Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It's a Bit Morbid, but Authors' Deaths Spur Book Sales

When an author dies, many bookstores put up memorial tables. Some, like Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel, sell a lot of books, while others, who shall remain nameless out of respect for the dead, do not. For someone like the esteemed writer John Updike, who passed away at 76 this week, demand should be quite high. You will see tables, at least as soon as we can get more stock. Random House is cleaned out.

Booksellers never failed to be impressed by the regular interval at which Updike wrote books, most of them respectfully reviewed, though generally not nominated for the book awards. A novel was published last fall, a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick, while a short story collection is coming in June. A book of essays, one of poems, a third of golfing prose--you never knew what you'd get. One would imagine if one met him, he was probably writing to himself while engaged in conversation.

I wonder, had the books come out less frequently, would they have been taken even more seriously? One thinks yes, but then I'm reminded of Philip Roth, whose 1 1/2 to 2 year cycle did not reduce expectations for his output, if you exclude the late eighties. The joke we'd sometimes be told by his publisher Knopf was that it was hard to gauge enthusiasm for his books--a big book would get disappointing reviews, while a supposed minor one would get raves. I remember being suprised by the sales pop for Roger's Version some years ago. I didn't even quite understand what it was about.

Sales were pretty consistent for us. The last book of his to break out, the one that got lots of reads (they didn't always do advance copies for booksellers) and major reviews was definitely The Terrorist. The novel I'd most likely read were I to drop everything and read Updike now (and I just might) would be Rabbit Run. Some group the books together as one; it's collected as Rabbit Angstrom. The New York Times polled critics a few years ago and the cycle made the shortlist for best fiction of the last quarter century.

Had Updike won the Nobel Prize in his lifetime (and he wouldn't, not leftist enough), we would have suggested starting with Rabbit Run. So this is a sadder time to make a recommendation, but some of you will ask, and it's definitely the book to read.

And one last thing. We've seen the same thing at Schwartz. Our sales the week after our closing was announced were Christmas-sized. It won't save the store, I'm afraid, but the cash flow helps ease the transition to Boswell Book Company and Next Chapter Bookhops. Both are a way of saying goodbye, another way that books help in our lives.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Last Roundup

I linked to the Journal Sentinel story on the closing earlier, but there are a couple of more interesting pieces you might not have read that might fill in any gaps you have about Schwartz closing and the new stores opening afterwards. I’m not going to spend a lot of posts doing this. But I need at least one so a bunch of pieces are all in one place; then my sister can take her laptop to my mom’s apartment and show them to her.

The On Milwaukee piece from Bobby Tanzilo, who has been a great supporter. I use their daily update feature, by the way, and it’s quite informative. I believe you need to create an account to do this. By the way, the secret to leaving comments (for those people who asked, and believe it or not, there was more than one) is to open a Google account. You can turn it on and off, so Google doesn’t always track every click you make (yes, a Police remake), but only some of them.

Here’s the piece in our free weekly, the Shepherd Express, whose online presence leaves the shepherding to the print staff. It was done after a bank approved me, so I’m cockier.

Here’s what the trade is saying. Surprise! It’s pretty similar. Once again, my years of not being an ass paid off (to be argued later) in some nice words from John Mutter. This newsletter is targeted to booksellers, though it’s read heavily everywhere in the book business. Publishers Weekly and Bookselling this Week are pretty similar, and I seem to always have trouble getting Publishers Lunch (perhaps because I mooch at their free edition) so one link seems to suffice.

You can navigate blogs better than I can. And at this point, there are a lot of them so my head would spin linking to them all. I’m only linking to a couple of other bookstore blogs because they were particularly nice. You can find all the mean blogs on your own.

Vromans in Pasadena implies that I might be hip. I don’t think they were referring to me, but perhaps this is from me waxing that we contemplated taking light rail to the store. We didn't. FYI, we first saw those great Mon Key plastic key covers there and we’ve since sold a ton of them. You can't order them on our web site, but we supposedly have a few left in our Shorewood shop. Their email is and their phone is 414-931-3111.

Here’s Downer Avenue bookseller Justin Riley’s take. It’s tear-inducing and likely to be widely quoted when his graphic novel hits bestseller lists.

