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Friday
Jan122018

An Intoxicating Sense of Vellichor

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We are a people of words; it's our best side. No surprise, then, that I have become intoxicated by my discovery of a new word, a mere toddler in fact at just a few years old. Vellichor has nestled in my bookish mind this week and, I suspect, will never leave again. That's how words live, since--by definition you might say--they are parasites.

John Koenig, curator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of invented words, defines vellichor this way: "n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time--filled with thousands of old books you'll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured." (Here's another exploration of the word)

I wouldn't want to live in a world without vellichor.

In a TED Talk, Koenig noted that people often ask him if his words are real. "What I discovered is that when people are asking if a word is real, they're really asking, well, how many brains will this give me access to?" he said. "Because I think that's a lot of how we look at language. A word is essentially a key that gets us into certain people's heads.... A real word is one that gets you access to as many brains as you can. That's what makes it worth knowing.... The meaning is not in the words themselves. We're the ones that pour meaning into it.... We forget that words are made up. It's not just my words. All words are made up, but not all of them mean something."

Vellichor has subtly found its way into the lexicon, thanks in part to the Twitter hashtag #vellichor, but also through common usage. Examples are not hard to find. In a profile of a Northampton bookshop, MassLive.com observed: "Walking around the Old Bookstore on Masonic Street, vellichor fills the heart and mind." I saw it dropped casually into a piece on Lippincott Books in Hampden, Maine; and another about the Canadian bookseller Allison the Bookman in North Bay, Ontario; and in the headline "Time to take the vellichor to the second floor, and beyond," showcasing Egyptian bookshop Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Last year, The Better India explored the "organized chaos" of the Ravivari, a bazaar on the east bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad: "The area of booksellers comes after a series of stalls selling antiques, paints, and domestic goods. After weaving through narrow passages shaded by parasols, littered with the smell of nimbu-paani, daal-haleem, and sometimes assorted animal dung, one arrives at the booksellers. Instant vellichor!"

I've even found the word attached to Vellichor Wines ("we believe, like each book, each bottle has a unique story"), Monkish Brewing Co.'s Vellichor craft beer, and an Oslo-based band.

So, vellichor has been my mood this week, even though I'm not someone who spends a lot of time in used bookshops, primarily because my allergies won't tolerate the otherwise irresistible essence derived from "the chemical breakdown of compounds within paper that leads to the production of 'old book smell.' "

There was one notable exception to this, however. From 1973 until 1997, I lived in Rutland, Vt., and often haunted Tuttle Antiquarian Books. It wasn't a particularly welcoming place. I thrived on its laissez-faire attitude toward customer service because I preferred being left alone to explore room upon musty room of book-laden shelves. And I will be forever in their debt because I first discovered the wonders of Asian literature and art there.

Charles Tuttle, who died in 1993, was serving as an American soldier in Tokyo after World War II when he fell in love with Japanese culture. He made it his life's mission to introduce this world to American readers. In addition to its extensive used book inventory, Tuttle Antiquarian Books displayed and sold an array of new titles from Tuttle Publishing.

One of many books I bought there was Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart Holmes and Chimyo Horioka (1973). As I write these words, that old book is on a shelf not far from my desk. Opening it to page 25, I see a reproduction of "Bare Willows and Distant Mountains." On the facing page, the commentary begins, "How remote from the everyday world this landscape seems!"

I felt the same way about Tuttle Antiquarian Books. In those isolated rooms, I also discovered an even more remote, yet somehow immediate and tangible, place to live through the books I found there. Many years ago, I met Mr. Tuttle on a golf course and thanked him personally for the new world he had given me. I'm still grateful, if strangely wistful. Call it vellichor if you like.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3163

Friday
Jan052018

Indie Booksellers Surviving Retail Bombogenesis

Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., yesterday morning (the store stayed open till 2 p.m.).

With an apocalyptically named winter weather event (Bomb Cyclone, bombogenesis) still punishing the Northeast, it seems appropriate to consider the word "survival" as it applies to the world of indie bookselling.

