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Friday
May082009

The Book Circus Is Coming to Town!

Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of all ages! Welcome to the greatest book show on earth! A weekend of thrills! A weekend of reading fun! A weekend at BookExpo America in New York City!

This year's edition of our industry's annual Big Top extravaganza will take place May 29-31 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, perched beside the glittering waters of the Hudson River, otherwise known as the auxiliary runway for U.S. Airways Flight 1549. (We recommend LaGuardia, Newark or JFK airports as preferred arrival venues.)

But unlike Ringling Bros., BEA's circus won't be limited to three rings. There will be dozens, spreading in concentric arcs from a nucleus on the convention floor throughout the city, encompassing hotels, restaurants, bars and more. Business will mix seamlessly with pleasure and the workday will run from dawn to dawn.

So welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends . . . until Sunday.

BookExpo really does have a little something for everyone--ringmasters and stagehands, high-wire artists and tightrope walkers (financially, anyway), clowns happy and sad, literary lions and tigers and bears.

Oh my!

But what about that big ol' mean-looking pachyderm lurking in the corner? Could it be the future of publishing? A rogue elephant in the center ring? Maybe if we're lucky, we can nudge it into the spotlight and make it stand on its hind legs for a few days, balance precariously on a huge ball, hoist a publicist into the air with its trunk. Maybe, just maybe, it will think we're the ones in control.

Are you going to the book circus this year? We'd love to hear about your strategies and memories.

I love BEA. I'm a trade show junkie. My first book event was the 1993 ABA show in Miami. I attended Booksellers School there and had my initial glimpse of center ring--the exhibition floor.

At some point that weekend--as I attended a lush, downtown rooftop garden launch party for Oprah Winfrey's autobiography (a book that never hit the presses, as it turned out) and a suitably spooky dinner for Anne Rice at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables; or as I walked on Miami Beach wearing a suit and carrying my shoes in socks, like a beached mobster--it occurred to me that this was a pretty damn good perk for a frontline bookseller from Vermont.

Sixteen years later, I'll resist the temptation to imagine Bookocalypse Now. The economy stinks. The publishing industry may not be underwater, but it's definitely paddling real hard on the surface. Booksellers have to measure every penny spent and their decisions about attending or not attending BEA are more challenging than ever. And how can one not speculate about a virtual BEA for E-books in the "distant" future, held exclusively on Twitter and Facebook? Okay, we can resist that last one for awhile.

But just a couple of weeks from now, the circus will come to town. There are logical, businesslike, serious reasons for me to attend BookExpo, but I never forget why I really want to be there. BEA is the bookseller's Big Top extraordinaire--all those energetic attendees and performing exhibitors. (Watch me pull a bestseller out of my hat!)

When I was a full-time bookseller, my prime directive at BEA was to find the unexpected book, the one that might never cross my desk otherwise. Finding that unexpected book(s) was pure pleasure, and good business.

It almost doesn't matter how many years I've been going to this thing or what the current state of the industry might be; BEA always makes me feel that the coming year will be a good one. I used to leave the show wanting to hit the ground (aka the bookstore's sales floor) running and sell the hell out of the autumn list.

Inspired.

For a registered member of the International Society for Cynics and Fatalists, that's one amazing side effect. As we approach this year's BookExpo, fending off the logical realization that our collective heads may be in the collective lions' mouths, the reader and bookseller in me still expects inspiration to happen there.

I'll wander the aisles at BookExpo like a fisherman on the riverbank looking for the flash of something--a jacket, a title, a familiar author's name--that tells me I should pause and cast a line here, or here, or there.

But fishing is a quiet sport, and we're talking Big Top here (or "Over the Top," as Ringling Bros. modestly claims). So, tell me, are you running away to join the circus, too?

Friday
May012009

Buy Indie Day--A Movement in 140 Characters

"And can you, can you imagine 50 people a day, I said 50 people a day walking in, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out? And friends they may think it's a movement. And that's what it is . . ."--Arlo Guthrie, Alice's Restaurant

Fighting back is all about character, and sometimes 140 characters are just enough to get started. Today is Buy Indie Day, which was igniteded by author Joseph Finder and subsequently powered by word-of-mouth on Twitter and Facebook.

Many other people have kept the momentum going, including Kevin Guilfoile, who blogged about Buy Indie Day early last month, and began compiling a list of writers that will be celebrating at bookshops today.

I've been following Buy Indie Day's (also #buyindieday) Twitter trail since it began. Will what happens today change consumer buying patterns? Will it become Buy Indie Week or Buy Indie Month or Buy Indie Infinity & Beyond? Who knows? But a statement is being made, and it's just been fun to watch the enthusiasm build.

