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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.

Saturday
Feb122011

Love Is a Many-Splendored Read

Valentine's Day may seem to be about love, but it is also about words. Well, three words in particular; three words that have been used--and misused--on this particular holiday since most of us were children. Remember the cryptic messages on candy hearts; the anticipatory terror and joy of grammar school Valentine cards for everybody in the class?

"I love you." It's a fine sentence, infinitely complex, filled with emotion and history and danger, yet also quite simple and declarative.

If you're reading this, you are a member of the word tribe and readers, in addition to the traditional person-to-person exclamations, love reading, love books (some much more than others, of course), love particular authors and bookshops and publishers. Some readers have even been heard to proclaim love for their Kindles or iPads or Kobos or Nooks.
    
Love, for us, is a many-splendored read.

This weekend, indie bookstores nationwide will celebrate Valentine's Day with a variety of events, promotions and sometimes even direct expressions of love--chaste (usually), intelligent and enthusiastic--for their patrons.

For a reader's Valentine's Day, what better gift than a book? They're sugar-free (take that, box 'o chocolates) and they last much longer than roses. Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., suggests "an old fashioned love story--what could be sweeter? Pick up a few for someone you cherish and one more to carry you away in a warm glow."

Here's a sampling of how some other indies are celebrating the momentary warmth of a Valentine's Day weekend in the depths of a cold, cold winter:

In an e-newsletter from Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., Kelly Justice wrote, "We have chocolate for you &/or the object of your affections. Lots of sweet books and a few snarky ones if you're just not feelin' it this year. We also have a very large selection of Valentine's cards this year!!! Don't forget to pick up a sparkly libation to celebrate from River City Cellars! We love them and we love you... and I'm not just saying that. Wait... don't run away! Happy Valentine's Day!"

For the next two weeks, Bank of Books, Ventura, Calif., is giving away bags full of romance novels. Owner Clarey Rudd said, "We have the joy once again to give back to the community, by giving away 5,000 romance books. The bags will be filled with 20 to 40 assorted titles. This brings the total of books given away free to the public to over 115,000 books." Added Carmen Silva: "This is our way of celebrating Valentine's Day with the community. We're helping spread a spirit of giving, of love and romance."

On its store blog, RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, N.H., took a slightly different tack, observing that "it's almost time for that stupid holiday again--Valentine's Day. In the past, I have always thought it was silly that a specific day was designated to show someone that you love them. Love is mushy--I think all the best books are the ones where people get their hearts stomped on, not where they happily ride off into the sunset. This year, well, all I can say is 'le sigh.' Yep, how the mighty have fallen. HOWEVER, even with my new conversion to the Cult of Cupid, I am still going to come to RiverRun on Valentine's Day, to learn about really smart people who did poorly in the romance department. Our good friend Andrew Shaffer will be here to talk about his new book, Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love."

And, finally, as happens in any long-term relationship, sometimes Valentine's Day is a time to reflect. Mysterious Galaxy Books, San Diego, Calif., extended its holiday celebration throughout February with a "We Love Our Customers Month" promotion that was prompted by some soul-searching introspection that co-owner Terry Gilman shared with patrons in the shop's e-newsletter:

"Are we on the cusp of losing your business because of some need we didn't meet or a concern that we didn't address? Will there be a last straw that breaks our book bond with you? I hope not. The staff hopes not. It is always our goal to help you find the book you are looking for, in whatever format you are looking, and within any of the genres we love and stock at the store... or a wide selection of books in print (or electronic editions) from our website. I hope you will tell us if we ever miss the mark so that we can provide you with the best customer service of which we are capable. We look forward to seeing you soon and helping you find the next great book! This is all in line with our 'We Love Our Customers Month,' which we offer to you as thanks for the gifts you have given us as our customers."

Love, as I mentioned before, is complex. Happy Valentine's Day, word people.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1389.

Saturday
Feb052011

Memory & the "Smell of Books"

"Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go."--from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

It is almost impossible to find an article about the e-books versus print books debate that does not include at least one person citing the importance of the "smell of books" as a primary reason for resisting the digital world's siren song.

If you're an addicted e-book reader who still misses l'odeur des livres, you might choose to compensate for that olfactory void with a can of Smell of Books, "a revolutionary new aerosol e-book enhancer.... Now you can finally enjoy reading e-books without giving up the smell you love so much."

But that is probably not an answer to the real question: Why do we care so much about that smell?

I've been a book person most of my life, yet only recently have I paid much attention to this particular issue. Sure, I loved the smell of those ancient, often untouched volumes that lined the dark wood shelves of our tiny village library when I was a kid. I even love the musty scent of the wares in used and antiquarian bookshops, which dredge up literary dust with every turned page, triggering my allergies. And when I open a newly acquired hardcover, there is something exquisite about that first waft of ink and paper that I cannot replicate with an iPad app... yet.

Addiction, indeed.

Sometimes the reason we smell books is practical. At a used bookstore run by the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, Md., business manager James Ludlum uses his nose to determine what they will sell: "We get things that are in such poor condition and that you don't want them inside the place because they smell. We can tell the difference between a garage smell and attic smell and a basement smell."

Sometimes the reason is artistic. Artist Rachael Morrison has been smelling books at New York's Museum of Modern Art library and keeping a ledger in which she describes the unique scent of each volume. She daydreams of someone in the future finding her notebook: "Assuming all text has gone digital at that point, I wonder if he or she will think it’s strange or even gross that books once had a smell. What will my notebook smell like?"

Morrison is attempting to capture the ephemeral with her project: "Smelling books is really nostalgic for me--I am often reminded of my grandparents’ homes, or libraries where I used to go when I was a child."

I suspect we're all a little Proustian in that way; it's a madeleine moment for most of us, as old as books and readers.

In 1853, a fan of Harper's magazine wrote to tell the editor how the scent of a new issue served as his own memory catalyst:

There is a peculiar smell about some new books to me; and there is nothing that touches Memory with me like that, unless it is the scale of taste in an apple, or other kinds of fruit. I have come across some apples and pears in the city sometimes, that have taken me back forty years, when I had to live in the country, and pick the same kind up off the ground in the orchard, when there had been a high wind to blow them down. But the smell of the fresh leaves of your book took me back, in memory, further than almost anything else that I remember.

Old Noah Webster's Spelling-book was my first acquisition; with its coarse, blue paper, and white-yellow sheep-skin back, and the strong, or "new-book odor," which pervaded its leaves, when pressed open. This, together with the Third Part and the American Preceptor, was our first literary treasure; and a faint, wandering smell, or rudiment of smell, that floated up to my nostrils as I opened your Magazine, brought back to me the manner in which we procured them; how we cut with sickles the grass, when it was ripe, that grew in the corners of the crooked, zig-zag fences; and having bound it up in bundles, put it in the barn; and when we had gained the necessary leisure, threshed it out, winnowed the seed in an old fanning-mill, and then sold it for "grass-seed;" and how, also, we parted the fresh bark from hemlock-logs in the swamp, piled it up to dry, and then sold it to a neighboring tanner; both of which operations enabled us to "lay in" our school-books, as afore-said, and, likewise, to purchase a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, and--strange juxtaposition--Roderick Random. All this came into my head, and it is now out of it.


That's a classic "smell of books" story. A century and a half later, you can imagine the smell of the new print, the freshly cut grass... and the old, old books--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1384.

Tuesday
Feb012011

Bookstores Don't Have Friends; Booksellers Do 

Tonight we are pleased to welcome (insert author's name here), who's been a friend of the bookstore for many years.

Here's a confession: When I was a bookseller, I invoked "friend of the bookstore" far too many times. It's one of those phrases we use during author introductions because it sounds so good, and is often followed by the visiting writer's generous expression of gratitude as well as--sometimes--a heartfelt paean to indie bookstores.

Long before Facebook devalued "friend," I struggled with the concept of bookstore friends. Frontline booksellers, book buyers, events coordinators or bookshop owners can claim friendship with authors, but bookstores--bricks, mortar, shelving, cash registers--have fans. It's about people, not semantics.
    
Bookstores don't read books. Booksellers do.

This week I'll tell you a friend-of-booksellers story. Since the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., was the place where I said "friend of the bookstore" occasionally for more than a decade, it seems an appropriate setting for our tale. Now all we need are some characters, so let's cast Jon Clinch, author most recently of the excellent novel Kings of the Earth, as the writer, with Erik Barnum and Karen Frank as the booksellers.

Once upon a time (let's call it 2007), an ARC arrived at a bookshop, as often happens in the beginning of author-bookseller friendship stories.

Karen recalls that she "noticed a galley by a debut author with an intriguing cover and the snappy title of Finn [featuring Huckleberry Finn's 'Pap'] in the buying office. I have always been greedy for fiction by a new author and dove right in. I had never read anything like it. I was shocked and thrilled. After passing it on to fellow booksellers Nancy, Liz and Erik, we began to discuss the novel and agreed that we all needed to get behind this book. And we did, using individual shelf talkers, a group shelf talker (which has only been done twice) and our verbal powers of persuasion. Many readers who trusted us got behind Finn, too, choosing it for book groups and buying it for friends. The response was overwhelming."

The first time he visited Northshire "as a writer," Jon introduced himself to Karen. "I'd gotten word from Random House rep Michael Kindness that she admired Finn. That was a weird and uncomfortable moment, believe me. I'd just driven four hours with my in-laws in the car, on top of everything. My wife and I lived in Pennsylvania at the time, and we passed within a few miles of Manchester on our weekly commute to our place in Vermont. Northshire was an important landmark and a favorite stop for us. The shift in my relationship with the store--How is a writer supposed to act in a bookstore, anyhow? What's he supposed to expect? What do they expect of him?--seemed a little daunting. I should have known that it wouldn't turn out to be all that difficult.

"Karen introduced me around, and I'm willing to bet that one of the folks I met on that first day was Erik. Early on we started talking music. We're both guitar players, and we both adore the late John Hartford. That right there is enough to build a friendship on. We talked books, too, of course. We learned quickly that although our reading tastes intersect at a great many points, they're nowhere near identical. That's okay. It gives us something to laugh about--and it keeps Erik on his toes when he's making recommendations. Our relationship is sustained the way all good relationships are, really, by little stuff: eagerness to see each other more than anything else; that basic human connection."

Although Erik received a Finn ARC because Karen knew of his love for Mark Twain's work, he was initially a reluctant reader: "I'm normally not a fan of what she calls 'rewrit lit,' but she caught me when I was at a point where I hadn't found anything good to read in a while. I loved the book, and touted it to other booksellers who signed on to the Finn train."
 
Shortly after that, Erik and Jon met and learned of their mutual admiration for Hartford's music: "At one of his early visits, I happened to bring my guitar to the store to give a lesson after work," Erik says, "and he mentioned that he was a guitarist also. We wound up playing some tunes on the sales floor, swapping out the guitar as we each played tunes that we loved. He plays a unique and great rendition of Johnny Cash's 'Big River.' "
 
After writing Kings of the Earth, Jon sent a copy of the manuscript to Erik, who "was the first civilian other than my wife and my daughter to see Kings when it was finished."

Erik "realized it was something special and altogether different from Finn, a character-driven piece that just sang to me. I teased Jon that I loved Kings in spite of the fact that he wrote it, and the Clinch train moved out of the station again, in much the same way--ending in me hosting his Kings of the Earth event in the store."

Tonight we are pleased to welcome Jon Clinch, who has been a friend of Northshire booksellers for many years.

"Jon and Wendy Clinch had been (and still are) loyal customers of the Northshire and we were already on chatting terms about books," Karen observes. "After meeting and talking to Jon after the publication of Finn, absolutely nothing changed. He was still charming, eloquent and interested in everyone's reactions. Jon is one of the more delightful and sincere authors I have met in my 10 years as a bookseller and I will always remember Finn as a completely rewarding experience. In fact, it continues to be my great pleasure to recommend this marvelous novel."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1378.