Friday, November 30, 2007

The Starship Boulder Book Store

A good chunk of my days are spent down in the bookstore's engine room. That's shipping & receiving to most people. It's a loud, raucous place where the music ranges from Heart's 70's rocker Crazy on You to the Decemberists' sea shanty The Mariner's Revenge Song, to Eric Clapton's Layla. The conversations are free-ranging affairs encompassing music, philosophy, movies, war, religion, culture, life and on many days, like yesterday, death. The personalities run from grouchy to ebullient with the ebullient people becoming grouchy when an unwanted shipment arrives at 4:30 on a cold day.

These days, I'm down there receiving all the titles that I bought in Chicago at the remainder show in late October. Just when I think I'm making some headway, another 20 boxes show up. "How could I have ordered so much?" I wonder in disgruntled amazement. I always think I've over-ordered in November, and usually by the end of December I'm cursing myself for running out of good remainder titles.

Slowly, I am working my way through the boxes with the help of our shipping and receiving manager and various book clerks that we are able to enlist into our services. I even got the eight-year-old son of one of our children's buyers to help me sticker the remainders a few weeks ago. He started out enthusiastically, but once he saw the returns guy working right next to him peeling off book labels, he became disenchanted. "Why am I putting on the labels, if Ryan's just going to take them off?" he said, as he went to find his mother and a Calvin & Hobbes book.

In shipping and receiving, it's easy to imagine that you are in the engine room of a great ship, feeding coal into the blazing furnace. Remainder companies are notorious for packing exceedingly heavy boxes, and your arms and back quickly become fatigued. It's also dusty and a bit dirty in our windowless basement, and there's a sense, especially at this time of year, that we can't work fast enough. We are always running out of something, or a bookseller is looking for a title that we have just received but haven't even labeled yet. We can never seem to feed our starship enough fuel to keep it at full speed. As Scottie used to say on Star Trek, "Captain, I need more time."

As for the remainders themselves, each box brings a surprise. I know that may seem odd, since I bought the books myself, but Chicago seems like a long time ago now, and I can hardly ever remember my buys. It's like my brain has a file-clearing mechanism. Once the information has been processed, I'm onto my next buy. At dinner, after I have spent a full day buying with a sales rep, my wife will ask me if the publisher had any good books. I'll stare at her blankly, not remembering a single book off a major buy, like the Random House Fall list. Gradually, as the evening wears on, I'll blurt out, interrupting our DVD, "Oh, there's a new John Irving novel," or "Roger Penrose has a gigantic new science book." By then, she will be done feigning interest and look at me blankly.

Yesterday brought Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, his long awaited follow-up to Cold Mountain. I'm hoping it will be the perfect remainder. It was a disappointment as a new book, but there are thousands of people who loved Cold Mountain, and they just might be enticed to take a chance on Thirteen Moons for $8.98 in hardback.

I also pulled some amazing art books, published by George Braziller, out of the boxes. These books, including an oversized edition of Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, are so exquisitely crafted that it is a pleasure just to touch them. Braziller uses ultra-thick paper and the Japanese printing brings forth all of the color in remarkably rich detail. Just caressing these books at work wasn't enough for me, so I immediately purchased Odilon Redon Pastels. Redon is an artist that you rarely see given such a sumptuous treatment. I was first beguiled by his work when we visited Paris in 2000 and saw his pastels in a dimly lit section of the Musee D'Orsay.

Well, it's back into the engine room for another day. Art and literature will have to wait. We have a busy weekend coming up, and the beast must be fed so we don't run aground. Quiet now, I can just barely hear them cranking up the music. Could it be Thin Lizzy beckoning me with The Boys are Back in Town?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Surprising Top 10

The release of the The New York Times' 10 Best Books of the Year list is always a call for excitement among independent booksellers and their customers. The selections usually tilt towards literary fiction and thought-provoking nonfiction. It's a welcome respite from the plethora of pandering lists that you'll see in places like USA Today or on which feature marginally written novels and celebrity biographies. The books the Times selects often break out and become bestsellers in independent stores.

Yesterday, the list was released on the New York Times website and there were some expected titles but also many surprises. Probably the two easiest to predict books on the list were Denis Johnson's epic Vietnam-era novel Tree of Smoke and Jeffrey Toobin's penetrating look at the United States Supreme Court The Nine. Johnson has been a darling of critics and booksellers since the 1992 release of his short story collection Jesus' Son. Tree of Smoke, his first novel in nearly 10 years, won the National Book Award and is being hailed as his masterpiece.

In an unusual twist, two translated novels made the list. You could see this as a comment on how weak of a year for fiction it was in the United States and England, or perhaps it's just that there is a growing appreciation for foreign novelists. The Savage Detectives by the Chilean author Roberto Bolano was translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Bolano died in 2003, but his reputation has been rising steadily in the last few years as the small publisher New Directions has released four of his books. With the publication of The Savage Detectives, it is now becoming apparent that Bolano was a true powerhouse in world fiction. It's too bad that we are just catching up to him. Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses is a Scandinavian novel that is set in Oslo. I feel a bit foolish about this one. Last Saturday a customer upbraided me for not having any Per Petterson in the store. "What kind of bookstore is this?" he harangued. "Not a Norwegian one," I thought at the time. It seemed pretty good that we'd sold nine copies of the book. Now I hope we can sell a few dozen more.

