Friday, February 26, 2010

Public Reading/Digital Reading

One of the many things I’m dreading about the relentless march of digital books is the lost ability to actually see what people are reading.

Forget about scanning the seats across from you on the subway and noticing who is reading what. Soon everyone will be staring into an ugly sheet of plastic and there will be no telling what (or even if) they are reading. Imagine all the current long-term friendships that got their start with a chat about a book someone was reading or carrying. Imagine those conversations never starting.

For all the talk about the wonders of “social media,” it seems to me that digital books are a big retreat into the private self. And since serious readers tend to be a self-conscious and shy lot to begin with, the new technologies are only giving us a safer place to hide in public.

It’s not just losing the joy of spotting a random stranger reading your favorite novel. There are other implications.

I’ve been thinking a lot about book collections lately- how they are constructed, what they say about us, how attached we get to our books as objects. When I’m in the home of someone who owns a lot of books, I can’t resist the impulse to scan the spines. I’m always surprised when people who come to my house don’t show more interest in my books. Alberto Manguel has a wonderful book about this, called The Library at Night.

Last winter, some friends allowed us to spend a week at their Arizona home. I knew that they were both readers, but I was happy and surprised by their wonderful book collections. Roger had an enormous and fascinating library of photography books (one with a 1992 receipt stuck in it from Schwartz Bookshop, showing that I rang him up!); Mary’s excellent collection of feminist, civil rights and socially conscious fiction acquired over a lifetime, gave me a fresh insight into her strong convictions.

The old books we keep are the most interesting and revealing. When a book purchased in the early seventies- well-thumbed, full of notes and underlining- survives periodic book purging and is still on the shelf 35 years later, it’s meaningful.

I’m not a Luddite and there’s a lot to love about the coming digital book world, but there are some aspects of the shared book experience which won’t make the transition in any way I can imagine. Sharing a book is more than just sharing a text. Though I suppose our smart phones may be able to tell us what text other smart phones on the subway are currently processing, it won’t be the same.

There’s one other kind of public book experience that I will miss. As I write this, I’m sitting in a rented cabin near Joshua Tree National Park. My partner and I really love this kind of one week getaway, and we especially love renting cottages. More often than not, a haphazard collection of games, music and sometimes DVDs from previous guests will be left for us. And surprisingly often, there’s a shelf of books.

These cottage book collections are in some ways the opposite of the highly personal, idiosyncratic library, which reflects one person’s tastes. The piles of (usually) paperbacks are the random, layered literary leavings of all sorts of people. Even though it doesn’t quite make sense, they sometimes coalesce into what seems like a distinct personality.

For awhile, I thought it must be illegal to rent out a cabin without at least one Sue Grafton or John LeCarre, though this seems to be fading a bit. (In Scotland a few years ago, I lugged a dozen Ian Rankin mysteries to our self-catered rental, only to find it well stocked with many of the same titles left by prior visitors.)

Here are a few of the orphans on this week’s cabin shelf:

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver; Homeport by Nora Roberts; A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley; In Search of Love & Beauty by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton (told you!); The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Shoot the Moon by Billie Letts; Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton; Blackwood Farm by Anne Rice; How Stella Got her Groove Back by Terry McMillan; and The Prize by Brenda Joyce.

I’d read a couple of these. I would consider reading a few more if I suddenly ran out of books (unlikely, I always bring way too many). And sure, there are a couple I wouldn’t touch even if I had nothing to read.

But before we sacrifice the ability to see what strangers are reading on the altar of digitization, we should at least acknowledge that we're doing so. I don’t know how the cottage renters of the future will leave their electronic texts strewn about for future guests to enjoy; maybe they'll find a way.

One of the books I brought to read this week was the excellent novel The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, just out in paperback. It was a very satisfying read but in the end I decided 700 pages was unnecessarily long, so instead of bringing it home I’m leaving it on the shelf. I hope someone discovers it, and wonders about who left it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ten Things to Love About Tattered Cover

“Legendary” is one of those sneaky cliches that’s been diminished by overuse, but in the book industry there’s no other word for Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore. Since they were first discovered by mainstream media in the seventies and celebrated as a marvel, the idea of huge retail book spaces with lots of comfortable seating has been copied by chain stores far and wide. The “big box bookstore” has become so commonplace that you would almost think big business came up with the idea. Think again.

