Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mass transit and the old, wild, west--

I traveled West to ski with some family a few weeks ago and got to partake in one of my favorite pastimes-checking out what people are reading on the planes and in the airport. And, more recently, I've been taking the light-rail and bus to work due to some serious snow. Again, I've been scanning the aisles. I have nothing illuminating to say about the current state of e-readers versus paper books. But I did have some fun and here is my microcosm.

Magazines, as always I think, rule on the airplane. I got to read some Vanity Fair which included a nice story on the making and life after of Thelma and Louise plus a feature on Mark Wahlberg and his ongoing golden touch with HBO series development. My uncle dug into a Dan Brown book because he couldn't find any Louis L'Amour he hadn't read. Several others around me were reading Michael Lewis, Alice Munro and the ubiquitous Stieg Larsson(hey, somebody should try and find the next Icelandic/Swede/Finn/Norse thriller. Sorry, couldn't help it).

The train/bus scenario is a little different as people, most anyhow, are reading quick-hitters like mystery, romance, sci-fi or newspapers. And there are the sleepers, the texters and the talkers(to themselves or whomever else will listen). As you near the Univ. of MN it gets more academic with Chomsky and various theory books. Textbooks of all stripes mixed with some Palahniuk and, yes even still, God Bless Kurt Vonnegut. I saw a copy of "I Got a Job!" and a woman reading the Koran. "The Passage" and Stephen King. Lots of things I couldn't recognize. And me, reading Jane Leavy's bio of Sandy Koufax.

But the highlight? The thing I saw which gladenned me and gave me hope despite it all was the woman in seat 19A on the flight from Denver to Minneapolis. She was on page 380 or 381 of Wallace Stegner's fine "Angle of Repose". This novel that starts, "Now I believe they will leave me alone." So I did leave her to her reading. I didn't poke my head around the corner and say, "Great book." or ask to become her friend. That would have been a little much. I simply returned to Tea Obreht's "The Tiger's Wife" and smiled big.

Looking for pictures of Mr. Stegner I found a great collection here including the one where he looks like an old-school soda jerk. The one I'm including in this post is also a classic. That, folks, is one reason why he was oft-known as 'The Dean of Western Writers.'

Plus, he's originally from Lake Mills, Iowa so we can claim his as a Midwesterner.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Today is a surfing kind of day

Somewhere, I'm sure it is anyhow. Here in St. Paul it's a lazy kind of curl up and read a book kind of day. Or sit on the couch and surf the internets.

The combination of President's Day and over a foot of snow has combined to make several local book folks close their doors for the day. Not us! We are intrepid booksellers and if you decide to make it here before 8 p.m. tonight we will be here.

Here are two quick links to things I've seen lately and enjoyed. The first one I am blatantly stealing from our friends at Magers and Quinn and it's a site run by someone who works at a second-hand store and posts about the things he/she finds in books. Forgotten Bookmarks

The second is a list of the 100 best last lines in novels as compiled by The American Book Review. Here is the link.

When I worked at Rag and Bone--a beloved used store in Mpls.--I found a very cool old German bookmark with an owl at the top. Still have it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When water freezes over and takes down the power

Here are a couple shots of the ice dams(in partial) that tore down the power lines for our entire building. So, if we haven't responded to some form of communication from you it's because we were down for two whole days and are still catching up.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What design does...

to you and me and everyone else. Is what the whole title should probably read. Because like/admit/believe it or not, design informs how most of us buy and read books. Here's one quick story--

I just finished Hampton Sides' "Hellhound on His Trail" this past weekend and only after completing it did I realize how genius the cover art is. The book is the story of James Earl Ray(aka Eric S. Galt, aka George Sneyd, aka John Willard, aka Harvey Lowmeyer) and his assassination--and flight from justice--of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book is popular history done well and, if we can set aside the conspiracy theories of either government or KKK involvement, gives the reader a good look at the political and personal dangers chasing King.

But lets get back to the cover. The paperback, which releases on March 22, 2011, has a more familiar image on the cover. It is a photo five people standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. It's a good shot for the book and it makes sense. The hardcover has a white dustjacket with blue typeface. The greatness comes from the visage of a man. A man who looks like a junior-high teacher from the 1960's or an insurance salesman. He is fairly plain and non-descript. It was this facet of Ray that allowed him to slip through the hands of prisons(two escapes) and through the minds of people who taught or lived near him. He was more than a chameleon. Over and over he was referred to as "common" or "bland."

