Wednesday, March 30, 2011

telling our story

When legendary Washington DC bookseller Carla Cohen died last fall, I remember thinking that I hope someone got to her with a tape recorder.

Aside from the personal loss felt by family, friends and customers, the passing of a great bookseller too often means the passing of a unique institutional memory. For a profession founded on peddling the printed words of others, we do a very bad job of documenting our own.

There are notable exceptions, especially on the publishing side. Bennett Cerf’s memoir At Random made books seem simultaneously commercial, sexy and important. And anyone who wants to sample old-school, cranky, carriage trade bookselling should check out Stuart Brent’s memoir chronicling his early bookselling days, The Seven Stairs. (Philip Roth called him “a cross between a Chicago intellectual and a Persian rug dealer.”) There are others, but not enough.

Whether or not we are facing the end of bookselling and publishing as we have known them, what we badly need is an archive through which future generations can have a taste of this maddening but deeply satisfying calling.

Like a combination of Studs Terkel’s oral histories and Robert Darnton’s universal digital library, such a project would document the memories, experiences and wisdom of the unsung heroes of the book industry: ordinary, Main Street families who have devoted their working lives to bookselling; underpaid receivers who have packed and unpacked millions of books and dealt with all manner of invoice and shipping craziness; exhibitions assistants, rights managers, wholesalers, buyers, accountants, publicists.

Luckily, we wouldn’t have to invent the wheel. I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book that accomplishes for the UK book market just what I had in mind for our own- The British Book Trade: An Oral History.

The collection, deftly edited by former bookseller Sue Bradley, is essentially a compendium of excerpts from oral interviews she conducted over the course of a decade for “Book Trade Lives,” one of a whole series of archives about 20th century British working lives stored at the British Library Sound Archive. (More available here) Other categories include oral histories of everything from the post office to the wine trade, a really wonderful, forward-looking celebration of labor of every sort.

What was it like to be a rep in 1950? Or a secretary at a publishing house in the twenties? Or a lowly bookstore clerk in the forties? The testimonies are authentic, surprising and completely mesmerizing (at least to anyone who has spent a lifetime in books.) The ways that bookselling and publishing have changed (and stayed the same) over the century speak eloquently to our 21st century fears of a bookless future.

The actual recordings, the result of hours and days spent with dozens of individual subjects, are only available via the British Library, and some of the interviewees have put an embargo on access so that only future generations will be able to listen. (The long-term, civic-minded reach of this project is awe-inspiring in itself. I can hear some US politician asking where is the profit in it, and if "the market" wanted such a thing someone would create it.)

The Library issued an audio CD compilation with excerpts, and the live voices are thrilling, if frustratingly brief. At their best, they are tantalizing and remind me a bit of Alan Bennett’s wonderful “Talking Heads” monologs.

But we have the next best thing in Sue Bradley’s transcript, which throbs with wit, history, and rich cultural detail. Though these interviews were conducted separately, they are woven together so skillfully that it seems as if the reader is eavesdropping on a conversation among friends.

One brief sample among many choice ones, which can be heard under "media files" here:

“You would have your duster or your brush, and every morning you would start on the shelf where you had stopped the day before. As you worked your way along, you would pick up a book, look at the title and publisher, and if you were sensible you would open it and read a couple of pages, then say ‘Right, that’s it, back on the shelf.’ So when someone came in and asked for a book, you could say ‘I saw that yesterday,’ and you could stretch out your hand and have that book. It’s not done nowadays- there isn’t the discipline of learning about the inside of books. I don’t want to denigrate present book staff, but I don’t think there’s the depth of knowledge that existed in the great old bookshops like Thin’s. Blackwell’s and Heffer’s were the same- full of people who were wrapped up in books and knew nothing else but books.”

John Milne trained at James Thin, the Edinburgh bookseller, before taking over his father’s Aberdeen shop, Bisset’s, where he was managing director from 1954 until 1987.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

rep geography

When people find out the size of my territory they sometimes gasp. “Seattle to Syracuse? You’ve got to be kidding.” Twenty years ago, most book reps traveled 300 miles, tops.

But for better or worse we are in an environment where we have to travel farther, longer and harder to visit the booksellers in our portfolio.

To the extent that this is a result of attrition, with fewer and fewer sufficiently robust stores to warrant visits, it’s a sad thing. The old standard whereby it was meaningful for a rep to live in the region he or she sold has become obsolete. I know LA based reps who sell in Denver and Chicago reps who sell in New Orleans.

The retail book world has shrunk, and a local booksellers' competition is no longer down the street but all over the world. (Happily, so are their potential sales.) In many ways having reps with a less provincial perspective is a plus, or I hope so anyway.

But there’s another reason territories have become bigger: to some extent reps are able to handle ludicrous-sounding geography because of the improvements in technology that make both booksellers and publishers smarter and more efficient.

When I was a bookseller in the eighties and early nineties, I remember reps coming to town for a week. There were more stores to see, but there was also more work to do. A Tuesday appointment often really began on Monday, when a rep could spend the whole day “taking inventory”- a phrase now so archaic that younger booksellers might not even know what it means.

