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Saturday
Aug012009

To Read 'Everything About Everything'

Where do authors go when they die? Like the rest of us, of course, their mortal remains are placed in coffins or urns. Often, a requisite memorial shrine of their works is erected briefly on retail mourning displays in bookshops. The New York Times or the Guardian runs an obituary summing up an entire lifetime in a single, reductive headline like "bestselling mystery writer" or "Booker prize winner" or "beloved children's author." Their books, in the best of circumstances, outlive them. Tragic, indeed, is an author who outlives his or her words.

Recently the death of two authors affected me, both professionally and personally, for vastly different reasons. The loss of Frank McCourt was certainly the more publicized one. So much has been written about him that I did not plan to add anything to the chorus, but then another author's demise jarred my reader's conscience.

I didn't really know Frank. I bought him a beer once. He ordered a Heineken, which shattered all my illusions about Irish writers. But I was one of those 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 I had to do whatever I could to get this writer I'd never heard of to the 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.

On the desk beside my laptop as I write this is a first edition of Angela's Ashes, 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, but I don't care. On that cold Vermont night, in the Marsh Tavern at the Equinox Hotel, 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, too.

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.

Yesterday I opened a glass-enclosed bookcase in my office where I keep the signed copies of books that I've acquired over the years. I took out Angela's Ashes and flipped through until I found my favorite sentence:

There are bars of Pear's soap and a thick book called Pear's Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that's all I want to know.

In 1999, at BookExpo in Los Angeles, I saw Frank again at an author breakfast. He was a star by then, but I will always know that I was one of his first readers.

Like writers, however, readers rest on laurels at their peril. Last weekend, British author Stanley Middleton died. Here was a man who wrote 44 novels, won the Booker prize in 1974, and, according to Philip Davis in the Guardian, "went his own way, diffidently tough, formidably serious and unshowily learned."

Davis noted that in a poem, Middleton "recalls the names of all the long-gone families he knew in the gas-lit Bulwell street where he lived as a child":

They had their moment, these folk,
unearned
Centres of verbal interest. Now
they're dead,
I guess. One family I can't put even
vague
Figures to. I am somewhat equivalent.
Somewhat. A circle of light, a centre of
Talk. My name is loosely attached.
Fifty years hence somebody will pull
me
Out of his head. I am not displeased.


Here's my confession. Until I read the Guardian obit, I'd never heard of Middleton. My remedy has been to order two of his books; my remedy is that I will read him now.

Maybe that is eulogy enough.

Where do authors go when they die? They go, if they're lucky, to their readers.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #977.

Saturday
Jul252009

The Future in Retrospect: Portable Indispensables

"The bookstore, when we arrived there, proved to be the most extraordinary sort of bookstore I had ever entered, there not being a book in it. Instead of books, the shelves and counters were occupied with rows of small boxes."--From the story "With the Eyes Shut" by Edward Bellamy, published in 1898.

This cautionary tale begins with a narrator traveling by rail for the first time in years. His regret that he can't read on a moving train is quickly remedied by the offer of "a book which you can read with your eyes shut. . . . We've been furnishing the new-fashioned phonographed books and magazines on this train for six months now, and passengers have got so they won't have anything else."

A list of "the latest novels" is proffered, and he picks "one which I had heard favorable mention of." A small box at the side of his seat is unlocked and 15 cents paid for three hours "reading" time. Soon he hears "the tinkle of a bell," takes "a sort of two-pronged fork with tines spread in the similitude of a chicken's wishbone" from the box, and, for the remainder of his trip, "scarcely altered my position, so completely was I enthralled by my novel experience."

Nineteenth-century audiobooks. Big deal, right? But wait, there's more. He learns that the train cars will soon be equipped with phonographic guide books, connected to the running gear of the cars so that the books "call attention to every object in the landscape, and furnish the pertinent information--statistical, topographical, biographical, historical, romantic, or legendary."

