Friday, December 05, 2008

Slicing and Dicing the Orders

I am not very good at doing things in secret. Usually, like right now, I announce my new projects or new ideas (wonderful or awful) on my blog. Twittering, with it's tiny 140-character entries, has also become a nightly habit that soothes my inner bookseller. Let's face it, I'm fairly obnoxious when I'm on to something new.

Last Monday I started canceling books off of our frontlist winter purchase orders. These are the books scheduled to arrive in the frozen months of January, February and March. Sales are already frigid during that time of year, and one can only surmise that 2009 winter sales will approach absolute zero. I feared that I'd get a lot of resistance from my reps and the publishers, so I went about the project quietly.

My goal was to pare these already tight orders down another 10% to 20%. That was a modest number. Every year when I analyze my buys, I notice that we sell zero copies of nearly 25% of the titles we bring in. Cut those books out and ultimately reduce returns was my goal.

I started with my Harper adult order. My Harper rep is, to employ a euphemism, extremely enthusiastic about his books. Surely, there would be dozens of books to lop off that order. I worried that if I called him and told him of my intention he'd be a tad bit irritated. I printed up our order and began to attack it with a highlighter.

The very first book on the order was the paperback of Scott Spencer's Willing. Boy, this was going to be easier then I thought. Willing is hands down the single worst novel that I have managed to finish this decade. Spencer, who made his reputation writing Endless Love, manages to offend everyone with his idiotic plot of a freelance writer going on a high-end traveling sex tour. I drew a quick yellow line through the title despite the fact we sold four copies of the book in hardback.

In all, I axed a dozen paperback fiction titles. The hardback titles were more difficult because my initial buys were quite spare, but I managed to trim four titles off of Harper's list. These were books that I only bought in twos. Two is a tepid buy and those titles weren't getting supported by co-op dollars from the publisher or display plans from us. Our chances of selling those titles in a good economy were marginal, now they are nil.

Besides cutting out these small books, I went through the orders and began reducing quantities on bigger buys. Instead of 25 copies of Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, I figured we could survive with 16 from Random House. Did I really need 10 copies of Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand & the World She Made? Perhaps six would make a nice face out.

Slowly, but surely, the cuts began to add up. We got nearly $2,000 at retail out of both the Random House and Harper orders. During the process, I began to get a better feeling for these lists. I looked up several of the books on Amazon, and I discovered what other stores were ordering of these titles by using Above the Treeline (a computer program that allows us to see other independent stores' sales and ordering information).

Unable to do things quietly anymore (it's just not my nature), I mentioned in a twitter post that I was cutting the orders. To my surprise, my Penguin rep called and asked how I was doing the cuts and if I was going to eviscerate his order, could he help. I also spoke to a Random House executive who offered to assist me in reducing our orders to them.

I worked with my Penguin rep and a Random House rep yesterday to cut orders and those calls were much less painful then I expected and much more fruitful. We cut the Penguin hardback order by 16.4% and the Random House order by 13.4%, but I feel much more confident that I made the right decisions now. It was interesting to hear the reps admit that they were overzealous on a few titles when they originally sold me and they also informed me that my passion on a few titles was perhaps a bit overboard. We had remarkably open and honest conversations about the real potential of these titles shorn of the usual pressure from sales conferences and sentimentality of personal favorites.

We even did a little horse trading. My Penguin rep advised me to cut Stuart Brown's Play from eight to five in exchange for increasing our buy from five to eight on Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen. Suddenly, a book about F.D.R.'s first 100 days seems much more timely and vital then it did when I originally bought the list in September. As for Brown's Play, five is still a huge buy (the fifth biggest out of the more than 200 stores that report to Above the Treeline) and enough to get it noticed.

So far I've cut almost $12,000 at retail off of our winter orders. Hopefully, with the help of a few more reps I can double that number by the end of next week. It's not what I expected to be doing during the holiday season. However, if I can avoid the pain of massive returns and unpayable invoices next year because of ill-timed orders arriving in the dead of winter, then that just might be a present for us, the reps and publishers alike.

This is a secret that's just too good not to share.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Coherent Thoughts and Russian Literature

I am finding it difficult to put together a coherent blog post, or even two thoughts, with a newborn in the apartment. She's up at all hours of the night, short-circuiting my brain functions. The problem is compounded because she has also exhausted my muse (her mother). Instead of stepping in and helping me out, the youngster is seemingly unwilling to give me much feedback on my different ideas. The baby apparently has no discernible opinion on the settlement between Google and the publishers, any feelings about the retail holiday season, or a single idea about a book capable of breaking through the economic morass.

I'm left with scattered thoughts and bags under my eyes. Here's a few observations from my last week at the store.

Can the Vampires Save Christmas?

Stephanie Meyer and her vampires have taken over the bookselling world. We don't really have any bestsellers besides for Meyer's Twilight and its sequel New Moon. Since Thanksgiving, I've been asked two questions over and over again: Do we have Stephanie Meyer's books? and What is the combination to our bathroom doors? I'm stupid enough that I approach each customer encounter with eagerness and bated breath (hoping that they will ask me for a suggestion on a great new novel or an idea for what to buy their husband) only to have to point the way to a mass market paperback or curse the owner of the store for putting locks on our customer bathrooms.

The problem with Meyer's vampires is that it doesn't matter how many of these books that we sell because we simply cannot move enough of them at $7.99 or $11.99 to make it a profitable holiday season. Don't get me wrong, I love selling dozens of these books about hunky vampires to young excited readers everyday, I just miss the $35 price tag of Harry Potter. I'm hoping that the collectors edition of Twilight priced at $30 takes off.

It seems that everyone has caught the Meyer fever. A group of young women from the bookstore accompanied the sixth-grade daughter of our children's buyer to the movie Twilight. Their reviews, besides for the middle-schooler, were either tepid or filled with qualifications, but they seemed to thoroughly enjoy the outing. I did find it interesting that a couple of our staff members developed flu-like symptoms within a week.

Customers Concerned About Us

Our business was fairly brisk on the day after Thanksgiving. We were down just a point or two from last year's Black Friday's totals. I found that encouraging. It was fueled largely by tourists in town visiting relatives for the holidays. The regular customers who came in expressed a tremendous level of concern for the store's welfare.

"How are you guys handling the economy?" was the main question I got. When I related to them that we were doing okay until November (one of the worst months in the store's 35-year history), a look of fear interrupted their cheerful countenances. "Surely, people can still afford books," they often respond, patting my hand. I thank them for coming in and then I pitch our January 1st sale.

I'm sure most people in Boulder can still afford books. Home prices haven't really fallen here and foreclosures are almost unheard of, but people's stock portfolios and 401ks must be a little lighter. The truth is, right now no one wants to buy anything including books whether they can afford to or not. Perhaps reminding them of our 25% off sale will induce them to spend a little more money with us.

A Valuable Sense of Community

I've been amazed by the amount of goodwill that I've received since Martina was born. Various members of the bookstore staff brought over dinner every night for a week. My sales reps have sent dozens of cards and many presents. Several customers have stopped me on the sales floor or specifically come in to ask for me and offer congratulations.

We are in a business that truly values people and relationships and for that I am eternally grateful. It's that thought and all of the people who have enriched my life that makes plowing through these tough times bearable.

Don't All Babies Love Russian Novelists?

I haven't quite found my groove yet when it comes to reading books to the baby. She can't really appreciate picture books because as a newborn her vision isn't up to snuff and I can't bring myself to read her silly nursery rhymes when I know that she can't understand the words. Instead, I decided to use the time to read her some great literature. Perhaps, it would somehow sink in.

For a couple of days, I was reading her Richard Yates' Reservation Road, but a tale about suburban angst and relationship disenchantment, regardless of how well it was written, felt inappropriate. We moved on to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I was eager to share with her the 2001 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. We started out great, but by page 12 she was crying every time I stumbled over Stepan Arkadyich's name. Who knows what would have happened had I persisted until Princess Kitty Shcherbatsky entered the text? I might have sent her screaming at the mere mention of Russian literature for the rest of her life.

