Sunday, February 8, 2015

memory and loss as the wheel turns in the book business

Maybe it’s just in the nature of dinosaurs to think we are indispensable.  But as a wave of leave-taking sweeps over the book industry, I’m reminded nearly every day that we’re not just losing great people, but also their institutional memory.

A sharp bookseller with ordinary memory will recognize good customers by name and recall the last few books they bought.  Not to mention arcane details like ISBN prefixes and the quirks of publisher co-op policies.

The institutional memory operates at a higher level.   It records slow-moving changes in tastes, dips deftly into a deep pool of author and title knowledge, and remembers how the latest subject fad turned out the last time there was a bubble for it.  Typically, there’s a broad scope awareness of the book world born of decades of interaction with publishers, authors, other booksellers.

By definition, it takes years to develop institutional memory, and it’s not just a skill that can be learned by simply trying hard.    

Many of the sharpest institutional memories are housed in the heads of the visionaries who opened stores in the 60s and 70s because they couldn’t imagine a career in the world of business- maybe the last generation that didn’t worship money.

Younger booksellers are stepping up at Indies all over North America, bringing energy, digital smarts and their own kind of wisdom to the industry.  A decade ago I was pretty pessimistic that the book business would survive the passing of the dinosaurs.  But having worked with some of these twenty and thirty-somethings, it’s clear that they will survive our departure.  Yet it will take years for them to rebuild the store memory that resides in the brains and hearts of the old timers. 
When I pitch Helen Vendler’s wonderful collection of essays this month (The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar), I refer buyers to her previous essay collections for hints on how this one will do.  Booksellers who instantly go to their computers to see how they did with those titles often find that books published in 1980 and 1989 don’t show up.  (And you weren’t alive then, I sometimes grimly think to myself.)
But the bookseller with the long memory (and a dozen lovely people immediately come to mind here) will immediately recall these books, and the selling of them, without reference to screens.

When MIT Press releases a new edition of the absolutely transformative Bauhaus, first published in 1969, the long memories see the book in the mind’s eye, and recall its fifty year life in the bookstore.

One of the most important books on the spring Harvard list is a deeply felt memoir by a human rights activist lawyer- John Sifton’s Violence All Around.  The book stands on its own merits, but it seems relevant to me to point out his family connections: his mother, Elizabeth Sifton, is a legendary FSG editor of enormous stature; his grandfather, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, needs no introduction.

Or so I thought.  Both of those names drew blanks with my buyers until I presented the book to Les Kreyer- another legend- at Follett last week.  Les immediately appreciated how these two names would have influenced the author, and made the book more interesting.

Les is the quintessential old school bookman- erudite, with sophisticated interests, yet someone you’d be happy to have the proverbial beer with.  When I pitched another book on the spring list, Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening, “the first dissertation drawn in comic form”, he compared it to the way Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was received in 1918.  Not that Les was around in 1918, but institutional memory!

Maybe I’m reading too much Modiano and Sebald lately, but I’m keenly aware of ghosts, transience, and loss.  We’re on the cusp of losing a generation of book people.  The young whip-smart staff now running Seminary Coop in Chicago (and other stores) has access to tools we never dreamed of to make bookselling profitable.  But it’s the handling of books physically, the “shelf awareness” that comes from touching and reading the books and engaging customers about them, that’s at least as important in building memory as blips on the screen. 
Book people of a certain age are dying off, it can’t be helped.  My friend Adena, who spent a stellar career in the book world, lamented the other day that the only time she recognizes names anymore in the Publishers Weekly “Personnel Changes” column is when there’s an obituary. 
And as for retirements, who can begrudge the bookselling lifers wanting some time to actually read?  It’s been a hard business.

So hats off to the new generation, and good luck.  But don’t forget to remember, remember, remember.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

hey booksellers: say hello!

At a time when their online competitors are spending millions on enhancing customer interface, why aren’t brick and mortar bookstores friendlier places?

Saying hello seems like such a simple thing.  Why go into an intensely social occupation like bookselling if it doesn’t come naturally?

It’s on my mind because this week I dropped in on a couple new bookstores in Chicago, and my “customer experience” was wildly divergent. 

At one store, I was greeted warmly the moment I walked in the door, and all three staff made it clear I was welcome.  (This was before I introduced myself as a book rep.  I like to scout stores as a civilian first.  Like most reps, I'm a bookaholic.)  Isn’t this Bookselling 101?

But at another store, I was invisible.  Despite being the only browser in the shop, one bookseller never looked up from a laptop, and the other shelved and tidied without so much as a nod to her only customer.  The store is small, essentially one large room, and it must have taken some effort to not make eye contact.  No goodbye when I quietly left fifteen minutes later. 

