Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dateline Minneapolis St Paul

When the New York Times and NPR both take note of Winter Institute, the annual brain-storming session for independent booksellers that met in DC this week, I guess that’s a hopeful sign. But the relentless stream of quirky ideas flowing from the sessions sometimes sounded a little forced.

“What’s wrong with just trying harder to sell books? That’s what we know how to do.” That comment from a Twin Cities bookseller who is loaded with book marketing ideas and tests many of them. None involve bringing in merchandise she doesn’t really care about, or requiring her to learn a whole new set of business skills.

Best idea of the week is a new bookstore called Boneshaker Books, which opened in an excellent old theater space in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis a couple weeks ago. Unapologetically political, this is what we used to call a “movement store,” but updated for the 21st century with cooking, parenting, and a robust fiction section in addition to anarchism, dada and labor history. Run by a young(ish) collective, there’s a refreshingly idealistic vibe here, and I found a couple things that appealed to me which I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

Another great idea came by way of a post on the website of Micawber’s Bookstore in St Paul. (Mr. Micawber Enters the Internets.) It was a simple two line entry called “First/Last,” and noted the title of the last book the store sold in 2010, and the first book sold in 2011. (Go here to find out the answers.) Granted, dates are arbitrary, but I thought it was a fascinating piece of trivia, and immediately wondered what such a list from hundreds of bookstores would look like, and whether the aggregate list might say anything important.

This reminded me of another good idea I heard last week. The irrepressible Lisa Baudoin, owner of Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, wondered in an email blast to friends and customers “What is the first book you’ve read in the New Year?”

This simple question made me think about how I decide to read what I read. I wanted to finish the book I was reading and to report it. (Yes, three weeks into the month and I hadn’t actually finished a book. It’s selling season!) But I realized that, while I was enjoying this book, there was nothing about it that would rise to the occasion of “first book.” It would have been great for the “random” standard, but somehow failed the sense of occasion test.

So I put that one aside for now and took on something else I’ve been intending to read- Mark Harmon’s new translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (Harvard March 2011). I read this book in my early twenties and remember being intensely moved by it, but I wondered whether it would be as meaningful thirty years later.

It was beautiful. Short and sweet, Rilke’s tender literary relationship with a young fan who struggled with whether he had it in him to be a writer still spoke eloquently to my own neuroses on the subject. In a nutshell, Rilke advises would-be writers to have patience, avoid irony, and to check your heart.

So my first book of the year, thanks to Lisa, is a satisfying one, and seems like a good omen. But it made me question my scattered reading style. Reps are in and out of bookstores so constantly, and the booksellers we meet with are usually so filled with good recommendations. I tend to accumulate stacks of books that I impulsively tackle without any real plan. Sometimes when I’ve just puzzled through some piece of experimental fiction I follow up with a simple, realist story. Or, let's follow-up the depressing political manifesto with Ian Rankin. But beyond that, no real plan.

When I hear that a friend is “reading Dante,” or is on a personal quest to understand a certain period of Italian history this year, or that my colleague Patricia has spent the last year reading Proust (and much else), I’m impressed. And wonder whether I should replace my scattershot approach with more focus. With a goal. Book groups, of course, are made for this type of planned reading, but I can’t stand sitting around a room trading opinions about what I’ve read. I could use that time reading.

One powerful advocate of having a reading plan is Harold Bloom. His new book The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale March 2011) is a celebration of the writers and poets who have most influenced him, but also works as a “how to read" manual. One could do worse than following Bloom’s path through classical literature, emerging in 2012 a much better person.

Friends who have seen my book collection are sometimes surprised that I have no shelving system. Complete disorganization reigns. I blame a life in the book business. If I added up all the time I’ve spent discussing “where to shelve it” – both as a rep and as a bookseller- this problem has probably cost me months of my life. So allowing myself random shelving in my own house feels liberating, even if it means accidentally buying a book I already own, or not being able to find one.

So I think I will just let the tension between planned reading and random continue on in 2011, but am grateful to the booksellers of the Midwest for having ideas that made me reflect on it. Deciding on some self-improvement reading program would necessarily mean passing on all the great serendipitous books that find their way into my path. But is this freedom to read worth sacrificing the chance of ever becoming Harold Bloom by concentrated reading with a purpose?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Two great Portland bookstores. Neither named Powell's!

