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Threads of Communication at MPIBA Show

I've always loved the curious blend of introspection and conversation that marks any gathering of book people. I thought about that a lot this past weekend at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Colorado Springs, Colo.

On my flight back east Sunday, I studied all the words I'd scribbled in my notebook--the monologues, the dialogues--and certain threads began spinning themselves:

From the practical:

At the "Bookselling in Challenging Times" seminar, Ken Holland, director of field sales, Macmillan Publishers, spoke about the bookseller-publisher credit relationship, which he subtitled in his handout, "Communication Communication Communication."
"Establish a relationship with your credit rep," he advised.

"The more open we got with our vendors, the better," added Catherine Weller, Sam Weller's Zion bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah.

"You have to talk and talk and talk some more," said Tom Montan, Copperfield's Books, Sebastopol, Calif.

An "Authorless Events" seminar featured, appropriately, no authors but loads of ideas, one of the best being the suggestion that bookstores subscribe to one another's e-mail newsletters so they can steal (well, share) great promotional concepts.  

To the compelling:

At Saturday's breakfast event, "Croissants and Conversation with the Authors," Cathy Langer of the Tattered Cover bookstore, Denver, Colo., hosted an extraordinary dialogue between writers Kim Barnes and Steven Rinella.

"I was looking for common threads that would start a conversation," Cathy said in her introductory remarks. The stage had a casual, salon feeling, with wingback chairs and side tables, and the authors responded by engaging one another in a revelatory discussion of their lives and work. Sometimes it felt like we were eavesdropping.

Kim said that author William Kittredge had offered this advice: "When someone reads your memoir, they should come away knowing more about themselves than you." I couldn't help wondering about the possibilities for bookstore variations on this theme, with, for example, two authors appearing to speak about each other's book instead of their own.

Later, introducing another event, Andy Nettell, co-owner of Arches Book Company, Moab, Utah, and president of MPIBA's board of directors, lauded that breakfast when he said, "It's always about the magic of the books; that magic like what happened this morning." Magic indeed.

To the inspiring:

At the regional book awards luncheon Friday, Joseph Marshall III, winner of the nonfiction prize for The Day the World Ended at Little Big Horn, said, "Everything I know I learned in stories. And to be a good storyteller, you have to be a good listener."

During the Gordon Saull Awards ceremony, sales rep of the year Molly Divine of Faherty & Associates observed: "The gift that I have received from booksellers is the gift of family." And bookseller of the year Paula Steige, owner of MacDonald Bookshop, Estes Park, Colo., shared her secret to success: "It's really very easy. You just get everybody around you to make you look good."

To the hilarious:

Saturday's "Author Breakfast for Literacy" featured the comedy stylings of Laura Pedersen, John Hodgman and Chuck Klosterman.

Hodgman led the crowd in a seemingly impromptu rendition of America the Beautiful after briefly outlining the role of Colorado Springs and Pike's Peak in the history of this song, as well as the distinction between Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics, and actress Kathy Bates, who tortured an author in Stephen King's Misery.

Hodgman, best known for his appearances on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and as a PC in Apple computer ads, confessed to a past life that included work as a struggling author ("When I was a writer, I used to have to rent my pants. Now I buy new pants every day.") and added, mischievously, "I love books. I consider them very important and amusing relics of the past."

Klosterman advised booksellers what to look for when trying to handsell to his fans ("People who look like me; people with beards and glasses; a woman who says she really misses her bad relationship . . .").

Then, more seriously, he summed up his feelings about our little corner of the world by saying, "There always are going to be people who want to read and define themselves by books. Probably what you're doing is more important than you realize."

We do realize. On Sunday, while I waited for a connecting flight in Chicago, my Concourse B daze was suddenly interrupted by a man who said, "Excuse me. Do you work at the Northshire Bookstore? I told my wife you do. She doesn’t believe me."

And just like that, two Vermonters were talking books. A new thread.

Editor's note: For those of you wondering about the responses to last week's call for fun novels to handsell, rest assured that our e-mail box overflowed with great suggestions, which we'll share with you right after regional show season. 


Read Any Fun Novels Lately?

Something happened at the bookstore Saturday that compelled me to share what is at once an unsettling and commonplace incident in the lives of most frontline booksellers. A customer asked me the following question:

Can you recommend a novel that is just pure fun?

You know the feeling when that question comes up. You look into the face of this aspiring optimist and you marvel that such a creature still exists. You want to help if you can, especially when your customer smiles and adds:

Everything I read is so depressing. I just want to be entertained.

