful life, we can create more empathetic people and strive for a more prosperous and equitable society. Most of all, we can give everyone an hour out of their busy lives to escape into a great Australian book and reduce their stress levels...."

Yesterday, the publisher led by example: "A gentle hush descended on Kent Street as the good folk of @HachetteAus did what they do best--read. #AustralianReadingHour#brbReading."

Reading hour at Hachette Australia

Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster Australia's "book fairies have dropped books at random locations in Sydney! The perfect excuse (like we needed one) to set aside an hour and get lost in a good book."

Booksellers got in on the action, of course:

Antipodes Bookshop & Gallery, Sorrento, VIC: "The boys embracing Australian Reading Hour with their much-loved Taronga #antipodesbookshop #australianreadinghour #taronga #sharingstories #booksellerslads".

Melbourne's Hill of Content Bookshop: "We didn't really need much encouragement. What will you be reading?"

Dymocks Books‏ in Sydney decided "this is absolutely how every lunch break should be spent."

The National Library of Aus‏tralia featured a reader's version of a bucket brigade: "We know how important it is to take time out and read. Today's the day!"

I was particularly struck by an ABC News piece headlined "We asked 11 Australians why reading matters to them." I've been a reader since childhood and lived in a professional world of books (reading for a living, you might say) for 25 years, so hearing from readers who are not in the book business is intriguing to me. It's one of the things I miss most about not being a bookseller.

Noting that "Australians report spending an average five hours a week reading," ABC News spoke with some of them, including homicide detective Gary Jubelin: "Reading is my form of escapism. No matter what I'm going through in life, if I've got a good book I'm pretty well content.... It's my little way of getting away from the pressures and reality of the world and absorbing myself in a book."

And from Lauren Chant, a childcare worker: "Reading is just a fantastic way to escape and become whoever and whatever you want to be, and go on amazing adventures, and sometimes explore scary or challenging themes.... You can work through it through books, memoirs like Augusten Burroughs' books are really good for that. You see someone go through some pretty horrifying stuff but come through it as a stronger and better, if not slightly dysfunctional, human being."

Reading hour at Dymocks Books

In the Guardian, author Monica McInerney recalled: "I was an ordinary kid in an Australian country town, but I lived a different life with every book I read. I'd climb up to my favorite reading spot (the tin roof of our family house, tucked behind a chimney for shade) and be transported far from home. I time-traveled. I lived during the American civil war, in colonial Australia, on an island in Canada. In reality, I'd never been beyond Adelaide, but through books I was traveling the world.

"When I first moved to Ireland with my Irish husband as a 26-year-old--26 years ago--books were also my passport into Irish life.... In Dublin now, if I'm homesick for Australia, I reach for an Australian novel. Books by Robert Drewe, or Jane Harper, or Garry Disher instantly bring me back under an Australian sun, breathing in Noosa sea air or the sharp scent of country gums.... Reading opens up the world to us. It helps us be whoever we want to be."

I spent my Australian Reading Hour with The Turning, a story collection by one of my favorite authors, Tim Winton. And later I watched the amazing film adaptation of Winton's book. It was more than a good Australian Reading Hour. It was a good Australian Reading Day.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3087


'Everything About Everything'

I don't think of myself as a nostalgic person, despite miraculously cobbling together a decent life through nearly seven decades on the planet. Yet recently I noticed a Guardian headline ("Final chapter for Pears' Cyclopaedia after 125 years in print") that opened a kind of reader/bookseller time portal and a just little nostalgia managed to creep through.

The piece reported that 120 years after Pears' Cyclopaedia made its first appearance in England, offering "A Mass of Curious and Useful Information about Things that everyone Ought to know in Commerce, History, Science, Religion, Literature and other Topics of Ordinary Conversation" for a shilling, Penguin had announced that the 2017-2018 edition would be the last.

The publisher attributed its decision to the retirement of longtime editor Dr. Chris Cook, as well as "the ready availability of electronic information [that] has made the printed reference book no longer commercially competitive.... Chris Cook has been editing Pears' Cyclopaedia for 40 years and we are incredibly grateful to him for the tireless work that has gone into making it a book of extraordinary longevity, durability and value. In the age of the Internet, Pears has continued to be a uniquely British almanac, reaching readers across generations. It is with great sadness that we stop publishing it as Dr. Cook retires but we celebrate his dedication and generosity over the past four decades."

The Bookseller cited Nielsen BookScan stats that revealed "volume sales of the work have sharply declined in recent years: the 2001/02 edition sold 24,229 copies whereas the 2016/17 edition sold only 2,854 copies."

I've never even seen a copy of Pears' Cyclopedia, which was first published in 1897 by Pears Soap as an advertising scheme, and contained "an English dictionary, a medical dictionary, a gazetteer and atlas, desk information and a compendium of general knowledge," the Guardian wrote.

So why did I care about this "Cyclopedia," which hasn't been connected to Pears Soap since 1960? I like to think of myself a 21st century guy. I haven't bought a print world almanac or movie guide or encyclopedia or even a dictionary for a long, long time. I regularly, if furtively, use Wikipedia. Near the end of my bookselling career more than a decade ago, I could see that print reference works had lost significant ground to online options. Remember the paperback Rand McNally Zip Code Finder?

Here's why I cared: There's a note in the final edition Pears' Cyclopaedia that says: "Many will miss the passing of a famous book that in its heyday had become not only a national institution but also the reliable pathway for successive generations of working-class families to a better education."