Every season there are a couple appointments I especially look forward to, and one of them is my meeting with Karin Anna at Looking Glass Books in Portland. Karin bought the store about a decade ago when it was on Taylor Street downtown, and moved it a couple years ago to the Sellwood neighborhood in southeast Portland.

She’s the kind of passionate bookseller whose store seems more mission than business. Long before the current mini-craze for literature in translation, Karin was an evangelist for international fiction. Every time I visited the store I’d leave with some surprise treasure by an author I’d never heard of. Her reading tastes are sophisticated but there’s never the hint of snootiness in her recommendations.

The Looking Glass physical space is too charming for words. A bright red train caboose is all you see from the street, but the store opens onto a lower level encompassing a couple cozy rooms, complete with fireplace and an interior outdoor courtyard that lets in bright light (or Portland bright anyway.) Charlie, resident canine and squirrel watcher, stands guard at the window and greets customers.

But alas, instead of poring over Harvard, MIT and Yale catalogs, I spent my appointment time with Karin this week proof-reading her letter to customers announcing that the store will close next month if she can’t find a buyer.

I’m no urban sociologist, but my impression of the surrounding Sellwood neighborhood is that it’s a community of readers, and should be a demographic dream for a good bookstore.

Events were well-attended but too often people left without purchasing a book. Like many booksellers these days, Karin has had people waving devices in her face showing where they can find her books elsewhere, cheaper. As if the value of the uniquely humanist experience of spending an hour at Looking Glass is interchangeable with a few mouse clicks on a laptop.

But no use crying about it. There are customers who love the store, but not enough. Portland is a city that practically invented local sustainability and brags about it at every turn. But even here, the simple truth that if you cherish a local business or institution you have to support it financially has apparently failed. People love the idea of the bookstore on 13th Avenue, but apparently think that, because it’s a labor of love, it doesn’t need everyone to buy a book a week. Or even a book a month. It does.

I kept my sadness at bay until I took a closer look at the parting gift Karin gave me, The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez. Unfamiliar, enchanting, and exactly the kind of book that needs a real, book-loving human being to bring it to life. Her inscription- “We tried!”- was never truer of any bookseller I’ve ever met. The store may be forced to close, but by any meaningful measure, "you succeeded!"

* * * * * *

Sometime last year I received an email from a man who had just opened an art and design store in northeast Portland. We exchanged information, some quirky, thoughtful orders ensued, and this week I stopped by for the first time to see what Monograph Bookwerks was all about.

The shop is fantastic. Every square inch seems curated, from the eccentric objets, to the clever display spaces, to the stellar art, architecture and design book inventory. I stopped by on a rainy Saturday afternoon with my partner and his brother, and I was almost embarrassed by our giddy behavior. Look at this! But wait, did you see this? There’s no place to rest the eyes, everything calls out for investigation.

I quickly learned that Blair Saxon-Hill, who had been stoking our enthusiasm by showing us all sorts of irresistible things, is also an artist and co-oversees the shop. The other partner, who I met on a subsequent visit, is John Brodie. He is also a painter, and runs a successful restaurant beloved by hip Portland night owls (le Happy), and is former manager for the Portland music phenom Pink Martini (their lovely website front page is reminiscent of the Monograph vibe, though perhaps I’m imagining it.)

The Alberta neighborhood is an unfamiliar one to me, though in some ways it looks like the younger, hipper, broker stepchild of Sellwood. I hope that the community appreciates this gem in its midst and supports it.

Ironically enough, given that they are both in Portland, whose retail literary world is dominated by a book behemoth, Looking Glass Books and Monograph Bookwerks convincingly show that you don’t need acres of space to be interesting. With taste and discrimination, quality can trump quantity.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

On the rep road 2011: Seattle

Arrive in Seattle Tuesday, the Tucson shootings in the news and on the mind. Are people becoming meaner in general?

