In honor of the Presidents Day holiday, this is our last issue until Tuesday, February 22. See you then!
In honor of the Presidents Day holiday, this is our last issue until Tuesday, February 22. See you then!
|ABA Board at yesterday's Town Hall.|
Attended by about 200 people, the American Booksellers Association Town Hall yesterday was a mix: a celebration of the most diverse board in the ABA's history--with more representation by a wider range of booksellers--and continued concern about the board's narrowed support of free expression, once a pillar of the organization. Other topics included a desire by some booksellers for more transparency about board debates and decisions, as well as the board's encouragement of members to speak up, join committees and be involved.
Repeatedly, members of the board and attendees remarked on how diverse the board has become, part of its strong commitment to equity and representation. In her opening remarks, president Christine Onorati of WORD Bookstores, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., said that "the current board may be the most diverse in the ABA's history in terms of race, sexuality, gender, neurodiversity, disability, region and store model," all representing the diversity of ABA membership and bookstores customers and "the future of our industry and the world."
One example of this greater diversity: following the resignation last month of Bradley Graham of Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C., as president, changes were made among officers on the board. These included Onorati becoming president, and board member Angela Maria Spring of Duende District, Albuquerque, N.Mex., and Washington, D.C., joining Kelly Estep of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ky., as vice-president and secretary. As Spring noted, she is the first person of color to be an officer of the ABA.
In later comments, Spring thanked previous ABA boards for helping to "bring this board to life," particularly with the establishment of the Diversity Task Force in 2017, which led to the creation of the DEI Committee. "There's a lot more work to do," she said. "This work is relentless. It is ongoing. It takes a lot of courage and fortitude. You're all here with us on this journey making our bookselling industry better. I'm so honored."
The board also addressed its new approach to free expression, mainly in several statements. In her opening remarks, Onorati said that the board's changes in its ends policies "may be departures from the past, but are still very much in line with the ABA's historical value of freedom of expression as well as its more recently stated values of anti-racism, representation, access and equity."
She added, "The ABA board favors the protection of free expression, and we believe that the consistent, ongoing advocacy actions of the ABA staff make that clear. However, the ABA does not favor the protection of free expression when it comes to speech that violates our commitment to equity and anti-racism. For example, racist speech, antisemitic speech, homophobic speech, transphobic speech, etc. This board fully believes that a welcoming, respectful and diverse ABA is not at odds with the interests of our bookselling industry. In fact, it strengthens it."
After several questions about free expression, Danny Caine of Raven Bookstore, Lawrence, Kan., responded for the board, noting in part that the board decided to delete its references to the First Amendment and have instead "a statement about our commitment as an organization to provide members with resources to support their right to freedom of expression.... We needed to make the change in order to better marry ABA's value of freedom of expression on the one hand with its commitment to equity, access and anti-racism on the other hand. We felt the need to listen to underrepresented voices and protect everyone, including the most vulnerable members of our community, while protecting vital freedoms. We firmly believe we can and must work towards anti-racism and against censorship at the same time."
He and others pointed to work the association has done to fight censorship, particularly providing resources to members, working with coalitions and co-signing the December statement of the National Coalition Against Censorship condemning the wave of organized political attacks on books in schools.
Some of the problems of the ABA's lack of a full support of free expression were addressed in more questions from booksellers.
Nicole Brinkley of Oblong Books, Rhinebeck and Millerton, N.Y., asked in part, "Has the ABA considered how removing defense of the legal precedent of First Amendment in favor of the more nebulous freedom of expression can backfire if we no longer have an ABA board that favors anti-racist rhetoric, free expression and so on? While I support ABA's pushing of the idea that the freedom to express something does not necessarily mean that people have to pay for what is being expressed and that there can be consequences for expressing things, I fear that removing some of the teeth of what ABFE and ABA stand for can come back to bite us longterm should the tides of opinion on the board or in the political climate change."
Doloris Vest of Book No Further, Roanoke, Va., asked what objective standards would be used by the ABA to "determine if a store, author, publisher, book, etc., violates a commitment to antiracism, equity, access, and representation."
The answer was that the ABA uses the UN's definition of hate speech, which is "Any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor."
Several participants asked the board to be more transparent and communicative about its decision making, particularly on major subjects such as free expression.
