Thursday, January 28, 2010

Minnesota Book Hope

The Twin Cities is one of the places about which book people of a certain age love to get nostalgic.

“The good old days” is an annoying topic because it can’t help but make you feel old, like its sister cliché theme, “kids today.” And the good old days are almost always seen through deeply rose colored glasses. There’s a great old Moms Mabley routine where she takes on “all these people always talking about the good old days. What good old days? When? I was there, where were they at?”

But in truth Minneapolis does have a bookstore history that other cities would envy.

Strong, neighborhood-based family owned bookstores, including Odegaard’s, Gringolet, and the legendary Hungry Mind.

A constellation of specialty shops, including the oldest feminist bookstore in the nation, Amazon. (Yes, they had the name first!)

Excellent bookstores at the numerous area colleges, which seem as ubiquitous as corner groceries.

A quirky national book wholesaler, the Bookmen. When I called on them in the late nineties it felt like stepping onto a set from Barton Fink.

And though it seems quaint to remember that the B. Dalton chain was once feared as a great looming threat to independent booksellers, it was founded here by the Dayton’s Department store (now also long gone).

So yes, there’s reason to feel some book nostalgia in the Twin Cities. But spend a couple days here and even in 2010 there are plenty of reasons for booklovers to feel cheerful and, perish the thought, optimistic. Here are three of them.

To come upon Micawber’s, in the thoroughly charming St Anthony neighborhood of St Paul, on a snowy winter afternoon, is like stumbling into a Dickens novel- and not only because of the store’s namesake. It’s a small, unassuming shop in a gently used building. No flashy signage, though in the summer they set up book stalls out on the sidewalk, giving the corner a European vibe. The two large rooms are toasty warm, and the floors creak in the most authentic way.

The book selection all but screams “hand-picked.” Even the more popular, media driven titles somehow look a little more special on the fine wooden front table, mixed in among the more esoteric picks. This is a shop that doesn’t really need a “staff recommends” section because just about every book feels as if it’s earned a place on the shelf because somebody believes in it.

The shop marries decades of bookselling experience with loads of youthful confident energy in the form of co-owners Tom Bielenberg and Hans Weyandt (I won’t say which is which, because some of each has rubbed off on the other). The Twin Cities book DNA here follows a couple strands: Tom and Hans are Hungry Mind (a/k/a Ruminator) alumni, and they bought the store from Norton Stillman, longtime owner of the Bookmen wholesalers.

Like so many of the remaining independent bookshops across the country, their neighbors will ultimately decide their fate. So far, the support is heartening, with people making a conscious decision to shop local and patronize the store. Naturally, they don’t just wait for business to walk in, and there’s a calendar of outside the store activities.

Over dinner, Tom mused about the challenges of selecting inventory for such a small space, how to balance stocking what the community wants with bringing in books they care about personally. I think they’ve nailed it, but maybe that’s because our tastes match so well. And it made my day to see Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice being unpacked as we left the store.

It was in Micawber’s a decade ago that I first became aware of the incredible New York Review series of found classics, which at that point only had a couple dozen titles but were displayed together in the shop. I picked up the latest, a new edition of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, on the front table, and have resolved to make Micawber’s my NYRB source.

One of the most beautiful buildings in all of the Twin Cities, the Blair Arcade in the historic Hill district now has a beautiful bookstore to complement it, thanks to Garrison Keillor’s wonderful Common Good Books ("Live local, read large.")

The neighborhood and the building are perfect, but the specifics of the site seem like they came from the “do not” chapter of a bookstore design book- a basement space beneath a busy coffee shop that’s hard to discern from the street (and somewhat tricky to find the entrance to once you do discern it).

But the store is surprisingly bright and cheerful, in part because a fantastic skylight opens the fiction section to the sky. The layout inspires discovery and exploration- nooks and surprise seating areas, interesting fixtures, level changes.

And the books! This is another shop that has decided to stake its claim on a very specific mission rather than attempting to be all things to all people. The commitment here is decidedly literary, with the most expansive section of Midwest Fiction I’ve seen anywhere. There are a good dose of books that promote a sense of community (hint: the store name).

Section headings are whimsical: not “Psychology” but “The Head;” not “Religion” but “God.” A wonderful poetry section is comprehensive but idiosyncratic. There are loads of books for writers, not surprisingly.