On the drive in from the airport, I wonder whatever happened to Seattle Nice. When I started selling here ten years ago, the civilized traffic always took some getting used to. On Chicago freeways, a ruthless ethos prevails. The confusing “you first, no you first” generosity of Seattle drivers, who couldn’t seem to work out the idea of an on-ramp merge, was charming and disorienting. People drove at or below the speed limit, something that would be considered insane or suicidal on interstates of the Midwest and east. But today I notice a kind of passive aggressive ruthlessness on I-5 that’s familiar and a little sad. It’s still not the Edens Expressway, which is a form of cutthroat, high stakes bumper cars. But it’s also not the sane, friendly, Seattle traffic my friends back east used to joke about and marvel over.

Four Pho places on one block of University Way. I pick Than Brothers because it’s packed. Delicious.

Alarmist predictions of a snowstorm on the way. In the event, a couple inches of slush. Feelings of Midwest winter weather arrogance rise up, though it’s all relative. The mid-fifties temperatures seem balmy.

I’ve always loved staying at the University Inn, for the great location, friendly staff, and charming, somewhat shabby rooms (in the cheap section.) The lobby was often filled with chattering international scientists or engineers, in Seattle for one of the frequent academic conferences. But now, my fellow guests are mainly here to visit the hospital across the street, and morning conversation revolves around tumors and prognoses rather than research.

So many people in public spaces and on public transportation reading books. Hopeful.

Catching up with a backlog of email messages. What do I think about a proposed book about a renowned porn director? How dirty can the pictures be? What do I think about the word “socks” in a working title for an important forthcoming work of post-fordist theory? And why are sales of one press so much better at a prominent academic store than sales of another press? I try to compose thoughtful responses to each of these interesting queries.

In light of Arizona, I decide to concoct a recommended reading list, but the whole thing is too depressing. (Though this is a good place to start). As I visit bookstores this week I don’t see any of the instant “issue” display tables that normally pop up around a news event.

I’m reading Mathias Enard’s Zone. Hallucinatory and a little addicting.

I’m listening to Matty Goldberg’s excellent “Best of 2010” mix CD, also a little addicting.

I wrote a fan letter to Nicola Beauman, founder and brains behind Persephone Press in London and the author of a biography of the British author Elizabeth Taylor (The Other Elizabeth Taylor), which I read a few months back. I got a lovely message in response.

Bought a copy of an old E.F. Benson book and a Molly Panter-Downs anthology at Twice Told Tales.

University Bookstore has a “Conspiracy” section. Someone complained that it was on the bottom shelf.

Unexpectedly, I teared up a little after my final meeting with the buyer at Third Place Books.

My only moving traffic violation in years occurred at the crazy intersection of 45th Street and I-5. I think about it every time I exit there, and still don’t exactly understand what I’m supposed to do.

I walked to my appointment at Elliott Bay Books, in the rain, in the early morning darkness, a couple miles. Climbed what has to be one of the longest staircases in the world from Eastlake up to Tenth Avenue. Near the foot of the stairs, under the freeway, there's a lone palm tree. Oddly, floodlit.

The New York Times reports that China has bulldozed the studio of artist Ai Wei Wei, whose collection of blog posts MIT is publishing in March (Ai Wei Wei’s Blog:Writings, Interviews and Digital rants 2006-2009).

Elliott Bay Books, Everyday Music, and Oddfellows café: is there a more satisfying trio of businesses on any urban block in America?

While presenting Cricket Radio: Tuning in the Night-Singing Insects to Rick at Elliott Bay, he remarks that “we don’t have crickets in the Northwest.” Still so many things to learn.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Lists

As a follow-up to my roster of favorite Harvard, MIT and Yale titles of 2010, herewith my round-up of personal favorites among the other books I read last year.

Book of the year, hands down: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art & Loss, Edmund de Waal’s inventive, charming, endlessly surprising true chronicle of, well, an awful lot. A descendant of a formerly rich and powerful European banking family, de Waal has ended up in possession of a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese porcelain figurines. In tracing the circuitous path this collection took to reach him over the course of 300 years, he excavates his family, its incredible possessions, the loss of them, and the shifting meanings.

There are so many entry portals to this improbable story it’s a little hard to know where to start. A better meditation on collecting and letting go has never been written, as far as I know. And I’ve never read a more horrific and concise description of evil than the twenty pages on the entry of the Nazis into Vienna in 1938. It’s a chilling reminder of how recently those events took place, and how quickly they unfolded.