So design is not always a success only if it forces a reader to pick up a book and look it over. Chip Kidd is probably the only artist who any reader seeks out for his art alone. So the job mainly consists of creating something attractive enough to bust through the monotony. For once, I realized the power of a gentle image. Something that said much more about the book and its subject than I would have guessed at first glance.

Two interesting notes. Ray was so willing and able to blend in that several guards at a Jefferson City, MO prison that he broke out of didn't know his name at all--they only knew him as Prisoner 416-J. He had been there for over eight years. Second is that the title of the book is a variation of a blues song by Robert Johnson first recorded in 1937. A year later Johnson was dead and folklore has always had it that he sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar so well.

He sang, "And the day keeps on worrying me, there's a hell-hound on my trail."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Goliath and Goliath

The other day a friend of mine said, "Seeing Borders go Titanic has to make you happy." He was the fourth or fifth person to make a statement along those lines within a week and it really made me think. And the answer is: No, it doesn't bring me any happiness. The reasons for that are many and complex and murky--even to myself--but here's some of it.

One, a lot of people will lose their jobs. People at Borders. People at publishers and distributors that Borders doesn't pay. Just last week B&N laid off some of their most experienced staff. One day they report great holiday sales and a strong fiscal quarter. The next they axe the regional buyers. The people who know the difference between the Roseville store and the Galeria. The kind of people who gave those stores a little different look and feel. Now, more than ever, a B&N store in Phoenix will look like Tulsa will look like Baltimore will look like Sioux Falls. That, on a book level, disappoints me as well.

Whether in Shelf Awareness, Publishers Weekly or any of the legions of lit blogs we get more bad news every day about the chains. They are closing distribution centers. The Upper West Side Manhattan B&N is closing. The Nook info center in each store will be in place of 1,000 sq. feet of primo book display real estate. They're saying, in essence, "Hey! Let us help you buy something that will allow you to never shop here again." It's lunacy and if they think they can do battle with Amazon and Apple I have some bad news for them. Amazon will out-discount you and sell you a box of pancake mix and a pair of corduroy pants with a smile before showing you the door. Because it was the indie stores 15-20 years ago that tried to compete with the chains in discounting that closed first. You show me an indie that discounts heavy, other than Powells, and I'll be shocked. You don't win playing the same game.

Just today B&N advertised their deal with Groupon. For $10 the customer gets a $20 certificate. Of the $10 paid Groupon gets half and the store gets half. So I joked to Tom that we should have everyone we know buy one and then we could use them to do a backlist buy, in effect, with them. But that was just a joke. If I was a more cunning business man it would be serious.

The trouble they are facing is one of scale and a model that never really was sustainable. Most, if not all, of the problems that plague the book industry are related to this. Why do so many books get remaindered? Because publishers, even small ones, are forced to print too many books in order to get good display or review attention. A really radical idea would be for a publisher to say, "We're going to print less. We'll re-print quickly, if needed, but we want to be realistic." They might even make money. Returns policies? They are, absolutely, as is because they are necessary for the chains to have stacks of fifty copies of every celebrity book out there. Because to actually pay for those piles--that would be tough. I, for one, would love to see the end of returns. Would it challenge us? Would it make us really think about the difference between 2-5 books? Yeah, it would. But it would also level the playing field quickly. Buy what you want and sell it for what you can. It's real American enterprise. I'd love to sell books like the Gap sells t-shirts.

The book business is sick and everyone in it is feeling it in some form. Long ago I gave up hating the chains because it didn't do me or anyone else any good. I didn't want to be one of those 'High-Fidelity'-esque guys. It's ugly. So I don't look forward to a day when I read about Borders closing or declaring bankrupcty(which, depending on who you listen to, is coming any day. Or not at all.) I don't want more people to lose their jobs. About 1% of people who work in books are in it for the money and the rest of us are all here for the same reason and that reason is our love of books and reading. That's me, the guy working at the anarchist book collective and the semi-retired woman working at Borders. I don't want my friends who work for and run small publishers to get stuck holding a bill that is never going to be paid.

I guess I need to finish this by answering a question from a customer and from another bookseller. Yes, it is Hans that writes the blog. Just wanted to note that not all of my co-workers agree with me all of the time and that all of the above is just my opinions. Nothing more. And the photo is from somewhere in the UK.