Thursday, May 28, 2009

We're Not Afraid to Be Second! Or Third! Just Tell us Ahead of Time, OK?

So a very nice customer comes into the store and tells me she's not happy with Jonathan West's new book from the Arcadia series, Milwaukee's Live Theater. It turns out there are some problems with the details. We had a good conversation about it, and I learned a lot.

Oy, oral histories! This must happen all the time. It reminds me of the old Fibber McGee and Molly show, where Old Timer would say "That's pretty good, Johnny, but that ain't the way I heard it!"

I have no idea who is right in this. I would suspect Jonathan West doesn't have a team of editors backing him up at Arcadia. Arcadia creates photographic archives into books and does a good job of it. We'd never have a book on Milwaukee's Brady Street Neighborhood, Irish Milwuakee, and Milwaukee Fire Department, let alone Oak Creek and Shorewood without it. Those are all actual titles by the way, and Schwartz sold over 500 copies of Shorewood.

They are also the kind of publisher that books events, but might not necessarily give the bookstore the respect to let us know that there was another event already booked. In most cases, there are really only so many events a market can handle, even one as large as Milwaukee. I'm not worried about sharing an event with Oconomowoc's Books and Company (and in fact, I did, with Michael Perry), but I did actually have some folks from out there come to our event because they missed his appearance the night before.
That's why I was glad I already knew that Jonathan West, (who is appearing at Boswell Book Company on Wednesday, June 3rd, at 7 PM), already appeared at Mequon's Next Chapter Bookshop on May 18th. We need to know! We already had Gerda Lerner's publicist book us and UWM bookstore a day apart for her new book. The stores are only 10 blocks away from each other and the turnout was disappointing.

Then we had University of Wisconsin Press book two poets into our store, after they had booked them into Woodland Pattern and a nearby Barnes and Noble. This event was subsequently cancelled. I don't want to poach on Chuck's events at Woodland Pattern.

Now once we know, we'll sometimes book an event substantially (at least two weeks) after the previous event. The authors of the new Mary Nohl book were already scheduled at Barnes and Noble, but we thought there was enough interest in our side of town (and thought we could get the word out better) so that we could still have a decent attendance.

To summarize the upcoming events talked about in the post, all at Boswell Book Company:

Wednesday, June 3rd, 7 PM
Jonathan West, author of Milwaukee's Live Theater. Here's Mr. West's blog Artsy Schmartsy.

Thursday, June 4th, 7 PM
Barbara Manger and Janine Smith, authors of Mary Nohl: Inside and Out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thinking About Another Chicago Author I Should Have Requested Formally Leads to Our In-Store Lit Group's Selection for July

More penance. I have not been more vocal about our in-store book club selections. I know that it's going to take a year to build a decent-sized book club, but we're not going to get there if I don't promote them. On Monday, June 1st at 7 PM, we're reading Hillary Jordan's Mudbound. It's a book I've gone on about at length, and I hope it makes for a decent discussion.

But what to do about July (that would be the 6th). It seems time to start reading books freshly for the club, with an occasional reread, as, after all, I read most books in advance of publication, which is still usually hardcover. Note to editor: please fix this sentence.

So I return to my other penance, of reading Chicago authors that I should have been more aggressive about chasing down for events.

Today's obsession? Aleksandar Hemon. We hosted Hemon for several of his books at the Downer Avenue location. They seem like books I would like, but somebody else always took control and the books didn't wind up at the top of my pile.

Who am I kidding? I am a lazy schlump.

Hemon has three collections of short stories, the most recent of which is his newly published Love and Obstacles. That's the book I read, because as a bookseller, it's advance copies that we really have access to, not the older books. Most use Hemon's backstory as a jumping point, a Bosnian man leaving Sarajevo for the U.S. and finding himself in wartime exile. The stories jump off in so many different directions that it's much like reading traditional poetry (and by this I mean not free verse) in that you have a very tight structure but within this structure you can still do just about anything. Terrific and powerful and I have to read more.