De Waal is a ceramicist and this is his first book. He writes like a dream:

“How objects are handed down is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy.”

This stunningly accomplished piece of writing will change forever the way you think about your life and the objects you fill it with.

David Mitchell’s justly praised The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was my favorite novel of the year. It’s everything you want in a book when you want to lose yourself: unfamiliar landscapes and personalities rendered intimately knowable, an authentic story rooted in real history, and beautiful sentences on every page. It was one of the first books I read in 2010 and spoke in surprising ways to the de Waal book, which was the last.

Also strongly resonating with de Waal was the latest translation from the Hans Fallada oeuvre, Wolf Among Wolves. Melville House has been dribbling these out, and this wasn’t as compelling as Every Man Dies Alone. But Fallada is an early twentieth century writer well worth reading, with, I hope, more translations to come.

On a completely different note, I was blown away (like half the world) by Patti Smith’s excellent memoir Just Kids. She’s as much a literary stylist as a musical one.

My favorite quirky “find” of the season was a book that was hand sold to me by Jennifer White, the proprietress of the eccentric and improbably located Paper Moon in Macgregor, Iowa. Her inventory is a slightly mad selection of a little bit of everything (as long as it’s unique and unlikely to be found within 500 miles). One focus of her smart book selection features under-appreciated British women novelists, and Jen’s passion last winter was a once popular mid-century find: Tortoise & the Hare (another hare! Everything comes back to deWaal) by Elizabeth Jenkins. My friend Daniel at Boswell Books in Milwaukee picked up the baton on this one and I hope to see the Jenkins wave continue to swell across North America in 2011.

Another addictive diversion this year: the whole publication program of the consistently excellent Persephone Books from London, also devoted to resurrecting British women writers. (There was no new Anita Brookner this year, alas.) Among the half dozen Persephone titles I managed to procure (not all available here), my favorite was Good Evening Mrs. Craven, a collection of wartime short stories by Molly Panter-Downes. Incredibly vivid, smartly written, I don’t know why she’s not more widely known and read these days. That needs to change.

My friend and colleague Adena Siegel gave me a copy of Robert Walser’s Microscripts this year. Boy does she know me, I loved it. Short, obsessive missives scrawled in pencil on scraps of paper from a sanitorium, they are a little crazy. But in the end much more than just a curiosity for confirmed fans only. The New Directions physical book is among the most beautiful published this year.

Role Models by John Waters made me laugh harder than anything I’ve read in a long time.

Christopher Isherwood’s The Sixties, the diary segment released this year, was a bit of a slog in places but fascinating. If the film version of his novel A Single Man whet your appetite for mid-century gay life in Los Angeles, there's more than enough here to sate it.

And a book I really loved this year that a lot of the contemporary novel reading world also enjoyed (no, not Freedom. I’m a dissenter on that): Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. If you fret on a daily basis like I do about the demise of the newspaper business, Rachman’s fictional celebration thereof will make you hopeful.


Is it just me or was it a ho-hum film year? I used to catch way more art house flicks in Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and other on the road venues. But I seem to have gone off movies, or they’ve gone off me. My Netflix selections tend to sit around for a month or more before I get around to watching them, and then they tend to be shruggable. So my top ten list of the year is a little soft, and none of the movies was remotely as compelling as any of my ten favorite books.

1. A Prophet
2. Inside Job
3. The Last Train Home
4. Mother
5. Ghost Writer
6. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
7. Amereeka
8. An Education
9. No One Knows About Persian Cats
10. Howl


The ten tunes in most frequent personal rotation in 2010.

1. Missed the Train/Factor feat. Gregory Pepper
2. Kazimierz/Nigel Kennedy & the Kroke Band (thanks Natalie)
3. Tornado/Jónsi
4. Soldier of Love/Sade
5. Turn me Away (Get MuNNY)/Erykah Badu
6. Better Things/Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
7. Lorca & the Orange Tree/Mummers (thanks Gerry)
8. Back it up/Caro Emerald
9. What did he say/Nite Jewel
10. Say la la/Keegan DeWitt