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.