Once at his hotel, a recorded, "charming" female voice wakes him and he hears his friend speak through a personal message machine at the front desk. He also learns a new term when he asks the clerk what happens if a message is sent and "there is no little machine like this at hand to make it speak?":

"In reply the clerk directed my attention to a little box, not wholly unlike a case for a binocular glass, which, now that he spoke of it, I saw was carried, slung at his side, by every person in sight. 'We call it the indispensable because it is indispensable, as, no doubt, you will soon find for yourself.'"

At breakfast, he observes that "a number of ladies and gentlemen were engaged as they sat at table reading, or rather listening to, their morning's correspondence." The waiter brings him a phonograph copy of the Daily Morning Herald.

His friend arrives at last and is amused by the narrator's befuddlement. After visiting a clockmaker's shop to inspect an array of "time-announcers," the men are walking on the street when his friend's portable indispensable rings and he listens to a message from his wife reminding him to pick up some "story-books for the children."

On the way to the bookshop, they discuss the usefulness of "these portable memories" for everything from child-rearing to business, and his friend argues "that nobody any longer pretended to charge his mind with the recollection of duties or engagements of any sort."

At the bookshop, crowds scramble for the latest titles: "'The change seems to be a popular one,' I said, 'to judge by the crowd of book-buyers.' For the counters were, indeed, thronged with customers as I had never seen those of a bookstore before."

These "customers," however, are borrowers, not buyers. His friend explains that while "the old-fashioned printed book" is damaged and devalued by use, and must be "purchased outright or borrowed at high rates of hire," the phonograph of a book can "be lent out at an infinitesimal price."

Asked if people really don't want to own books anymore, his friend counters: "What I said about borrowing books applies only to current literature of the ephemeral sort. Everybody wants books of permanent value in his library. Over yonder is the department of the establishment set apart for book-buyers."

"Everybody" may be an overstatement, since that area is much less crowded.

When the narrator contends that surely picture books can't be replaced, he is shown how, "by the simple plan of arranging them in a continuous panorama," these titles too can be incorporated into the phonograph books phenomenon.

"What has become of printers?" he asks.

You already know the answer to that one, though his friend consoles him with this thought: "Some classes of books, however, are still printed, and probably will continue to be for some time, although reading, as well as writing, is getting to be an increasingly rare accomplishment."

As might be expected, this all turns out to be a dream in the end.

Portable Indispensables--the patent, as always, impending.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #972

Friday
Jul172009

To See the World in a Bookstore Blog

People often say that the greatest pleasures of traveling are finding a sage hidden behind weeds or treasures hidden in trash, gold among discarded pottery. Whenever I encountered someone of genius, I wrote about it in order to tell my friends.--Basho, from his 17th century travel journal, "The Knapsack Notebook" (translated by Sam Hamill).

Although we've primarily been discussing blogs written by individual booksellers in this series, Pat Carrier, owner with his wife, Harriet, of the Globe Corner Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass., asked about blogs that are a group effort. I didn't have to travel far to realize that the Globe Corner's blog is one of the best examples of that option around.

"From the outset, we were concerned that the blog not become the platform of a single or handful of staffers, mainly to insure continuity and variety of content as staff personnel changed," Pat explained. "We also wanted to provide a creative outlet for the many talented folks who work (or have worked) for us while they are traveling."

With that goal in mind, and taking into account the predilection for global wandering inherent in any travel bookshop's staff, it was "decided at the outset to open the blog posts not only to all staff, but alumni staff of the store as well." Pat admitted that the shop was "a little slow out of the gate on blogs because we wanted to be sure we had a somewhat durable structure that would insure ongoing postings as the staff changed. We also spent quite a bit of time thinking about the topical organization of the blog--which turned out perhaps to be less important. Our initial blog 'categories' were: News, Book Reviews, and Notes from the Field. And finally, we wanted a structure that the staff really owned and that the owners/management had little day-to-day control over--except to the extent of making sure the overall thrust of the blog was reinforcing the positive themes of travel and inquisitiveness about the world. Once the company's management launched the blog, it really has been in the hands of the staff since then."

One additional step was to have some editorial oversight "that made sure our posts passed basic grammatical muster and didn't violate any copyright laws--we are after all in the book business," Pat observed. "By the way, most discussions I have seen about blogging and bookstores have paid scant attention to the copyright issues. I can tell you first hand that you need to pay attention because we inadvertently posted a photograph on our main website a couple years ago which we thought was copyright free, but wasn't. It was messy and expensive getting that straightened out."