Though the shop is owned by Keillor (sorry, Garrison, as everyone in the Cities calls him), the place has proven itself to be way more than some kind of vanity project. This is in large part due to the taste and smarts of manager/buyer Sue Zumberge.

Its fun to work with a buyer who is so confident in her selections- she knows what’s “not for us,” but when she hits a “this is so us!” book her enthusiasm is contagious. (She was so excited that Harvard is publishing a new collection of the poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman that we had to put the appointment on pause while she recited a few.)

One of the sadder changes I’ve seen over the course of my book rep tenure has been the demise of quality university stores. To return to the nostalgia theme, I spent hours and hours- too many, probably- in the University of Wisconsin Bookstore when I was in school there. It was a great store, but not unique. Apparently there was once a notion at universities that having a great bookstore reflected well on the institution and might even be part of its academic mission.

Now, in so many cases, they are simply seen as profit centers (or loss, more likely), and the mark-up on sweatshirts and school crap is better, so who needs books. But there are still a handful of good ones, and the University of Minnesota Bookstore is one of the best.

The shop- in the basement of the new(ish) Coffman Memorial Union, has all the usual non-book trappings. If you enter at one end of the building you are surrounded by gadgets and sports paraphernalia, but if you enter from the other, you find yourself in a really great bookstore.

The refreshing thing about the U Minn store is that they are still committed to what seems like a fading ideal: that an academic store should represent all subject areas, and within them, the best books, both new and what we call core backlist. This is easier said than done from a logistic and space standpoint, though the physical size here is almost luxurious. But it’s also hard to do if the numbers people are demanding unrealistic turn numbers. Sometimes it takes over a year for a book to find its reader. And sometimes, if you are a real bookstore, you have to have it anyway.

Having the support and understanding of higher-ups is a big plus, but I give most of the credit to the two longtime trade book buyers- Amy Potvin and Terry Labandz. With a very full plate, they take the time to carefully cull every new list for books in their strong subject areas, and they’re not afraid to represent something if it’s important to the field even if the sales prospects might be iffy.

What’s especially refreshing is their attitude to backlist- they like it, they keep on top of it, and they sell it. Terry was thrilled to see how well they are still selling “these philosophers I keep thinking of as old”- Debord, Deleuze, Habermas.

To go through this track record of what’s actually selling sets a good tone for moving on to the new books, to the extent that there’s a relationship between what sold and what will. There’s a tag team quality to my meetings with Amy and Terry, and they often disagree about the potential of a book. Terry is sometimes a little over-optimistic, and Amy is sometimes a little skeptical, but the resulting compromise seems to produce more hits than misses.

So my message to anyone feeling despondent about the grim state of the book business is to pay a visit to the Twin Cities before writing the obituary on bookstores. I always leave here feeling a little, well, hopeful?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Portland Book Panic

I don’t know if it rises to DSM-worthy status, but one of my great phobias is being stranded someplace without a book. A long bus ride, a line at the post office- just imagining being in these situations without reading material right now makes me anxious.

As I walked through the Portland airport the other morning for my flight home, I felt secure in having two promising novels and a couple magazines in my backpack. Then I passed one of the three Powell’s airport stores and thought- what if I don’t like these books? What if the plane is delayed and I finish them? I needed one more for the road.

So I picked up Kate Atkinson’s newest, When Will There be Good News (an especially apt title given Thursday’s New York Times). And this ended up being the book I finished in the ten hour (why???) trip back to Wisconsin.

Atkinson always delivers, and it was a little extra surprise that one of the major plot twists features the Loeb Classical Library, which, of course, is sold by Harvard University Press, i.e. me. One of the unfortunate characters is a religious fanatic who, oddly, owns “every single Loeb Classic that had ever been published, red for Latin, green for Greek.” (Later, the first volume of the Iliad turns up as a weapon, lobbed “like a grenade.”)

Just the day before, I had admired the nearly complete selection of Loebs on the shelves of the Powell’s Burnside store, and pondered how it is that they do so well here. Granted, many of the sales are by way of the Powell’s website, but they look so commanding in the store that many of the regular reorders I get must be a result of customers stumbling upon them.

This sense of discovery is one of the success secrets of this shrine to books. After visiting the store twice a year for a decade, some jadedness should have set in by now. Yet I head for the place as soon as I can whenever I get into town, and promptly lose all track of time among the stacks.

Since “How does Powell’s do it?” is a longstanding and burning question among all the other independent booksellers I see, I would offer a couple theories.