Owner Joyce Meskis and her staff of visionaries probably never guessed that one day they’d be surrounded by dozens of cookie-cutter knockoffs. But the amazing thing is that so much of the essence of Tattered Cover lives on in the current stores. In the way that a church is said to be the people, not the building, a 1970’s customer transported to the Colfax store circa 2010 would probably be right at home- if a little surprised by the computer screens and extensive selection of vampire books.

There’s a lot to love about the place, but this is my top ten:

1. Pioneer spirit. There was the taking over of an old department store in Cherry Creek in 1986. Four floors of books? It seemed crazy at the time. Then a huge store in a forlorn corner of downtown in the early nineties, which is now smack in the middle of things.

When Cherry Creek became too upscale for its own good a few years back, they re-located to the gorgeous, sadly languishing Lowenstein Theatre in a neighborhood of East Colfax that skeptics said could never support a bookstore. (They’ve embraced it.)

And the Highlands Ranch store has brought TC culture into the deep suburbs. What a shock to lazy stereotyping to see what these supposedly conservative bookbuyers are reading.

2. Long-term thinking. Staff tend to stick around. Books are given a fair chance on the shelves to prove themselves. And customers are consequently loyal.

3. No gimmicks. Every time some new fright has come along to scare the pants off indie booksellers over the past 20 years, stores have rushed to the latest gimmicky prescriptions. Not here. They know what they do that distinguishes them, and they just keep trying to do it better.

4. Fierce commitment to freedom of speech. Nothing rankles Tattered Cover more than being told they can’t sell something, and they have the (successful) court cases to prove it.

5. Show University presses the love. Back when it was unusual for a general trade bookstore to stock very deeply in university presses, Joyce saw them as both essential and potentially profitable. Again with the vision! My current buyer, Cathy Langer, who has an incredibly full plate, continues this tradition by treating each title with respect and giving it due consideration. Every book we publish gets a shot, and every important book gets representation. This careful culling is exactly what authors and readers most need from booksellers, and is why bookselling is a profession.

6. Authors galore. The TC reading, lecture and film calendar is the envy of the bookselling world. But I am waiting for ace events-wrangler Charles Stillwagon, who has seen it all, to write his behind the scenes memoir of authors, their publicists and their handlers. That will be something to read.

7. Returns Rescue. Laura Snapp, whose enthusiasms know no bounds, has the thankless task of supervising returns. But every author with a book that hasn’t sold should pray for someone like her to pass final judgment. I don’t know how many times she’s shown me the most fascinating book ever that she’s rescued from the returns pile. The returns process can be ruthless and depressing, but to have someone who can save a book at the last possible moment, giving it a final reprieve before it goes into the box- well, it’s a blessing.

8. Somehow, no ego! Tattered Cover over the years has given back wisdom and participation to the national bookselling community and trade associations for decades- without, as far as I can see, a trace of the “we are Tattered Cover and we are all that” attitude which one could argue they are actually entitled to. Over the years they’ve helped bookshops right in their own backyard get their footing without the slightest competitive hesitation.

9. Always surprising. One should never leave a bookshop without feeling surprised by something- a book you didn’t know you wanted, an overheard conversation, a quirky sideline (boxed wooden matches with retro book jackets, whatever next?) You can’t set foot in any of the TC stores without having your attention drawn toward something compelling.

10. Sense of place. I suppose a store like TC could be anywhere in theory, but in fact it seems rooted in the soil of Denver. The relationships throughout the community run deep, and the “Tattered Cover Gives Back” program is more than a slogan. They do.

I first visited the store as a bookseller around 1990. Avin Domnitz and David Schwartz, my bosses at the time, had planned a meeting with Tattered Cover to talk about how Milwaukee and Denver might somehow work together to advance independent bookselling (Today the independents seem to never stop talking to each other, but back then it was unusual.)

At the last minute David couldn’t make the trip, and Avin asked me to go. Though I managed the flagship Schwartz store at the time, the whole aura of Tattered Cover was deeply intimidating to me. We were treated with great hospitality, but I have no recollections of the meeting except one: the telephone room.