Instead of reading I tried singing, despite being vocally challenged. I can't carry a tune, and I wouldn't know a key if it was in a dirty diaper. I gave "Rock-a-bye Baby" my all, until I realized on about the 50th time through that it is an atrocious song. Why is the cradle in the tree? Is it war time? Is this some horrible prank? A botched kidnapping, perhaps? Why is it comforting to sing about the cradle (with the baby in it) falling out of the tree?

I never liked the song anyway. Before long, I noticed that I was humming a Clash song that seemed to calm her down. I couldn't remember any words except the three-word refrain, "Drug-stabbing time." Well, that sounded just as soothing as "Rock-a-bye Baby." At least nothing awful is happening to a sleeping infant.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Kash's Baby Corner

Kash's Book Corner is undergoing a huge upheaval with the addition of a new baby into the fold. Our first child, Martina, was born on Tuesday and we returned from the hospital on Thursday afternoon. Hopefully, if Martina takes after her mother, she should begin work as a Kash's Book Corner assistant copy editor by 2023. As I am sure most parents know, it is almost impossible to have any lengthy coherent thoughts during these first few sleep deprived days. My guess is that things should get back to normal around here in roughly 940 weeks.

Here are a few random observations and notes from my first 72 hours as a daddy.

Labor is also Difficult for Dad

I dreamed about the birth of my baby for the entire pregnancy. I expected to be totally overwhelmed with emotion when she was born and my eyes would tear up just thinking of holding her fresh from the womb in the hospital. Well, things went as expected during most of labor. We were both so excited and expectant that despite the pain, even my wife was strangely blissful. However, after two hours of watching my wife trying to push the baby out, I was just thinking "get out of my wife now, kid." All the lovey, dovey, romanticized visions of the birth moment were gone. In fact, I didn't get weepy when the baby was born. I was just intensely relieved and grateful that my wife's pain was subsiding.

What's in a Name?

We named her Martina after my mother-in-law's family name of Martiny. Last summer we attended an amazing family reunion with over 100 relatives in Allegany, New York. Sure, I had to wear a nametag that said "in-law" on it that was only slightly less humiliating then having a scarlet "I" branded on me. Still, I was taken by the family's rich history, diversity and endurance. I also enjoyed our remarkable hike up to the Martiny Rocks on the family's former homestead. It was a walk that Thomas Merton used to make when he lived in the area. I wanted my daughter to feel connected to that history.

Also, I'm a tremendous sports fan and the greatest female athlete I've ever seen in person was Martina Navratilova at the United States Open. She was often reviled by the fans and whenever she played Chris Evert the crowd was strongly against her. Not me. I always rooted for her. More often than not she prevailed in those epic matches with remarkable grace. I'd be proud if my daughter showed those qualities some day.

I'm Blue because she's spitting Black

Our time in the hospital was largely uneventful. The baby was healthy and took to nursing. Mommy was exhausted and hurting but otherwise fine. All of that was a tremendous relief. In fact, we were often told what a model infant we had. Just as I was beginning to relax during that first night and bask in the glory of being a father, Martina started burping like she wanted to spit something up. I grabbed her and put her over my shoulder. As I patted her back, black stuff began coming out of her mouth. My beautiful baby is possessed, I thought.

As this was happening, a fantastic nurse (she taught us how to swaddle, change diapers, hold the baby and calm the baby, all after midnight) came into the room and seized the baby out of my arms. She turned her over on her stomach and began hitting her back hard until Martina began crying. The nurse commanded me to get out the suction bulb. In a panic, I began overturning things in the room until I eventually found it and handed it to her. She suctioned the baby's mouth out and handed her back to me.

In her fairly thick Polish accent she said, "it is not good when baby starts turning blue. You must turn her over and make her cry." I rocked the hysterical baby and said, "Blue, what about the black stuff coming out of her mouth and nose?" She looked on me with great tenderness. "That is dried blood that she gulped in the amniotic fluid. She's a strong baby and probably coughed most of it out. It's a good thing." I took a deep breath. Black is good. Blue is bad.

This is what I call Nightlife

We aren't getting much sleep which is what I expected. However, I must admit that I'm surprised by how blissful some of the sleepless middle-of-the-night hours can be. Last night, our first night home, Martina was screaming her head off at about 1:30 a.m. She had just nursed and her diaper was dry. There was nothing to do but hold her and walk with her and try and let her mother get a little sleep.

Little by little she began to settle down. Eventually, we sat in a rocking chair together and passed the time with me speaking nonsense (she doesn't object to this like most people) and her occasionally looking up at me with her half-opened right eye. Around 2:00 a.m. I tried to put her down in the bassinet, but her shrieks made it clear she wasn't interested. Instead, we lay on the couch together. She fell into a fitful sleep while lying on my chest. She was moving her perfectly formed little hands and contorting her face into every expression a person can exhibit as she snuggled into my warm T-shirt.

If I have ever been more content, it was probably over 40 years ago in the middle of a winter's night when I lay on my daddy's chest and fell asleep listening to his voice in my ear.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I Lied to the President-elect

I met Barack Obama at a Book Expo America event in 2006. In February of this year, on the day of the Colorado caucus, I wrote about the experience in Kash's Book Corner. That post has become the most popular entry on the blog. Now that he is President-elect, I thought I'd link to it today. Here it is Lying Bookseller, Smooth Politician.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Proud to say Barack Obama is our Man

The Boulder Book Store threw off the last shreds of objectivity last week and came out completely for Barack Obama and the entire slate of Democratic candidates running for office in this election. In the past, we have struggled to represent the right-wing, lunatic fringe and appease the rabid conservatives with a few token titles. We still have the conservative political books but that certainly won't fool anyone as to our true feelings. Now, as soon as you walk in our front door, you are greeted by a large table manned by the Boulder County Democratic Party.

Our inventory has always tilted significantly to the left. We are in a liberal town, with a liberal staff and an extremely liberal customer base. It's simply good business to sell Bush Countdown Clocks, anything by Michael Moore, and Barack Obama Llamas. However, we, like most bookstores, were always hesitant to take a clear stance in a national election. Why alienate a few conservative customers if we didn't need to? That all changed last week as the owner and the staff (you can't find a single employee that is even neutral in this election) felt the outcome of the election was more critical then any other concern.

I'm grateful for this decision. I was weary of trying to pretend to be objective and just business-minded when we are not. In 2004, several people (I won't call them customers because they usually didn't buy anything) complained bitterly about our election display. We had six shelves of books and all but a dozen or so were either anti George W. Bush or pro John Kerry. I walked these sputtering, incensed people over to the computer terminal and showed them our relative sales of Al Franken and Ann Coulter books. Most of them were surprised by the 50-1 margin that Franken outsold Coulter. I told them that they could buy some conservative books while they were at the store and that would impact our future buys on that author. They never did.

What is remarkable about this election is that hardly anyone has complained about our selection. We are much more biased in our inventory mix towards Obama then we ever were towards Kerry. We have a full selection of Obama t-shirts, bumper stickers and pins to go along with all the flattering books. Hardly a peep from the conservatives. It's like the fight has left the right. Perhaps they haven't gotten their marching orders telling them to walk into local bookstores and complain about the media bias.

Really, what's wrong with a store showing some bias in an election? We are human beings enmeshed in our communities, after all. We have a stake in the outcome of these races. People often work at bookstores because they value ideas and opinions more then it is fiscally responsible to do so. To ask these people to pretend that they don't have an opinion, or that the store as whole doesn't have an opinion, on the biggest issue of the day, is absurd. Especially now.

George Bush, Dick Cheney and the Republican party have spent the last seven years doing everything they can to trample on the very civil liberties that are at the heart of our value system. People who have disagreed with this administration have endured years of affronts and attempts to stifle dissent. It is our patriotic responsibility to take a stance in this election. To do any less would be un-American and we wouldn't want to give the right any cause to accuse us of that.

Go Obama. The time has come.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Dawn of the Color Photograph

The color blue is not particularly startling. We see it every day in the sky, in the clothing we wear, in the ink from our pens. It is shocking, however, to see the cobalt blue of the uniforms worn by the French soldiers in the trenches of World War I. It is equally stunning to view the rich crimson garment worn by a 14-year old in 1913 Ireland or the vibrant saffron in a rug being woven in 1909 Algiers.

