As you know, this newsletter went AWOL last summer–so let me start with a note of explanation and apology.
Fifteen years ago, a weekly newsletter for booksellers seemed like a targeted way to get information out. But life in 2018 is a lot buzzier. Information abounds–instantly and from many sources. Aggregation, frequency, brevity is how we’re taking in information now. My formula of weekly longer form reviews started to feel stale.
So, I took a few weeks off to mull it all over. And that time of kind of got away from me… Sorry. 😊
While I wasn’t writing, it occurred to me that better model of what I originally wanted to do already exists: the Harper sales department’s Books We Love. It’s a monthlyemail alert that lists a dozen key releases important to the Indie market. It’s a quick read, visually oriented, and with links to and social media assets.
I have to grant that this last year’s Sunday mornings off have been nice. But every once I’d get the itch to rave about why an upcoming book was so terrific. A few newsletter readers said they missed that, too—just something to help them focus on gems that might get overlooked on the reading pile. Someone else suggested it would be better to know about these books earlier, say when the ARCs went out rather than right before on sale.
So, I’m going to give that a try. That means this week’s “Book of the Week” will be the last post for Harper/Bookselling. I can’t think of a better book to end on. Census is a novel of great emotional power and imagination—one of those literary gems that made us all want to go into bookselling in the first place.
Thanks for following along these past years. Look for occasional reviews from here on out alerting you to ARCs you might want to pick up. I hope the next chapter is helpful.
It’s my company’s 200th anniversary so we’re doing a little crowing. From its beginning in 1817 as a printing company started by two twenty-something brothers from Long Island to the global presence it is today, HarperCollins has a storied history–and counts among its authors some of the brightest lights in literature including Charlotte Bronte, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, Louise Erdrich, Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver.
Check out the website below to learn more. It’s fun (and likely to improve your performance at Pub Quiz). 🙂
Yep, another Binc post. You get these often enough from me. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation gives grants to booksellers in need. I’m a fan for many reasons, one of which is that the aid helps people choose bookselling as a profession. In my career I’ve seen way too many talented booksellers leave the business when a financial crisis hits. We need those people.
To that same end, Binc also underwrites a robust scholarship program that helps booksellers continue their education and participate in professional development programs. This past year, the Binc Board of Directors determined that cultivating diversity needed to be part of the organization’s mission if we are to help build a vibrant, relevant community of bookselling professionals.
Why this approach matters was brought home to me recently when I read a letter from Denise Chavez, owner of Casa Camino Real which as Denise says is a bookstore “on the border of New Mexico, Texas and Northern México [and] serves the corridor between worlds, focusing on Southwestern, Regional, Native American, Latino, as well as Multi-Cultural books in many languages.”
In her letter, Denise calls bookselling a don and a manda–a gift and a responsibility:
…my responsibility and charge, to encourage the diversity and richness of multicultural books, most especially in this time of challenge for us in the U.S. We are surrounded by those who fear books and what they teach us—the loving expansion that allows us to feel one with those from different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and life paths.”
She thanked Binc for the opportunity to join Winter Institute and learn with other booksellers. I read the anecdote below from her letter and saw immediately how much her participation must have enriched Winter Institute for others, too:
It was an honor to be selected—not only as someone who lives in remote part of the Southwest, but also—as a Mexican-American/Chicana who works hard to connect with the multicultural and Spanish language speaking community at Casa Camino Real, where a bilingual children’s book is the norm. Our readers are hungry to hear their voices and to see images of their lives reflected in books. I remember taking author Malin Alegría, author of Estrella’s Quinceañera, to a nearby valley elementary school in Vado, New Mexico, and hearing a young student say to her, ‘Miss, you’re my color!’ No one had ever taken a Latino/Latina writer to their school and to see Malin there was a miracle to the young girl.”
She concludes the letter by saying, “As a bookseller, one daily witnesses miracles….each book is a miracle of faith and commitment.”
It’s easy to forget that sometimes. Bookselling is important work. We can all support it.
