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The Hare & the Tortoise vs. the Cyborgs

What if the hare and the tortoise, having resolved Aesop's Relative Speed Conundrum centuries ago, had to join forces to battle an army of evil cyborgs that were consuming our time, literally and figuratively?

Did someone say literary mash-up? Wait, I'd better text my agent!

Here's a question I hope will start a new book trade conversation here: When considering your relationship with electronic devices, social media and other online tools, are you a hare (up to speed but still losing the race), a tortoise (in the race, but taking it one step--and one device--at a time) or a fully armed cyborg (earbuds plugged in, laptop engaged, iPhone/Blackberry at hand)?

In recent months, I've noticed several articles on the Slow Media Movement and thought it worth discussing, especially in an industry like ours where many of us move seamlessly (more or less) from desktops to laptops to smartphones throughout the day and often well into the night. And where the now thoroughly virtual line between personal and professional life appears to have dissolved.

Last November, APR's Marketplace program featured a segment that defined the Slow Media trend this way: "Kinda like slow food, but without the food. Slowies write letters, and, you know, talk to each other, offline. They like to do one thing at a time."

Jenny Rausch, one of the Slowies interviewed, has a blog called "Slow Media: A compendium of artifacts and discourses regarding digital disenchantment and the possibilities for a less-mediated life." This week she wrote in response to a recent New York Times article about the increased time pressures and workloads placed on many contemporary workers.

"Would your life be better if you only worked 40 hours a week?" Rausch asked. "If your work didn't follow you home, and wherever you go? If you enjoyed time spent with friends and family without distraction? If you got extra compensation for extra work, or reclaimed those surplus hours for moonlighting at another (paid) job?"

Slow Media isn't the same as no-media. Slow Media even has a Facebook page.

The tortoise and the hare are still in the race, but now so is the cyborg, and even "the fox yonder," who was recruited to umpire Aesop's classic competition, may not be qualified or sharp-eyed enough to declare the winner of a contest with a digitally altered finish line.

Carl Honore praised Slow Thinking in the Huffington Post last fall, noting that even Google "understands the need to step off the spinning hamster wheel in the workplace. The company famously encourages its staff to devote 20% of their time to personal projects. That does not mean brushing up on World of Warcraft or updating Facebook pages or flirting with that hot new manager in Accounts. It means getting the creative juices flowing by stopping the usual barrage of targets, deadlines and distractions."
It seems appropriate in an Aesop's Fables–inspired column that Honore concludes: "The moral of the story is that, even in the high-speed modern world, slowness and creativity go hand in hand."

The New Yorker's George Packer recalled the debut of William F. Buckley's National Review, "whose original mission statement, back in 1955, declared that the magazine 'stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.'"

While dragging his feet a bit in the virtual sand, Packer does concede that he may have get a Blackberry at some point or he "won’t be taken seriously as a Washington journalist and phone calls from my retrograde Samsung cell phone will go unanswered. On Amtrak between New York and Washington I sit in the Quiet Car with my phone off, laptop stowed, completely unreachable, and find out if I’m still capable of reading for two hours."

Near the end of Don DeLillo's Point Omega, a woman and a man study Douglas Gordon's video installation "24 Hour Psycho," which projects the Hitchcock classic film on a translucent screen and slows it down to the duration of a full day.

"She told him she was standing a million miles outside the fact of whatever's happening on the screen," DeLillo writes. "She liked that. She told him she liked the idea of slowness in general. So many things go fast, she said. We need time to lose interest in things."

So here again is your literary mash-up question: In your work and life, are you a hare, a tortoise or a cyborg? Embarrassing personal anecdotes always welcome.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1130.


Launching Flyleaf Books, Part 2

In last week's column, Jamie Fiocco shared some of her early impressions as co-owner of three-month-old Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C. This time we'll hear from her partners in business and bookselling, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold.

Describing her experience since the bookshop's November opening, Sarah asked, "Can I say roller coaster? It has certainly had its highs and lows. Opening, the holiday rush, our grand opening event, were all fantastically exciting and invigorating. Temper that with occasional bouts of terror. I've been a small business owner previously, so I am not surprised at the amount of time and energy it takes to tackle the 'business' end of things, i.e., accounting, but thanks to Jamie all of that is going smoothly."

The word community gets a lot of attention in the bookselling world, and all three owners embrace the concept enthusiastically.

"I cannot say enough about the community support we've received," Sarah noted. "Customers have literally grabbed my hand to thank us for opening an independent bookstore. What this really says to me is that independent bookstores can really be considered to be part of a good civic infrastructure, just as libraries are. Local media were also very instrumental in spreading the early word and have continued to do stories on us. Industry support has been strong. Our sales reps were key to our opening on time with the stock we needed."