In recent months, a blizzard (sorry) of media reports disclosed, with barely masked shock, the apparently surprising ability of indie booksellers to "survive, even thrive" (as the headlines love to proclaim) more than two decades of incessant retail assault by the likes of Amazon and chain bookstores. As 2017 came to an end, the trend intensified, so I collected a few links for further consideration and to give me hope as we begin the new year. For example:

"The theoretical and managerial lessons we can learn from independent bookstores have implications for a wide array of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses facing technological change. But this has been an especially fascinating industry to study because indie booksellers provide us with a story of hope," said Ryan Raffaelli in a Quartz piece headlined "How independent bookstores thrived in spite of Amazon." Raffaelli studies how mature organizations and industries faced with technological change reinvent themselves.  

In a New York Times article on the closing of Book World's 45 stores ("Bookstore Chains, Long in Decline, Are Undergoing a Final Shakeout"), Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wis., observed, "The age of the physical chain of bookstores is behind us--unless you don't need to be profitable. You can never save enough money through centralization to be able to compete with Amazon. Instead, you have to go in the other direction--be so rooted in your community you can turn on a dime."

 

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Volumes Bookcafe co-owner Rebecca George wrote in the Chicago Review of Books: "Bookstores are thriving, despite this idea that saving $2 or $3 by absolutely all means necessary has become the cultural norm. Want a bookstore in your neighborhood? Well, those few extra bucks are the price to keep them there.... [N]ew bookstores are opening every month nationwide. Several bookstores are opening new locations in their surrounding communities. Their survival, however, rests in the young recognizing that bookstores are also in the 21st century. They're right there with you--constantly moving and changing to adapt and provide better community spaces for you--wherever you are."

Scottish bookseller Kevin Ramage, owner of the Highland Bookshop in Fort William, told the Guardian: "People ask me what's the daftest thing you've done? Open a bookshop in Fort William. It's the remotest town on the mainland--over an hour from Inverness.... We've never thought that we made a mistake. Indies have been struggling, but I think the situation is turning, both in terms of the attitude to the printed word--Kindles have their time and place but generally people are realizing that they're not as satisfying as a printed book--and also a large layer of people are becoming more conscious of the role of the high street in their lives and their town. Social attitudes are changing."

Noting that "in the age of smartphones and screens, it may seem unlikely that independent bookstores would stand a chance," the East Valley Tribune countered that theory by speaking with Cindy Dach, co-owner and general manager of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz. She said taking a chance is what allows and indies to stand a chance: "You have to be innovative. And every day, we always have to ask the question if we're being innovative enough.... It always feels like we're skating on thin ice. It always does, and that feeling won't probably ever go away. But where success has been is being relevant to our communities, being in touch to our communities, listening."

In a Forbes magazine crystal ball piece on the "Top Shopping Trends Of 2018," Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, predicted: "Shoppers will return to Main Street in 2018. This trend is fueled by the desire of the highest-potential and highest-spending customers' passion for a new shopping experience that they can't find online, at the mall, in the national chains or in big box stores. Owners of small retail shops often feel overwhelmed by the rapidly changing retail environment, with competition on all sides and most especially from Amazon. But small business retailers have a competitive advantage that none of these bigger, better capitalized and techno-powered retailers have: their personal touch. It is realized not just through the personal service that specialty retailers offer, but by being vital members of the local community. This trend will reshape the retail landscape over the next decade."

What is the magic formula that has allowed and indie bookstores to "survive, even thrive" in these confusing times? Cindy Dach had a great answer for that one: "You open the doors and get everybody in their stations, and you start working and you shelve the books, which seems like what you would do every day, which is 100% of your energy. Then you have to find another 100% to say, 'How do I stay relevant?' and 'How do I stay innovative?' and 'How do I get people to want to be here?' And we try to answer those questions every single day."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3158

Friday
Dec222017

'What's the Best Book Gift for a Non-Reader?'

The magic of Christmas is that it gives the book trade a glimpse into another, almost [Philip] Pullman-esque, world: a place where non-book buyers buy books.

--Philip Jones, The Bookseller

There are some things I don't miss about working as a frontline bookseller during holiday season crunch time. For example, I don't miss this conversation:

I need to find a book for my uncle.
What kinds of books does he like?
Oh, he doesn't read.