The Globe Corner blog has a pair of co-editors, Llalan Fowler and Nicole Jones, who review content before it is posted.

"My co-editor and I don't divide up duties, but rather share all responsibilities," noted Llalan, a student in the MFA writing program at Emerson College. "As for my role, I feel my job necessitates staying in the background a lot of the time. The writers are the key to success of this blog. Our authors' different voices are our biggest asset. We have such a wide and wonderful mix of personalities at the store that I want to make sure each one comes through in every post. Each of us looks at travel and travel books uniquely, and I feel my role as editor is to preserve the variety and vibrancy of the blog."

Nicole, who will enter Columbia University's MFA program in creative writing this fall, added that it is "a testament to Pat and Harriet and the great environment they've created at the store that so many alumni want to contribute. It's a wonderful place to work, and I think past employees like coming back and contributing to the blog because they like being a part of the community." (Here are a few examples of alumni posts from Botswana, Tokyo, Scotland and Switzerland.)

According to Nicole, "one of the fun things about our blog is that everyone has developed their own voice in writing about their travels. As a reader, not just an editor, I really look forward to reading new blogs from everyone. I think we're an entertaining group."

Pat enthusiastically agreed : "I'm sure it's pretty clear from the above that I am quite proud of the work that our staff has done in producing the blog. It's been fun to watch the evolution from the sidelines."--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #967

Friday
Jul102009

Bookseller Blogs--Write What Ya Know

As I watched Angels with Dirty Faces recently for the zillionth time, I found myself thinking about this series on bookseller blogs, especially when hoodlum Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) greets his childhood buddy-turned-priest Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien) with, "Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?"

And so, in the spirit of 1930s gangster films, I suggest that we steal the salutation and make it our motto for book trade social networking in the 21st century because, well, larceny is an art form in the information age.

Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?


Can blogs get booksellers in trouble? It's conceivable. Maybe not enough trouble to land them in the Big House, but certainly enough to heighten their awareness of how they present themselves to readers.

When and how to use your blog--whether institutional or personal--to address controversial issues is something we've all dealt with. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo (Written Nerd) notes that "there are some bloggers who have used their public/personal forum quite effectively when there is a real problem that needs to be addressed (Arsen Kashkashian springs immediately to mind). And there have been a couple of times when I've drawn attention to something I thought was wrong--or even complained when I've had a bad day. But even then, the tone is the same online as it is on the sales floor. You can be casual, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be professional. I actually like doing it--it's kind of a pleasant discipline. I've certainly slipped and made some faux pas in writing that offended someone or gave the wrong impression, but for the most part it hasn't been too difficult. There are lots of different temperaments than mine, though, and a lot of different ways of handling this issue--mine is only one."

Kashkashian, head buyer at Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, Colo., observes that on his blog, Kash's Book Corner, he doesn't "have many limits on what I write. I won't write anything that will get me fired and I try not to write anything that will jeopardize the store's position with its customers or publishers. I think I've been able to do that without much trouble. The publishers don't seem to hold my rantings against the store. My boss is quite forgiving so I don't worry much about him. Our customers seem to love the inside scoop that I give them in the blog."

He believes in the importance of candor: "I won't write about a topic if I don't think I can be completely honest about it. I also like topics that stir up some passion in me. That passion can be anger over a publisher's policy or humor over something that seems absurd. Most of all I write the blog for me. I don't want it to be a bookstore blog because I don't want to be held to a schedule and I don't want to feel required to write about anything in particular. I also think that makes finding my voice a lot easier. It has to entertain or provoke me and hopefully by extension it will entertain or elicit some emotion in others."

Writing the in-house blog for Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., Patrick Brown says he "is grateful that Vroman's has basically given me free rein to write about what I want as long as I try, whenever possible, to bring it back to books. We have internal discussions, from time to time, about the direction of the blog. For a while, there was some concern that it was too focused on publishing industry chatter. The feeling was that though these posts attracted a lot of traffic, it was more the choir than the congregation. We're trying to reach out and cover more topics of interest to the local community, as that's our core clientele anyway."

