Friday, February 25, 2011

my two cents on borders

I was struck by the generous tone taken by most independent booksellers this month as they reflected on the excruciating demise of the great and powerful Borders. For the past couple decades, this chain set up shop close to and undersold many a fine neighborhood bookstore. When the victims caved, the response was “business is business!”

Dick Noyes, one of the titans of twentieth-century bookselling, operated the wonderful Chinook Bookstore in Colorado Springs until Borders (among other things) drove him out of business ten years ago. He was an exception to the group hug. His “spare me the crocodile tears, what goes around comes around” remark about Borders troubles was probably a truer representation of how many booksellers feel in their hearts. But we are an astoundingly nice profession and it would be mean to say it.

I vividly remember my first visit to Borders original store in Ann Arbor in the early eighties. I was a bookseller at Harry W Schwartz in Milwaukee, and we were both afraid and excited by the idea that a bookstore could be so big and carry so much. Their state of the art inventory system was years ahead of its time, and was actually a boon to many independents for awhile. But once Wall Street took notice it was all over, and the cascade of changing owners was farcical and devastating. Corporate America never seems to learn that 20% profit margins and books don’t mix.

Other more knowledgeable observers have written convincing Borders post-mortems, exploring all the various angles and could haves and should haves. I won’t presume to add anything.

Except this: I think the writing was on the wall when Borders dis-empowered their managers and individual stores around 2002, forcing local inventories, merchandising and community outreach to conform more closely to national display packages that could be sold (if that’s the word) to publishers.

For short term gain and the illusion of cost control, they sacrificed the competitive edge that always made them seem hipper and cooler than their bland competitor, Barnes & Noble. Many Borders stores seemed more like nimble, quirky, interesting indies than cookie-cutter chain shops.

Exhibit A: the excellent Madison, Wisconsin University Avenue store, which I was dumbfounded to see on the chopping block. In its heyday this store was the intellectual hub of one of the top university communities in the US. The “official” University Bookstore had thrown in the towel, collapsing its once stellar trade book department into a tiny corner room on the sweatshirt floor. The University Avenue Borders took up the slack.

Manager Michael Chaim, one of the smartest people in the book industry, remade his front of store to perfectly follow (and make) the reading tastes of this brainy neighborhood. For instance, I’ve never seen a better, more thoughtful “New University Press” section in any big bookstore. (Yes, I’m biased. But how well a store represents the university presses is a quality control issue to me.)

Eventually, local display and merchandising decisions became mandates, and the power to create the face the store would show to the community moved from someone who lived there to some suit in Ann Arbor who was able to score a few extra co-op dollars with national marketing campaigns.

Surely Michael wasn’t the only clever manager with the commitment and talent to customize his store. I wonder how many of them met the same fate.

In short order, mandates to merchandise were succeeded by mandates to reduce inventory. Like a farmer eating his seed, a bookseller who cuts stock too deeply inevitably reaps fewer sales. Core backlist was once the crown jewel of the Borders idea, but in recent years these books came roaring back to publisher warehouses for credit that would help pay the bills on new books.

Perhaps internet booksellers have killed the “we have everything” business model for physical stores. But the across the board inventory reductions seemed more like the slashing republican approach to budget cuts than a thought out plan to cut some sections while investing more strongly in other, more promising ones. If this happened, I missed it.

After all the havoc unleashed by the rise and fall of this chain on smaller booksellers who have invested their working lives in the profession, it’s hard to feel completely generous. There’s a little Dick Noyes in me saying “good riddance!”

But the net effect of the Borders implosion is bad for anyone who cares about books.

For one thing, there will be nearly 20,000 booksellers unemployed.

For another, it will leave many major cities and smaller communities without a single bookstore.

And it will concentrate power more strongly in the hands of the last chain standing.

There are some grounds for hope. The Canadian bookselling landscape has been dominated for over a decade by one retailer, which eats up a sizeable chunk of the book market. Yet there is a surprisingly robust array of interesting, wily independents across Canada who continue to survive and surprise.

Who knows what the next five years will look like? But I’m guessing booklovers will have three big choices:

- The internet retailers, increasingly linked to social networking buzz and digital media, will get better and better, offering more choices in more convenient formats. Fighting this is pointless.
- The remaining chain will decide to either re-commit to a physical book inventory, or will become a device salon with a few physical books as decorative backdrop.
- Independent, free-thinking booksellers will persevere in their calling as they always have: tailoring their stores to their communities; being responsive to but a step ahead of the market; hosting authors and events with love and imagination; and staffing the stores with smart booksellers who can answer a simple question like “what do you recommend?” with confidence and enthusiasm.

I’m betting on window three.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop birthday love in Iowa City

It’s been a snowy, frigid Midwest winter, and February 8th was one of its coldest days. As I walked down Dubuque Street toward Prairie Lights Bookstore, I had a revelation: the phrase “bitter cold” is literal, not metaphoric. The shards of ice on my breath left a tangible, stinging taste in the back of my throat: bitter!