It’s a pretty store with a nice inventory in a promising location, and I hope they stock some of my books.  But if I’d been a neighborhood resident paying my first visit, I’d have left with a feeling of “guess I’m not the customer they’re looking for.” 

This puzzles me.  I was trained in the David Schwartz School of book retailing, where “greet the customer” was right up there with “take them to the book, don’t just point,” and “no eating behind the counter.”  But I visit dozens of bookstores every season in the US and Canada, and, sorry to say, the non-greet is often the norm, even among some of the loveliest, friendliest people imaginable.

To explain this phenomenon, I recall some of my own excuses from twenty years ago when David would see a customer slip past us without a hello.  I would explain that we didn’t want to unduly bother the browsers, that it was important to guard against “would you like fries with that” insincerity, that they could say hello to us.  Plus, booksellers can get stressed with multi-tasking, and everyone can have a bad day. 

But all of these rationalizations collapse on examination.   A simple hello is never an intrusion, and takes no effort.  If the bookstore is the kind of value-added public space we want and claim it to be, ignoring a visitor should be as unthinkable as snubbing a guest in one’s own home. 

Maybe the silent treatment is meant to protect the privacy and sensibilities of the introverted loner types, a core bookstore audience.  But I am that guy!  And I would not experience “hello” as an intrusion.

There’s a lot of space on the continuum between no acknowledgement at all and the robotic “welcome to Walgreens welcome to Walgreens welcome to Walgreens” that assaults me as I walk through a chain store.  Booksellers can be empowered to use whatever words they like to get the job done.  We get paid to talk about the books we love, what could be more personal?  The fact that the book business is one of the rare enclaves where it’s possible to bring your real self to work is an amazing thing, so say whatever feels right.

Personally, I like “hi!” or “let me know if you need any help.”  But whatever the terms, the point is to communicate the message: we see you, we’re glad you’re here, and even though we look really busy, we’re available.   

The cool paradox of the simple greeting is that it does double duty: it welcomes potential book buyers, but it’s also the most effective deterrent to potential thieves (or disturbed souls like the woman who used to come in and slit faces of movie stars out of our film books.)  For everyone entering the store, hello means “we see you.”

Customers can be strange.   You can ask someone if they need help and they will reply “no, I’m just browsing.”  But a minute later they will ask a question after all, a specific one they did have in mind.  The greeting was an implicit invitation, and works like a kind of spell in this way. 

If the lack of greeting is accompanied by robust chatter among booksellers, the customer’s feeling of awkwardness can be compounded.  Book-related conversation is no problem.  Customers often jump in when I’m going over new titles with a bookseller on the sales floor.  But if the chat is about how smashed someone’s roommate got last weekend, there’s not really a way for the rest of us to participate, and it can be a real browsing distraction.

Many booksellers are excellent greeters, and its one reason I feel at home in so many stores, even new or unfamiliar ones.  And I never hear outright rudeness in bookstores of the sort I routinely encounter at a Cambridge coffee shop.  But there’s work to be done on the friendliness front.

Though his greeting might be a bit exuberant for a bookstore, my dog Blake embodies the idea of welcome.   Whether I’ve been gone for weeks or just run out for groceries, he’s always glad to see me.  Every guest at our door is a cause for joy.  Return visitors are especially relished. 

No need for booksellers to lick my face, but acknowledging my existence is always appreciated.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

reading and writing for a better world

In lieu of a “Best Books Read in 2014” list, I’ve been thinking about the kind of book I’d like to read in 2015.

Sure, there are many worthy and interesting titles on deck, from us and others, and I look forward to many of them.  But what I really crave is a new literature of political possibility, a speculative library that re-imagines that old socialist slogan for the 21st century: another world is possible.  I know, dream on.  But let’s!

I’m a diehard commie kid throwback, but I’ve had the bracing experience of being a daily Wall Street Journal reader for the past few months.  My friend Daniel convinced me that I really need to keep up with the weekend books section, which is actually quite good.  I thought I was signing up for a digital version of this review using flyer points from a bankrupt airline.  Turns out I was enlisting in daily delivery of the print edition, a service that is apparently impossible to turn off until it runs its course.  My love of newspapers is second only to my love of lost causes, but really, the Wall Street Journal has been tough to swallow every morning.

Tough, but illuminating.  Though it's often nauseating to read what the ruling class has to say to itself in its house organ, it's a useful exercise for someone dreaming of replacing them.  The editorial pages are composed entirely of shrill, right wing advocacy, a mirror image of the old Daily Worker where the fat cats are oppressed instead of the workers.  This week, for example, the discerning leftist reader learns that the ruling class and its markets are not so very worried about the march of fundamentalism, but the possibility of a democratically elected Marxist  president in Greece is inducing apoplexy.

