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Friday
Apr012011

Opening Day for MLB's Pop-Up Bookshops*

Last year's false rumor that newly acquired Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford wanted to open an antiquarian bookstore turns out to have been a diversionary tactic. Baseball and books are a team after all.

Fans arriving at stadiums this week for Opening Day are seeing an unexpectedly bookish addition to the usual array of food courts and souvenir stands. Every ballpark now has an official MLB Pop-up Bookshop, thanks to a last-minute deal worked out between Major League Baseball and the American Booksellers Association. The kiosks, designed to resemble dugouts with bookshelves, feature airport bookstore inventory, but with a distinctively indie staff picks twist.

The idea for this project came about last summer when Geoffrey Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., read an article in the Kansas City Star about dwindling attendance at Royals games. The team drew an average of just under 20,000 fans per game in 2010, compared with 46,000-plus for the New York Yankees.

The article was accompanied by a photograph of a Royals fan, sitting by himself in an otherwise empty section and reading a book during the game. Baseball, with its slow pace and intermittent action, is a sport particularly suited to the reading life.

"My first thought was 'baseball and reading: the perfect combination.' Most people wouldn't bring a book to the stadium, but they might buy one there," said Jennings. "So I made an appointment with the Royals P.R. department. They were very receptive to the idea, and by mid-August we had a rudimentary pop-up bookstore in place at Kauffman Stadium."

The experiment proved to be such a success that Jennings shared his story with colleagues during the Midwest Booksellers Association fall trade show, and ultimately with ABA's Len Vlahos.

"After that, things moved fast," said Vlahos, who approached other regional bookseller associations to help coordinate the plan. Using Jennings's initial connection with the Royals' front office, Vlahos was able to meet with MLB officials and work out a preliminary deal that has resulted in the soft opening of MLB Pop-Up Bookshops this week. Proceeds from sales will be split between the regional associations and MLB. The kiosks and promotional materials feature three logos--MLB, ABA and the appropriate regional association.

At one point during the negotiations, MLB executives began exploring a possible deal with Barnes & Noble or Hudson News, but the ABA and regional associations kept the pressure on, pointing out that shopping local is important for big cities, too. The chains--like a pop-up, an easy out--were soon gone from the scene. 

The negotiations were top secret. "We weren't absolutely sure until the last minute if this was going to come together, so we couldn't announce it until now," said Vlahos. "We think it's another great new way to get the 'shop indie' message across."

MLB Pop-Up Bookshops will carry books only. MLB spokesman Rick Simpson said, "We already sell non-book items at our concession stands, and we decided that magazines would not create the right impression on television. A fan reading a book is multi-tasking; a fan flipping through a magazine just looks bored."

Although MLB is putting a positive spin on the addition of bookshops in all stadiums, some analysts say the real advantage will be for bad teams like the Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates, who struggle to attract fans as the season wears on and wears out. At least three teams are already planning late-summer Bookmark Nights.

Even good teams can take advantage of the option, however. Book lovers are everywhere, on the field and off. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa "is an avid reader who would like to own a bookstore." Chicago Cubs outfielder Fernando Perez is a published poet who studied creative writing at Columbia University. And World Series hero Brian Wilson, the quirky closer for the champion San Francisco Giants, "has an abiding interest in crossword puzzles" and recently fulfilled a lifelong dream when he became a New York Times crossword clue.

The Red Sox owners sponsor the Great Fenway Park Writers Series, and the Boston Globe boasted that "only in one major or minor city could a sports franchise fuse the disparate passions of baseball and books into an enterprise as successful as this."

Sound like fighting words to me. Will MLB's Pop-Up Bookshops answer that challenge? On Opening Day, anything's possible.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1429.

*Note: This essay appeared in the annual April Fool's Day issue, so no, you won't be finding any MLB Pop-Up Bookshops at ballparks... this year.

Sunday
Mar272011

At Home with a Bookseller's Books

"Bookshelves up a staircase, a corridor of books joining two rooms, book walls that partition a room, define rooms in open space, a house occupied by books from entrance hall to attic dormer, books hidden behind mirrored doors to preserve the private memory and creative privacy of a writer, books in the bathroom, books stacked on side tables awaiting disposition, piled on bedside tables where people read, propped up by pillows... like children, there is no end to the persistent, lovable, but sometimes intolerable presence of books."
--from At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries.

During the past eight months, and for the first time since I was a child, I haven't been surrounded by books at home or at work, after decades spent filling bookshelves with a steady accumulation of volumes new and old. In the apartments and houses where I lived, there were always bookcases in the living room and in my office; and books stacked in little to-be-read piles here and there throughout the rooms.

Before moving to this house last summer, we scouted the premises and imagined how the large, high-ceilinged white rooms, with their wood floors and walls of windows, might complement our book collection. Ultimately, however, we opted to nurture the open space and create a library in the finished basement guest room. That's where our books are now--aisles of them--below the surface of the earth, as if hidden from barbarians.

