Friday, December 31, 2010

My odds and ends for 2010

The last few weeks have been very busy and that's been fun and fulfilling and a little helter-skelter. So something had to fall of my to-do list and it was finishing these lists. I will end the year with one and finish with a history list from Tom and some kids lists from Dara--our kids buyer extraordinaire.

The quirks and oddballs list

"The Native Trees of Canada" by Leanne Shapton(Drawn and Quarterly)
"Infinite City" by Rebecca Solnit(University of California Press)
"Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds" by John Bevis(MIT Press)
"One Hundred Portraits" by Barry Moser(David R. Godine Publisher)
"The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" by Allison Hoover Bartlett(Riverhead Books)
"FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History"(Bloomsbury)
"X'ed Out" by Charles Burns(Pantheon)
"The Atlas of Remote Islands" by Judith Schalansky(Penguin)
"The Book of 'Unnecessary' Quotation Marks" by Bethany Keeley(Chronicle Books)
"Moby Dick" by Jens Hoffmann(Cca Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts)

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of this kind of stuff. Visually attractive, smart and outside the main scope of what sells.

As I get set to close the store in about half an hour and close the books on another year of adventure in books for us, it's only fair to say thank you. Thank you to those of you who are customers and help support us. Thanks to the publishing folk who sell us and educate us about books. There are no finer people to fight the good fight with. And to those of you who are friends of the store or who check out the blog we appreciate that interest as well.

See you in 2011.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Memoir/Essay 2010

"Happy" by Alex Lemon(Simon and Schuster)
"Long Way Home" by Bill Barich(Walker and Co.)
"Blood-Dark Track" by Joseph O'Neill(Random House)
"News To Me" by Laurie Hertzel(University of Minnesota Press)
"Half a Life" by Darin Strauss(McSweeney's Books)
"The Routes of Man" by Ted Conover(Random House)
"Florence: A Map of Perceptions" by Andrea Ponsi(University of Virginia Press)
"A Week at the Airport" by Alain de Botton(Random House)
"Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kacznski"(Feral House)
"Ghostbread" by Sonja Livingston(University of Georgia Press)

Two things to note from this list. Regarding the book of essays by the Unabomber, he received no compensation. A portion of all proceeds from the book went to the American Red Cross. Second, all three of the collections that I chose written by women were published by University Presses. I don't know what that means for certain.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


"Oaxaca al Gusto" by Diana Kennedy(University of Texas Press)
"Shefzilla" by Stewart Woodman(Borealis Books)
"I Love Macarons" by Hisako Ogita(Chronicle Books)
"The Geometry of Pasta" by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kennedy(Quirk)
"My Calabria" by Rosetta Costantino(W.W. Norton)
"One Big Table" by Molly O'Neill(Simon and Schuster)
"Essential New York Times Cookbook:Classic Recipes For a New Century by Amanda Hesser(W.W. Norton)
"Keys to Good Cooking" by Harold McGee(Penguin Press)
"Canal House Cooking Volume 5" This is actually a magazine done in book format and each issue is a treasure.
"The Vegetarian Option" by Simon Hopkinson(Stewart, Tabori&Chang

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holiday Hours

We will be open 10-3 on 12/24 and 12/31.

We will be closed 12/25, 1/1 and 1/2 for store inventory.


2010 Poetry Picks

"Lament For the Makers" W.S. Merwin, editor.(Counterpoint)
"Low Down and Coming On" James Lenfesty, editor. (Red Dragonfly Press)
"One With Others" C.D. Wright(Copper Canyon Press)
"Mean Free Path" Ben Lerner(Copper Canyon Press)
"10 Mississippi" Steve Healey(Coffee House Press)
"Phantom Noise" Brian Turner(Alice James Books)
"Holding Company" Major Jackson(W.W. Norton)
"Warhorses" Yusef Komunyakaa(FSG)
"Working Words" M.L. Liebler, editor.(Coffee House Press)
"Sharks in the Rivers" Ada Limon(Milkweed Editions)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My fiction of 2010

I decided to switch it up a little this year. I'm doing lists of 10 but it isn't necessarily Top 10 in order--those kind of things bother me a little because it's really splitting hairs at a certain point.

So here are ten books of fiction I found to be thought-provoking or important to me. In no order.

"In a Strange Room" by Damon Galgut(Europa Editions)
"Lord of Misrule" by Jaimy Gordon(McPherson)
"Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" by Yiyun Li(Random House)
"The Instructions" by Adam Levin(Mcsweeney's)
"February" by Lisa Moore(Black Cat)
"Dogfight, a Love Story" by Matt Burgess(Random House)
"Vestments" by John Reimringer(Milkweed Editions)
"What is Left the Daughter" by Howard Norman(Houghton Mifflin)
"Under This Unbroken Sky" by Shandi Mitchell(Harper)
"Lightning" by Fred Stenson(Douglas&McIntyre)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bullet Point Friday

It's been a busy Friday and with a massive snowstorm(maybe) approaching, all I can put together is some quick but worthwhile notes. My lists of ten in various categories will be getting posted next week starting on Monday. Fiction will bat lead-off.

*Keith Hollihan is reading here on the 15th at 7 p.m. Check this out.

*Here's a little feature on the store that was posted this week.

*I am blatantly stealing this quote from our good friends in New York City at Three Lives and Co. They have a fantastic store and in their December e-mail to customers they included a line from Patti Smith when she was accepting her National Book Award. She said,"Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don't abandon the book.There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book." Hurray for Patti Smith.

*Speaking of hurray, huge congrats to Graywolf Press. They will publish Liu Xiaobo in English.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The new men's lit.

The trend of chick-lit with its bubble-gum covers seems to have passed. And while I am usually hesitant to label most novels as his/her books, I am noticing a new trend. There is a new wave of young men writing novels that are, for lack of a better term, very masculine. It would be too easy to link these books to Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Yet that is what happens.

Benjamin Percy created some waves a few years back with the release of his short story collection "Refresh, Refresh" which was a raw and well-honed grouping of work. He read at Micawber's and his made for radio bass voice only contributed to the manliness. His new novel "The Wilding" is a look at fathers and sons and hunting and living in wilderness. “Benjamin Percy’s The Wilding is a tour de force meditation and treatise on the nature of violence, the violence of nature, man in the wild, and the wild in man—cleverly disguised as a page-turning adventure. Not just a ‘must’ read, but a need read, this book is timely, terrifying, terrific.”

I half-joked with Erin Kottke of Graywolf a week back that they were creating quite the stable of these new writers. Yet, it's true. In March of 2011 they will release a collection of stories by Alan Heathcock entitled "Volt" that seem to be wayward cousins of Percy's writing. All set in an unnamed locale, these are also stories that grab you and shake you and, ultimately, remind you that violence and tenderness are not mutually exclusive.