Next up for me is likely his kingmaker work, The Lazarus Project, his first novel, which nominated for the National Book Award. It has the Bosnian immigrant yes, but it ties him to an Eastern European, gunned down in 1908 Chicago, during fears of a budding anarchist movement. Cathleen Schine says in her New York Times review:

"Some writers turn despair into humor as a way of making the world bearable, of discovering some glimmer of beauty or pleasure or, most important, humanity. In contrast, the gifted Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon has taken the formal structure of humor, the grammar of comedy, the rhythms and beats of a joke, and used them to reveal despair."
I really need to read this, and I really have to be more serious about making a solid pitch for Mr. Hemon in the future. And maybe, maybe, Penguin will have read my "how to do Milwaukee on a budget from Chicago" posting and be inspired to send Mr. Hemon here.
Hey, I have an idea. We're officially reading The Lazarus Project for our July 6th (at 7 PM) in-store lit book club.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Begging for Authors from Chicago, a Continuing Saga

You may have read my post about begging Joe Meno to come up from Chicago to read from and discuss his new book, The Great Perhaps. Perhaps you don't know that the novel is somewhat inspired by Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five. I certainly didn't!

"It’s really a response to Slaughterhouse Five’s first line, “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” It’s this flat, declarative, almost scientific statement, and he just kind of moves forward from that. "

But I certainly haven't done my best to convince publishers and authors to send Windy City authors up to Cream City. My selling points?

For authors with a budget:
--It's still cheaper transportation-wise
--Easy to fit in a schedule
--Choice of two great author escorts
--Someday we'll hotel specials at various price levels. Have I done this yet? No.

And with a smaller budget:
--Amtrak is $44 round trip. Or it's a tank of gas each way.
--We are a relatively inexpensive cab ride from downtown hotels.

Pretty much no budget:
--We host the event on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and there's no hotel stay.

The author has to be a big enough draw to make it worthwhile, or perhaps be grouped with another author that makes the event more of an event and less of just a reading.

Or maybe I or one of my booksellers just happen to really love the book and will go out of the way to do whatever we can. So I am on a quest to read Chicago authors, and be able to pitch events to their publishers when I think I could draw an audience.

My first? Gillian Flynn. I haven't been a mystery reader of late, but it's an important part of my business and I find myself being drawn to more titles (coincidentally, the same thing happened when I managed the Schwartz Mequon branch some years ago).

Flynn is more like a Kate Atkinson than a (insert name of author here who is not like Kate Atkinson). Her new novel, Dark Places, is a psychological puzzle, told mostly through the eyes of the survivor a family massacre.

Now in her early 30's, Libby Day is a broken woman, having lived off the sympathy of strangers for years, after her mother and susters were murdered by her brother. Now out of money, she decides to respond to an inquiry to speak to a group of folks who obsess over famous murders, not quite understanding at first that their challenge is to solve the cases (if unsolved) or debunk them (if solved incorrectly).

This story alternates with a multi-character perspective of the events leading up to the terrible incident in rural Kansas (echoes of In Cold Blood, anyone?) It takes place in the heyday of fear of Satanic cults and oddly enough, continues my interest in stories about the reprecussions of good and bad parenting (subject of Nancy Huston's Fault Lines and Mameve Medwed's Of Men and their Mothers, to name two wildly-divergent-in-tone novels).

I'm not good at violence but I'll take one or two incidents if they are intrinsic to the plot and not gratuitous. Flynn passes on both counts. I think this book is edited by Sally Kim (no, it's not--she left and the new editor is Sarah Knight), whom I spoke to years ago at a party in Brooklyn. If so, she also edits Lee Martin, whose novel, The Bright Forever, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer. Positioned differently, but I can still see some editorial similarities in the two stories.

We've been selling Flynn's book off our Indie Next case, with picks from bookstores all over the country. We've had the section up for a month, but since we added shelf talkers for all the titles, browsing has increased substantially. Here's the quote from Joe at Anderson's in Naperville.

"Once again, Gillian Flynn focuses on a deeply flawed protagonist. This time it's 32-year-old Libby Day, who is searching for the person who killed her family 25 years ago. Told alternatively in the present and in flashbacks to the events leading up to the horrific event, this compelling story mesmerizes even as it horrifies."
--Joe Strebel, Anderson's Bookshop, Naperville, IL

How could I have made this event work? A second author? A local tie-in? A bunch of really great reads on staff and then work, work, work to get people to come? Oddly enough, from my Schwartz experience, we can sell books that way, but event turnout can still be quite modest. For every Linda Olsson event-acular, there is a book like Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals, where we sold a ton of books, but the event itself, wonderful as it was, was modest. No bomb by any means, but well under control. Usually the event needs champions outside the bookstore to make the event a blowout.