The fiction list also featured my favorite novel of the year, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. I wrote a full blog on that book on May 6th. Man Gone Down, a debut novel by Michael Thomas, rounds out the fiction side of the list. Thomas' novel, which examines four days in the life of a desperate black writer, was first published in paperback. Traditionally, paperback originals have really struggled to get critical attention. It's a real accomplishment for Thomas and his publisher Black Cat that they were able to catch the eye of The Times, first in a front page review in the spring and now in the Top 10 list.

The Imperial Life in the Emerald City
by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is the one political tome to make the list. Chandrasekaran, A Washington Post journalist, discusses the Bush administration's arrogance in its attempts to govern Iraq. The miracle is that Chandrasekaran was able to provide a thorough accounting in just one book. Any discussion of Bush arrogance in governing the United States would run several volumes.

Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise is easily the most ambitious of the nonfiction titles. Ross, The New Yorker music critic, tells the history of the 20th century through the eyes of classical music. In an interview that he did for the New York Times' podcast, Ross spoke eloquently on both classical music and historical movements and weaved them together beautifully. Rarely do we see such an erudite, original and entertaining look at history.

The last two nonfiction titles are wildly divergent examples of what creative writers can do with biographies. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh by Linda Colley is a look at an obscure 18th century travel writer. Hardly anything is known of Marsh's personal life and only one book of hers survives. Instead, Colley looks at the world she lived in and just how a woman of that era could travel to the exotic locales that Marsh visited. She examines Marsh's three months as a Moroccan captive. The other biography is actually a memoir. In Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish writes of her childhood memories on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. The whole world is reduced to one small place in the Midwest for Kalish, but it is still suffused with wonder.

Happy reading. The list will appear in the December 9th edition of The New York Times Book Review. The 100 Notable Books of 2007 will appear in this Sunday's edition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

It's Not the Getting, It's the Giving

In the ultimate holiday giveaway, the bookstore is donating about 20,000 books to teachers in Boulder this weekend. Most of these books are Penguin paperbacks that we bought in pallets at the Chicago International Remainder & Overstock Book Exposition last month from Book$mart, a remainder wholesaler located in Alabama. The last time I talked to our sales guy there, he told me in a fairly thick southern drawl that we could call anytime we wanted another 20,000 books. "We've got pallets as far as the eye can see."

Yesterday, along with some coworkers, I went out to the warehouse where the books were delivered and are being stored until the giveaway. Boulder is not known for its warehouse district. Land is not cheap here and even the warehouses we do have are surprisingly close to a very nice golf course. Don't they build swank developments around courses nowadays? The land prices certainly aren't steals. Less than a year ago, the regional wholesaler Books West picked up stakes and moved down to Denver to significantly lower its costs. Finding a warehouse to store the books in was a bit of a chore, but with the help of Impact on Education, a Boulder foundation, they are now safely ensconced in an old storage site belonging to the newspaper The Daily Camera.

We walked through a graveyard of old sidewalk newspaper boxes that spanned the colors of the rainbow to reach the entrance of the dark, vast and deserted building. Once inside, we were met by 20-foot high stacks of huge roles of paper. I mean huge. They make the wheels of a steamroller look benign. There was also a dimly lit old Coke machine that looked like it dated back to the 1960s, and the clock on the wall was still set for daylight savings time. I looked for a 1973 calendar but had no luck. We found our pallets of books in the back left corner of the warehouse. We were there to pull a few samples, maybe grab a few boxes of books that we could sell as remainders and perhaps see if any of the books would be suitable for a giveaway at a teacher event where we sell books in February.

With some trepidation, we began to rip into the giant cardboard boxes. What if all the books were crap? After all, these were castoffs that Penguin had deemed unsellable. Well, the first book I set my eyes on was a pristine paperback copy of the classic young adult novel The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Laurie Anderson's Speak, a modern classic, was right below it. In another pallet we were greeted by dozens and dozens of copies of Roald Dahl's B.F.G. It was obvious that we had the mother lode of children's books. There were Mad Libs galore (a great way to teach the parts of speech to reluctant readers), as well as Walter the Farting Dog titles (a wonderful way to teach . . . maybe kids don't need to be taught that.)

It made me eager to see how the teachers would respond to all of these quality books. Boulder is a community that values reading, and many kids grow up in households filled with books. Still, not every child has books to call their own and the opportunity to get more books into the hands of teachers and children is greatly valued.

It made me wonder about all those pallets that stretched as far as the eye could see down in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Wouldn't it be great if there were some way to get those books out to the kids that really needed them throughout the country? Would that help create and nurture young readers who in turn would grow up and support Penguin and all the other publishers, along with Book$smart and all the other wholesalers and just about every bookstore in the country? I have no doubt that it would help our industry. I don't even want to get into how much reading benefits the culture at large. Surely, there must be a way to make this happen. The books are just sitting there available for pennies on the dollar. And it's not just Penguin's kids books that are available. HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster and Harcourt books are all being sold like this at various warehouses around the country.