It's possible that the success of Cormac McCarthy, in film and books(again), has led to this. Or it could be something else entirely. Creston Lea, Keith Hollihan and Donald Ray Pollock are three other writers with new books I would add to this group. While not written for men alone, there is a high charge of testosterone running through the work that cannot be denied.

Ben Percy will be reading at the store on Monday December 6th at 7 p.m. and Keith Hollihan will read from his debut novel on Wednesday the 15th at 7 p.m. "The Four Stages of Cruelty" is a stunner of a book filled with moral questions and answers.

Please do join us for both--you will not be disappointed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lisbeth mania

We just received a box of goodies from the good people at Knopf and inside, along with a Ha Jin book and a nice copy of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", were some Lisbeth Salander trinkets. We got some temporary tattoos, a few "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" themed drink ideas and WWLD? bracelets which are featured here on my wrists. We also got some Swedish fish. We'll be handing the stuff out to Lisbeth fans until the supplies are gone.

Photo credit goes to Casey Peterson. Taken on Tom's iphone.

How to start something new--or old, again.

I can't quite decide if certain book trends are like fashion in that everything old is new again or if it's more like the current fascination with knitting/crochet and things skip a generation. Whatever it is, it is being shown in publishing trends. Books on beekeeping, canning, local and/or organic food, slow-cookery and all manner of 'green' living have been popular for a few years now. So much so that we finally decided that these books didn't really fit best in our Cookbooks, Current Affairs or Nature sections. So we have a new Sustainability section. It is a lot like Cultural Studies in that it is a mixed bag.

The interesting question, to me, is what caused this surge in interest? Was the recession(over? almost over? in the middle?)the tipping point that forced a large percentage of people to re-think their monthly costs and how they shopped and consumed both goods and food? Is the Do-It-Yourself movement simply a part of that or a larger desire for people to be more connected to their homes and the items within? Is it part of a fad trending all things Americana: music, fashion, design, etc. I'm no cultural anthropologist, but it seems to be some combo of all of the above.

So our new section combines elements of all these categories and it happily combines some new, young, voices with older, respected, ones like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.

Yes, we have sold several copies of the cheese book. Skyhorse Publishing has a nice series of self-sufficiency books for $12.95 in hardcover. You don't have to make too many pounds of cheese to get that kind of money back.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Good Books for a Good Cause

On October 12th we hosted an event that was a benefit for the Jeremiah Program which is a local program that provides services for single mothers looking to better their lives. I encourage people to take a look at their website for more information.

We had desserts donated by Lesley Powers who caters events and sells her wonderful granola at several local retailers under the brand name Bliss.

And I briefly discussed 15 books we're excited about this Fall. Here's the list--

Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Room by Emma Donoghue
The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo
The Balcony of Europe by Aidan Higgins
The Quickening by Michelle Hoover
The Report by Jessica Frances Kane
All the Living by C.E. Morgan
One Day by David Nicholls
The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
Going Blind by Mara Faulkner, OSB.
River House by Sarahlee Lawrence
A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit
The Tiger by John Vaillant
The Geometry of Pasta by Caz Hildrebrand and Jacob Kennedy
Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

One that got away...

Lots of fiction readers are dealing with a problem that booksellers face on a regular basis: how to read a book that is talked about constantly? I've heard from several customers that they can't read the Franzen book right now. There's simply been too much chatter from lovers/haters.

It is difficult to read something without hearing all the voices--which is the biggest reason I've never read "The Kite Runner" or "The Lovely Bones" or "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". It isn't snobbery. I've simply heard too much about all of them to read them fairly.

All of that is really just prologue to my actual point. Which is that I was thrilled when I got into the store today and saw Joseph O'Neill's "Blood-Dark Track" sitting on the paperback table. O'Neill is the author of the much ballyhooed novel "Netherland". President Obama loved it, every major book review loved it, your book club probably loved it. Me? I thought it was fine. Maybe it was the cricket. Maybe not. I kept waiting and waiting for that aha moment and it never came. Had I heard it was brilliant too many times? However, his earlier memoir about his two grandfathers is the real deal. It is brilliant. I love it. Love it so much, in fact, that I paid way more than I normally do for any book to get a hardcover copy when it was out of print.

Both of his grandfathers, one Irish and one Turkish, were imprisoned during WWII for suspected subversion. On the one hand it is a great family history. And on the other it's a great look at two different cultures during world war. I am so pleased to be able to sell this book. And if you want "Netherland" that's great too.

Want another skip the famous book but read the previous one? Elizabeth Gilbert, pre-insane fame, wrote a fantastic book entitled "The Last American Man". That book is a joy.

Final thanks must go to local book wizard Jay Peterson, of Magers and Quinn, for obtaining the out-of-print book for me.

The cover with the young boy is the newer one, fyi.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Per Petterson

Just a note to let people know that we have some signed copies of Petterson's "I Curse The River of Time" and some very nice signed broadsides printed by Vandalia Street Press from the new novel for $20.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A book event is almost always a book event except...

when it is something completely different. And what Ben Weaver has planned for the next few weeks is something to take a look at. Ben is a local artist-at-large; or, at least, that's what I've taken to calling him. He's been a locally, nationally and internationally known singer for years now and this new endeavor he's set up is to coincide with the release of his new cd Mirepoix and Smoke. Over the past few years he's also released two chapbooks of poetry "Hand Me Downs Can Be Haunted" and "The Talking Comes Later". He's also brought himself back into the local food world--most recently cooking at Corner Table and The Craftsman.

To celebrate all of this he has curated a multidisciplinary three-show residency at the Bryant Lake Bowl entitled Tramping With The Pioneers. On 9/23@7 p.m. 'Food' is the focus. On 10/8@10 p.m. 'Music' is the focus with the release of the new album. And the middle event, on 9/30@7 p.m. 'Words' are the focus and that's where we come in. That night Ben will read from and play from his own work but he's asked some local literary friends to read with him. Jonathan Miles, author of the hilarious novel "Dear American Airlines" will read as will local poets Lightsey Darst, Dobby Gibson and Juliet Patterson. We will be there selling all of their work.

More info on the full line-ups for his other events can be found here and info regarding tickets and all other events at BLB can be found at their website.

Over the last seven years here at Micawber's I've been lucky to get to know Ben as a customer and then as a friend. I hope this great trio of events gets the attention I know that it deserves.

Friday, September 3, 2010

St. Paul fiction hits it big...

Jonathan Franzen is the novelist who is either madly loved or hated right now. Other novelists are upset by the amount of attention his new novel "Freedom" is receiving. He is one of only two novelists to ever be featured on the cover of TIME magazine and there are reviews in print and on-line all over the place. So I'm not going to review the book other than to say that people who loved "The Corrections" will feel similarly and those who didn't like it will also feel the same. The most recent novel is set, mostly, in Minnesota and St. Paul in large part. He will be kicking off the Fall season of Talking Volumes at the Fitzgerald Theater--though the event is already sold out.

