Saturday, March 6, 2010

Consciousness Curating in western New York

One of my first surprises after being hired as Midwest rep for Harvard, MIT and Yale was that my territory would include western NY state- Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. I had an apparently obsolete notion of Midwest geography, though NY began to seem a lot closer when the Pacific Northwest and Colorado were added to my domain a year later. No complaints, these are great places. But now I think of my turf as central North America.

Upstate New York is tricky. The better I’ve gotten to know the western NY region, the more I think that it really is better thought of as the eastern edge of the Midwest. Buffalo absolutely has many of the attributes (and problems) of the Great Lakes cities I know well, like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and my own Milwaukee. People “seem” Midwestern in a way that I rarely sense on the east or west coasts (though I occasionally feel the Midwest vibe in Denver, which maybe has some Midwest attributes as well)

As I move east toward Syracuse and the Finger Lakes however, things feel a little less clear. These places are still far from the east coast, yet they don’t read Midwestern in the way Buffalo does. When I’m in Ithaca I feel pretty firmly out of the Midwest.

My east coast colleague, Adena, and I sometimes puzzle over NY state geography. A new store appears in an unfamiliar town. She sells Albany, I go as far east (theoretically anyway) as Binghamton, so we’ll call each other and say “is this yours or mine?” The line in New York and Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh! also Midwest!) is fuzzy.

I have two rules of thumb to tell me whether I’ve crossed the east-Midwest line: can I get the “real” New York Times, and can I get a proper bagel. Ithaca passes the bagel test (Collegetown Bagels, yum) and used to pass the Times test, though now they get the same generic edition of the paper the country gets. And soon it will all be moot as we “read” the morning paper on our plastic cutting boards.

But I’ve come to love the region. Old-timers in the business will go on about what a bookselling powerhouse western NY (“the southern tier”) used to be, how you needed reps that were based there, and how it took days and days to sell accounts.

That all seems like ancient history but there are still some excellent stores, well-worth visiting:

The Cornell Store is one of the best academic shops in the country, diligently stocking every new worthy title and showing the power of single-copy display on their front tables. (You don’t need stacks if they’re done right) The store is smartly inventoried, thanks to a staff that really works the faculty, and a store administration that appreciates books over sweatshirts;

Down the hill near the Ithaca Commons, adjacent to the legendary (but over-rated in my opinion) Moosewood restaurant, Buffalo Street Books has an old-school charm and idiosyncratic selection of new titles. Booksellers like to talk a good game about being unique, but I get into so many stores where the front tables are displaying exactly the same new books. Here, within five minutes I’d seen five new things I wanted (including Howard Zinn’s wonderful book Marx in Soho);

In Rochester, former rep Franlee Frank operates the new-used bookstore of my dreams, Greenwood Books;

And Lift Bridge Bookshop, in Brockport beside the Erie Canal, is a bustling college town trade shop run by solid book people.

The crown jewel of the region to my mind is Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo. Founded over thirty years ago, the store began as a sort of collective and has operated over the past two decades under the ownership of Jon Welch, a Wisconsin boy who came to Buffalo for university and stayed to be a bookseller, and Lucy Kogler, who runs the Elmwood Avenue location.

A friend of mine who once visited the Talking Leaves said “they shouldn’t even be here!” He meant it as a compliment, but it was based on the same sort of underappreciation of Buffalo we hear all the time about Milwaukee and the unglamorous places. As if working-class cities in distress deserve check-cashing stores and tattoo parlors but not great bookstores?

Buffalo has an amazing history but is by no means dead.

University of Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo have produced some of the most interesting academic work (and stars) of the past few decades. One could argue that the whole concept of New Media, experimental film and daring visual arts got their start here.

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, in a church owned by Ani DiFranco, has some of the most provocative arts programming in the country.

The music scene is intense and fashion-forward.

The architecture- despite great swaths of depressed neighborhoods mainly on the east side- is phenomenal. It is a physically beautiful city. (see Reyner Banham's Buffalo Architecture: A Guide)

There are loads of great shops along Elmwood and several other neighborhoods.

There’s a vibrant political culture.

The extreme winter weather is kind of exciting.

The Spot is the quintessential local coffee shop.

The Buffalo News is a surprisingly good newspaper, with a great book critic- R.D. Pohl- whose blog is worth reading. And they actually publish poems once a week (and pay the poet!).

ArtVoice, the free weekly, is also excellent.

And you can walk to Canada for dinner and be back in an hour.

But back to Talking Leaves. There’s a sense of missionary zeal about this store, both for the individual books and for the bigger idea of academic trade bookselling. There’s been a tragic attrition in the number of stores carrying deep backlist in serious nonfiction, and a reduction in commitment to books from all but the top five major publishers. Jon and Lucy seem committed to single-handedly showing that it’s still possible to make stocking and selling more offbeat books viable financially, and to reinforcing that quaint old idea that books can change the world.

Jon’s tiny office is a thing of wonder. About ten years ago some publisher promoted its new title on tidying your office by running a contest to see which bookseller was most in need. Jon’s staff nominated him. Thankfully, the re-do didn’t last long. But the piles of books and papers are deceptive, this is an extremely detail oriented bookseller who watches the bottom line like a hawk.

Over dinner, (Merge - highly recommend it!) we chewed over plenty of frustrations. Mention of a customer who had died recently reminded me of stories I’ve heard all over the place- the reliable art book customer, or Churchill customer, or hardcover fiction reader who first retired to Arizona but continued to faithfully order books, but then eventually, inevitably, left the scene. There’s fear that these serious book buyers which every store needs to survive are not being replaced in sufficient numbers.

(A sad ironic twist on a Milwaukee version of this story I’m familiar with: a bookaholic customer with great taste and deep pockets shopped the store daily for years. When she died, her daughter sold back her library, and now her cherished collection is back on the bookstore shelves, disaggregated and marked down, but at least with a shot at a second life.)

As Jon talked about the big event for Azar Nafisi in downtown Buffalo the following night, and the various other Buffalo First activities, and his ideas for how to make Indie Bound selections more diverse and representative; and as Lucy spoke about her devotion to Paul Auster and the thrill of introducing him recently as he received an award, I thought to myself: these people seem so full of energy and fresh ideas, realistic but unjaded, worried about the present but focused on the future. I felt as if I could have been socializing with a couple newbie booksellers, not veterans who have seen it all.

I always leave Buffalo feeling optimistic, and a little more proud of what we do.

As we worked through the spring MIT catalog and I presented a new title called Curating Consciousness, about legendary MoMA director James Johnson Sweeney, Jon said “hey, that’s what we do.” Indeed.


  1. Sag einmal, hast Du dieses Foto wirklich in den USA aufgenommen oder Dich ins Hinterzimmer meiner italienischen Buchhandlungen geschlichen?

  2. Liebe Uwe- Ich kenne italienische Hinterzimmer gar nicht. Aber sicher sind sie mehr ordentlich als die amerikanischen. Also es freut mich sehr dass es gibt noch wenige Buchhandlungen fur uns zu besuchen!

  3. On my late eighties jaunt through Syracuse to see old department stores before they disappeared, we briefly stopped by Economy Stationers, now gone. Here's a story about a professor recently hit while crossing a six lane road to get to a suburban B&N with some nice pix of the old Economy.

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