These color photos featured in The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet present us with vibrant images of a world that we think of as simply being black and white. Our ideas of color from these years comes from staring at the disturbing early paintings of Picasso or the fanciful works of a young Matisse. To see beautiful color photographs of everyday life from almost every corner of the globe completely changes our perspectives of those times and people.

The process used in these pictures was the autochrome (featuring glass plates and potato starch) which was invented by Auguste and Louis Lumiere in 1907. The Lumieres were also instrumental in developing the motion picture. For the first time in history, the autochrome provided a portable method for taking color photographs. It was very expensive, however, and that's where the French banker Albert Kahn came in.

Kahn's grand vision was that as the world's people got to know each other and to understand each other's cultures, the less likely it was that they would destroy each other in war. With that aim, he started a scholarship program that sent young teachers to the far-flung corners of the world. This was four years before the Rhodes scholarship was founded. Kahn saw the autochrome as a way to further his vision. He wanted to document, in color, all life in the world. His immensely ambitious project had an equally far-reaching name - The Archives of the Planet. Kahn sent professional photographers to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa from 1908 to the early 1930s in order to document life in dozens of societies.

His pacifist ideals were obviously not realized--ironically some of the best photos were taken in Europe during World War I--but his photographers took some of the earliest color pictures, creating a unique historical record. In all, they left behind 72,000 autochromes, of which 370 are reproduced in this magnificent book from Princeton University. The commentary provided by David Okuefuna gives us glimpses into the adventures of some of these intrepid men and women that Kahn employed.

The photos have an eerie quality, and the colors, particularly the reds, are at times more brilliant than what we see in contemporary images. The shots are surreal in the sense that we are viewing scenes that should have been lost to history. It's like a strange dream, or a dazzling Hollywood production, when we see a Vietnamese concubine lounging in a beautiful pink robe in a 1915 opium den, or when we view the 1919 World War I victory parade in London with colorful flags fluttering.

Kahn's photographers focused on the mundane, the everyday, commonplace activities of the early 20th century. We see soldiers peeling apples, girls playing with dolls, men smoking pipes, bakers hawking their loaves of bread. The grand historical moments of that time are largely absent, but what is present are people attempting to live out their routine existences in a world of tremendous turmoil. It's impossible to look into these faces and not see ourselves with our petty concerns and our grand dreams on some level. At the same time, we look at their surroundings (horse-drawn carriages, distinct regional clothing and technology that is more 18th century then 20th) and see a world that has disappeared.

One of Kahn's goals was to document the disappearing cultural practices around the world. As a banker who was financing industrialization, he knew that the world was changing in permanent ways. He understood globalization before anyone ever called it that. One of the most striking aspects of the collection are the pictures taken in France's colonial possessions. The photos seem to rejoice in the indigenous cultures of Indochina and North Africa. A Vietnamese theater company in their garish outfits is portrayed, as well as traditional Algerian dancers in two of the more fascinating photos. At the same time the photographers ignore the heavy-handed French colonial presence in both of those regions.

None of this colonial rule is examined in these photos. The Vietnam photos were taken in one of the most tumultuous years of the French rule--a prison was seized in Saigon by rebels and an attempted coup in Hanoi was put down. But the photographer, Leon Busy, a French officer, was more preoccupied by the enchanting women of Indochina and colorful local clothes. In the notes, Okuefuna speculates on why Busy and others ignored France's brutal colonial rule.

"Was it because, as (film historian Paula) Amad suggests, the Archives of the Planet were 'an unofficial ambassador for French colonial policy'? Did Kahn or (Jean) Brunhes order him to refrain from recording anything that might jeopardize the Archive's cordial relationship with the higher circles of the French military? Was Busy prevented from shooting the activities of the French military by the diktat of a senior officer? Was it simply self-censorship, or a matter of taste?"

The lack of newsreel-type images or journalistic shots makes the work all the more powerful in many ways. Life finds a way to continue to go on in the most savage of conditions. Children will play behind the lines in a war-torn French city, Vietnamese men will continue to fish and plant rice under terrible repression. The photos take on a quality of timelessness that seems removed from a particular political regime or event.

This timeless perspective is enhanced by the softer, almost painterly qualities of the prints themselves. When the autochromes are enlarged they become pixillated and we can be fooled into thinking we are looking at remarkable detailed paintings. The contemporary artist Gerhard Richter's ethereal work springs to mind. There is something quite luminous on that border between photography and painting that these pictures inhabit.

It's rare that a book can change your view of the world. Perusing these images from Kahn's Archives of the Planet and reading Okuefuna's brief but informative captions has given me a much greater insight into how people lived nearly 100 years ago. This book is nothing short of a miracle. It's a time machine to the birth of our modern world.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tales of Three Book Events

Author events are critical to the image and perhaps the very survival of large independent bookstores. Go to the website of any major store (Powell's in Portland, Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. or Vroman's in Pasadena) and you will find the upcoming signings prominently displayed. It's one of the main ways that independents are able to distinguish themselves from the chain stores in the area. We are more than a bookstore, we are a literary and cultural hub to our communities.

That is certainly true in Boulder. The Boulder Book Store hosts about 200 events a year. We generate most of our local publicity through these events and almost all of the advertising that we do is directly tied to the author events. It's fair to say that our profile is much higher in town because we've been able to bring our customers face to face with David Sedaris, Garrison Keillor, Jon Krakauer, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joyce Carol Oates and hundreds of other authors over the years.

You would think that with our track record, we would be experts at putting on successful events. Unfortunately, many of these events are fraught with peril and difficult decisions. The line between a great event and a terrible disappointment is often just a matter of a few books, a moody author, a bad sound system, or an unruly customer.

Over the past month, we've had several major ticketed events and I thought I'd look closely at three of them and lift the veil on our decision-making process and the results. One of the events (Neil Gaiman) was wildly successful, another (a video presentation with Philip Roth) started off as a dud but now must be considered a winner and the third (Philippa Gregory) never got off the ground.

Neil Gaiman

I was a big Sandman fan when the comic first appeared in the late 1980s. My old original issues of the first dozen or so books are still sitting in a box in my sister's attic in New Jersey. I hope she doesn't figure out what I'm storing up there and list them on ebay. I haven't really followed Gaiman in his transition to more traditional novels, but still this is the man who made Death a likable character.

We were ecstatic to get an event with him. There is heavy competition between independent bookstores for top-flight authors and Gaiman was only appearing in nine U.S. cities. We put in a detailed proposal to HarperCollins and hoped for the best, but never really expected that he would come to Boulder. Once we were awarded the signing, then the decisions had to be made.

Where would we have the event? How much would we charge for tickets? Would we require customers to buy a book in order to get into the event? Would customers get a discount on the book if they attended the event?

We decided to hold the event at Unity Church of Boulder. It's really the nicest offsite venue we have access to and boasts an excellent sound system. We charged $6.00 for tickets which is our cheapest rate. The ticket fee covers the cost of the venue as well as the extra staff needed to run an offsite event. Since, the tickets were so inexpensive, customers did not get a discount on the book. We reasoned that we didn't have a history with Gaiman and perhaps much of his audience would be young and not so well-heeled.

Ticket sales were brisk from the day they went on sale. People were finding us through Gaiman's site and also from our email blasts to our customers. It soon became apparent that we would probably sell out the 600-seat venue. I ordered 220 copies of his newest title, a young adult novel, The Graveyard Book for the event along with a liberal smattering of his other titles.

Before I could even decide if we had a enough books for the event, my Harper rep was on the phone insisting that we were way short on books. He wanted us to order 250 more books. I was astounded. How would we sell so many books? It's a young adult book which isn't Gaiman's core audience. He also would not be personalizing the book at the signing. Add that to our history of events in this venue where 250 to 300 was our absolute ceiling on sales, I just couldn't wrap my head around bringing in 470 books.

We finally settled on 200 additional copies and stopped hyperventilating for a couple of weeks. The next shock to the system came on the day before the event was scheduled. It was my Harper rep again. "Hey, Bubbe (for some reason I'm a Yiddish grandmother to my rep) you need another 100 books. Everyone has taken at least 500 books." In what reality? I wanted to ask instead I was much more diplomatic, "Are you crazy?"