Alas, not every quality novelist can be featured on the cover of magazines with massive circulation numbers and fancy, glossy, covers. St. Paul's own John Reimringer also has a novel just published that is set, mostly, here in our fine capital city. Next Friday, the 10th, at 7 p.m. Reimringer will be having the launch event for his book in the store. We're very exicted for this event and anticipate a large crowd so be ready to jostle for space if you're coming. A few years ago John read here for an event with Milkweed about their anthology "Fiction on a Stick: Stories by Writers From Minnesota" and the story he read from is entitled 'Betty Garcia.' She is one of the main characters in his novel "Vestments". So we're bringing this whole thing full circle and couldn't be happier to be involved in two great events for books set in this city we so love.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

bookstores and Bookstores

There are oodles and oodles of bookstores housed in cool places. Old banks, Victorian houses, riverboats. You name it. My sister-in-law just sent me some pictures of a store she was at in Buenos Aires in an old theater that was renovated about 10 years ago. This place looks like trouble in a very good way.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Field Notes

My previous post was all about books. I said we carry few items other than books. Today, however, we got in a new line of journals from the good people at Field Notes. They have a variety of lined, blank and ruled journals. They also have a new line of 'County Fair' editions for each and every state. Currently we only carry the MN edition. Each notebook has state facts and trivia and comes in a pack of three for $10.

From these little notebooks I've learned that MN has 87 counties. Tenney is the smallest town with a population of six. Eagle Mtn. is our highest point at 2,301 feet.

The three-packs come in a sharp combo of blue, red and yellow.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

There are days when it feels like what we're doing at Micawber's is an anachronism. We sell books and that is pretty much it. Sure, we carry some cards and magazines and blank journals. We don't sell reading glasses or stuffed animals or any other kind of sideline--all of which are markets that many small bookstores have made work for them over the past 20-30 years. The discount is often better on non-book items and if it works it works. But it simply wasn't something any of us were interested in doing.

From major media to industry publications to literary blogs the chatter is comprised largely, of late, about e-readers and electronic media and new ways to bring in revenue for publishers and bookstores. And while I don't thumb my nose at the Kindle/Nook/Ipad devices, it seems to me to be something best left to other to worry about. Just yesterday I read a very interesting piece about indie publishing. Like a lot of other industries, the book world is filled with subterfuge, evasiveness and blatant lies when it comes to what is actually selling. Publishers will say they are printing X number of copies of a book when it is actually Y. Bookstores will say they've sold twice as many copies of a book than they actually have. It's part of a larger disease--we all want to seem important and are willing to juke the numbers to make it seem so.

Over the course of time, I've taken a hard-line approach to this. When people ask about numbers of sales or attendance at an event I go with the truth. It's disappointing, at times, to certain people but it keeps things on the level. The craziest statistic, to me, from that post was the fact that the indie presses stated that 90% of their sales still come from brick and mortar stores. Even I was astounded by that figure.

But it cemented for me the idea that real bookstores can still help individual books and their sales. Convenience and price can be had on-line or electronically and there is something to be said for that. Yet the small press, the true defender of the new idea or the avant garde or the book that won't sell 50,000 copies but is important nonetheless still depends on stores to sell books. I found that heartening.

So, is the paper book dying? Maybe. But we still have customers from 10-20 and 20-30 who say they want books. And we still have E-Book users who also want paper books. The real answers to the book industry problems are in flux and unknown to even those of us in the industry. Time shall tell.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

It is sweet and it is bitter

August 1st marked our seventh anniversary and it's something that we're happy about and proud of.

Sadly, we also got news yesterday of the death of Kevin Morrissey who had currently been the Managing Editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review--which he had helped shape into one of the finest literary journals in the country. Before that he had worked for the MN Historical Society Press and helped us immensely during our first year. He always thought of the one thing when we were convinced all angles had been covered. Kevin was a real book lifer and also worked at Hungry Mind and Gringolet locally. He was 52 years old and will be missed by many.

So as we continue onward and celebrate our small success we also must pay our respects to a very good man. Rest in peace, Kevin.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Micro and Macro trends

I'm not one of those booksellers that hates the question, "What is the one book I have to read right now?" I do know lots of my comrades who find this question difficult for its wide open possibilities. I love working with that kind of search. The one I find most difficult isn't about a particular book at all--it's more about the industry in general. Frequently customers will ask me about what is working in books and the real truth is that I don't know.

I've come, over time, to see what lots of indie bookstores are doing as akin to farmer's markets compared to general grocery stores. Are we doing the same thing in general? Of course. But the essence of what we're doing is much different and really is apples to oranges. How bad was that?

So while I can give general ideas about things or tell people that 2008 was the year of the pirate/fairy, it isn't anything better or more informed than the average book buyer. I only know about the very micro trends that we see at Micawber's and that I know about from discussions with other bookselling friends. I'll say, "Is it just me or are there a lot of books right now with big black and yellow jackets?" There are. Or a friend will say, "Hardcover fiction seems to have really picked up in the last 3-6 months." But that's just chatter and it doesn't mean a thing relative to the book world at large.

Having said all of that, I do think I'm starting to get a grasp on some larger themes at work. Now these are all things that have zero scientific data to back me up. Here are a few little thoughts that have come to me over the past year.

1.)Political books are becoming a tough sell. Right, left, middle. Doesn't matter. I'm not sure if talk radio and the constant media cycle have numbed people or what. But beware all of these books no matter how big a name the author or subject is.

2.) It used to be true that books sold well by category like memoir or self-help. Now things seem to be getting published in groups by topic. Happiness had a handful of books last year.

3.)Big review attention is not what it once was. That's not like I'm breaking some huge story. Book blogs and all kinds of other media have crept into the space that has been left by papers abandoning their book coverage. Overall, I think that's a very good thing for books--especially those from smaller presses. A mention in the NY Times Book Review is still something to be fought over--but there are lots of other ways for books to get press that matters.

4.) The biggest thing I've witnessed in the last year is this bizarre dichotomy that exists not just in books but in our culture on a larger scale. It's the 'back to the land' versus super technology battle. It's not at all strange to see people looking for info on their i-phones regarding boutique shopping. We have become enthralled with both the hyper-local and world at our fingertips possibilities. So cookbooks, gardening, crafts and other DIY topics compete with books like "Hamlet's Blackberry" which is a book on how to create a meaningful life amidst the tech buzz. Books on hoarding, addiction to shopping, substances and stuff in general abound.

