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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

Friday
Feb232018

At the End of the POS Line with the Last Chocolate

"Endings help us energize and elevate," advised Daniel Pink, author most recently of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, during his excellent keynote at this year's Winter Institute. I only bring that up because a couple of things that happened recently have reminded me to think again about "the last chocolate."

Daniel Pink

Pink cited a University of Michigan study in which an intriguing taste test was conducted at the student center. Members of Group 1 were given a Hershey's Kiss and told: "Please taste it and rate it on a 1-10 scale," followed by "here's your next one, here's your next one, here's your next one, here's your next one. Now you get five, though you don't know how many you're going to get in advance."

Group 2 was also given five candies in the same sequence, but before the fifth was distributed, Pink said they were told "here's your last one.... the only difference is the fifth one is described as the 'last one' and the other is only described as the next one. Does the fact that you identify that one as the last one affect opinion?"

He then displayed a chart showing the dramatic difference: "They rate them the same until they get to the fifth one. Whoa! People love that last chocolate. They love it more than any chocolate they've ever had. More than any chocolate anybody's had. Because given a choice, people prefer endings that elevate.... Highlight the last chocolate. I think there are a lot of opportunities for retailers to use this last chocolate phenomenon."

Pink's last chocolate theory may have come back to me because a week ago, on the same day I stood at the end of a typically epic Department of Motor Vehicles line, I also read a Forbes article by Michael Blanding headlined "People Have an Irrational Aversion to Being Last in Line."

Outside of the holiday season (Black Friday to Christmas Eve, give or take a post-holiday blowout sale on cards and calendars) and the occasional Harry Potter-like release frenzy, bookstores are not places where people tend to create massive lines at checkout counters. In my experience as a former bookseller and lifelong customer, I've observed two key patterns:

  1. Well-designed POS areas place an emphasis on the fluid movement of customers in their transition from browsers to buyers. Lines are short, if they exist, and frontline booksellers are attuned to the needs of their patrons--and colleagues--in facilitating a positive checkout experience.
  2. As a customer, I act much differently in a bookstore checkout line than I do at the supermarket, or DMV for that matter. I'm more patient. After all, I have--or should have--a book or two in my hands. I can read while waiting. And I do.

There are exceptions, of course, and not all POS areas are designed for efficiency. We do have our horror stories, booksellers and customers alike. And otherwise rational humans were gullible enough to wait in long lines outside Seattle's new Amazon Go store in order to experience the thrill of line-free checkouts. Irony lives!

"Nobody likes being last," Blanding wrote in Forbes. "We avoid picking the cheapest wine on the menu or the final donut in the box." (Daniel Pink might suggest calling it the last donut in the box.) He cited the work of Harvard Business School professor Ryan Buell, who said, "Humans are very social creatures, and we are driven to compare ourselves to others. When we are feeling bad, one way we cope is by comparing ourselves to people who are worse off than we are.... Every line has an end and there is an identifiable person who occupies it. They know they're last and everyone around them knows it as well." His paper, Last Place Aversion in Queues, investigates how operations can be designed to better engage their customers, and how operational choices affect customer behaviors and a company's performance.

Noting that by one estimate Americans wait in line 37 billion hours a year--118 hours for every person--Blanding wrote: "Rationally, you might think that the only thing that matters during those times is what's going on in front of you--how fast the cashier is ringing up customers, say, or how many tellers there are at the bank counter."

According to Buell, however, people are also concerned with what's happening behind them, especially when no one's there: "What seems to be driving this is our inability to make a downward social comparison. If I can't look behind me and see someone else is willing to wait longer than me, I start to question whether waiting in line is worthwhile."

After conducting a series of experiments regarding how being last affects consumer behavior, he concluded that being last in line had significant implications, and he recommends that service providers think carefully about how they set up their physical environments, which includes allowing customers to focus on the service process rather than the line they're waiting in. 

"Showing customers the work that's being done to serve them can cause them to mind waiting less and value the service more," Buell observed. "When a barista comes up to you in line and asks, 'Can I get something started for you?' then you feel less pain from waiting, plus you feel invested now and are less likely to give up."

