Monday, March 30, 2009

Our First Offsite Event, a Book Club Website Suggestion

Our friend Tessa is one of our most loyal event attendees. At Schwartz, I saw her the same week at Mequon for Stephanie Kallos and at Downer Avenue for Chris Cleave. Last week she saw Hillary Jordan at Brookfield and then was an attendee at Boswell's first event for Linda Olsson at the Milwaukee Public Library. Olsson was in town to read and discuss (and play music connected with) her new novel Sonata for Miriam.

She's also a huge fan of the online book club Dear Reader. The coordinator, Suzanne Beecher, offers chocolate chip cookies to the best idea of the month. Tessa told her she was going to pitch the idea of the club to both us and Lanora at Next Chapter. Tessa, we've officially made a link and folks hankering for instant book club are grateful. You've earned your cookies.

Meanwhile, we had a great time at Centennial Hall with Linda Olsson. About 60 devoted fans (and when I say devoted, I mean it, as the event location changed at the last minute from the Mequon Schwartz) turned out to hear the lovely New Zealander-by-way-of-Sweden (or is it the other way around?) Ms. Olssson talk about Sonata for Miriam, as well as a bit about Astrid and Veronika too.

Here's a picture of Olsson with Paula Kiely of the library, Olsson's escort Mary Gielow, plus Sarah (and also me) from Boswell.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

At the Scene of the Paint Job

Did I say we were just painting the ceiling? It turned out to be just as easy to paint everything. Have I mentioned that the color is Cayman Cream? It's an ivory with a touch of green. It looks nice with our gray-green industrial piping. At one point, we had the choice to make it a tone darker, but after polling the booksellers, we decided that the color we originally chose worked best. Bev's husband Shel, a retired architect, reminded us that we should test varied lighting for the best effect. It's what Max Kohl did in his grocery stores!

Our lead painter Katie Rose has had the business for 12 years. On the side, she's also a grad student who soon plans to turn painting part-time while she starts works with disconnected youth full time. Oh, and a note to her professor--she promises to work more on her capstone project as soon as this job is done. Hey, you have to make time for a bookstore, right?

Joining her on the project are Lisa, Annie, and Hulya. They will be painting through Thursday evening, and will continue to do some detail work after we open. I never realized how complicated our ceiling is; next time you're in the store, look up. If you do like their work, let me know and I will give you their contact information.

Now all we have to do is schedule the carpet cleaning for Thursday night and we'll be all set for soft opening on Friday. Did I mention how soft this soft opening is? It's all a blur and I keep forgetting. Will we take credit cards yet? Maybe. How about gift cards? Not likely until the middle of the month. Magazines? At least that long, maybe longer. Any other questions? Post here or call us at the store.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

It was Just a Few Posts Ago that I Mentioned our Visit to Salt Lake City, but There has Been News Since Then

Milwaukee is not the only city that is losing a beloved bookstore. Sam Weller's of Salt Lake City is closing their huge downtown book emporium, hoping to replace it with a new smaller location. The catch--they don't have one yet. Here's the article in the Deseret News.

Jason (working with me at Boswell Book Company), Lanora (proprietor of Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon) and I were just in SLC for the American Bookseller Association's Winter Institute and each spent at least an hour exploring the 40,000 square feet on three levels. Jason came back and said their rare book room was spectacular.

I got to speak with Sam Weller at a bookseller reception hosted by his son Tony and his wife Catherine. I seemed to recall he knew Harry, but I wasn't sure so I asked. "Everybody knew Harry Schwartz," was his reply. It gave me butterflies (in the stomach, that is).

Sadly we didn't hear about the Tony and Catherine's decision until after we'd left. I loved the idea of 500 booksellers scouting the town for a good location. They'd like to stay downtown, but it's hard to guess what future traffic patterns will be, since much of downtown is under construction for a massive urban renewal project--most of downtown land is owned by the LDS church. I have much confidence that Tony and Catherine (I don't know them well, but spent enough time with them years ago at a bookseller convention to feel like I can dispense with formality) will find the perfect space, but like Schwartz, it's still a bittersweet moment.