Like so many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “alternative facts.” It’s hard to avoid the issue these days when the president of the country can breathe life into any patent falsehood by tweeting it out thus giving it media life for days and weeks–even if that attention is in service of refuting it.
Later this year Harper will publishing a book called Strange Contagionabout the science behind “social viruses” a phenomenon that has been ramped into overdrive by social media and given daily given more fuel by an administration that thrives on suspicion and fear, often untethered to facts.
How to cope? One way is to ground your reality in actual facts and analysis–in the frustrating nuance, contradiction and complexity of them. This week Michael Gustafson, co-owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, wrote a great piece about bookstores and the role they can play in grounding our lives. I repeat it below in its entirety and invite you to to sign up for the store’s newsletter. Mike’s column “Letters from Literati” is one of my faithful reading pleasures.
“Ideas are contagious; emotion is contagious; hope is contagious; courage is contagious.” These were Rebecca Solnit’s words as she spoke to Rackham Auditorium last month. Solnit, a staff favorite here at Literati, left many in the audience feeling hopeful and courageous.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about Solnit’s words:
Ideas are contagious.
If that’s true, what kind of ideas are spreading right now? These spreading, contagious ideas — are they making people feel like they are important, valued, and good?
Books are ideas, too. Every book, from board books to history books, contain ideas. Being independent, we’re free to feature any book we want. In other words: You know where you’re getting your ideas from. When you read through our shelf talkers and see a book review signed by “Jeanne,” you know this review is coming from someone who has lived in Ann Arbor and who has nearly 30 years of bookselling experience, someone who worked for the original State Street Borders.
This is a far different experience than shopping online for books. Often, when I shop online, I feel like there are a multitude of websites tracking my shopping behavior. An algorithm takes me to a product I’d never want. It’s virtually impossible to find something new or to surprise myself or to expand my horizons. And when I shop online, I never know where, exactly, that money is disappearing to.
It’s important, these days, to know where ideas are coming from (and where money is going). Because there are many kinds of contagious ideas: Bad ideas can spread as quickly as good ones. Ideas of fear can spread as quickly as ideas of hope. Ideas of isolation can spread as quickly as ideas of inclusion.
Maybe more than ever before, I ask myself: Where are my ideas coming from? Did I see that on a news program? Who owns that network? Who is selling me this idea? What is in it for them?
I’m biased, of course, but I believe one of the best shelves in our bookstore to get ideas from is our staff picks wall. We never tell any staff member what to feature, or what book to review. They can review whatever book they want.
Because of this, we always feature a broad array of ideas: Fiction, nonfiction, memoir, cookbooks, essays, picture books, poetry. They are ideas I’d never find on my own, from a broad range of booksellers. They are books from a full spectrum of writers with vastly different backgrounds, both mainstream and independent, both celebrated and new.
Roxane Gay, well known for her provocative and insightful writing, walked the walk last week when she pulled her next book from Simon & Schuster in protest of that publisher’s book deal with Milo Yiannopoulos. Was this “censorship” as some claim?
Of course not. For right now at least anyone in the U.S. is welcome to publish pretty much whatever they want. But publishers, like booksellers, are gatekeepers and curators. In a country where literally well over a million books are published every year, anyone can find a platform to be heard. Bookstores and publishers gain credibility to the degree that they offer a “quality filter” for readers looking to educate and entertain themselves. The bookstores I love best do the heavy lifting of getting great writing and thinking in front of me.
I expect publishers and bookstores to find ideas that will challenge me–not just reinforce my bubble. Increasingly, I understand that I need to read a variety of well-argued viewpoints if I’m to play my part in healing America’s divides. So I look for bookstores to find the very best writing on a range of opinions.
What Gay is saying is that writers also curate in the way they choose to be aligned—with other writers, with ideas, with publishers. While honoring freedom of speech, she doesn’t have to align herself with Yiannopoulos, what he says and what he stands for. She decided it’s is a bridge to far. Good for her.