It's not too late. It could happen. But it doesn't matter, I've now got a good summer reading book to recommend.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Another Event Partnership, this Time with Cream City Foundation for Tracy Gary, at Boswell Book Company, Wednesday, May 27th, at 7 PM.

One of the secrets to operating a bookstore on a budget is to work with partners whose common goal is to reward their customers (and by this I could mean a business or a nonprofit) and gain new supporters.

It could be 88Nine's support of Greg Kot's Ripped event. They picked up his popular show Sound Opinions within the last year, and folks in Milwaukee might not realize that this public radio show is available.

It could be Outpost Natural Foods working with us on Terese Allen's events for The Flavors of Wisconsin. They are providing some samples for our event, and I'm thrilled. I am a big fan of Outposts's prepared foods (my favorites listed below) and have been greatly impressed by catering manager Avie's offerings. (I have known Avie since she was a recordseller at Radio Doctors, and I've promised her that a post on Radio Doctors is in the pipeline).

Or it could be an organization bringing an author in for a closed event that is hoping for another venue that might find another audience. We worked with Alverno College on Roya Hakakian's Persian poetry night and memoir reading.

Just as we opened, Kathy, one of our connecting types, hooked me up with Maria Cadenas, the executive director of the Cream City Foundation, an umbrella foundation that funnels money to LGBT organizations. I met with her and Colin at Cafe Nervosa downtown and they had an idea. They were bringing in Tracy Gary, author of Inspired Philanthropy, to meet with their donors, and also help train nonprofits. Would another event be of interest to our customers? How about Wednesday, May 27th, at 7 PM?

I think so. This a book about integrating your values into your legacy, a game plan that is would be of great interest for our customers, whether you are an individual who is deciding what to do with your money, or a nonprofit leading your donors to your organization's support. It's not a ridiculous thing to say that most nonprofits are always looking for funding sources.

Gary has a loyal fan in Suze Orman, who has written the book's foreward. To just offer a short tidbit of a quote from the author of many successful financial manuals and an award-winning show aired Saturday evenings on CNBC (I mostly watch the "Can I afford it?" segment and I was surprised that she allowed the 30-something woman living with her husband and parents to remodel her closet and didn't question her not kicking in rent, the way she usually does.) Anyway...

"This book will make sure you continue to breathe financially free for yourself and others for generations to come"
--Suze Orman

I guess this quote, out of context, doesn't really say much, but sometimes a show of support is the most important thing. Say the same thing in my defense for this rather rambling post.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hey, We Had Our Biggest In-Store Event to Date with Michael Perry

When I was able to book Michael Perry before the store's opening, I knew Harper Collins was taking a chance on me. Schwartz had hosted Perry before, but he tended to be placed in one of our more suburban stores, Brookfield or Mequon, not an urban store like the Downer Avenue location.

And though one of my beloved customers calls my store "downtown", we are actually located about 10 blocks from the boundary of the city, in a neighborhood that is equally single-family residential, apartments, a large university, and a hospital complex. By urban, we mean sidewalks, street parking, and a bus line. Most of our urban problems like graffiti, pulled plants, the leftovers of partying, come from college students, and according to Money Magazine, being in a college town generally improves your "best places to live ranking." Ask Madison.

There was another chance Harper Collins took (and I know it's wrong, but I can't bring myself to take out the space between the two names. My apologies). And by Harper Collins, I specifically refer to Carl Lennertz who made a pitch for us. Would we have our stuff together? Would the publicity be solid enough to draw fans? Could we hold the folks that might be attending?

Hurray. The answer was yes. 175 folks turned out at 2 PM on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to hear the wonderful Mr. Perry read from his new book Coop, and only one of them voted for the chicken ordinance in Shorewood. It turns out we drew folk from as far as Kenosha and Madison, and maybe further, I didn't talk to everyone. Oh, and we got five more folks at 7 PM--my apologies. At least we had a signed copy for them to buy. But not many--we only had a handful of books left.