Distributing these books, perhaps striking deals directly with the publishers (sorry Book$mart) would be a larger project than any one book store could take on. However, it does seem that an organization with some logistical skill and a bit of money (Anybody have a contact with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?) could probably distribute millions of quality kids books to schools and children for relatively little labor and cost.

If you would like to read more about what we are doing in Boulder, check out the article in last week's Daily Camera at Boulder Book Store Donates Books.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Are You Ready for Christmas?

Restocking after the Thanksgiving weekend rush wasn't nearly as difficult as I had hoped. There were a few titles that we were low on, including a complete sell out of the humorously provocative Year of Living Biblically by the literary stuntman A.J. Jacobs. Jacobs, who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for his previous book The Know It All, spent a year trying to live by every tenant in the Bible, no matter how obscure. He didn't mix wool with linen, ate crickets and wouldn't say the days of the week for fear of uttering the names of Pagan Gods. Jacobs doesn't make any direct connections to the religious right, but it's hard not to think of the fundamentalist Christians, and how far they have yet to go in their misbegotten quest to take the Bible literally.

Unfortunately, the real story of my morning was the not surprising discovery that very few titles were moving as quickly as I had hoped. For all the early momentum Stephen Colbert enjoyed, his I am America (And So Can You) really floundered over the weekend. Due to the writer's strike, The Colbert Report is on hiatus and this book simply is not getting the nightly jolt in the arm that it needs. I hereby invite Colbert to come to Boulder. If he comes, I promise we will pack the venue no matter how short the notice. Another funny man, Steve Martin just released his biography Born Standing Up: A Comics Life. It sold moderately well last week, but not like you'd expect one of the hottest books of the season to perform. It's still early, and judging by the excerpts I read, Martin's storytelling doesn't disappoint. His tales of trying to make it as a stand up comedian in the 1960s and 70s make for interesting reading and illuminates a particular moment in our culture, reminding me a bit of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume 1. Hey Mr. Tambourine Man when will you release Volume 2? We sure could use it.

I spoke with a few reps and most of them still weren't too excited about the season. My HarperCollins rep made a thoughtful and somewhat self-serving observation on this season's weak fiction list. Since Penguin has decided not to release Geraldine Brooks' new book until January, perhaps that leaves Harpers Run by Ann Patchett, as the easiest novel to hand sell to 35-and-over women this season. Patchett's book is performing solidly and the floor staff needs a familiar author with a well-received novel to place in the hands of that demographic, which is only about 70% of our market. Patchett fits the bill. Maybe at tomorrow's all-staff meeting we can practice saying, "if you liked Bel Canto, you'll love..."

The all-staff Christmas meetings are tomorrow and Wednesday. We have two every year, a morning and afternoon affair to try and accommodate every one's schedule. We go over some of the basics of book selling during the holidays such as don't come to work hungover, answer the phones, and catch the thieves. About a dozen years ago we finally cut out the part about not coming into work stoned. With the tech boom, Boulder had finally gone yuppie enough that people coming into work high wasn't that big of a problem any more.

One of the main things we go over every year is watching out for scam artists. People love to try the quick change maneuver on a clerk. If you aren't careful, it is easy to get confused. Every year we seem to have someone who gives out change for a $50 or $100 bill, when all they ended up with was a $20 bill. When I was at the register on Saturday, I got a chance to use the special pens we have to show whether a bill is counterfeit or not. I drew the line on the bill and realized I didn't know what color it was supposed to turn if it was counterfeit. The line stayed a yellowish brown and as I was debating on whether or not to call 911 for backup, the customer leaned over the counter to assure me that it was a good bill. I checked with our supervisor who told me black is bad.

The sad thing about these all-store affairs, is that a dozen years ago when we held these meetings we were at the threshold of utter chaos in the store. Business would soar and customers would cram our aisles starting right after Thanksgiving. We had to warn the staff about how busy and insane things would be. We have a whole section during the meeting about taking enough vitamins, drinking enough fluid, getting a full night's sleep. It's like we are training them for a marathon. Well, about 10 years ago we were.

Nowadays, business improves gradually but the insanity doesn't really start until December 15. Even then, it's not like the heydays of the late 1990s. It's just a neighborly 5k road race that any jogger can run in now. With the economy creeping along like it is now, is it any wonder Hillary Clinton leads in the polls? She just needs to pull Bill along on every campaign stop she makes in one of those harnesses moms use on their kids in the mall, so the voters are constantly reminded of how much better things were just eight years ago. Funny, things didn't seem so great at the time.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Let the Shopping Begin

Is it too early to shop?
I know people go rushing out to the malls at 6 a.m. on Black Friday to buy the latest electronic gadgets and computer games at steep discounts, but we usually don't see that type of crazed enthusiasm in the book business. Black Friday usually starts out fairly quietly and works up to a mild fever pitch at about two or three in the afternoon. Even at the height of our frenzy, things are quite sedate. There is nobody fighting over the last copy of the Stephen Colbert book, or nudging other customers aside to get that cherished Richard Russo novel. No, it's usually just families standing around the store, kids tearing apart the children's room, and out-of-town relatives comparing notes on their favorite novels. A few people are furtively moving about the store clutching their long lists and carrying baskets of books, cards and calendars, but they --bless their souls -- are the exception.

