Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rep Night 2011

One of my favorite fall events is Rep Night at Boswell Books, and this year’s version was especially sweet.

The New York Times can’t seem to let a week go by without another breathless article extolling our digital book future. Every new device is an excuse to rehash the supposedly inevitable: e-books up, print books down, professional booksellers, editors and publishers- who needs them, really?

But then you talk to a big group of smart, motivated retailers who have gathered to hear about new titles on a rainy Sunday night, some of them from forty miles away, and it’s hard to imagine these cultural gatekeepers disappearing just because there’s a new delivery system for books. Oops, I mean content.

The independent booksellers of southeastern Wisconsin are an ecumenical lot, and the forty who turned out to share dinner (Beans & Barley, yum) and to hear four reps pitch their wares Sunday night came from three stores: Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, and Books & Company in Oconomowoc.

I’ve attended dozens of rep nights, first as a bookseller at Harry W Schwartz Bookshops, then, for the past decade or so, as a rep. The Schwartz version, which initially convened in David & Carol's living room, was somewhat more confrontational than the current model. David loved to put reps on the hot seat, and if he thought they hadn’t properly explained or defended a book, they’d be subject to a socratic inquisition- sometimes while the rest of the booksellers squirmed in their seats.

Luckily (for the reps), we had no challenges from Daniel, Lanora and Lisa about conglomerate takeovers or other publishing issues beyond our humble control the other night. But the old Schwartz events were lovely, comradely, wine-soaked evenings where younger booksellers got a glimpse of what devoting a life to books might look like. The presentations ran the gamut, from an evening where we gathered (literally) at the feet of the legendary editor Elizabeth Sifton, to an upbeat screening of something called Max Headroom (for which Random House was doing a book) projected on something called “video.” We’re talking mid-eighties. Does that make rep night a tradition?

By this point in the season I could present the fall list in my sleep. I’ve mostly overcome an incapacitating shyness before groups, and I know many of these booksellers personally (these are my neighborhood stores!), so no need for angst. Still, prepping for rep night is always nerve-wracking.

There’s the challenge of picking the right books to pitch. One Schwartzian rule that is still in force: don’t talk about the obvious, the best-sellers, the big commercial books. Though this is sadly not a huge problem for my presses, the point is to highlight the quirky gems, the giftworthy, and the quietly compelling titles that might otherwise get lost.

Added to that challenge this time is the mix of stores represented. Though best-seller lists are depressingly uniform from region to region, there really are different demographics for each unique bookshop. I wanted to make sure I included something for everyone.

My rep colleagues for the evening, pros all, are from HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Fuji, a commission group with loads of smart books. I’m sometimes a little jealous that they have such a range of fiction, kids’ books, cookbooks and other popular genres to choose from. But I have the evening’s market cornered on brainy history, biography, and politics.

The other constraint which ratchets up the pressure a bit: though there’s time for socializing, we each have just 20 minutes to speak. Our presses and editors are so good at preparing us that I could rattle on for 20 minutes about one title. But the limit is a useful reminder that floor booksellers don’t have that luxury with customers, so if a book can’t be captured in a few sentences, a handsell is unlikely. I try to be brief. Less is more, less is more.

Ultimately I winnow my list to about ten titles. These are a combination of my personal cream of the crop mixed with solid books I think they can sell. I have a personal rule that I won’t pitch a book that I can’t hold and show, so I reluctantly skip over some late season goodies.

I lead with the new illustrated edition of Ernst Gombrich’s incredibly successful (and charming) A Little History of the World. Everyone knows this book. But I immediately feel as if I’ve used too much time on it. But a perfect segue into Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy (violating my own rule- my copies arrived the next day.)

I can't say enough about David Margolick’s profound Elizabeth & Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. I loved this and notice heads nodding. I’m connecting! I meld into Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen, even though this will likely be a book mainly for the urban store. But wait a minute- I sold this in Saskatoon! And a white male bookseller friend of mine read it while on jury duty and loved it. So this is for you too Oconomowoc and Mequon!

The Snowy Day & the Art of Ezra Jack Keats was a quiet, back of catalog sort of book but so sweet that I couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about something both arty and kid-themed.

Harvard outdoes itself with each new edition in its Annotated series and people sold Pride & Prejudice well, so Persuasion took very little, um, persuasion. But there are so many Dickens books, the trick in presenting Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens was distinguishing it from the pack. This is where being able to vouch for smooth writing counts.

I wasn’t going to mention Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers except that when I saw the finished product it was too beautiful to let it pass without comment. I edge out on the limb a bit further and say I think this will be the intellectual, big idea, literary biography of the season.

Two wonderful, playful, impulsey titles from MIT get smiles in the front row: 101 Things to Learn in Art School, and Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City. I noted the latter’s many book arts virtues- printed in Germany, cloth ribbon, irresistible heft. This is an audience that appreciates production values.

It’s getting late. I notice one bookseller who is usually a Harvard/MIT/Yale fan yawning, so I need to pick up the pace. Perhaps channeling David Schwartz, I throw in one last mention- Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World. True, it’s not exactly a stocking stuffer. But that very morning the Times ran a review of a new biography of Marx and his wife Jenny, and the reviewer lamented that what we really need is a good book on the history of his ideas. People, this is that book! Will it sell at Next Chapter and Books & Co, which are located in the two most conservative counties in the state? Won’t it be fun to try?