And a little audio clip for you (alas, difficult to dance to) from WUWM’s Lake Effect. It was only after the interview that I found out the name of the series is “Trashed” but once you explain that it’s about moving ahead in a midst of a bad economy, it all comes together.

My voice is very nasal. Not quite Fran Drescher and with a slightly toned down accent, but be forewarned.

Enough of that. Here’s what’s happening in the next week:
1. I’m doing all my Schwartz work, as always.
2. I’m talking to lawyers for some opening store projects.
3. I’m off to Winter Institute in Salt Lake City. It’s a bookstore meeting from by the ABA where we are inundated with ideas, workshops, speakers, and authors for two and half days, and if we’re lucky, one or two things stick. The publishers and especially our wholesalers, Ingram and Baker and Taylor, foot much of the bill, so it’s hard to pass up. And there’s a feeling that Water for Elephants broke out of the first one in 2006.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Could We Talk About Books for a Minute--I Have a Doozy of a Short Story Collection by Daniyal Mueenuddin to Tell You About

Ever since I read this new collection of stories called In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, I have been wanting to write about it. I told a fellow bookseller that in most cases, it is best to wait until the book is available before writing it. I'm trying to practice what I preach. And at least as of posting day, we've got stock at all shops, no matter what our web site says.

If the book isn't out yet, you readers seem to think it is better to preorder it on that other web site. May I just say right here and now that every bookstore worth it's salt can hold a book for you, and that our Schwartz web site, as well as the soon-to-be web site I'll have at my next place, will let you hold a book by email. From there you can pick it up or we'll send it out.

And here's a point that some customers seem to not get--we get the books at the same time the other place does. But I digress. As always.

Daniyal Mueenuddin had one of the standout stories, "Nawabdin Electrician" in the new Best American Short Stories 2008, guest edited by Salman Rushdie. Feedback on this year's collection was stupendous, by the way.

The other hint I had that this collection was great was my Norton rep Johanna assuring me was the star book on their winter list. I don't know who I trust more, the great Salman Rushdie or my sales rep Johanna (it's Johanna), but the answer does not matter because the results are the same.

These are tales of Pakistan, centered around the estate of K. K. Harouni and his friends, relatives, servants. There is inordinate wealth and extreme poverty; the middle classes are only an aside, failed wealthy folk. There's graft, abuse, scheming, addictions. Men use power, women use sex.

"Saleema" is the story of a woman who works her way up the ladder currying favors from favored servants. "Our Lady of Paris" finds a wealthy Pakistanti introducing his American girlfriend to his parents in Paris, where Mom tries to talk her out of marriage. It's interesting how the stories that center on the servants tend to have an old-fashioned flavor about them while the wealthy folks' tales have more of a modern nuance.

It's a great read, written by a man who fits the formula of several of the characters, as he was educated in the U.S. (Dartmouth, no I don't know him) and then returned to the family farm, which I'm assuming is more than a chicken coop. I'm not promising a novel in stories, but there's a cohesiveness about the collection that gives you that satisfied feeling you get with a longer narrative.

This one's a keeper, worth being published in hardcover. It's just one of three new pieces of fiction I am over the moon about. And this isn't even my top pick.
Fact to know about Schwartz--we are doing special orders from our Ingram and Baker and Taylor warehouses through February. If we don't have what you want, we can get it in very quickly, or drop ship it to you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Day After...a New Beginning

Since we announced our closing to our bookstore family about 36 hours ago, and then to the world at large, my head has been spinning. I spent the day on the floor of our Downer Avenue store, and then headed over in the evening to spend some time at Shorewood and hear Janice Y. K. Lee read from and talk about The Piano Teacher.

40 people attended, very respectable for a first novel, albeit a very good one, and we sold books to almost half the attendees. In the world of tours, if you can get that plus some publicity at each stop, plus some momentum that helps the book sell in the future, even well into the paperback, well that's a good start. As I mentioned, the book's only out for a week. We didn't have that many more people for David Wroblewski when he toured for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. That was also a very early event.

Note to author and publishers, we'd love for him to come back to Milwaukee anytime.