Imagine how different life might be with a mass circulation newspaper of the Left!  And by "the Left" I don’t mean simply liberalism with a backbone, of the Bernie Sanders variety.  In 2015 we desperately need a socialist/new communist movement that is not afraid of the words "organization" and "leadership", nor of the big core questions like “who should own and control the means of production?”  We need solutions that, in their scale, are worthy of the systemic problems they address.  We need writers who are willing and able to imagine a future where people, not corporations, are truly calling the shots. 

Capital has performed last rites on 20th century socialism, and received wisdom says only lunatics would try to resurrect it.  But the corpse still has things to say, and questions to ask.  What would it mean to live in a country where ownership of essential infrastructure- energy, transportation, and digital technology- was social rather than private?  Where profit was banished from the health care system?  Where industry and business was regulated in the public interest?  Where workers were guaranteed control of the workplace?  Where racism and economic inequality were addressed as a matter of national security?  Where government functioned at every level to make sure public good takes precedence over private gain when it comes to natural resources?  Socialism once asked these questions, and they still call for imaginative answers.

Yes, it sounds like a kind of science fiction, but this is the book I want to read.  If we can have dozens of depressing fantasy novels about the future, why not a socialist one?  Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, P.D. James’ The Children of Men are both great dystopian novels, but is there no room for a modern utopian political page-turner?    Activists can agitate but writers are uniquely equipped to show us that another world is possible.

When it comes to imagining socialism,  looking forward is inevitably looking backward (or Looking Backward!)  There was something called “actually existing socialism” that didn’t work out so well, and it’s been an effective ideological club to keep anyone interested in salvaging remnants invisible. 

Communism of the Soviet variety may have been a colossal failure, but it was the first stab at putting ideas of collective ownership in power.  It took capitalism many attempts to replace feudalism in the Middle Ages.  And even today, Capital forgives itself every spectacular failure, while the socialist idea is dismissed based on one big try.

The apologists of capitalism aren’t satisfied with burying the idea of socialism.  To complete the job, it’s important to render the lives and reputations of the millions of 20th century people who fought for socialism worthless and wasted- delusional at best, traitorous at worst.  So this would make another great book subject.  As part of my 2015 literary socialist redemption project, I’m looking forward to reading about the ordinary people who, as one red diaper baby wrote, “learned to pay a special kind of attention to the world.”

Perhaps it’s the poets we need for this job as well as the novelists.  Gary Snyder, in a 2000 May Day speech in Portland Oregon, summed up my 2015 feelings exactly:

Let’s drink a toast to all those farmers, workers, artists and intellectuals of the last hundred years who, without thought of fame and profit, worked tirelessly in their dream of a worldwide socialist revolution.  Who believed and hoped a new world was dawning, and that their work would contribute to a society in which one class does not exploit another,  where one ethnic group or one nation does not try to expand itself over another, and where men and women live as equals.  The people who nourished these hopes and dreams were sometimes foolishly blind to the opportunism of their own leadership, and many were led into ideological absurdities.  But the great majority of them selflessly worked for socialism with the best of hearts.  The failure of socialism is the tragedy of the 20th century, and we should honor the memory of those who struggled for the dream of what socialism might have been.  And begin a new way again.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ten Fall 2014 Favorites from Harvard/MIT/Yale

There were 526 new titles on the Fall 2014 Harvard University Press, MIT Press and Yale University Press lists.  I pitched them all, and there was a lot to love here.  But inevitably, I end up with favorites.

With apologies to editors who may wonder “what about my books,” and to sales managers who may wonder “what about the big important books we pay you to be excited about,” I offer here my personal best culled from our Fall offerings.

My standard is simple: these are the titles I’d be most likely to buy if I stumbled across them in a bookshop, and would be most likely to give and recommend to friends.  It’s a completely impulsive roster, with an arbitrary cut-off of ten titles.  Dozens more were bubbling under, so I’d recommend checking out the complete Harvard, MIT and Yale catalogs.

John Summers, Chris Lehmann, Thomas Frank
MIT Press 27.95

The Baffler is without question one of the most interesting journals of social, cultural and political criticism going today.  This anthology of recent gems includes salvos- the perfect word- from Barbara Ehrenreich, Tom Frank, and other accomplished sacred cow smashers.   Susan Faludi’s takedown of Sheryl Sandberg’s  “lean in feminism” and Ann Friedman’s demolition of LinkedIn are alone worth the price of admission.   Crucially, The Baffler- so rare in Left journalism- has a keen sense of humor.

