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.
“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
Book lovers vote with your feet (and your dollars) this Saturday, May 2nd.
Independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal is a day well spent.
This Saturday they’ll also be filled with authors and booky bling you can only acquire through an Indie. (Personally, I’m hoping to score a Roz Chast book bag!)
In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads, bookstores are not an anachronism. They are living, breathing organisms–a real-world respite from your living room and the small screen in front of your face. As Green Apple Books once so memorably put it: “So put some pants on and get out of the house!”
400 BOOKSTORES * 16 EXCLUSIVE BOOKS AND ART PIECES * ONE DAY ONLY * JOIN THE PARTY!
I’m so happy to welcome a new community bookstore to my hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. Ann Arbor, of course, is kind of famous (and lately infamous) as the home of Borders. But it’s got a long tradition of community stores both new and used… Nicola’s Books, Crazy Wisdom, Common Language, Aunt Agatha’s, West Side Book Shop, Motte & Bailey, Kaleidoscope, Falling Water, and the Vault of Midnight. Among those I’ll never get over losing… the wonderful Shaman Drum and a brilliant remainder store, Afterwards.
So it’s a pleasure to welcome this beautiful new store to our downtown, which is starved for a little more cultural content and one or two fewer restaurant chains. Owners Hilary Lowe and Mike Gustafson invited friends and family in for a sneak peek last night and it’s everything you’d want (well, it’s everything I’d want) in a bookstore–an inventory to die for, presented in a way that makes you see new things and want to buy every book on the table, a really cool space to hang out in, a staff of seasoned booksellers to talk with.
Such is the state of locally owned, community bookstores in the U.S. that the opening of a new one merits coverage in the Huffington Post. In Ann Arbor we’ve been peering through the windows for months like the store is some kind of Christmas present. With a nod of the head to all the other bookstores I love so much, it’s finally time to open this new gift to the Ann Arbor community. Congratulations, Hilary and Mike!
Goodreads, the site that helps readers learn about and share their opinions about books, has just sold itself to Amazon. That’s caused a little firestorm of interest and debate in the publishing and bookselling communities, where we tend to view most any move by Amazon with wariness.
If you’re curious what’s going on, here are a few useful posts that will get you up to speed:
An announcement article in Paid Content which notes that, while Goodreads has till now been thought of as a “neutral hub” for readers, it is “now clearly tied to promoting books for sale on Amazon.”
An interview by Paid Content with Goodreads CEO Otis Chandler and Amazon’s VP of Kindle content Russ Grandinetti. Chandler stresses “It’s incredibly important to us that Goodreads remain a platform for all kinds of readers to use, whether they’re reading paper or on their Nook or Kindle or whatever…” while mentioning Kindle seven times. (And Chandler’s post on the Goodreads blog similarly emphasizes alignment with the Kindle, complete with a photo of Chandler and his wife with their Kindles.)
A trenchant analysis of the implications of the buyout by the always incisive Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch. In part, Cader brings up users’ concerns, including “that any Amazon and Kindle integration be optional rather than automatic. Many wondered if Amazon’s policy on acceptable reviews would be carried over to Goodreads, and others asked if they would still own their Goodreads reviews.”
So. What happens to that neutral meeting place when it becomes the property of Amazon, a company well-known for leveraging clout wherever it finds it? Time will tell. But in the meantimewe are posed with a choice about to what degree we want our views and our passions to become part of Amazon’s business plan.
Let me point you to a blogger I much admire. John Eklund is a sales rep for Harvard University Press, The MIT Press, and Yale University Press. His Paper over Board blog is a thoughtful, wide ranging, always enriching chronicle of the bookselling life.
His piece today is called “Goodreads Joins ‘Amazon Family.’ Please.” In it he explains why he deleted his Goodreads account, commenting, “I can’t think of anything nastier right now in the book world than the prospect of this behemoth acquiring even more intimate knowledge of my buying habits than it already has. Enough is enough.” And because he’s not a cranky guy on a soapbox, he concludes with a lovely evocation of the original “neutral hub” for learning about books—one’s community bookstore:
I think of the staff at my favorite neighborhood store as “my booksellers” the way one might have a tailor or a gardener or a masseur (none of which I have.) They know me well enough to suggest things I didn’t know I wanted, and I know their tastes well enough to take note when I see them recommending something out of my usual arena, thus expanding my horizons in a way “Customers Like You Also Bought” is incapable of doing. And the chance to eavesdrop on book chat among other staff and customers affords other book avenues for exploration.
[FYI: If you would like to leave Goodreads but don’t want lose your book lists, go to “Import/Export” under My Books to download them into an excel spreadsheet. “Delete my account” is at the bottom of Settings.]
We all tend to approve of arguments that shore up our own points of view. I try to watch for that. Still, I think one of the most even handed, big picture assessments of retail bookselling comes from Laura Miller today is Salon. The link is below and I give special props to Ms. Miller for including links to the relevant recent stories she referenced. They are also included below.
Ms. Miller’s focus in the piece is on publishing but I’d like to offer an additional comment on the implications of all this for bookstores: Even though 75% of books sold remain paper books, that makes for a nation full of book retailers looking cover their ever-increasing overhead with a big gap in their core income. I’ve watched my accounts make up that difference in creative ways, becoming smarter business people and better partners to their communities. If we want keep them around, it’s incumbent on publishers and local communities to creatively and mindfully consider their role that partnership.
From the 2012 Verso Report. I’ll be curious to see if and how the percentages change for this year.
How readers find out about books:
personal recommendations (49.2%)
bookstore staff recommendations (30.8%)
search engine searches (21.6%)
book reviews (18.9%)
online algorithms (16%)
social networks (11.8%)
That means fully 80% of books are sold by one person talking to another. My takeaway: I need to spend more time talking to more booksellers.
Doh! I’d barely posted this when a more statistically astute colleague responded:
A niggling point, but since the total of all the percentages add up to more than 100%, it’s clear that multiple responses were permitted. So you can’t say that 80% were sold based on adding the first two – presumably each of those two includes people who also answered yes to the other one, so the numbers overlap. The real combined total (i.e., people who found out about books based on either the first or the second or both) is probably more like 60 or 65% . . .”
He graciously allowed that it doesn’t affect my key point. But I think it does reduce the force of of it a bit. I’m still going to be looking for more booksellers to talk with–but thanks for helping to keep the thinking clear, Charlie!