Friday, June 11, 2010

A Non-Writer's Life

I feel a blog coming on. Maybe a few of them. I am embarrassed by my lack of writing but honestly, opening a second bookstore this year pretty much knocked the wind out of me. When I clean, well, anything these days--my desk, my closet, my car--the detritus I sift through carbon dates to early 2009 when it all kind of stopped while I adjusted to working twice as hard and being twice as exhausted. But I have always been someone who processed through writing, either through my journal (may she rest in pieces) or through essays/columns/diatribes. Often I don't really know what I think until I have written it out. So this last year has been really a mess intellectually and emotionally. Since I haven't been writing, I have only a sketchy idea of what I really think.
The satellite surveillance in our home's gas meter, had it been working properly (they just replaced it last week and that's how I found out it was in our basement) would have sent back to control central reports of me becoming deeply engaged in really embarrassing television programs this past year. Really embarrassing. Ok, not "Pimp My Ride" embarrassing, but definitely "Operation Repo" embarrassing. Basically, I have just been coming home and collapsing for a year or so, keeping my brain on life support by massaging it with video stimulation.
I can't promise that I will cease and desist the embarrassing television sessions, but I do know that I must pull it together intellectually or the two or three people who still respect me will stop talking to me.
I have delusions of great outbursts of verbiage. Thing is, when you are a writer, and I believe I am, just like alcholics, writing or not, you are still a writer in your skin. But unlike alcoholics, who must not drink if they want to survive, writers must write to survive. Writer's block, a much over-abused term, is nevertheless a real experience and it has many expressions. One expression is creating so many other work obligations that you delude yourself into thinking you have an excused abscence from writing. Not so, my imaginary friends! Yet while it could be said that there are no excused absences from doing the thing that you are called to do, it could also be said that the whole concept of obligation and avoidance is the wrong paradigm altogether and essentially mean-spirited.
In the interest of not being mean to myself, I will dip a finger back into the ink and start with the blog. I knew I was ready to make a fool of myself in virtual print again when I found myself scrubbing the copper bottoms of my cooking pots last Saturday. I mean I was really working at it with Bon Ami and a mildly abrasive scrubbie thingie. I did three pots before I forced myself to stop. Manic unnecessary cleaning is always a sign that I am resurfacing and about to walk into that big scarey place of the blank white screen and the patient, yet slightly smirking, cursor. I didn't set down a word that day but it didn't matter. I knew from the chafed red skin on my hands that it was but a matter of time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New York for Booksellers

I spent last week in Manhattan making the rounds of major publishers’ offices with LBB’s events coordinator extraordinaire, Danielle Borsch. It’s a good idea to check in face-to-face every so often to renew working relationships and introduce ourselves to the bevy of publicists who are new to their companies since the last time we visited. Since author appearances can account for up to a quarter of our monthly sales on good months, we are especially concerned that St. Louis is on the list when author tours are being booked. We came loaded down with copies of the presentation Danielle compiled, detailing our many and varied author event successes, the great St. Louis media coverage of those events, and all the wonderful organizations we partner with to make the events memorable.

The visits went well. We met with folks from Harper, Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Houghton Mifflin, MPS (St. Martin’s, Picador, Holt) and Grove. I almost had coffee with Rachel from Feminist Press at the last minute to discuss their new, 40th anniversary “trade-friendly” list, but I couldn’t organize myself to add another task on the morning of our return to St. Louis. Everyone we did meet with was great: no one fell asleep during our 1-hour presentation, and some even feigned believable enthusiasm as we detailed KMOX’s demographics and described the menu at our Friend’s reception with Alton Brown. And no one seemed to miss the chocolate business cards from Bissinger’s that we gave out a couple of years ago when we last visited. In these leaner, greener times, it seemed universally acceptable to trim down the swag.

What was immediately obvious as we were led down long hallways of vacant cubicles to small conference rooms where our meetings took place, is that the economy is the driving force behind everything these days. Everyone is looking for ways to cut costs. Last I heard, an author tour can cost a publisher about $1500 per city visited, so publicists were looking for reasons to send authors to St. Louis.

We gave them plenty of reasons, but it was actually one of them that gave us the most impressive reason to send authors to St. Louis. Carl Lennertz, Vice President for Independent Retailing at Harper, a man who has a genius for grassroots marketing, a gigantic, career’s worth of love for independent bookstores, someone whom I’m proud to call a friend, introduced us to a roomful of publicists as a great bookstore in a city that ranks 15th nationwide in book sales. I always count on Carl to know these sorts of things. I’m never sure how he knows them, but I trust him implicitly. It’s his job, after all. I also learned at this visit that coffee, like wine, can come in a cardboard box. It was so cool! The ultimate in super-sized beverages. I definitely prefer boxed coffee to boxed wine. At any rate, reason # 1 to keep St. Louis on the author tour lists: we’re in the top 15 book markets. Give yourselves a pat on the back, reading St. Louis!

