Wednesday, June 22, 2011

toronto, week one

I began my first week of appointments in Toronto with more than a bit of trepidation. Though everyone has been extremely cooperative in accommodating my proposed dates, I haven’t met and worked with this many new customers since the day I started this job in 1998.

There were some logistical challenges. Canada Post has gone on strike, but it means my obsession with sending catalogs early paid off. Then Air Canada agents called a strike, but neither of my flights was inconvenienced. Anyway, a country that has a labor movement with gumption, what a great concept!

I took the bus down to O’Hare on Sunday morning. The driver was a trainee- tentative, learning the ropes, a little awkward. But he had an experienced handler hovering over his shoulder, explaining the shortcuts and schedule tricks. “Never skip a stop no matter how far behind you get! You never know when somebody might be waiting.” I thought of this man as his David Stimpson, and took it as a good omen.

Continuing the theme of repping by public transportation, I took the Rocket from Pearson to the Kipling subway station. It was a smooth ride but “the rocket”- really? Still, I was downtown in an hour for $3.00. The train passed through far-flung stations on the Bloor line I’d never been in, and I saw beautiful institutional pastels on the walls- mauve, sea green, and a kind of pale butterscotch- that I hadn’t seen since elementary school.

I daydreamed about my first visit to Toronto in the early eighties. I spent a weekend at the decrepit Selby Hotel on Sherbourne, in the room in which (supposedly) Ernest Hemingway lived when he wrote for the Toronto Star. Feeling the literary vibe made it a little easier to ignore the roaches and the thumping cheesy disco in the basement.

There are precious few North American cities anymore where one might take a “book vacation,” but Toronto remains one of them. True, when bookselling and publishing elders gather, as they did at David’s happy, bittersweet retirement party at his beloved Pilot Monday night, the inescapable theme is “the good old days.” Stipulating that there were once many more bookstores selling many more interesting books, I’m still skeptical. Moms Mabley used to make fun of people who dwell on the good old days. “What good old days? When? I was there, where were they at?”

Be that as it may, I just spent a wonderful week visiting diverse and wonderful bookstores in a truly wonderful city. It’s the kind of trip I’d gladly make for fun, and I’m being paid for it! I’d been to many of these shops before as a customer, but it’s an entirely different thing to sit down with buyers to sell them the lists.

What were some of these places and personalities?

York University Bookstore
, which features the kind of deeply scholarly trade inventory that was once routine in college stores before the sweatshirts took over;

The University of Toronto Bookstore
, which is housed in one of the most beautiful rooms in book retailing;

Books for Business
, a tidy, bright, smartly selective business specialty store in the financial district;

Marc Glassman, owner of the widely mourned Page’s Bookstore, is now juggling about a dozen book balls, including the Toronto International Film Festival shop and a clever reading series called This is Not a Reading Series. (Toronto is book event crazy. Like film festivals, there seem to be reading festivals of one kind or another every week.)

The wonderfully quirky and old-school charming Book City stores, a collection of local neighborhood shops which reminded me of Milwaukee’s legendary Harry W Schwartz chain, where I learned bookselling;

Ben McNally Books, a showcase store on Bay Street is another spectacular aesthetic feast. Ben is a true bookman who lights up when he comes to “my kind of book” in the catalog;

Don Lake, whose book and art emporium on King Street- D&E Lake Books & Art Ltd- demands a visit since there’s no adequate way to convey the experience in words. A booklover’s dream;

Any excuse to go to the Art Gallery of Ontario is a good one, but to sell them books is a real privilege. As so many other art museum bookshops are swamped by cheap promotional inventory and branded merchandise, books here still seem like part of the mission;

Type Books on Queen West (sister store in the Forest Hill neighborhood) is one of my favorite kinds of stores, where a deeply quirky and personal selection is supported by the neighborhood, whose quirks and personalities seem a perfect match. It’s another must stop for visitors on Toronto book holiday;

Another Story
on Roncesvalles- the neighborhood is fantastic, would be worth the visit even without the great bookstore- is a cheerful blend of politics, social conscience, feminism, fiction and community. And on top of that, it has one of the best and most interestingly subdivided kids’ book sections I’ve ever seen;

With a couple other stops to round out the week- the Bata Shoe Museum shop (that Yale has a cool book called 100 Shoes on the fall list and Toronto has a whole museum devoted to shoes excited me way more than it should have), and Glad Day, one of the last remaining LGBT bookstores in North America- it was a busy week.