Life is hard. You understand. And it's not as if you're unprepared to field this deceptively innocent query. You won't laugh or lecture because you are neither an elitist nor an idiot. You accept the challenge, aware that any response except a helpful one is not going to make either of you feel better.

Then you consider your fiction section and think: What the hell is fun? Maybe, somewhere in the mischievous recesses of your bookseller mind you consider a Tolstoyan riff:

All happy novels are alike; each unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way.

If you do not know this customer, you begin where you always begin. You ask questions, get a sense of the wind and water before setting sail. You find some way to delve into their conception of how "fun" might translate to the printed page. Even as you ask about all this, however, other unspoken questions may occur to you.

Are comic novels, where humor often springs from the darkest shadows of human experience, fun? Are serious novels with redemptive endings more fun to read than serious novels with unhappy endings? Is snark fun? Is satire fun? Is literary slapstick fun? Come to think of it, what is literary slapstick and where can I find some?

Among the five or six novels I'm currently reading, I'd nominate Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole as the fun one of the bunch. It is dark and hilarious, with lines that make me laugh out loud alone (an unsettling experience I'm sure you've had, too). What contributes to the fun-ness factor of this relatively dark story is its exquisitely sharp narrative tongue ("People are not mysterious because they never shut up."), and dialogue that snaps with brittle, sometimes painful humor, as in this exchange between mother and teenage son:

"You talk to yourself," she said, placing her hand on my forehead. "Do you have a temperature?"
"A little warm," she said.

"I'm a mammal," I mumbled. "That's how we are."

Is this what my customer meant by "pure fun"? Apparently not, since my noble efforts--replete with energetic description and selected, funny quotes--to convince this particular reader that the prospect of a "fun read" existed between the covers of such a novel generated some laughs but no sale.

In the end, we settled for one of the usual suspects fun titles I can always handsell in this situation. A few of them are opening line hits, where you simply suggest they read the first sentence and try to resist continuing. Others are easy handsells because of particular characters or odd but humorous plots.

Nonfiction readers have it easy. The "Health" section of the Los Angeles Times recently featured a helpful list of "some of the happiness books that have hit shelves in recent months."

And Huffington Post's Lloyd Garver complained he "was in a bookstore the other day, and you know what? It's getting harder and harder--especially in a big chain bookstore--to find a book. I mean a real book. Literature. Or and least something that you can't read while you're also watching TV. The reason you can't find the kind of book you're looking for is that all the self-help books about how to be happy fill up the shelves. Ironically, this makes some of us quite unhappy."

Granted, some of Garver's "happy books" qualify rather tenuously as nonfiction, but what's to be done about my reader who's looking for works of "light" or "entertaining" fiction?  

I could tell you what happy titles I usually recommend, but I'm not going to. Not yet, anyway.

Instead, I'd love to hear what your "fun fiction" answers are to this ongoing sales floor challenge. How do you handle the fun novel question in your bookstore when customers demand their fundamental right to the pursuit of literary happiness?


Listening to Ancestral Voices in Bookstores

Several years ago, in Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris cited these words from Mechtild of Magdeburg, a Cistercian nun and medieval mystic: "Stupidity is sufficient unto itself. Wisdom can never learn enough."

If ever there was an area in bookstores meant for exploration, learning and questioning, the spirituality section would seem to be it, as a quick scan of our shelves will reveal. I concede that not everyone agrees with this theory. I may even envy their certainty, but, as so many booksellers have already noted here, stocking books representing an array of beliefs is the way most bookshops meld spirituality with merchandising.

And yet, even if we begin with a literary sense of inclusiveness and spiritual innocence--William Blake's "To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower"--how can we cram infinity into our decidedly limited, temporal shelf space?

The answer, of course, is that we're booksellers and we always find a way to expand both space and time. According to Valerie Ryan, owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, "I have read with interest the ongoing discussion of the place of religious books in our stores: to proselytize or to ignore? In my case, I chose a different route. Cannon Beach, Ore., is a town of 1,600 people year-round and about a bezillion visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day. One end of town is anchored by a Christian Conference Center of the Fundamentalist stripe. The rest of town is typically West Coast, unchurched and a bit peevish about organized religion.

"I long ago devised a section named 'Philosophies,' encompassing every imaginable religious persuasion. Being the product of a good Jesuit education, I do know the difference between philosophy and theology, but for ease of display, I just play dumb and put Kant next to Why I Am a Catholic. I have all the Desert Fathers, two versions of the Qu'uran, two Kaballah, a Book of Mormon, Chesterton and Merton and C.S. Lewis galore and many others Protestant, Jewish and a few lesser known sects. In this section also go the current spate of books on irreligion or anti-religion. This arrangement either offends no one or everyone, but it works for me."