Throughout the week, I made note of an assortment of vastly unimportant publishing industry detritus:
All book people have piles and piles of books and book materials everywhere. Even the fanciest of offices in the tallest of buildings lack an organized means for absorbing their embarrassment of riches.
No one thinks this is even remotely a problem. Rather, it is comforting to know that should you suddenly collapse in the line of duty, anywhere you fall, books will catch you.
The Barnes and Noble bookstore at the Lincoln Center subway stop is not the only place on that corner that you can buy coffee. There is perfectly excellent café in Lincoln Center that opens early enough in the morning for any respectable coffee drinker.
Authors love that bookstores want them to come to their stores.
Not all of these authors have books that are still in print. Case in point: my friend, novelist Jenifer Levin, whose books need to be reprinted, was delighted by the idea that we had come to New York in search of authors. (Jenifer also knows where a quietly fabulous sushi restaurant is just off Columbus Circle.) Case in point #2, Chris Bohjalian, whose books are very much in print, has let me know via Facebook, that he very much intends to visit Left Bank Books with his next book. (Someone tell his publicist!)
By and large, publicists are not necessarily baseball fans even though they’ve handled any number of baseball greats’ memoirs. Therefore, they do not really know that they should, as de facto Mets fans, be put out by a visit from Cardinals country.
There is a great Italian restaurant (Clean your plate! Nana will be offended if you don’t) on the south side of the building that is home to Random House. No idea what it’s called, but I intend to visit again.
There is an amazing restaurant downstairs from Houghton Mifflin, too: Todd English’s Olives. I’m probably the only person who thinks it’s ironic that this genius celebrity chef and restaurateur’s cookbooks are published by Simon & Schuster, not Houghton Mifflin.
There is a tiny Russian bookstore across the street from the historic Flatiron Building, home of St. Martin’s press. The Russian bookstore is on the second floor and, aside from Tales of Beedle the Bard in Russian, it looks like they last received new inventory in about 1965.
Has anyone noticed my publishing notes revolve more around food than books?
I missed a reading at an NYC independent bookstore with one of my current favorites, Jim Lynch, author of the incredible novel, Border Songs, my hands-down summer fiction pick. I was too busy eating sushi with Jenifer Levin.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cave Canem

Lydie Hakizimana, owner of the 3 year old Rwandan bookstore, Librairie Drakkar, is "slightly" afraid of dogs. This in spite of having a nearly two year old dog herself, albeit one with a jumping up problem. But mainly the problem is that she is to spend time at my home in August, home of Bruno, the 93 pound American Bulldog (, a blog in sorely in need of updating) and his canine sister, the lovely Greta, a 45 pound huntin' dawg. Not that these dogs are dangerous. But Bruno is, well, a presence. I have assured Lydie that if she has reservations about staying with us, I will arrange for a pet-free experience in the home of a friend. But I will regret the lost opportunities for all of the informal ways you get to know a person when you sleep under the same roof.

Lydie sent me a long wonderful get-to-know-you email yesterday and I replied with about a thousand questions of my own. As I expected, she reports that bookselling in Rwanda is a challenge. The country is quite poor and many are suspicious of reading in general. When business is bad, we retailers know it's good to have a plan B Or C. For Lydie, she has managed to become the sole Rwandan distributor for a line of publishers contained under the Pearson umbrella. This is really great! I can't even imagine what life for Left Bank Books would be like if we had sold distribution rights for a publishing "concern" the size of Pearson. But Rwanda is a land-locked speck on the African map, a speck of reluctant readers, so Lydie's plan C is selling electricity. I have no idea how this works but I intend to find out.

Another thing Lydie did while business was bad was have two children. Efficient! They are 2 and 1 years of age and I'm waiting to hear how she will manage being away from them for over a week in August when she comes to the state for the mentor-ship. Probably the best thing about the mentorship for Lydie will be the chance to sleep in. (As long as she isn't kept up at night worrying about a hopelessly simple and slightly neurotic bulldog.)
In the meantime, I am looking for a sponsor to underwrite my part of Lydie's visit to St. Louis. I need about $1500.00 to send me to Dallas for the summit conference that kicks off the Peace through Business program and also pay for Lydie's plane fare roundtrip Dallas-St. Louis. I'm exlporing some local options but if there is anyone out there reading this who knows of a good fit, let me know.