That Guardian article turned out to be a mnemonic, conjuring memories of the late Frank McCourt, author of the 1990s bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes. I was one of the lucky booksellers who happened to read an ARC of Angela's Ashes in the spring of 1996 and knew immediately, after a dozen pages, that we had to do whatever we could to get this writer I'd never heard of to our bookstore for a reading. I don't know if we were among the first bookshops to put in an event request, but we were lucky enough to be successful. By early fall, as word-of-mouth momentum began to build for the memoir and bestsellerdom loomed, everybody wanted Frank. We got him.

On my desk as I write this is a first edition of McCourt's book, with an inscription:

4 Dec. 96
For Bob
Frank McCourt
With thanks for your warmth.

Maybe Frank signed everybody's book with the same words. I don't care. On a cold night in a quaint Vermont tavern 20 years ago, I introduced him to a couple hundred people who were as enthusiastic as any audience I've ever seen at a reading. The pub atmosphere helped a bit, no doubt. Moments earlier, as I escorted him through the packed crowd to an improvised podium, people had applauded, shaken his hand and patted him on the back. Frank laughed and said: "I'm not even running for office." Introducing him was like introducing a rock star. I could have said, "qua, qua, qua," and they would still have applauded wildly as soon as I ended with, "Please welcome Frank McCourt." His reading was perfect. Afterward, he signed for a long line of fans and was an absolute pro, engaging each person in a brief conversation while his hands reached toward me for the next book.

Now that is pure nostalgia, though the Guardian article was also a mnemonic for something else--a particularly evocative sentence in Angela's Ashes. McCourt is recounting a singular boyhood moment that is at once ordinary and extraordinary: "There are bars of Pears soap and a thick book called Pears' Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that's all I want to know."

Everything about everything.

Reflecting on his retirement as Pears' Cyclopedia editor, Dr. Cook said: "I've had a very large amount of mail over time, from all over the world--I am grateful to those who have been contributors through letters informing me of things they think should be in the next edition of Pears.... I'll find it difficult to not reach for a notepad and pen to write things down to include in the next edition, every time I read a newspaper."

That's all I want to know.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3082


Labor Day & a Broken Gold Pen that Still Works

"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that's just what
I've gone and done."

--Gary Snyder, "Hay for the Horses"

In 2010, I saw one of my life and literary heroes, Gary Snyder, walk slowly to a podium and gaze out at an audience of at least 600 writers, writing instructors, writing students and writing program administrators before reading from his work at an AWP conference in Denver, Colo.

"I can't believe how big this is," he said. "Go for it, kids. America needs more good writers," 

Like many people, I stumbled on Snyder's work in the early 1970s by way of Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, in which he was loosely reimagined as the character Japhy Ryder. I still have my copy of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. I picked it up back then for $1.50 and read "Hay for the Horses" for the first of hundreds of times.

Monday is Labor Day.

Work. I'm 67 and I haven't "bucked hay," literally or figuratively, all my life. Over the past 25 years, I was a frontline indie bookseller for a long time, and then an editor at Shelf Awareness. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance writer/specialty food sales rep (two years), a windsurfing trade magazine editor (five years) and a freelance writer/prep cook (five years).

I bought Riprap in '71, just before my senior year in college. I was working part-time at a Grand Union supermarket in my hometown. The following spring, the store manager offered me a full-time position "until you figure out what you want to do with your life," as he put it. Nine years later, I was still there, doing a good job, but thinking: I sure would hate to do this all my life.

In 1979, I published a poem in a tiny literary journal called Lacuna and made what seemed at the time like a logical professional decision: I should figure out a way to write for a living. I didn't know any other working writers, but I thought it was a now or never situation if I was ever going to stop "bucking hay."

That fall, I gave a month's notice and my supermarket co-workers threw a party to wish me well in my glamorous new career as a writer. They didn't know exactly what that meant. I pretended I did know. We drank a lot, remembered good work stories and bad, and they gave me a small, gift-wrapped box that contained a gold Cross ballpoint pen. It had an inscription. On one side was "R.H. Gray 12-20-79" and on the other "1116," which was the store's corporate identification number.

And now, almost 40 years later, I hold that same Cross gold pen in my hand. It hasn't worked for decades and I've never tried to fix it. No, I take that back. As an icon, it has never stopped working. Grand Union store #1116 was once my work space; as was the frigid apartment where I lived during my first winter as a "full-time" writer; as was the café where I took a job as a prep cook just three months after leaving the grocery world. Writing, I quickly discovered, was scary work; scarier than the supermarket.

A decade ago, I taught an English Comp. course at a local community college for awhile. Many of my students had lousy jobs or were unemployed; just looking for a break, another chance, a fresh start, whether they were 23 or 43. Work was one of the things I asked them to write about. We read Snyder's "Hay for the Horses" and Philip Levine's "What Work Is" together. They already knew what work was. Levine's poem is intricate, but they worked their way through it with me. If a poem can be "gotten," some of them got it. And if they never read another poem, they really read that one.

In a Paris Review interview, Levine described Detroit in the late '80s as a city where "nothing grandly heroic is taking place... Nothing epic. Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn't give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It's the truly heroic."

I get that. As a bookseller, I naturally loved handselling, but I also took pleasure in stocking shelves and in the awareness of my fingers dancing instinctively across a keyboard, ringing up purchases during a rush. It was an echo of my Grand Union days, and even before that, in high school, of working part-time at an A&P store. Customers would line up at my cash register because I was fast and accurate... and proud of it.

I've been lucky in my work, even if I didn’t always know it at the time. I've still got that Cross gold pen. And Labor Day is one of my favorite holidays.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3078

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