If you're in the city before they close, definitely go out of your way for a visit. You'll definitely walk out with some interesting finds, and the booksellers were super helpful. Oh, and don't forget to stop by our friends at the King's English, situated closer to the University of Utah Campus.
Here's a picture of Boswell's Jason with Kingster Jenn Northington, who gave us a great idea of how to reposition our teen books. We even stole their name for the section, with a twist.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Third Angel and the Unseen Hand of Alice Hoffman

I have been an Alice Hoffman reader for over twenty years. From the first novel I picked up, Illumination Night, I was enchanted. The way she wove magic into the everyday lives of the characters was so unusual to me. The critics called it “magical realism lite” but in retrospect it seems more like Wilkie Collins taking the drama of the gothics and bringing it into England’s middle classes, magical-realism-wise. I couldn't have said that then, but because I recently read Mr. Collins, the comparison now makes sesnse.

I soon went backwards and prided myself on having read her entire printed canon. It was wonderful to live through Seventh Heaven, hand-selling the book with Elly and Bev at the old Book Nook in Whitefish Bay. When Oprah discovered Hoffman, the club had gotten pretty large. The books she chose were not my favorites either, the ones grounded by reality, not flights of fancy like Practical Magic.

It was hard to keep up. I decided that even though they were great, I wouldn’t read the kids books. And slowly, I got to a place where I’ve gotten with other authors, particularly prolific ones, where I thought I might have read all I needed to. Enough I said to Elmore Leonard at one point—I get it. No malice intended, my ride with him was quite rewarding. Maybe one day I’ll go back.

That’s what happened with Hoffman. I even skipped a few.

I digress. I like to meet authors. We developed over the years a big author event schedule at Schwartz Bookshops. Hoffman, however, for many years didn’t travel. When she finally did visit for a kids book, I was out of town.

I had one chance to see her. I was with my mother and father in Huntington, Long Island, sometime in the early 1990’s. My first time in their village area; though we often visited my uncle Stewart in Greenlawn nearby, they were not a townie kind of family.

It turns out the town was quite charming, filled with shops and restaurants, an old movie theater, and what is probably the most prominent independent bookstore on Long Island, the Book Revue. It was about 2 PM and to my astonishment, Alice Hoffman was reading that very night. I looked at my parents, not huge fans of my chosen career, hoping I would go to grad school or something, anything but bookselling. I wondered if they would be willing to hang around about fifty miles from home, for about five hours, so their son could hear an author they never heard of.

The conclusion was obvious. We weren’t staying.

Fast forward fifteen years. My father has died. My mom has just moved to senior housing in Brookline but I am left behind, helping with the estate sale. I am supposed to stay away from the house while they set up, and spend the time at various coffee shops, working on my laptop and reading.

I hit the Milleridge Inn , where my dad used to go with his bicycling buddies. It’s an old-fashioned white-tablecloth lunch, just like we would have together on road trips.

The map is brought out. I see that Huntington is not too far away. When will I ever be back? I’m a bookstore junkie and it’s time to hit the Book Revue and wander around Huntington.

Don’t laugh. You know what’s coming. I check their web site and Alice Hoffman is reading there that night. This time there’s no one to stop me. I hang out in Huntington for about four hours.

I buy a copy in the shop and decide to get it signed for Elly, my coworker who sold those copies of Seventh Heaven those years ago. Joining her fans, I can’t help myself and start making lists of suggested titles for a couple of other folks waiting for the reading.

It’s an interesting reading and discussion. I learn that you can read the book in either order. It’s based on a hotel she stayed at many years ago. The three time settings are touchstones in her own life. Seventh Heaven is based on some memories of her mom.

We meet. I sputter. She thinks I’m a crazy person for discussing my own Alice Hoffman-esque experience. I’m sure, like all successful authors, she’s met enough of them. I don’t know what to think, a nice coincidence I suspect. But there’s a little part of me that sometimes wonders.

