Monday, July 29, 2013

mayors who read, and managing my book flow

bookstores near the White House

President Obama goes to Amazon this week to sing its praises.  When he lived in Hyde Park he and his family spent hours in Seminary Coop Bookstore and 57th Street Books, and  I know he’s a book person.  So I wish he’d visit Politics & Prose or Busboys and Poets near the White House instead to shine the spotlight on true innovative heroes of local retail, rather than hyping this hideous mediocrity which eats small businesses for breakfast. 

One of my favorite overheard conversations during my trip across western Canada last week happened at Page’s on Kensington in Calgary.  The recent hellacious floods were fresh on everyone’s minds, and when Mayor Naheed Nenshi walked into the bookstore with his entourage while I was browsing, it was no surprise that the subject quickly came up.

A woman told him that part of her library had been wiped out.  Nenshi grimaced and said with a shudder that he didn’t know what he’d do if he lost his book collection.  “I wouldn’t know how to start, but I guess it might be interesting to decide which books are really important to you.”

An ordinary conversation about a shared event, but I was struck with the clear impression that this man is a true book-lover.  Although his visit to the shop was part of some roving photo-op down Kensington, he was clearly at home in the bookshop, and the look of horror on his face as he pondered the loss of a personal library seemed completely genuine, a glimpse behind the political mask.

The encounter reminded me of my days managing a downtown Milwaukee bookstore and another reader politician.  City Hall was a few blocks away, and our gangly, wonky mayor would amble in at lunch hour a couple times a week.  He was not a glad-hander, and people tended to give him space to browse like a normal person.  He and his wife had wide and interesting reading tastes, and, without trying to score “support your local business” points, quietly supported us by buying lots of books.

How many mayors today frequent their local bookshops?  How many cities still have downtown bookshops worth frequenting near City Hall?

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In advance of moving to a smaller space for the first time in 30 years, I’ve been on a personal library reduction project.  Happily, it’s not prompted by a natural disaster, but I agree with Mayor Nenshi that it’s very difficult to do triage on books that are and have been- let’s face it- my best friends.

Everyone has advice, but the most popular seems to be “trade one for one”- henceforth, every book I bring into the house has to be balanced by one going out.  But out where?  I have nothing against selling to used book dealers or donating to worthy causes, but it bothers me to think that some book with really special qualities will wind up in a jumble sale instead of finding the perfect reader match.

My neighbor Maria says she just gives away every book after she reads it, an elegant solution but not for me.  Others suggest cutting out topics in which I’ve lost interest.  But just picking up some of these books makes me interested all over again.  True, I could slim down by keeping just one edition by some of my pet authors.  Do I really need four copies of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A Father & His Fate?  Apparently, yes.

Just as I’d finally gotten my head around the need to be ruthless in culling my shelves, I read The Pope’s Bookbinder,  a completely charming memoir by David Mason, the dean of Toronto antiquarian book dealers.  His sly humor and passion about the idea of collecting made me see my library as the personal achievement that it is, and to ease up on the discards.

I began to think that maybe all I really need do is to put a hold on acquiring new books until the move.  

 But even that resolve was demolished when I walked into the superb Edmonton Bookstore last week, one of the finest second hand book dealers I’ve ever seen.   

After an hour I walked out with:

-          an autographed copy of Tim Buck’s memoirs (and the fact that the name will mean nothing to you is simply evidence of the sorry state of the Left);

-           a harcover copy of Swamp Angel by another of my unknown writer obsessions, Ethel Wilson;

-          and- I kid you not- a copy of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A Father & His Fate with a small note inside reading “Ethel Wilson’s copy.”  Sure enough, Wilson signed her name and the book is filled with her underlinings and marginal notes.  Perhaps she reviewed it, so now I’m on a quest for that.   

To appreciate the improbability of this coincidence, pick your two favorite obscure, out of print authors, who have no apparent connection with each other, and then imagine coming across one’s copy of the other’s book in a far-flung Canadian bookstore! 

Clearly, downsizing the book collection is not going to work.  Maybe the condo will accommodate more shelves after all.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Karl Pohrt

Writing about Jonathan Lear’s poignant Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation on January 1, 2000, Shaman Drum Bookstore founder Karl Pohrt called it “a wise book that illuminates human ingenuity and courage in the face of terrible vulnerability.”