Henri Lefebvre
MIT/Semiotext(e) 13.95 paper

A strangely compelling genre-bending book that might be called “list literature.”  It’s a compendium of “what has been lost or never existed,” encompassing books, films, sculptures, paintings and other cultural artifacts across time.   Sentences flow in a relentless but oddly suggestive way, even though there is no narrative.  For example: “Murder, the Hope of Women, a twenty-five minute opera composed in 1919 by Paul Hindemuth; The novel Theodor by Robert Walser; The letters of Milena Jesenska to Franz Kafka; The contents of a telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak after the arrest of Osip Mandelstam; The final seven meters of Kerouac’s On the Road (eaten by a dog.)”  And so on for 80 more pages .  I’m not sure why but it really gets under your skin after awhile, and becomes haunting when recited.  Read alternating sentences aloud with a friend!

William Kentridge
Harvard 24.95

The beloved South African artist, at the peak of his career, takes a surprisingly small and intimate look at how meaning is made in the studio.  It’s not really a “how to draw” book as much as a meditation on the different ways of thinking involved in creative production.  He’s clearly a complete bibliophile, and was involved in every aspect of the book’s production.  Hence, it looks and feels like an artist’s book.

Jane L. Aspinwall, Keith F. Davis
Yale 60.00

Three of my favorite Yale books this season are photography books.  I don’t know what that means except that Yale does superb photography books.  And none more superb than everything that comes from the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.  I’m tempted to buy just about any book they do for the book arts quality alone.  In this case, they’re exploring the transformation of the American West through Gardner’s photographs.  I’d seen some of his Civil War work, but this focuses on the railroads, with lots of attention to the (often Native American) communities that were impacted by the laying of track.  Gorgeous.

Roxanne Warren
MIT 35.00

Talking of railroads, this is one of those deep, back of the catalog books that deserves to have a brighter spotlight shone on it.  Perhaps because I spent  time on some amazing German trains this summer, and perhaps because I live in a state where the current regime has demonized rail, I’m drawn to an argument that auto dependency and suburban sprawl can be addressed by light rail, moving people efficiently within and between cities.   She’s very light on academic jargon, and the writing is fluid and engaging.  Perhaps I should send one to our governor?

Marius Hentea
MIT 34.95

As an Old Left leftist, I’ve always been a little skeptical about Dada, surrealism, and other 20th century avant-garde movements.  There's a dilletante-ish, unserious flavor.  But the personalities are so much more interesting than the Stalinists!  Tzara has never had a full biography in any language, and it’s hard to see why.  There should be feature films about him.  This zany man roves across Europe, stepping foot and sometimes tripping on some of the key art and political hotspots of the day.  I won’t say reading this is like being there, or knowing him, but it’s a fantastic introduction to a fascinating movement and one of its key players.

David Albahari
Yale/Margellos 15.00 paper

An existential post-modern noir thriller that asks the question “what does it mean to be a Serb in Canada?”  If that doesn’t grab you, how about this: it’s written in a single long paragraph, a la Thomas Bernhard.  Don’t be deterred.  Fantastic stylist, vivid imagination, compelling theme (identity.)  You can almost never go wrong with one of the Margellos World Republic of Letters literature in translation titles.  They are predictably interesting, surprising and collectible in the same way New York Review, Europa Books, or- my worst weakness, Persephone Press are.  (Next up: Nobel Fiction winner Patrick Modiano’s three novella omnibus, Suspended Sentences.)

Zephyr Teachout
Harvard 29.95

This is possibly the most important book on any of the three lists this fall, IMHO.  The whole definition of corruption in politics has been so narrowly etched by contemporary courts as to be almost impossible to prove.  Teachout here shows how far this “quid pro quo only” definition has strayed from what the Framers had in mind.  The constitution itself was designed to fight corruption and the appearance of corruption- hence the subtitle, referring to a small gift from the French government to Franklin, which he had to refuse lest it even hint at compromised integrity.  How far we’ve come.  Yes, you might recognize Teachout- she ran for Governor of New York against Cuomo is the September primary, and did amazingly well. 

Nancy Marie Mithlo
Yale 49.95
Horace Poolaw, a Kiowa, was a 20th century Native American photographer who documented the transition of his people from their traditional life to immersion in mainstream Oklahoma society.  The 150 rare images were assembled for a National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, but they are so surprising and beautiful they stand up well as a book.  That period of the twenties through the fifties saw so much vivid documentary photography (think Dorothea Lange), but this is a really unique perspective.  Lovely book.

Emily Bronte
Harvard 35.00

I love the book, but why another edition?  The annotations are superb, and really help to give context; like the others in this series, the production values, with such lavish illustrations and creamy paper, make the book itself a physical work of art (take that e-books!); and the story, well, it bears re-reading every now and again.  And give Kate Bush a listen while you’re at it.