Near my office desk is a single bookcase, but only the bottom two shelves hold any volumes, mostly reference works and several ARCS just passing through. "Hi. Read me. No? See ya." Others will replace them. As the wise ones say, you never step into the same ARC river twice.

I hadn't really considered how radically my domestic book environment altered until I read a pair of articles this week. The first was Mark Medley's "Confessions of a book hoarder" in the National Post's Afterword blog, where he wrote, "I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten rid of a single book.... I think the severity of my problem finally dawned on me a few weeks ago. After much pleading from my girlfriend, I finally spent an afternoon pruning my book collection. The shelves themselves have long since began to buckle; the weight of the books reshaped them from a sturdy, even plank into a smile, as if they are laughing."

Another perspective surfaced in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, where Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of the Strand bookstore in New York City, spoke about the care and feeding of her 2,000-title personal collection. Anyone who has spent time wandering the Strand's vertiginous "18 miles of books" might expect Wyden to say there were no books in her Manhattan home. Instead, we learned that she "allows herself to display 500 books, which include antique leather-bound books from the 1800s and works of contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Ms. Wyden houses the books in a dark-wood, built-in structure with adjustable shelving, which allows her to change up the display."

"A person's library is a reflection of the person's taste and interests," said Wyden, who added that the key to a healthy book collection is constant editing. "If it keeps getting tweaked, what you have is more meaningful. It keeps your library fresh, and you feel more engaged with what's in there."

But I haven't just edited my collection to keep it fresh; I managed to edit a lifelong book environment. I do love my books, but will also admit I have enjoyed not being engulfed in them day and night. Now I can even single out titles as individuals, choosing which ones will occasionally spend some time aboveground before returning to the shelves below.

I suspect that after years of reading and bookselling, writing and editing, I gradually became biblio-nearsighted. I could see row upon row of jacket spines at the bookstore or in my home, but they tended to blur up close.

Basement library as corrective lens.

At the moment, there is one book on my desk. I just made a special trip to find it, carried the volume upstairs and thumbed through its pages, looking for remembered sentences about stairs and books: "The staircase had lost its lower steps during the fire that was set before the soldiers left. She had gone into the library, removed twenty books and nailed them to the floor and then onto each other, in this way rebuilding the two lowest steps."

Soon I'll bring my book downstairs, out of sight again, but never out of mind.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1423.

Sunday
Mar202011

A Bookseller's March Madness Pick

"I am a believer in the power of words."--Mike Krzyzewski, Beyond Basketball: Coach K's Keywords for Success

In my occasional role as unofficial Shelf Awareness sports editor, I've been wondering what I could write about March Madness. Also known as the NCAA basketball tournament, this annual rite of spring is currently underway nationwide. How could I connect it to the book trade?

I studied other MM game plans. Jacket Copy recently wrote about the "crazy proliferation of March Madness book contests," in which literary bracketologists match wits and obsessions in the Tournament of Books (the granddaddy of them all), the Battle of the Kids' Books, the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks and Out of Print's inaugural Book Madness tourney. Persephone magazine is hosting Middlemarch Madness. I even memorized McSweeney's "Intramural Basketball Names for English Majors."

Then, last week, the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C., provided my inspiration with its Spring Break/ACC Tournament sale. In its store e-newsletter, the Regulator had the following offer: "Today through Sunday, get an extra 10% off all new books and cards when you say 'Go Duke,' or 'Go Heels,' or 'Go (ACC team of your choice)' when you bring your books to our sales counter. And you can sign up for a chance to win one of two $25 'Tournament Special' gift certificates that we'll be raffling off this weekend. Come on by the bookshop before, after, or in-between the games. Or come during the games if you don't much care who wins--the store won't be as crowded then!"

That was my madeleine moment, college basketball style. A memory surfaced that, in a coincidentally ACC/NCAA/Proustian way, explains why I'm picking the Duke University Blue Devils to win this year's championship... again.

During the mid-1990s, while I was working for the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt., Nike hosted some kind of conference at the Equinox Resort nearby. Several Division I college basketball coaches were attending--all, I assume, with Nike shoe contracts at the time. I recognized many of them, but two that have stuck in my memory were Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Gary Williams of Maryland, both of whom still have their jobs.  

On one of the conference nights, downtown Manchester shops stayed open later than usual for a special Nike shopping tour. While the Northshire might not seem like a natural gathering place for this group, it also happened to be the temporary site of Equinox's mobile bar. We rearranged the children's section (sorry, kids) to accommodate the booze station, and the setup attracted a good crowd.

I remember overhearing one coach say, as he walked past the service counter: "I hate bookstores; they remind me of libraries." I didn't take it personally and I didn't fall prey to jock stereotyping. After all, I played college sports and majored in English long ago.