"We'll overnight them," he said. I told him that I thought we would never sell that many copies. It wasn't mathematically possible. We might have sold 600 tickets, but some of those were families, some were couples, some were people that simply wouldn't buy the new book. Well, what could I do? God forbid I was wrong.

The night of the event was crazy. Gaiman arrived at the store to sign all of the stock before rushing over to the venue. He got to all of the new books but didn't have time to sign much of the back stock. As we arrived at the church there was a line of people snaked halfway around the building waiting to get in.

We frantically set up folding chairs in the aisles and behind the pews in order to accommodate any overflow crowd. We prayed that the Fire Marshall was not a Sandman devotee and flung the doors open. The crowd came pouring in and it seemed that they all lined up to buy books. What did they buy? The Graveyard Book. They bought it in pairs, in threes. I was never so happy in my life that my rep made me bring in more books. We rang and rang in the sales until Gaiman started talking.

I began to fear that 520 books would not be enough. We tallied up our sales as the last of the customers wandered into the hall and saw that we sold 202 copies. Wow. For most of our events that would be a great final number. Usually we sold two to three times as many books after the event as we did before. My God, if that was the case we would run out of books. We only had 318 left. Why didn't he insist I buy 400 more books?

Gaiman read over 40 pages from The Graveyard Book that night. On each night of the tour he read a different chapter of the book. We heard the second half of chapter 7, the penultimate chapter, that contained the climax to the story. His reading went on for over an hour and the audience hung on his every word despite the stuffiness of the hot church. Afterwards, he showed a trailer for the forthcoming movie Coraline and took questions.

By the time the event was let out, over two hours had elapsed. What a deal for $6.00. The crowd started surging towards our table of books and I grew concerned. My fears were short lived as many, many more people headed out into Boulder's cool night air. Perhaps two hours was long enough. Perhaps some of the audience didn't feel the need to buy the book after having the most exciting part of it read to them. We sold another 83 books and our final tally was 285 for the night in addition to dozens of backlist books.

It was a magnificent event. One of the best we ever hosted. The audience was thrilled, the author gracious and we actually did more business at the event then we did all day long in the store.

Philip Roth

Roth is perhaps my favorite novelist. One of the very first novels that my wife and I read aloud together was Portnoy's Complaint. I knew she was a keeper when she thought the salacious story of Alexander Portnoy was brilliant and hilarious as opposed to sexist and frivolous.

Roth simply does not tour. I had the pleasure and agony of meeting Roth last year in New York City at a cocktail party. Most of his readers never get that opportunity. Given that he was never going to come to Boulder, we jumped at the chance to be one of the bookstores that would show a live feed of an interview with Roth provided by his publisher Houghton Mifflin. In addition to the video, Houghton Mifflin gave us the option of purchasing up to 48 signed copies of Roth's new novel Indignation for the event.

Signed first edition Roth books. That's a big deal. I quickly got on line and found that you could not buy a signed first edition Roth novel for less than $60. Of course, the fact that Houghton Mifflin was putting on this event would dilute the market for those signed books, but still it seemed many book collectors might attend the event just to get a signed book.

We set the ticket price, which included a signed book, at $49.95. Before we could even publicize the event, two things happened: Houghton offered us 72 books instead of 48 and we started seeing that other stores were charging $35 or less. We decided to reduce our price to $34.95. Ticket sales were slow but still the enticement of a rare signed volume was definitely creating some interest. Days before the event, the rarity of the item was severely compromised. Houghton Mifflin now said we could purchase up to 300 copies of the book signed.

We kept our order at 72 and hoped for the best. On the night of the event, we had less than 10 people in the audience. It turns out that of the dozen tickets we sold, a few of the people just wanted to get the signed book and bought a ticket to guarantee they wouldn't miss out. I took my seat as the video feed began. It started off interestingly enough with Roth politely answering a few questions, but it soon veered off track. Our feed wasn't perfect and Roth's words raced ahead of the picture. Also, it took on a C-Span quality. It was quite static (two men sitting in chairs talking for an hour) and Roth is frankly not the most forthcoming of interview subjects.

My enthusiasm waned and I began to think that if this is the future of author events, perhaps we should go into a different business. No one would want to see this except the most hardcore Roth fans. It didn't have anything approaching the vibrancy of an actual event and that connection to the author that thrills our customers just wasn't there.

Perhaps we shouldn't have charged for the event. If the interview was on a DVD instead of a live feed, we could have avoided the technical difficulties. However, the real problem was that even if everything went perfectly and we had 50 people attending it still would have been a boring event. It wouldn't have been something that people would venture out to see on a cold winter evening.

I left that night thinking of the event as a failure. During the broadcast, the owner of the bookstore sidled up to me and asked, "this is it?" motioning to the screen and the scant audience. I shrugged and said, "we tried."

A few days later as I was buying our new fiction section, I noticed that the Roth book had sold a few more copies. It kept selling. The autographed copies were actually flying off our shelves in the weeks that followed. We have now sold over 50 books, double what we sold of his previous hardback, and Indignation is high on our bestseller list. Not bad. The buzz from the event and the autograph stickers seem to be working their magic.

Philippa Gregory

Tonight's event with Gregory, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl, was cancelled late last week due to low ticket sales. This was a painful end to what we had hoped would be a signature event during our 35th anniversary celebration. What went wrong? Why were ticket sales stalled when we drew over 250 people to Gregory's last event in the store?

We anticipated that the turn out would be stronger this year then when we hosted her for the paperback release of The Constant Princess two years ago. She was touring behind a new hardback, The Other Queen, the movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl had created added interest in her work, and we were going to have period costumes for the event.

Our last event with Gregory strained our in-store capabilities. More than half the crowd had to stand and our event space gets quite warm when there are that many people. It seemed like a natural to go offsite with Gregory. Also, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, was insisting that Gregory events were held in large venues. We set the ticket price at $10 with customers getting $5 off her new hardcover.

Ticket sales started out slowly which isn't entirely unusual. Our event with James Kunstler for The Long Emergency eventually drew over 250 people even though less than 100 tickets were sold before the day of the event. Our marketing team kept sending out emails about the Gregory event, we displayed the book prominently and waited for the throngs of Gregory fans. It never happened. Finally, when we were four days away from the event with less than 40 tickets sold, we knew going offsite to a venue that held 600 was not going to work.

We had hoped to move the event back into the store, but the publisher was uncomfortable with that and so our only alternative was to cancel the event. It is a tremendous disappointment. Ironically, when I was at the register during Saturday's sale, two different people asked me about the Gregory event. They were upset and surprised it was cancelled even though neither one of them had tickets.

Perhaps we would have had a late rally and sold enough tickets to make it look respectable in the venue and recoup some of the cost associated with renting the space. Somehow, I doubt it. Between the election, the economy, and the weather (which turned miserable over the weekend) it just seemed we couldn't get this event off the ground. The saddest thing for me, was seeing the costumes packed up and sent off to the next tour stop without getting a chance to see anyone dressed as one of the Boleyns.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

I Ban Books for a Living

Banned Books Week is mercifully coming to an end today. The annual event that seeks to educate the public on what titles are being suppressed in the United States is sponsored by the American Library Association. Thousands of stores and libraries across the country, including the Boulder Book Store, feature displays of "banned books" intended to rile up our customers and alert them to the outrage being perpetuated throughout the land.

I am not all that interested in the hysteria. It's not exactly Fahrenheit 451 out there. No one's snatching books out of the hands of adults. Hell, Laura Bush, first lady to the Commander-in-Chief of Intolerance, helped launch the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps my unease over making a big deal about banned books in America is because you can get anything you want, anywhere you want on the internet. Banned books are a tough sell as a piece of marketing these days. I heard a number of wise cracks as people looked at our store's display. The truth is that you can get many things that a sane society would actually ban delivered in an innocuous brown package right to your door. In today's world, how can you ban anything at a local level? It just doesn't make sense.