The modern consumer is often not an easily predictable commodity. It makes any kind of retail a trickier and more quickly changing enterprise. I'm happy to be a small part of that. All the while trying to anticipate a trend before it slips into the ether.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Big poetry news

Today W.S. Merwin has been named the new U.S. Poet Laureate and the 17th overall poet to hold the position. His first collection was published in 1952 and since then he has translated, written over 30 collections of poems and become an advocate for the wilds of Hawaii, his adopted home. A nice article on the news is here and more biographical info along with some of his work and reading is here.

Although this little prose poem is not a great representation of his usual style I love it for its simple beauty.


Certain words now in our knowledge we will not use again, and we will never forget them. We need them. Like the back of the picture. Like our marrow, and the color in our veins. We shine the lantern of our sleep on them, to make sure, and there they are, trembling already for the day of witness. They will be buried with us, and rise with the rest.

The picture at top is obviously older since Merwin is now 82 years old. But what a great, rugged, photo.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

20 under 40 and more

I could do some kind of list about the New Yorker's list of young writers. But it wouldn't come close to what Vroman's has done. They have the entire list with some brief explanation.

We currently have a small table at the front of the store displaying most of their titles.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Gray wolf

And not our beloved friends at Graywolf this time. This photo was taken at the New York State Zoo in Watertown, NY and is a part of Joel Sartore's dazzling book "Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species".

I thought of this book the other night while watching birds in Louisiana covered in toxic goop. The effects of BP's spill will not be known for years. But we know this: it ain't good for the animals. Sartores' book does an interesting thing in that the photos are listed in terms of total population. There are categories for >10,000, 10,000-1,000, <1,000, ? and On The Rise. So the reader gets to both see and feel population sizes. The gray wolf is in the last category and is doing very well. In large part in MN in particular. But what about the Whooping Crane and the Mississippi Sandhill Crane(only about 155 of those left) and the Eastern Indigo Snake? These are animals that are in some trouble and they need protection in order to rebound or simply continue to exist. At his website Sartore has some great video about the making of the book and links to organizations whose missions are to sustain and aid the preservation of animal lives and habitat.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Blame Ben Barnhart

Or, at least I do. For him pointing me here.

That, my friends, is how to get virtually lost in books.

Ben Barnhart is actually a very nice man and I blame him for nothing. He's the editor and Digital Operations Manager at Milkweed Editions. Milkweed is publishing a novel this coming fall that we're really excited about. "Vestments" has a lot going for it from our angle. Gorgeous cover+great publishing house+local writing talent. It comes out 9-1-2010 and you can read a little about it at its very own page.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Variety is the spice of book life

Last week was the annual gathering of publishers, booksellers, editors and lots of others involved in the book world. Book Expo America is an event that's a lot more exciting than its name or location(the Javits Center in the ugliest part of Hell's Kitchen in NYC). None of us went for a variety of reasons this year. But I'm starting to hear good things from those present. A sense of optimism about the future of the indie book world. We don't all believe the sky is falling. It's just changing a bit and a fun part will be figuring out new ways to deliver the same things booksellers always have: new and challenging ideas, the perfect little gift or just a nice book to spend a long, holiday, weekend with.

One of the great joys of working in a small store is that we have the ability to change things up fairly quickly. One section selling well and another dragging? No problem--we can create more space. All our display is based on our personal whimsy and what we find important. No one pays us anything to display so we have no hard and set rules. Merchandising is an unattractive word--but it is a fun part of this work. Just this week we replaced an event display with a table of little, quirky, books. The range of titles is wild. Everything from dominion theology to an anthology of poets from WWII to "The Little Book of Beards" which is a gifty book on facial hair design. 33 1/3 is a great series of titles that focus on a particular album or band and, right now, we have Christopher Weingarten's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" about Public Enemy on display. A nice book of photos of cowboy boots and a book on architectural sculpture in New York City. If none of that interests you, we've got more little books that have a tendency to get lost--even in a store of our size.

Enjoy your long weekend...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Some thoughts on National Poetry Month

Every month and day or week, for that matter, has now been claimed by some kind of group or cause. In an attempt to bring attention to important causes, ideas or illnesses we have labeled all as 'something.' April has long been known in the book circles as National Poetry Month. It's quite possible, I think, that a once good idea has very little traction in the wider world.

This is a very small sample size, I admit. But we had very few readings in April due to the fact that my wife was due to have a child on 4-17-10. We have a small staff and I didn't feel like setting up lots of events was fair to the rest of the Micawber's crew while I was not going to be working. I expected a lot of criticism and backlash from this decision. The result, in reality, was crickets. Nothing.

I'm not certain what to make of this. It could be any number of things. Authors and publishers respecting my need for some time with my family. Or that there were poetry events taking place elsewhere. More likely, though, is that this month doesn't drive poetry sales like it once did. And before the poets and poetry-lovers start to hate on me--just listen to what I have to say. I might be right or I might be wrong.

There are bookstores who still specialize in poetry. Grolier, for example. Other than those who specialize, poetry has become a very difficult category for general bookstores to deal with. You want to represent a wide variety of voices and styles. Often the money does not follow those desires to do right. And, ultimately, no real bookstore can sustain any category that does not carry its weight. Having poetry for the sake of poetry might be noble--but it can also be foolish. Any retail establishment is not a gallery. It is a venue to sell some product. My main thought is that there are too many awards now. Readers see a sticker or tag on a book and no longer pay attention to it like they once did. The awards mean almost nothing. There are simply too many.

This might be a post that holds more interest for other buyers and indie stores as opposed to the general reading public. But what does National Poetry Month mean for stores right now? And does it make sense to display large numbers of volumes of poetry that do not sell? Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda are the three biggies that sell, I'm guessing, most everywhere. Outside of them it becomes a game of locality and strong reviews. So, tell me people, what this means in the grand scheme of things. Because I truly do not know.

Just so I don't seem like a total nay-sayer I want to post an image and idea about the one book we're selling very well. "Timmy the Tug" is a gorgeous book that is set for both adults and children. Thames and Hudson did a fabulous job with the package. At $19.95 I think it is a steal in terms of content and design.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Post by Emily St. John Mandel

Someday I’d like to see the Twin Cities in daylight. I’ve only visited Minnesota once, for ten or eleven hours of winter darkness, and I’ll confess that I was a reluctant guest; on the way back home from a booksellers convention in San Jose a few months back, I landed in Minneapolis-St. Paul for what was supposed to be a half-hour stopover. But air travel in winter is always a little dicey, and the northeast was in the grips of a winter storm—by the time I landed in Minnesota, my connecting flight home to New York had been cancelled. Delta’s solution? A 6 a.m. flight to Detroit the following morning. (This, in a nutshell, is why I don’t like Delta very much, but that’s a topic for an entirely different blog post.)