Land added that "word-of-mouth has been our best advertising--from friends and family, of course, but also from book lovers in the community. Friends tell friends, neighbors tell neighbors--a local hair stylist wanted some bookmarks to let some of her clients know about us. Social networking exists outside of the internet."

Under the category of "best laid plans," I asked whether the size of certain category sections in the bookshop had to be adjusted as they transitioned from the conception stage to the daily reality of customer demands.
"After placing our initial orders, I was a little worried that I focused too much on the kind of books I like," Land observed, "too much literary fiction, too many books in translation, too many cool covers. But they’ve been selling, those midlist authors on their fifth book who have never got a sniff at the bestseller list, but deserve to be read. But that’s our niche, giving Padgett Powell as much or more shelf space as Stephen King."

There were "no huge surprises, but still pleasant ones," Jamie added, "big demand for poetry, Spanish-language literature, cooking (this section was already big), eastern philosophy and used books in general."
As children's department buyer, Sarah hasn't made any section adjustments yet, since "it's playing out pretty much as I expected, but with a bump in interest in bilingual books and perhaps less of a YA audience than I had hoped for."

Appropriately enough, the books lining Flyleaf's shelves were cited by Sarah as her most pleasant surprise thus far: "From my viewpoint, I am extremely proud of our inventory selection. All three of us literally hand-picked almost everything in the store and we really never were caught short or lacking in too much. I was very pleased to have most of what our customers were looking for and have gotten very positive feedback on what a great selection we have."

Land gave high marks to "our patient and knowledgeable staff, especially our first two hires, Anna and Mike. It’s hard to open a store; it must be excruciating to watch it happen. They aren’t yet seasoned booksellers, but they are eager, intelligent and personable and know about a lot of things I don’t. What more can you ask?"

Having attended ABA's Winter Institute earlier in the month for the first time as an owner, he recalled that the "biggest difference was that this time I looked around at all the veteran bookstore owners and asked myself a few questions: How do I get our store as iconic as theirs? Is it still possible? What innovative ways are they facing the future? What am I bringing to the table?"

In summing up Flyleaf's brief history, Land's personal reaction may be representative of his colleagues' impressions as well: "I’m pretty dense at times, so it takes some time for reality to impress upon me. It happened in stages. When I first saw our cash wrap half-finished in a wood shop nearby, my heart leapt. When our logo was finalized, my heart leapt again. After the carpet and paint and bookshelves were installed, I had another moment. But not until a late night after one of our first days, when I walked through the dark store, with some books finally on the shelves, did all the elements come together to make me realize what I had had a part in creating."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1125.


Flyleaf Books at the Beginning of Its Story

I met Jamie Fiocco, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold last September at SIBA's trade show in Greenville, S.C. In a column I wrote after the SIBA show, I said I'd been immediately impressed by their collective knowledge and passion as booksellers, as well as their undeniable courage as business people. Their new bookstore, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., had its soft opening in November and a successful grand opening January 9.

Now that the bookshop is three months old--and with so many news stories appearing about bookstores on their last legs--it seemed like a good time to explore an indie that is on its first legs. Every bookstore is a story, and this one just hit the "Once upon a time" stage. For the next couple of weeks, the Flyleaf crew will share some early impressions of their new lives as bookstore owners. Jamie got the conversation started.

When Flyleaf Books hosted its grand opening, they had anticipated a crowd of about 150 people. "I got 125 wine glasses, thinking we’d have extras, and we had 350 show up," Jamie recalled, noting that community support "has been very, very good. I’ve bumped into folks in town talking about the store; folks walk in the door every day and immediately thank us for being brave enough to open an independent bookstore in town. We were overwhelmed with how many folks didn’t hesitate to become Flyleaf members or to buy gift certificates from us for their holiday gifts. Industry support has been equally positive. The reps and publishers made everything from their end move very easily. The other folks in the industry--media, vendors--were very supportive as well. I think with all the shifting going on in the publishing world folks were happy to have a positive project to be excited about."

After years as a frontline bookseller, being an owner has been "exhilarating and exhausting," Jamie observed. "It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk to customers and to explain to them why the store is a certain way, or why we carry a certain book or type of book (or don’t carry them). It’s a whole new crowd of folks to introduce to all your favorite books and authors. And, on a different note, it’s nice having veto power in my back pocket, meaning I (we) have the ability to say 'no' when dealing with a customer, vendor or a self-published author who is being unreasonable. There have been a few times where someone was pushing an idea that didn’t dovetail with the store’s goals and it was nice to be able to tell them nicely that I just wasn’t interested."