Or... tell the last customer in line you're giving them the last Hershey's Kiss. Perspective + chocolate = satisfaction.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3191

Friday
Feb162018

Remembering ARC Time

Willy Vlautin's instrumental soundtrack for his tough, tender and brilliant new novel, Don't Skip Out on Me, is playing on the Bose in my office as I write this. I picked up a sample CD during the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show in Denver last October, along with an ARC of the novel, which I read on the flight back home.

Last week, I learned from Bookselling This Week that Vlautin "will perform songs from the book's soundtrack at indie bookstores, libraries and literary festivals across the American West" while on tour for the novel, which is a March Indie Next Pick. For U.S. readers, a download code for the soundtrack (here's a taste) is available on the book's page on HarperCollins' website.

The BTW piece, along with an ever-rising ARC skyline on a table near my desk, got me thinking about New Release Tuesdays vs. ARC time. While it's exciting to see a book I love finally hit bookstore shelves, it can also be a little bittersweet because reading an ARC is like being let in on a secret. Now the secret's out.

Tayari Jones, Willy Vlautin and Sara Blaedel

I also considered the fact that some ARCs have another soundtrack, if you are lucky enough to hear the author speak during ARC time. For example, when Vlautin appeared at the MPIBA show's Authors of Future Releases Breakfast, he said, "I really appreciate bookstores. I'm kind of a bookstore addict. Every town I go to I just end up buying tons of books.... And any town I go to you know you have a safe place to hang out and someone that's a weird book lover. And anyone that's a little cracked is all right in my book. So, I'm sure I'd like all you guys."

That was nice to hear. And it isn't in the book. Recalling those words, I began thinking about other ARCS I've read and loved this past year, and some things those authors said long before their books were released.

Tayari Jones spoke during the same MPIBA breakfast about An American Marriage, which has now been released to well-deserved acclaim and recently became the first Oprah's Book Club choice of 2018. In Denver, she recalled leaner times, promoting her novel Silver Sparrow in the region, and driving a Chevy Suburban over the Red Mountain Pass to an event at Maria's Bookshop in Durango: "It was dangerous! I was like I'm going to die for my art! But I was thinking the thing about authors and independent booksellers: When we're on tour, you see us at our not best. By the time I arrived, I was not my best. But everywhere I've gone--and I went to 43 independent bookstores with Silver Sparrow--every place was a port in a different storm. I don't think I could have done it without so much care along the way."

Sara Blaedel (The Undertaker's Daughter), the third author featured at the event, said that about 25 years ago she "had my own small publishing house in Denmark, only publishing crime fiction. And that was way before any Scandinavian crime fiction wave hit anything, so it was so bad timing. But at the time I was driving around trying to charm booksellers, and what actually happened on my tours around was that they took me in. They gave me a chance, even though everyone knew this wasn't the best idea I ever had. But I think they felt pity because I was coming all around and so they said, 'Okay, give us two books of each' or something like that. So there my respect and love for booksellers started up."

At BookExpo '17, Jesmyn Ward was part of the Adult Author Breakfast lineup, discussing her upcoming--and ultimately National Book Award-winning--novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. During ARC time, she offered a compelling tribute to the independent booksellers in her home state of Mississippi, noting that her experiences with Pass Christian Books in Pass Christian; Turnrow Book Co. in Greenwood; Lemuria Books in Jackson; and Square Books in Oxford "go well beyond that of merchants and producers.... They have all advocated for me in my work, have encouraged me through events and festivals, and been my cheerleaders and supporters as I try to write honestly about our very complicated state."

Uzodinma Iweala, whose stunning novel Speak No Evil is a March Indie Next Pick, was a guest speaker at the MPIBA show's Author Banquet. Noting that while attending Harvard he spent a lot of time in the Harvard Book Store, he recalled "that feeling, that sense of being surrounded by all that story, the weight and the presence of all that collective knowledge, imagination and insight curated by people like you, who love books and who really live books. What I'm trying to say is thank you, because it's people like you who care not just about selling books, but who care about how they're sold and the importance of the physical space of the bookstore as a location for growth and as a space for connection, which was so profound and so important for me."