I took the airport train to a friend’s house and spent a far-too-brief night on an air mattress. Long before sunrise I was outside again, walking back through the snow to the train station. It took a long time to get from the Minneapolis transit station to my front door in Brooklyn, and later on those two days that I spent trying to get from San Jose to New York seemed like a long, strange, sleep-deprived dream: moving through the pale light of terminals in San Jose and Minneapolis and Detroit, waiting at train stations in the snow, looking down at grey-and-white winter cities through airplane windows, drifting in and out of sleep at 30,000 feet.

In retrospect, though, none of it was especially unpleasant, because I had a good book with me. I was reading a novel that I’d picked up at the conference in San Jose (Elise Blackwell’s An Unfinished Score; we’re published by the same press, and we’d swapped galleys at the signing table), and throughout that long interval of travel I was lost in the story. I don’t mean to imply that having a good book to read cancelled out everything—I was tired and there’d been way too many airplanes and I wanted very much to be home—but the book was the common thread throughout the whole complicated mess of cancelled flights and crowded airports and ever-changing seat assignments. It was nice to have a world I could slip into when I needed an escape from whichever airport or plane I was in.

I hope someday to visit Minneapolis-St. Paul on purpose, this time perhaps not in the middle of winter. In the meantime, I’m careful never to travel without extra reading material.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Our big May event plus a guest posting

I've wanted to feature some writing and book-related thoughts on our blog for some time now so this doesn't simply become a personal soap-box. I've chatted with some writer friends. And editors, reps and agents. All of them have very kindly said "Thanks but no thanks. That's your thing." Maybe my approach needs some work. In any case, I'm happy to report that later today or tomorrow at the latest I'll be putting up a little piece by novelist Emily St. John Mandel. Her second book, "The Singer's Gun" has just come out and it is the #1 pick for the May Indie Next List. The book is a little mysteryish and a lot of good writing and characters. Her debut novel "Last Night in Montreal" just released in paperback and it got heavy attention from indie bloggers and booksellers. Both have been published by the good people at Unbridled Books. I'll put up a little more info on them with Emily's post but you can check out their entire list in the meantime.

I also want to give another push to Brady Udall and his new novel "The Lonely Polygamist". He's reading at the store 5/19/10 at 7 p.m. and it was a major coup for us to land this event. The book is amazing. Amazing--a word so frequently used that it has come to mean almost nothing. But this book will bring amazement. I'm very proud to be among a list of some of the finest stores in the country to host Mr. Udall--here is his site. That event is two weeks from today. And, speaking of today, Happy Cinco de Mayo y'all.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The University Ave. Project/Wing Young Huie

Yesterday we got copies of Wing Young Huie's newest book. He's well-known for the large scale work he's done on Lake Street and in Frogtown. This project takes on University Ave and contains pictures of people and images along a six mile path of that street. A path that will be changing in the very near future as light-rail makes its way toward the state capitol building.

Huie has always done interesting things with public art and display. This time he's teamed with some other arts organizations to make the photos and the book accessible, in, in a variety of ways, to as many people as possible. For starters, the book is being published in two volumes--the second is due in August. The price for each volume is $12.95 which is less than most standard paperback novels cost. This is due to grants for the project and working together with Public Art St. Paul. Public Art St. Paul is the group also behind the Sidewalk Poetry Project in which residents submit poems and a handful of winners are selected to have their work imprinted in city sidewalks. I had the honor/challenge of judging last year and it was so much fun to see poems we had chosen written in cement.

It's great to see another part of St. Paul get its 15 minutes of artistic fame. There is no artist better equipped to take on this big challenge and, from the looks of the first volume, the work is really strong.

You can learn more about the project at its website and Public Art Saint Paul here

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Aw shucks

We're delighted to have been named City Pages Best New Bookstore for 2010.

And happy to report that our friends at Magers&Quinn scored the Best Used Bookstore prize.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

David Foster Wallace had a meteoric rise to the top of literary American fiction in 1996. He went from a published, if little-known, novelist and college professor to 'the guy' who was on the cover of magazines and in the minds of young readers, writers and cultural critics. "Infinite Jest" with its sprawl and footnotes and obscene amount of popular culture references was greatly admired and hailed as the new, great, thing immediately upon publication. And that alone would send almost any writer into an orbit of happiness. But Foster Wallace was not most writers. He was a highly self-critical person and one who dealt with the extremes of depression for nearly twenty years.

Age-wise, I'm right in the wheelhouse for most of the huge DFW fan-boys. Yet while I knew of him and had lots of friends who were massive admirers I just never got around to reading him. I finally took on the massive "Infinite Jest" in the summer of 2007 and admired it and was confused by it. Later on I did read some of his short stories and read some of his essays--though many of them were, frankly, just too smart for me. Even though I never *got* all of his stuff, I was saddened greatly to hear of his suicide in 2008.

David Lipsky travelled with DFW for five days on his reading tour for "Infinite Jest" to write a piece on him for Rolling Stone. The piece never ran--but the book "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" is Lipsky's story about those days. It reads, at times, like pure transcript because that is what is. But the reader soon gets into that rhythm. What is apparent is that these two men bonded over things--music, movies, books and nicotine. Wallace comes across as wildly bright and down to earth. Inquisitive and imaginative and, ultimately, quite sad.

I think it was a smart idea to publish the book in a paperback original($16.99) and while it probably isn't the best place for someone to start with DFW it is great for fans. It shines a light on one of the brighter writing stars of the last twenty years and shows, in part, just what might have been. Like all suicides, the questions will always far outweigh the answers. But in this book Lipsky has given readers something to smile about.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Super grab bag Friday

It is Friday and really unseasonably wonderful out and the MN Twins are looking very good. So I'm going to keep this very positive. Plus, it's been an easy week to think glass half-full. For example, there is this thing called the Pulitzer Prize and it's, like, a fairly big deal. So imagine my shock and laughter and fist-pumping when I heard that Paul Harding and his quietly wonderful, little, novel "Tinkers" had won the big prize. The book is distributed by our local book friends at Consortium and we just couldn't be happier for everyone involved. Like all great surprises, there is a backstory here that deserves a little telling. Go here for a nice story from the Boston Globe. Thanks go to John Mesjak for that link.

Second, we had the rare problem last weekend of having too many people at an event and not enough books. Gayla Marty, author of "The Memory of Trees", read at her church in Dinkytown last Sunday. This article helped the crowd far exceed anyone's expectations and we sold out of books before the event even began. That is something that has never happened in our nearly 7 year existence. Good problem.

I'll finish with a couple baseball books. Baseball books are like Abraham Lincoln books. They never stop being published and for people who aren't zealots it can be difficult to tell any of them apart. Jason Turbow has written "The Baseball Codes" with Michael Duca. This is a real insider's guide to the written and unwritten rules of the baseball world. It contains stories of brawls and brains and the kind of stories that our national pasttime is so good at creating.