What made me think of this was reading PW’s coverage of Gay’s opening remarks at Winter Institute. While she didn’t specifically mention her decision to pull her book from S&S, she did say, “Language matters, and sometimes, like diversity, it becomes an empty container.” She invited booksellers to “get uncomfortable” around building bridges. She pointed out that it isn’t the job of minorities—racial, sexual and economic—to school the largely liberal, largely white gatekeepers of bookselling and publishing. It’s up to booksellers and publishers to seek out diverse audiences and invite them in.
I think of that often when I’m selling a book with an African-American theme and a buyer says, “You know, we just don’t have that audience. I wish we did.” I don’t doubt that. But I do wonder the degree to which one’s curation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In her speech Gay pointed out “Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, where owner Daniel Goldin reached out to the black community when she made an appearance there so that every face in the audience was not white.” I’d be willing to bet Daniel’s inventory collection reflects that welcome.
This isn’t a beat-down of booksellers. I can flip through Harper’s catalogs and show you the ways in which what we publish still appeals in large part to a pretty narrow audience of middle and upper-middle class white readers. But we’re trying. We’re all trying. Now it’s time to try harder. Negotiating the line between commerce and ideas has always been tricky. Our livelihoods depend on giving people things they want. Now it’s time to help them—to help all of us—want better.
A funny thing happened the other day. There was a small pile of brand new gloves on our dining room table and I asked my wife if they were presents for her family. She said they were the gloves she’d bought for street people in our town.
I was impressed and asked, “When did you decide to do that?” I wasn’t totally surprised when she told me she’d been doing it for years. I can be pretty oblivious.
But later it occurred to me this is how compassion works. People make a point of noticing and then they do something. Small or big, it starts with the noticing.
It happens all the time; it’s even institutionalized at this time of year. A gift card for the postman, cookies for your child’s teacher, financial gifts to the charities reaching out for help… Maybe some of it feels like duty or mere tradition but drill down and one feels the spirit which animates the tradition.
It’s remarkable to see that spirit of gratitude in the bookselling community. So many of the stores I work with actively partner with charities and nonprofits in their communities 365 days a year.
This holiday some, Like Parnassus Books, linked to a list of their favorite partners locally and nationwide. Skimming over that list, I was moved by The Compassion Collective, a group of authors, filmmakers and activists who have organized to feed, clothe and shelter both refugee and homeless U.S. children. Check them out—100% of donated money goes directly to the children. (And they have a kickass manifesto reclaiming Mother’s Day. 🙂 )
Speaking of authors, James Patterson once again gave a quarter million dollars in holiday bonuses to frontline booksellers across the country. Seeing so many really remarkable booksellers get that kind of thanks and recognition truly touched me. Patterson looked around and saw what kind of gloves he could give.
Patterson, who along with Ann Patchett is an ambassador for The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, also invites readers everywhere to support their local bookstores mindfully and with a spirit of gratitude.
Full disclosure: I’m on the board of Binc. So I could give you a bunch of stats about how much money has been given away and the number of people Binc has helped over the years–but this thank you note from a bookseller explains it so much better.
Earlier this year I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This isn’t easy to diagnose, I learned, and the process required many expensive tests and expensive visits with specialists, as well as a hospital stay and time off work. I paid what I could, but I don’t know what I would have done without Binc to help with the remainder. They made the process of applying very easy, even in my exhausted and mentally foggy state, and paid my outstanding bills promptly. The person assisting me even sent me a book on living with chronic illness, and this small kindness meant so much to me. This organization is a true blessing for people in the book business and I can’t thank them enough.”
Please consider Binc in your year-end giving plans. This is a great day to do it–and through the end of the year the Binc Board of Directors will match your gift!
Tomorrow is Small Business Saturday–I’m sure you’ve seen the American Express ad. It gives you a vague warm fuzzy, right?
