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Quirky 'Beyond Measure'

During an intensely digitized week--as I monitored the iPad's debut, last-minute objections to the Google Book Settlement and the Digital Book World Conference--I also found myself thinking, for some reason, about Richard Brautigan.

I read "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" for the first time in decades. And as I was considering and reconsidering that word "quirky" and its relationship to indie bookstores (for the record, I never used the term to describe Brautigan when I read him in the 1970s), I recalled some lines from his novel, The Abortion: "The library came into being because of an overwhelming need and desire for such a place. There simply had to be a library like this." If you don't know about the library, you should. Now more than ever, perhaps, quirky may be a business model.

I mentioned last week that Kathy Patrick's Beauty & the Book, Jefferson, Tex., was high on my list of pilgrimage-worthy shrines to bookseller quirkiness. Subsequently, Kathy put the question to her fans on Facebook: "Is Beauty and the Book a quirky bookstore?" Among the responses:

  • Quirky is good! Everything else is boring.
  • Quirky fits, also unique, fabulous, outrageous, fascinating, inspiring, blingful and totally Kathy!
  • It's the quirkiest! That's why the world loves it and you!
  • Quirky beyond measure. And I mean that in a nice way.


Besse Lynch, events and marketing coordinator at the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo., responded to the column by recalling her affection for the Bookmill, Montague, Mass., because "browsing the shelves felt like exploring in some long forgotten attic. There was nothing cookie cutter about the space or selection, yet it was somehow familiar and comfortable."

I asked her how that might translate into success for indie bookstores. "Quirky can be so different for different people," she replied. "I think of it as a feeling you can't find anywhere else, something unusual yet familiar, maybe nostalgic at the same time. In defining quirky in terms of a bookstore, it can mean at once being a place where a person feels like a unique individual, and a place where those individualities come together to form a cohesive community. When a person shops at an indie bookstore this is what they are looking for. Not a place where they buy a book and walk out, but a place where they buy a book and belong to community."

Can the "quirky" factor drive people away? "The trick is to define yourself as an individual while being careful not to exclude other individuals," she added. "The beauty of a truly quirky bookstore is that it must be accepting of the quirks of others." At the Bookworm, "We just try to do things that we are passionate about, and that have meaning within our community. We take our customer's needs and suggestions to heart and try to create an atmosphere that reflects the diversity of ideas that come into our store."

And, finally, is quirky something that can be planned?

Janet Geddis, who hopes to open Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., sometime later this year, observed that she wants her shop "to be well-organized, friendly and cozy, but I'd also like something funky or quirky that instantly sets it apart from other bookstores (and other businesses, for that matter). But I believe there's a problem with setting out to do something deliberately quirky: I don't want my design decisions to appear contrived or manipulative. When I think about quirky places I like to visit, the thing that has drawn my attention is almost always something that evolved organically."

She noted that genuine quirkiness seems "born out of true individuality. People haven't made calculated decisions to be strange in order to stand out. Instead, their oddities come straight from the heart. I'd venture to guess that the proprietors of Wild Rumpus [Minneapolis, Minn.] genuinely love animals and children--they didn't make a choice to sell kids' books in a store full of animals purely because it was a good business plan. Their quirkiness arises from their passions."

As Janet plans her bookstore, she already knows it will include "some surprising and intriguing elements in the design, but I can't yet know what I'll say, do, or create that will give Avid that quirkiness many of my future customers crave. I suppose this strange and appealing element will evolve naturally as my staff and I settle in and share what we love with our customers."

To paraphrase Mr. Brautigan, there simply have to be bookstores like these.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1103.


Bookstores & the Quirky Factor

Should independent bookstores be quirky? What does quirky mean now? What is (or was) your favorite quirky, eccentric, fun, weird, off-the-wall (off-the-shelves?) bookshop of all time? What bookstore makes (or made) you smile just thinking about it?

So many stories are written about booksellers in dire financial straits and contending with perilous, hyper-digitized futures that the fun factor can get lost in the numbers. Business is business, but most of us became booksellers for pleasure as well as--if not consciously in lieu of--profit.

What makes a great bookstore quirky? What makes a quirky bookstore great?

The catalyst for my musings on the quirk factor is Michael Walsh, sales manager at Johns Hopkins University Press and publisher of Old Earth Books. He wrote in response to last week's column, which mentioned Siegfried Weisberger, a Baltimore bookseller who closed his store in 1954 after 29 years.

This triggered some memories for Walsh, who shared a great Style magazine article he found reporting that three years later, Rose Hayes purchased and reopened the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube. Style described it as a place where "beer took precedence over books, which became more motif than merchandise, and the stube itself became a cluttered caricature of its humble origins with ballet slippers hanging from the wrought-iron chandelier, and the stag’s head above the brick fireplace competing for attention with mounted animal horns, ceramic busts, figurines and framed pictures of waterfowl."