Few people fit neatly into stereotypes.

Earlier that afternoon, long before the evening festivities, I was helping a customer with some art books. He'd already found several titles he wanted to purchase--most, but not all, remainders--and asked about a couple of others, building a healthy stack. Soft-spoken, he looked and acted like any other customer, but I recognized him immediately as Mike Krzyzewski, the head basketball coach at Duke.

I didn't say anything about knowing him. Northshire's unofficial celebrity policy was to simply respect their privacy. Coach K was polite and unassuming. I was impressed. Eventually, I rang up his order and he left. Simple transaction.

The next morning, he returned and sought me out. For a moment, I thought maybe he'd heard about my jump shot, wanted to know if maybe I still had a year of eligibility left--despite being in my mid-40s--and would play a season for Duke.

No, I didn't think that.

"Excuse me," Krzyzewski said. "I don't know if you remember me, but I bought some art books from you yesterday and forgot to use this." He handed me a coupon we were honoring as part of the Nike event. It was good for a free coffee table book about Vermont with a minimum purchase. Such a simple moment, but the way he approached this interaction--unassuming, undemanding, courteous--told me something about the man.

"I remember," I said, and went to get his free book. Another pleasant exchange, and that was it. I've been a Coach K fan ever since, so I'll be rooting for Duke again in this year's NCAA tournament because, well, he bought some books from me a long time ago.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1418.

Monday
Mar142011

Celebrating 'Mom & Pop' Bookstores 2.0

Did you know that March 29 is National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day? I learned about it in a recent e-newsletter from Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich, Mass. Store manager Vicky Titcomb said they discovered the holiday by "lucky coincidence," and decided at a staff meeting to celebrate this year with an event paying tribute to her parents, Ralph and Nancy, who founded the bookstore in 1969.

"In our minds, the perfect, positive response to the closing of the Borders stores was to celebrate the smaller independent family bookshops, such as ours," Vicky recalled. "Like many, many independent bookshops, ours is a family-owned business, so the idea of celebrating my parents, who founded the business and are still quite active in it, was perfect. We'll make some treats, serve coffee and tea and decorate--it will be a little party."

Vicky grew up in the book trade "and was very proud of what my parents did." During the early years, they sold only antiquarian books, beginning as a mail-order store in Connecticut. "I remember helping to collate the catalogues my father prepared. He would put stacks of pages on the dining room table and we'd all walk around the table compiling the catalogue and getting it ready to mail. The fun would really start in the coming days when the phone would ring and the books would be sold."  

When the family moved to East Sandwich and opened their bricks-and-mortar location, Vicky, a high school sophomore, was "delighted to earn $1 per hour in the bookshop after school or on weekends." She left for college in 1972, returning in 1991 to help out in the bookshop.

"My dad was the expert in old books and he was very patient in teaching me and letting me make mistakes," she said. "In general, it's been an evolution of responsibilities as I learned more about the business. I feel like the bookshop is an incredible gift. Everyone who knows my parents knows that they have run a good and honest business. There's a lot of good will they have earned over the years."

One of the primary challenges a "mom & pop" business faces "is dealing with the natural hierarchy of a family--parents taking care of everything, older children generally the boss of the younger ones," she observed. "It can be tough for everyone to make that shift in roles as a business matures and responsibility and decision making shifts from older to younger. I've been blessed with very patient and supportive parents, which has made this transition easier."

Vicky credits former ABA CEO Avin Domnitz for providing a platform through which the Titcombs could begin talking about money and finances, which "made us a much healthier business. When we were growing up, we really didn't talk about money in our family--except that with a large family, we knew we needed to be thrifty. It was really hard and awkward for all of us to talk about money in the business. I remember almost putting the store under at one point by buying too much inventory. I had no idea of the effect of inventory on cash flow and profitability. Once we really started looking at the company financials, I realized how important it was to get on track. It took a long time to get out from under that debt, but we did it."

The "transition" from one generation to the next has really been a gradual development. "There wasn't one moment when things changed," Vicky noted. "Things just evolved. For example, we began stocking more and more new books in the shop, and that wasn't an area my father was interested in. Selling used and rare books on the Internet really changed the way we did business. We loved it, but it was not as much fun for my father any more. Much more time was spent listing books on the computer and shipping them out. There was less customer loyalty--everything is based on price on the Internet. On the other hand, I was excited about the possibilities and not as tied to the way things used to be. Looking at all the changes of today's bookstore, I sometimes think I feel like my father felt years ago." 

Vicky also expanded some areas of the business her parents were less interested in, like new children's books and events: "Our events have grown and become an important part of our business. My parents have always encouraged me to grow the business. And we talk about where we want the business to be and who will do what."