Brown strives to keep his personal blog "as separate from work as possible. I don't link to it (at least not the one I'm using now), and I treat it as my own personal space. That's not to say it's private. I mean, it is a blog, after all. I assume some readership. Even so, I don't tend to advertise on that blog that I work for Vroman's. The two blogs are maintained through different email accounts, and they link to different Twitter and Facebook accounts."

Next week we'll explore the Globe Corner Bookstore's blog, which is a group effort that even includes "alumni staff" contributors.

Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #961

Thursday
Jul022009

Booksellers Writing on the Virtual Borderline 

Like good books, good bookseller blogs are irresistible and, with hard work and a little luck, find their audience. Bad or mediocre blogs tend to stack up like digital bones. You can even carbon date them. If the last post was in 2007, for example, the blog is probably . . . extinct.

We're not here to mourn fallen bloggers, but to explore a few that have succeeded. For many reasons, personal and otherwise, I have long been intrigued by how booksellers manage to write their way successfully along that border between the personal and the bookstore blog.

In last week's column, I mentioned that Megan Sullivan's Bookdwarf blog was an early influence on my efforts. Megan is also head buyer at the Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass. She began working there in 1999, and when she launched Bookdwarf in 2004, "it had nothing to do with work. I just created it one day and started talking about books. It was fun. Other bloggers started reading it and I started reading their blogs. I didn't let anyone know at work about it, but they found out anyway eventually. I've been told that customers have come in asking about Bookdwarf, which I find funny."

Megan adds that although she didn't write specifically about the bookstore except in reference to events or galleys, "I also started writing about the plight of independents a little bit. Perhaps that's why they never complain about me blogging at work. They know that I'd never break confidentiality or use the blog to complain about the store. It can occasionally be difficult to know what I can and can't say as more and more people read my blog. I also like that the blog is mine. Other booksellers I know blog for their store, but I would find that limiting. Bookdwarf is my voice, no one else's."

For Daniel Goldin, the borderline has shifted in recent months. A longtime buyer and general manager for Harry W. Schwartz bookshops, he opened the Boswell Book Company at Schwartz's former Downer Avenue location in Milwaukee, Wis., this year. He is also making the transition to considering blogs as an owner rather than as a staff member.

Daniel notes that when he started the Boswell and Books blog last fall, "I went to Schwartz's owner Carol Grossmeyer, and asked permission to set up a blog, with the idea that it would transition to a possible new bookstore. I also set up our bookseller blog, the Boswellians, in the same way. I bought the domain names for both as well. One of my booksellers, Sarah Marine, has been doing the day-to-day postings, which are done on work time. Sarah is leaving, and another bookseller, Greg Bruce, will be taking over posting. In addition, our buyer/manager Jason Kennedy tried his hand at a personal blog, but wasn't posting enough to make it viable, and has now been posting on the Boswellians as well.

"Though I don't always agree with everything said in every posting, I haven't had any concern so far with what's been said in the blogs. My big beef early on was suggesting to booksellers to hold their in-depth pieces on galleys they read until the book came out. It was my feeling that this was not going to help anyone sell books except Amazon. It was generally accepted by the staff."

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo is currently leading a blog juggler's life. As the events coordinator for McNally Jackson Books, New York, N.Y., she blogged there as well as on the Written Nerd. Now that she has begun the transition to her own Greenlight Bookstore, she's blogging about that (ad)venture, too.

"When you're doing work you love, the line between the personal and the professional is often extremely flexible," Jessica observes. "Your coworkers and customers and clients and vendors and competitors are also your friends. Your professional development is also what you'd be doing in your free time. And when you talk about your product, it's a conversation packed with emotion. That requires a certain amount of diplomacy, as well as a willingness to let the personal become the professional. Everyone decides where to draw the line of conviviality vs. privacy, but there's always some overlap. In that sense, I think being a bookseller is actually great practice for being a blogger, where that personal/professional balance is always a factor. You want to be honest and have fun, but only to a point--there are reasons for keeping things nice, for maintaining relationships."

The conversation continues next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #956