Monday, June 29, 2015

Avin Domnitz, booksellers' friend

Independent booksellers lost a champion this weekend.

I worked for and got to know Avin Domnitz after he joined forces with David Schwartz to lead Milwaukee’s Harry W Schwartz Bookshops/Dickens Books in the mid-eighties.
So many booksellers of a certain age- myself included- got into the business for love of the product, not retailing in general.  The business aspects were a necessary evil, and the less time spent worrying about them the better.  Some of us saw it as one of the last honorable ways to make a living.  Some of us thought it was a way to change the world.  Some of us just didn’t have the wit or talent to do anything else. 
But as the competitive environment began to heat up, the necessary skill set to survive was sometimes lacking.  Avin was just what we needed.  He shared some of those motivations, but he also had a talent for and enjoyment of negotiation and persuasion honed as a trial lawyer.

A keen analytical thinker, a strategist, that rare guy who was always able to keep both forest and trees in sharp focus, Avin was the man you wanted in the room when dealing with big fish- bookstore chains, major publishers, internet entities, government, banks, landlords. 
When I recall those long ago days, I think we (the Schwartz side of the family merger) didn’t always appreciate what he brought to the table.   Avin’s thankless job was to keep watch over today’s sales to make sure we’d have the money to pay yesterday’s bills.   We often didn’t.  His close attention to the bottom line, expenses, and business practices was not always well-received.  It wasn't as much fun as shelving an incoming order of Penguins.  But his scrupulosity probably saved the stores more than once. 
The Schwartz stores thrived on being bookish places, and David himself was a consummate reader.  But Avin was also a reader.  Avin’s intellectual gravitas, his passion for particular books and authors, got less attention than it deserved since he worked behind the scenes rather than in front of customers.  This man had impeccable reading tastes and strong, thoughtful opinions about literature and history.

Avin and I left the stores around the same time- he to work for the American Booksellers Association as CEO, me to become a sales rep.  Our paths crossed occasionally since then, and I remember a conversation awhile back about Yale’s Jewish Lives series after he’d met the editor.  “These are such wonderful books,” he enthused.  He may have retired but his excitement about books was as fresh as our first conversation about Philip Roth 30 years ago.

When I think about Avin I recall his incredible patience, and his willingness to give advice in a way that the mathematically challenged could process.  His confidence could sometimes be a little intimidating, but he showed just enough ordinary human insecurity and anxiety that the anxiously insecure enjoyed his company. 
He had a droll sense of humor, especially about human foibles.  But when people disappointed him or did stupid things he never seemed to sour on humanity in general- a feat that’s easier said than done and I suspect had something to do with his deep love of family and faith.

There are lots of heroes to celebrate as independent bookselling seems to be miraculously surviving and maybe even thriving, but few have done as much to chaperone the profession into the 21st century.  If American booksellers today are smarter, more sophisticated in their business practices, more networked, more savvy about social media, and more confident about the future, they have Avin Domnitz to thank.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

the beauty of horizontal bookselling

When I walk into a good bookshop with the intention of browsing, I look for new books, and I look for a display table.

There are lots of ways to attractively present new titles, and I’ve seen them all.  But somehow, the sight of stacks on a big table “commands me to buy” (to use an ugly marketing phrase) like no other fixture or display strategy.

Vending one's wares from a simple table is such a universal human activity, and we all know the appeal, from farmer’s markets to trade shows.  So maybe I’m just drawn to the horizontal surface because my Swedish ancestors bought and sold their vegetables that way.  But I have other reasons.

A table has some distinct merchandising advantages over vertical shelving. 
There’s a kind of egalitarian spirit to stacks of books face up on a table.  A browser can circumnavigate with easy access to everything- nothing out of sight or out of reach.

There is less likelihood that butt-brush factor will chase browsers away from narrow aisles.

As a browser, the logistical challenges of vertical shelving- especially the floor to ceiling variety- are becoming clearer as creaking joints and dodgy eyesight begin to toy with me.   

There is the issue of the top shelf, and the even more distressing problem of the bottom one.  I can’t be the only customer who decides to skip finding out who the S through Z authors in New Books are rather than get down on hands and knees to examine them.  I’ve always wondered if those authors have any idea that their last names put them at a distinct display disadvantage in most bookshops.

Big corporate retailers are spending heavily to track eyeballs in their stores, since it’s clear that where they go is a huge factor in what products get noticed and sold.  For bookstores, this is also the case.

One of my favorite customers at the downtown Milwaukee bookstore I managed was Mrs. Jepson, an eccentric older woman who had won a lawsuit against an ambulance company and was rewarded by being able to use it as a taxi service.  They’d drop her off and pick her up after she spent an hour or so rolling around the store in her wheelchair. 
She looked a little like Flannery O'Connor, had definite interests, and a sharp tongue (“The only thing she reads is the newspaper!” she’d invariably complain about her paid companion.)  If she landed at a busy time we’d groan and make the best of it, but on a slow Tuesday morning she was a delight.

Another delight was seeing bookseller Daniel Goldin’s patient, funny, disarming way with her as he fetched books from this section and that at her command.  This talent has come in handy as his Boswell Book Company has cornered the Milwaukee north shore nursing home market.

But Mrs. Jepson mainly liked to browse, snatching random books within reach and demanding “what’s this about?”  The thing was, her browsing boundary was books she could see and pick up from a sitting down position.  Authors H through P of the new Mass Market fiction section, for instance.

I don’t know whether Esther Jepson would have had an easier time with horizontal display tables, but the lesson is that bookstore customers have unique perusing strategies and abilities, and may not be seeing what you want them to see.

My old boss David Schwartz was a big believer in the display table, and we spent lots of time configuring, measuring, and moving them around.   A key Schwartz insight: if the table is too low you will need a lot more inventory to make stacks; higher tables are better, since only a few copies of a book can get it close to the customer’s eye level.

My friend Jason Smith in Oak Park was a little obsessed with this issue for years before he opened his own store.   He was so convinced that displaying books on tables is the way to go that he named his store The Book Table, and it is indeed a joy for horizontally biased bibliophiles.

And in Hyde Park, the Front Table at Seminary Coop Bookstore has been some of the most valuable bookselling real estate in North America for decades.  There isn’t a better snapshot of new, important scholarly books to be found anywhere.  And in stacks!  I was thrilled to hear that they’re converting some of their vertical New Release shelving to more table space.  No more crawling on the floor to see the new Slavoj Zizek!

I know, I’m unrealistic.  Just in time inventory and bottom line watching have made book piles a thing of the past in many stores.  And organizing regular sections like fiction horizontally rather than vertically makes no sense.  And who has the space for all these tables anyway?

It's fun to get lost in the stacks.  But give me a big flat space stacked with curated new titles over wall shelving any day. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

why aren't there more people of color in publishing?

Not long ago, I was at an MIT Press sales conference dinner and was surprised to notice that I was the only man at the table.  In fact, MIT has made incredible strides in gender equality.   Most of the key sales, marketing and administrative positions are held by women, and the editorial department is way more balanced than those of many other publishers.  Publishing in general has been transformed over the past few decades by women assuming leadership roles.

So why is the record on racial inclusiveness in publishing still so appalling?  Why do I sit at sales conference tables with dozens of very smart people season after season where the non-white representation is nil, or almost nil?  Why does book publishing still seem like a place where, as a friend of mine described it, “white people talk to white people?”

I can’t speak for other publishers, (and can’t even really speak for my own) but I’ve been in the book business long enough to know that the racial demographics in terms of employment is abysmal.  The paucity of African-American faces is one of a couple big elephants in the publishing room, and the lack of acknowledgment and apparent progress makes it seem as if we’ve just given up.  

The irony here is that the university presses I represent- Harvard and Yale in particular- routinely nurture the most extraordinary scholarship on African-American history, slavery, economic inequality, the criminal justice system,  urban issues, and education.  Their roster of author talent is an A list of contemporary Black public intellectuals and academics, who are doing groundbreaking research and constructing profoundly important arguments.  Their work stands to materially improve quality of life and to leverage change.  It’s a signal contribution made by university presses every season.  And the fact that these stellar books have been brought to life by talented, thoughtful white editors shows that if racism is at work, it’s of the institutional variety, not personal.

A sales conference is an assembly of the key in-house players, a conversation about the ideas in forthcoming books, and a strategy-session on how to present them to the public.  When a title has special valence for the Black community, it seems strange for members of that community to (literally) not have a chair at the table.  (I feel similarly uneasy when the recent cascade of books on Islamism is discussed without input of Muslims.)

The point is not diversity for diversity’s sake, as if it’s enough to just feel good about ticking that box.  It’s not even simply about making it possible for Black voices to be heard on marketing strategies for books on “Black” topics, whatever that may mean.  We’re missing the perspective that African-American sales, marketing and editorial personnel would bring to the entire publishing program.  Why wouldn’t discussion of environmental studies, classical music, digital humanities and ornithology titles not be just as enriched by a more representative staff?  How might the seasonal lists look different had the books been acquired and shepherded through the pre-publication gauntlet by black editors? 

In truth, nobody at any of the presses I work for would dispute this.  But diagnosis is easy.  Attracting, hiring and keeping non-white talent is a challenge, and I’m certainly not the first book person to have thought of advocating it.
The most common explanation I’ve heard for why the problem is so intractable goes something like this: there’s a lot of competition in the corporate and financial world for strong African-American candidates, and publishing simply can’t compete on salaries.

I’m sure there’s some truth in that, although leaving it there seems a little convenient. If the book industry in the US is to survive and grow, publishers have to find ways to increase the number of nonwhite professionals in their ranks at all levels- administrative, editorial, marketing, publicity, book design, financial, digital, sales reps.

There’s an obituary written for legacy publishing just about daily.  The causes cited are technological, or competing platforms, or e-book pricing, or self-publishing, or a dozen other predictable villains.  But I think there’s a bigger threat to the future of books: the prospect of publishing houses that, internally, look less and less like the country.  White people talking to white people. 

Sorry, I don’t have a killer app to solve this.  But I don’t believe in the notion that you can’t talk about an issue unless you do. More headway might be made by starting with the obvious- acknowledging the problem, designing plans and benchmarks to measure progress, and- most importantly- making sure that everything possible is being done to make the working environment a welcoming one for people of color.  Perhaps these things have made it to someone’s agenda, but I haven’t heard the issue addressed in years, and the results speak for themselves.

My presses have been incredibly great places to work, and book publishing is a fantastic way to spend a career.  People tend to stay in their positions for a long time.  But we’re in the midst of a great generational turning of the page as the valiant sixties generation begins to cede the reins.  It’s a perfect time for publishers to renew their commitment to actively finding non-white talent to fill some of those slots.

Hard to do.  But the presses have broken ground in all sorts of ways, and I don’t doubt their capacity to lead on this one.  They have some built-in advantages: the resources of three great universities; a battery of African-American authorial talent; and the ability to still do the long-term, big picture thinking that escapes most other enterprises in our short term quick buck age.

We might take a page from some of the booksellers who have faced the same challenge of staffing their stores in a representative way. 

The vast majority of booksellers I visit every season are, like my colleagues at the sales conference table, white.  But Left Bank Books in St Louis has always stood out for its multiracial, multigender, eclectic bookselling staff.  The composition seems organic, not token.  When the horror of Ferguson unfolded, Left Bank responded- as readers, as booksellers, as citizens.  Co-owner Kris Kleindienst was surprised when their efforts got so much attention, since “it just felt like what you do.”  One thing they do is to think hard and often about serving their entire community.

I asked Kris why she thought the issue of racial composition in publishing and bookselling gets such scant attention.  

“So many white people who are very well-intentioned have actually spent very little time talking about race, confronting privilege, examining implicit bias,” she said.  “Very articulate people stumble when asked why there aren’t more people of color in their professional worlds.  But the language about race, the meaningful conversations, have to be learned. If we want to address it, we have to commit to doing some hard looking at ourselves, commit to un-learning that racism, and also to interrupting it where we see it in action. This is a life-long process that doesn’t stop. But it is so worth it.”