I first started dissenting from the banned book celebration several years ago when the word "challenged" was used instead of "banned" on many of the titles. The bookstore would get a list of "challenged" books that we could use in our displays. Many of these were books that some zealous parent in a small rural hamlet had objected to on a middle school reading list. The locals realized that the complaint wasn't worth taking up and the book remained on the school reading list. Somehow those books qualify for inclusion in Banned Book Week. To me, that's not a banned book.

Many banned or challenged books occur in schools. Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolover and Toni Morrision all make this year's list. But what is really happening? Only McCarthy's book Child of God and Morrison's Beloved were actually removed from any reading list. Kingsolver's Animal Dreams was moved from a ninth-grade reading list to the eleventh grade, while Oates' Sexy and Morrison's Bluest Eye were deemed not offensive. Even Beloved, which was removed in an A.P. English class in Louisville, Kentucky, isn't threatened with an outright ban. Two parents are asking that students get parental permission to read it.

Contrast those mild challenges with what I do everyday as a professional book banner. As the head buyer of the Boulder Book Store, I spend many days meeting with publisher sales reps deciding what books will be placed on our shelves and which ones will not enter our store. There's no committee to review my decisions. There's no oversight at all. Once I decide I don't want a book, in all likelihood that book will never make it onto our shelves.

My reasons for banning books include: the book will probably not sell; the cover is an affront to my aesthetic sensibilities; no Boulderite in their right mind will be interested in the topic; the editor was rude to me at an author dinner; I'm in a terrible, terrible mood because the rep and I haven't stopped for a lunch break.

I admit that the Boulder Book Store is not as important to literacy as a junior high school in Lake Oswego, Oregon where they actually let children read Gail Giles' Shattering Glass, albeit with the disclaimer that it contains "mature content/language." But we do have our place in the community. In fact, in a recent article about our 35th anniversary celebration the local paper called us "the city's literary heart."

I am the black in that heart, gleefully rejecting books that the reps proffer with glib phrases like, "I'll pass on that one," "Are you kidding?" "Why is that even being published?" and "Skip." Sure, I feel guilty about some of these books that I ban from the store. There were two books in particular in last week's Random House appointment that made me hesitate.

The first was David Horowitz's One Party Classroom, a sordid tale about how colleges are turning our young people into dangerous left-wing types. I almost bought it for the sake of not appearing politically biased, until the rep asked me to look up Horowitz's previous book, The Professors. That one was an expose of the 101 most dangerous academics in America. Did they bring weapons into the classroom? Were they convicted sexual predators? No. They just made the mistake of disagreeing with Horowitz's addled political values. They were liberals like Horowitz once was. Well, it turns out I didn't buy The Professors for the store and no one seemed to notice. We didn't get a single special order or complaint. In One Party Classroom, Horowitz names "the worst school in America." Maybe it will be the University of Colorado. That would make me lift the ban.

The second and more guilt-inducing book was Best African American Essays: 2009 edited by Debra J. Dickerson. Bantam paperbacks is launching a new series of African American essays and also short stories. I opted to buy five of the short story collection but skipped the essays. In part because stories outsell essays by a margin of 5 to 1. Also, I wasn't sure how I felt about the series as a whole. Fifteen years ago we used to have sections or displays of African American fiction, Native American fiction and gay fiction. Now, many of those titles seem to succeed in the "fiction" section. Readers seem more willing to accept the diversity of fiction out there without wanting it labeled. In fact, we've had customers get upset when those titles appeared in special sections. I'll be interested to see how Bantam's collection of short stories does this year.

Now, most of my fellow bookstore buyers would not say that they are banning books from their stores. To say that "We are carefully selecting titles for our customers" is one way to spin our disdain for over ninety percent of the books that are published each year. My favorite highfalutin term is that we are curators. Instead of debating about exhibits featuring Mattisse and Picasso, we argue over whether to face out Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks.

Banned Books Week takes us away from the real threats facing books. The annual event started in 1982, before the internet existed. If a book wasn't carried by your town's library, it wasn't easy to find. That's not the case anymore thanks to the world wide web. The new threats are more insidious. Truly controversial books are having a hard time finding major publishing houses and also of getting media exposure. While we fret over one parent's unsuccessful attempt to remove copies of Harry Potter from the school libraries in Gwinnett County, Georgia, important books are not being published at all. Does anyone really believe that kids are deprived of their Harry Potter fix?

Naomi Wolfe's End of America and Vincent Bugliosi's The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder both were bypassed by major publishing houses in America and have received scant review attention in the nation's newspapers. Those authors were famous enough to find other avenues for their books. (Wolfe was published by Chelsea Green, and Bugliosi by Vanguard Press.) What about authors that are less fortunate? It's impossible to ban or even challenge a book that can't get published.

I must admit that I don't really have a problem with a parent challenging a book that their child is being asked to read in school. Reading about these school challenges is almost heartwarming because so many of them fail for the right reasons. School boards debate the merits of books, prosecutors read Toni Morrison, and they almost always decide that the books should stay in the library or the curriculum despite the parent's objection. It's called a dialogue. It's what open societies do to establish acceptable mores.

Is that so terrible? Most people would not object to their ninth-grade child being assigned one of the great American novels of the 20th century. But what if that novel was Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint? I don't think I'd be comfortable with a giggling 14-year-old asking me to explain the literary merits of a scene in which the protagonist is masturbating with a refrigerated piece of meat. I'd probably challenge it before I could ever get into that awkward conversation.

I would ban my own favorite novel.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Klosterman, Hodgman and Lardons

The word "lardons" on the menu of The Blue Star in Colorado Springs caused me a bit of concern at a Simon & Schuster author dinner last weekend. I was trying to find a meal that fit in with my dietary restrictions (I don't eat land-roving animals) and had settled on the scallops. However, the seared scallops, in addition to being served with creamed corn and pear relish, also featured Saint Germaine lardons. The word lard, or anything related to it, generally strikes fear in most vegetarian or semi-vegetarian hearts.

What was I to do? The shrimp came with pork, the special fish (a tuna) was sold out, and I was trying to avoid the summer squash cappelletti since I'd had noodles for lunch and summer was over. I conferred with my wife, and she guessed that lardons was a type of French cheese. I didn't believe her. Finally, I broke into the conversation at the table and said, "Does anyone know what lardons are? Saint Germaine lardons?"

I was met with quizzical looks from the dozen people at the table. Just as I was beginning to despair that I might have to rely on the waitress, who didn't seem to know that andouille sausage was not a vegetable, one of the dinner's featured authors, John Hodgman, came to the rescue. Hodgman, who many might recognize as the human P.C. in the Apple computer commercials, whipped out his iPhone.

Hodgman dramatically held up his iPhone for all to see and announced over his shoulder to the rest of the diners in the restaurant (who weren't paying any attention to our table), "I am using my iPhone."

Within seconds, Hodgman had our definition. "Small strips or cubes of fat or bacon. It's bacon," he said as he dramatically put his iPhone back in his pocket. I was disappointed. What was I going to eat? This dinner at the Mountains and Plains Independent Bookseller Association Show had already caused me more heartburn than usual for a trade show event, and now that I was in Colorado Springs, I didn't see a suitable entree.

Originally, I was supposed to go to a Random House dinner at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs' fabled hotel. That invitation fell through in a terribly embarrassing fashion. After the rep proffered the invite, I asked him if it would all right if I brought my wife with me. She's accompanied me on dozens of these dinners over the years. He hemmed and hawed and said that he only had eight places and if an extra one opened up he'd be happy to invite her. In fact, he was relatively sure that a bookseller from Utah was going to cancel out on the meal.

I apologized for being a pain in the neck, but my wife, who is nearly eight months pregnant, wouldn't be too happy about being stuck in a Colorado Springs hotel room, while I went to dinner without her. My rep, who is actually the first person I ever bought books from as a new buyer in 1997, said he'd let me know as soon as possible if she could attend.

A few days later, I still hadn't heard from him when the Simon & Schuster rep called me and asked if I'd like to have dinner with Chuck Klosterman, the author of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. I could hardly believe my luck. Klosterman has been a personal hero of mine ever since I read his article and interview with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant in Chuck Klosterman IV. Anyone who would ask Plant why he sang, "I'm gonna give you every inch of my love," in the Zeppelin song "Whole Lotta Love," rather than using the metric system in the lyrics, was sure to be a hilarious dinner companion.