The next one is a book I'm in the middle of right now and am just crazy about. Mark Kurlansky is the guy who pretty much created the micro-history craze with his book "Salt." His newest is "The Eastern Stars" and focuses on the small Dominican town of San Pedro de Macorís. This town has two industries: picking sugar cane and creating outstanding baseball players. But why? And this is where Kurlansky excels. 79 men from this town have played Major League Baseball and this is a huge success. But those who don't make it really don't make it. This isn't cultural history, so much, as digging around an issue and looking at so many little facets in smart and new ways.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I've got a bunch of things I'm working on for this here b-l-o-g but just to wet the appetite I exhort you to check out this pretty book art.

It's fun to see which one best resembles a shelf of yours.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Last Friday, the 26th, was the anniversary of Walt Whitman's death. With April, and National Poetry Month, just around the corner, I just wanted to share these famous images of our first, unofficial, poet laureate.

from Song of Myself--
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

It's almost silly to try and quote just a few lines from Mr. Whitman but those do as well as anything else, I suppose.

I should also mention that Jude Nutter's superbly titled and written collection of poems "I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman" is a finalist for this year's MN Book Award.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is this heaven?

It's actually in Australia. Photo sent to us by Martha Russell, friend of the store.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Late to the proverbial dance...

One of the biggest perks of the job for lots of booksellers is the fact that we got advance copies of books. It's a feeling of wonder to be able to read a book before it is actually available to the general public. Yet it is also a double-edged sword. We need to read these books so we can talk about them when they do become available. It does, however, sometimes make the question of: "What are you reading/loving right now" more difficult. It can seem snobby or aloof to discuss a book that we can't actually sell yet.

Right now, I'm dealing with this very scenario. Last week I got an advance copy of Jon Clinch's "Kings of the Earth" in the mail. The book isn't due into stores until July 6, 2010 so it seems a little foolish to talk about it right now. In any case, I'm going to do so with a couple bonus hooks. First, several of us here loved his first novel, "Finn." It's dangerous ground to take on such a mythical and beloved book or character. Clinch used his debut book to look at Huck's father and how historical fiction can both stay true to an original story and re-create it at the same time.

"Kings of the Earth" does something similar--though not in dealing with a treasured novel--but rather using the story of a real family and jumping off from there. The Ward brothers were a fairly well-known, if misunderstood, family in Munnsville, NY. Delbert, Roscoe, Lyman and Bill were life-long farmers and were left to their own, simple, devices, until Bill died. Then the story gets really bizarre. A fine quasi-documentary called "Brother's Keeper" was done in 1992. It is a moving portrait of family and of what kind of lives exist outside the cultural norm. The fictionalized family portrait is something I'm excited to sell. The movie is something I wish I would have seen long ago.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New Directions

Rainy days in bookstores can bring some zany adventures. People browse longer. Relax and sit and simply peruse. Customers ask more questions and others help to provide answers. But we got stuck today and it seemed like a fun thing to share.

A customer couldn't remember the name of a particular Javier Marias title. Karen went to the New Directions website and that's where the real fun began. At the top of the page are eleven small photos of people related to New Directions. See how many of them you can name. The two Micawber's employees and a couple customers did pretty well but were absolutely stumped on a couple. Number Nine, if going from left to right, especially had us guessing. So I called our Norton rep because she sells us ND and she gave me the name of "who to talk to." Sadly, that woman is on vacation, but a very kind intern told me she'd do the legwork and get back to me.

New Directions has gotten some buzz in the past few years due, mostly, to Roberto Bolaño's resurgence in popularity. Buzz is an odd word to use in regards to them, though, because it is antithetical to what they've been doing for over seventy years. If there is one thing I could change about the entire mess the book world is in it would be this: backlist. That important, but so largely ignored, part of any great publisher. These are the hits and misses of yesteryear. The gems that maybe don't have huge text adoptions or sell 2,500 copies a year. It costs money for publishers to keep things in print and warehoused. But it also costs something else--care, attention, willingness to concede that sales numbers are not the only way to judge the success of a book.

And if you want good backlist New Directions has it in spades. I'd also like to point your attention to this article I found about these good book people. What is not to like? They have fruit trees on the terrace in the middle of New York City. So for their new books(check out Cesar Aira) and their dedication to their older books and their baking of pies I wish blessings upon them.

Big thanks to Aaron, Judy, Karen, Johanna and the unnamed intern who joined me on this excursion. It was great fun.

Spoiler alert*
The images(from l to r) are: James Laughlin(founder of the press), William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, W.G. Sebald, Tennessee Williams, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, Roberto Bolaño, Clarice Lispector, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


One of the wonderful things that books, and reading, can do is to take us on trips through a particular category. I recently went on a whaling spree(via books) and I've written about it here.

The blog this piece is posted on is run by a wonderful sales rep named John Mesjak. His love for quirky and intelligent and outside-the-box reading is contagious. I always find some great things I didn't know about on his site.

Friday, February 26, 2010

One little book that could...

University Press books are often lumped into categories like: academic, obscure, expensive. And that certainly can be the case but is by no means an accurate assessment of most books printed by Univ. presses. Mara Faulkner, OSB, has written a fine book that is part memoir of her father's blindness, a look at retinitis pigmentosa(which she, too, has) and a larger meditation on blindness in the many forms it can take.

Here is the publisher's page. I'm also going to link to an interview she's done with Luke Mancuso where they discuss not only her book but a new course she's teaching entitled The Past, Present and Future of the Book. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the audio. It is an hour long piece and I found it to be enlightening--a discussion with two people who greatly love books but also aren't willing to stick their heads in the sand.

"Going Blind" discusses a great list of other books that deal with blindness. More than anything else I could say, I should simply state that it is a book filled with grace in both its language and its treatment of the people within. It should not be limited to an academic or niche audience. It has loads of potential as a general interest book and for book groups. It is memoir without the fireworks or madness nearly required by its categorization. It's just good.

Up-front: The book I'm discussing is by a former college professor of mine. She was a marvelous teacher and mentor. But the truth is that I know a lot of people with books and I don't go around pimping just anything.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What we've been doing...

The last week has been an eventful one here at good old Micawber's. The building we're in is old--1890's--and it has its share of quirks for both better and worse. As the pictures above show pretty well, we had some severe leaking from both ice dams and a broken pipe in between our ceiling and the floor of the apartment above us. With luck, only three books* were lost but a tremendous amount of water came into the store. So that kept us both busy and worried.

A customer mentioned to me that the only thing worse than water is fire and that very same day we found out that two local restaurants and a gift shop had burned to the ground in Minneapolis. So it was hard to feel too bad for ourselves.