On the other hand, as a used book buyer and seller, Diane Van Tassell of Bay Books in San Ramon and Concord, Calif., notes that she carries "books that I might not necessarily order from Baker & Taylor. But Christian, Buddhism, Islam and New Age are very big sellers for us. Sometimes certain of those sections are less popular, but a month or two later they are 'hit hard' again. A couple of years back the witchcraft section was very popular, especially in my more urban store.
"We can't keep the Koran in the store because it flies out whenever we get one. Sufism is always popular as are the poems of Rumi. We have a customer who comes in several times a week looking for different Buddhist books and sometimes Hinduism. The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is always a favorite text. Angels and mediums are not so popular now and UFOs are almost dead--yes, we keep that all in religion. Dreams and astrology are popular mostly when they are at eye-level, but they go in cycles. People still ask for Under the Banner of Heaven (Mormon true crime) and a very few are into the Da Vinci secret societies that were very popular a few years ago. Religious fiction is becoming quite popular. Authors like Francine Rivers always sell and the Yada Yada Prayer Group (novels) are gaining in popularity. The Left Behind series by LaHaye has slowed down, but some are still reading it. Bibles are always big sellers and C.S. Lewis seems to be the most popular author. The bottom line is that religion is still popular. More and more people are reading religious fiction because they want to read stories that don't include sex and violence."

And my last word on this series about bookstores and religion? I think I'll defer to Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, in which Querry considers why he still watches a Mass being said in an African leper colony. He is slightly removed from the chapel, yet close enough to hear the indistinct hum of ceremony.

"Ancestral voices," he concludes. "Memories. Did you ever lie awake when you were a child listening to them talking down below. You couldn't understand what they were saying, but it was a noise that somehow comforted."


Bookshop Religion Sections Seek Balance

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all I had and give it to the poor.

This bookseller's parable comes from Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert: Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers. It's a Catholic book, written by a Trappist monk, with requisite Nihil obstat and Imprimatur. It also happens to be a book I believe I could handsell to a reader of any religious faith--or faithlessness, for that matter.

Sharon Roth of Loyola Press originally asked us whether "there is a religious bias by bookstore buyers in ordering religious books--especially Catholic books." I have no straightforward answer for her other than my suspicion that "bias" is not the appropriate word here. Substitute "balance" because that is how most indie booksellers seem to describe their aspirations for building a good religion section.

But what is "balance?"

Is this "balance" achieved in most bookshops?

These are also good questions.     

"As a buyer, I look at the demographic and market that my store is in and completely bypass my own beliefs for the most part," said Katie Glasgow of Mitchell Books, Fort Wayne, Ind. "Being in a predominantly white, middle-class market we have mostly Protestant Christians as a customer base and therefore stock more Christianity texts. But, we stock a wide variety of religious books, everything from the Koran to Apocrypha to Mother Teresa to the Dalai Lama, although recently we decided to limit the amount of books within our religious section since it really wasn't selling."

Stephanie Anderson of the Moravian Bookstore, Bethlehem, Pa., carries books "based on what the interests of the community are. For example, as we are in the middle of a large Moravian community, we tend to heavily promote and merchandise Moravian titles (in fact, Moravian books have their own section in the store). Other religions are best merchandised in terms of popular authors (Deepak Chopra, Karen Armstrong, etc)."

"We have a permanent display table up front for religious books as well as several wall sections," noted Patrick Covington of Accent on Books, Asheville, N.C. "We also do numerous displays at conferences and workshops. As far as some of our customers are concerned we are a religious bookstore. That's what they come to us for." In addition to books on other faiths, Covington stocks "books by the 'new atheists' such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris . . . and they do quite well. Our customers--which include many clergy--don't mind being challenged by such ideas. As for books that seemed to us hateful or downright bigoted, we wouldn't carry those books whether they dealt with religion or any other topic."
Kelley Drahushuk of Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., tries "to appeal to the broadest audience possible in as many religions as possible." She observes that books about atheism are "my best-selling 'religious' titles, hands down. Apparently my store attracts a bunch of heathens. Could it be the fact that we serve beer here?" As to whether a bookstore has any responsibility to the community to carry religious books, Kelley answered, "If the community demands it, then the bookstore would be foolish not to provide it. Responsibility is a strong word though, I think."