For once, my appointment coincided with one of the excellent Prairie Lights events, so I was on my way back to the store for a reading “in tribute to Elizabeth Bishop on her 100th Birthday.” A dozen poets and readers were each to present a favorite Bishop poem. It sounded lovely. And it also sounded like the sort of event that could use a warm body to help fill the chairs.

It was lovely. And I needn’t have worried about attendance. I got there ten minutes early and nearly every seat was taken. By the time Jan Weissmiller welcomed everyone at 7:00, even floor space was at a premium. Granted, some of the attendees had that unmistakable look of some English class being assigned to come. But halfway into the recitations, even these reluctant young poets- and I may very well have misread the whole scene, since Iowa City is such a creative writing epicenter and perhaps every one of them is keen on Bishop- even they were locked in a kind of quiet trance.

As reader was succeeded by reader, the stately minimalist tribute took on a kind of intimate solemnity. A wonderful, moving, unexpected surprise on a frigid Iowa Tuesday night!

And, as if it needs repeating- though apparently it does- a tribute as well to the essential, irreplaceable cultural contribution that clever independent booksellers make to our communities, day in day out, season upon season.

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

from Poems

Friday, February 4, 2011

Egypt: a select reading list

Yet another international development that supposedly erupted out of nowhere. What a crazy, unpredictable world!

I don’t think the “out of nowhere” standard applies when traditional broadcast media haven’t done elementary reporting on a country for a decade or more. It only seems "out of nowhere" to us ignorant Americans, protected as we are from the dangerous journalism of Al Jazeera as we luxuriate in the freedom to watch Skins.

For some reason I turned on the NBC Nightly News yesterday, thinking I might get the latest on what’s happening in Egypt. Instead, it was the usual self-centered, US-centric blather: a screaming, cheesy slogan (Rage and Revolution!); a focus on one particular American woman who is afraid to leave her apartment; endless looping visuals of people clashing in the street with no context to really understand what’s happening; and, inevitably, the heroic anchormen, Brian and Lester.

The fact that journalists are apparently being targeted by the regime and these two empty media suits might be rattled becomes the focal point of the whole story. Forget Mubarak, will the anchormen and the old woman get out of Cairo alive? Yes, it might seem to be about the Egyptians but really, as always, it's about us! Would it be too much to ask for an interview with an Egyptian political scientist or two, who might actually give American viewers some informed background?

Thankfully, we still have books for that job. Even with the vast resources of the internet, books are still the undisputed go-to source when seemingly inexplicable world events pop up. There have been many worthy titles on the subject of Egypt and the region, the Islamic renaissance, and Middle East politics published over the past decade.

Here are a dozen from our presses that I heartily recommend. There are many more, so please check with your local bookseller for their recommendations. Spend thirty minutes with any of these and I guarantee more enlightenment than you’ll get from long hours enduring Brian Williams & Co.

A History of the Arab Peoples

Albert Hourani and Malise Ruthven
9780674058194 $18.95 paper (Harvard)

Hailed in 1991 as the definitive history of Arab civilization, this panoramic masterpiece has been brought up to date with a new Afterword.

Cairo: Histories of a City
Nezar AlSayyad
9780674047860 $29.95 (May 2011 Harvard)

This loving forthcoming homage to Cairo as an urban space, and a history of the built environment- by a working Egyptian architect- now takes on added significance.

The Mind of Egypt: History & Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs

Jan Assman
9780674012110 $25.50 paper (Harvard)

This sweeping 2003 history by the noted scholar is excellent deep background.

Beyond Terror & Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East

Gilles Kepel
9780674057319 $17.95 paper (Harvard)

The competing dominant narratives about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism are both exhausted and bankrupt, according to the renowned French Mideast scholar.

Andre Raymond
9780674009967 $25.50 paper (Harvard)

A deeply observed, nuanced study by the leading social historian of the Arab world.

Awakening Islam: Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

Stephane LaCroix
9780674049642 $29.95 (April 2011 Harvard)

Political dynamics in one of the most opaque Muslim countries, based on rarely seen documents and the author’s extensive travel to the region.

Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest
Hamid Dabashi
9780674049451 $29.95 (Harvard)

Shi’ism, perhaps surprisingly, as a faith based fundamentally on protest- history, culture, religion, literature, art.

Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak
Tarek Osman
9780300162752 $20.00 paper (Yale)

There couldn’t be a timelier introduction to contemporary events in Egypt.

Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

Victoria Clark
9780300117011 $20.00 paper (Yale)

This former correspondent for The Observer was born in Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world, and knows it inside out.

Sudan: Darfur & the Failure of an African State

Richard Cockett
9780300162738 $22.00 paper (Yale)

The Africa editor of The Economist chronicles the descent of Sudan into failure- sad, but well worth knowing.

A Quiet Revolution: the Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America

Leila Ahmed
9780300170955 $30 (March 2011 Yale)

An excellent history of the Muslim Brotherhood, and how a younger generation- in Cairo and across the world- has appropriated one of its key symbols- the veil- for progressive ends.

Levant: Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean

Philip Mansel
9780300172645 $35 (April 2011 Yale)

A celebration of cosmopolitan crossroad cities, this lovely excavation of Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria blends historical sweep (think Adrian Goldsworthy) with an armchair travel vibe (think Jan Morris.)