Like most bookstores, we at Schwartz fielded phone calls on the floor while trying not to annoy the live customers. But at Tattered Cover, the incoming volume was such that a whole room was dedicated to operators answering phones. I don’t know which was more striking- the number of people assigned to this job, or the fact of so many incoming calls. In my probably faulty memory, the room glowed with a soft blue light. It seemed a bit other-worldly.

Phone calls to bookstores have slacked off everywhere, replaced by emails and websites. But TC still has a feeling of permanence and vitality, a true destination store.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

College Art 2010

In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos- the Modern, the Met, the Louvre.

- Patti Smith, Just Kids

Maybe Patti Smith’s excellent but somewhat jaded memoir wasn’t the best reading to get me psyched for my first College Art show. Then again, I kept returning to her words in the course of a rather surreal day at the Chicago Hyatt.

“College Art”- short for College Art Association- is an annual gathering of the academic art tribes that has been going on for nearly a century. The three components are 1) a diverse, sometimes bewildering roster of panels and discussions on every imaginable topic in art history and critique; 2) a trade show of sorts, where art book publishers and supply dealers show off and sell their wares; 3) a kind of job fair. (I guess a fourth might be colleges looking for students for their proliferating low-res programs.)

Reps do not normally attend these shows, and both MIT and Yale have dedicated events staff who are genius at working the display logistics. But editors attend for the chance to network, meet with authors, and sometimes make presentations.

Because the show was in Chicago this time, and because MIT art and architecture editor Roger Conover was thoughtful enough to ask, I was able to carve out a day to take it in.

The east coast blizzard added a bit of drama- for a time it looked like nobody from Cambridge and New Haven would make their flights, and I would be able to swoop in, unpack the boxes, and save the day. But most everyone from the east coast arrived, so this was not to be. Luckily so, since I would have quickly been defeated by having to calculate the Chicago sales tax (10.5%!) while factoring in the discount. I probably would have just given he books away.

Fresh off the train from Milwaukee at 9:30, my first impression of the 5,000 attendees was that many of them looked familiar. But then I realized that I didn’t actually know anyone, it’s just that hundreds of people were sporting the same art academic uniform.

The MIT booth, under the supervision of John and Allison, was a thing of beauty. As I spend much of my working life trying to interest people in these titles, to see swarms of people poring through the books with intense interest- well, it made my heart skip a beat. I’ve also never seen the MIT art titles displayed in such quantities. One copy on a bookstore shelf looks forlorn and lost. But ten copies! Memo to self: push harder for stacks.

I stood at the booth and tried to be helpful, although there were so many people I felt a little redundant at times.

High point: meeting veteran MIT author Maud Lavin, (Clean New World: Culture, Politics & Graphic Design) who told me about her forthcoming title from MIT on the fall 2010 list. She hypnotized me to sell vast quantities of it with her beautiful magic ring. (true!)

Low point: someone asked whether we had a particular title, and, knowing it’s an April book, I said “oh no, not yet.” A few moments later I notice the man leafing through the very book. Oops.

It gets worse: I notice his name tag, he’s the author. But I make a little joke of it and he seems fine, and will hopefully not take my little mistake for a sign of how well we will handle his book. (Actually, after this, I will double my efforts to atone).

On to other faux pas at the Yale booth, which is the largest and most dramatic space on the floor. After chatting with art editors Patricia and Michelle, and Met museum book doyenne Marilyn, and exhibits manager Ellen, someone mentioned that Gillian was in the house.

Gillian Malpass is the UK art and architecture publisher responsible for many of the most lavish and interesting books that Yale produces. I see her too rarely, and around her I feel like a schoolboy with a crush, all awkward and incoherent.

Thinking to bolster my confidence with food, I tore into a bag of cinnamon rugalach from Corner Bakery. Just as my mouth was too full to speak, there was Gillian coming at me with her beautiful smile and warm greeting. We euro-kissed, and I noticed I’d left a few crumbs on her cheek. I was mortified but she either didn’t notice or kindly chose not to. Would it have been gallant to brush the crumbs away? I will never know.

Feeling redundant now at the Yale booth, which was crowded and amply staffed, I wandered into the meeting room area of this grim hotel basement to see whether there might be some sessions worth dipping into. My badge guaranteed entry into everything, so it seemed a waste not to sample.