What I'm trying to say is that in the flush of excitement over a new book's release, it's also worth remembering the magic of ARC time, when we first opened those magical pages that everybody's reading now.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, Issue #3187

Friday
Feb092018

'A Total Immersion in a World of Fun & Reading'

Kathy L. Murphy

If there is anyone in the book world who better represents the concept of "the show must go on" than Kathy L. Murphy, I haven't met them yet. Former owner of Beauty and the Book, "the only hair salon/book store in the world," she is also the founder of the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Club, with more than 700 chapters internationally; and author of The Pulpwood Queen's Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life.

But the crown jewel in her bookish tiara is the annual Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend, which celebrated its 18th anniversary last month in Nacogdoches, Tex. This year's theme was "Bohemian Rhapsody." Although I've had a longstanding invitation to attend for many years, I just haven't been able to make my way down to East Texas, though I hope to someday. Call it a bucket list item.

Authors at Girlfriend Weekend

What is the Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend? On her blog, author Clea Simon attempted to answer the question: "Imagine 40-plus authors and 100-plus readers/book group members in one room. Now visualize them in hot pink, leopard print, and tiaras--all talking about books, reading, their favorite characters, their latest discoveries, and how those all those stories got writ, and you've got a rough idea. The genius brainchild of the incredible Kathy L. Murphy, the Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend is an annual celebration of readers, a total immersion in a world of fun and reading."

I first began corresponding with Kathy about a decade ago and met her in person, along with her daughters Madeleine and Helaina, at BookExpo 2012 in New York City. She told me then she believed she had "created 'a book world,' a world where we are building lifelong friendships, relationships and community that is truly making our lives for the better." And so she has.

Earlier this week, I asked Kathy how she would describe herself. "I believe that my calling in life is, as the founder of the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Club, to lead the crusade in promoting authors, books, literacy, reading, all the arts and to encourage others to be lifelong learners," she replied. "I prefer not to be labeled as labeling just places limits. I am many things, including, author, artist, book club moderator, mentor, mother, but my sole mission is to be an advocate for all the arts in all my endeavors. Do they have a name for that? How about being a decent human being and doing the right thing." Now that's a job description.

Randy Susan Meyers, Alyson Richman, M.J. Rose and Alice Hoffman

This year's Girlfriend Weekend featured author Jamie Ford as co-host; keynotes by Alice Hoffman, Lisa Wingate, M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyers; an array of panels, events and celebrations, including the legendary Author Dinner, with visiting authors waiting tables; and the Great Big Ball of Hair Ball. All of this took place in a new facility, the Fredonia Hotel & Convention Center in Nacogdoches.

"We had been waiting for the restoration of the retro hotel and was it worth the wait," Kathy noted. "Staff and service were superb in a very unique and historic setting. Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend has never been so easy for me and my trusty sidekick, Tiajuana Anderson Neel. We were able to truly relax and truly enjoy the event as all our anticipated needs were met and more!"

Murder by the Book, Houston, Tex., was the book vendor for Girlfriend Weekend, making "it relatively seamless from panels to book signings, so the overall view is I finally have found a real home where everybody has truly come together to help celebrate our authors, their books, literacy and reading," Kathy said. "Though the flu hit us hard in East Texas and many had to back out at last minute, we still were able to raise $2,500 in our Author Silent Auction for the Pat Conroy Literary Center. I still believe this was my most successful event ever. It was a win, win, win for all. We already have more signed up for next year than ever before with our theme 'How the West Was Won' "

This year's Pulpwood Queen book award winners were One Good Mama Bone by Brenda McClain (Book of the Year), Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (Bonus Book of the Year) and The Low Country Coloring Book by Melissa Conroy (Crossover Book of the Year.)

What do Kathy's efforts mean to writers? M.J. Rose told me: "Kathy Murphy has been authors' best girlfriend for years and years, singlehandedly selling our books out of her love of reading. From the minute I got to Texas to the minute I left I was aware of how deep and abiding her love goes and how much her readers count on her to give them advice and suggestions. Everyone always talks about the costumes and the parties, the makeup and tiaras and crazy hairdos--but it's the patronage and the dedication and all out passion that Kathy has that made the weekend matter so much to me and made me so very appreciative of her."

"This is my passion and I have never been more excited for our 19th year coming up," Kathy said. "Go where the heart is, and we will continue to make history in East Texas."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3182

Friday
Feb022018

#Wi13, Camaraderie and... Staff Meetings!