There is "no counting how many Baltimoreans descended the dingy stairwell into the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube to share a beer at the communal wooden tables, hear poetry read aloud, participate in sing-alongs or watch as the Great Dantini performed his magic tricks. But everyone who passed through, it seems, has a story to tell, and one rarely about books," Style wrote.

"I remember going there," Walsh recalled. "It was a hoot. More beer than books. But still, one of those off the wall weird/fun places. Now gone." In 1986, the business closed once more after Hayes died.

"The Peabody was interesting, but perhaps one of the most interesting characters in Baltimore book trade was the late Abe Sherman," Walsh added. "He ran a newsstand with books for decades. He fought in WWI and WWII. He was well known for yelling, 'Are you buying or reading?! If you wanna read, go over to the library!'"

If you've lived your life in books (and who among us hasn't?), you've encountered these places and people, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse--though quirky bad can be as entertaining as quirky good.

My longtime favorite was Tuttle Antiquarian Books, which closed a couple of years ago. Tuttle's was located in two old houses on South Main Street in Rutland, Vt. One building had an extraordinary selection of used books crammed on dusty shelves. You accessed the stacks by wedging your way down narrow aisles. It was always worth the trouble. Customer service was not generally an option, however. With some effort, you could locate the room where you paid for purchases, and someone might grudgingly accept your money.

The other building housed the offices of Charles E. Tuttle Co. The history of Tuttle as a publisher is well known, and in this place there was a much more organized display of Asian-themed books, which they began publishing in the late 1940s. That particular room opened up a literary world to me long before I had access to it anywhere else. And the two houses conspired to have a kind of Dickensian impact on my sense of what a bookstore should be--a little mysterious, grudgingly open to exploration, quite possibly infinite in space and, yes, just a little wacky around the edges.

When I became a bookseller, I simply added customer service as the missing plot twist.

Bookstore quirky is, of course, an indefinable concept. Or, more accurately, it is subject to endless individual definitions.

While it is fun to watch the snarky anti-ambience of Black Books, the British comedy series, I wouldn't want to be there.

Someday I would love to visit Lenore & Lloyd Dickmans' manure tank bookstore in Princeton, Wis., if it still exists.

And if I'm ever in Jefferson, Tex., I will definitely stop by Kathy Patrick's Beauty & the Book, "the only hair salon/book store in the country." Even though I'm too bald to present much of a challenge on the coiffure front, it just sounds like a fun book place to visit.

What's on your great quirky bookstore list--past or present?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1097.


'What's Past Is Prologue' for Booksellers, Too

As I wandered through the virtual stacks of Harper's archive researching last week's column, I noticed that references to another corner of the book trade came up quite often--bookselling in all of its passionate, literate, insightful and perpetually endangered glory. So I decided to bookend those old publishing industry analyses with a few bookshop memories.

1. September 1892 Harper's observed that bookshops in cities and villages "used to be an intellectual centre where readers met, not only to keep the run of the thought of the world, but to exchange ideas about it. Few are so now. Bookshops generally throughout the country have changed their character. The booksellers say that it does not pay to keep a stock of standard literature, nor to put on their counters the pick of the best books that are published every week. Their book-stalls have become shops of 'notions,' of bric-a-brac, of games, of newspapers and periodicals, of the cheap and flimsy temporary product of commercially directed press, with only an occasional real book that has attained exceptional notoriety."

2. April 1937 I was surprised to discover that children's book sections, which are now a profitable bookstore staple, weren't always so. Writing about the Children's Spring Book Festival, May Lamberton Becker praised the quality of children's books, but she also bemoaned the fact that for much of the year, most people "would scarcely know that they are there. Where are they, indeed, in far too many of our bookshops all these long months between the first of January and the middle of September?

"I know where to look for them when I visit a typical shop of this kind. I go straight through to the back of the store. Under the stairs, there they are, the children's books, with the decorations left over from last Christmas tucked in with them, ready for next Christmas's display. Books for children, it would appear, are in such places considered solely as holiday gifts and expected to hibernate for the rest of the year."

3. July 1954 A gentleman named Siegfried Weisberger, who closed his bookshop in Baltimore after 29 years in the business, said the "age of the boob is upon us" because the country had entered an era when people want "bucks, not books."

Curious whether bookselling was a vanishing profession, Harper's surveyed publishers, booksellers and sales reps, discovering that the "pedigreed bookseller, the old ideal of the classical scholar and man of letters who sold books for the sheer joy of being among them has, to be sure, pretty largely disappeared. The modern bookseller is a book-lover too, albeit a practical one. He must look to his bookkeeping as well as his books. His costs are going up. His margin of survival is beset with books which should have been best sellers but which were something less than that. He likes to be among books, but he likes to be among customers more."