So you can imagine my surprise when I retrieved my voice mail before we opened on Friday and had a desperate message from a customer. Her plaintive plea came after about a dozen missives from various sales reps and hopeful self-published authors. My messages had built up because I'd spent five days in New Mexico visiting the Taos Pueblo, Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch, and almost stepping on a tarantula (no kidding). The customer's message was the last one on my phone, and I was astounded to realize that it was left at 1:30 in the morning.

What could be so urgent to require attention in the middle of the night on Thanksgiving? Well, she wanted to pick up three fairly common titles on Friday. I guess she wanted to make sure she got them before we sold out during the madness of Black Friday. I almost chuckled about the absurdity of it, until she mentioned at the end of the call that she was a "friend" of David Bolduc, the owner of the store. Now, David's friends are legion in Boulder. You can't walk down the street with him without bumping into a dozen people he knows. What if we didn't have the books? I'd have to explain to David as well as this customer that we were out of the titles.

As I pondered the message from David's friend, I couldn't help but think about an incident that happened about 15 years ago, right after I began managing the store. A "friend" of David's was in the store and he was very upset about the level of customer service he had received. I apologized to him profusely, offered to give him a big discount on the book he wanted and told him I'd speak to David about the matter. He refused the discount but was very keen on my talking to David. In all sincerity, he told me that his friendship with David went back to the opening of the store, but that they hadn't been in touch lately.

Later in the day, when I tracked down David and nervously told him about his "friend" dropping by, he almost hit the ceiling. "Friend!" David spit out the word. "When we first opened the store, he was shoplifting from us every day. I finally wrestled him to the floor and had him arrested." Once David told me that, I understood why the guy turned down my offer of a discount on the book. After all, it was a generous discount, but it wasn't free.

The rest of Black Friday went as expected. The store started hopping after the Colorado-Nebraska football game ended. People were in good spirits after the Buffaloes come-from-behind victory over the hated Cornhuskers.

The one thing that we almost sold out of was Our Dumb World: The Onion's Atlas of the Planet Earth, 73rd Edition. I was beginning to think the joke was getting old, but the Onion staff has outdone themselves this year. Instead of releasing all of the previous year's newspaper editions in a single book, like they have for the past several years, they have rewritten world history and geography in their mocking style. It's a hilarious book filled with informative misinformation. The book on tape, which we've played in our shipping and receiving department several times, usually gets a laugh-out-loud reaction. Their annual decline in sales has been reversed, and it looks like the Onion will get the last laugh once again this year.

Today, it's back for round two of the holiday shopping season. I'll be running around the store trying to find the elusive perfect book for our customers and trying to make sure that all of our "friends," except for the bad guys, have a great Thanksgiving weekend.

Notes from the front on Saturday:
The day got off to a rousing start when I read the front page article in The New York Times about how dismal Black Friday was around the country. The fear-mongering article related that people were eschewing Macy's and Nordstrom for the discounts of Big Lots because of increased payments on their adjustable-rate mortgages. (Sounds like usury to me: the adjustments only go in one direction -- nobody's mortgage ever adjusts downward.) The Times' article was mirrored in other media outlets, all telling shoppers how the economy was so bad that they probably couldn't afford to buy much this holiday season.

Great. It's always hard to tell if the overall economy will really trickle down into the world of independent bookstores. After all, books are a much cheaper product than iPods, plasma televisions or other electronic gadgetry. But screaming about the coming recession and advocating locking yourself indoors as the best course of action is probably going to hurt our foot traffic.

Luckily, our customers didn't seem to get the message. The store was packed on Saturday and customers were bringing stacks of books, cards and calendars to the registers. There didn't seem to be much of a pattern to what people were buying, and only a few titles seemed to make it to the register more than once. I was actually quite surprised by the number of used books we were selling. That told me that people were shopping more for themselves than others.

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, a rather dour look at how the Bush administration has used every disaster to forward its economic and political agenda, was selling fairly briskly. Klein, who is making an appearance in Boulder on behalf of the public radio station, really gives it to the Bushies for what they've done in New Orleans. They've used the rebuilding effort following hurricane Katrina as a way to turn the city into a test case for their ideas on charter schools and to hire on every contractor friend they have. We all know how well the contractors have worked in Iraq.

The 4-Hour Work Week is proving surprisingly popular in Boulder. If you walk around Boulder on any week day, you'd swear that most people already seem to have a 4-hour work week. What could they have to learn from Timothy Ferriss' tract on how not to work? The coffee shops are mobbed with people surfing on their laptops. One sandwich shop is so tied up with these laptop lunatics, sipping coffee, that I usually can't find a place to sit and eat lunch. They lose my business at least once a week to cater to these non-working types, who siphon off their electricity.