I’d made a list of a few sessions that interested me:

- Textile as propaganda in the middle ages;
- A Case for Letterpress
- How is Queer Art Relational?
- Autofictions, Avatars and Alter Egos: Fabricating Artists
- How to Draw a Bunny: Reconsidering Mail Art

But none of these were on offer at the moment. And some of the topics that were available sounded like fodder for the philistine ignoramuses on Fox News.

As I wandered back toward the trade show floor, I passed through a sea of empty tables in a massive room. A few of the desks were occupied, and these were apparently job interviews in progress. A crowd of anxious interviewees awaited their time slots.

Actually, the entire conference seemed to be infused with relentless networking. Or, as my plain-speaking friend Jennifer described it, “desperation.” (Jennifer was there to act as Discussant for a forum called “Design & the Rhetoric of Democratization,” which involved both Canada and IKEA, so I immediately added it to the list of workshops I wish I could attend.)

By the time I left at the end of the day, it felt like time well spent. I had a bag full of gorgeous catalogs from other art publishers. I’d made a few contacts. I’d seen finished copies of many of the spring titles I’m still selling, as well as some very beautiful works from other presses.

There were many gloomy conversations about the state of the business, but handling all these richly textured, tactile objects gave me some hope that if physical books are doomed, art books will be the last ones standing.

I boarded the train back to Milwaukee in an optimistic frame of mind, which lasted until I heard the college student behind me describing a prospective date to someone over the phone. “He’s a history major or some lame shit like that,” she remarked.

For a minute I held her responsible for all that is wrong with academia, and maybe life in general. Then it passed and I just wished I’d saved a few rugalach for the road.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Iowa City

One winter day a couple years ago, I was sitting with Paul Ingram at his desk near the front window of Prairie Lights Books.

We were going over the new forthcoming lists when a customer who had been browsing the history section nearby asked “Are you from Yale Press?” I said that I was. She said that we-Yale- would be publishing a new book by a friend of hers the following year, a biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.

I had not heard about the book yet, but it sounded fascinating, and her excitement was contagious. She had one concern- she thought the proposed title- My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century- was too wordy.

Knowing nothing else about the book, I had to concur. When the subject of a biography isn’t named, the title generally has an extra heavy burden, no matter how evocative the sentiment.

The customer, the bookseller and the rep all took a short break from the business at hand as we weighed the merits of this title, brainstormed other possibilities, and digressed in other ways into translation, Palestinian politics, and the challenges of representing a personal story when it’s also the chronicle of an age.

The book was indeed published the following season, and when my rep colleagues and I read it we were instantly in love, both with the poet and with Adina Hoffman, the author. She did many readings (including at Prairie Lights), it was widely and favorably reviewed, and the booksellers loved it. And now we have the paperback edition on the spring 2010 list so there’s a chance to talk about it again. (And, for what its worth, the title now seems absolutely perfect.)

I love that my introduction to what ended up one of my favorite books of the last few years came by way of a chance encounter with a brainy customer in Iowa City. This could have happened at any number of bookstores, but it seems somehow perfect that it happened at Prairie Lights.

This is one of those legendary independents who are known throughout the book industry, and it’s a gem. When I think about what they are doing right, a few things strike me:

1. Continuing the hands-on tradition established by store founder Jim Harris, current owner Jan Weissmiller is on the floor much of the day, fielding incoming curveballs like a frontline bookseller. An accomplished poet and voracious reader, I don’t know how she finds the time to do all the backofficey managerial stuff.

2. The staff is seasoned, deeply informed about books, and many have been with the store for years. You can’t buy an institutional book memory- it’s a precious resource. That these booksellers know the customers well enough to greet them by name, recall their last purchase, and seem generally happy speaks well of the way the store treats them.

3. Paul Ingram, resident fiction maitre and the most widely read devourer of contemporary fiction I know, is a handselling force of nature. Our appointments are mini-seminars. His enthusiasm for a title can be exhilarating, while his scathing dismissals can make me want to crawl under the table. I have never had an appointment with him that wasn’t interrupted several times by customers wanting his advice. (See an example of Paul at work here.)