Please note:
It's a bit odd to write about Lydie knowing she is following this blog. Lydie, I'm counting on you to set me straight if I get my facts wrong or get too personal. Feel free to use the comment portion of my blog to let my two and a half readers (including Jarek who doesn't have a choice) what you think.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Amazon Takes Ball, Goes Home. Guess What? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Ball

This week Rhode Island and North Carolina passed laws that, in effect, require Amazon to collect sales tax on sales made through its affiliates based in those states. New York passed a similar law last year estimating that it could bring in up to $100 million annually in previously uncollected sales tax. Amazon threw a big temper tantrum. It is suing New York. Refusing to play fair like the rest of us, this week, it dumped its affiliates in Rhode Island and North Carolina. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, in Rhode Island, which reportedly is facing a $590 million dollar budget deficit, an estimated 2,000 affiliates are affected. (Missouri’s 2009 budget deficit is $542 million. If we could collect even a fraction of what New York hopes to take in, wouldn't it be loverly?)

But even as 48 states face severe budget shortages, and as many of them balance their budgets by cutting services to children, the poor or elderly, and to education, the uniform reponse to Amazon's bullying from various Amazon apologists is how much money will be lost by "small busnesses." That doesn't even make sense.

I have one thing to say about this: anything they can do we can do better.

All Amazon does is take orders through its website and send people books. It’s not rocket science. It’s retail bookselling and it’s what bookstores do. We have websites. Websites you can affiliate with. We pay a higher percent than Amazon to the affiliate. If you or your organization affiliates with Amazon, try us, you’ll like us.

We know how to ring up sales and put books in boxes and ship them by whatever means necessary. We’ve actually delivered books on foot. We giftwrap. We make recommendations.

We also operate bookfairs for local nonprofits as fundraisers. We offer corporate and institutional discounts. We do author events.

We answer the phone. We also answer our emails. We, the booksellers, are not some auto-reply thingie that is the online version of press 1, press 2 press 3, go away. Of course, that means you might have to actually interact with a human being at some point. A human being you might run into at the grocery store who will remember your name. But if you don’t want to talk to us, we’ll stick with email.

Let me say this again.

Left Bank Books, along with all the other 1500-plus member bookstores takes orders through our website and sends people books.

Left Bank Books, along with all the other 1500-plus member bookstores also allows anyone to affiliate through our website to sell their own books or earn money on the sales of other books for their organization.

We pay a higher percent of the sales to the affiliate than Amazon does.

We pay state and local sales tax so that our communities can maintain basic infrastructure and services. We do not threaten to stop doing business with you. We are good citizens.

But the public discourse right now is focused on how horrible it is to be dumped by Amazon. How much money everyone will lose. Hello! Is anybody out there paying attention? You have about 1,500 other immediate “job” openings. What if those 2,000 Amazon-exes in Rhode Island affiliated with one or more of the eleven Indiebound bookstores in Rhode Island? That’s a win-win-win: you sell your books, you make more money off the sales, you support the local economy and your state’s operating budget. It doesn't get any better than this.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a street full of little shops to walk down on a sunny day, a street maintained by your local government, a street you feel safe on because local law enforcement is at full staff, a street leading to a nice park bench in a public park where you can sit down, enjoy the publicly supported landscaping and have a read?

This won’t happen if you send 100% of the price of a purchase to None of it. Economic impact studies have repeatedly shown that for every $100 spent with a locally-owned business, about $68 is reinvested in the community. If it is spent with nationally-owned chain, only about $43 stays in the community. Send it to Amazon and none of it gets reinvested locally.

Given the economy and the giant deficits state and local governments are facing, it seems like a no-brainer to me that collecting sales tax from Amazon would not only level the playing field for the rest of us who do pay taxes, which would in turn keep more dollars in the community, it would generate desperately needed revenue and create and retain jobs.

What most who shop on or affiliate with don’t realize is that as the Wal-Mart of the internet, they have bullied publishers into giving them deals not offered to any other booksellers. As they increasingly monopolize retail bookselling, they increasingly control publishing. That little computer “misstep” last month when they “accidentally” removed all titles perceived to be gay or lesbian from their sales-rankings gave authors and the public alike a glimmering of what’s in store for us down the Amazon road.