There are three more rep nights ahead, but since I'm no longer a bookseller I don't get to go. I get a little dewy-eyed about our profession when I see all these young and old booksellers coming out on their own time just to get some good handselling ideas from my colleagues and me.

I don’t know what we’ll be holding and showing at these events when and if books become electronic blips on a screen; but I’m pretty sure these passionate booksellers will still be turning out to hear us.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

elizabeth, hazel, and the help

I guess it’s time to see The Help. It was and is such a buzz book in the stores. People I know who normally disdain pop culture have told me, in a kind of confidential whisper, “You really should see it.” And now my 84 year old mother, who never goes to movies, saw it with my sisters and exited the theater in tears.

I was intrigued by my friend Sue Zumberge’s description of conversations she’d had about the book with African-American and white customers in her St Paul store, Common Good Books. While some black readers and viewers have loved the book, others have been bothered by the idea of a white woman writing and owning this story. This seems to me a dead end argument that, carried to its logical conclusion, would make our literary landscape even more ghettoized than it already is.

But the more interesting critique is the suspicion that, as one black viewer put it, “this is a feel good movie for white people.” Reading this, I could almost hear defensive hackles bristling across the land, as well-meaning white New York Times readers encountered and dismissed the idea. But I think it's a profound idea, and it gets to the heart of our stubborn contemporary perceptual divide when it comes to race.

For many whites, slavery and Jim Crow are long lost historical artifacts, and no need to dwell on them. Nasty and embarrassing, sure, but we can't feel personally responsible for social atrocities committed by our great-grandparents generation. (And of course, our particular relatives are never implicated anyway.)

The self-evident truth that racism continues to operate in every area of our lives is met with indignant skepticism. Indeed, there’s a ludicrous but increasingly confident movement asserting that white people are the new oppressed minority.

Meanwhile, for African-Americans, racism and oppression are not just a piece of unpleasant history, swept aside in 2008 by an enlightened electorate. The most repugnant, institutionalized practices were routine until not that long ago. The legacy of racism has never been honestly confronted in the manner of, say, the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission. And by any of hundreds of statistical measurements, not to mention one’s own eyes and ears, racial bias continues to undermine aspirations in Black communities across the land, the Obamas in the White House notwithstanding.

The premature rush to pronounce racism dead, the declarations that we don’t need affirmative action programs anymore, the puzzled frustration on the part of some whites with blacks who won’t just forgive, forget and move on- these attitudes understandably elicit skepticism among black people about the sincerity and degree of true acceptance behind them.

One great way to help understand the debate can be found in David Margolick’s excellent new book Elizabeth & Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, just released from Yale.

If you don’t recognize the names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery, you’re forgiven. But if you don’t know their story, you should.

When Little Rock Central High School was desegregated in 1957, with the help of court orders and the National Guard, the nine brave fifteen-year old black students who attempted to attend were surrounded each day by screaming, hateful mobs of whites. In one shocking photo that quickly became iconic, a stoic young black woman calmly carries a notebook as she walks to the building; directly behind her, wearing a face contorted by rage and hate, a young white woman spits epithets.

Elizabeth and Hazel.

As I’ve sold this book for the past three months, I’ve been surprised at how fuzzy memories have become about this episode. Booksellers of a certain age recognized it immediately, but younger booksellers often listened to this story as if hearing it for the first time. (This alone speaks volumes about how well we’re teaching this history.)

Margolick is a master journalist, and the book works as a refresher course on the early days of the civil rights movement through the lens of the Little Rock events. But what makes it keenly relevant to the discussion sparked by The Help is the evolving, unlikely personal relationship between the two women.

Incredibly, both grew up and continued to live in Little Rock, unknown to each other. But after 30 years, Hazel Bryant picked up the phone and called Elizabeth Eckford, and asked for her forgiveness. A twenty-plus year adult relationship ensues, a friendship that veers from kumbaya to fracture and back again. One of the main fault lines in their personal story, as in our current national conversation, has to do with trust and sincerity.

Despite Hazel’s heartfelt and seemingly genuine atonement, Elizabeth begins to suspect that she doesn’t grasp the enormity of the injustice of which she’s been a part. Initially, Hazel clings to the notion that she really didn’t know why she was part of the mob, she was just following along, she was only fifteen and, indeed, racism may not have even been her motive. Elizabeth doubts this conveniently na├»ve narrative, and begins to withhold the easy forgiveness she’s being asked to confer.

When I first approached this manuscript, I expected and wanted a story that would build to an Oprah-like finale. If these two women could find peace and friendship, why can’t we all? That is, a feel good moment for white people.

Instead, Margolick has given us much more- a richly textured, profoundly personal historical snapshot, complete with all the ambiguities and loose ends that inform our continuing racial divide. The photo may be from 1957, but, as the skewed reactions to stories like Kathryn Stockett’s book and film make clear, the image still resonates in 2011.