Board members repeatedly said that while the board aims to communicate better, it has been listening to members. They also encouraged members to reach out, and reminded them of the regular "board office hour" sessions as an easy way to connect with board members. Nearly everyone who spoke on the subject lamented the effect of the pandemic in limiting the usual, more casual communication that takes place at industry events and elsewhere.
The board noted that it will hold its Annual Meeting on May 26. In addition, the Snow Days virtual retreat will be held March 8-10, and the Children's Institute will take place in person June 20-22 in Phoenix, Ariz.
|Linzi Murray at the future Reading in Public|
Reading in Public Bookstore + Cafe, a 1,400-square-foot general-interest bookstore and cafe, is coming to Des Moines, Iowa, later this year. Owner Linzi Murray told Axios she plans to open the store in June or July at 315 5th St., Suite 100, in West Des Moines.
Murray described Reading in Public as a "people-centric independent bookstore" that "celebrates the love of reading and the human experience, with a strong focus on social advocacy." In addition to books and coffee, the store will sell cards, stationery and other gift items. A selection of store-branded merchandise, including shirts, tote bags and hats, is already available online.
She signed a lease earlier this month and has been busy ordering books, buying sidelines, creating accounts with publishers and working with an architect to design the bookstore and cafe. The space will be cozy, comfortable and will invite customers to sit and read.
Murray attended college at Drake University in Des Moines before moving to New York City with her husband. During the pandemic, when her favorite NYC bookstores were forced to close, Murray started a Bookstagram page on Instagram. She loved being able to connect with other readers as well as authors and, months later, even after her favorite stores reopened, she felt compelled to open a store of her own.
She and her husband moved to West Des Moines last November, and since then Murray has been working on making Reading in Public a reality.
Frugal Bookstore, Roxbury, Mass., has launched a $30,000 GoFundMe campaign following a February 12 fire in the building that houses the bookshop. Leonard Egerton, co-owner with Clarrissa Cropper, wrote that "Frugal welcomes public donations to replenish stock from the water damage and repair store furnishings."
A message on the store's website notes: "Dear fellow readers, there was a fire in our building over the weekend and we experienced water damage to our children's, young adult and young reader section. We are in the process of replenishing stock so there will be a delay in fulfilling orders in those sections. We appreciate your understanding and patience. Thank you."
On the GoFundMe page, Egerton wrote, in part: "Frugal Bookstore is located In Nubian Square. It has the largest and most diverse collection of African American children's literature in metropolitan Boston. The bookstore has played a critical role in expanding and diversifying the collection of African American children's literature in [Boston Public Schools] classrooms and school libraries. School leaders and teachers routinely visit the bookstore, order books for their schools and classrooms and Frugal's owners and operators deliver these books to their schools....
"Frugal's collection includes classic and contemporary texts that Black adults want to read. As a consequence, Frugals is a place where Black families come to spend time, examining new and classic African American children and adult books. It is a go-to place for families."
At Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colo., journals, greeting cards, reading glasses, earrings and stickers are all doing very well, reported gift and children's book buyer Julie Shimada. Historically, some of the shop's bestselling nonbook items have included the impulse items displayed on the front counter, and that's holding true for 2022. Shimada pointed to Pop Rocks candy, gel pens and stickers--particularly the "I Poop on Racists," "...Fascists" and "...Anti-Vaxxers" stickers from Mincing Mockingbird--as strong sellers.
On the subject of new gift items, Shimada said she's brought in some new jewelry, journal and greeting card lines in the past few weeks, most of them sourced from the online wholesale marketplace Faire. Recently Faire had a week of discounts and vendor specials, a bit like a virtual trade show, and those discounts were a big incentive for Shimada to try new vendors. She noted that she's been using Faire "more and more."
Asked whether there are any differences between current sales and pre-pandemic sales, Shimada answered that in 2021, journals were up 32% and cards up 20% compared to 2019. Over the holidays, boxed card and calendar sales were so robust that the store is still short on stock. As a result, Shimada plans to order 30% more in 2022 than she did in 2021, and those orders were already up by about 25%-30% compared to 2019.