Here's a sampling from the past couple of days (all typos forgiven because they conform to the unofficial Twitter stylebook):

Some folks who got off to an early start yesterday:

  • @BrooksSigler I think I might be purchasing things a bit early for Buy Indie Day, but it'll be like Buy Indie Eve.
  • @VillageBksBham Tomorrow is International Buy Indie Day. Why not start early?
  • @permanentpaper In an early start to #buyindieday, I found this lovely bookstore in Evanston Via Indiebound iPhone app!!!

Some bookstores who are in the game:

  • @mysterybooks Friday, May 1--it's BUY INDIE DAY!--AND our lovely friends Mary & Carol Higgins Clark will be on the Today Show, too!
  • @LilMissBookBug Tomorrow--Buy Indie Day--Shop at Chapters & save 10% when you mention you're shopping Indie
  • @kingsenglish May 1 is Buy Indie Day. Mention it tomorrow at the register and get 10% off!
  • @AaronsBooks Even though we are an indie, we'll buy a few from fellow tweeters & send gifts to friends & family, spreading indie love :).
  • @ibnyc Tomorrow, May 1, is Buy Indie Day: Where will you be buying indie?
  • @Suejustbooks Visit The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn tomorrow to celebrate Buy Indie Day! For Couples Night Out--Books paired with wines--great way to celebrate!
  • @ClintonBooks: Tomorrow is International Buy Indie Day. Support Indies and keep your home-town strong.
  • @FlyingPigBooks Friday, May 1, is Buy Indie Day! Make it a revolution: Pass it on.
  • @KenyonBookstore #buyindieday is Friday. Come visit the Bookstore for a book, or a t-shirt, or an ice cream! Scan our sale merchandise--some great bargains.

And some indie love from the book world:

  • @Blairpublisher Buy one book (at least) at an independent bookstore near you tomorrow, May 1, and make a mass statement about the importance of indies!
  • @ConsortiumBooks: Tomorrow is Buy Indie Day! Support your local indie bookstore with a new book purchase!
  • @timetoread International Buy Indie Day is Tomorrow!! Celebrate by buying at least one book at your local Indie--like any of us can stop at just one . . .
  • @Clerisy_Kara Tomorrow is International Buy Indie Day. Support Indies and keep your home-town strong. Buy at full retail price!
  • @Joe_Wallace my #buyindieday commitment is to buy a book by as many authors I follow here as I can afford . . . at my town's indie bookstore.
  • @thebookmaven: Can't wait for #buyindieday tomorrow . . . plan to buy the new Anne Michaels, LOWBOY, A FORTUNATE AGE, and more. Much more!
  • @KatMeyer @wordbrooklyn + even tho I bought indie already this week, i am compelled 2 do so again tomorrow (and tonight too!)
  • @literaticat (Actually, who am I kidding? EVERY day is Buy Indie Day. I'll have to buy a STACK o' books on May 1!)
  • @Urrealism Indie Day, 5/1: Cindy and I will be at Anderson's in Naperville buyin' stuff! Come over and let's shop. I'll buy you a Starbucks later.

I will also be hitting the road to buy books at a couple of indies today, renouncing my usual staff discount. That's my longtime bookseller's small gesture of support--paying full retail.

And can you imagine 50 people a day, I said 50 people a day walking into an indie bookstore, buying a book and walking out? Friends, they may think it’s a movement.

Friday
Apr242009

Crime Scene Investigation: Bookstore

"If he did steal it," cried the bookseller, "I'm perfectly delighted. It shows that my contention is right: people do really care for good books . . . Usually the only books any one wants to steal are sheer piffle . . . I don't mind a man stealing books if he steals good ones!"--Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop

Here's a bookseller pop quiz for you in three questions:

  1. How bad was shoplifting in your bookshop before the economy tanked?
  2. Has it gotten worse?
  3. What are you doing about it?

I started mulling over lit-thievery and biblio-skullduggery after Boswell Book Company owner Daniel Goldin blogged earlier this week about his new bookstore's first official shoplifted title:

We gave up the nooks and crannies of the classic bookshop for a more open feel. We've positioned our bookcases for better sightlines. But there are still things to be done. My friends at other bookstores have mirrors, and cameras, and security tags. And of course, every bookseller talks about the importance of regular greeting and acknowledgement. But that's not going to stop that person who looks you in the eye, says thank you, and then slaps you in the face.

If you meet and greet people every day, including people who steal from you, getting robbed, even just one item at a time, can feel like betrayal. You try to be practical. You retain your sense of humor. You rationalize about normal, predictable shrinkage numbers. You take steps to improve security.

As you watch your patrons come and go, you can't help but be aware that some small percentage of them are taking advantage of your shop's unofficial five-finger discount plan.

And somewhere deep inside, you get a little hurt every time you find the "bones," including those shelf voids while checking inventory sheets; the empty DVD or CD cases shoved behind books; or the orphaned cardboard backing and cellophane left in the wake of missing sideline items.