Or variations on its theme, like this one (recorded on my blog Saturday, December 17, 2005): "This afternoon I heard a customer say: 'I want to get a book for my uncle. Have you read this (holds up copy of Bad Dog)? He doesn't have a dog, but....' "

And yet, against all odds, right now all over the world booksellers are handselling myriad titles as gifts for non-readers. Learning how to answer that bookish near-koan ("What's the best book gift for a non-reader?") is a rite of passage for new staff members. The question will come up, and this time of year it will come up a lot.

The media knows: "Gift Guide: 17 books for the non-reader" (Chicago Tribune) or "Books to give this Christmas to harassed mum, non-reading nephew, fulminating uncle--and 13 other headscratchers" (Telegraph). For another perspective, read David Barnett's Guardian column headlined "This Christmas, don't give books to non-readers."

"Books expand our minds and give us a greater understanding of the world around us; yet, a lot of readers persist in looking down on those who don't read. And there might be many, many reasons for why they don't," he wrote, adding: "Reading is important. Literacy skills are vital. Children's reading drops off massively after the age of eight, which can cause problems in adult life. But being literate and having a love of books are two different things. Books might furnish your walls... but this Christmas, don't buy books to 'fix' people who don't want them."

While Barnett's advice might work for amateur holiday gift-givers, it does not apply to booksellers, who are pressed to answer the question in real time, on bookstore sales floors, again and again by eager holiday season customers.

Booksellers have long met this challenge with grace and creativity. The December 17, 1876 edition of the New York Times proclaimed: "Then there are the bookstores! What wonderful things they have prepared for the holidays! Surely, there was never anything like it since printing and engraving were invented.... There are books for the learned and the unlearned, books for the aged and for the young, and for all the periods in between. Everybody may be satisfied with a book. And it would really appear as if those who provide books were perennially engaged in studying the human race in order to meet the requirements of those who may have been heretofore overlooked. At the very worst, there is no human creature so dull that he may not be moved by a beautiful binding of a book, or fail to respond to the universal language of pictures. This season we have some of the best works in the English language in dress that may be properly called high art."

What's the best book gift for a non-reader? The question sparks a couple of memories. In the early 1970s, I was student teaching at a high school. The assigned book for the class was Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, but one boy flat-out refused to read it. On a whim, I handed him my copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and asked him to just check out the first few pages. Abbey's cranky voice worked. A decade later, I ran into this guy at an adult league softball game, and the first thing he said was how much he'd loved "that f***ing book you gave me." Said he still had his ragged copy somewhere. Maybe he hadn't read anything since, but he'd read that one.

And a few years ago, a friend having dinner at our house said he hated poetry because it made no sense to him. I grabbed a couple of books by Gary Snyder and David Budbill off my shelves, asked him to just give them a chance. "Now this," he said after sampling, "I like."

Sometimes the best gift book for a nonreader is simply... the right book. Often it's more complicated, but I've known many booksellers over the years who could unlock that mystery with just a question or two of their own. As Christmas Eve draws near, booksellers everywhere will spend the weekend saying variations on these magic words: "Tell me a little more about your uncle." Then they'll make a recommendation. It's a small Christmas miracle.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3154

Friday
Dec152017

For Indie Bookstores, Weather Can Be the Grinch

As a rule a bookshop is horribly cold in winter, because if it is too warm the windows get misted over, and a bookseller lives on his windows.

--George Orwell, "Bookshop Memories" (1936)

Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.: "There’s nothing cozier than a bookstore during a snow storm all aglow."

Forecasts for the book industry have always been cloudy, with at least a 50% chance of contradiction. For independent booksellers, however, gauging the weather is more than just a retail metaphor; it's a tangible factor in their day-to-day business decisions.

Weather can be the Grinch this time of year anywhere, if for different reasons. What is good weather for bookselling? That varies from region to region, of course. Often, however, the best bookstore weather is just a little bad, to lure people indoors, but not so bad they can't drive to your store at all. It's a fine line that gets razor thin during the holiday season.

My thoughts turned to bookselling weather last Saturday, when I spotted a great "Snow Safety Advisory" tweeted out by Belmont Books, Belmont, Mass.: ‏"To increase car's traction in snow, purchase 20-50 lbs. of books from local #IndieBookstore and put them in trunk. Also doubles as emergency reading supply if power goes out. #YoureWelcome."