4. October 1965 Alan Levy, in his essay "Lost in the Bookshops of New York," wrote that the American bookseller "has been sounding his own death knell for more than half a century, while struggling to live with such cancerous growths as bicycles, automobiles, telephones, television, movies, department stores, coupon advertising, book clubs, Sunday supplements, magazines, Time-Life Books, paperbacks, Little Blue Books, Modern Library, public libraries, lending libraries, and remaindering."

He cited Brentano's retail strategy as an example of how booksellers were fighting back by meeting the threat of discounters like E.J. Korvette "with, among other weapons, a superb paperback palazzo in the main store (13,000 titles, arranged by category, not by publisher) and the creeping non-book merchandise upstairs (stuffed Kookie Gonk, $5; bust of John F. Kennedy, $50)."

5. August 1985 In a condensed version of a discussion held at the ABA convention in San Francisco, Hillel Stavis, owner of WordsWorth bookshop, Cambridge, Mass., disagreed with others on the panel that the book trade's mission was to give the public what it wants: "After all, bookstores should not serve merely as an afterword to whatever is happening in the general society; they are, or should be, an active and a positive force. Independently owned stores should resurrect the backlist titles not carried by the chains and support new titles from small presses. Although chains like B. Dalton do offer a wide selection, the general trend is toward blockbusters; and as the chains capture an increasing share of the market, their ever-narrowing selection will come to dictate what publishers publish. But in the long term, this narrowing selection will produce a non-reading public, which will be detrimental to both chains and independents."

What's past is prologue, indeed, Mr. Shakespeare.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1092.


Publishing Trends of Futures Past

Forecasting publishing industry trends for the new year and the new decade is an irresistible and ubiquitous exercise these days. Perhaps it's only natural, then, that I honor my habit of glancing out the back window of the digital express caboose (Shelf Awareness, June 19, 2009) and offer, courtesy of the archives at Harper's magazine, my own list of a half-dozen publishing trends of futures past:

1. January 1850 Harper's featured an excerpt from the North British Review on a "common complaint that the publishers make large fortunes and leave the authors to starve--that they are, in fact, a kind of moral vampire, sucking the best blood of genius, and destroying others to support themselves."

2. May 1883
George William Curtis observed that "one-half of the books published each year in the United States fail to return their cost, and that one-half of the remainder bring no profit, leaving the cost of supporting the publishing machinery of the country to be borne by the publishers' share of the profits of one-fourth of the books issued."

3. June 1948 In "The Book Club Controversy," Merle Miller wrote about the recent appearance of "a smoothly designed advertisement announcing the formation of still another book club" even though were already "more than fifty clubs" in competition. This particular organization, however, was called the Blue Sky Book Club and hoped to lure members with an offer that may sound familiar to e-book enthusiasts: "You may now receive all the books published... over 10,000 a year FREE." These books weren't the only lure, however, because members would also receive "in compact digest form, the synopses, plot analyses, and YOUR OWN OPINION of these books." It was, of course, a gag with satiric bite.

4. October 1959 The anonymous author of a "Letter to a Young Man About to Enter Publishing" cautioned that even though "you want to go into publishing because you love good books and would like to help produce them... the first thing you should know about is the curious attitude of the American reader."

Strong evidence was then presented, including Edward Weeks, writing in the Atlantic Monthly's that there were about a million "discriminating readers" in the U.S., and "this number has not increased with the population; it has not increased appreciably since 1920." The London Economist suggested "even before television, Americans had not acquired the habit of reading good books. It has been estimated that since 1946, spending on books and maps has declined from 15 to only 10% of total outlays on recreation." And Dan Lacy of the American Book Publishers Council observed that the "basic nature of the trade-book audience is well known; it is largely urban; somewhat more women than men buy books; a dominant proportion of the reading public is in the higher professional and economic brackets; perhaps about 2% of the people account for a vital percentage of trade-book purchases."

5. July 1963 An article noted that Geoffrey Wagner, a British novelist living in the U.S., believed American publishing had become big business and this was a "calamity," since "most small publishers of interest... are being swallowed up by a few big firms. The survivors, he claims, are adopting a 'blockbuster technique' which has 'resulted in astronomical pre-publication deals, movie tie-ins, etc.'"

6. August 1985 Harper's offered a forum--"Will the Book Survive?"--based on a discussion that had been held at the ABA convention in San Francisco, and noted that in the previous year, American publishers had released "40,000 new titles, the vast majority of them, ignored by the great spotlight of publicity, were seen by almost nobody but the author and his twelve closest friends."