Goldin wrote that he has been thinking about shoplifting for years, and asked a question I will add, for extra credit, to the three above: "How do you balance a comfortable space with one that doesn't become an easy target?"

Expensive security systems? The theory is that ubiquitous buzzing gates near POS "keep honest people honest," but the bad guys are almost always a step ahead and will get their share.

Alert staff? I have to admit that, for all my skills as a bookseller, I make a lousy cop. Although I've worked with colleagues who were really great at the "Excuse me, did you forget to pay for something?" conversation, the majority have been less adept at this particularly toxic retail ceremony.

When I was going to college, I worked part-time for a supermarket where the manager's primary focus was apprehending shoplifters. His name was Ray, but we called him Dirty Harry behind his back. He spent substantial parts of each workday perched on a narrow catwalk above the butchers' room, watching his customers with binoculars through two-way mirrors.

He caught a lot of shoplifters, but I suspect the majority of booksellers can't be that guy. The most aggressive booksellers I've ever met couldn’t be that guy.

So what do you do? Bookstore crime scenes have no chalk outlines or yellow caution tape. I suppose you could try insulting them. Put up signs suggesting that bookstore shoplifters are underachievers, since they often take pointless chances to snatch property they could purchase on eBay for a penny. Shame them into honesty, or at least drive them off to stalk bigger game elsewhere.

Another warning sign possibility is a "curse of uncertain origin." I found it in "People who steal books," a 2001 article by E.C. Abbott in the Canadian Medical Association Journal:

For him that stealeth a book from this library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck by palsy and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink to dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not and when at last he goeth to his Final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.

Shoplifting 101. You have your questions. Please answer in the form of anecdotes and strategies.

There. I made it all the way through this column without mentioning Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.

Friday
Apr172009

'What Poetry Is' in a Workaday World

A couple of things happened during the past week that made me consider and reconsider what poetry is.

I teach an English composition class at a community college. We've been discussing the economy--what's left of it, where the jobs have gone, where the money's gone, where the future is (or isn't) going.

In preparation for an essay assignment, we're reading a lot of articles about GM and the bank bailouts and the decline in local factory jobs. We watched Michael Moore's Roger & Me.

Last Monday we talked, a lot, about the meaning of "work." This is not a literature class, but I threw them a changeup by introducing three poems into the discussion: Yusef Komunyakaa's "My Father's Love Letters" and "The Deck," as well as Philip Levine's "What Work Is." My students knew what work is before reading these poems, but now I think they've reconsidered what poetry is.

Did they all run out and buy poetry books after class? Probably not, but they did ask me about Komunyakaa's later work, and I promised to read them something from Warhorses this week. That's a start

The second thing happened last Friday on Twitter, when Kara Pelicano of Clerisy Press mentioned a Haiku on 42nd St. postcard poetry book.

On my office wall--hanging near a framed NYC subway "Poetry in Motion" sign with lines from Elizabeth Bishop's "Casabianca"--is a foamboard poster of Haiku on 42nd St. that I've had since the mid-1990s.

Haiku on 42nd St. documents a 1994 installation, curated by Dee Evetts, that presented 26 original haikus on abandoned Times Square movie theater marquees. The photos were taken by Richard Hunt, whom I first met when he worked for Bantam Doubleday Dell. Now he heads Keen Communications, which includes Clerisy Press.

Thinking about Haiku on 42nd Street made me wonder.

That's one of the fringe benefits of poetry--wonder.

So I asked Richard for the backstory.

"Years ago, my daily path from Port Authority to BDD was the gauntlet, aka 42nd St.," he said. "Some mornings it was a battle to choose the lesser evil: the boarded-up buildings, the stench of urine and garbage, or the sadness of what was once so vibrant becoming so grim. So to round the corner one morning and see this amazing collection of haiku displayed on the old marquees was magical. The simple presence of the verse graced each morning. These snippets of imagery, especially when juxtaposed against the seamier grotto of town, were enchanting, even uplifting.

"Nor was I alone in this sense of wonder. What the day before had been an eyesore, a slightly toxic warm-up lap in the daily rat race of workdom, became a jaunty stroll in the park.

"Tangled up in Haiku on 42nd St. is a confession: when I first photographed this wild feast of words and meaning, I didn't know why I felt compelled to capture it. But it was such an interesting and exciting display that I wanted to make a visual record before I turned the corner one morning . . . and it would be gone.

"My aspirations were simple: to preserve the proof that words and their creators can change the face of any city and improve the lives of all who pass by. Not being a full-time professional photographer, just someone who was touched by the display, I struggled with the best way to let others enjoy it. But as a full-time publishing person, literacy and spreading the word are the yin/yang and the perpetual quest.