When I wasn't talking to customers (and thank you for all your kind words and hope for the future, mixed with grieving and sadness for what we are losing), I was on the phone with publishers, both sales reps and folks in New York, talking about the transition from Schwartz Bookshops to Boswell Book Company (my store in Milwaukee) and Next Chapter (Lanora's in Mequon). Sorry about the long sentence there.

Most publishers assured me that events scheduled would continue to be held. We expect some changes, but if you ask me, I wouldn't be surprised if event attendance improved over the next month. We certainly saw a lot of old friends in the shops whom we hadn't seen in a while.

I even spoke to a few authors, and at least one has promised to organize her visit for her new book around Boswell's grand opening. Hurray, an event booking! Sort of.

I'm off to talk to more folks today. Meanwhile, go watch the inauguration.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops to Close on March 31st

The announcement has been made. After 82 years in the Milwaukee area, the Harry W. Schwartz bookshops are closing on March 31st. Here's a piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with much of the story.

That said, there is good news to be told. Lanora Hurley, manager of our Mequon shop, will be opening a new bookstore, Next Chapter Bookshop, in the same location as her current shop.

And I will be opening Boswell Book Company, most likely in the Downer Avenue location, soon after Schwartz closes. Yes, though the Schwartz name will be retired, I have been given permission to take over our signature icon of James Boswell, the remarkable man who penned The Life of Samuel Johnson, considered by many to be the first modern biography.

And yes, this classic is just recently available in a new edition from Penguin. And yes, I am going to finally read it. And yes, I start too many sentences with a conjunction.
The stores will continue to operate with a few policy changes for the meantime. We wanted to give our booksellers and our customers enough lead time to adjust to the news.

So the blog continues. There are still books and book trends to be discussed. But most of all, I will be writing about my new enterprise. Returning to Boswell's Wikipedia entry, the writer noted that Boswell has become part of the English language to mean "constant companion and observer." I hope both my blog and future bookstore fit the bill.

I am filled with a grab-bag of emotions--sad, nervous, grieving, excited, frightened, hopeful. Perhaps the hopeful will be a little stronger when my loan is finalized.
More to come.

Friday, January 16, 2009

USA Today's Bestselling Titles vs. Ours

The top 10 books sold per USA Today for 2008

1. Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer
followed by Meyer's...
5. A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle
6. The Shack, by William P. Young
7. The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
8. The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J. K. Rowling
9. Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini
10. The Appeal, by John Grisham (I've linked to the trade paperback)

Our Bestsellers (I won't list authors on titles duplicated above)

1. A New Earth
2. Audition, by Barbara Walters (#48 on USA Today)
3. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson (#12 on USA Today)
4. The Last Lecture
5. Breaking Dawn
6. Twilight (There are multiple editions on this title. USA Today consolidated sales.)
7. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (#18 on USA Today)
(In this case, I have added together the editions with and without the Oprah seals. Unlike The Corrections, the sealed and seal-less editions were not available at the same time so I cannot gauge which was more popular. You'll notice when you click through, the book is only available at Downer Avenue. The other shops have the other edition. Here's some hair I pulled out.)
8. Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
9. In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
10. Change of Heart, by Jodi Picoult (#67 on USA Today, the link is to the paperback)

The two titles not on the USA Today Top 100, Loving Frank and In Defense of Food, were still huge hits nationally.

What does this all say?

1. At least for 2008, Schwartz was selling pretty much what everyone else was selling. I don't know if that's good or not. You have to go all the way to The Elegance of the Hedgehog at #16 to find a book that only worked at the indies.

2. We really missed having a few strong titles with regional interest. This was very tough on both our bottom line, and also on bringing folks into the shops. Wroblewski's novel, set in Wisconsin, is the closest we got.

3. We could do a better job selling Stephenie Meyer. At least in one of our shops where I worked for the holidays, we didn't have have all of her books up front, but instead led folks through the store to the teen section way in the back.

4. We sell a ton of books at our Alverno series (Walters and Picoult) but we had less authors of that caliber touring Milwaukee in 2008.

5. My new obsession is to see whether folks spell Stephenie Meyer's name correctly. I had finally decided that everyone figured out Rachael Ray, only to see it recently spelled without its all-important second "A" in a national newspaper.