The artist/photographer Rineke Dijkstra observed that “if you want to give a general impression, you should be very specific.” Whereas inventory comprehensiveness was once a mainstay of serious booksellers, internet retailers have made that business model for bricks and mortar stores all but obsolete. Nobody can compete on the basis of “stocking everything” when online booksellers can give the impression that they really do stock everything.

But somehow, Powell’s has managed to maintain a feeling of scope, depth and breadth. Yes, it’s sheer size, but not only that. It’s not so much that you expect them to have every book you can think of, but there’s a strong sense of possibility (they might have it!) and anticipation (wonder what’s down that aisle?) There’s an old-school, cluttered bookshop aesthetic, but when you look a little closer you notice that sections are incredibly organized, defined, and almost obsessively labeled.

Shrewdly, the Powell’s buyers and section managers also seem aware that having credibly thorough shelves isn’t really enough to make people happy. Within that comprehensiveness, the little outcroppings of quirky, offbeat taste in the form of clever end cap displays and surprising face outs make you feel like you could be in the smallest, most personal bookshop. Its Dijkstra’s specific within the general.

Part of what’s made this possible is Powell’s legendary egalitarian bookselling philosophy. As other new book retailers over the years sniffed at the idea of selling used books, or remainders, or working on a website, Powell’s actually focused on these things as just another way to sell books. Today, they are not afraid to follow eBooks and the digital revolution wherever it’s taking us. For them, a book is a book is a book. When we reach the point where books (or “books”) will be directly applied to the backs of our corneas via satellites from outer space, I suspect Powell’s will retail them as just another format.

Some of this inclusive philosophy extends to the way they buy new books, which in my experience is somewhat unique. There are booksellers with whom buying decisions are arrived at very individually as we go through catalogs book by book. I pitch the merits and try to help them see who would buy the book, while they think about the same. Out of this, a seasonal order is constructed, tailor-made for their store.

At Powell’s, catalogs are circulated throughout the stores in advance of our meeting. Managers and section supervisors all weigh in, and the resulting order quantities are a composite judgment rendered by dozens of sets of eyes. I, the rep, have some input on the end result, but by and large this sprawling committee of the whole has made the main decisions.

In truth, it can be a frustrating way to work. I miss the book by book pitch, and especially miss the immediate feedback. And the order numbers can seem a little eccentric. But it works.

The Powell’s website, which is far and away the most competitive and content-rich in the indie book world, is brimming with author interviews, essays, blog posts and other features. When you look up a title, the on-hand quantities are displayed by store location, which gives you a sense that there’s a physical connection and that the books are not just blips in ether. To an extent I don’t see on other indie websites, there’s an attempt to recreate the sense of serendipity you enjoy in the physical stores when you encounter books you didn’t know you wanted.

One other big ingredient in Powell’s success is that they’ve been able to capitalize on their status as both a local and a national (international!) bookseller with great finesse. People can and do shop the store from all over the world without having set foot in it. Yet the affinity with Portland is stronger than most booksellers enjoy with their hometowns and the loyalty is reciprocated.

I think this works so well because they aren’t faking their roots. They were all about local before local was hip. Michael Powell and his daughter Emily are diehard Portlanders, and the huge staff is a potent mix of very experienced longtime booksellers, and bright younger Gen-whatevers who keep things fresh and lively.

Powell’s is a wonder, no doubt about it. And the amazing thing is that even though there are eight Powell’s stores throughout the city, Portland has a relatively thriving cast of other interesting neighborhood booksellers- Looking Glass Books, Annie Bloom’s, Broadway Books, and several good university shops and specialty stores.

I don’t know whether there’s something unique to Portland that makes it such a book mecca, but it is one place you never have to worry about being stuck bookless.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I flew to Portland today, my first encounter with the airline industry since the Christmas day unpleasantness.

The Milwaukee airport seemed as relaxed as ever, though a couple of the bored guards who usually stand around scowling seemed to be squinting with a touch more focus. This must be the “behavioral analysis” aspect we’ve heard about.

I guess I didn’t look suspicious enough for further inquiry, though I did have my bag re-scanned and searched. The agent removed my little blue Kinko’s stapler from the bottom of my backpack, raised it in the air and exclaimed “here’s the culprit!” Culprit? I’ve been travelling with it for eleven years and it’s passed through checkpoints a hundred times. As I packed up, the agent winked and chirped “thanks for participating!” This seemed to be a complicit joke of some kind, but on whom I’m not sure.