I wondered if there was an aspect of the bookstore that they were uncertain about before opening, but have found exceeded expectations. She cited Flyleaf's events space: "We have a 1600-square-foot dedicated events space that we are using for readings. It’s the old aerobics/yoga room from the gym that used to be in this space, so the acoustics are great and there’s a beautiful wooden floor. We’ve been taken by surprise at how many community groups want to use the space for meetings, musical groups that want to use the space for performance, and all sorts of literary groups--writing classes, open mics, poetry slams--that need a space to meet regularly. We have had to develop rules about who can use the space; first priority to author events, then other events with a book tie-in. We’ve even developed a fee schedule for non-literary groups to rent the space when we don’t need it otherwise. We had a Phase Two in mind for the events room, and we’ve already moved ahead with part of that in installing a really nice AV projector and screen so we can accommodate DVD presentations and films in the room."
And what's personal life been like for the new bookstore owners? "I’ve had to almost completely abandon the notion of life outside the bookstore; since Sept 2 it’s been nonstop," Jamie admitted. "We’ve been open for 90 days now and we’re finally at the point where Land and I have discussed having regular days off. We don’t know when those days are yet, but we’ve been able to take a few here and there. We’ve got an employee who is able to close for us on weekends. Sarah’s been the rock; she opens the store 9 a.m. Monday through Friday and works into the early afternoon so Land and I can sleep in a bit. My husband has been very understanding; we talked about it before we started this project and decided two years of chaos was a fair price. Land and I have gotten pretty good at simply telling the other to go home and get some sleep. I absolutely cannot imagine doing this alone."

More from the Flyleaf Books crew next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1120.


How Do We Love Books? Let Us Count the Events

How about a little retail tough love? According to the National Retail Federation's unromantically named 2010 Valentine's Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, couples will spend an average of $63.34 on gifts for their spouse or S.O., compared to $67.22 last year.

That, my friends, is still a lot of potential book love, and my e-mail inbox this week has been a digital bouquet of newsletters from bookstores nationwide inviting patrons to give Valentine's Day a literary twist.

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., started the celebration last night with a panel discussion "on the subject of bittersweet romance," and tonight "the romance theme continues with chocolate, champagne and paper craft" from Esther Smith's The Paper Bride: Wedding DIY from Pop-The-Question to Tie-The-Knot and Happily Ever After.

There's also a lovefest going on at Nantucket Bookworks, Nantucket, Mass., where owner Wendy Hudson--in her "loverly" e-mail newsletter--showcased an "I heart Bookworks!" video and wrote: "It's that time again when we say... 'We Love You, Dear Reader!'" Also, check out her recap (aka bookseller-to-bookseller video love letter) of a visit to San Francisco's legendary City Lights bookstore during her recent trip to ABA's Winter Institute.

Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., sent a letter to her customers noting: "With Valentine's Day around the corner, I thought, what better time to share some of my favorite reads on love? I will give this disclaimer--my idea of a good read about love does not involve the traditional boy-meets-girl story with a happily ever after ending. I'd rather read a book that explores all the dimensions of love in all its complexity--happy and unhappy." See Roxanne's Picks, as well as the bookshop's Valentine's Day selections for its Just the Right Book program.

Inspired by a line from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night--"If music be the food of love, play on."--the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C., is hosting a cabaret tonight in celebration of Valentine's Day: "Bring your spouse, date, best friend, lover, significant other, main squeeze, life partner, POSSLQ, or soul mate, and see if we can figure out 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'" 

A "Love Your Readers Sale" is being held at the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., where they wanted "to give a special Valentine to our customers to say 'Thank you for making us your bookstore--we love you!' Shop at The Galaxy Bookshop the week of February 8-13, spend $20 or more on a book, and receive a delicious treat from LePre Bonbons--or--Spend $20 or more on a book to get 14% (in honor of February 14th, of course) off a second book for your Valentine!"

Sometimes love is dangerous. At Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, Calif., "love is in the air when best-selling romance author Joan Brady visits for a Valentine's Day book-signing of her mystical new love story, The Ghost of Mt. Soledad."

Kids love Valentine's Day, too. After all, who do you think actually eats those Sweethearts candies? Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass., has invited children "to a very special Valentine's Day Story and Craft Hour with children's author, Corinne Demas and Odyssey's children's manager, Rebecca Fabian" on Saturday.

And the Twig Book Shop, San Antonio, Tex., features an event Saturday titled, "Junie B. Jones Learns Some Valentine's Manners," during which Miss Anastasia and the bookstore are "hoping to help Junie B. Jones with her Tea Party etiquette," with a little help from Margaret Houston, Children's Etiquette Instructor from Protocol School of Texas.

