Sunday, June 30, 2013

92 things booksellers said about our new fall books this month

Paul Ingram, Prairie Lights Iowa City (one of a dozen bookseller contributors to my sales call notes below)

Would she come to Milwaukee?
Love it but wish it were shorter.
Love it but wish it were cheaper.
Fantastic cover.
I hate that cover.
Why is he spending his time doing blurbs instead of finishing the third book in his trilogy I’ve been waiting for?
It’s a big year for Letters.
People just eat this kind of thing up.
My Science bookseller is salivating already over this.
Wow, I’d love to eavesdrop on their dinner conversation.
This guy is a workhorse.
“The Alexander Hamilton of China,” I love that.
This would be tough.
That explanation is really complicated and I don’t have time to use it on a customer.
Special Needs, Family/Parenting or Memoir/Biography?
This seems like just stating the obvious.
Looks more like a Nature book than Fiction.
Whoever’s idea that was to do these as flapped paperbacks, thank you!
Great package, great price, I can’t not take it.
So the kid’s name is Henry Adams?
The best cheat-proofing idea ever is the oral exam.
Anything about Nietzsche really works
That author was just in the store last week!
These color catalog pages are really hard to write on.
Harvard should reprint that Foucault biography.
Kathryn Bigelow?  The Director? Really?
These sell really well when we face them out.
Huh!  Interesting…..
I’m mystified.  What should I do with this?
“Responsibility to one’s future self,” what an intriguing idea.
There’s no limit to the number of Proust translations we can handle.
God, another Proust translation?
Where would a book on the Danube go geographically?  Eastern or Western Europe section?
This could be huge!
A shame that’s such a bad discount.
That man is a good customer and a sweetheart.
That has front page New York Times Book Review written all over it.
We have monthly chamber music concerts in the shop.  This is perfect.
I already have too many picture books about penguins.
By November nobody will be talking about anything else.
Oh good, do you know Evil Men?
I just don’t think we have a customer for this [sigh]
I know the perfect customer for this.
Too historical.
Maybe Yale can break him out better than Cambridge could.
Clinicians just aren’t that interested in memoirs.
All the shrinks know their Shakespeare.
I just bought 1600 books on checkers from a collector!
Achebe, he’s a hero.
When a book works, it really works.
This is our kind of book.
We never really know what people are going to want.
Great subject but too bad about “American” in the subtitle.
That sounds a little like Rebecca Solnit.
Such an important argument, glad someone’s making it.
This just seems insanely wonderful.
I heard he had a falling out with Dennis Cooper!
I actually kind of like that cover.
Graffiti is so hot right now.
I wish we had more interest in abstract expressionism.
Yes it’s a kimono but it has a bold, twenties, hip retro feel.
We can’t sell Matisse anymore, I don’t know why.
Good book design never hurts.
Oh I just hate to return a good book.
Last year was horrible, this year is great.
It’s a Bo Bardi year!
The more hardcore, the better for us.
Economics with an Asian flavor does really well.
Zizek is our most stolen philosopher.
Sounds quirky, we like that.
The tourists seem more interested in Starbucks than in buying a book.
I fear there’s less than meets the eye to this book.
$35 for 174 pages?
This cover doesn’t look like a book you’d want to read.
I love that the people he’s criticizing are our customers.
Excellent!  Marilynne Robinson is one!
Isn’t it a little premature to say the Surge worked?
He died so young!

Friday, June 21, 2013

rep road: dateline halifax

Eighteen days is a long time to be away from home, partner, dog, books, Milwaukee.   By the time I got to Halifax I fear my fatigue was showing a bit, but it’s a great city with a fantastic bookstore, so I got my second- or was it third- wind.

One complaint: the airport is practically in another province (they put it so far away to avoid the fog, I was told today), and the only shuttle bus went bankrupt last year.  So the only way to get into the city is a $70 cab ride!  Someone at the airport thought there might be a municipal bus that stops everywhere, but they were vague about it.  Surely a more efficient link to the airport is a piece of infrastructure worth investing in.  C’mon Halifax.