"At first this collection of images was designed as a poster--pro bono on all fronts (thankfully)--and then cards, which I produced one at a time at home. But as you know from your time in a bookstore, finding a way to display posters and greeting cards is challenging, equally so the storage and shipping. There were a number of commission groups who carried them and an equal number of bookstores that ordered them, and to both groups I'm eternally grateful because it gave the haiku some exposure to a larger world.

"So when we finally discovered the postcard book format, we thought we'd give that a go in hopes of preserving this project in print. There are still no royalties attached, still haven't covered the printing cost, but someday hope to nudge enough into the black that we can donate proceeds to the Haiku Society.

"It won't surprise you, since you live it daily, but this enterprise has redoubled the respect I have for any and all independent operations and the pure joy of public art."

Just a couple examples of what poetry is in my workaday world.

Friday
Apr102009

Poetry Month at 15,000 Feet & Ascending

This year, National Poetry Month sometimes feels like Poetry Day or Poetry Hour or Poetry Minute to me . . . in a good way. The leisurely websiteseeing helicopter has been replaced by jet speed.

As I write this column on my laptop, I keep glancing over at my iMac screen like an edgy air traffic controller monitoring takeoffs and landings ("Seamus Heaney, climb and maintain 15,000; Cavafy, you're cleared to land on runway 27 left"). Twitter updates are scrolling by and poetry-themed Tweets take virtual flight in 140 characters or less:

  • @FSG_Books notes that Jonathan Galassi has written about Susan Wheeler's new collection, Assorted Poems.
  • @NewDirections offers thoughts on this Christian Bok Tweet: "Poetry is not language at play, but language out of work, deliberately unemployed--thus poetry commits a kind of welfare fraud upon us all."
  • @FaberBooks exclaims: "Wow, just got treated to Seamus Heaney reading in our offices! Don't worry, we've filmed it and will share it with you all soon."
  • @AAKnopf's Poem-A-Day is "On the Jetty" by C. P. Cavafy (and shortly after giving us that link, @AAKnopf ReTweets @ConnieAnnKirk's discovery: a video of Sean Connery reciting Cavafy's "Ithaca" to music by Vangelis).
  • @norton_fiction introduces the latest in Robert Pinsky's Poems Out Loud series: "I Love You, Man. Paul Rudd has nothing on Fulke Greville's poem 'Elegy for Philip Sidney.'"
  • @RichRennicks shares a "great website celebrating Seamus Heaney's 70th birthday."
  • @joebfoster notes that his "favorite book o' poetry to handsell" is New European Poets, edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer.

It's a stressful environment being a Twitter traffic controller, so I switch to the more leisurely pace of e-mails (the new snail mail) and some responses to last week's column.

Penny McConnel, co-owner of the Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, Vt., wrote, "We have an annual poetry month event when people bring a poem or two to read; either their own or a favorite written by someone else. The audience ranges from kids to oldsters and everyone loves the event. We start getting inquiries in January checking to make sure it will happen again."

On April 16, Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton, Mont., is hosting "a 'Poetry Out Loud' night," noted co-owner Russ Lawrence, adding that the event is "particularly targeted at high school students but open to all. Read or recite a short piece, our judges will render their verdicts based on interpretation, passion, and whatever random factors enter into it. There are real, published rules for events like this, but I think we’ll mostly just make it up!"

Steve Scolca, who is a bookseller as well as manager of Internet marketing at Norton, sent a "Dispatch to the Poetry Month Website-seeing Helicopter" highlighting the publisher's "Poetry Month Bonanza," including "What Is Poetry For?" which was filmed at the AWP Conference in Chicago in February and features 11 poets answering that primary question.

Then I decide to abandon technology altogether for memory and confession. Maybe I'll call this the iPoem section. I've spent enough cash in Apple stores in recent years to permit momentary borrowing of the sacred "i."

Debates about the merits of confessional poetry are ongoing and probably unending, but since I'm not a poet, I can change the focus slightly and introduce another concept: confessional reading of poetry.

Here's my Poetry Month confession. In the late 1960s, during my sophomore year in college, I took a creative writing course. For the first class, the instructor asked us to bring in books by our three favorite poets. I chose John Berryman and Theodore Roethke (to whom I'd been introduced the previous term) and Rod McKuen. Yes, that Rod McKuen. The class response was brutal. I'm surprised I ever read another poem by anybody.

Shortly afterward, I discovered Gary Snyder's Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems and my career as a poetry reader was back on its flight path. Now I know that altitude--as well as attitude--is relative.

Setting websiteseeing helicopters and Twitter traffic controllers aside for a moment, I celebrate Poetry Month this week with the deceptive simplicity of Gary Snyder's closing lines from "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout":

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Later in the day, we fly again as @AAKnopf ReTweets @mcnallyjackson: "We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars."--Jack Gilbert, "Tear It Down."