There was a three hour layover in Minneapolis and I remembered that I had a day pass for the Delta Sky Lounge in my wallet, proffered in consolation for a flight cancellation last year that cost me one whole day of appointments. I’ve always walked right by the elegant swishing glass doors, sometimes getting a quick glance at the desk, which looks like the reception lounge of a slick spa. Who are these people, and what goes on in there? I’d wonder.

The secret’s out, it’s not all that. There’s a very large seating room with comfortable chairs and bright windows. The aesthetic model seems to be “patient waiting area at an upscale clinic.” I was famished, and part of my strategy was to skip the airport fare that the peons out on Concourses A through G were offered in exchange for the roman feast in here.

Alas, there were three items on the menu: the little plastic-wrapped cookies you are given on the planes; boring pretzels; and a somewhat disturbing party mix that looked a lot like the one my aunt Georgia used to whip up, which involved dumping every dry ingredient from her cupboard into a bowl and then adding chocolate chips when company came by unexpectedly.

On the plus side, there was free Wi-Fi with plenty of desks and outlets. A swank desk staffed by beautiful people made travel arrangements for these special customers. Everybody involved was smiling, something I haven’t seen on a ticket line in years.

Strangest of all, there was a huge open bar- bottles of rack liquor, beers, and wines- self-serve, all you can drink. Good grief, why don’t we have more mad drunks on planes than we already do if this has been going on?

I tried to hang out and enjoy the experience, since I won’t be back until the next time I get screwed over by some cancelled flight. But from one end of the room came the threatening, testosterone-fueled roars of a roomful of (probably drunk) men watching a big football game. At the other end, a crowd of Chicagoans had commandeered a television and re-arranged furniture to watch a hockey game.

I was determined to finish my fifties British spinster novel (The Tortoise & the Hare, Elizabeth Jenkins), but I jumped out of my skin at every outburst. It reminds me too much of the Sundays when the men of my family gathered in the living room to honor this same male ritual while I was in the kitchen with the women relishing gossip.

On the plane, I was relieved to see that the group of three small kids and a mom seated in the row ahead of me were not screamers- yet anyway. It actually seemed like one of those model travelling families. Nobody ever shut up, it’s true, and mom was constantly responding and fussing, but she was in control and everything was running smoothly.

Just before take-off, we were told to stow all our electronic devices and mom tried to take away the four year old’s game.

“Why,” he asked.

“Because the captain said so,” mom explained.

“But why?” he pressed. Good for you, I thought, that’s not an explanation.

“Because it would be bad for the plane,” mom offered.

He immediately sensed that she was on shaky ground here, and pushed his advantage: “But WHY is it bad for the plane?”

Mom said “I don’t know exactly but there must be a good reason or they wouldn’t tell us to do it.”

Normally, I love hearing adults say the words “I don’t know” to kids instead of making it up. And this did have the practical effect of shutting down an inquiry that might have gone on until Portland, and by then even the boys’ fans among neighboring passengers would have turned on him.

But mom’s final gambit really depressed me. I want that kid to keep asking why. On some absurdly cosmic level it seems like it might be our only hope. Are we training a generation of naturally curious children to accept whatever they’re told over loudspeakers whether it makes sense or not? I wanted to lean over and whisper to him “Hey, don’t believe it, A lot of times people DON’T have good reasons for what they’re telling you to do.” But I would probably have been taken off the plane for being a terrorist predator.

This incident did get me thinking about whether we (the big we, publishing we, not just my presses) are doing enough books that encourage questioning. I'm happy that Yale still publishes Thoreau’s Walden, a book that changed my life in high school. This season I’m selling Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful meditation defending introspection, Absence of Mind, which celebrates non-conformity in its own way. A quirky new book on the Harvard spring list, Galileo in Pittsburgh, passionately defends the scientific method, and, in a more sophisticated way, doggedly asks “why” the same way the kid on the plane did. And on the MIT list, nearly every book published by semiotext(e) is a call for revolt against conformist thinking.

So there are plenty of big thinking books on our lists, but I hope for more. And I hope for generations of questioning kids who haven’t had the curiosity drilled out of them to read and write these books.

There were plenty of these kids on display at the sad/happy memorial meeting for my friend Mark Gates in Madison Saturday. These sons and daughters of book industry people- they are lucky to be growing up in families where reading and questioning is a virtue. More than anything else at the service and party, these kids, challengers all, gave me hope.