Supply chain and shipping issues, Shimada continued, have been a much bigger problem with sidelines and gift items than with books. For most of 2021, sideline orders rarely shipped complete, leaving considerable backorders. Plush and other toys that come from overseas were a "real struggle to get," and Shimada noted that sometimes vendors would cancel backorders without any warning or notification. Orders from some vendors were delayed for as long as two months, and across the board there were increases in wholesale prices.
"All in all, 2021 was a good year for sidelines sales," Shimada said. "It was just an incredibly frustrating year to be a sidelines buyer."
Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton, N.Y., said it's a quiet time of year for sidelines, but jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards, journals and boxed notecards are doing well.
Hermans recently ordered some exciting new items, including therapeutic heat pillows from Cherapy, which are made in the U.S. by a woman-owned company; puzzles from Apostrophe, which feature art from BIPOC artists who receive a share of the profits; teas from Flowerhead Tea, which are organic and made by a woman-owned company; and the conversation game Actually Curious, which is a Black-owned business.
She added that many of the store's vendors have been strained by supply chain issues and price increases. Her tactic now is to order "20%-50% more than I normally would, since so many items will never arrive."
Kathy Detwiler, owner of Buttonwood Books and Toys in Cohasset, Mass., said that everything in the cards and stationery department has been doing very well since the beginning of the year, and Valentine's Day provided a "great push" for cards earlier this month.
Shortly before the 2021 holiday season, Detwiler and her team brought in a line of coasters called Drinks on Me. They've proven so popular that "we just keep reordering them," she said. Customers will pick up coasters for themselves or stick them in a birthday card or include them with a book as a gift, and recently Buttonwood added a display featuring their new cocktail napkins. Detwiler noted that a line of Candy Club candy that came in clear acrylic jars and featured love messages written on them did very well recently.
Asked how the store's current gift and sidelines mix compares to the mix prior to the pandemic, Detwiler said things "bounced right back" in 2021. Customers felt safe shopping in-store and were "so excited" to get back. They seemed "hungry to buy new things" and purchased personal items as well as gifts. Detwiler pointed out that in 2021 the "birthday market" for young children really came up, and children's gifts are still doing extremely well. Some popular children's lines include plush toys from eco-Kids and Timber Tots from Fat Brain Toys.
On the subject of the supply chain, Detwiler said she and her team saw these issues coming in the beginning of 2021. They "really listened" to the store's reps and added storage space so they could place much larger orders than usual. Normally the store does a lot of delayed shipping dates, but last year they were "advised not to do that if you want this product." Despite placing larger than normal orders the store was able to "absorb it financially" thanks to extended dating.
"I don't see the supply chain changing much at all for 2022," Detwiler said. She recommended that if booksellers can find additional storage, they should take advantage of it and "buy large." --Alex Mutter
Writer, reporter and bookseller Shirley Haas, whose Her Fiery Clock Face bookstore in Andersonville, Ill., "was a gathering spot for bibliophiles," died January 19, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. She was 97.
"Shirley was a vibrant and colorful personality and a gifted Chicago reporter from the heyday of Chicago journalism with great stories to tell," said author Richard Lindberg. "She never slowed down, she loved books and the company of authors, and her Fiery Clock Face bookstore in Andersonville was a gathering spot for bibliophiles. Shirley's annual New Year's Eve party was an 'A-list' event and a rollicking good time for all of us who valued her friendship and her tremendous esprit de corps."
After graduating from the University of Chicago, she covered crime, police and the courts for the City News Bureau of Chicago before moving to the Chicago Tribune. In the late 1950s, she married Joseph Haas, a reporter and book editor for the Chicago Daily News; and by the 1960s, she was writing a weekly children's book column that ran in the Daily News' Panorama section under her maiden name Shirley Lowry. She also was an editor for Rand McNally when the company had a textbook division and published books for children.
In 1987, Haas co-founded the Fiery Clock Face at 5311 N. Clark St., which was open until 1995. The shop got its name from a traditional Celtic fiddle tune that was a family favorite.
"I fondly remember the bookstore she owned with her sister," said Robert Remer, publisher and editor-in-chief of the former Chicago Books in Review and a former Chicago Public Library deputy commissioner. "I was a Saturday morning regular. She and her sister collected a lot of books on Chicago history, and they always had unique bookends and book-themed knickknacks for sale. They helped boost my interest in Chicago literature, which eventually led to Chicago Books in Review."