One of the panelists, William P. Edwards, v-p for new business development at B. Dalton Bookseller, observed: "Today there are new customers out there--the baby boomers, who fueled the dramatic growth of the bookstore chains and the large trade publishing houses. These younger customers have different views about format. They grew up with paperbacks; they give them as gifts. It's inevitable that during the next ten years bookstores will extend their franchise. Sure, we sell information and education; but the vast majority of books are bought as entertainment. Virtually the whole mass-market industry is devoted to entertainment. We are going to see bookstores moving heavily into audio cassettes--in effect, books one can 'read' while riding a bike or driving a car--and into videotapes as well, exercise 'books,' 'cookbooks,' whatever. It's already happening. After all, in buying a book, people are making an entertainment choice, and if we ignore that and stubbornly deny that these other forms belong in bookstores, we're going to drive away the younger customers. Diversity in format is important, and these products belong in bookstores."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1087.


When Scrooge Met Cratchit

One of my favorite cartoons by Charles Addams appeared in the December 23, 1950, issue of the New Yorker. The Addams family has gathered round a cold hearth, where stockings are hung without care on the cobwebbed mantlepiece beneath a cracked mirror, and Gomez shares his mischievously edited version of a beloved and ghoulish holiday classic, saying, "Then good old Scrooge, bless his heart, turned to Bob Cratchit and snarled, 'Let me hear another sound from you and you'll keep Christmas by losing your situation.'"

This is not the first year that I've found myself sympathizing a little more than is probably good for me with Ebenezer. I do understand the generous spirit of that final, redemptive chapter in the Dickens tale, but I also get the gnarly, anxious businessman in Scrooge--the short-tempered SOB who confronts holiday well-wishers with a snarl.

Hey, it's a down economy, the weather has been disruptive and who knows what the future will bring? And the fuel prices? Put down that lump of coal, Cratchit! If you're lucky, it'll be in your stocking on Christmas Day.

So this week I went looking for redemptive holiday messages among booksellers, my comrades in arms for many years and people who truly understand how to balance on that highwire stretched between holiday business and holiday cheer because they must walk it without a net each December.

I've collected a bagful of good wishes, including a few that nestled snugly in the bookstore e-mail newsletters that have been stacking up like digital gifts in my Shelf Awareness inbox.

Cornerstone Books, Salem, Mass., acknowledges that this has been "a challenging year for all of us, and so we want to wish all of you a very peaceful holiday with your friends and families. As we look forward to 2010, we do so with the optimism, joy and renewal that each New Year brings."

From Tom Campbell at the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C.: "Thanks once more for being part of the Regulator community. Thanks for another great year. Thanks for supporting local independent businesses. Thank you in more ways than we can name. And 'God bless us every one!' Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year."

Susan Weis and Jenn Northington of breathe books, Baltimore, Md., "wish you all the warmest, sweetest holiday and we thank you so much for including thoughtfully chosen presents from breathe books in your bounty! This year it means more to us than ever. A deep, deep bow and namaste to you all."

"I hope this finds all of you out there in bookland happy and healthy and enjoying the season with a hearty Ho Ho Ho," writes Wendy Hudson of Nantucket Bookworks, Nantucket, Mass., on behalf of her "Merry Bookworkers."

Among the blogging booksellers, Hans Weyandt of Micawber's bookstore, St. Paul, Minn., notes that although this can be a frantic season for people, "we get to see some of the best that this season and its spirit can bring. Shoppers are calm and enjoy their time browsing and frequently help one another and give suggestions. The books are whirling in and out of hands. It is fantastic fun. 2009 has been a challenging year for small businesses, retail in general and the world of books. Yet we've made it thanks to the support we get from loyal customers who've decided to put their money into stores they believe in. For that, and much more, we send our best to all of you."

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., is celebrating its first holiday season and co-owner Jessica Stockton Bagnulo's message to patrons is: "Here's wishing you and yours the holidays you most wish for--whether it's partying or relaxing, being sociable or spending time on your own, feasting or cleansing, traveling or staying home. And of course, happy holiday reading!"

In celebration of the season, Rediscovered Bookshop, Boise, Idaho, exclaims: "We are truly spoiled by amazing customers. One of our oh-so-awesome customers made us a present! She hand knit us a pillow with our logo on it. Isn't that adorable? Chaucer is thoroughly enjoying it. We really do love how amazing our customers are, and we all hope you guys have a great holiday season. Thanks for making my job the best job ever!"

Now I feel better. Here's to indie booksellers--and everyone in the book trade--who continue to sustain a Bob Cratchit spirit and focused, Scroogey business plan in the face of ghostly, ghastly visitations year after year.

Bless us, every one.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1082.