Even by 1998, when I started repping for Harvard, MIT and Yale, there were a few stores where my appointments included combing the shelves spine by spine and noting what they had in stock before we got to haggling over the new titles. (How thankful I was for the beautiful, instantly recognizable MIT Press colophon, designed by the legendary Muriel Cooper in the sixties. Those books jumped off the shelf, and still do.) The point was to find out what was missing, so even after entering the on hand quantities on the often baroque backlist order forms, some intelligence had to be applied to deciding which missing titles were urgently needed.

The process could be time-consuming and a little maddening, but the tactile sensation of actually handling the physical book really enhanced the mental picture of the store’s inventory in a way blips on a screen never could. Not to mention the prospect of turning up anomalies, like mis-shelved, outdated or damaged books which no artificial intelligence (yet) could recognize.

As computerized inventory systems became the norm- and hard to believe that only a decade ago they were brand new and full of bugs- taking inventory came to seem like an expendable task. But it was surprising (and still is) to find out how unreliable computerized on-hand quantities can be. You think you have a copy of that book, but it was stolen six months ago! Which explains why it isn’t selling.

Before I get too misty-eyed for the good old days of inventory-taking, I’ll acknowledge that the trade-off was worth it. A hand count may have been more precise, but the computer is mainly right. Similarly, I’ve often romanticized the days when booksellers carried their inventories in their heads and could go straight to the shelf to retrieve a requested title. I conveniently forget all the times we drew a blank and were saved by the computer.

The digital database may not be 100% reliable, but acting as if it’s accurate allows us to spend quality time on other things, like discussing how to sell the new books. (The ascendence of this type of thinking, i.e. Bayesian reasoning, is the subject of an excellent new book from Yale University Press -The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy)

The digitization of the rep world over the past decade has manifested itself in lots of other ways. When I started, I spent endless hours on logistics: calling for hotel reservations, car rentals and plane tickets- not to mention phone tag with buyers. One afternoon in 1999 I set up shop in a hallway of the Boulder County Courthouse and ran through a couple rolls of quarters, making long distance calls on a public phone to nail down appointments. When I started using the neighboring phone as a call back number they asked me to leave.

I now spend vastly less time on arrangements and manage to lock down 90% of my commitments online and by email, though there are always a few old school stragglers who need the personal touch.

But going digital can be bittersweet. I’m a newspaper fanatic, and the first thing I used to do upon arriving in Columbus or Minneapolis was to pick up the local paper. Now I can read it online the week before my visit, I can follow the reviews and book publicity from my laptop, and can even listen to local radio (KPLU!) as I answer emails and type up notes.

Yelping, map questing, facebooking, smart phones, nimble publisher websites- all that technology and more have made it possible for reps to cover these bigger regions efficiently and cost-effectively. We’re racking up more miles but accomplishing exponentially more.

Not to say being a book traveler isn’t sometimes a challenge. A few weeks ago I was in St Louis, feeling exhausted from my 393 mile drive. Kris Kleindienst, owner of Left Bank Books, mentioned that her whiz bang Random House rep, Bridget Piekarz, had visited earlier that week on a whirlwind day that had her leaving Chicago at dawn and ending up in Kansas City late in the evening. With or without technology, that’s a long day.

The technological innovation is welcome and useful up to a point. And that point is the powerful intersection between two human beings, communicating face to face, surrounded by the actual bookstore and its customers.

The day is coming when teleconferencing will be so glitch-free that we may be seeing some far-flung accounts remotely. Better than no visit at all I suppose. But just as I’d rather be examined by a doctor using five senses rather than just sight and sound, the personal bookstore-rep encounter still seems irreplaceable. At least in places where books are still sold through personal encounters with customers.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

waiting for my cornell bookstore appointment

At around 7:30 this morning, as I sat in the window of Collegetown Bagels in Ithaca, New York, listening to the guy next to me explain Marcus Aurelius to his companion, the Ithaca Bakery delivery truck pulled up.

I watched the driver expertly unload and maneuver a precarious-looking trolley loaded with dozens of trays of perfectly formed, unbaked bagels. As he navigated the treacherous sidewalk, the wheels kept jamming: broken concrete, month old, salt-caked urban ice, and college town debris.

At one especially tricky bump- I held my breath- the top stories tipped and slid ominously. But some third eye apparently registered this, and with a quick, polished gesture he kept the rolling bagel tower intact. A simple, everyday man doing an ordinary task in an everyday job. Nobody seemed to notice.

But the small near calamity left a tiny dramatic postscript. As the trays shifted in that final jolt, a powdery dusting of cornmeal rose from the baking sheets and settled in a jagged rectangular shape on the frozen sidewalk. Almost instantly, two hungry sparrows descended, and began furiously pecking at the microscopic yellow dots.

A few seconds later, a third sparrow joined the group. But this one was more interested in prohibiting the other two from enjoying this surprise buffet than in feasting on it himself. He harassed one bird until it stopped eating, and then went to work on the other. For awhile, the first two took turns being diner and victim, one nibbling while the other endured an attack. But eventually both seemed to think the cornmeal wasn’t worth the bother, and flew off.

The bully bird, having won the prize, had no interest in actually consuming it, and also left. The grains of cornmeal slowly dispersed up Oak Avenue on the frigid Cayuga Lake wind.