Ferriss' book teaches you "how to outsource your life to overseas virtual assistants for $5 per hour and do whatever you want." I think that's called exploitation, and frankly, I find it frightening that it resonates in our liberal burg. Anyway, what's so wrong with working? If you're in a grueling blue-collar job, I can see the desire to limit your week to four hours. But the customers that I've spoken to who are buying Ferriss' book are not the blue-collar types. As far as I can tell, most people already have too much free time on their hands. Really, how many hours a week do people need to spend playing with their Xboxes, inhaling DVDs and partaking in America's number one hobby -- looking at Internet porn?

One pattern that I did see over the weekend was that movies are really driving demand for books in a more profound way than we usually see. We are basically sold out of The Kite Runner (which should make a better movie than book if you ask me), No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, which is also benefiting from its Oprah selection.

I'm guessing that I'd better stock up on Ian McEwan's amazing novel Atonement, before that movie, starring the always lovely Keira Knightley, takes off in December. I only wish there were a book for American Gangster, the riveting crime film set in 1970s New York starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Now that's a story: the military smuggling tons of pure heroin into New York City. Of course, I've always believed that the best movies didn't come from books and that the best books were too complex to make great movies. It seems that the customers, much to my delight, do not agree with me.

Well, it's a short break tonight and then back to the grindstone tomorrow. We are going to catch the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men tonight. It was my wife's least favorite McCarthy novel, but she thinks it should make for a great film. Who knows, maybe next year Christopher Guest will make a movie version of McCarthy's The Road and add a little post-apocalyptic delight to the holidays.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving and Some Holiday Jitters

Thanksgiving Day. A day to rejoice, eat pumpkin pie, spend time with friends and family and give thanks for all the wonderful things in life. Thanksgiving Day. A day to fret about the upcoming retail holiday season, bemoan the lack of blockbuster books, worry about the weather and take stock of the lackluster lists the publishers have provided to bookstores for Christmas.

For the last two weeks, I've been trying to discern just what we are supposed to sell this holiday season. Every publisher has its midlist darlings that they are hoping will break out, but there is hardly a major title in play right now. I spent a week calling my various reps about what their hot titles were. Perhaps I was missing something, I thought. One of them gave me titles that were big last Christmas, hoping for an encore; another needed all day to work up a list (you'd think you would just know your hot titles, if they were really hot); and still another said, "There's not much. You just have to sell what you already have."
The publishers seemed to have mistaken early spring for Christmas this year. In a single week back in April, major new books from Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Chabon, Khaled Hosseini and Al Gore were released. All of those titles shot onto the bestseller lists instantly. For weeks, even months, people were coming in and asking for Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns or Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Right now, however, there is only one hardback title that falls into that got-to-have-it category, Stephen Colbert's I Am America & So Can You. Of course, the writers strike has taken Colbert off the air, just as his book was gaining momentum. I'm still very optimistic, but I'd love to see him go around the country really hyping it, since he's basically on vacation. On the paperback side, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert continues to outsell all other books. It should overtake Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows as our top-selling book of the year. Pretty amazing considering we didn't have to spend about 500 employee hours organizing a party for Elizabeth Gilbert and we didn't have to discount the books either.

What's going on? In the case of Penguin USA it seems clear that they are happy to sit on their laurels for 2007 and come out swinging in 2008. In addition to Eat, Pray, Love and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Penguin has given us the paperbacks of Greg Mortenson's phenomenal bestseller 3 Cups of Tea and Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma while basking in the media frenzy of Alan Greenspan's memoir, Age of Turbulence. It's all Penguin all the time on our bestseller lists for the past eight months.

The amazing run of books might explain their reluctance to publish two sure blockbusters in time for Christmas. Michael Pollan's In Defense of Eating and Geraldine Brooks' new novel People of the Book are slated for release on January 1st. Who came up with that date? A nervous executive worrying about having to match 2007's numbers next year. Those two books are exactly what this Christmas season needs -- newsworthy books to drive customers into the stores. By holding onto these books in their warehouse, is Penguin auditioning for the role of the Grinch this holiday season?

I'd also argue that the January release is particularly unfair to Brooks, whose last book, March, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She's hot -- maybe as hot as she will ever be -- and a new hardback by her in time for Christmas would surely be a big, big gift item. An easy sell if there every was one. Our sales, along with most other independent book store sales (one of her most important markets) would be far greater if her new novel came out now rather than January 1. Instead we just have remainders of March to peddle to her fans this holiday season.

The other publishers, you'd think, would be desperate by this point. Almost every major publisher rep tells me how our sales are down with them this year. In fact, they tell me that the whole territory is down. They are looking for me to sympathize and tell them that our sales are heading south in general. Well, they aren't. Between the Penguin books and Harry Potter it's been a very good year. When I ask the publishers what their big books for Christmas are, they feed me a line about being an all-seasons publisher and not loading all their good books in the fall. It seems to me that perhaps they are talking about sports seasons, not calendar seasons. There's the season when you play the games and then there is the offseason. Most publishers have decided that Christmas is a good time for the offseason.