Haas was a longtime member of the Society of Midland Authors, and in 1995 the organization awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Shirley brought not only her experience as a great children's writer to the Midland Authors but her years as a book editor as well," said author Jim Schwab, a former Midland Authors president. "This combination provided her with both interesting insights into the authors' world and a wealth of anecdotes and inside wisdom."
Last year, we ran thousands of ads across all of our publications--so we know a thing or two about great book marketing!
Join us today, Tuesday, February 22, at 12 p.m. Eastern or Thursday, February 24, at 3 p.m. Eastern for a virtual session celebrating the best ads in the Shelf for 2021.
We'll go over all the Shelf's offerings, highlight our highest-performing and most innovative Shelf Awareness ads from last year, and break down what's so special about them. Join us as we geek out on stats, swoon over awesome creative, and bow to our publishing colleagues who will take home the top honors.
Registration is required, and is open to all publishing industry folks, as well as any curious booksellers or librarians. Capacity is limited to the first 100 approved registrants, so be sure to register early. For more information and to register, click here.
We hope to see you then!
Recently, while both were traveling in Patagonia, Los Angeles author Fern Watt (Adventure Dogs, Chronicle) met bookseller Annie Philbrick (owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, R.I., and Title IX: A Bookstore in New London, Conn.). This photo was taken in Bariloche, overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi. Watt looks forward to sending signed copies to Philbrick's stores when her book is released in April.
"There have been more magical moments at the bookshop than I count," Meghan Hayden, owner of River Bend Bookshop in Glastonbury, Conn., told Boston.com. She opened the bookstore in 2018, after two decades in corporate America.
“Favorites include wedding and prom photos taken in the store, handwritten notes in thanks of a bookseller’s fabulous recommendations, and a grandparent sharing the child’s Halloween costume inspired by the books they picked up here," Hayden continued. "Perhaps the most touching was receiving a call from a bereaved family member letting us know a dear customer had passed away. They knew he loved it here, and we were among the friends that should be contacted. It is hard to believe there are many other businesses that can become a part of your life in this special way.”
"This quote from Christine Caine is a beacon on dreary days. Come enjoy some coffee and enjoy more inspiration from the writers on our walls," Roebling Point Books and Coffee, Covington, Ky., noted in sharing a photo of the shop's chalkboard message: "Sometimes when you're in a dark place, you think you've been buried, but actually you've been planted."
Naomi Kennedy is joining the Simon & Schuster indie team as telemarketing account manager, independents and educational specialist.
A History of the World (in Dingbats) by David Byrne (Phaidon).
Oprah Winfrey, who made her acting debut as Sofia in Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, "is returning to the story in a new role as one of the producers, joining forces with Spielberg, Quincy Jones, and Scott Sanders, producer of the Broadway musical," Oprah Daily reported. Winfrey, who will help bring The Color Purple musical--which first premiered on Broadway in 2005--to the screen, said: "To reinvent the movie at this time is to reinvent a phenomenon."
The film will be directed by Blitz Bazawule from a script by Marcus Gardley (The Chi). According to Warner Bros., The Color Purple will hit theaters on December 20, 2023.
Winfrey, who played Sofia in the 1985 film, personally delivered the news to Danielle Brooks that she had been cast in the role for the new movie, as she had in the 2015 Broadway production. Winfrey chose to tell Brooks the news because of the powerful impact playing Sofia had on her: "I wanted to be the one to tell you because I have such love of this character and everything she represents, everything she brought to my life. What I'm hoping is that she does the same thing for you."
Winfrey did not personally deliver casting news to every performer as she did with Brooks, but "she was deeply invested in choosing the perfect person for each role," Oprah Daily wrote. The cast also includes Fantasia Barrino as Celie, Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, Corey Hawkins as Harpo, Colman Domingo as Mister, H.E.R. as Squeak, and Halle Bailey as Nettie
Hulu has acquired the rights to develop Adrian McKinty’s upcoming novel The Island as a limited series. McKinty will executive produce with Shane Salerno and the Story Factory. Hulu "believes the lead female role (the mother) will attract a major star," Deadline reported.
