Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rep road: dateline Ann Arbor

After a couple mad weeks spent nailing down appointments, writing up notes, mailing catalogs, feeding Edelweiss, chasing down missing minutiae, overcome by a chronic feeling of Not Ready, I packed up the Golf and took the fall lists out on their virgin sales tour today.

When the moment comes to actually close the office door and head out selling I breathe a deep sigh of relief- though, of course, in the new digital economy, when is the office door really closed?  When all is said and done the actual visits to bookstores and museum shops, the meetings with buyers, the eyewitness experience of seeing our books come to life out in the world is the most satisfying part of being a book rep, and the most fun.

When I’m in sales calls all week, the other varied aspects of sales rep-dom have to take a back seat.  Textbook desk copy requests?  Not my department.  My opinion on the latest in-house big idea?  Thanks for including us but too busy to think about it right now.  And you people who I never hear from all year but wait until I’m away for three weeks to fax me an urgent order: DON’T!  I won’t see it until your event is over!  (Yes, I have heard of digital faxing.  But haven’t they heard of email?)

Part of what makes the actual selling season feel liberating is that I plan it to the hilt.  Where I’m staying, how I’m getting there, and where I’m going next is laid out in exquisite detail.  Of course events intervene, but I feel most free and able to devote maximum psychic energy to the appointments when all the logistics can be left to unfold on their own.  (This reminds me a bit of my friend Jennifer’s belief in the power of constraints as the key to freeing up writer’s block.)

This trip will be a bit challenging and I will try to do a Dear Blog on it daily, something I’ve never done.  When you’re in several bookstores a day, surely something noteworthy enough to note will happen.  My plan is to drive to London, Burlington and Hamilton Ontario this week, to stay in Toronto next week for six days of meetings, to take the relatively luxurious (vs. Amtrak) VIA Rail train to Ottawa next Friday, then to train again to Kingston Ontario, then by train again to Montreal for a few days of appointments, then to fly for an overnight to Halifax, returning to Pearson Airport in Toronto where I will have left my car. 

Today, enroute to London,  I paid a visit to one of the nicest new bookshops I’ve seen in awhile- Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.  If bookshops were appreciated in this culture as they should be, a city like Ann Arbor should have a dozen.  In a just book world, the legendary Shaman Drum Bookshop, Karl Pohrt’s irreplaceable shrine to books, one of the only retail environments ever to make this diehard atheist feel a sense of reverence and awe, would still be standing.  There are several fine bookshops in the area, but Literati fills that downtown gap.   

When you spend as much time in bookstores as reps do, it’s easy to scan the shelves and make a snap judgment, and we can be tough.  But these people are serious, and they labored over every detail.  The books themselves seem hand-picked, they are displayed with love,  and the building is sensational- huge glass windows flood the main floor with light, and the noirish lower level has a cozy, retro, basement rec room feel.  I was at home in the place after spending ten minutes in it.  That busy downtown corner with a smart bookshop on it now makes me jealous for all the cities that don’t have one.

One other Literati detail blew my mind.  As a bookseller, I remember struggling with issues of section signage- what to call each category, how big to make it, where it belongs in the store.  All of these aspects are malleable, but section headings tend to be permanent: F-I-C-T-I-O-N plastered on with paint or carved in wood or otherwise permanently etched can subtly make you start filling the section rather than letting it inhale and exhale, or even change names, as time demands.

At Literati, problem solved: section headings are inscribed in chalk across a band of slate that runs along the whole wall above the shelves.  It’s easy to change and adapt headings, or to add playful detail, or to upgrade fiction to L-I-T-E-R-A-T-U-R-E on a whim with a little chalk.  Nicely done!  That’s idea of the year material.

On to London.  The customs guy didn’t even give me a funny look when I said I sell books like they sometimes do.  On the radio, the dulcet tones of CBC News. 

But wait, what’s this?  VIA Rail strike called for the day I leave for Ottawa??  Stay tuned.

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