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?

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