And I will add “keep questioning” to the "how to live like Mark" self-improvement tip sheet I left Madison with. The other items are: be kind, especially to shy people and wall-flowers; be generous, especially to the “invisible” people we interact with every day; keep a sense of humor; do it now.

I'll never attain Mark Gates level mastery but it's something to strive for.

As I drove home with my friends and former colleagues Daniel Goldin and Elly Gore, we talked blogs. Daniel has one of the most interesting in the book business ( and though he feeds it daily, it never seems like filler and always seems fresh.

“Is my blog really interesting or is it just a longer version of those status posts that say “I’m painting my toenails now,” I whined.

“But that’s the trick!” Daniel said. “You have to say “I’m painting my toenails now with the new book, Paint Your Toenails Now! From ScoobyDoo publishers. Keep it about the books.”

Will do. Along with the questions.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Seattle Sales Calls: face vs. phone

This month Simon & Schuster became the latest publisher to cut its field rep force in the name of cost-savings. Granted, the retail bookstore landscape is changing. But really S&S, is it in your best interests to trade in a regular, personal invitation to meet with your customers in their premises for telemarketing?

I don’t mean to minimize the challenge. Every season as I construct my schedule of calls on bookstores, I ask myself whether this or that trip is still worth the time, travel hassle, and expense. There are some accounts I called on every season faithfully that I now see only every other season, with phone appointments in between.

But to see visits to booksellers only as costs, and not as investments, makes no sense. The sprawling network of small independent stores, museum stores and specialty shops, are taste-makers in a way the mega online retailers haven’t mastered. Calling on them takes a certain commitment, but what would the book retail landscape look like if publishers simply saw two or three customers? Some companies are already there.

This week I had a chance to measure the difference between virtual and actual appointments when my week in Seattle got cancelled. This is always one of the highpoints of the travel season, and the northwest is one of the most robust bookselling regions in the country. But I finally had to surrender to a perfect storm of scheduling snafus and decided, reluctantly, to work by phone with the booksellers I’d normally see live.

We had perfectly decent phone meetings this week but here's what I missed:

- Getting to the store early enough to case the joint. Can’t do that by phone.

- Staying awhile after the appointment, “playing customer,” rarely leaving without a book or two. No browsing by phone.

- Take in a reading or a bookshop event? Forget it.

- Drop in on a couple smaller neighborhood stores? Nope.

- Saying hello. Chatting with the floor booksellers about what they’re reading or selling can be priceless reconnaissance for a rep (especially if the buyer subsequently contradicts it. “But Myra said you’re selling loads of cognitive science!”)

- Perusing Staff Rec shelves, a goldmine of information and reading suggestions.

- Overhearing chat and requests from live, actual customers can be a revelation, and can tell you a lot more anecdotally than you’ll ever learn from Book Scan.

- Spot-checking the shelves for my books, sometimes making sure they are properly shelved and faced out if possible. (Sorry, it’s true. But I also compulsively tidy up, even when not my books.) How to do this by phone?

- Noticing the changes in section arrangements and positioning, the early warning system for evolving trends in book tastes. My local bookshop is instituting a “Steampunk” section because it’s such a hot area of science fiction. (I have no idea what this means.) Publishers are desperate for feedback about trends, but we are their eyes and ears.

- I sometimes meet with the other components of the bookstore operation that make the place work: marketing and advertising staff, events coordinators, receiving folks. It’s possible to do by phone, but these encounters are often more serendipitous so best done in person.

- The “show” part of my show and tell- page proofs, book jackets, samples, interior art, sometimes finished books, and galleys- is tricky or impossible by phone.

- Seeing what other reps have left in their wake scattered around the buyer’s desk is always of interest.

- There’s a reason it’s called “face time.” Watching reactions to catalog images and my presentations can be way more revealing than ambiguous grunts on the phone.

- Distractions, which are intrinsic to a bookseller’s life but can be maddening to a rep thinking about getting to the next appointment on time, seemed harder to manage by phone than they are in person. It’s possible for a live human being across the desk to ambush a hyper-caffeinated buyer, at least in theory. But there’s no fighting the hold button.

- It’s physically uncomfortable to keep a hot piece of plastic next to an ear for a couple hours. When I complained about this my partner said why don’t I get a headset. This was not helpful.