On the plus side, we hosted a book launch event with 'Speaking of Faith' radio host Krista Tippett last night. Her new book "Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit" is out today. It was a great event in all terms. She was extremely interesting and the Q&A was much more than the usual banter. We had a packed house and it reminded me, again, that events like this are about so much more than book sales.

Now that the water has stopped dripping I'll get back to posting about book stuff.

*Anne Tyler's "Digging to America" and Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court" were lost. As was a very nice Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of "Huckleberry Finn" which, oddly, looks even prettier with a bit of water damage. Apologies, Mr. Sam Clemens.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stacy Mitchell article regarding taxes and Amazon

This was sent to me by Mary Hamel, the executive director of MIBA(Metro Independent Business Aliance) and, us usual, Mitchell has some good things to say.

Take a look.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Event tomorrow night--Michael J. White

A friend of mine from college days will be reading at Micawber's tomorrow night at 7 p.m. He is a creative, funny and all-around interesting man. His novel follows suit. It would give me great pleasure to see a nice crowd here to listen to Mike read from, "Weeping Underwater Looks A Lot Like Laughter."

And for all those elsewhere--go take a look at your local bookstore.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


You know the feeling that you have when you love something(a band, a restaurant, a city) and you feel like it's a perfect little secret?Then it gets a great review or ends up on the cover of a magazine and you can feel the bubble pop a little. Well, that's how I felt when I was flipping through Vanity Fair a couple weeks ago and saw the little profile on Persephone Books. And despite my initial misgivings, I am very happy to share them with the world. Based in the UK, and that's where a majority of their titles are only available. However, in the past few years they've been slowing rolling out some American titles.

The American editions do not have the famously understated gray jackets. Instead, they have wonderfully evocative jacket art with colors that jump at you. Ultimately, though, the art is just a little bonus. It's the writing and the kind of writing that keeps readers coming back. This mostly historical stuff. Mostly written by women. The magazine piece refers to a "cult following" and we are certainly finding that to be true here.

We're getting all titles as they become available and have a nice little display set up right now. Photo credit goes to super rep Steve Horwitz.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Shifting is the new stable

The book industry is currently in a massive sea change on any number of levels. The economy, on the whole, is still in the tank. People are constantly looking for what is cheapest. Technology is making almost everything shift weekly. It's all a giant mess, in short.

So I'm getting to this latest piece of news after it started, peaked and resolved itself in a very bizarre manner. But it is still worth noting that MacMillan told Amazon to take a long walk off a short pier over this past weekend. With Apple's new I-Pad becoming a serious player, MacMillan told Amazon they no longer were willing to sell all e-books for $9.99 In the past this might not have meant much since Amazon had such a strangle-hold on the e-purchasing world. But, finally, a publisher was taking a stand and had some significant backstanding.

Amazon released what amounted to a press release to their Kindle owners and it was full of linguistic gymnastics, legalese and total nonsense. One part read that since MacMillan had "a monopoly" on all its titles nothing could be done. MacMillan has as much of a monopoly on its titles as any farmer has on the seeds he/she has purchased.

In any case, there are lots of places that have dissected this issue with more intelligence and grace than I ever could. Check out Melville House's ideas here which are always reasoned. Second, take a look at something that my friend Melanie, from Hungry Mind days gone by, sent to me.

Even though we have no real desire to enter the e-fray at this point it does, obviously, concern us greatly. And while Amazon has become a much larger predator towards independent business in all fields it is good to see some people start to fight back.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Books on Books

I'm a big fan of reading books by subject. I like to go on mini reading sprees by topic or author. In the last couple years there have been a significant number of books published about books and their readers. Here is a small grouping of them.

"So Many Books" by Gabriel Zaid $12.00 This is a phrase we hear frequently at the store most often followed by, "so little time." Zaid does a great job of distilling the many aspects of the book world--publication, distribution, sales, returns, etc. It has a fairly academic style without becoming too obtuse. It is used as a primer in lots of classes and I found it incredibly informative.

"The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" by Lewis Buzbee $14 This is another favorite from Graywolf Press. Buzbee has worked in the book industry in a number of capacities. One portion of the back jacket of the book reads, "As much a history of bookstores as a meditation on the reading life, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop speaks to the book lover in all of us." Indeed.

City Secrets is a small off-shoot that, until recently, has published mostly small travel guides to a select few cities. Their most recent book is entitled, "Books: The Essential Insider's Guide"$19.95 It is edited by the poet Mark Strand and contains a cornicopia of great book selections. This is perfect for book clubs or the individual reader who is stuck on what to read next. It is filled with long-forgotten gems and I love this book dearly.

To finish we have "The Book Shopper" by Murray Browne $14.95 which is exactly what it sounds like. This is about the hunting, searching and sometimes finding of books for true book nuts.

The first and last of these four books are published by Paul Dry Books which is a small place out of Philadelphia. All four offer different things to the book crazy reader. All four worthwhile from places that care about books in very serious ways.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The good people at W.W. Norton

Norton is by no means a really small publisher. But they do have a unique history and continue to publish books that have a real independent streak. When buying with Norton I take a few more chances on books because I trust our sales rep.(Take a bow, Johanna) and I know they publish solid stuff across the board. It's rare to find a publisher that does history, poetry, academic stuff, cookbooks and fiction equally well.

Among my stack of books being read/to be read there is almost always at least one of their titles. Just yesterday I got an advance copy of Brady Udall's "The Lonely Polygamist" which will release May, 2010. I loved his last novel, "The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint" and am looking forward to more of his bizarre and epic storytelling. Last week I finished John D'Agata's "About a Mountain" which is a book I want to succeed dearly. It's one of those that is difficult to give a nutshell description of. Customer could say: "So, it's a ecology story about a mountain and disposing of nuclear energy waste?"Well, yes it is. But it's also about how specific locations impact us in both a collective and individual way. It's about a young man who, in helping his mother move to a new city, becomes wrapped up in the city of Las Vegas. And not the Vegas of what happens there stays there. D'Agata goes deeper and does better than that. Alongside all of this is the story of his possible involvement in a young man's death. I don't want to spoil anything so I'll leave it at that. Except to say that, by involvement, I do not mean he committed a crime. Slander and libel suits are expensive, I've been told. It would be remiss of me not to mention that he has edited two anthologies of essays for Graywolf Press. Both are absolute keepers.

Later this week a Norton-published first-time novelist named Maaza Mengiste will read from her book "Beneath the Lion's Gaze" at Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis. Details are here. It's a great novel of Ethiopia starting in the mid-1970's and she brings her characters and Addis Ababa fully to life. Labels like "global" and "world" fiction bother me. Fiction is fiction. But the reality is that there are lots of novels being published right now by authors whose names don't roll off the tongues of most Midwesterners. How to choose? Where to start? Anything published by Norton isn't a bad place. And whether it's Brady Udall or Maaza Mengiste you can be sure it is quality work.