Well, the specifics about the good shopping local does for your community should make you feel even better. Check out this fun infographic by one of my favorite writers and cartoonists–Mary Laura Philpott of Parnassus Books. (If you like her illustrations check out her book Penguins with People Problems.)
You’ll come out the other end feeling even better about buying books (and shoes and hammers and lattes) from the local merchants who make your town a place you want to live!
“Carmichael’s opened in 1978, so this makes this—let’s see—the eleventh Presidential campaign season we’ve witnessed, so our view tends to be a long one. It has been the most coarse and divisive of our lifetime, and even though we know campaigns in the 19th century were much worse—because we’ve read about them—the Republic sails on. The election is already in our rearview mirror as we get back to trying to do our important work—choosing books for the store, reading them, recommending them to our customers, and giving them the customer service and attention they merit.
“Books are, inherently, objects of hope and optimism. Whether we read to escape, or inform, or learn from, reading is an activity that somehow organically brings a little more civility, empathy, curiosity, and humanity into people who immerse themselves in the world of books. They foster connection with the Other, however it is defined for you, building on the lessons of the past and reaching towards a future of possibilities. Fran Lebowitz said, “Think before you speak. Read before you think,” which should probably be part of Carmichael’s Mission Statement, if we had one.
“Finally, there is the vital issue of children. We don’t need studies to tell us that children who read a lot are more successful, have more curiosity about the world, have less anxiety about the future, and are more open to change. Which is why we opened Carmichael’s Kids, a store beside our Bardstown Road store devoted exclusively to children and children’s literature. Children’s books are the rough clay from which we mold a generation that will be kinder, more humane, more engaged with the plight of others, and far more successful in life. When Old Age truly comes upon us, we can only hope that the generation we place our lives into is one that grew up with books.”
–– Michael Boggs
“If you’re feeling like me, you may be feeling anger, hurt, sadness, loss, fear, confusion, anxiety, or all of the above. Or, maybe you’re happy, elated, feeling good. I don’t know. Today, though, I just don’t have many words to say. I had been intending to get this newsletter out earlier, but couldn’t.
“In the days ahead, I will turn to books. Reading, for me, has always been a way (to quote Harper Lee) to jump inside another person’s skin. To leap inside their narratives and experience their thoughts and feelings and beliefs. Which I think, right now, for me at least, is a great endeavor to do.
“In the meantime, we will be here, at 124 E. Washington. We will keep putting out the books we believe in, books that push ideas, experiences, boundaries, thoughts — books that open up new worlds. We will be a welcoming space, a community space to gather. I encourage you to come and talk to us about anything. We’re here.
“And I’ll also turn towards the words of others: I’m going to re-read Between The World and Me. I’m going to browse our social studies, race, gender studies sections. I’ll re-read The New Jim Crow. Hillbilly Elegy. Women, Race & Class. Strangers in their Own Land. I might throw in there a good mystery, too. And so much more. Because there’s so much more.
“When I dream of some tiny step to counteract the current madness, I think about how nice it would be to make a safe place for myself, my family, my friends, and total strangers, a place that is quiet and cheerful, a place that welcomes everyone exactly as they are, while at the same time encouraging them to be better, smarter, and more curious. A place that celebrates different points of view (and yes, in different I include the free and respectful exchange of political points of view that are not my own). I would like to build a place where people would feel cherished for their life experiences, where people could learn from history and be comforted by art. A place where babies are welcome, children can play, and teenagers feel respected. A place where people who are pulled in a hundred different directions can find a moment’s peace, and old people would be offered a comfortable chair to sit while they read a book.
“You see what I’m getting at here.
“After days of wondering if I should sign up for Teach for America or join Green Peace or, heaven forbid, run for some small local office, I thought the thing I would actually most like to give people at this moment is a bookstore. Here at Parnassus — and at bookstores all across the country — we are offering shelter from the storm. Not only do we promise a culture of intellectual freedom and intellectual expansion, we promise dogs who love without judgement.
“Love without judgement, people. Try topping that.”
— Ann Patchett