Friday, January 18, 2013

Looking over the shoulder at 2012

Last year I did a little write-up about my mistakes. It became clear that people love to read about other people screwing up. So it would make some sense to do the same thing this year--but I'm skipping over that as mistakes can be difficult to confront.

What I will be doing is a scatter-shot review of the year for us and, to a lesser degree, the book world at large.

After talking to a number of other stores and sales reps I feel it's pretty safe to say that 2012 was a pretty good year for most stores. Things started well for a good majority of stores and rolled along until a strong holiday season. As has been reported elsewhere, this year featured no smash-hit country wide. No Mark Twain bio. All in all, it's a positive sign for the industry that things can go well with everyone sharing a little of the success.

Last week I posted our bestsellers for the year and for the month of December. Outside of those books we were lucky to have a number of other books do quite well. "Stockholm Octavo" and "Leon and Louise" were two nice surprises. "Press Here" and "Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site" were big hits in the kids book realm. We had a number of locals do well: Peter Geye's "The Lighthouse Road" and Carrie Newman's "War on the Prairie" being the most notable.

Trying to sense any solid trend is risky business for our store. We've been here for 10 years(officially in August 2013)and that is still a small sample size. Two things I can say is that this past fall was very strong for us in terms of hardcover book sales. And cookbook sales have gone bonkers. The cookbook thing really should be its own post(note to self). It's most likely a combination of the ever increasing interest in cooking shows(Bourdain, Top Chef, Chopped, etc.) and the quality of these books getting better and better. It's also one area of the book world not easily or well replicated on a tablet/reader. A recipe is a recipe. But the pictures and other miscellany count for a lot. The hardcover sales are something I can't really put a finger on.

The last thing I'd be remiss not to note is the fact that bookstores(real, physical, spaces) had a renaissance of sorts in 2012. There were a number of books on books and bookstores. We were lucky to be involved in a couple of them. Ann Patchett, whose store in Nashville, TN has been open for just over a year, became a perfect spokesperson for us and kept us the regular media loop. I also had the great fortune to edit a book of lists from booksellers and it put me into contact with stores all over the country. What I learned, and continue to appreciate, is that we all play for the same team. In December I spoke on the phone, daily, with booksellers from Magers&Quinn, Common Good and Subtext. We called each other to find books that weren't in stock at our own stores. It was a sign of respect/admiration for one another to be sure. It was also a concerted effort to help customers find books locally if at all possible.

I've said this many times before but I feel strongly about it: the MN/Twin Cities book world is as good as, or better than, anyplace in the United States. We have a strong community of bookstores, publishers and assorted others in the biz as well as a group of readers that allows us to do what we love to do. For that I thank all of you. It was a great year and we look forward to many more.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A little trip to Stockholm(Wisco)

Sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees--isn't that how the old saying goes? The book world is large and varied like the number of creatures alive in the ocean. Bookstores are certainly not one thing. Mystery stores, kids stores, poetry stores. Used Books. Antiquarian and collectible. Remainder stores.

Locally, even, there are groups of book-lovers whose circles I never enter into. The Ampersand Club, for example. In that vein, this past Sunday, my friend Ben and I ventured over to Stockholm, WI to visit Gaylord Schanilec and his studio. I've written briefly about Gaylord and his work on this site before. I have always appreciated his taste in books and other art, his devotion to place and his work--throwback is simply the tip of the iceberg.

In any case, he's always told me I could visit his workspace and we finally made it happen. The drive alone was worth our time. Heading into roadways lined by ancient rock and more and more turkey vultures, hawks of all kinds and eagles coming into view. Maybe it's silly to say that this natural beauty paled in comparison to seeing how his work is made. But for me it's true.

To say he operates in a different part of the book world is a vast understatement. His website lists him as wood engraver and fine paper worker. It doesn't say what is quite obvious: he is a link to old world art and is absolutely a master craftsman. Watching him walk around the studio and tolerating our rapid-fire questions about his tools and machinery, I couldn't help but think: I am in the midst of real artistic genius. Such talk embarrases him but it's the truth.

It was great fun to look through his archives and the amazing library he has amassed on a wide variety of topics: paper, print-making, poetry, you name it. His most recent and ongoing project involves the great river and the studio is filled with books and maps on the topic. We looked at DNR manuals from the 1920's on the fish of MN. Books he had obtained from James J. Hill's personal library. We share a mutual love of Thomas McGrath and he was happy to show us some stuff he had done with McGrath's work. He was so willing to let us paw through all of his stuff whose worth is great in monetary value but even moreso in more ethereal ways. Several times I said, "We should get out of your way and let you work." He shrugged me off and was happy to have us as a diversion/mild annoyance.