Karl, who died last week, was a wise man who illuminated human ingenuity and courage in the face of terrible vulnerability.

To those book reps lucky enough to work with him, to the booksellers all over the world who were lucky enough to call him colleague, and to the readers and academics in the Ann Arbor community, the loss is hard to bear. 

This man was a bookselling dynamo who never let adversity- including the closing of his beloved Shaman Drum- diminish his enthusiasm for the next project.  For him books and life unspooled together, two sides of a möbius strip, and it was never clear where one started and the other ended.  His post-store travels and projects constitute a defiant NO to the gnawing away of literary culture, and an emphatic YES to the power of an individual to save books, reading and thinking itself.

By the time I began working for Harvard, MIT and Yale in 1998, Shaman Drum and Karl Pohrt were already nationally celebrated bookselling institutions.  But Karl treated our appointments with an astounding degree of humility and respect- for me, yes, but mainly for the books whose fate we were deciding.  There was something holy about the shrine-like store, and about our appointments- an unlikely description from a diehard atheist like me, but no other word fits.  He made sure others were at the table, that the collaborative qualities of bookselling were honored, but in the end this was several hours of communion with three wonderful lists of new titles each season.

“What you publish honors complexity,” he told me once- a high compliment.  Karl seemed to think that much of the world’s problems could be put down to either over-complicating the simple things, or over-simplifying the complex.  He valued books and people who got the balance right.

In a 2004 post, he described how he named his blog, There is No Gap:

A few years back I purchased a t-shirt with the message NO GAPS emblazoned on the front in sumi ink calligraphy. It is not an anti-globalization slogan attacking the Gap clothing chain—although I’ve no regrets if people think that’s what it means. Rather, it’s a statement about human possibility, about how we might conduct ourselves in the world if we were living optimally.

I bought the t-shirt at a Zen center in upstate New York, and the Roshi there talks occasionally about the tendency we have (especially those of us who can afford it) to back away from the intensity of life. A little of this is permissible of course, but the personal and social consequences of living at one remove from life too much of the time are ultimately disastrous. We can actually learn how to lean into the fire, the Roshi says. There shouldn’t be any gaps.

Ray McDaniel sent a note to the Shaman Drum Bookshop staff late this summer suggesting we consider what he calls entrance as opposed to escapist literature as a theme for our holiday catalog this year, and I choose to understand this as a different way of talking about the topic my t-shirt raises.

“What are those books that bring you closer to the world, make you more a part of it?” Ray asked.

Using books to enter rather than escape the world, ramping up the intensity, leaning in.  That’s Karl Pohrt.

Over the course of a decade’s meetings, during which we pored over thousands of new titles, trying to imagine customers for them in Ann Arbor, Karl’s own personal enthusiasms are most memorable to me. 

He adored Adina Hoffman’s vivid book on the poet Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, and made it an Ann Arbor sensation.

John Marzluff’s In the Company of Crows and Ravens just tickled him- “crows are such tricksters you know!”

He loved to listen to the audio version of Borges' This Craft of Verse as a way to reduce stress- “it always improves my mood,” he said.

And in fifteen years I never saw him as excited as he became over Staring Back, the Chris Marker photography book MIT did in 2007.  He claimed to have seen La Jetée and Sans Soleil forty times, and I believe him.

This fall, we have a new title on the Harvard list that I know would have made him jump for joy:  The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman.  An autobiography by Davi Kopenawa that turns the tables on white researchers and anthropologizes them, it’s a fantastic and utterly original voice.  The book is big and challenging, both simple and complicated, and I have no doubt that Karl would be nodding his head gravely and brainstorming promotional possibilities for it- including how to get a Brazilian rain forest shaman to Ann Arbor. 

Eventually I will have to accept the reality that I can’t call Karl to gush about this book which I know he would love.  I will pitch it with extra heart to others, which is all I can do to salute him.  Though I know Karl’s aura will reverberate in the book world and beyond for years to come, right now his absence feels like a very big gap indeed.