My weekly TTC pass made it easy to navigate the city with ease, though I do wish it started on Sunday rather than Monday. I know people like to complain about the transit system, and I did begin to dread the words “Attention TTC passengers…” But I’ve been on urban transport all over the continent and I have to say it’s pretty great.

I have another week in Toronto to look forward to, and then a mad dash to as many bookstores as I can cover between Edmonton and Halifax over the next two months.

But after one week on duty, I will venture one generalization on Toronto bookselling: the variety of venues, the idiosyncratic bookseller personalities, and the accumulated wealth of experience gives me hope.

There’s been so much dread and gallows humor lately about the future of US bookstores. The Canadian booksellers I’ve met so far are refreshingly optimistic. Even the pessimistic ones exhibit a kind of informed resignation- no panic, no drama.

I’ve been reading an essay collection called What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, so perhaps my urban glasses are a bit rose-colored. Nonetheless, a week in Toronto has transformed my muted dread about meeting all these new people into happy anticipation to see them again. I may even be able to cross-pollinate some good merchandising ideas when I see them. With Customs permission of course.

Monday, June 6, 2011

ethel wilson and me

For my bookselling swan song, I managed the last Harry W Schwartz Bookshop to open in 1997- coincidentally, in the site of the store’s original 1927 shop on the east side of Milwaukee. (Boswell Book Company, a wonderful bookshop operated by my friend and fellow Schwartzian Daniel Goldin now thrives in the same location.)

With what now seems like a ridiculous degree of indulgence, David Schwartz allowed me to stock the entire store with an opening inventory of my choosing. We had four other stores and I’d been a buyer for five years, so I mainly knew what I was doing, but still.

I spent way more time than I should have on the idiosyncrasies. One of them was my determination to make our store the best source for Canadian fiction in the United States.

This was actually setting a pretty modest bar. It was (and is) relatively easy to find the Margaret Atwoods, Michael Ondaatjes, and the Mordecai Richlers on the shelves of US bookstores. These literary superstars have American publishers and, viewed through the usual US-centric prism, seemed to have transcended their “Canadian-ness.”

But I was interested in offering a more authentic inventory of Canadian writing. I’d been to Canadian bookshops and seen the wealth of literature that was essentially invisible and unavailable to US readers. With our shop on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee, we would change that.

While on a camping trip in Jasper, Alberta I’d discovered and fell in love with a writer I’d never heard of: Ethel Wilson. A small Jasper bookseller had five titles. I bought them all and devoured them. Later, a Canadian friend told me that “every high school student has to read Swamp Angel,” and I had the feeling that my Wilson obsession might be a touch odd even in Canada.

The other intriguing thing about the Wilson books was the format- they were New Canadian Library paperbacks, a portal through which I went on to discover Gabrielle Roy, Hugh LacLennan, Stephen Leacock, Marie-Claire Blais, and a half dozen other authors whose work I’d never read. NCL paperbacks were cheap, attractive, and were precisely what was needed to distinguish our literature selection at the new store.

After a complicated ordering process, six boxes of assorted NCL titles showed up one day a couple weeks before we opened. We signed the section “Canadian Fiction.” I had never seen that designation in any US bookshop and have never seen it since.

In retrospect, the gesture was a brave and pioneering one, but it ultimately floundered. David Schwartz wanted to know when “your Canadians” might appear on the weekly sales reports he studied. I began to cut a wide swath around the section as I moved through the store- with sales so tepid, there was no chance to freshen it up with reorders, and it was sad to see them unbrowsed.

Eventually the section was dismantled and parceled out to the general fiction section. When the store closed, some of the NCL’s turned up on sidewalk carts for fifty cents. I bought out the Ethel Wilsons, and keep a small stash of extra copies to send out to potential fans when I get to swapping “favorite obscure writer” stories.

I still don’t really understand why Can Lit- as its known north of the border- is such a tough sell south of it. But part of the blame rests with me, not the authors, or even American literary myopia.

Although I was an experienced bookseller, I’d forgotten bookselling truism number one: books don’t sell themselves. There are still many believers in the idea that books just call out to customers as they pass by (or flick by), but it takes a live bookseller to match up a reader with a book- especially something as exotic and unfamiliar as Can Lit.

Daniel and his booksellers at Boswell get that. They and all the other hand-selling dynamos in the nation’s successful bookstores are now in the relationship business as much as the book business.

Though the Schwartz store has been reincarnated, maybe I could ask for a re-do. Would a day on the floor to buttonhole patrons about all the Canadian literary goodness missing from their US-centric lives redeem me?