Many of those conversations take place during staff meetings in her parents' house, to which the bookstore is attached. "The kitchen is our lunch room, too," Vicky said. "I make everyone feel like part of the family, I think. My dad is more or less retired from the bookshop, but I know I can call on him when I need his help or just need to talk something out. My mom buys the greeting cards and stationery, and we get lots of compliments on her choices. She is always there to help with any special events, make a sign, or pitch in for almost anytime we need her. She has a great sense of style and makes great signs and displays."

"Mom & Pop." It does have an old-fashioned ring, though many of the country's best and longest running indie bookstores began as family operations. Vicky admits she's not a big fan of the term "because there's an implication that a mom and pop business would not be up to date in technology and the latest developments in its industry--and most of us run very good, up to date businesses. But I'm happy to celebrate National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day as one more way to raise people's awareness of the special small businesses that are such an important part of our communities--particularly bookshops, of course. In general, we keep our focus on serving our communities well over the long haul--we're not looking for a quick buck, but work to build our businesses and we value each employee."

Maybe this year we should celebrate Mom & Pop Bookstores 2.0.

The generational transition for Titcomb's Bookshop is an ongoing process, Vicky noted. "Honestly, in most ways I really don't think about it being 'their' store or 'mine.' I think of this as very much a family business and we are all family. Everyone in the family helps out from time to time, depending on their interests and our needs. It's wonderful to see how proud the next generation is of their bookshop."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1413.

Sunday
Mar062011

Soon to Be a Minor Motion Picture

Publishers love movies. Readers love movies, though often not quite as much as they love the books from which those films were adapted. There's even a mantra: "The book was better."

Oscar really loves books, too, as last Sunday's Academy Awards proved once again (Shelf Awareness, February 28, 2011). Book-to-film adaptations have long found favor with Academy voters. Decade after decade, any sampling of Best Picture winners turns up books like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), All the King's Men (1949), From Here to Eternity (1953), Tom Jones (1964), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Ordinary People (1980), The English Patient (1996), No Country for Old Men (2007) and many, many more.

In bookshops you'll often find movie tie-in book displays. Long before those special editions are published, books being cloned for screen life feature caveat emptor stickers or embossed gold medallions proclaiming: "Soon to be a major motion picture." I'm not sure the phrase "motion picture" is used much now except on these books. It has the musty feel of "silver screen." It sounds like something Louis B. Mayer or Darryl F. Zanuck would say 75 years ago.

Since "Soon to be a major motion picture" on a book jacket is essentially rendered meaningless by nature of its ubiquity and creakiness, I wonder what might happen if, as a bookstore customer, I ever saw a variation on that theme, like "Soon to be a minor motion picture" or "Soon to be a movie worth seeing... we hope." Even a minimalist approach would be an improvement: "Soon to be a movie." A couple years later, perhaps old movie tie-in editions could have new stickers confessing: "Seemed like it would be a major motion picture."

I love books and I love movies. Sometimes I even love films based on books. I accept that adaptation is an inexact art; that the movie is not the book and vice versa. "I'm always trying to make something that is impossible to film," said Kazuo Ishiguro. "Why would somebody just read a novel when they can see it on TV or in the cinema? I really have to think of the things fiction can do that film can't and play to the strengths of the novel. With a novel you can get right inside somebody's head."

And yet, I think Remains of the Day is an excellent book and movie. I am also fond of some adaptations of novels I've never read--Enchanted April, The Shining, Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). I even have a few favorite adaptation actors, including Anthony Hopkins (Remains of the Day, Howards End, The Silence of the Lambs) and Emma Thompson (too many to mention, and not all of them with Hopkins). Looking to a new generation, I have high lit/film expectations for Mia Wasikowska (Defiance, Alice in Wonderland and the upcoming version of Jane Eyre).

There are a handful of movies that have come acceptably--if not perfectly--close to the imagined film in my mind as I read each book. I've seen them dozens of times, and own the DVDs (or, in one case, the VHS tape because the world has apparently abandoned Denisovich altogether). These are among the choices that would be on my iPad Movie Mixtape:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
A Month in the Country
Being There
Brideshead Revisited (1981 mini-series)
True Confessions

But if there is a book-to-film category that does not get enough credit or attention, it's one I now think should have its own Oscar category: Worst Adaption of an Original Literary Work but I Love It Anyway.

And the winner is... The Comedians.

Starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and based (I use the term loosely) on Graham Greene's novel set in François "Papa Doc" Duvalier's Haiti, this is one of the lamest literary adaptations in film history. That's an exaggeration, I know, but we're talking Hollywood after all. So here's my confession: I love this film almost as much as I do the novel. May Graham Greene's ghost forgive me.

Your own confessions and nominations for this award are welcome. While everyone else is focusing on "Soon to be a major motion picture" displays, let's gather nominations for the Worst Adaption of an Original Literary Work but I Love It Anyway award.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1407.