Here's a little trick to help you remember...
Stephenie Meyer doesn't like the letter "A." Here favorite food is cherry pudding.
Rachael Ray loves the letter "A." It reminds her of crab and banana salad.

OK, that might not help much.

Back to the subject at hand. Of course there are wonderful success stories too at our shops in 2008, further down our list, but hardly of the caliber of our 2000+ copies sold of both Linda Olsson's Astrid and Veronika and Lesley Kagan's Whistling in the Dark.

USA Today did not pay for this posting. Or at least they did not respond to the invoice I sent them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Quickly Learning to Play the Piano for Janice Y.K. Lee's Appearance

It's always an honor when Schwartz is offered a major talent. Right now, one of the most talked-about and best-reviewed books out there is Janice Y. K. Lee's The Piano Teacher. Here's a great interview that was in last Saturday's Wall Street Journal. And Bob Minzesheimer includes Lee's work in notable first novels in last week's USA Today. We've already mentioned the great Chicago Tribune and its inclusion among the twenty Indie Next Picks for January.

Her novel is imbued with the essence of Hong Kong, where she grew up and lives now. Set in the years after World War II, a young woman comes to teach piano to a Chinese family, only to fall into an affair with the house chauffeur. The story jumps back to the years of Japanese occupation, and as always in a novel to be reckoned with:

--the affair turns out to be problematic, to say the least
--all is not what it seems
--there are secrets to be revealed.

Here's our challenge. Like many hot debuts, Viking, her publisher, wants to spur sales an excitement in the first weeks the book is out. That means a tour, and we're on the schedule. The hard part is that we only have six days to spread the word from when the book came out (January 13th) to when the event is at Shorewood (January 19th).

I have no idea what the right time is for an event. If the author has a local following, then by all means the first week is fine. Sometimes it's months between the book's appearance and the authors. Atlantic Monthly Press released Stephanie Kallos' Sing them Home in November and our event is scheduled for February (the 18th, to be exact, in Mequon).

Different publishers have different philosophies. It also depends on where you wind up on the tour. In this case, we're among the first. Come meet Ms. Lee on Monday at Shorewood at 7 PM and hear more.

I Don't Know if You've Heard About This, but it's Cold Out

It's bitterly cold today and in much of the country. There's also been a lot of snow. We expect more of both. Winter's here for a while. We have the perfect cookbook for you.

It's the Best Casserole Book Ever. Our Brookfield booksellers have actually kitchen-tested the recipes and they say their great. Beatrice Ojakangas is a seasoned cookbook writer who has put together a number of titles in the past that you've liked. It's a Chronicle book, which pretty much guarrantees a snappy package.

We've actually sold so many that our web site indicates we're out in Brookfield. However, we just got restocked and to be exact, the actual number on hand at Brookfield is 6. Where we are out of stock (likely until today) is Downer Avenue. If you are coming into one of our shops after checking our site, it pays to call first and double-check the number and have us put it on hold for you, especially if it's a hot title.

In the old days of retail (1957?), that business just waited until the weather got better. We received a lot of phone calls, and a rush when the snow stopped or the temperature inched up.

That still happens a bit. But we all know that some of the business moves to the internet, and once you're on the internet, you tend to make decisions in a different way.

If you follow this blog, you know that we use the ABA E-Commerce Solutions site, just like many independent booksellers. We have a special shell over it that makes it a bit more customized than some, but underneath, it's the same engine.

The site works quite well. The quantities aren't always correct but we've improved this recently. It doesn't indicate if the book is on order or not. However, one great option is that you can hold for pickup in store if you don't want it sent out. We pay the freight on a $50 purchase if you choose to have it delivered.

It doesn't have to be Schwartz, but consider using your local independent bookstore's web site to place and hold orders when you're not planning to leave home for a while. That is, until your internet is interrupted by I don't know what, say too much ice on the wi-fi generator. Is it clear yet I don't understand technology in the least?

When that happens, I suggest reading by candlelight, or more safely, flashlight.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Truth in Novels, a Continuing Question

I was working at our Downer Avenue shop this week, and a customer came in looking for a book about General Trujillo and the legacy of the Dominican Republic. It had been recommended by a friend of his, only he didn’t remember its name. All we knew is that it had won a major award, maybe the Pulitzer. We did some searching on our database and really, the only book that fit the bill was Junot Diaz’s novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He was a bit surprised that it was a novel, but I was not.