The winter months were always thought to be a good time to get publicity for midlist books. Why release a good book by a relatively unknown author in the fall, when the media wouldn't have time to interview the author, and the papers wouldn't have the space to review the book because all of the attention was going to the blockbuster titles? But over the past decade, more and more of the blockbusters have been held back for January or February releases. Why send your big book into the Christmas fray where it might get overlooked, when they can have the pick of the talk shows in February? Now, it seems that almost all of the major books have migrated away from the fall. My guess is that a few midlist books will dominate this season and many publishers will be wondering why they held their best books for the winter chill.

Some titles that were originally billed as sure-fire hits have already flopped. Jimmy Carter's Beyond the White House is a dismal failure. If the bookstore continues to sell his book at the rate we've sold it since it's release almost two months ago, we should be sold out by Christmas 2013. It seems that Al Gore has taken over the mantle as our greatest living ex-President without ever actually being President. Garrison Keillor, another greatly revered figure who we regularly sold in the hundreds, seems to have run out of steam with his latest Lake Wobegon novel Pontoon. Perhaps Keillor, who showed moderate sales (dozens) in September, will make a comeback in December as people look for gifts for their grandparents. But for now, Pontoon sure seems sunk.
I'm not completely pessimistic about the season. The top reason for hope is that the artist Andy Goldsworthy just released his new book, Enclosure, which details his work with sheep enclosures in Northwest England. Normally, an art book, especially one dealing with sheep, wouldn't get me too worked up, but Goldsworthy is an exception. We've sold hundreds of copies of all of his previous books, including A Collaboration with Nature, Time, Stone, and Passage. We have also constantly displayed and sold his DVD Rivers & Tides since its release in 2004. The $60 price point of Enclosure is enough to get any bookseller's heart beating fast.

Here's a look at some other titles that give me hope and help to temporarily quell those Christmas-season jitters:

There seems to be a real interest in the intersection between music and psychology. This hunger is being fed by two books that I believe will be huge Christmas sellers, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. We are already having a hard time keeping Levitin's book in stock, and if Sacks can catch the wave of popularity that he rode with his earlier books, Musicophilia could be a huge gift item.

On the political front, I believe that Paul Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal and Naomi Wolfe's End of America will continue to tap into the deep unhappiness with the Bush regime. Krugman's book even has a hopeful message to it. We are through the worst of it, he believes. Wolfe's rallying cry to prevent a fascist America is touching a real chord with Boulderites, and the book is flying off our shelves. It also seems likely that Jeffrey Toobin's book about the United States Supreme Court, The Nine, will make many year-end lists for best book of the year. If that happens, an already great book of reportage (it's amazing who he got to speak to him), could become a break-out bestseller.

HarperCollins has found a true sweet spot in selling books seemingly geared towards kids to adults. It's the first Christmas for The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book For Girls as well as Jessica Seinfeld's current bestseller Deceptively Delicious. These titles all seem like they were made for the holidays. Another burst of publicity for The Dangerous Book for Boys should send it back to the top of the bestseller list.

On the fiction front, it's hard to bet against Hosseini after the success of The Kite Runner. Although A Thousand Splendid Suns has been out for eight months, there are still a lot of his fans who have not read it. Strangely enough, this seems to be the year of Ken Follett. I thought his year was 1982 or so, but just last week, Oprah uncharacteristically picked his Pillars of Earth for her book club and he also has a new hardback, World Without End, that is starting to move. Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke was already getting some buzz before it won the National Book Award, so now it should really fly. I'm also hoping Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finds its way onto some year-end lists and takes off again. The new translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhondky should exceed expectations as the one big-selling classic of the season.

I hope that today is only the first Thanksgiving Day for booksellers. With any luck, we will be saying our thanks in about five weeks, when the Christmas season is over and there were dozens of surprise blockbuster books. I'll be thankful when the end of the year means an end to my seasonal skittishness, that blessed time when I can stop worrying about books and go skiing.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Last Chicken in America

I haven't given recent Russian immigrants too much thought over the last several years except when I visit my mother in the Philadelphia suburbs. She often complains about the Russians who live next door. They are too loud, their dog barks constantly, they smoke, they don't even say hello to her. I don't disagree with her, but I am able to sympathize more with the Russians. It's easy for me to be generous towards them, I only visit a few days a year. It must be hard coming to a new country. I found it hard living in the Philadelphia suburbs after being born in Philadelphia. Can you imagine coming all the way from Russia and ending up in suburban sprawl?

I also don't bring up that my mother is descended from Russian Jews. Perhaps that would make things worse because I'm pretty sure her neighbors aren't Jewish. They are just Russian. Maybe even descendants of the Russians that chased my family out of the motherland. Still, we all have that common immigrant experience lurking in our past. In my mother's family those early immigrant days (now well over 100-years ago) have been forgotten and replaced with generations of American lawyers. I imagine that when my family came from Russia and landed in the teeming Lower East Side that it was an overcrowded, noisy, communal place where everyone was struggling to survive.

It seems not just generations, but worlds apart from what contemporary Russian immigrants must experience. In Ellen Litman's brilliant debut book of short stories The Last Chicken in America, it is the lives of newly arrived Russian Jews in Pittsburgh that she sensitively portrays. It isn't easy for her characters to find their way in 1990s America, although their triumphs and tribulations are always entertaining in Litman's deft prose. Litman, who came from Moscow in 1992, writes with almost a painful realism and it is easy to imagine that her personal experience saturates many of these tales.