Another of Sharon Roth's questions--"Should a bookstore carry the Koran and books about Islam?"--provoked, as might be expected, some heated responses.

"Good god that's a seminal religious text important not only to Muslims but to anyone interested in religious scholarship and ideas," wrote Sheryl Cotleur of Book Passage, Corte Madera (and San Francisco), Calif. "It is not a political book. I cannot imagine a world where an independent bookstore would refuse to carry the Koran and think it important to carry the Bible."

Kelley Drahushuk also wondered if there was "some reason why a bookstore would not carry books about Islam or the Koran? Should a bookstore carry the Bible? I carry books on Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Wicca, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. Heck, I carry a book called Gay Witchcraft that outsells many of the other titles in the section."


Thomas Merton wrote that "these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks in China and Japan." If bookstore religion sections represent an at once small and infinite world, what is "balance" in this context? For most of us, balance is a bookseller's quest, not a destination


Bookstores & Religion: The Buyers' Perspective

At the conclusion of last week's column, I asked booksellers to take a look at their religion/spirituality sections and tell me what they saw. I also included several questions about bookstore buying habits in this category, posed by Sharon Roth, sales representative for Loyola Press.

Before joining Loyola, Sharon "spent many years as a book buyer for a large book operation here in Chicago. I felt it was my responsibility to know my customers and their reading habits. I bought for their interests not my own--at times this was difficult. But I also felt it was my responsibility to have a selection of books that would broaden people's knowledge of the world. Ignorance is dangerous and knowledge is not. For this reason it was my responsibility to stock religious books from all traditions."

Moving from a general to a specific focus meant changing her approach: "Now I am on the other side as a sales rep for a publishing company that publishes books on spirituality and religion. We are a Catholic publisher but many of our books are appropriate for all Christians. For this reason, I have noticed the religious category in many bookstores. I see some stores with very good sections and others with almost no representation."

It is from this new perspective that Sharon first wrote to me, wondering "if there is a religious bias by bookstore buyers in ordering religious books--especially Catholic books."

That might be an easy question to dismiss and a tough one to engage, but I've found that booksellers love the call and response of such engagement. So we'll begin this week with a wide-angle perspective, then get down to specifics next time.

Patrick Covington, co-owner of Accent on Books, Asheville, N.C., describes his business as a general indie bookstore with "a specialty in religion/spirituality books. We tend to avoid carrying stock that you could find in a CBA store (of which there are several in our town), and instead concentrate on 'mainstream' or 'liberal' books dealing with Christianity, as well as books on other religions. In terms of our personal religious beliefs, we're a bit of a motley crew. Our buying choices are a result of both what we have decided to focus on and our own principles--that is, books that deal with faith in an intelligent, challenging, and non-discriminatory way."

At the Moravian Book Shop, Bethlehem, Pa., Stephanie Anderson said she and head buyer Susan Fisher select titles for the religion category "based on what will sell, especially books that are geared toward the layperson. We keep in some academic titles for clergy (there is a seminary nearby), but primarily for the layperson. Must be sure to carry controversial books, books about atheism, books about comparitive religions, etc."

Katie Glasgow, book buyer for Mitchell Books, Fort Wayne, Ind., seeks a middle ground: "We carry both sides of the argument but try not to promote the extremes if we can help it. I just think that, depending on the history of the store and the climate of the area, a bookstore is going to be a place of ideas and the majority of those ideas are not going to agree on any level. But isn't that the point?"

At Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., co-owner Kelley Drahushuk observes that religious belief "really only comes into play because I tend to order things that I would be interested in knowing more about: i.e., I'm Episcopalian, and know very little about any other religions except those of the Christian persuasion. Hence I order books that might help me learn about the other religions in the world and where they are coming from. Not that I eschew Christian titles, I guess I just order the more exotic Christian titles that appeal to my sensibilities."

Carrying "as open and wide a religious section as possible" is the goal for Sheryl Cotleur, buying director at Book Passage, Corte Madera (and San Francisco), Calif.: "We devote several large shelves each to every religious belief system we know of. In our region, Christianity, Judaica and Buddhism do very well, as does some non-traditional spirituality. We do carry books on Islamic beliefs and interest and Sufism, too, and, yes, even books considered against religion. As the buyer, I look for small press and offbeat books in these areas as well as mainstream publisher books. Our philosophy section is next to religion and that does well, too."

Next time we'll wander deeper into the stacks. Feel free to join the biblio-pilgrimage. And don't forget to answer Sharon's question about Catholic titles specifically.