Friday, October 11, 2013

book notes from the heartland fall forum

 It sounds like a right-wing think tank, but it felt like a Midwest indie bookseller family reunion.  The Heartland Fall Forum convened in Rosemont, Illinois last weekend and brought together the two branches of the family, the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association and the Midwest Independent  Booksellers Association for a couple days of shop talk and schmoozing.  Like other publishers, I had a table on Saturday and showed off my wares.  Herewith a few anecdotes.

When reps talked with each other, the subject was typically jobs (ours), the economy, and the end game; when I talked with booksellers, the topics tended to be books, events, the workshops they’d just come from, and some new ideas they’d picked up.  Interesting.

Trying to psych out the reasons a book catches someone’s eye is hopeless.  I get a bite on an MIT science title, The Outer Limits of Reason, from Twin Cities bookselling icon David Unowsky, so I launch into my spiel about it.  He listens patiently and then says “I was just interested because you know the author’s name (Yanofsky) is another version of mine.”   Later, someone picks up the lovely memoir Raising Henry, with it's irresistible cover, so I launch into that one.  She also listens patiently and then says “it just caught my eye because my son’s name is Henry.”  Not to say either one of these folks is superficial- far from it!- but it's a little deflating.

Chris Conti, longtime Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago buyer, has just signed on as a Phaidon rep.  He describes himself as a “replicant.”

Michael Boggs of Carmichael’s in Louisville loves Susan Sontag: the Complete Rolling Stone Interview from Yale.   In a bit about high and low culture, he zeroes in on a quote about whether to love Dostoevsky or the Doors.  “Why do I have to choose?” she demands.  Michael grinned and said he’s making that his email signature.

Booksellers are such interesting people.  A woman I thought I knew explained that she’s pursuing a PhD in creative writing and her dissertation is on portrayals of lynching.

A floor bookseller from Common Good Books in St Paul lights up when he sees Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry.  “I’m reading that, it’s amazing!” 

A bookseller friend attended a panel titled “How to Handsell Subjects You’re Scared of.”  Good idea!  I’m thinking Sports, Computer Science, or teenage vampire.  But oddly, the examples cited were Mysteries, Science Fiction and Religion!  I guess everyone has their own personal bookstore category fright.

White white white white white.  One person of color spotted all weekend.  When will the book industry take up this elephant in our room?

Exuberant meeting with the owners of the new Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.  They loved Vaclav Smil’s Made in the USA, saw it as “perfect for Detroit.  There are all sorts of interesting start-ups happening.”  I asked about their biggest surprise since opening the store last year.  “People want academic books.  We started with too much commercial stuff!”

The hotel is hateful.  You can’t breathe, one half of the hall is too hot, the other too cold, there’s no place to sit, and it’s in the middle of nowhere near O’Hare Airport.  Last year the meeting was in downtown Minneapolis, which was great.  I complain about this to a GLIBA staffer and lobby for a downtown location (Milwaukee?)  But the colleague standing next to me- okay it was Stu Abraham- countered that it’s better to have it in a place where people are trapped, and not drawn away from the show by distractions.  Perhaps this is one difference between an experienced commission rep and a house rep.

 After selling a new list for months you think you’ve heard it all.  But then a bookseller picks up the small trim Religion Without God by Ronald Dworkin, and says “this looks and feels like a prayer book.  Very clever!” Nice.

The man at the Melville House Books booth is thrilled that Yale Margellos is doing Pierre Michon’s books in English.  “He’s so underpublished, that’s the book (Rimbaud the Son I think) I brought on the trip to read.”  When someone from a stellar literature in translation shop like Melville reads our books, it makes me kvell.

Two booksellers who don’t know each other scan my booth, picking up this book and that.  One points to Gombrich’s A Little History of the World and says to the other “if you don’t stock that you should, we sell it like crazy.”  Gold.

Many remark that the jacket of David Lewis’ book Impulse: Why We Do What We Do Without Knowing Why We Do It is the best impulse cover they’ve seen.

Halley, former Boswell bookseller and science fanatic, loves William Bynum’s A Little History of Science so much she says she’s getting a tattoo with one of the woodblock images.  I don’t doubt it.

Finally, the show was memorable for a few staples of previous shows that didn’t happen: not a single self-published author pitching a totally inappropriate book!   Maybe Amazon’s aggressive self-publishing program is at least saving us from that.   

Not a single person trying to sell me services like indexing, design, or free-lance editing.  The latter always makes me laugh given that our editors tend to be giants in their academic fields, so we’re covered on that.   

And, thankfully, not a single person asking me to help get their kids into Harvard, MIT or Yale.  This query is usually delivered in jest but with a desperate look that means “but really, you couldn’t, could you….?”