Friday, March 27, 2015

how to become a child communist

The East Side Library, a creaky old store front, was on the corner Farwell and North, about a mile south of our flat on Bartlett Avenue.   I was nine years old in 1960, one of those anonymous, introverted after school regulars who have haunted the late afternoon stacks for generations.  If I took four buses- the #15 south to North Avenue, then the #21 west to Holton Street, then the #14 north to Center (or ran this six block leg), and finally the #22 back east to Oakland- and if I didn’t dawdle too long at the Library, I could make the whole circuit on one bus transfer.  Eventually, I would get a coveted weekly student pass that simplified the trip.

My Milwaukee Public Library card was my most treasured possession.  But I was regarded with some suspicion by the librarians because I had no interest in age-appropriate literature. 

There was no rule against a ten year old checking out adult reading matter, unless the book had been coded with the unsubtle red slash across the end paper, signifying sexual content.  These didn’t interest me.  I remember once seeing the word “homosexual” on the spine of a small book in the psychology section; it caught my eye,  but I was vague about what it meant and not curious enough to find out.

What mainly cast a spell on me were books about other countries.  Africa, Asia, Europe- my hunger to know these places was deep and indiscriminate.  But around this time the Soviet Union in particular clamped a hold on my imagination.  The paranoid, post-sputnik era prompted lots of books on the subject, often with garish covers and terrifying illustrations. 
Communism was evil.  How could it not be?  We’d been drilled to line up against the wall in the stifling basement hallway of Bartlett Avenue School, shielding our heads with our ten year old crossed arms lest Nikita Khruschev launch nukes at Milwaukee.

But I was intrigued by the idea of the USSR, this exotic, parallel universe.  I wondered whether Soviet students worried about war, and whether they had more effective protection than covering their heads with their hands.  My fascination had the flavor of a science fiction addiction, and I checked out every book I could find on the subject.  They often proved incomprehensible when I got them home, but I was not deterred.  I’ve never been afraid of complicated reading.

Once, a sneering librarian asked what I did with all these books about Russia.  My face went flush with hate and embarrassment.  But another time my favorite librarian, who reminded me of Miss Jane Hathaway, smiled as I hefted The Story of Soviet Man onto the counter.  “You must really be interested in what’s going on over there,” she said.  This simple, obvious remark made me love her. 

I wondered whether she might have been a communist.

During the summer of 1961, right after the end of fourth grade, someone from the school board called my mother.  They were setting up a new program for “Superior Ability” students and had identified me as a potential charter member.  Would she bring me to Wells Street School on a Saturday morning for a series of tests?  The class would have an experimental curriculum, draw students from five area schools, and we’d remain together as a cohesive group until eighth grade, each year hosted by a different school. 

There was much discussion about logistics- it would mean bus riding rather than walking to school- and my parents were ambivalent.  Would the class make me feel as if I’m “a little king?”  In our family, bragging and pride were two sides of the same unbecoming coin.  The notion of enrolling me in a program that boasted some kind of superiority in its very name was concerning.  (Later, there were times they did regret the SA class, and it became a sort of whipping boy.  Indeed, it was the inspiration for my seemingly out-of-nowhere political activism and dada pranks.)

But I passed the tests and started fifth grade at Hartford Avenue School the following September with 30 other clever kids.   What apparently got me in was my answer to an open-ended essay question designed to assess my skill with words.  Prompted to draft a page about anything, I composed a lengthy short story, brimming with pathos, about an East German girl who was separated from her family by the recently erected Berlin Wall.

My exposure to the non-white kids, precocious nerds, and children of academics in that four year program was an experience that re-shaped my worldview for a lifetime.  You might say it made me a Marxist.   

Funny that it was all down to a pretentious little story about the evils of communism.

October, 1964.  Eighth grade, Hartford Avenue School.  A freakishly tropical fall day.  I’m painfully bored, waiting for lunch hour to end on the shimmering asphalt playground.  As usual, I’m hiding, acting weird, avoiding sports, in my own head, leaning against the chain link fence, cloud watching.    Along Maryland Avenue, within earshot, a group of workmen are taking a break and listening to the World Series on the radio.  An announcer cuts in with a news bulletin to say that in the Soviet Union,  Khrushchev has been deposed, and that two new leaders- Brezhnev and Kosygin- will take his place.

I find this news extraordinarily fascinating.