"When is the dinner?" I asked. The rep suggested Friday night, which was when I had my tentative Random House dinner. "Can Emily attend?" I asked. The rep said she would be happy to have Emily along. In fact, she was looking for more people for the dinner because they were scheduling it so close to the trade show that most booksellers already had plans.

Once I knew Emily could go, I said yes. I didn't call my Random House rep to see what was going on with his dinner. I didn't have the courtesy to tell Simon & Schuster that I needed to find out about another engagement. No. I just thought, "Dinner with Chuck Klosterman. I'm going. Thank God, I have a way out of the Random House party."

Well, I didn't get off the hook that easily. The phone rang early the next Monday morning and it was my venerable Random House rep on the line. "Arsen, imagine my surprise when I was in Utah last Friday and I ran into the Simon & Schuster rep. She said you were planning to go to her dinner," he said. I felt the blood rush to my head.

"I can explain. I was just about to call you," I said into his rueful chuckle. "I hadn't heard back from you and she had room for both me and Emily."

"Sure, sure," he answered in a perfectly calm voice. "Run off with Simon & Schuster. Take up with them. Here I was telling everyone that you and Emily were coming to our dinner."

I apologized profusely, and mercifully he let me off the hook with just a mild ribbing. Perhaps anger would have been easier to handle, because I still feel very guilty about the whole thing.

On Wednesday, just two days before the dinner, things got even more complicated. I was sitting down to buy the frontlist from my Penguin hardback rep when I got a call from the Simon & Schuster rep. She wanted me to know that Klosterman's friend, and fellow speaker at the Mtns & Plains author breakfast, John Hodgman, was also going to attend the dinner. Now, some astute readers of Kash's Book Corner might have already asked themselves: what was Hodgman, the author of the Penguin bestseller The Areas of My Expertise and the forthcoming Penguin title More Information Than You Require, doing at a Simon & Schuster author soiree?

Unfortunately, I did not think of the awkwardness of all of this and blurted out to my Penguin rep that I was going to have dinner with John Hodgman. Oh boy, that set him off.

"Shouldn't Penguin be setting something up with him if he's in town for dinner? Shouldn't I have something set up?" he asked incredulously. "I've got to deal with this." He was clearly agitated, and I could see that the sales call was going downhill quickly.

I implored him to do nothing. "I'm already in trouble with Random House for this dinner. I don't need any more problems. No one can know that I told you Hodgman was going to dinner with Simon." Grasping at straws, I suggested, "Perhaps you could get an invite. They're looking for people because they are setting it up so late."

Well, he never did get an invite because with the two marquee names attending one dinner, Simon didn't seem to have any trouble filling the table. It turned out to be one of the most amusing author dinners I ever attended.

Klosterman, a tall, gangly guy with a full beard and slightly messy hair, who seemed to have Red Bull coursing through his veins, held court on rock music and other topics. We briefly touched upon his new novel, Downtown Owl, but he seemed on much more comfortable ground discussing the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks. At one point during dessert, we were having a discussion about first concert experiences, and he recalled that his first show was seeing the metal band Ratt.

"I think I still have the ticket in my wallet," Klosterman said. He thumbed through his wallet and found a small ticket and looked at it appreciatively. "How much do you think it cost in 1989 to see this show?"

A bookseller from Durango, Colorado guessed $12.50. Klosterman was impressed with the guess and put the ticket down on the table. It was a show with three bands, and it cost less than $15. My, how times have changed.

Hodgman was more reserved than Klosterman but just as funny. I guess you don't get a regular role on the Daily Show if you can't entertain people. His humor was droll and often unexpected, but always clever. We got in a long discussion about the pros and cons of children's television with Hodgman passionately opposed to the new-look Sesame Street.

Hodgman showed his serious side in a conversation with Emily, a middle school teacher, about failing schools and highly recommended Paul Tough's new book Whatever it Takes. Tough profiles Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, and his efforts to not only educate poor children but to eradicate poverty by restructuring the educational system and providing radical levels of support to parents and families at home.

Perhaps the most humorous moment of the evening happened away from the table when I headed towards the bathroom. In front of the bathroom, I ran into a young female sales rep, who shall forever remain nameless. She was attending a different author dinner at the restaurant, and was just waiting there by the men's room. I asked her what she was doing.

"I saw Chuck Klosterman go in there," she said pointing to the door of the men's room. "I really want to meet him so I'm waiting for him to come out."

I wanted to tell her that she could just come over to our table and any one of the booksellers would be happy to introduce her to Klosterman, but I just couldn't ruin the moment for her by making it that easy. After all, she had worked up the gumption to follow him to the bathroom in order to get a private moment.

When my entree finally arrived that evening, I noticed what appeared to be shriveled beets or overly roasted red potatoes on my plate. I had ended up ordering the scallops, without the lardons. Just as I was about to try one of these strange looking beets, I heard Klosterman yell from across the table, "Hey, I think you've got my lardons."

I looked up, and he had a plate of scallops (actually just three scallops, good thing Simon & Schuster was paying) and it was free of the offending meat. We traded plates, but before Klosterman's food was back on the table, Hodgman was asking for a taste of the treasured lardons. He took one into his mouth, savored it and looked over at me.

"They're really good," he said with a devilish grin.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Woodward & Friedman

Bob Woodward and Thomas Friedman don't have quite the same ring as Woodward and Bernstein, but this September the two journalists have been linked. Both their new books came out on the same day and both were greeted by media coverage that was able to break through the wall-to-wall election news. Also, both journalists seem to maintain a dose of objectivity and neutrality in their books that is highly unusual in today's polarized book market, which routinely features partisan warriors like Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly.

Woodward's The War Within chronicles the Bush administration's "secret" history over the last two years--most notably the discussions around the military surge in Iraq. It is Woodward's fourth book on Bush and his cronies and it follows the damning State of Denial. Plan of Attack, published in 2004, is a more mixed view of the administration, while the sycophantic Bush at War, detailing the first few months after the 9/11 attacks, was the low-point of Woodward's career in retrospect.

When I saw the subtitle of the new Woodward book (A Secret White House History 2006-2008), I wasn't sure which was the more absurd idea--that someone in the Bush administration would still tell Woodward a secret after the publication of A State of Denial, or the hubris of Woodward himself in believing he's actually being told valuable secrets.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded, meanwhile, is Thomas Friedman's take on how global warming and America's wavering sense of national purpose are inextricably connected. Friedman's previous book (the blockbuster The World is Flat) has become the primer for many people on globalization. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, has a reputation as a somewhat fair-minded centrist. If he were a politician, he'd be the world's most unrepentant flip-flopper. He has championed every side of the Iraq War over the last five years. He was for it before he was against it three times over.

I was thrilled last Monday when these two books came out. September is usually a slow month at the store, compared to the tourist-filled days of July and August. Two huge sellers just might provide the spark we needed to extend the busy summer season a few more weeks, I hoped. We cleared off the cart directly across from the registers of the eight different books that were occupying it, and filled it up with The War Within and Hot, Flat, and Crowded. We flung the doors opened and waited for the frenzied masses to snatch up copies of the new titles.

Well, we waited and waited through the morning. I was particularly hopeful for the Woodward book because he had appeared on 60 Minutes the previous evening. Nary a customer came in inquiring about his book, but we did sell a couple of Friedman's in that first hour before I headed down to shipping and receiving to help out.

While I was down in S & R, I heard an interview of Friedman conducted by Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio's Fresh Air. It was fascinating to listen to, although very familiar if you've heard Al Gore speak about public policy in the last few years. Friedman made a powerful case for the necessity of government leadership to free us from our oil dependency. He made a passionate argument that changing light bulbs and driving hybrid cars wasn't enough to lead us out of the morass that we are in.

He railed against John McCain for missing over a dozen votes on a critical bill to extend tax credits for alternative energy--the bill failed to pass by one vote (59-40) while McCain sat in his office and refused to cast a vote--and pointed out the absurdity of the delegates at the Republican National Convention chanting "Drill it! Drill it!" To Friedman, that's the worst thing that we could do in this situation. We don't have nearly enough oil to drill ourselves out of the problem. He talked about how happy the Saudis, the Venezuelans, and the Russians must have been to hear that chant instead of a focused attempt to develop alternative energy.