The author's previous novel, The Chain, was acquired by Universal and Working Title for Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) to direct. Wright is rewriting the Jane Goldman script. The project is moving into pre-production.
Nicole Krauss won the £4,000 (about $5,470) Wingate Literary Prize, which recognizes "the best book, fiction or nonfiction, to translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader," for her first short story collection, To Be a Man.
Chair of judges Rabbi Joseph Dweck said: "In a shortlist of seven excellent books, Nicole Krauss's To Be A Man is a collection of remarkable stories. It is a contemporary and beautiful piece of writing, which is original in its approach and cohesive as a collection. In each story the themes emerged organically and we particularly admired the fact that the subject matter supported the literature rather than the literature being subordinate to it--a testament to Krauss's special talent as a writer."
Krauss commented "I am so honored to receive the Wingate Prize this year, and to be in the excellent company of the other short-listed writers. I thank the judges for their faith in my work. At a time when antisemitism is everywhere on the rise, a dedication to Jewish themes and a deep engagement with the question of what it means to be Jewish feels as important as ever."
|photo: Jack Sorokin|
Niina Pollari's newest poetry collection is Path of Totality (Soft Skull, February 8, 2022), which explores the sudden loss of her child. She's also the author of another poetry collection, Dead Horse, and an occasional Finnish translator. She lives with her family in western North Carolina.
Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:
I'll offer a paraphrased quote instead: this is a book for anyone who ever expected anything.
On your nightstand now:
White Magic by Elissa Washuta--easily my favorite thing I read in 2021. Washuta is doing something totally new in the personal essay category; even what she executes with epigraphs is stunning, and I've kept this book in my stack since I read it. I also just finished Fight Night by Miriam Toews. For the last couple of years, I've ended the year on Toews. Last year it was Women Talking, and before that, All My Puny Sorrows. She is hilarious and devastating, and I will read whatever she writes. And the third book in my current rotation is The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void by Jackie Wang, which is told through dreams. Sunflowers are an important symbol for me, and I had wanted to write something about them but then discovered this perfect book existed. I hate reading about dreams, but found this so compelling and painful and deep.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I loved Astrid Lindgren's books from a very young age. She is best known in the U.S. as the author of Pippi Longstocking, but she wrote lots of books for children, and many of them deal with death and illness and rejection and all kinds of big, real topics while still being magical and full of joy. They're populated by outcasts, orphans and children in trouble, which is all I wanted to read about when I was a kid. My very favorite was The Brothers Lionheart, in which both of the brothers die in the first 10 pages.
Your top five authors:
I can't name a top five anything, as it's always changing and growing, but here are a few authors whose work I will always read, no matter the format or genre: Kate Zambreno, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ariana Reines, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Miriam Toews.
Book you've faked reading:
The first time I was asked to read The Great Gatsby, I didn't do it. I just found the experience of reading it unpleasant. Unfortunately this did not go well for me on the exam. I've since read it several times, and even tried to like it, but sadly do not.
Book you're an evangelist for:
I have a few I recommend over and over to people. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson if you've got a tender heart but think you don't like or read poetry. Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines if you want a quick and dirty lesson on poetic voice. The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal by Tytti Heikkinen if you want to see how the Internet can explode into poems. (I'm the translator of this last book, so I am biased.)
Book you've bought for the cover:
White Noise by Don DeLillo. I was a teenager and needed a novel for a road trip so I chose one at random from Barnes & Noble. In retrospect I'm glad it turned out to be a postmodern classic.
Book you hid from your parents:
I didn't hide my reading from my parents. My mother was encouraging about my reading habits, and got me a library card very early. Occasionally in my teenage years, she raised an eyebrow about certain books after reading the back copy--I remember this happening with Anne Rice novels--but she never stopped me from reading anything. Maybe sometimes she didn't know what I was reading, which was to my benefit. I've got a little daughter now, and I've been thinking a lot about supporting her this way without getting in her way, in the way of her interests.
Book that changed your life:
Satan Says by Sharon Olds was a big reading experience. Reading Plath had already primed me for the power of the feminine subjective, but reading this book (a first book!) opened a window into transgression for me in my late teens. Oh, you can just invoke the devil and use him to say disgusting things? I really hadn't read anything like it before. I even loved the experience of buying the book, which had a stark red cover with the title written in old English font.