Last Saturday, Tattered Cover Books, Denver, Colo., hosted a "Handmade Valentine Fundraiser" where guests could buy handmade valentines created by the "talented young poets of the Metro Denver Promotion of Letters (MDPL), a writing center for kids." The aspiring poets were available to help "create the perfect message for loved ones," and all proceeds from the event went to "help fund publishing these young authors."

But what would the holiday be without a dissenting opinion? Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., hosts an Anti-Valentine's Day Party this Sunday and proclaims that "Valentine's Day does not have to be the most dreaded holiday of your year anymore....  Make your own voodoo doll, swap stories of dates gone wrong, and enjoy a little food and drink!"

Romance will endure, no doubt, especially if writers have anything to say about it--and they do. In a world that has permitted "tweet me" and "text me" to enter the traditional Sweethearts candy lexicon, it's reassuring to know that old-fashioned love of books and bookshops can still be a great retail aphrodisiac.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1115.


'Well-met in Chester' at New Voices 2010

Colum McCann inscribed a copy of Songdogs, his first novel, to me in January, 1996, with the words: "Well-met in Chester on a winter evening, with great thanks for your supporting my work. Sláinte." Last fall, he won the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin. I was thinking about that narrative arc last weekend when I attended the afternoon readings for New Voices 2010 in Chester, Vt.

Hosted by Bill and Lynne Reed of Misty Valley Books and celebrating its 16th anniversary, New Voices was started by the bookstore's original owners, Dwight Currie and Michael Kohlmann. After the Reeds purchased Misty Valley in 2001, they not only continued the tradition, but eventually added Vermont Voices and a Gourmet Mystery Series to their seasonal schedule, thanks in part to the success of this original event.

Guest authors for New Voices this time were Deborah Copaken Kogan (Between Here and April), Elena Gorokhova (A Mountain of Crumbs), James Landis (The Last Day), Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky) and Matthew Dicks (Something Missing).

"This year's New Voices, which you can imagine we spend some thought and effort on, coalesced early," Bill observed. "Lynne always scouts first timers in the catalogs and gets galleys. She keeps in touch with publishers, and we always go prospecting at BEA and NEIBA for possible New Voices, with documentation in hand of previous events. This year we had a credible roster early, and we had both read the books of the five authors we finally invited. Publishers were very helpful this year, too, pointing us in the right direction. We were pretty sure by the fall that we had a good group."

The day began with cross-country skiing in the morning, followed by the afternoon reading/signing at a beautiful stone church in the village. That evening, there was a wine and cheese cocktail hour and then dinner with the authors at the Fullerton Inn. This day-long interaction seems to gradually develop a comfort level between writers and readers, and the barrier of compressed arrival, performance and departure that bookends most author events dissipates in the welcoming, cozy Vermont winter atmosphere.

"The thing that makes the weekend so wonderful for us is the fact that it is more than a book reading," Lynne said. "We had the authors to our house Friday evening for dinner along with their introducers and a few friends. This group really, dare I say, bonded. We had such a good time. Then to wake up to go cross-country skiing in 5-degree weather at Grafton Ponds cemented their friendship. So, by the time they got to the church, they were old buddies, felt comfortable, knew people in the audience, and the day kept flowing. No one wanted to leave."

"Bill and I both agree that this was one of the very best New Voices ever," she added. "We always have interesting authors, but this year the mix worked. The books were all so different. I think what made the reading special was the introducers. The energy in the church was amazing." 

A few words about those introducers: Bill came up with the idea a couple of years ago to ask members of the community to read the selected books beforehand and make the introductions: "It helped increase attendance, too, I think, to involve community members early, inviting friends to read the books and introduce the authors. The friends were happy to be involved and, as you probably noticed, rose to the occasion. Somehow it also gives more credence to the event if more people are involved. Several attendees have remarked that it was nice to hear what the introducers had to say."

That direct and personal engagement by the introducers with their chosen books and authors ultimately added five additional "new voices" to the event. In fact, Deborah Copaken Kogan responded to Nancy Pennell's intro by saying, "That was the best introduction anyone in my decade of writing has ever done."

Jeremy Dworkin, who introduced Heidi Durrow, thanked Bill and Lynne for "an effort that's obviously become a community tradition."

This year, more than 130 people attended the readings, up significantly from 2009. Misty Valley sold out of all five books and took orders for more. I heard one woman standing in line enthusiastically ask a friend, "Who are you going to buy?"

"Well-met in Chester" indeed. A reading tradition still thrives in the Green Mountains and, as Elena Gorokhova said, "In an era when innovation and adaptation are watchwords, there is something to be said for tradition."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1109.