When Terry Gross asked him about this fall's election, that's when Friedman went from passionate crusader to shameful waffler. Barack Obama is saying all the right things and has great information on his website, according to Friedman, but The New York Times' resident mind reader doesn't think that it's really an important issue for Obama. Friedman's not ready to commit politically, even though the whole premise of his book is that bold, immediate, political action is needed. Friedman wants someone willing to take on the challenge of the leading the world to energy independence, but he's unwilling to rule out a man who couldn't even be bothered to vote on the issue. Friedman wants to leave the door open for McCain and Sarah Palin.

Still, at least people were talking about Friedman's book. A friend of mine sent me the link to the Terry Gross interview over the weekend and many other people, including customers, seemed generally interested in his idea of connecting our dependency on oil, the increasing globalization of the world, and the United States' propensity for getting into foreign policy disasters. He's offering people something new to think about.

The Woodward book, on the other hand, seems to elicit no interest from people in Boulder. Perhaps people don't want to hear how the brave and courageous President decided to implement a surge against the advice of many of his colleagues. Perhaps we are reminded of just how badly Woodward misjudged W in Bush at War and don't want to see him getting snowed once again. Perhaps we just don't want to look backwards at Bush anymore and want to move into the future.

In Boulder, the response to the two books is clear. We have sold 43 copies of the Friedman book, and just four of Woodward's. In fact, if Woodward's book doesn't turn around it will be one of the worst single buys in my 11 years as a front-list buyer. I brought in 100 copies based on the 134 hardback copies of State of Denial that we sold. I've never had to return 90% of a buy that big before.

Nationwide, it's not so cut and dry. I noticed this morning that Hot, Flat, and Crowded was the number 2 book on, while The War Within was number 9. Maybe there are just that many Republicans scanning Woodward's book to see if he published their dirty little secrets. But if that's the case, our sales won't pick up here at the Boulder Book Store.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Books That Made Me Happy This Summer

This post is supposed to be about what a pathetic summer
it has been in book selling. Sales were sluggish, the election stole away media coverage from books, there were no blockbusters, Kindle this, Kindle that, blah, blah, blah. I'm sure most of you could fill in your own depressing financial details.

My various titles for this entry included, "Summer: The Season That Wasn't," "The Dismal Season," "Where's Harry Potter When You Need Him?" and "Doesn't Anybody Read Around Here?" My abandoned lead paragraphs quoted T.S. Eliot, took potshots at Dick Cheney, bemoaned the Phillies season (hey, they are only two games out, despite not hitting), likened the AmazonKindle to kindling and even asked for readers to come and volunteer at the store until sales picked up.

No matter what I wrote, my finger kept pressing that delete key. The truth is that I'm just not that down about books right now despite the wounded economy and the mind-numbing Presidential race. I had an amazing summer of reading new and old titles. Many of my vacation days were spent sprawled out on beaches and couches enthralled by the prose of John Updike, Richard Bausch, Michael Frayn, P.G. Wodehouse and Rivka Galchen.

Even when I wasn't on vacation, I found myself running home to read after work. I read snippets of novels while walking down the street (that drives my wife insane), tying my shoes, cooking dinner and eating breakfast.

How could I write a depressing blog when there's just so much literature out there that invigorates me? How could I only dwell on the negative when books have been my sustenance for the past three months? I couldn't. Instead, I'll talk about what books I love and hopefully inspire someone out there to pick up a book (preferably at the Boulder Book Store) and read.

I've added a couple of lists to the left-hand side of the blog. I figure it's about time I learn how to use these fancy Blogger features. After all, I'm supposed to lead a seminar on how to blog at the regional independent booksellers show in a couple of weeks.

The first list is my favorite novels since 2000. The usual suspects are to be found, including Philip Roth, Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan, but hopefully a few of the more obscure picks like Percival Everett, Susan Choi and Judson Mitcham will spark some interest. The second is an annotated list of my favorite books of 2008 that also includes a few surprise picks, including the fantastic memoir by Michael Greenberg (I usually don't go for memoirs), Hurry Down Sunshine.

Here's a look at some of the books that really captured my imagination this summer:

Asia For the Price of a Paperback

I'm currently engrossed in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace. The scenes Ghosh depicts of the teak business in the late 19th century are harrowing. It's hard to imagine elephants and men engaged in a magnificent struggle against nature in order to get the teak trees out of the mountainous forests of Burma. Ghosh humanizes history in the manner of a great movie without resorting to cliched or one-dimensional characters.

Earlier in the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting the dapper Ghosh at a party in Los Angeles. He was there to promote his new book Sea of Poppies. We were in a crowded restaurant with dozens of other booksellers and several other authors. I gravitated toward him, because I was trying to avoid the embarrassment of meeting debut novelist Rivka Galchen. In an earlier blog, I mentioned Galchen's fetching author photo as the most convincing reason to read her book. Despite my efforts to avoid her, my assigned seat turned out to be directly across from Rivka.

Ghosh and I exchanged pleasantries about the weather, London and book parties before I worked up the nerve to ask him about a scene in his previous book, Hungry Tide, that I was quite taken by. In the scene, two people strap themselves to a tree in a typhoon in order to survive. Only one lives through the night. Ghosh leaned in towards me and confided that he has been asked about that scene before. We talked for awhile, and I thanked him for introducing me to people and parts of the world that I could never see on my own.

John Updike Redux

The reading highlight of the summer was without a doubt John Updike's Rabbit Redux. I read one Updike novel a year, and I am reading them in order. I must say that this one was my favorite so far. The character of Skeeter, a black activist and small-time drug dealer, is immensely engaging, profane, comic and tragic all at the same time. I read an old hardback copy of the book that I found for $15 in Half Moon Bay, California in late March. I waited until my annual beach vacation in Cape May, New Jersey to crack open the 37-year-old novel. As the waves lapped at my feet, I was transported back to the turbulent summer of 1969.

Updike creates a rich world of jostling characters where whites and blacks are always on edge in the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Brewer. Rabbit's wife has left him for a used car salesman. Rabbit is far from lonely, though, because in addition to his 10-year old son, Nelson, he has taken in a beautiful white teenage runaway named Jill. She was foisted on him by a black co-worker who was scared that the presence of a white woman staying a black person's house might bring unwanted police attention. Things get really complicated when Rabbit starts harboring a young black man, Skeeter, who is wanted by the local police.

In the evenings, Skeeter lectures this ad-hoc family about the coming revolution. In Updike's vision, black power has infiltrated the white suburbs, drugs have found their way past the manicured lawns, and interracial sex is happening in the 1950s love seats. All of this occurs while Vietnam and the moon landing are constant sources of distraction and even amusement on the television.

Rabbit seems to tolerate everything, but he's an outsider, a conservative family man at heart. One of my favorite lines comes when Skeeter is preaching to Rabbit, the runaway, and Nelson about what will come after the revolution. Replacing the old order with something new fascinates Skeeter more than the inevitable revolution itself. Rabbit is only half interested in these night rants. "'And you're the black Jesus going to bring it in,'" Rabbit mocks. "'From A.D. to A.S. After Skeeter. I should live so long. All Praise Be Skeeter's Name.'"

In Rabbit Redux, you never quite know if a character's comments will be met with laughter or violence. It's a community of people that are on the edge. They are all just one word away from wounding each other. Somehow, Rabbit manages to muddle along and befriend the people you'd most think he'd offend. That tension between humor and aggression drives the whole work.

Peace in a Time of War

Richard Bausch's new novel, Peace, is an extraordinary and touching World War II story. It's a small book, really a novella, that conveys both the horrors of war and also what bonds people together. I found it to be thoroughly engaging. I read most of it on a plane ride, unable to put the book down even after we landed and people were heading into the terminal.

Bausch puts us on a mountain side in Italy during the German retreat of World War II. Three American soldiers are led up the hillside to scout the Nazi position in a driving rainstorm. They are led by an old man who may or may not be a fascist sympathizer. During the climb we come to know the three soldiers and how they got to this moment of their lives. They are continually debating whether to report their commanding officer, who killed a woman in cold blood just hours before the trio left on this mission.

