Musings on books and the book business by an opinionated, somewhat cynical, yet optimistic bookseller.
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.
Top 10 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. 2000. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. 2000. Atonement by Ian McEwan. 2002. Any Human Heart by William Boyd. 2003. The Known World by Edward P. Jones. 2003. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. 2004. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. 2005. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. 2006. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 2007. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. 2007.
Other Favorites The Inventory by Gila Lustiger. 2000. The Human Stain by Philip Roth. 2000. Erasure by Percival Everett. 2001. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. 2001. Spies by Michael Frayn. 2002. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. 2002. Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. 2002. Roscoe by William Kennedy. 2002. American Woman by Susan Choi. 2003 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. 2003. Sabbath Creek by Judson Mitcham. 2004. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. 2004. The In Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji. 2004. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. 2006. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. 2006. After This by Alice McDermott. 2006. Echo Maker by Richard Powers. 2006. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. 2007. Peace by Richard Bausch. 2008. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. 2008. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. 2009. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. 2009. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. 2009. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. 2009. All Other Nights by Dara Horn. 2009.
My Favorite New Books
My Abandonment by Peter Rock. A girl and her father live off the land in Portland's Forest Park in this novel that is based on a true story. Told through the eyes of the young girl, it's a poetic work revealing our connection to the natural world. True Confections by Katharine Weber. Zip's Candy is the setting for this outstanding satire. Alice, who turns out to be an unreliable narrator, details the company's history and her own place in its scandalous past. New World Monkeys by Nancy Mauro. The death of a boar, a pervert trying to perfect his craft, and the unearthing of the bones of a murder victim are just a few of the plot elements in this comic debut.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Shortly after World War II, a young Irish girl is forced by her family to emigrate to Brooklyn. Cut off from all that she knows she finds love at Dodgers games and Coney Island in this subtle but suspenseful novel.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Phillippe Petit's remarkable 1974 tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers is the jumping off point (pun intended) of this novel of love, loss and beautiful convergences in a gritty New York City.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Nothing is as it seems in this brilliant bizarre novel set in an almost recognizable New York City. The revelations at the end left me reeling although I knew that surprises were lurking. Another novel with shades of Saul Bellow. Border Songs by Jim Lynch. Hilarious novel about a strange border agent on the Canadian border. Lynch effortlessly tells the story from several points of view including the criminal, the cops and everyone in between.
The Signal by Ron Carlson. An adventure and a love story set in the pristine mountains of Wyoming. A sense of both hope and foreboding hangs over the sparse narrative.
Wanting by Richard Flanagan. This historical novel featuring both Charles Dickens and the explorer John Franklin is really a meditation on desire and what was thought to separate the civilized from the barbarians.
Woodsburner by John Pipkin. Henry David Thoreau burned down the Concord Woods before he wrote Walden. This novel explores that incident from several different perspectives, including a bookseller who is forced to sell porn to stay in business.
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. A British Bellow with a West Indian cricket fiend cast as a Chicago University Professor. Humboldt plays cricket. Chicagoby Alaa Al Aswany. Egyptian students and their professors try to navigate America in this magnificent novel set in the heart of contemporary Chicago.
Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont. A haunting novel about the seductive power of friendship.
Wifeshoppingby Steven Wingate. Thirteen great short stories of men sabotaging their relationships.