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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ten Fall 2010 Biography Gems

This has been an exceptionally rich season for biographies. It’s one of my mainstays as I make my way through a bookstore, though stocking a biography section is not without its challenges.

- Do you include all biographies in one big section, or do you subdivide? As a bookseller I couldn’t stand to see some tacky pop biography touch spines with some accomplished, bigger than life personality (think Barry Manilow beside Nelson Mandela), so we broke out celebrity bios, literary bios, political memoirs and so on. The problem with this approach is that there are always a scattering of leftovers that really go nowhere.

- Do you alphabetize by subject? That seems obvious, but I’ve seen all kinds of alternative shelving strategies.

- Or do you bypass having a Biography section at all? Most people worthy of a biography have achieved something in some field or another- arts, sciences, literature, sports. So why not shelve these books in their appropriate area? With historical figures it’s often tricky separating the life from the times, so why not history? And with literary lives, isn’t the fan most likely to find the book when shelved with the author’s fiction?

Sticking to the “shelve books where the most interested customer is most apt to find them” rule is not always easy.

Over the years I’ve gotten past my snobby disdain for unworthy Biography section climbers, and now I actually enjoy the chaotic mishmash. So many other sections of the bookstore are carved up into specific niche areas. Just as I stroll past the country western section of the CD store (when there used to be CD stores), I walk right by whole sections of the bookstore because I've made some snap decisions about which subjects I'm supposedly interested in, and which not.

The Biography section is one of the few areas where a customer can be exposed to something unintended, and can genuinely be taken by surprise. When my friend Daniel opened Boswell Book Company last year, his mother's one piece of advice was to be sure to have a good Biography section. Lillian Goldin was right.

Yale University Press has a stellar line-up of biographies this year. The highlights:

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt
by Robert Gottlieb (Yale $25 September 9780300141276)
The greatest actress who ever lived, a woman who nearly invented celebrity culture more than a century before Lady Gaga, is brought to life in this short, sweet, lovely little book. It was clearly a labor of love for Gottlieb. Inaugurates Yale’s clever new Jewish Lives series.

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him
by Michael Takiff (Yale $32.50 October 9780300121308)
This absorbing portrait of the president is composed of taped recollections and observations by people who surround the Clintons, woven with artful skill into a kind of chronological tapestry. If you think there’s nothing new to learn, or worth learning about the man, just start reading.

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nick Phillipson (Yale $32.50 October 9780300169270)
Twenty years in the making, the publication of this comprehensive, accessible “life and times” of the revered Scottish scholar is a real event. I know I'll never get the Ayn Rand fanatics to read Marx, but they should at least familiarize themselves with Adam Smith.

Joe Louis: Hard Times Man
by Randy Roberts (Yale $30 October 9780300122220)
Surprisingly, Joe Louis has never been the subject of a serious biography. Here, a top notch historian explains how he was not just an American icon, but a hero to African-Americans. Excellent jacket.

Houdini: Art & Magic
by Brooke Kamin Rapaport (Yale $39.95 October 9780300146844)
The life and career of the prototypical immigrant achiever and celebrated conjurer, with exquisite and quirky design elements.

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies
by David Wootton (Yale October $35 9780300125368)
There have been surprisingly few full-blown scholarly biographies of the original Renaissance Man. At the center of Wootton’s highly original rendition is the telescope.

Moses Mendelssoh
n by Shmuel Feiner (Yale $25 November 9780300161755)
The most influential Jewish thinker of the eighteenth century, and a pioneer of religious tolerance, Mendelssohn is often referred to as “the German Socrates.”

Antony & Cleopatra
by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale $35 September 9780300165340)
Goldsworthy’s stature as the preeminent popular historian of the ancient world just keeps growing, and this portrait of the iconic lovers (one bookseller called them “the original power couple”) is richly laced with military and political context.

The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb
by Allen M. Hornblum (Yale $32.50 September 9780300156768)
On the 60th anniversary of what came to be called “the Red Scare,” a gripping account of an accomplished industrial and military espionage agent who was said to have given the USSR the plans for the atom bomb. I’ve never read anything better about how and why ordinary people become spies.

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life
by Lev Loseff (Yale $35 January 9780300141191)
When this biography of Brodsky, one of the greatest modern poets, was first published in Russian, it was so acclaimed that it even got reviews in the US media. Literary, philosophical, and deeply personal, Loseff was a personal friend of the poet, and is the perfect biographer.