- Some buyers imagine that phone appointments mean I can somehow let down my professionalism because we’re separated by a couple thousand miles. “What are you wearing? I bet you’re in your PJ’s drinking a glass of wine,” a buyer said to me last night. I was immediately defensive, though eerily, in truth, I was drinking a glass of wine.

- I hear the bookshop’s espresso machine blasting away in the background, but I can’t offer to get us some.

- The heavenly teriyaki at Tokyo Garden on University Way will have to wait.

There’s probably a lot more. As a temporary solution to a short-term complication, the phone is a wonderful thing. And I had the benefit this week of working with booksellers I know well. I’m even open to promising new technologies like Edelweiss, which will immeasurably improve the quality of a virtual appointment.

But we should remember that a meeting between a bookseller and a publisher’s representative to decide which new books would be appropriate for their store is essentially the first crucial move in a conversation with the marketplace. With luck, the conversation moves forward until it encompasses floor booksellers, customers, books clubs, media and word of mouth. Buzz! This process really begins best with face time.

I won’t say that a bookseller-vendor phone relationship is always bad. How sad I was when Ingram began accepting orders electronically many years ago. Part of my job as a bookseller was to read order quantities and ISBN’s into the phone for a couple hours every Monday morning.

You couldn’t argue with the efficiency of the new computer to computer system. But I still remember the music that Helen Hawkins made of those numbers as she read them back to me from Nashville. Oh to have met with her each week in person.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Five Days in Chicago Bookstores

It usually takes me a week to ten days to cover all the Chicago area booksellers I need to see. I do some of these with day trips but I like to start the season by spending a few days in the city and hitting some key stores.

Some reps prefer centrally located downtown hotels, while others swear by the edge of highway places where you take your life in your hands to walk to the Bob Evans across the road, which is- scarily- your best food option. They have their merits but when I’m in a city I prefer to stay in a neighborhood whenever possible. I relish the feeling of walking out the door and feeling as if I’m a part of the local working masses, a pleasure my colleague Adena shared with me twelve years ago when she was selling me on the idea of being a rep.

In Chicago, I’ve taken to staying at a Best Western on Broadway. On the plus side, it’s a charming old former apartment building in the busy Lakeview neighborhood. I can stash the car and use public transportation, there are loads of places to eat, and it’s down the street from Unabridged Books, which is open late.

On the minus side, it’s a whole different place when the Cubs are in town. And- no nice way to say this- it’s a bit of a dump. When I told a bookseller last summer that I was staying there he mentioned that the place had been closed for awhile a few years back after someone was murdered there.

Imagine my delight when I showed up to find a renovation in the works. The new rooms are fantastic with no lingering air of menace. I choose to interpret this surprise as an omen for the new season in general.

I spent a productive morning with the buying staff of the Art Institute shops. They are such smart and experienced people I always come away feeling as if I’ve learned more than I shared. The new modern wing has greatly expanded the type of books they can stock, and the prospect of more architecture book sales somewhat offsets the sadness over the tragic closing of Prairie Avenue Books.

I took the el out to the extremely cozy and friendly Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. This is the sort of neighborhood bookshop every community deserves. And beyond the stylish and authentic selection of titles, you can have a glass (or bottle) of wine and a bowl of soup. An aside: they have the cutest business cards ever. Ask for one.

The Museum of Contemporary Art shop has a whole different vibe from the Art Institute shops, which have a much more comprehensive mission. Chris Conti, the MCA buyer, brought his quirky curatorial sensibility with him from the excellent Wexner Center shop in Columbus, and every item on the shelf looks hand-selected (as indeed it was). I picked up an interesting title from a new small press called Museum Legs: Fatigue & Hope in the Face of Art by Amy Whitaker, along with the new Verso edition of Terry Eagleton’s Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. Chris recommended that I see the current exhibition, Italics: Italian Art between Tradition & Revolution. Spectacular.

“Esoteric” doesn’t begin to describe Quimby’s, the Wicker Park emporium of all things paranoid and fun. People who throw around the phrase “cutting edge” should really check in here to see what that debased concept actually looks like. The book selection favors conspiracies, erotica, alt this and alt that. The zines and comics are fascinating even for a novice, and the overall vibe is surprisingly warm and friendly given the angst-inducing inventory. I bought a copy of my new favorite literary journal, Public Space.