Peace is essentially a chamber piece, with the four characters speaking to each other and also maintaining internal monologues. The men are haunted by both their good memories of home and their bad memories of the war as their mission wears on and the rain turns to snow. We come to know Captain Marson the best of all the characters, and it his how he handles his own ethical and moral dilemma at the end of the novel that truly makes this work one that resonates beyond its specific setting.

She Makes Portnoy Look Tame

Steerforth reprinted Fredrica Wagman's 1973 novel Playing House earlier this year. It would never have occurred to me to read this relatively obscure work, except that the new edition featured a foreword by Philip Roth. Roth is not a blurb slut or someone who writes a lot of forewords, so I figured this novel must be something special for him to take his time and single it out.

Wagman writes in an impressionistic prose, and it isn't always easy to figure out what's going on with her characters. The crux of the story is the narrator's childhood incestuous relationship with her brother. That relationship hovers over the rest of her life, but not in quite the way the reader would expect. Well, perhaps a seasoned therapist would expect it, but not me. Roth perfectly sums it up in the opening words of his foreword.

"It would appear from Playing House that the prohibition forbidding sibling incest is designed primarily to protect impressionable children against sex thrills so intense, and passionate unions so all-encompassing and exclusive, that life after the age of twelve can only be a frenzy of nostalgia for those who have known the bliss of such transgression."

Wagman's novel is an incredibly intense, almost feverish read about a woman's life that is spiraling out of control from the moment the incestuous affair ends. No one measures up to her memories of her brother. She nicknames her doting and steady husband, who would spare no resource to save her, The Turtle. Even her children are mere shadows passing through her life.

The siblings never renew their relationship after childhood, but each appearance of the brother leaves the reader with a queasy feeling. It almost seems as though things would be better for the narrator if they got together. Her efforts to replace the brother sexually take her to territory that Roth's most notorious character, Alexander Portnoy, never tread.

It's a disquieting read, to say the least. Probably one that I will never recommend to a book club. But one that made me think, pondering the nature of writing, madness and love.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Stories of Wifeshopping

For years, I was totally incompetent when it came to shopping for a wife. I desperately wanted a long-term relationship and yet I repeatedly dated women who had no interest in a committed relationship or at least not in one with me. These women and I were often ill-matched and our dates tended to end in long silences over lukewarm food as the conversations petered out. This was in the days before

My particular method of sabotaging relationships was to find a woman that was about to move away from Boulder and begin romancing her. As soon as I heard the words, "my lease is up," or "I've got a job offer in California," or "I head off to Georgia for graduate school in three weeks" I was there with flowers and reservations at the best restaurants in Boulder and Denver.

There was the Bulgarian who was about to move back to her home country. That relationship came to an end on the ski slopes of Copper Mountain when out of the blue she said "you will take me to rodeo this afternoon." This was not an Eastern European double entendre for "hey cowboy, wanna get lucky?" She literally wanted to stop skiing at lunch time so we could drive all the way back to Denver in a snowstorm and attend the National Western Stock Show. "It is so American," she said as I glared at her on the ski lift.

I wooed a beautiful saleswoman in an art gallery in the weeks leading up to her departure to take a post as a curator of small museum in Virginia. I realize now that it was probably for the best that she really did take that job. It was becoming exhausting pretending that I had the budget to spend $8,000 for an oil painting that looked like a smudge of grass, dirt and blood. I put her off by endlessly debating which smudge best exemplified the artist's obvious feelings of malaise about American life while she talked about how much the commission would assist her move.

I actually followed one woman back to her parent's home in a rural Pennsylvania town. During my first evening there, I walked up and down the burg's three streets and looked at the Christmas lights glimmering in the windows of the houses and the store fronts. There was no one else out on the streets, no stores were open, no signs of life except the decorations and the omnipresent glow of the television in every living room. I couldn't wait to return to Boulder, even if I was coming back alone.

Needless to say, I understand the hapless, lovelorn men in Steven Wingate's magnificent new story collection, Wifeshopping, which won the prestigious Bakeless Prize for short fiction. Wingate portrays men in the elusive search for love in these 13 diverse tales. In almost every story, his characters manage to betray themselves, breaking hearts (most often their own) time and time again. The methods of betrayal are myriad and remarkably creative.

"(I wrote) probably two dozen stories that were all clustered around this idea of searching for love, because I think both psychically and imaginatively I was really trying to figure out what the love thing was and how relationships worked and why they didn't work," Wingate said.

In the most poignant stories in the collection, it is long-term relationships that come to crashing halts because of a false move, an awful decision or just plain obstinance. The crisis is usually brought on by the narrator's emotional immaturity and inability to understand his own needs and desires.

In "Bill", the narrator is engaged to be married to a fellow law school graduate, Myra, when he develops a strange friendship with an old man at a flea market. He begins buying Bill's old clothing, much to his fiance's chagrin. With each old suit, new grievances emerge in the relationship. The fissures are opening before the reader's eyes and our stubborn narrator insists on carrying on at flea markets at his own peril. He's more defined by his ability to spot a good deal than by his capability of maintaining a meaningful relationship.

"We consider our ability to spot salvageable junk to be an almost genetic trait -- one that would undoubtedly pass on to my offspring whether their mother liked it or not. Myra had a problem with this. She bought what was fashionable and replaced it when it fell out of style, and viewed my family's hand-me-down habits as declasse. That's where she was wrong."

In many stories the men sacrifice their relationships for a quirky principle or an ideal that would seems ludicrous from the outside. Why are these men digging holes in the backyard when the pregnant women they love are stewing inside the house? Why are they ambushing their lovers with crazy relatives? They're fighting more to establish their own identities than for love.

"It's very easy to confuse the search for your own identity with the search for love. And I think most of the characters make that mistake to one degree or another," Wingate said. "I think a lot of flexibility is obviously required in a long-term relationship; some of these characters know that and some of them just aren't able to get beyond their own search for self."

Despite the similarity in themes between the stories, Wingate's pieces are remarkably varied in tone, plot and attitude. Each story is a world unto itself. His settings range from New England to Florida to Flagstaff. Most of the stories are written in the realist tradition, but one of the best ones "A Story About Two Prisoners," is a short experimental piece with a delightful twist. Also, Wingate's entertaining language and ultimately optimistic outlook infuses these stories with a lightness and a joy that belies their plots and characters.

"As a writer I have to entertain myself and keep myself happy, so working on a story over many, many drafts over many, many years, you have to get to know your character, you have to get to know their warts as well as the things that are funny about them and quirky about them," Wingate said. "Everybody's got their own humor and their own likability, and so finding that in my characters allows me to write them better than if I were to simply focus on one aspect of them."

There is one relationship that has a real chance among these stories. Clay has fallen in love with his widowed neighbor Lisbeth and her dog in "Knuckles." It's a tale of mature and patient love that spans months, rather then hours or days, but it has hit a snag. Each day Lisbeth takes her shaggy golden retriever to the park and he half stamps, half dances in the snow forming an "M", for her late husband Miles. Finally, Clay gets fed up with the routine and tells her "a dancing dog can't bring back dead people."

Lisbeth takes the dog away and leaves Clay's life and yet there is a bit of hope. Clay realizes his mistake. As she is leaving, Clay watched Knuckles, "the dog, who knew the score a lot better than I did, looked pleadingly back at me." A few weeks later he buys the dog a toy in his first efforts of rapprochement, which is a lot more than most of Wingate's men manage to do.

In Wifeshopping, there are no easy love stories. It's a lot like real life. Forming a relationship is tremendously rewarding, but it takes an ability to see beyond yourself, to be able to truly integrate another person into your world. Wingate writes about this process in a sensitive and humorous way that never becomes cliched or sappy. In the end, you believe there is hope for many of these characters despite their painful blunders.

After all, there was hope for me following all those false starts. My wife and I just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and she's staying in Boulder.

Steven Wingate will be signing his book at the Boulder Book Store on Thursday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Here's are the links to my video interview with Wingate and a very entertaining book trailer for Wifeshopping.