Sometimes tomorrow slips to today

So, like I was saying, I(we) constantly try to come up with ways to better sell and promote books and authors and presses that we find important. We do displays. We have quarterly, or thereabouts, book chats where all the booksellers of Micawber's discuss three books they love. We talk about them in our monthly e-mail. Mostly, though, we do it the old-fashioned way. We handsell them. That's what bookselling in a store like ours is really about. We get the chance to talk to people about books and recommend things to them. It is one of the greatest and most challenging parts of the job.

Yesterday, I had a serendipitous encounter related to the subject at hand. A 30-ish man was in the store and he told me he mostly bought books on Amazon. He asked me to name the one or two most important books in my life. Sheesh. Sensing the difficulty of his question he said, "How about some books you think are really ignored?" So I rattled off a few names: Amy Hempel, J.F. Powers, Marie Howe, Major Jackson, Hwang Sok-Yong. I had to laugh a little as two of them were poets and the easy joke being 'Isn't almost all poetry ignored by the public?' We talked books for a little bit. He had found $40 in the wash and decided to spend it at a local store. I was happy he'd found us and he left with "Ulysses" and "The Missing Piece" by Shel Silverstein. But no matter. You have to get used to customers ignoring suggestions pretty quickly in this business or you'd go home crying an awful lot. The discussion was fun and it kept me thinking about this. How we can turn one customer onto a book and then, well, who knows where that goes? It might never get read. It might get passed around. It could become a family favorite.

I've decided one small thing I can do to keep this theme rolling is to do a weekly focus on an author/publisher/book that could use a little light shined on them. I'll start today in another post just to break it up a little bit.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Some failure(s)

Since putting my Top 10's up I've thought a little about this kind of activity. What does it serve? Who is it, really, for: the writer or the readers? Any list is a kind of large omission. A small litany of just didn't make it's or should've but I just forgot. Looking back, it is easy to say "Let me try again. I can do better." But it's instructive, to myself if nobody else, that these lists are not blood oaths and they are made in one small moment in time. Should I have included the saintly Alice Munro? Maybe so.

Yet that is only a tiny blot on my brain. What's harder to deal with is to see returns going out. You see these books you selected because they were funky/important/smart/good ol' fun and scores of customers did not agree. So away they go--packed back into boxes and moved by large automobiles to be packed back into warehouses to be moved by other large automobiles to other stores or else sit there until deemed unnecessary. That's the facts. Certainly there are many reasons why any specific book doesn't work in a store. Did it get bad placement? Could it have been shelved by the fates of the alphabet to a bottom shelf(very bad) or in a corner of the store with bad lighting(just as bad). Or was the cover ugly? Did a sales rep oversell it? Did we simply make a mistake? All equal chances.

It is a little sad, though, to see these books piled together. The not-worth-enough's of our little world. Some I can even remember seeing in the catalog and thinking: "Surely there is someone, one someone, who wants this book, right?" That's not always the case. So we get to see some of our mistakes as they go off to different places. It's a danger for small stores not to do returns. Either because they don't have the staff to do it or can't bear the reality of it. So we do it(or more accurately, Tom Steingraeber jack of all book trades, does it). It's good to see what doesn't work despite the minor ego bruising. Anguish can be a good teacher.

So I'll try to do what my dad's business card read for some time. "Fail. Fail again. Fail better." That's from Samuel Beckett and I'm paraphrasing. Tomorrow I'll discuss a few things we try to do to counter these mistakes. Who can we better sell? What authors do we feel a need to champion?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Top fiction 2000-2009

Same thing as the non-fiction--not a strict Top 10. Just in order of when I read them.

1.) The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I'm a huge baseball nut and when an old co-worker told me this was the best baseball novel she'd ever read I was skeptical. The true shocker, however, was that baseball is the over-riding theme in the novel. A fantastic look at brotherhood and siblings and family in general. How choices impact those around us.

2.) In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. This is basically the prequel to the much more famous "The English Patient." Three characters pop back up in EP and much of their stories are resolved. Yet I love this book more for its usage of voice and narrator. You are swept through Toronto in the 1920's and the people who helped to build it. Carravagio, to my mind, is a near perfect character.

3.) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by AleksandrSolzhenitsyn. I tend to really like small novels with very exacting prose or larger, more sprawling works. This is one of the best examples of the former in both length and scope. Of course, it is literally one day in a life of extreme hardship in a work camp. But the feeling echoes much larger than a day.

4.) Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. A funny and imaginative novel based on a crackpot personal investigation team. Some people say they don't like detective fiction or postmodern novels. Well, this book breaks out of those stereotypes. Lionel Essrog, in particular, our main character with Tourette's is lovable and determined and fun to spend some time with.

5.) Miniatures by Norah Labiner. This book really did change the way I viewed fiction. What are chapter titles for? Who gets to tell the story? Who do we trust? It is also a book that is great fun to re-read in the same way that beloved movies get better over time. There is always a sentence I somehow missed. Some humor or insight I didn't really get. Coffee House Press provided the world with a stunner here.

6.) The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. This was her first novel in more than 20 years and you can see in its style what the waiting was for. Her language is classic and nuanced. But she also will tip sentences on their heads or work them backwards in a way that takes a little getting used to. Once you get your footing, it is a wonderful ride. Good characters are involved but this prose is so of its own time and style that it, the words themselves, steal the show.

7.) The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. It's almost blasphemous to say but I think this book has as much to say about race in America as anything Baldwin or Ellison ever did. Two brothers, of mixed race, are classically trained singers. All kinds of preconceived thoughts must get tossed aside. Powers shows his rare gifts for creating characters of varying temperments and ideas. A long book that I never wanted to end.

8.) The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy. This is a fragmented novel told in portions that I fight to handsell whenever possible. It's about a mother, father and daughter who have come by boat to the United States. So it's about family and water. It's also about war and assimilation and what gets left behind. It's about generations having to change and children teaching parents. I wait and wait for this young woman to publish another book.

9.) Brief Encounters With Che Guevara by Ben Fountain. I hear all the complaints about stories. They don't mean anything. Nothing happens. It's all smoke and mirrors. There is no plot development. The characters aren't fully formed. And I learned long ago that you cannot change some people's minds about things they won't try. This guy's stories are the real deal. They visit such a broad range of locations both mentally and geographically. Malcolm Gladwell did a great profile on him and his long road to publication.

10.) Zoli by Colum McCann. I'm very happy that his most recent book, "Let the Great World Spin" won the National Book Award. And it's hard for me to pick a favorite of his works. But this one kept me from answering the phone or wanting to sleep. I don't even want to talk about it too much. Just do yourself a favor and read it.