Have your own Alice Hoffman experience by reading The Third Angel, now in paperback, or try perhaps my favorite Hoffman novel, Fortune's Daughter. The story of two women, one unmarried and pregnant, the other a discouraged fortune teller, is from her early years, but it was a New York Times notable book the year it was published.
Store update. The Shorewood and Brookfield Schwartz Bookshops are still scheduled to close on March 31st, but Downer Avenue's last day is now March 21st (I'm more definitive than I was on a previous posting). We start moving some cases on March 23rd and painting on March 25th. We don't have a firm opening date but we expect it to be as close to April 1st as possible. I've filled out the initial forms to launch our web site. As soon as that comes to pass, I'll go back and link as many book titles in this blog as I have time for.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Listen to Chris Cleave on Today's Lake Effect on WUWM

Mitch Teich interviews Little Bee author Chris Cleave on WUWM's Lake Effect. Listen to why so many booksellers have fallen in love with this author and his new novel. There is a bit of a spoiler alert here--there are a few details discussed here that I've chosen to keep from potential readers.

An Updated Timeline for the Schwartz Bookshops on Downer and Shorewood

I know all our publicity said that all the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops would close on March 31st. But after we thought about it, we realized it would be better to close the Downer Avenue bookshop earlier, so that we could sooner make the transition to Boswell Book Company. Maybe we could even open when the Shorewood shop closes on March 31st...

With that in mind, Downer Avenue's last day of business is scheduled for Saturday, March 21st. Could things change? Of course they could, but this seems quite firm at the moment. An inventory is scheduled for Sunday, and on Monday, I hope to be completing the purchase of the assets.

The bad news is that it takes a week to paint a store that big with a ceiling that complicated. Look up! It's far more interesting than a dropped ceiling, but oh those pipes and ductwork. The good news is that we are going to be using a low VOC paint--did you know VOC stands for "volatile organic compounds"? I didn't. In fact, I called it "Low VOD."

Here's another environmental plus. We're going to test biodegradable plastic bags, with 15% post-consumer content. They are way more expensive than our previous plastic bags (about 25 cents per bag, and that's without the imprinting of our store name) and we'll probably only offer them free with a purchase above a certain amount. If you respond enthusiastically, we'll buy more. If enthusiasm (and sales) are muted, we'll have to go to something cheaper.

Our first set of bags, both paper and plastic, will be from ABA's Indie Bound program. Though we're using the Boswell icon, I haven't exactly decided on a typeface for a bag. I do know that like the store itself, we're going to be fluid and flexible. Our logo today, though grounded in Boswell, may not look like the logo tomorrow. So we've bought 1000 started bags while we (OK, I, but certainly with lots of help from my fellow booksellers) make a decision.

Because we will not have everything in place right away, we are scheduling a soft opening for early April. Festivities don't start till the first week of May. In fact, I'm still furiously scheduling events. Look for updates here.

And thanks for everyone who has signed up for our email newsletter at Send us an email with the subject header "newsletter" and we'll add you right away, just as soon as we're up with Constant Contact (yes, those folks who sponsor NPR's Marketplace).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The New and Improved Mudbound is Easier on Your Budget and Has Yet Another Jacket

It must be a year and a half ago that Craig Poplears at Algonquin started shoving advance copies of Hillary Jordan's Mudbound at our booksellers. One of the things that's great about Craig is that he knows his line booksellers, and not just a few, but dozens, probably scores, maybe hundreds of them around the country.

He's great at targeting booksellers for reads, and by knowing what they like, a lot of us are willing to go out on a limb for him and read yet another unknown author. Sometimes it pays off, and for us, Mudbound was one of those times.

As the winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, you might think it was a shoo-in. This is an award they give for strong novels that also have themes of social justice. The problem was the previous winners were not particularly successful in the marketplace. Have you heard of Marjorie Kowalski Cole's Correcting the Landscape. I'm sure it's wonderful, but I don't remember it either.

Mudbound was different, eliciting very strong reaction in the Schwartz booksellers, and others around the country. You can read our archived email newsletter here for the hardcover, where we told all that would listen how much we loved this book. If you don't care to link over, I'll just reprint Ken Favell's reaction:

"A riveting historical novel soaring with emotion. Jordan uses six narrators to tell this fascinating story of prejudice and forbidden love."--Ken Favell, Brookfield

We certainly had a huge success with the book in hardcover. It's the kind of book that really delivered $25 of satisfaction. We had customers come in and buy more copies for friends. Our Mequon manager Lanora (soon to be of the Next Chapter Bookshop) found out she was reading in Atlanta and drove across town for the chance to be at her event.