Favorite line from a book:
For the past few years I've kept a document with favorite lines from all my reading each year. Some recent favorites:
"to hate yourself AND let yourself live/ to hate AND let live/ that is the goal" --from Outgoing Vessel by Ursula Andkjær Olsen
"If someone stops loving you/ It's because you didn't/ Care about their life" --from Lovability by Emily Kendal Frey
Books you'll never part with:
My collection of chapbooks and zines, and my first edition of The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann is the first to come to mind. At the time when I read this novel, it was so immersive, sprawling, fatalistic and romantic that I was completely in its world. It reminded me of the summer I spent listening to Lana Del Rey. I wish I could have that experience again but we change as readers--for instance, I don't live by the concept of the annihilating romance anymore, so I'm sure the love interest wouldn't be as compelling to me. But sometimes books come to you at the right time, and they reflect something true about you back to you, and those are the magical experiences that reading makes possible. It's seeing yourself in a mirror for a moment while you're walking, a glint of light and maybe you catch your own eye. But then you keep walking and never return.
Search by Michelle Huneven (Penguin Press, $27 hardcover, 400p., 9780593300053, April 26, 2022)
Michelle Huneven (Off Course; Blame) takes readers inside the complicated dynamics of a pastoral search committee--complete with recipes--in her warm, wry fifth novel, Search. Food critic and memoirist Dana Potowski is casting about for a book idea when she's asked to join the committee that will choose her Unitarian Universalist church's next pastor. Thinking it might provide good fodder, Dana reluctantly agrees, only to find herself much more caught up with her fellow committee members, and invested in the outcome, than she expected.
Huneven creates an appealing ensemble cast at once very particular to its context (a mostly white, not-very-"religious" church community in an affluent area east of Los Angeles) and universally recognizable. The group includes Charlotte, the older, patrician white woman who keeps a firm grip on order and procedure; Jennie, the multiracial young woman whose sole aim seems to be pushing the envelope; Adrian, the likable Black therapist who keeps his true opinions close to his chest; and Riley, the sensitive handbell-group director with a complicated home life. As the group settles into a rhythm of considering, interviewing and endlessly discussing candidates, they learn not only about themselves and each other, but also about the challenges of reaching consensus, the seductive pull of power and charisma, and the difficulty of choosing between their own desires and what is best for the church. (Dana is, perhaps naively, surprised to find that the latter two are not always the same.) Hilarity sometimes ensues when members' priorities and personalities clash, but rather than playing her characters for laughs, Huneven treats them with respect while still winking occasionally at readers.
Huneven keeps readers (and Dana) guessing until near the end, but the novel's true pleasure isn't in the outcome of the decision or its aftermath. It's in the sharp, insightful yet compassionate way Huneven handles her characters--all of them flawed, yet wanting, on some level, to do the right thing. It's in the small daily encounters over dinner and around town, and in Dana's musing asides to her husband on the committee's deliberations. It's in the clashes of personalities (some of them outsized) in the committee, the church and the larger denomination. And ultimately, it is in the thoughtful consideration of how communities function, how they make difficult decisions and what it means when people disagree deeply, but are still committed to living alongside one another.
Although Huneven's food descriptions and the recipes at the end are a delight, the narrative is the pièce de résistance: a multilayered account of an oddball community that somehow manages to be both spicy and comforting. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Shelf Talker: Michelle Huneven's wry, warmhearted fifth novel is an insightful, often funny account of a pastoral search committee process.
Long ago--let's call it the turn of the century--I was a devoted reader of Dennis Johnson's blog MobyLives, which looked at the book trade through an alternative, sharp, perceptive lens. He opened up a conversation that was necessary and, quite often, he was just so damned funny. MobyLives also had a motto: "That Whale Is Out There, Man!"
