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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.

Sunday
Feb272011

First a Novel, Then Conversations & Connections

It just happens. Sometimes a book can spark intensely personal conversations between strangers. Talented readers--even battle-weary booksellers, authors, librarians, publishers, agents, editors and others in our trade--know this.  

When I first read Susan Henderson's Up from the Blue as an ARC, my bookseller radar sensed that it might be one of those novels that would prompt many intense, quiet conversations. On my top 10 reads list last year (Shelf Awareness, December 9, 2010), the book explores some tough emotional territory through the prism of an eight-year-old girl's fierce determination to understand her family's disintegration. The story is heart-wrenching, yet, ultimately, earns a hard-won measure of hope. I asked the author to share some of her conversations with readers since the novel's publication last September.
    
If there's a defining characteristic for Tillie, the narrator, it "is that she's wonderfully obstinate," Susan observes. "She has an oomph--that thing that also makes her a handful--but I think it gives her courage, and she's determined to find humor and love and hope wherever she can. I wanted to use those strengths as I pulled that knot loose so that she wasn't stuck in time, and so she had a full range of choices for her future--not sugar-coated, but still hopeful."

At bookstore events, when Susan reads a passage about Tillie's habit of biting classmates, she often notices a particular expression on the face of someone who "knows what it's like to walk home from school as the one who's seen as the problem. And they know what it's like to enter a house full of secrets and try to make sense of it without ever breathing a word."

She adds that there is a "kind of code trauma survivors tend to speak in when they approach me at readings--they'll say the briefest thing that allows them to keep it all safe and contained: 'I felt like you were writing a book about the things I never told anyone before' or 'I carry this one line from the book in my wallet'; and they'll show you the passage which tells you something terribly private about them. Sometimes there are tears and no other words except a very quiet, 'Thank you.' I find these moments extraordinarily touching because it's not about the book anymore. It's about connection."

In responding to her work, readers "tend to be very personal and they tend to come to me privately--Facebook notes, people who contact me through my agent, people who seek me out after readings or signings. And they say the kinds of things they can't say in front of the rest of the audience by raising their hands."

While many people who speak with her relate to the issues of depression and suicide that are presented in the book, others "have come forward with other childhood traumas--sexual abuse, neglect, poverty--because the book spoke to a kind of generalized grief that resonated with their own experience," Susan notes. "What's been really heartening are the conversations and letters from people that feel healed in some way--that they were able to really cry and let something out so they didn't feel stuck--didn't feel they were at fault or they had to hold on to the rage or a sense of being broken. That process of grief was what felt familiar to a lot of readers, and really walking through it, for a lot of readers--certainly some found it depressing!--seemed to be what was healing.

"In the end, I think of this book as a love letter from one little girl to the person who believes she's caused irreparable harm to her. And it’s Tillie's chance to tell her that she's okay--that her childhood was richer than the sorrow it contained--that there was also joy there, and affection and friendship and laughter."

One of Susan's favorite responses to Up from the Blue came from a young mother who wrote to say "she had finished my book and went back to her kids' bedroom afterwards, because she felt she needed to be near them. And she said that what my book gave her, and she hadn't felt it before, was a sense of her own importance in the lives of her children... not that she might love them better (she already loved them extraordinarily) but that she might realize how much they love her. That is what she hadn't allowed herself to experience before, and that note, all by itself, was worth me writing this book."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1401.

Sunday
Feb202011

All Corporate Decisions Is Local

Last Thursday, 10 minutes before the doors opened, I waited outside the Borders Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A handful of people were there, chatting about the impending closure, sharing a few facts--gleaned from local news outlets that had gleaned them from AP reports--but skewing their interpretations with a dose of imagination and misunderstanding about the book trade in general. Books are their avocation, after all, not their vocation.

Then they stopped talking, shuffled their feet in the cold morning air as traffic passed by on Broadway. Peering through the plate glass windows, I could see only that it was dark and quiet inside, showing no signs--literal or figurative--that anything had changed during the past 24 hours. Perhaps the staff was sharing retail war stories and talking about their uncertain future in the back somewhere. Maybe books were being shelved. Probably coffee was brewing in the café.

The uneasy anticipation made me think, for no logical reason, about old black-and-white World War II movies, particularly the inevitable scene in which two GIs wait in a foxhole and one says, "You hear that?" His buddy replies, "I don't hear nothing." To which the first soldier responds ominously, "That's what I mean."

I'd only visited this Borders three times since moving to Saratoga last summer. It's located in a prime, high-rent downtown location on Broadway, with 25,000 square feet of floor space spread over a two-story, open floor plan. Borders customers here may be mourning the fate of their store, but Saratoga's prospects for filling the vacant space are quite positive compared with many of the other doomed locations nationwide.

"I'm optimistic given the flexibility of the building itself, the parking lot and the location we're going to be pretty successful in finding new uses in a pretty short amount of time," Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, told the Glens Falls Post-Star.

The Albany Times Union noted that even the owners of the city's only independent, which sells used and rare volumes, expressed disappointment at the loss of the chain bookshop around the corner. "We feel for the people who love new books because that was their downtown bookstore," said Janice DeMarco of Lyrical Ballad Bookstore. "It's going to leave a void."

Her husband, John, told Fox-23 News: "We're very sorry to see people lose their jobs; we're very sorry to see the hole in Saratoga Springs. My wife and I have been in the forefront of trying to keep downtown Saratoga active and alive. It's not good to see."

DeMarco added that "it would be great to see an independent new bookstore on a smaller scale, which the big chains drove out for years. We used to have a smaller independent bookstore in Saratoga, but they couldn't compete, so they left."

The  overall impact of Borders departure may not be quite as extreme here as in other communities. For unreformed chainiacs, a Barnes & Noble is located just a few miles outside the city in Wilton. And within a half-hour's drive, there are some excellent indie options: to the south, the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and Market Block Books in Troy; to the north, Red Fox Books in Glens Falls; and to the east, Battenkill Books in Cambridge.  

But this Borders was the local community bookshop for a lot of people in this city. I sat in the café for a while, sipping my cup of Seattle's Best, watching and listening. Customers asked the usual morning questions, which seemed loaded--How are you? What's new?--and then expressed sympathy and occasionally surprise. Staff members explained, patiently, the situation as well as they could under the circumstances. There were still many things they didn't know.

Customers browsed the stacks as if the day was like any other. An older man in the café joked: "People won't know where to find me in the morning now." And then, within minutes, the conversation turned to gossip and sports and local politics, which reminded me of Tip O'Neill's line that "all politics is local." Sometimes all corporate decisions is local, too.

If you still have a great indie in your city, you're fine. If you're a Borders fan and your store dodged the executioner's axe, you're also fine... for now. It's about perspective. Although indie bookseller blood runs in my veins, I understood the mood in that bookstore last week. They were not fine. I remembered my favorite perspective example: an imaginary headline in the April 15, 1912, issue of Parrot's Weekly Magazine: "Titanic Sinks! No Parrots Hurt!"--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1396.