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.


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.