In 2002, Melville House Publishing, co-founded by Johnson and his wife, Valerie Merians, launched with Poetry After 9/11, parts of which had appeared on the blog and generated national attention. As other titles followed, Johnson and Merians began calling on indie bookstores to introduce themselves and their evolving list. That's how I first met them, briefly, at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt., where I was a bookseller.
|Dennis Johnson & Valerie Merians|
MobyLives Radio ("Tired of blogs? Me too. MobyLives Radio is next ") hit the virtual airwaves in the fall of 2005, and Johnson even interviewed me while I was working the frenzied sales floor on Black Friday. Eventually I visited both the original MobyLives/Melville House Intergalactic World Headquarters in Hoboken, N.J.; and later their cool office/bookstore space in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood. And I read the books.
Over the years, Johnson and I have engaged in a long-running--if never frequent enough--conversation about the book business and indie booksellers/publishers, which makes this month's celebration of Melville House's 20th anniversary feel just a little personal for me.
In a recent interview, he spoke about the publisher's deep-rooted connection to indie booksellers. "One of our most vivid memories, from the days when we would go into bookstores to see if they were carrying our books, was when we walked into the Posman's that used to be in Grand Central Terminal," he recalled. "There, by the cash wrap, was a tall stack of our just-published second book, A Reader's Manifesto. Maybe 20 copies. We were floored and immediately asked to speak to the manager (we didn't know to ask for the buyer yet). We asked him if he usually put books of literary criticism there. He said no, that was usually where he stacked whatever book was reviewed in the New York Times that day. Commuters read the paper on the train to work and books well reviewed fly off that spot, he explained. But two things had happened, he explained: one, a bad review; and, two, he liked little presses and thought our book was great for his particular clientele. We later learned the friendly guy we'd spoken to was Robert Fader, one of the owners of Posman's."
|Melville House staff|
Citing the rise of Amazon as one of the most unexpected and damaging changes in the book industry this century, Johnson added: "The most welcome development is the way indie booksellers took on the challenge of the pandemic, and, seemingly overnight, developed a skill most of them hadn't had before, which is how to sell books online. The way they did that, and simultaneously developed other new ways to serve their clientele, such as delivery and curbside pick-up, is going to have a wonderful, long-term impact on the survival of indie bookselling and the war against Amazon. It's been great for all of us, business-wise, and damned inspiring."
Predictions about the future of the book business often seem to have more in common with astrology than analysis, but Johnson shared his thoughts regarding the challenges Melville House must prepare for over the next five to 10 years.
"Well, all the big-house mergers are deeply concerning. Even though the big five only represent about 50% of annual book sales, they control pretty much 100% of the marketplace," he observed. "Given that 50-50 split of sales between the big players and everyone else, one would think retailers would be just as supportive of small presses, university presses, and non-profits as they are the big houses, but that's just not the case--with the notable exception of most indie booksellers.
"Our hope is that a larger swath of retailers will emulate those indie booksellers. When you walk into City Lights [San Francisco, Calif.] or Solid State Books [Washington, D.C.] or DIESEL, A Bookstore [Brentwood & Del Mar, Calif.], for example, you're just as likely to see a book from Akashic or Graywolf or Milkweed on display as you are a Knopf or FSG title. Given the way discovery works in a brick-and-mortar setting--whereby people are inspired to buy things in addition to what they came in for--that's smart bookselling."
One of the first posts I ever wrote for Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal, my own early 21st-century blog, was headlined "News Flash: Publishers Hate Rejection, Too." Near the end, I noted: "When I love a book, I'll make it fly for them. Sometimes they strike gold first time into the mine. A while back, Valerie Merians of Melville House sent me a hardcover copy of Rob Laughner's novel Our Nun, which has just come out in paperback. I'll write in more detail about this very funny book a bit later, but I'm already working hard to find it an audience. Will Melville House send me another book? I don't know."
As it turned out, they did and I'm still a fan, highlighting most recently Rónán Hession's beautiful novel Leonard and Hungry Paul and the role bookseller Martin Sorensen of Green Apple Books, San Francisco, Calif., played in bringing Robert J. Lloyd's excellent debut novel, The Bloodless Boy, to Melville House's attention.
In 2008, Johnson told me that "nobody, and I mean nobody, has a stronger sense of common mission with indie booksellers than indie publishers, especially us. We share each other's pain, and joy for that matter; we see it as part of the same thing. Melville House is more about celebrating that very concept than anything else.... The motto will never change." That whale is still out there, man!