Then Changing Hands posted the following on Facebook Wednesday: "77 degrees and sunny in Phoenix. Still, a winter wonderland." It was 16 degrees outside my office, with single digit wind chill, when I read that one, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.  

Throughout December's all-important gift-shopping season, booksellers must chart weather forecasts with an alchemic blend of meteorology and wishful thinking. The window of opportunity can be slammed shut harshly by an ill-timed storm front, especially as the countdown to Christmas Day accelerates.

Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich, Mass.: "The view from here, a winter wonderland!"

Civilians--aka customers--may not realize how important the weather is to bookstores. They might assume that since bookselling is an indoor job, what's happening outside--short of a blizzard--can't possibly make or break a store's year. But it does matter, big time, to the Scrooge-ish bottom line, which doesn't give a tinker's damn whether the sun was shining in 2016 on this date, when sales were up 11% over the previous year day-to-day.

Weather excuses? Bah! Humbug! 

Seeking the middle ground between "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" and "the weather outside is frightful," most indie booksellers have been charting storm patterns online since Thanksgiving, and now hope predictions for Christmas week are not frightful, and that any lurking predatory storms will run out of time or strength before they can seriously threaten the rest of this crucial home stretch.

Please, Santa, all we want for Christmas is the absence of blizzards, Nor'easters or "freezing rain events" (as the Weather Channel people like to describe such things). No early afternoon closings. No snow days.  

"As the largest external driver of consumer need, weather is more than just a conversation-starter for retailers," the National Retailer Federation noted this week. Evan Gold, executive v-p of global services at Planalytics, a company that helps retailers account for weather, said the trick is to remove weather-driven volatility from historical data to arrive at the 'weather-neutral baseline' from which retailers can plan, allocate resources and buy product in advance of the next season." Nice trick if you can pull it off, Evan.

"The secret around weather is that it very rarely repeats," he observed, adding that a common misconception among retailers is that year-over-year, they expect consumer demand to repeat previous patterns, but they overlook weather, particularly consumer's reactions to a chill in the air... or more. "50 degrees in Miami is very different than the same 50 degrees in Minneapolis."

Planalytics has identified "five myths about the weather's impact on retail":

  1. You can't plan for the weather.
  2. It all evens out in the end.
  3. Consumers will shop during the holidays, regardless of the weather.
  4. My products aren't seasonal, so the weather doesn't affect me.
  5. I'm an online retailer--the weather doesn't impact me.

My favorite may be this tidbit from myth #3: "During the holidays, weather not only influences if a customer goes into a store, it also influences the items they place in their basket. For example, 18% of boot sales are influenced solely by the weather in December...." Maybe boots could be an unexpected sidelines hit for bookstores next year. Or a holiday season cross-promotion with a shoe store? Does AccuWeather have a brainstorming forecast module?

On December 16, 2005, during my last week as a full-time bookseller, I began the day with a blog post at Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal: "Weather affects any business, but Vermont weather is a particularly nasty ingredient for a bookstore this time of year. Everything, or nearly everything, is riding on what happens between Black Friday and New Year's Day. One bad Friday or Saturday can be crippling financially in a way it wouldn't be in, say, mid-February. But Mother Nature doesn't give a sh*t, and this morning I woke up to sleet, freezing rain, snow, and, for extra spice, no heat in my house. So, the house was warming up some as I left it to drive the treacherous dozen miles to the bookstore. Now I'm at work and I don't expect to see many customers until after noon, assuming the roads clear and we don't get much more of what the weatherman cheerily calls 'wintry mix.' "

Later that night, I added: "The 'wintry mix' didn't deliver a knockout punch today (we opened and stayed open), but it certainly delivered a few good, stiff jabs to the chin. Tomorrow. we'll try again." Because that's what booksellers do, weather be damned.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3149

Friday
Dec082017

O Bookmas Tree (or Chalkboard)!

He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods--the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn't thought of them as Christmas Trees.