We see this all the time. One of the big selling points for The Kite Runner was that it brought to life Afghanistan like no other news story. I read many articles, watched talk shows, and it was only after Hosseini’s novel that I thought, “Oh, I get it.”

And yet, and yet…it’s fiction. It’s not true. Or rather, it is in spirit. Better this way, we figure, than to have a memoir proven untrue, such as the latest story, Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence. It all hinged on his future wife throwing him apples. Was it actually a dream? Could it be incorporated as a dream? A novel?

Just one piece of advice and I'm sure this is not original--liars, stop appearing on Oprah. You will be caught.

In the age of the internet, many of us are choosing to get our news from lay sources, bloggers like myself (though I at least claim to have zero credentials), assorted web sites, and undocumented attributions. We still hold journalists up to a high standard, but at the same time reward other writers with our eyeballs, and eventually when they get the details right, advertising revenue.

Hey, this is turning into a segment of one of my favorite shows, On the Media! What would Brooke Gladstone think?

We’re certainly not planning to start fact-checking novels. So we hold to the facts of a novel at our own peril. But I still can’t figure out another way to understand the legacy of the Dominican Republic in a more powerful and entertaining way. So back to my customer, he took a copy of Diaz’s novel, and for good measure, Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accent as well.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Where's my Book? "Outliers" is Available Again

We've been out of stock on Outliers, but our buyer Jason told us that stock should be coming in today now that the publisher has reprinted. We sure expected a lot more shortages this holiday season. A slowdown was expected, but publishers all through the fall selling season cautioned us that many of their big books would have no reprint. Sometimes we buy extra books to cover this but when everybody has the same story, we obviously can't afford to carry that much inventory.

In 2007 we got burned when we took to heart threats that I am America (and So Can You) would not be reprinted. Because it has color, it was going to come from, well, someplace in Asia (see below for more on this). The book went out of stock, we rejoiced, and then a huge shipment became available.

And why would that bother us? Because we overordered, throwing out the just-in-time philosophy that most booksellers need nowadays to balance cash flow. We also expected to increase sales, hoping our competitors would run out. They didn't.

What happened for Holiday 2008? There was the Outliers shortage, which I mention above. For two other titles, Dewey and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, we decided to take very strong stands on the titles and continued to have stock for the holidays.
13 Clocks took us by surprise. We really liked this Thurber reprint, and even featured in our Schwartz Select section, but when Daniel Pinkwater recommends a title, demand skyrockets. The book has still not come back into stock, but we've got orders on it and we'll have it at the same time as our competitors, including the online ones.

Why do some books take so long to reprint? Standard books with text or small photo inserts are generally still printed in the United States, but glossy kids and gift books are generally printed in China. And before you contact me berating me for not shopping local, we're a bookstore that is responding to demand and we cannot request where our books are printed. Maybe that's a topic for another posting.

In the end, business was so bad for retail that most predictions of shortages of top titles did not happen. Happy ending? I think I would rather have been chasing more titles.

Tom Campbell eloquently questions David Steitfeld's head-turning column about buying and selling books over the internet that was in the New York Times. Though I devoured it on initial publication, I have found myself too exhausted to write about it. I pretty much agree with everything that Campbell says. Read it here. He'll also link you to the original piece.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Instant Art at Beans and Barley's Artomat

As a frequent visitor with my partner Kirk to the East Side's Beans and Barley for dinner, I've developed a bit of a ritual. Because the wait is 20-40 minutes for my chicken burrito, I do some serious browsing in the grocery. I will make a small purchase, perhaps Rishi Tea or Alba Botanica shave cream. Oh, and always Northern Chocolates, generally the dark chocolate coconut. Of course I mention this partly because I learned in Stephen Baker's Numerati that blogbots are likely monitoring my postings for opinions on consumer goods.