You know who had even bigger success with the book? Great Britain. It was a coveted "Richard and Judy" book club pick, the equivalent to us of Oprah, only it doesn't go on hiatus so much.

Now Mudbound is in paperback. We generally don't have to work as hard on books in paperback. Trade paperbacks are considered priced at the sweet spot for indie bookstores. Instead of getting three or four validations that this is a book that's worth buying, many of you are willing to be more spontaneous. And then there are the book clubs, most of which prefer the trade paperback format above all others.

Oh, and we're also rather preoccupied.

That said, Algonquin is not resting. They've come up with another cover treatment, this time a landscape with a golden tinge and a superimposed bird. The gold is the mud image. This replaces the more painting-like red jacket for the hardcover.

There was also a very, very muddy advance copy. Craig said the jacket was so different that many booksellers requested a hardcover copy, not knowing that they already had the advance.

I've also included the UK jacket with the fifties candy shop typeface.

Here's the big news, Hillary Jordan is our farewell event at our Brookfield shop, reading at Thursday, March 26th, at 7 PM. More info here. Come celebrate all the wonderful times you've had over the last 24 years with this very special author. Note that our other locations may not have copies of this book--you may have to pick up your copy at the Brookfield Schwartz. You can reserve it by calling 262-797-6140.

Oh, and I'll leave you with a couple of quotes, just in case you haven't made up your mind.

From Peggy Walker at Brookfield: "Passion. Loneliness. Tension. A mesmerizing read!"

From Sharry Sullivan at Mequon: "I love, love, love this book."

What more can you say? Craig's pick for this spring is A Reliable Wife. It's just been named the #1 Indie Next pick for April. But that deserves its own post.
Update on the transition to Boswell Book Company. The date for the closing is looking clearer. March 23rd seems to be the date. We'll be painting and switching out some cases and doing things with our credit card processor, which will take a good week. Best case scenario is a soft opening on April 1st, but that's why they call it "soft." I'm preparing grand opening events for the first week in May. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Link to Chris Cleave's Milwaukee video

Thanks to everyone who came out to see Chris Cleave in our strangely localized snowstorm. We're up to 49 copies sold. I'd love to say tomorrow that we are at 50 (note a few days later--we're at 54. Hurray!). Maybe this video will convince you to come out and buy a copy.

Tonight is Yiyun Li at Shorewood, 7 PM.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Do I Have to Like You to Love the Book--a Meditation on "The Believers"

Our current Brookfield manager and soon-to-be buyer for Mequon's Next Chapter Bookshop (Dave) knows my taste pretty well. So when he suggested I drop everything and read Zoe Heller's new novel, The Believers, I did just that.

It's the story of one dysfunctional family in New York whose precarious ties are unraveled by the patriarch's stroke. It's funny and emotional both, with a touch of social satire, well structured and intelligently plotted. You should know I love these kinds of books; perhaps the best known of late is still The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, but I'd also suggest When We Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson, and All We Ever Wanted was Everything, by Janelle Brown.

The story jumps from perspective to perspective, but the center of the story is Audrey and here is Heller's genius. The prologue is set early 60's at a London party. Audrey is smart, insecure, dating a loser and just introduced to Joel, the American lawyer with big ideas. In just ten pages, you want the world for her.
Jump 40 years. Audrey is shrill, manipulative, and all-around unpleasant. She mistreats everyone around her--friends, family, the domestic help. How the heck are we supposed to care about her? It takes several hundred pages for us to be won back, not to love her, but at least to understand her.

Heller plays similar games with Audrey's two daughters, making them alternately sympathetic and exasperating as the novel changes perspective. Pretty darn smart, and despite being a comedy (as the equally unlikeable Trixie Tang says on the cartoon The Fairly Oddparents, "Comedy is the lowest form of entertainment. Next to animation."), it should get some great press. Here's the pre-pub writeup in the New York Times.

