Wednesday, August 31, 2011

This is just the beginning...

For the past three or four weeks I have been involved in what has become, quite easily, the most rewarding and fun overall experience of my bookselling career. It began with a customer asking me for ten of my Top 100 books. And oh how I wish I knew her name or how to contact her now and let her know what that not so simple question has led to.

Her question made me think about how my list would differ/be similar to other booksellers across this fine land. So I began to call and e-mail them not knowing what the general response would be. In summary I was shocked to hear from person after person that they were willing, and happy, to contribute. I ended each call or message with the question: "Give me one other person I should talk to." I proceeded from there. So, beginning right now, I will be posting one of the 50 lists each business day.

My question was to list either a Top 50 or 50 favorite books to handsell. Out of print, new, all manner of genres, etc. Everything was fair game. Some booksellers/stores placed their own restrictions and I will list them as appropriate. Also noted is the fact that most people chose to list the books alphabetically by author and not do a ranking. I've done my best to compile them as nearest as possible to the way in which they were sent to me either by e-mail or handwritten letter(bless you, Mr. Joseph DeSalvo). I will also link to the bookstore website or blog whenever possible.

Before I give my own list I need to say that this is not a list of lists of omission. If there is a bookseller out there that would like to join this you can contact me and I will continue this project until its very end. Being involved in this has been the highest honor possible. As of right now I have 20 lists(with a total of 1,000 books) coming from all ages and at least 17 different states. From now on I will be posting them in the order that they arrived. At the very end I will compile the titles mentioned by the most people.

Hans Weyandt: Micawber's Books. St. Paul, MN 55108

A Universal History of the Destruction of Books--Fernando Baez
The Ninemile Wolves--Rick Bass
You Can't Win--Jack Black
Postville--Stephen G. Bloom
On the Yard--Malcolm Braly
Running After Antelope--Scott Carrier
My Antonia--Willa Cather
George and Rue--George Elliott Clarke
Open City--Teju Cole
Newjack--Ted Conover
The Brothers K--David James Duncan
Geek Love--Katherine Dunn
The Farther Shore--Matthew Eck
The Solace of Open Spaces--Gretel Ehrlich
Every Man Dies Alone--Hans Fallada
Going Blind--Mara Faulkner, OSB
Bury Me Standing--Isabel Fonseca
Hell at the Breech--Tom Franklin
Great Plains--Ian Frazier
The Last American Man--Elizabeth Gilbert
We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families--Philip Gourevitch
A Writer at War--Vasily Grossman
Reasons To Live--Amy Hempel
What The Living Do--Marie Howe
Seek--Denis Johnson
A Walker in the City--Alfred Kazin
Garden, Ashes--Danilo Kiš
Miniatures--Norah Labiner
The Boat--Nam Le
With Borges--Alberto Manguel
So Long, See You Tomorrow--William Maxwell
Letter to an Imaginary Friend--Thomas McGrath
The Headmaster--John McPhee
Up in the Old Hotel--Joseph Mitchell
All the Living--C.E. Morgan
The Things They Carried--Tim O'Brien
Mystery and Manners--Flannery O'Connor
In the Skin of a Lion--Michael Ondaatje
The Time of Our Singing--Richard Powers
Down in My Heart--William Stafford
Jesse James--T.J. Stiles
The Gangster We Are All Looking For--lé thi diem thúy
The Tummy Trilogy--Calvin Trillin
Maps of the Imagination--Peter Turchi
The Tiger--John Vaillant
The Book of Fathers--Miklós Vámos
A Book of Reasons--John Vernon
Lone Wolf--MaryAnne Vollers
The Essays of E.B. White--E.B. White
In the American Grain--William Carlos Williams

Friday, August 26, 2011

Top 50 from America's indies

Or some of them. First, the backstory. About three weeks ago I had a customer ask me for 10 of my Top 100 books. Initially I thought she meant Micawber's all-time bestsellers. When I started plucking books off the shelves she straightened me out, "No, I mean your personal favorites." Well then--now we had a crazy fun task at hand. So it got me to thinking how cool it would be to compile similar lists from other indie booksellers.