4. The relationship with the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the intense roster of authors it brings to Iowa City and the store, is certainly an asset. But like all mutually beneficial relationships, it didn’t fall from the sky. The store works on it, nurtures it, and as a result often feels more like a literary salon than a business.

5. The book selection: top notch. The showcase subject areas- poetry, literature, fiction, criticism, and classics- are tended with great attention. And they don’t skimp on serious nonfiction areas they care about- history, biography, regional, gender studies, art and architecture.

Prairie Lights has become an icon of midwest bookselling, but you might be surprised to know there are other great booksellers in Iowa City.

Just around the corner from the store, in the lower level of Iowa Book & Supply, veteran bookseller Matt Lage presides over a broad but quirky inventory. Matt is another speed reader with a huge and impeccable literary appetite. The store is not to be missed for his superb selection of literary remainders. Nothing cookie-cutter here.

And despite the challenges of floods, dips in textbook sales, and all the assorted bottom line pressures faced by college bookstores, Doug Ward at the University of Iowa Bookstore meets with reps, pores through catalogs, and looks for reasons to say yes rather than no.

One of my moments of greatest satisfaction so far this season was Doug’s response to the forthcoming Harvard title Saturday is for Funerals, a sweet and heroic little book about how science and good story-telling is turning the tide on HIV in Botswana. An impulse book with a mission, he took a chance.

It’s fun to see all three of these stores. They’re competitive (“what did Paul take?” Matt will sometimes ask) but they also cooperate. In other places, it’s hard to imagine three neighboring competing retailers sharing a casual dinner and exchanging gossip. Not here.

I really enjoy the cities in my territory- Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Buffalo- but I have a soft spot for the college towns. Even these places have seen their share of bookstore attrition over the last decade. When Shaman Drum broke many hearts by closing last year, Ann Arbor became a less interesting place overnight.

Still, the Boulders, Bloomingtons, and Eugenes of the country give me hope. Call me an elitist, but if the inane worship of nonsense that seems to be taking over the public square finally drives out serious discourse completely, the last bastion of literary culture might still be found in the bookstores of the college town.

And with its film festivals, cheap international food, and good coffee, its not a bad place to imagine living.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Oberlin, Ohio is fascinating.

It has a wonderful liberal arts college, which produces zany geniuses like Ryan Trecartin.

It has a great activist history, and was the scene of socialist meetings and conferences that drew thousands of participants every summer. (Forty years ago, when people who were called socialists actually believed in socialism.)

And even today, Oberlin is that rarity, a fairly integrated, politically progressive small town.

It even has a downtown with actual stores, including a wonderful, quirky bookstore (MindFair Books) which doubles as a retro dime store and picture framing business. (On its shelves you can find vestiges of Oberlin’s radical past in the yellowed volumes of Trotskyist literature.)

But my reason for driving 420 miles to Oberlin on Monday was to visit NACS- the National Association of College Stores. NACS is a membership organization of campus stores which also wholesales books to them.

Wholesaling is a tricky segment of the book business. If it’s sometimes a challenge to get a bookseller to imagine a customer for a book- or, as my friend Arsen bluntly describes it, “picturing someone bringing this up to the cash register”- think of adding another whole layer to that equation. The book wholesaler has to think not only about whether a book will inspire people to visit a bookstore for it, but also whether the bookstore will turn to them- the wholesaler- to order it.

Some wholesale buyers are bookish and erudite, and getting them jazzed on a book is essentially the same process as getting a retailer excited. Ron Watson at Ingram, for instance, has exquisite taste and loves books. But unlike the retail booksellers, a wholesaler’s customers are stores, not individuals, and grabbing them by the lapels is a little more complex than cornering an individual customer who walks in the shop door.

Most retail booksellers use a combination of direct ordering from publishers and wholesaler ordering. As it happens, NACS is the only wholesaler on my plate, and the adjustment to the slightly different mindset required is sometimes a little jarring. As a rep who grew up in bookstores, I always feel a little more comfortable selling in places where real live customers are coming and going.

My NACS meeting was brief but efficient. We talked about numbers and carton quantities and promotional opportunities. I left feeling somewhat inadequate.

And then I headed back to Milwaukee, cursing the three-decker trucks and the grim tollway service plazas, but thankful for some recent mix cd’s given to me by booksellers.