Masha, the main character of several of the stories, is a teenager just starting college who has to contend with the isolation and the difficulties of immigrating. She is just a couple of years younger than Litman and it's tempting to read her experience as a reflection of Litman's own. In an email interview with Litman I asked her about the desolation of her characters and her own feelings about immigrating.

" The people in the book immigrate (often from big cities), and their choices, by necessity, are suddenly confined to this relatively small immigrant community. Some fit in, others don’t. Some find it comforting, others suffocating. For me it felt very lonely, and I spent a long time wanting desperately to break into the larger world and not knowing how."

Her story "What Do You Dream of, Cruiser Aurora?" perhaps best captures the loneliness and the sense of not fitting in. Unlike the other stories, Litman focuses on an elderly man, Liberman, who has emigrated to Pittsburgh to join his daughter's family. He is completely out of sorts and even the tentative friendship he forms with an older Russian woman who immigrated at the same time is fraught with missteps and emotional peril. I was amazed with Litman's ability, in her debut work, to write so movingly and authentically about a character that was both male and of a different generation. I asked her about the story's inspiration.

"I was thinking of my grandfather. He came to the US with us, so his situation was different. But I was imagining someone with his kind of spirit. He used to be this wonderful gregarious man, a Navy captain in retirement, a prankster....In the story, Liberman’s daughter tells him that elderly people come to America and “bloom.” And for some it’s true: they adjust, learn some English, find their place in the immigrant community. But for others, like Liberman, it’s the opposite. They break down. My grandfather passed away last year. He’d never found that new life for himself."

I don't want to leave people with the impression that Litman's collection is a downer. She's writing about difficult issues, but her wry voice and humorous take on both American and Russian society provide the book with a true sense of levity. In one of the collection's funniest tales titled "Russian Club," Masha joins a club with a bunch of students at her college who idealize Russia. She wants to fit in, to feel more American and ends up feeling more Russian.

She eventually can't help but disabuse the naive students of their notions of Russia. As they plan to collect money to give the Russian's for medical supplies, Masha tells them "They'll take your money. They'll tell you thank you very much, and then they'll turn around and buy some office furniture or maybe build a summer cottage for their child."

Litman relates that the post-communist era was not a happy one in Russia. "Moscow was a grim place when we left it. (It has changed a lot since then, and from what I know, is actually quite glamorous and expensive these days – though I haven’t been back.) I think it was hard not be disillusioned about it. The democratic leaders we at first believed in turned out to be as corrupt as their communist predecessors. Corruption was pretty much everywhere."

The stories that Litman tells of Pittsburgh's Russian community aren't great because of the setting or the ethnic milieu. Instead, what makes this a truly remarkable collection is the memorable characters that she creates. The fact that she illuminates a particular population adds depth to the stories, but her characters are so strong, so original that they take over each story and make it both unique and universal at the same time. I first read these stories three months ago and not a day goes by that I don't think of one of her characters. I asked her if she had any advice on creating characters for aspiring writers.

"For me, one way to discover who the characters are is to put them on the page and let them talk – in other words, write a scene with them, try to get a sense what their voice is like. Other times, I start with an image, especially if it’s the kind of character whose appearance/presence makes an impression on others."

Litman has been touring extensively behind this book and wrote a great piece about returning to Pittsburgh for a reading in the blog The Debutante Ball. She has also been keeping her own blog Last Chicken which has some entertaining stories about how readers have reacted to her book.

Here is the complete transcript of my interview with her. Litman's answers are in blue.

KBC: Can you describe how it feels to have your first collection published? I know it's a dream of many booksellers (probably half of the staff at my store) and just about everyone who participates in a writing group. Is it like you expected? Was it a thrill to get the finished book in your hands? How about seeing the New York Times review?

EL: Good question. It’s sort of a mixed bag. I’m very happy, on the one hand, but also constantly anxious, worrying whether the book will do well, whether I’m doing enough to promote it, whether I should be promoting it at all. I’m doing a lot of traveling and readings these days – and I think it’s the right thing to do – but I also feel like I should be back home working on the next book. When I published my first short story, a teacher of mine told me to treasure that moment, because no matter how much I publish in the future, I’d never feel such pure joy as I did then. He was right. It’s almost as if we get too “greedy” later on. I think I’ll be the happiest when I get back to my regular routine. And hopefully in a couple of months it will sink in that yes, I had my first book published and it turned out okay (mistakes and all), and now I’m working again, working on something that hopefully will be stronger and better.

KBC: The immigrants in The Last Chicken in America seem rather isolated and lonely. Do you think this is a result of their Russian culture? Or is it just the plight of immigrants coming to an American society that has turned inward, obsessed with television and computers? Or are these just the characters that interest you?