The last few visits, the Art-o-mat vending machine has caught my eye. Viewing the site, I learned the project, refurbishing old cigarette vending machines to dispense art, has been around for over a decade. There are 82 vending machines around the country, displaying the work of over 400 artists. The one at Beans has collages, paintings, mini-sculpture (actually, everything is mini), castings, photography, and a game.

The machine takes tokens, which you buy at the front register. Admittedly there was a bit of surprise in the cashier's voice when I asked for one, but we agreed it was even more surprising that the mango vanilla shave cream was quite a bit cheaper than the lime coconut I originally picked out (attention blogbot: I like the latter better but am willing to switch out to the former for $2.30 savings).

Kudzu vine earrings? Fruit and vegetable paintings? It's all so difficult.
After some deliberation and a near-pull for Joyce Lyman's folk art sculpture, I wound up choosing Laura Gentry's Stray Eggplant Ceramics. It's Barbara Kruger meets Mollie Katzen.

The results? For five dollars, I feel like a patron of something or other.

While we're speaking of art, this seems as good a time as any to plug Seven Days in the Art World. The book came out in November, but it is an Indie Next Notable for January, recommended by one of our booksellers. What does that mean?

There are twenty Picks per month, selected by booksellers in the American Booksellers Association. They get the full court press--jacket and quote in that beautiful brochure. The #1 pick, this month it's the comic thriller Beat the Reaper, gets a big blowup jacket on the cover. The Notables are 20 additional titles that got votes, only not enough to be featured with more than title and author. Bookstores have access to the quotes and can print shelftalkers.

Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton

“Each chapter in Thornton’s new book is a separate essay about a particular aspect of the art world, and a day spent there. We are shown both the sincerely creative and the unbelievably pretentious, the front-page headliners and the little-known people behind the scenes. What a great idea for a book!”
—Anne Wilde, Schwartz Bookshop, Mequon, WI

Admittedly it's on my pile unread. This is the kind of book that is rewarding whether you read it or not. Won't people think you are smart and sophisticated when they spot this on your coffee table, desk, or gallery bookshelf?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lark and Termite in NYT, Diets in WSJ

Michiko Kakutani loves Lark and Termite, reviewed in today's New York Times. You will notice that our web site says we do not have copies. That's because it officially goes on sale today and our quantities aren't updated daily. We have taken a decent stand on the book and you will find it face-out in our Schwartz Select section up front.

Also, Dr. Melinda Beck recaps some new diet books in the Wall Street Journal on the first page of the Personal Journal section. If you read my favorite diet book, Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating, you will know that many diets are successful due to monotony. Drink enough lemon juice or Sassy Water (ginger, lemon, cucumbers, as recounted in Flat Belly Diet!) and you're sure to be bored with eating soon enough.

Other books mentioned in Ms. Beck's column:
--I Can Make You Thin, by Paul Mckenna
--The Lemon Juice Diet, by Theresa Cheung
--The Lunch Box Diet, by Simon Lovell, coming to the U.S. in June
--Younger (Thinner) You Diet, by Eric R. Braverman
Next time you're in one of the shops and you run into me, ask me about my secret life as a diet promoter.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Literary Delights in this month's Midwest Living

February's Midwest Living magazine is particularly bookish. First off, there's a wonderful column on one of our favorite gift books, The Oxford Project. We do still have several copies of the book with signatures from both photographer Peter Feldstein and writer Stephen Bloom.

Greg Philby's editor's note is all about how much he loves to read, both alone and with his daughter. Their pick of the moment? Anne Ylvisaker's Little Klein, winner of the Midwest Booksellers Association's Choice award. It's a boy-and-his-dog story set in the 1940's that the librarian-reviewer in School Library Journal compared to The Penderwicks.

Best of all, Schwartz is featured in their "Tale of Five Bookstores" roundup of interesting midwestern bookstores. You may fantasize about a new car, but my idea of a good time is planning a fantasy trip to Wichita to visit Watermark Books and Cafe.

Copies are available at all our shops through February while supplies last.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

In Praise of Julia Keller and Other Things

I put my money where my mouth is and subscribe to our local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I have my favorite sections and rituals, such as plotting house sales (or lack thereof) in our neighborhood, and of course closely follow Geeta Sharma-Jensen's book coverage.