Our conversation brought up so many names from the history and present of books in this area. I have great respect for those who have helped to form what is now our vibrant and diverse book world. Names like Pat Coleman and Will Powers and Jim Sitter and Rob Rulon-Miller. In fact, I have a Bookslinger coffee mug sitting on my shelf right now--Bookslinger being a book distributor that pre-dates both Bookmen and Consortium and that Mr. Sitter helped found.

While I am quite obviously a fanatic for his work in general it became clear to me, on this visit, that this newest work is going to be something on a new level. It's attention to detail and the amazing colors. The map that will fold out from the front of the book. To see all of the woodcuts he has and the paper on the drying racks and revision after revision. The total man hours poured into this is stupefying.

Here is one final link to another paper artist who visited the workshop and was equally impressed.

In short, buy this guys work and you will not be disappointed. We're lucky to have him in the vicinity and kicking out stellar books and prints.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 bestsellers

I'm still mulling over the end of 2012 which was supposedly bad for retail in general but mostly good for smaller stores(including us). Early next week I'll put together some thoughts on the year past. Here are our bestsellers and a mixed-category list of our top-selling titles in December.

December Top 20(Interesting to note that 13 are written by women)

Read This!--Hans Weyandt(ed.)
Round House--Louise Erdrich
Flight Behavior--Barbara Kingsolver
A Thousand Mornings--Mary Oliver
Behind The Beautiful Forevers--Katharine Boo
Help, Thanks, Wow--Anne Lamott
Goblin Secrets--William Alexander
The Signal and the Noise--Nate Silver
Dogfight--Calvin Trillin
Tiny Beautiful Things--Cheryl Strayed
War on the Prairie--Carrie Newman
Dear Life--Alice Munro
Smitten Kitchen Cookbook--Deb Perelman
Things That Are--Amy Leach
The Old Ways--Robert Macfarlane
The MN Book of Skills--Chris Niskanen
Snow Child--Eowyn Ivey
Wolf Hall--Hilary Mantel
The Paris Wife--Paula McLain
Train Dreams--Denis Johnson

Top 10 Hardcover 2012
Wild--Cheryl Strayed
Round House--Louise Erdrich
This is How You Lose Her--Junot Diaz
Things That Are--Amy Leach
Phantom--Jo Nesbo
Behind The Beautiful Forevers--Katharine Boo
Flight Behavior--Barbara Kingsolver
Rez Life--David Treuer
Quiet--Susan Cain
Bring Up The Bodies--Hilary Mantel

Top 10(or so) Paperback 2012
Read This--Weyandt(ed.)
War on the Prairie--Carrie Newman
Tiny Beautiful Things--Cheryl Strayed
Train Dreams-Denis Johnson
The Hare With Amber Eyes--Edmund DeWaal
Cutting For Stone--Abraham Verghese
Open City--Teju Cole
The Art of Fielding--Chad Harbach
Hunger Games--Suzanne Collins
Salvage The Bones--Jesmyn Ward
Sense of an Ending--Julian Barnes
The Half-Blood Blues--Esi Edugyan
The Tiger's Wife--Tea Obreht
State of Wonder--Ann Patchett

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What I Don't Read

I want to preface this by saying that what will follow will sound like jackassery--and I don't intend it to. Yet the truth of the matter is that I get asked to read a lot of books. Asked by eager authors, publicists, friends of friends of writers, other booksellers, friends and random strangers. It's often quite difficult to decide what to read(I know, tough problem).

My reading habits trend towards feast or famine. Meaning there are seven or eight things I want to read at one time or none at all. The logic--if there is any--behind what I choose to read and when is a very inexact science. In the past week two or three very perfect examples of this have taken place.

I started Thomas Maltman's "Little Wolves" several months ago. And by started I mean that I read the first two pages and decided it wasn't my thing. But the momentum kept building by word of mouth with other booksellers and writers. And I remembered hearing good things about his first novel. And Soho Press--a fine publisher of literary mystery and novels--published this one. So after much prodding I began it again this past weekend. And for the past three days its all I've wanted to do when I wasn't wrestling with my 2.5 and 5 year old boys. It has some wonderful MN angles but is equally good for people who know or care nothing about Minnesota.

The second book is entitled "Here If You Need Me" by Kate Braestrup. I heard her a few weeks back on Krista Tippet's NPR program 'On Being.' I listened to a small portion of the program while sitting on the side of the road and was totally hooked. Her ideas on love and living and death seem both faith-based and no nonsense. I must confess to an aversion to organized religion as a k-college Catholic eduacation left me dizzied by the big C Catholic organization. Yet I felt at home with Braestrup's ideas on faith and loss.

In both cases I listened to others and ignored my gut instinct. First thought=best thought might be the old wisdom regarding standardized tests but it has not proven to be the smartest idea in my personal life.

Our reading paths are fragmented and non-linear. What we choose to pursue and continue on with is often only as important as what we choose to ignore. In these cases I feel lucky to have been guided to things I really enjoyed.