"Camaraderie and staff development are integral to our success at Avid." That's what Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., posted Monday on Instagram, sharing a behind-the scenes peek into one of her stores, while noting: "We also relish the rare opportunities we have to get the entire team together for monthly staff meetings."

Last week, Janet and I had a brief conversation during the opening reception (aka epic international bookseller staff meeting) for the 2018 ABA Winter Institute in Memphis, Tenn.

(l. to r.) Andrea Avantaggio, Andy Brennan, Jamie Fiocco & Kelsy April

In a way, those two moments nicely bookend a Wi13 education session I attended called "Best Practices for Conducting Staff Meetings." Moderated by Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., the panel featured Kelsy April of Savoy Bookshop (Westerly, R.I.) and Bank Square Books (Mystic, Conn.); Andrea Avantaggio of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, Colo.; and Andy Brennan of Parnassus Books, Nashville, Tenn. 

"Communication is key among our staff," said April, who noted that the bookstores have four different types of staff meetings:

  • Store meeting before opening four or five times per year ("They're basically used as a way to get everyone together in one place. We can look at each other's faces and talk about some big-ticket items.")
  • Ongoing digital meetings using Slack ("Your staff can talk among themselves. They use channels in the same way that Twitter uses hashtags--#Savoy, #BankSquare, #events, #receiving.... It's a fun way to keep up.")
  • One-on-one meetings. "I got this idea from owner Annie Philbrick. She takes the time to sit down with every staff member and says, 'How do you like your job?', 'How's it going?', 'What can we improve on?', 'What do you like?' And that struck me as a very efficient way to talk to booksellers."
  • The "Mini Winnie" ("Essentially Winter Institute in short for our staff.... Now when we send our booksellers to Winter Institute, we say you are responsible for the content of Mini Winnie when you get back, because we're actually going to be doing it again this year."
The need for regular gatherings evolved at Parnassus Books as the store went through its early growing pains. "We knew we needed to have some meetings," said Brennan. "Maybe you've noticed that booksellers aren't fans of meetings. It's not their favorite way to spend their time. So, I think there's some things that you need to keep in mind to make sure that your meetings are effective." He listed three primary rules for staff meetings: deliver information that the booksellers need to do their job properly; provide an opportunity for them to give feedback; and make the meeting concise. For Parnassus, this has evolved into three formats:
  • Annual "informational and motivational" meeting on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
  • Rep breakfasts twice a year, to which the store also invites members of the Nashville literary community (people it partners with on events, public library representatives, etc.). "This is a great opportunity for our staff to interact with that community and build up some relationships with those folks. We think it's really important they have those connections and know who those people are."
  • Twice-daily staff meetings, which "are really essential to get the information to the booksellers that they really need."

Being a smaller bookstore presents its own set of challenges. After experimenting with options at Maria's Bookshop, Avantaggio found the best solution was monthly staff meetings, from 5:15-6:45 p.m., with a relatively loose agenda.

"That's been much more productive," she said. Discovering the most effective solution took some time and adaptation. "I hated meetings when I first started the shop. I would get so nervous. I would write out whatever I had to say. I was so worried that something was going to come up that I wasn't ready for or didn't know how to answer. But what I've realized is that it is such a great place for things to come up and it helps eliminate that kind of snarky sarcasm that can build when somebody does something one way and somebody else does it another way, and nobody's sure what the right way is. It's the perfect forum for that to come out. However you structure it, I think it's important to have an agenda and to give booksellers a chance to talk. It's like smudging your staff, kind of."

I'm thinking about the Avid Books staff, gathering together regularly in the particular quiet that emanates from a bookshop after hours. I'm thinking about the noisy, productive camaraderie of Wi13 in Memphis. And, finally, I'm thinking about something Parnassus' Brennan said:

"When we're competing against discounters and online sources and all the other places that people have where they can go to buy books, we've got to provide something that those people can't. And that's smart, well-informed booksellers who know their stuff, and the only way they can do that is if we're sharing information. Effective staff meetings can provide booksellers with the tools they need to provide the customers the service they need." Let's keep talking.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3177

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