Sunday, October 17, 2010

David Stimpson, book traveler

Our three sales conferences for the spring 2011 books begin next week. I always look forward to these meetings, but this time my anticipation is muted by the knowledge that it will be the last time I sit across the table from my colleague David Stimpson, who is retiring next year after a lifetime in the book business.

David began his career at the excellent University of Toronto Bookstore in 1964, where he worked for twenty years. Then as now, he was impatient with business practices that didn’t make sense, and under his direction the store was one of the first in North America that dared to blend paperback and cloth titles on the same shelves. Under David, U of T was one of the first bookstores to institute a marketing department, now a mainstay of every good bookshop.

Thirty years ago, he started University Press Group, which quickly assembled a marquis roster of university presses and a solid reputation for quality. David and his colleague Laurel Oakes, who retired last year, (above left) represented these lines to booksellers, museums, wholesalers and libraries across Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

David is the consummate book rep, always conscious of our sometimes conflicting obligations to publisher, bookseller, author, reader, and the book itself. Like most good book reps, he got into the profession for love of the product and respect for the people in it. It’s hard to imagine David selling anything else. (Maybe jazz to record stores. When there were record stores.)

Booksellers have finely honed bullshit detectors, and one thing they’ve always loved about David is his authenticity and intolerance for BS of any kind. He’s a stickler for details and abhors time-wasting and grand-standing. Should he ever publish a memoir (please David!), “Let’s Get on With It” would make a good chapter heading.

Book repping involves a special kind of tolerance for enjoying one’s own company, while still being able to turn on the charm when there’s an appointment or social engagement at hand. There are hours and sometimes days spent alone in travel, punctuated by intensely communal reunions with buyers- friends, really- last seen six months earlier. The duality puts me in mind of Hugh McLennan’s Two Solitudes, the classic novel about the dance of approach and avoidance between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

What makes solitary book traveling tolerable is having personal passions, and David has some good ones.

Books, of course. He reads widely, is a collector and connoisseur in subjects of interest. He handles a beautiful book with the same tactile appreciation my old boss and mentor David Schwartz used to exhibit- turning it over in his hand, inspecting the spine, noticing details that escape the rest of us.

Jazz, without doubt. His vast knowledge of it, enthusiasm for it, and generous support of it marks him as a genuine aficionado. I remember many sales conference nights when David would try to recruit exhausted reps to take in some late night performance in Harvard Square. When John Norris, Toronto jazz enthusiast and manager of the Jazz section of Sam the Record Man died last year, the Globe and Mail ran a touching remembrance by David.

He loves Toronto, and its wonderful art. When the newly remodeled Art Gallery of Ontario opened, David showed me through the exhibitions one Saturday morning with such enthusiastic pride he said he might become a docent. He’d be an excellent one.

And never underestimate love and family. The pleasures and challenges of the domestic life are never far from David’s mind- even on the road, maybe especially on the road.

Perhaps I should wrap this up lest it start to sound like a eulogy. It is definitely not that. After two successful careers, in bookselling and running a world class rep group, David’s friends and fans anxiously await his third act.

On a personal note, I have to admit that David scared me a bit at first. When I joined the team as rookie rep and started attending sales conferences in 1998, his inimitable reactions to what he was hearing (or not hearing) seemed a little harsh. Now I know he’s a puppy dog underneath the occasional bluster, and we’ve shared many hearty laughs.

Having come to sales repping from bookselling, I spent the first couple years nearly paralyzed by feelings of inadequacy. I felt like a fraud for not being a genius, I was humbled to learn how much money it took to actually keep a rep on the road, and I felt guilty every time I checked into a hotel that cost over $100. I was afraid to speak up at meetings and to fully commit to being the rep I now was.

More than anyone, David taught me to have respect for the job itself by insisting that we leave sales conferences armed with the tools we need to do our jobs properly. I came to realize that being a good rep meant adding “self-respect” to that list of obligations due. Every time he demands a detail or puts someone on the spot at a meeting, it's an expression of how seriously he takes being a rep and the responsibilities it entails.