Heller's not coming to Milwaukee but she is on tour. Here are her stops at independents:

Friday, March 06, 2009
6120 LaSalle Ave. Oakland, CA

Saturday, March 07, 2009
51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA

Monday, March 09, 2009
409 Railroad Ave. Danville, CA
For tickets 925-837-7337

Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Book Soup
8818 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA

Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Skylight Books
1818 N. Vermont Ave, Los Angeles CA

Friday, March 13, 2009
Books and Books Coral Gables
265 Aragon Ave Coral Gables, FL

There's also one event at a New York B&N. Considering how New Yorkish the book is, I'm surprised there aren't more readings, but since she does live there, they can be scheduled later. You can check Harper's site for more.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Yiyun Li Appears at Shorewood for "The Vagrants" and I Finished Just in Time

Back when all I cared about was buying, I'd ask an event coordinator at our stores what they were reading, and most likely they would tell me they were anxiously trying to finish the book of the author who was appearing the next day. I'd counter that when you read the book so close to the deadline, there's little you can do to sell it. Read earlier, I'd whine. That's when you can really make the difference in the event's success.

In my pseudo-helpful way, I'd offer advice. Don't read the author's book at the last minute. Fake it. You can quote some reviews, some catalog copy, or my favorite:

"And now we're honored to present to you, an author who needs no introduction, Author X."

At least once when I attended an event, this was shortened to...

"I give you...Author Y."

There's definitely an art to how long an intro should be. Too short and it seems like you don't care. Too long and you step on the author's toes. You also could be taking up time from his or her event. We don't usually get too much warning about whether an author likes to read for 15 minutes or 45 (either way the author will probably say 30) and of course we don't know if there'll be one question or dozens. And for most folks, the audience gets pretty antsy if you don't wrap it up in an hour.

Advice to folks who know they need to leave early: sit or stand towards the back.

I say that as I have just finished Yiyun Li's first novel, The Vagrants, with only days to spare before her event at the Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood. The event is this Wednesday, March 4th, at 7 PM.

Li comes into this novel with much acclaim for her first story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. To quote from her web site, the collection "won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction; it was also shortlisted for Kiriyama Prize and Orange Prize for New Writers." Wow!

What you can gather from her acknowledgements speaks volumes. Her author is likely Kate Medina, her agent Andrew Wylie, both heavy hitters. Medina alone has edited Elizabeth Berg, Amy Bloom, Tracy Kidder, Alan Furst, and for quite a number of books now, John Irving. In addition, it looks like Li also studied under the great short story master William Trevor. You really can learn a lot about an author from their acknowledgements.

Her first novel takes place shortly after Mao's death in a small city called Muddy River. The characters include the Huas, an elderly couple who took in abandoned girls, a young boy Tong and his dog, a deformed girl Nini, the simple man Bashi who takes an interest in her, and a news announcer Kai in a loveless but well-connected marriage.

At the center of it all is Teacher Gu and his wife, awaiting the execution of their daughter Shan, a date moved up mysteriously. A protest mounts, politicians joust for power. Each of the stories play out, according to the vagaries of the power-play, with those supporting the democracy wall erected to support Gu Shan, against the rest; either result's victory could put lives in jeopardy. The reprecussions scatter like skipping stones (my only Chinese cliched image in this entire post!)

Li, however, weaves together the stories like a fine tapestry. One could imagine Li could have also unraveled the threads and told each character's story sequentially. Then we would have had something more akin to interconnected stories. Li's choice of structure is smart; publishers would always prefer a novel.

So how do we tell people about the event? Of course we go to our target audience of voracious readers, the writing and English departments, and so forth. It's always amazing to meet a great writer towards the beginning of their career. The quotes are amazing, coming from Ann Patchett, Colum McCann, Peter Ho Davies, and Amy Bloom (and if you've been reading carefully, now you know how she probably got her copy).

Having only left China in 1996, Li probably has some interesting things to say about her experience and both the publisher's publicist and our marketing folks certainly played to that. We've sent notices out to the Chinese language programs, some professors who specialize in Chinese art and history, the MPS Chinese immersion school, and the local Chinese historical society, recently responsible for the Chinese Milwaukee book.

We'll see how successful that was. We should also get extra folks who want a last great Shorewood event experience. If any one of those targets is you, here are the details on the event from our web site.