I’m not here enough to be loyal to any particular hotel, and they are all pretty steep in summertime.  Trip Advisor bargain roulette yielded the Atlantica, a sprawling touristy place on the far side of the Citadel.  I had a Keith’s at the bar with some elderly people from Louisiana who were scouting ancestors (“her idea,” the husband snarled.)  They didn’t believe me when I told them the new Canadian money was plastic until I showed them a twenty dollar bill.

My meeting with the Book Mark buyer wins best venue award for the season- the Halifax Public Gardens cafĂ© on one of the balmiest days of the year.  It was a little hard to concentrate, since the nearest tree was a monumental centuries-old oak (I think), and the rest of the landscape is also stunning.   Hard to ignore such wonders when we’re trying to sort out game studies books that might work.  It’s a great appointment with lots of digressions, but we kept returning to the catalogs.  Mike is one of those veteran buyers who, despite having done this for a long while, seems to approach each book with curiosity and an eye for its potential.  Our conversation is a tonic.

I thought it was interesting when he said that Philosophy and Architecture were two sections of the store where customers actually compliment them on the selection.  This is in contrast to some other sections (fiction especially) which seem to invite very detailed critiques from certain customers.  These self-appointed sticklers, who can't believe you've shelved author X in section Y, or that you haven't got title Z on hand,  are familiar to every good indie bookseller.  I still bitterly recall the local photography diva who once handed me a list of the titles he felt were missing from our Photo section when I was a bookseller.  He hadn’t actually bought a book from us in years.

But perhaps there’s something positive about these people.  They keep us on our toes, force us to look at the way we do things, and maybe even signal a sense of ownership about the shop that’s an asset, something worth cultivating.  I feel that way about my local food co-op.  Hard to imagine cranky customers calling Amazon to complain about a section designation.  Or getting a response.

My US bookseller friends should remember to raise a bottle (Alexander Keith’s, St Ambroise or Boreale if you can find it) to their fantastic comrade Canadian booksellers on Canada Day July 1!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

rep road: dateline montreal

What are the chances?  After enduring snickers in Toronto over our excellent new book If Mayors Ruled the World because of the unbelievably unlikely circumstance that Toronto's mayor was - allegedly- caught on video doing crack cocaine, I arrived in Montreal to the news that its mayor had been arrested on corruption charges earlier in the day.  I hereby give up trying to understand Canadian municipal politics; I long ago gave up idealizing them.

Aside from the crooked mayor, everything else about Montreal is a joy.  More than any other city I know, it just works for me.

Despite cramming all my appointments into two days, everything went like clockwork.  The booksellers here are a dream to work with, and getting around between meetings is a pleasant adventure.  My only regret is that I couldn't visit some stores I normally like to see.

My last appointment was with the tiny in size but big in literary ambition Argo Bookstore on Ste-Catherine.  I've celebrated this collective of young book woshippers before, but this time I was a little awestruck by how seriously they ponder every title.  Their buying decisions are one part enthusiasm and one part intimately knowing their customers.

At other stores, when they say "I have a customer for that," I sometimes have a feeling they have in mind a customer type rather than an actual bookbuying human being.  Something like " this seems like the type of book that the type of people who frequent our store might stumble on and buy."  

Nothing wrong with that, but at Argo, there is incredible specificity about it- my impression is that most of the books they order are with selected with very particular potential buyers in mind.  

Can a bookstore be viable when it's stocked for the reading tastes of a collection of specific individuals?  To be determined.  But it makes for a very satisfying sales call.  And I never get out of there without being sold something that eerily matches one of my own pet interests.  The argonauts may be the bookselling model of the future (and, oddly, the past.)

Oh Montreal, how I love you.  My friend Mariann the ayurvedic pracitioner prescribed dates for my stress, and there on the corner I find a wonderful Syrian grocer with dates galore.