EL: I think that what happens – or at least what happened in my case – is, the world shrinks a little. The people in the book immigrate (often from big cities), and their choices, by necessity, are suddenly confined to this relatively small immigrant community. Some fit in, others don’t. Some find it comforting, others suffocating. For me it felt very lonely, and I spent a long time wanting desperately to break into the larger world and not knowing how. So I guess, my characters inherited that sense of isolation.

KBC: Many of the stories involve Masha, a college-age girl, new to the United States? How much does she share with your own background? Was coming from Moscow in the 1990s as difficult as it seems in the stories?

EL: I was a few years older than Masha when we came to the US in 1992. I had finished two years of college by then – in computers, naturally – and later transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, and then spent 6+ years working in IT, before turning to writing. So there are definitely some similarities. But yeah, the first few years were pretty hard, especially for my parents. They’d left so much behind, and now they had to start over somehow, and they were just learning English at the time. Plus they had me and my younger sister to worry about. Plus my grandmother, who was very sick. There was so much uncertainty. We were all struggling in our own ways, and we didn’t always know how to help one another.

KBC: I was most touched by the plight of Liberman in the story "What Do You Dream of, Cruiser Aurora?" The complexity of immigrating as an older person and trying to connect to something is beautifully rendered in this story. Can you talk about the inspiration for it?

EL: I was thinking of my grandfather. He came to the US with us, so his situation was different. But I was imagining someone with his kind of spirit. He used to be this wonderful gregarious man, a Navy captain in retirement, a prankster… Getting old is difficult regardless of the country, and immigration, of course, throws an extra twist into it. In the story, Liberman’s daughter tells him that elderly people come to America and “bloom.” And for some it’s true: they adjust, learn some English, find their place in the immigrant community. But for others, like Liberman, it’s the opposite. They break down. My grandfather passed away last year. He’d never found that new life for himself. He had us, but we were always busy or too far way. And he just got smaller and sadder each year.

KBC: In the Russian Club you bring up the irony of an actual Russian being in the Russian club. It's a hilarious story about a naive group of Americans who want to travel to Moscow and bring money for medical supplies. Masha tells them "They'll take your money. They'll tell you thank you very much, and then they'll turn around and buy some office furniture or maybe build a summer cottage for their child." Can you comment of this story and perhaps on having to disillusion idealistic Americans about Russia?

EL: Moscow was a grim place when we left it. (It has changed a lot since then, and from what I know, is actually quite glamorous and expensive these days – though I haven’t been back.) I think it was hard not be disillusioned about it. The democratic leaders we at first believed in turned out to be as corrupt as their communist predecessors. Corruption was pretty much everywhere. But for Masha the issue isn’t really the fate of Russia, but the question of belonging. Initially, the Russian Club for her is a way to become more like Americans, to join them. But instead, it makes her feel more Russian, while at the same time reminding her that as a Jew she never fully belonged in Russia in the first place.

KBC: The stories take place in a fairly desolate and almost soulless Pittsburgh. It's a town that has changed drastically over the past 20 years. It's also a place where there is a pocket of readers for Kashsbookcorner. I dug up a quote from Andy Summers from the Police about the city. "This city gets a dreadful rap... I find it romantic - a city of dreams - emerging from dark umber-stained hills above a river filled with mud and slag." Is there some truth to what he says in your opinion? Or do you think he's just nuts and high from playing a show with the Police?

EL: I actually never thought of Pittsburgh as desolate and soulless. (Though having moved there from Moscow, I did resent its smallness.) I hadn’t seen it during its dark and polluted years. I hadn’t seen its struggle. To me, it always looked clean and neat. Plus it had the rivers, the bridges, and the view from Mount Washington. It wasn’t a bad city, it’s just that I felt trapped in it. I think I first sensed that romantic vibe Andy Summers is talking about when I was reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. He captured it really well.

KBC: The collection is billed as a "novel in stories"? Many of the stories involve Masha, but many don't. How did that label come about? Do you think of it as a novel?

EL: To be honest, the label was a marketing decision. Which is to say, I didn’t decide it. My publisher did. (Is it even okay to admit this?) I was writing the book as a collection of linked stories. I always knew that the stories would be set in the same neighborhood and that there would be some recurring characters. I didn’t know that there would be this thread about Masha. I don’t mind the label though. The book is what it is. It’s made of stories.

KBC: You do a magnificent job in quickly creating memorable characters. Do you have any words of advice to writers? What short story writers do you recommend that people read?

EL: Thank you. For me, one way to discover who the characters are is to put them on the page and let them talk – in other words, write a scene with them, try to get a sense what their voice is like. Other times, I start with an image, especially if it’s the kind of character whose appearance/presence makes an impression on others. As for the recommendations, there are so many! George Saunders, of course. I’ve learned so much from him and his stories, the way he develops his characters and makes them so complex and fallible and good. Mary Gaitskill. She is amazing at describing characters, letting their physical attributes reflect their internal disorder. Seriously, I could make a huge list of writers whose stories influenced and taught me. Denis Johnson, Barry Hannah, Stuart Dybek, Kelly Link… I could go on and on.

KBC: What's next for you? When can we look forward to another brilliant book?

EL: A novel. This time, not in stories. (Though I do plan to keep writing stories.) As for when, let’s hope soon.