--from Robert Frost's poem "Christmas Trees"

I was in New York City earlier this week for what has become an annual pilgrimage, with a friend, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit our tree, the 20-foot blue spruce decorated with an 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene. We also stopped by Rockefeller Center to see its more garish if wildly popular descendant and, finally, for the second year in a row, paid respects to the Christmas tree vendor who has staked out a sidewalk claim on the Upper West Side with a sign of the times: "Gluten-Free Trees!"

I may have mentioned before (actually, just about every year, more or less, for the past decade), that I do not have a Christmas tree in my house. It's a little Grinchy/Scroogey of me, I know. And I'm sure there are many deep-seated psychological reasons for my arbor-less Yuletide habit.

But I've also noted the contradiction that I love other people's Christmas trees. For me, it's a spectator sport. I enjoy seeing them posed fully decorated in houses and store windows; strewn undecorated and for sale across parking lots like pop-up forests; and strapped triumphantly to the roofs of passing SUVs. I've even developed a tolerance for those giant inflatable Xmas tree-shaped lawn decorations being buffeted by icy winds to the point where they appear ready to take flight like blimps.

Bookmas Tree hunting has also become one of my Christmas tree traditions. I love discovering what booksellers and other bookish elves are doing with variations on the Bookmas Tree theme. This year, once again, I've been dashing through the virtual snow in a digital sleigh to find what social media's holiday global village has on offer. Here are a few highlights thus far:

Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y.: Owner Connie Brooks shared a pic of the shop's "book-tree-ladder" designed by staff member Heather Boyne.

Murder by the Book, Houston, Tex.: "Our Annual Advent promotion kicks off tomorrow. Each year we pick 24 books to highlight, one for each day of Advent. This year our theme is Edgar award winners and nominees. We’ve also selected 8 books for young readers to represent Hanukkah. All our picks are 20% off. And while you’re in, check out our new holiday decorations."

Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.: "A book tree glows in Tree Town."

Lake Country Booksellers, White Bear Lake, Minn., shared a photo last month of its holiday season book tree.

Posman Books at Rockefeller Center, Manhattan: "Time to decorate your tree, and your window! Make it warm with these sweater-like ornaments."

Stirling Books & Brew, Albion, Mich.: "Decorating for Christmas!"

ReadWithMe.Raleigh‏, Raleigh, N.C.: "Our #givingtree benefits the Raleigh Rescue Mission's children. Help us to #givebooks this holiday season. Gifts will be delivered Friday so please stop by or email us soon if you'd like to participate. Thanks!"

Katy Budget Books, Houston, Tex.: "While the store is decorated, we do not have a book tree up this year. Do you have one? We want to see them!"

Ink@84 Books & Drink, London: "Wassail! We're celebrating our 2nd birthday this Thu Dec 7th with mulled wine & mince pies from 6-8pm to say huge thanks to all our lovely customers for their fantastic support. Stop by!"

Booka Bookshop, Oswestry, Shropshire: "A BIG BIG thank you to Emily Sutton for creating a fantastic #OneChristmasWish window display today--we love it!"

Gullivers Bookshop, Wimborne, Dorset: "We're open every Sunday until Christmas. Wimborne is lovely place to spend some time at this time of the year!"

Books A Plenty, Tauranga, New Zealand: "Mmm... smell that pine! Thanks Kaimai Christmas Trees."

And taking a chance that this counts under the unwritten Yuletide rules, here are a few seasonal bookshop chalkboard signs (The frames are made from trees, right?) to help set the mood:

Women & Children First, Chicago, Ill.: "To do: Make list, check 2x, find out who's naughty & nice." 

Ferguson Books & More, Grand Forks, N.D.: "It's beginning to BOOK a lot like Christmas."

Red Balloon Bookshop, St. Paul, Minn.:‏ "Gifts for everyone on your list (even the grownups)."

Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio: "Dear Santa, How good must one be, exactly, to get ALL the books (asking for a friend.), the Bookstore Lady."

Mitzi's Books, Rapid City, S.D.: "Perfect! We needed just a dash of snow to set of our holiday decorations! #deckthehalls."

Maybe Frost's poem, which I hadn't read in a long time, will be my Christmas tree this year:

A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.
I can't help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3144

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