I began to call and e-mail some of my friends from other stores and had them recommend one other bookseller and things began to domino. So I thought, why not get the Top 50 from 20 different people/stores? That would be 1,000 books with some crossover. I'm happy to say that the lists have been trickling in and it is a joy to witness. Starting next week I will be posting one of them here and via our Facebook page each day. If all goes as planned we'll have between 15-25 booksellers sharing their favorites. It will cover fifteen states(or more) and vary wildly in age.

This endeavor has been great fun and has put me in contact with both old bookselling friends and many new ones.

So, bookophiles, stay tuned.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mr. White's Confession--

Or, what to do when a particular title sells much better regionally than it does nation-wide?

When I was just a bookselling pup back in my early Hungry Mind days I was like a kid on a sugar bender. We had 45-50 employees and every day someone was telling me about a book I had to read. Same with customers. One customer was a hard-core mystery nut and he was always prodding me to set aside any ideas I had about the genre and simply read some. An early suggestion of his was Robert Clark's "Mr. White's Confession". He told me that it was a lovely and endearing and sad yet fun tale of 1930's St. Paul. And as a child and bookseller of that city it was my duty to give this book a chance. I read it and liked it and went about my careening between other recommended titles.

That edition of the book was not long for the world and it seemed to vanish as quickly as it appeared. Fast forward to 2008 when paging through a catalog with a sales rep I saw the, old, familiar image on the cover of Clark's novel. I was a little more excited than the rep had anticipated and I said, "We're going to sell this book like crazy." Now we move forward to 2011 and the fact that we've sold 128 copies. That's no mind-blowing number but it is beyond respectable and, I'd guess, more than most other stores in the country.

The book has a lot going for it in general, but specific to the Twin Cities it's an easy sell. The style of writing has been compared to Dashiel Hammett or James Crumley at their finest and even Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books. The sense of place is spot on. Readers who like the book often ask me for the next book in this series. Mr. Clark has written many books since this but has moved on to art history and other unrelated fictional works.

As we try to order more copies of late we've been hitting some dead spots. Ingram, one of the larger national wholesale book companies, is carrying very low stock. Last week we tried to order five copies and only received one. I need to place a call this coming week to Macmillan and see if the book is, as we fear, headed back into out of print status. That would be a shame for Micawber's, obviously, but moreso for all the readers who haven't gotten their hands on this one yet. I may even beg them to print a couple hundred more of them and ship them our way as we need to re-stock.

This is probably a problem that many small stores run into. They find a way to sell many copies of a book by way of hand-selling or shelftalkers written by staff but the numbers in other places just don't stack up. Publishers are about bottom-line numbers and I recognize that keeping small quantities on hand for only one or two stores to sell well doesn't make financial sense. I know all of this. Yet this is one case which makes me wish it wasn't so.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Work Is

Ten years ago I bought this collection of poems because of the great cover photo. That brought me the joy or learning about Philip Levine. Now he is the new Poet Laureate. Here is the title poem...

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Swinging and missing

People often ask me what I do for a living and I respond, "I'm a bookseller." Frequently people will say, "There has to be a better title than that." And, it's true, it is something I've given a good deal of thought to over the years. Tastemaker is a term I've heard used by friends both in and out of the book world. But no matter how that word is framed it just seems highfalutin to me. I am a bookslinger. I am a bookseller.

There are lots of aspects of this job that I like but the best part for me is recommending books to a reader or for someone to give as a gift. It's always fun and challenging and rewarding to help get just the right books to people. Earlier today I had a customer tell me I had helped her choose a book for her father and that he had loved. That, alone, makes a day worthwhile. That is all we can hope for.

Yet, there is failure. A failure to understand who the gift is for exactly. Their particular likes and dislikes--some of which we weren't privy to. A failure to match the right reader and book on a particular day even. A failure to find the novel that is "entertaining, but not overly simplistic. not middle-brow or too esoteric." I admit it: sometimes these things do not work out. And that's no fun for anyone involved. People often complain about baseball players or weathermen. Three and a half out of ten will get you into the Hall of Fame or 50% is doing your job well. I, we, want to do better than that and know that if we only get four or five out of ten right then people will quickly be looking for other options.

So when I hear from a reader that didn't like a suggestion I try to remain calm and let them know it happens. I'll try harder. Tell me what you didn't like. What else should I be looking for? That puts us back on the trail towards success and a book that will please.

Like all fun things, there is a little danger in suggesting books. It's a high-wire act without the threat of death. And, for that, I am thankful.