The sun shines on the island in special way, the morning and evening rays blaze from surprising angles.  (Look at a map, the island is oriented north-south though the streets are laid out as if east-west.)

Even public spats in Montreal are more entertaining.  As I ate my pizza this evening the couple beside me exchanged heated words in alternating French and English.  It turns out that the man was angry because the woman had written a letter of complaint about roaches in their apartment to the real estate company, but had sent a photo of a single roach.

"Why didn't you show it next to a loonie?" he demanded.  "You have to be able to show how big it is!  If you're going to attack a big company, you have to go drama drama drama!"

Like I said, Montreal, je l'adore.

Monday, June 17, 2013

rep road: dateline kingston ontario

today's lesson: acceptance.  I left Ottawa early on Sunday in a good mood.  I'd booked a room for one night downtown, near my bookstore appointment and the gorgeous waterfront.  I decided to just get there early and to spend the day soaking up local color.

The weather deteriorated and I drove through a monsoon that only got worse as I headed southwest, white knuckle hydroplaning down highway 15.  But I made it to Kingston by noon.

It was pouring even harder in town, rivers of water gushing down streets, my umbrella useless.  But I made a dash for a coffee shop, where the service was rude, and I was already cranky.  "My car, like, broke down last night," bored-with-me waitress said to another server as she held out change in my general direction.  

I was so tempted to ask "Did it actually break down or just "like" break down, because there's a big difference?"   Instead I transferred my hostility to a disturbed man who, eerily, had the same line of bother as the guy who hangs out all day in the Starbux next to Boswell Books in Milwaukee  " Where did you go to high school?" he asked every single person who came in.  I just thought, get me out of here.

The next frustration was even more serious because it was such a rookie rep mistake.  Kingston is packed in summer so it was hard to find a reasonable hotel room.  (Note to self: someday find out a little more about all this history.)  

But the Green Acres (sic) got good Trip Advisor ratings, and it's right on Princess Street, so why not?  i booked it two months ago.  

When it wasn't where I thought it would be I checked my paperwork, only to find in horror that It wasn't 240 Princess Street,  but 2400 Princess.  Major difference.  This put it out on an obnoxious stretch of fast food, big box, six lane exurbian highway, about as far from quaint British army history and cute architecture as you can get.  

No cancellations allowed, and everything downtown booked anyway.  Deep breath, go with the flow, surrender.  If I'd taken the train it would have been much worse to be stranded out there. 

The amazing thing is that it was a cool and charming place.  Feels like an old fifties motel, updated but not fancy and twee.  The people are very nice, the rooms are clean, and despite the highway I heard birds singing in the morning.

And to put MY problems in perspective, I arrived at Novel Idea for my appointment only to find a giant hole outside the store and Princess Street closed for blocks as construction equipment did their best to scare customers away.  This has been going on for awhile.  It's every street retailers nightmare.

Please everybody, if a store you love and patronize becomes a construction  zone, increase your patronage accordingly.  They will be grateful, and you will help insure that they are still there for you when it's over.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

rep road: dateline ottawa

Small mistake on my arrival in Ottawa: I mistook the national RCMP Headquarters for the Hampton Inn and drove right past the guard booth. Yes,  the booth should have been a tip-off but I thought it was a parking attendant.  An officer politely called me back, and politely showed me the hotel across the road, which, in my defense, did bear a resemblance. As I drove off I thought about how I'd likely be in custody (or worse) had I tried to drive into the FBI compound.

My last visit to Ottawa was on the coldest two days of the year, so I took advantage of the sunshine and walked to my appointment at the National Gallery- farther than it looks on the map, but through some interesting neighborhoods.

Ottawa is so strange. On one level, it's a national capital, and an international city. You pass a gorgeous old 19th Century French building, perhaps a former school or mental institution, and find that it's now the Chinese Embassy.