This week she has a column comparing the regional pleasures of the national bestseller The Story of Edgar Sawtelle to the local cult favorite Driftless, by David Rhodes. Both are stirred in a pot of literary mediation, spiced up with the classic Peace Like a River from nearby Minnesota.

Honestly, I'm not sure why Enger's book was included, but I liked the column anyway.

Oh, I didn't link The Story of Edgar Sawtelle because it's transitioning back to the pre-Oprah cover. Each has it's own ISBN, and I'm not sure which one we'll have. Why not do both? Here's the original and here's the Oprah version. I have pictured the one with the Oprah seal.

I hope all you book lovers in Wisconsin follow the Journal-Sentinel book coverage. It definitely helps local bookstores to have book pages, and we're grateful that for all the changes happening in the newspaper business, we still have a book-centric editor like Jensen putting it together. Heck, we're lucky to have anything at all. Don't take it for granted. Whether you subscribe or buy a newsstand copy (not that we have newsstands), let them know that the book section is part of your decision.

Though a lovely aside, what I really want to talk about is another ritual of mine, buying the Saturday Chicago Tribune. That's where they moved the book section, formerly on Sundays. Book sections have disappeared from newspapers all over the country, and burying it on Saturday, one of the lowest circulation days, was a step towards eliminating altogether. It was like a dare--you say you want a book section, let's see if you actually help Saturday circulation.

It's a year later, and it's not gone yet, though it's now folded into the arts section, occupying the first few pages. I actually like the new format, particularly because it highlights the high point of the section for me, the columns of Julia Keller.

Keller is the Trib cultural critic and had continued to write Lit Life, a colum in the Sunday Tribune. Since the Saturday switch to "Books and Arts", she regularly writes the lead review. I love them because they are timely, exuberant, and Chicago-y, a far cry from the six-month-old academic titles that used to lead off the section.

This fall Keller's highlighting of The Chicagoan reinforced everything we loved about this wonderful gift book, an appreciation and reproduction of a Chicago-based New Yorker-type magazine from the roaring twenties.

When Keller wrote about Joseph Epstein's Fred Astaire, I was ready to dance myself. She got the joy in that little book's meditation and I was thrilled. It's true. Many people read reviews to get ideas on what to read but booksellers also use them as a mirror to their own readings. While it's interesting to read a review from someone you generally disagree with (Michiko Kakutani comes to mind, if I even understand her argument at all), there is more joy in someone like Keller (Janet Maslin also comes to mind) saying what I wanted to say, only better.

This week Keller interviewed Nami Mun, author of Miles from Nowhere, a novel about a Korean runaway in the Bronx, circa late 1970's. The book has had buzz for months, as Riverhead was comparing it to their huge success with Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I certainly had no idea the author lived in Chicago. Maybe she'll wind up visiting Milwaukee.

The other front page piece was actually from Jessica Reaves, but it was a review of Janice Y. K. Lee's The Piano Teacher, another book that's getting lots of buzz. I haven't read the book yet, but I had better soon--we have an event with Ms. Lee at our Shorewood shop just six days after publication. That's a tall order for a first novelist without a local connection, at least to my knowledge.

Here's some help in making your decision to attend. Read this great review, online in this case, and then show up to hear a new voice at the start of what could be a notable career.

Note also, that both titles are highlighted in our Indie Bound section as Indie Next picks. Ms. Lee's novel is recommended by my book-crazed friend Bill Cusumano, the buyer at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor. He reads like crazy and every time I talk to him, he's passionate about some new writer. I'm no fool--I take his advice.

If you take a road trip to that lovely college town of A2, you'll have a double treat as you can browse Karl Pohrt's elegant and cerebral Shaman Drum, and then head to Nicola's for a great selection filled with staff recs, a cozy fireplace, and a nice selection of gift items. You can cap off your day, with a trip to the new-concept local grocery Plum Market and then dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse, where entrepreneurial legent Ari Weinzweig himself showed us their fabulous collection of salt and pepper shakers.
Really, they are fabulous. You have to see them someday. Put it on your list that I am helping you make.

Oh, and when I'm there I read the Ann Arbor News.

Yours Truly,

Blogger who likes real newspapers and bookstores, perhaps because he is too old to know better.