Sunday, July 1, 2012

the summer joys of bookstores

Last week I was asked to be on a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) in Chicago. This happened once before, twenty years ago, when AAUP was in a masochistic mood and invited opinionated booksellers to scold them about what they are doing wrong. Our bill of indictment then seems pretty innocuous: print ISBN’s on the books; improve your discount schedule; do something about freight costs.

Mission (mainly) accomplished on all three of those fronts. But the stakes at this year’s panel were much bigger, though somewhat masked by a deceptively gauzy title: “The Changing Bookstore Landscape.” No kidding!

It was a treat to share a podium with four of the smartest minds in contemporary bookselling. These were Bruce Miller, who represents a cornucopia of university presses to booksellers across the Midwest (and who is single-handedly leading the charge to save the University of Missouri Press); Cathy Schornstein, veteran Midwest Field Rep for HarperCollins, and someone who knows bookselling and repping inside out; Linda Bubon, of Women & Children First in Chicago, who somehow didn’t get the memo that feminist bookstores are dead and has transformed her wonderful neighborhood shop into a beloved community institution; and Jack Cella, manager of the legendary Seminary Coop Bookstores, who has ignored many such memos about the supposed hopelessness of academic bookselling, and will be moving the store into expanded quarters in Hyde Park this fall.

 I’d scoped out the space during the previous panel presentation. This was on something called “Meta Data.” The room was packed and everyone leaned forward wearing looks that might have been eagerness to learn or might have been desperation. It reminded me of going to ancient ABA panels on the rise of the CD-ROM, the feeling of “this is coming and we’d better know about it.”

The difference now is that “this”- the digital, the E, the Meta- really is coming, indeed its already crashed through the door. As I scanned the titles and affiliations beside the names of conference attendees, there were many incomprehensible job descriptions that all seemed to have to do with transforming books into data. I wondered who would come to a panel about yesterday, i.e. bookstores. Yet the room was packed and attentive. Granted, the first question was “what about E-books?”

 But the unifying theme of the presentations, which were optimistic without being sugar-coated, was that physical bookstores selling physical books are here to stay. Indeed, the great digital turn may even end up being a boon to booksellers. And that bookstores need university presses.

There were many interesting comments and ideas presented. But my favorite, which cropped up in a variety of ways, was the idea of the bookstore as a locus of discovery. Online search is an incredibly useful tool for finding what you think you want. But the bookstore remains the place to find what you didn’t know you wanted.

 I had the luck to follow up all this hard thinking in Chicago with a visit to several excellent bookstores during a round of sales calls in St Louis and Iowa City. I wish there had been a way to simply put a typical buying session between a university press rep and an experienced indie bookseller up on that stage. It might have been a revelation to anyone doubting the continued viability of traditional bookselling. But when my meetings were finished and I got to put on my customer hat for an hour, the idea of the bookstore as a place for random book revelation really hit home.

At Left Bank Books, I stumbled upon a Penguin Classics edition of Ernest Poole’s The Harbor, “the 1915 socialist masterpiece by the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.” I’d dimly heard of him. It looks fantastic. Thanks to Kris Kleindienst for stocking it!

Subterranean Books in University City is one of my favorite kinds of stores- small, selective, and every title seems hand-picked. Here I saw and instantly coveted a resurrected classic called High Street. First published in 1938, it’s a quirky, young adultish illustrated survey of the shops on a typical British High Street by architectural historian J. M. Richards. The plates were destroyed in the London blitz and it’s been unavailable for decades. This is right up my friend Daniel Goldin’s alley but it may be a keeper. Thank you Subterranean!

 At Prairie Lights in Iowa City, where it’s nearly impossible to get out of the store without an armload of surprises, Paul Ingram made sure I paid attention to Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, the new story collection by Etgar Keret. He knows his customer’s reading tastes and he knows mine, and though I may have eventually crossed paths with Keret I was glad to do it here.

 On to Iowa Book around the corner, where Matt Lage curates the finest remainder selection west of the Mississippi. Remainders get a bad rap, and for some good reasons. They are inevitably monuments to failure. But the fact is that there are lots of deserving books that get a third lease on life on the bargain table. My haul from Matt: Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (this is a book I’d almost bought when it came out, and almost bought again in paper, but really couldn’t say no to a third time at 6.98); Jacques Godbout’s Québécois classic Le Couteau sur la table, which I can add to my growing collection of Canadian novels in French that I never actually finish; and The Great Iowa Touring Book: 27 Spectacular Auto Trips. It’s a beautiful state. Who can resist it at 4.98?

Finally, the bricks and mortar general used bookstore is the last to get any love in the book industry ecosystem. Yet when you step into one like Murphy-Brookfield in Iowa City (especially when the thermometer reads 106 outside) it’s impossible to deny that we need them. I struck serendipitous gold there in two ways. First, I found an early novel by one of my new favorite authors, South African Damon Galgut. Second, I found a treasure trove of old Virago Classics. This popular series of mainly unheralded British women novelists was an eighties phenomenon. They’ve been superseded by the wonderful Persephone Press line from the UK, which- scandal! - do not have a US distributor.

The Viragos are as addictive as candy, and to leave Iowa City with Winifred Holtby, Emily Holmes Coleman, Lettice Cooper, Pamela Frankau, E. Arnot Robertson and Laura Talbot was as pleasant a book surprise as I could have ever anticipated.

I’m glad that the university presses are paying attention and doing what they need to do to adapt to the demands of the digital future. And I hope that everyone who works for a university press drops by an actual bookstore regularly to remember why we’re doing it all in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. I attended that meeting, and enjoyed the discussion. Thank you.