But on another level, Ottawa feels like it could be a midwestern rural commercial center of 50,000 people. There are modest blocks of old houses right up to the edge of the complex of big government buildings downtown. My favorite image of the day: a woman hanging laundry to dry in her backyard, just a few feet from the imposing back wall of the Saudi Consulate.

The National Gallery Bookshop is excellent, thanks to a superb buyer. As I arrived, the store was swarming with ninth graders on a field trip. I was feeling judgmental and depressed about how it was more about horsing around- "dude, check this out- Nude Sculptures!"- than art appreciation.
But then I noticed a couple nerdy loners lost in art book bliss, and remembered that this is how it seems to go with books, art, music, culture. Most of these kids will go on with their lives and, maybe, remember something about that visit to the Art Museum; but with luck, for one or two, the discovery might be life-changing, and maybe life-saving.

By the time I got back to the hotel, on a no-man's land stretch of Vanier, my resolution to not get back behind a wheel was at war with my hunger. I asked a man folding towels in the basement where he would go if he wanted pizza, and he suggested Lorenzo's, a walkable distance. His recommended route took me through an interesting working-class neighborhood and, there, on a corner, was a little family-run bar/restaurant with excellent fare. Finding something like that when stuck in hotel hell is a victory to be savored.

Saturday morning couldn't have been better. I worked for several hours with the vivacious Lisa of Octopus Books in her charming backyard in the Glebe neighborhood. She loves Dr Pepper so I stopped to pick up a pack, along with a newspaper. The check-out woman glanced at the headline on the Globe and Mail, and said " so do you think Obama's going to go into Syria?" I was so taken aback I didn't know what to say. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been asked anything other than paper or plastic in a supermarket, and I was very close to slipping into some foolish generalization about how much smarter Canada must be. But Lisa said this was extraordinary- she shops at that store and nothing like it has ever happened.

Wandered through an art fair, took a bus back up to the National Gallery to see the fantastic indigenous art exhibit, then over to Beechwood Books, which were having a local author event and packed. Planning ahead, I picked up groceries at Loblaw's and spent the evening inside catching up on notes, reading, and pondering what new goals I could have for my annual performance review this week, while trying to remember last year's.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

rep road: dateline Toronto (4)

Wrapped up the week in Toronto with a delicious and badly needed home cooked meal with my predecessor and friends David and Maria, who are a trove of local bookselling history.
Despite all the current challenges, and at least one big disappointment on every trip (can it really be true that the Art Gallery of Ontario is sacrificing it's excellent book department to more jewelry, umbrellas and toys?), the bookselling community in Toronto would be the envy of many cities.
While every veteran book person can ratlle off a list of the late, great stores which are no more, I was kept extremely busy all week hopping amongst some pretty fine ones which still very much are. 
Contemporary Torontonians can choose their books from an excellent chain of neighborhood indies (a business model that has all but evaporated in the states); from a superb, expertly selected shrine to new books in the financial district; from several still excellent academic stores; from (if you hurry) one of the finest Art Museums in North America; from two of the most eccentric used bookstores I've ever been in; from a wonderful, quirky and completely delightful shop in the Queen West neightborhood, and another one in High Park; and from a host of specialty shops, boasting the finest collection of books on film I've ever seen, to an excellent design and architecture shop, to two bookshops featuring books on cooking and food. And surely I'm forgetting someone. (oh right, Indigo and Chapters. If you like candles and incense with your literature.) 
Add to this the finest public library system in North America, and I'm quite jealous. Given the number of large and medium-sized cities that have become book deserts, I hope the people of Toronto appreciate their good book fortune.
My plan to travel the next few legs of my journey by train were stymied by Via Rail's inflexible bargaining tactics with it's customer service workers, who had called a strike for yesterday, the morning I was to leave. VIA Rail kept sending me confusing emails saying they are certain there won't be a strike, but if there is a strike my train will still be running, but that if I'd like a refund I'd only be able to get it in advance. 
I'm a knee-jerk pro-union guy, except when it comes to my own convenience. So in truth I had decided to take my chances. I didn't even know what the issues were.
But then I read an article about what the workers were asking and realized this is just a variation on the "demonize and penalize public workers" approach that's become so routine at home. The difference here is that the union still has enough clout to bully back a little. I haven't been faced with a decision to cross a picket line in the US in a long while because there are no strikes.
My father worked in a factory and was in the union when I was a child. He earned a decent wage and some benefits for the time, but at some point he got a promotion and was made "a company man," which seemed like an achievement to my mom, though to my sisters and I it just meant that we couldn't go to the fun union picnic. 
But somehow along the way, I absorbed a kind of moral/ethical idea about strikes being sacred. Workers don't resort to them casually. And in this climate where they are always the ones being asked to do the sacrificing, I decided I couldn't enjoy a train ride with that on my conscience. So I cashed in my tickets and rented a car.
The strike was (for now) settled at the last possible moment, so I could have avoided scab-dom aft all. But It was a useful exercise in reviewing my core beliefs. 
And anyway, isn't this situation not so different than what booksellers are asking their customers to do all the time? To think beyond price and convenience. To ponder in a more complex way their commercial actions. To consider buying the book from the indie shop for all the added value they get from its existence rather than online. Or to consider not buying the T- shirt at all if you suspect it's been made in a Bangla Desh sweatshop.
The drive to Ottawa was beautiful, and I didn't feel like a hypocrite when I arrived.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