I say, don’t go there. Take another road. A real road. The one that leads to a real bookstore in a real town. Your town.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Importance of Telling Stories

Tonight I have begun reading Philip Gourevitch's incredible book, We with to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda. I did not read it when it came out some ten years ago even though it was a bestseller in our store. I felt I could not. The news accounts of the genocide in Rwanda I had read in the papers and magazines had been more than enough for me. I have a vivid imagination and am more than a little empathic. Describe your headache to me and I'll develop a sympathy headache in response. I was heartbroken at the senseless, unspeakable cruelty of it. I was enraged by our government's anemic response. What could I do? My heart went out to the suffering and the dead. Yet I knew I was not relief mission material. I would continue to do my part by selling copies of Philip's book and speaking out against racial and ethnic prejudice when I encountered it in closer quarters.
Now I find myself needing to understand a country whose history had been reduced in my mind to only one terrible moment of barely 100 days, days in which, Philip writes, between eight hundred thousand and a million people were slaughtered at a rate three times that of the Jewish holocaust, a rate matched by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How can I be an effective mentor to a Rwandan bookseller if I can only see her through this horrific prism? I want to try to know something of Rwanda that does not reduce it to its darkest hour. I want to see Lydie as more than a victim or survivor. I want to know what Rwandans and their country are like when they aren't killing one another. When they are working, or playing, going to movies or taking a drive. This is not something you get from news accounts, which are reductive and focused on the fearful awful.
Thankfully, there are books. I have not been able to travel the world as I have always imagined I would, but I have been grateful for armchair travel. When I learned I would be hosting Lydie, my first thought was I have to read up. It seems, ironically, that at least in the United States, when you want to read up on Rwanda, what you get is primarily, accounts of the genocide. Fine. I'll start there. It's at the center of my mind anyway.
But I won't talk about what little I've learned so far from Philip's book about the genocide specifically. What I want to consider for a moment is this passage in his book:

"But there is no reliable record of the precolonial state. Rwandans had no alphabet; their tradition was oral, therefore malleable; and because their society is fiercely hierarchical the stories they tell of their past tend to be dictated by those who hold power, either through the state or in opposition to it. Of course, at the core of Rwanda's historical debates lie competeing ideas about the relationship between Hutus and Tutsis, so it is a frustration that the precolonial roots of the relationship are largely unknowable. As the political thinker Mahmood Mamdani has observed: ' That much of what passed as historical fact in academic circles has to be considered as tentative--if not outright fictional--is becoming clear as post-genocidal sobriety compels a growing number of historians to take seriously the political uses to which their writing have been put, and their readers to question the certainty with which many a claim has been advanced."

There is so much in that paragraph. What first comes to my mind are the implications for a bookseller. There is no alphabet for the indigenous language. The traditions are oral and the stories are told by the ruling classes. Academic historical accounts of the place are suspect. I think of our store, of Left Bank Books, of the novels--stories we tell about ourselves--of the history and politics, how relatively easy it is to take for granted that we will always have those stories, fictional or not, these accounts that tells us who we are, make us real. I wonder how Lydie and her Librairie Drakkar can be keepers of her country's culture. I am reminded of how even in a culture that has been as extensively documented as ours has, so many stories are still to be told. How many have historically been repressed or left untold. Stories of American women's lives that only began to surface with the second wave of the women's movement in the 1970s. Stories of African Americans. It wasn't until the financial success of Terry Macmillan's book Waiting to Exhale that mainstream American publishing took seriously the stories black women tell. I am filled with questions about what, besides scientific texts and the literature of other countries, one will find on the shelves of a Rwandan bookstore.

Monday, June 15, 2009

This Just In

While I was spending the day feeling sorry for myself--too tired to do anything, too cash-strapped to go anywhere, the world of technology conspiring to put Left Bank under--I got an unexpected email from a customer and sister business owner, Lisa Hollenbeck, co-owner of The Alpine Shop. The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) had put out a call for women in business to act as mentors for businesswomen in Afghanistan and Rwanda and were desperate to fill a couple of slots, most notably, they were in need of a bookstore.

This seemed significant and I responded to the contact in the email. It is now barely 24 hours from my first timid note offering my services and it looks like Left Bank Books will be hosting Lydie, a bookseller in Rwanda the week of August 19-24!!

In fact, Jarek and I will be hosting Lydie in our home (if she's not averse to dogs). It will be a bit of a Left Bank immersion experience for her.

I know very little more at this point--only that she is looking to work to establish libraries for schools and hospitals, that the program we are to be a part of is called Peace Through Business, is in its second year, was created by the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women and also has something to do with Northwood University in Cedar Hill, Texas. They build democracy by enabling women to contributed to the GNP of their countries. Hmmm...will have much to learn this summer!

I am pinching myself. I keep expecting them to write and tell me they've changed their minds. But I've got Lydie's email address and we will spend the summer getting to know each other.
(And I will spend the summer cleaning my house!)

Seriously, this is an amazing chance to make a difference in someone's life halfway across the world. And the circumstances under which Lydie has to do business will no doubt thrust my own pathetic whining into stark relief!

I will continue to post as the story unfolds.