Though the book traveling profession as we know it seems to be fading into the sunset, David inspires those of us still doing it to treat our work life with dignity. It’s not always an easy job, but there’s nothing we'd rather be doing.

When I look across the table during next week’s meetings, surreptitiously monitoring David’s raised eyebrow, or suppressed chuckle, or poised pencil as he awaits a useful sales handle that may or may not come, I will be more than a little sad. Because I know there will be an awfully empty gap in that space at the next round of meetings.


  1. Well said John. And I learned from David as well to demand what you need to sell. It honors the published work more than anything. Best of luck to David and I look forward to seeing you both next week as well.

  2. I'm sitting at JFK doing the rep-thing--reading and writing e-mails. Gary forwarded this piece and I want to both laugh and cry. I had a very similiar history with David. He scared me, then I found his inner-puppy-dog, and I was forever a fan. Inspiring is exactly the right phrase. Whenever I write a sales conference presenation, I think, WWDT (what would David think). He's made me a better rep, and made me appreciate our world. THANK YOU, John. ---Jane Brown

  3. Here in Australia we call him Stimmo or if he was being particularly outrageous, Stimmo the Mongrel. His eruditon, passion and empathy made him him a consumate member of of the Australian scene. He often knew more about Australian art, politics and sport that we did and he was always keen to know what was going on in local publishing. We ,and the books, miss him very much.
    Mark Rubbo

  4. This is a wonderful tribute to a fabulous man. There aren't many in the trade who are professional, dedicated, passionate and a champion of the customer. I must admit I laughed when I read the line about David "scaring" you at first. I think I felt the same but then realised how special the person was underneath. I'm with Mark (above). We - and the books - miss him very much. And Stimmo the Mongrel? Man, hadn't heard that one before but what a hoot! Good stuff. x

  5. One of the highlights of every year for me has been David's biannual antipodean visits, and we are missing him. I had a morbid fear of being late for an appointment with David. He doesn't drive or carry a mobile phone, organises his life in a tiny leather-bound diary, and is NEVER late. The only time I ever knew David to be late for an appointment, I became seriously anxious he might have died. Monsieur Stimpson, we salute you on a magnificent and unforgettable career.

  6. I feel compelled to add a word about David, though you've all taken the words right out of my mouth. David also intimidated me at first, but I'm at a loss to remember a better mentor in my publishing life. As a new rep, I would have been lost on the road without my wet wipes, paper clips and shoe goo! Here's to you Stimmo . . . waiting patiently for your next visit to the Bay Area. I'll drive, ok? Lots of Love, Susie Haffey Gallo

  7. As a very new editor, I used to find David's presence at sales conference "calming." He laughed until he had tears in his eyes the first time I told him, as did Laurel, sitting nearby. I didn't understand what was so funny. I've since learned a few things about his seriousness, rigour, great intelligence, and magnificent taste. A truly exceptional colleague, in every way. --Michelle

  8. Twice a year, David took me to dinner. Twice a year, we commiserated about the book business, our children, our elderly (now deceased) parents. We often laughed like drains (whatever that means). He is a good friend and a great man--and I will confess to having a more-than-tiny crush on him for years. I hope he knows how much he will be missed. And not just for the dinners!
    Sarah Harvey

  9. I met David first time in 1993 in Ottawa Canada. I was than a 24 year old rookie behind the information desk at University of Ottawa bookstore. I was new to Canada, new to North America and very new in that bookstore. These first few months I was a bit at loss as I came from three generations of booksellers in my native Poland and the bookselling business in North America was so different. However, it only took seconds to see that David was a perfect impersonification of what I was always told a good bookseller, publisher or a rep were standing fo: a true genetelman with intensive intellectual curiosity, sharp wit, vast knowledge but also charm and warmth. I always considered myself increadibly lucky to have counted David among my friends and I just hope that his love for Australia (which is currently my home) will bring him back here and will give me a chance to share a few more of these great "industry and book chats".

    Anna O'Grady