rep road: dateline toronto (3)

There’s one title on the new Yale list which is eliciting groans, guffaws and sarcastic remarks as I pitch it to Toronto booksellers.  It’s not the fault of the book.  It’s a serious argument by a serious scholar that the problems of the world are better solved by cities than at the state, provincial and federal level.  Debatable, but not especially controversial.

But what’s provoking the sad head-shaking here is the title: If Mayors Ruled the World. The wonderful city of Toronto is currently being ruled by a buffoonish gasbag, a civic embarrassment, and it’s the thought of this particular mayor extending his reign in a global direction that has my booksellers choking on  their coffee.  (Professionals that they are, they haven’t taken it out on the book and it's advancing nicely.)

Rob Ford bullied his way into office and has been something of a laughing-stock, offering up gaffes and scandals on a regular basis.  The latest devastating blow-up features the mayor in a video apparently doing crack.   His critics, in disbelief, demand his resignation; his supporters- 30% of the voters at least- only seem to love him more with every new fiasco.

Ford would be a very familiar type to US voters.  He’s a right wing populist who has built a career railing against “the elites,” despite his own life of privilege; he thrives on playing off and playing up popular resentments, driving wedges between communities wherever he finds an opening; and he and his supporters are most at home in a perpetual state of raw victimization, usually by “the media.”

But this is Canada.  Toronto!  The home of Jane Jacobs,, and (still) one of the most robust centers of sustainable urban politics in North America.  How did Rob Ford happen here? 

I’m no expert, but apparently life really changed after the five large neighboring communities surrounding Toronto- Missisauga, Etobicoke, several others- were amalgamated into one big city in the past decade.  Suddenly, the political character of what we’ve known as “Toronto” is now largely determined by voters who don’t really live in the city, and harbor a laundry list of resentments against it.  For my local Milwaukee friends, this would be like combining Waukesha County with Milwaukee- imagine the type of mayor they’d saddle us with.

Anyway, all very sad for a city many of us love and look to for cutting-edge urban solutions.  I’m assured by some smart booksellers here that it can’t last, that he was elected on a backlash against a previous mayor, and that there are some fine candidates in the wings.

But meanwhile, I will continue to cringe a little as I get to page 39 in my catalog, knowing that the title will inevitably be read by my buyer- for one scary moment- as If Rob Ford Ruled the World.