If you have some mental images of what a completely charming used bookshop should look like, Myopic Books just down the street likely embodies some of them. Narrow winding creaking aisles. Multiple levels with crazy staircases and pathways that can land you in a cul de sac or a grand light-filled reading room. The sort of place in which to spend an afternoon.

Very friendly staff (has every Chicago bookseller taken nice pills? What happened to the stereotype of the grouchy proprietor?) And clever, well-organized selections. Someone’s gone a little mad with the signage, but all the warnings seem to be effective. I wouldn’t dare re-shelve a book in the wrong place.

I stumbled on an old edition of Edward Upward’s In the Thirties, (which I’d never read but I’ve been on an Isherwood kick lately and he was a friend) and an irresistible little Oxford edition of Trollope’s The Warden. This is the kind of bookstore atmosphere where you make instant rash resolutions like “yes, I think I WILL read the entire Barsetshire series this year!”

I’ve always been a big fan of Unabridged Books and even thought about working there several lifetimes ago. Owner Ed Devereux is a book purist, and as other stores have been lured into all sorts of exhausting competitive strategies, he’s all about books and books alone. They stopped doing events a few years ago even though the likes of Bette Midler and David Sedaris drew thousands because it distracted from bookselling.

A general interest independent urban neighborhood bookshop with a strong gay focus, it works. Ed all but invented the idea of the little “staff recommends” comment cards that are a bookstore mainstay these days, and they still do them better than anyone. I always leave with something I hadn’t expected, which in this case was Aidan Higgins’ novel Balcony of Europe, out in a new edition from Dalkey Archive.

My takeaway themes of the week? Display and sell what you love. Know your neighborhood. And never skip the spring rolls at Penny’s Noodle Shop.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Open House at People's Books

I left my pot of black beans on the stove this afternoon and dropped in on the annual New Year’s open house at my neighborhood radical bookshop, People’s Books Coop. Refreshments, discounts, films in the basement, “Cats Against the Bomb” calendars, and great company were on offer.

With small niche bookstores disappearing at an alarming rate, it’s hard not to consider a Left Bookshop as something of a throwback. There are a scattering of good ones around the country- Left Bank in Seattle, Revolution Books in New York, and Rainbow Bookstore Coop in Madison come to mind- but the “movement bookstore” seems to have gone the way of….. well, the movement itself.

The good news is that stores like this have accomplished a key part of their mission: proving that there’s a market for alternative literature in mainstream bookstores. Like Gay and Lesbian bookshops, African-American Bookshops, and Feminist Bookshops, the political stores once served as the only outlet for people who wanted access to books that tell another story. Though there’s still a long way to go, Chomsky and Malcolm X are on the shelves of most good general booksellers these days, and Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States has sold several million copies. And of course the internet has improved access to books of every persuasion.

But there’s still something special about a bookstore with a mission. My first experience working in books was at the Solidarity Bookshop & Center on the west side of Milwaukee (a really long time ago.) Solidarity was one of a network of shops loosely affiliated with the Communist Party that operated in nearly every major city from the thirties through the seventies. More than an outlet for books, the stores served as meeting places, social venues, and as the public face of the socialist movement. Bulletin boards overflowed with flyers for upcoming events, and volunteers for actions of every sort signed up at the bookshop.

People’s Books traces its lineage to a more independent strain of the Left movement. In the sixties and early seventies, the Rhubarb Bookstore was a catch-all movement resource near the Marquette University campus. (Why the name? No idea.) Newspapers of every conceivable sect were welcome on its shelves, whereas you’d be less likely to find a Trotskyist journal at a CP store than you would an Islamist newspaper at the Vatican.

People’s Books carries on this egalitarian tradition. The inventory is refreshingly old school, and books are allowed lots of time on the shelves to find their readers. Sales are tracked via typed inventory cards. Labor/Economics is one of the largest sections in the shop, with History, Cultural Studies, Feminism and Literature (divided by region) also getting prominent display. Buttons, T-shirts, and movement ephemera make up the sidelines. Decisions are made collectively, and the staffing is largely done by volunteers.

I guess this is not a realistic model for successful general bookselling. But it did occur to me, as I perused the robust Marxism section, that the really important big thinking over the past many centuries has been transmitted via books. Marx and Engels launched their movement by putting their ideas on paper, and their followers spread these ideas via books.

So I hope that People’s Books and stores like it thrive. There’s no better reminder about the potential power of books. And there are precious few Left institutions around. A network of bookstores would be one worth having.