And here's the real coup--everyone who wanted one got a seat and a sight line of the author. Finally my yapping about lower cases on casters paid off. We just kept adding chairs and moving cases as people came in. We had people sitting on our low display tables, and folks on our sturdy makeshift benches. I think they are table toppers, but we haven't yet figured out how they work. About 20 people wound up standing, or in the case of some kids, running around, but we actually had a few empty chairs, had their dogs (feet, sorry) been more tired.

So it worked. Thank you to the media for covering the event (yes, I plan to advertise a bit soon, more as a payback and support of book coverage than with the hopes that it will draw folks into the store), to Harper Collins, and to Mr. Perry and his fans. And nobody complained about parking!

Mr. Perry is as talented a speaker as he is a writer, and I think many folks would have gladly paid for the experience. And someday, they just might. Any author whose seen what happened with the music business (where touring pays the bills, not for the most part, selling your recordings) and is worried about the future of the book is either lining up teaching jobs are signing with a lecture agent.

What a transition! On Tuesday, we're hosting Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune music critic and host of NPR's Sound Opinions. We're hosting Kot for his new book Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music this Tuesday, May 26th, at 7 PM. Read about Mr. Kot's book in Geeta Sharma Jensen's book column. Read more about our co-promotion with 88Nine here.

You can hear Sound Opinions on 88Nine on Sundays at 7 PM. And here's Michael Perry's My 23rd appearance on Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know.

Friday, May 22, 2009

On Peace in Paperback--And Then there Was One

You’ll be shocked to know that I’ve not been on the front lines of battle. Though I registered for the draft in college (my father told me he wouldn’t pay for schooling if I did not), I figured I would get kicked out for being gay soon enough. It was even before the age of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but under that criterion, I still wouldn’t make it. I’ve always been a teller.

For someone who’s a bit squeamish about violence, I’ve still read a good number of war novels. You can’t help it if you’re a broad reader. The sorrows of war have of course given us some of the greatest works of fiction of all time; if you don’t read The Red Badge of Courage at sometime in your life, some might call you an incomplete person. Good thing they force feed it to you in most high schools. There's a new edition out from Harvard University Press, by the way.

Last year when I was working at Schwartz Bookshops, we got behind an incredible novella by Richard Bausch, one of those writer’s writers that are so hard to break out. Harder still, his identical twin brother Robert was also writing, and honestly, it’s been hard to separate their oeuvre in my head.

But this book stuck out like a bullet in a game of marbles, and we had four amazing reads on it. I pretty much had to drop everything and get with the program.

The take—an amazing book, based on one incident at the end of World War II Italy, an act in the gray zone between act of war and atrocity thereof. Beautiful, dark, poetic, but incredibly accessible in its simplicity.

We were lucky to have Bausch read at the Downer shop, because my coworker Bishop (one of the book's early champions) found out he was a writer-in-residence at nearby Beloit College. At his talk, Bausch revealed that the story came from a story told by his own father. The story was like a gift to his son, and Peace is like a Father’s Day gift back to Dad, in memoriam.

We sold a lot of books, and what a sense of purpose this kind of sale gives you.

It’s a year later, and Peace is out in paperback. Schwartz and all my wonderful coworkers have moved on, not to be too heavy-handed or anything. They just have other jobs or life paths; Dave is now the trade book buyer for Mequon's Next Chapter Bookshop. I am sure that all of them are off to greater things.

Like in battle, it’s almost circumstantial that I’m still fighting the good fight in a bookstore. I can't tell you how many folks, while happy that Boswell Book Company has opened, seem hopeful but not necessarily confident. Despite what I read in books like Marketing Warfare, and Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun, I don’t generally choose to see the marketplace as a battlefield, but it’s hard not to see the parallels, when the critics all predict the bookstore's impending surrender to the online marketplace.

We don’t last forever, and legacies can be measured in different ways. Certainly for Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, one of those ways is every person’s life who was changed by a book they bought from Harry, David, Reva, Carol, Rebecca and all the booksellers who worked there.

I’m hoping there are new legacies to come, and I’m hoping that a book is involved, and I’m hoping that one of them is Richard Bausch’s Peace.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

After You Read this Event Wrap-up, You Won't Wonder Why I Haven't Been Posting Regularly.

It’s true. From the beginning of our grand opening on Wednesday, May 6, through Thursday, May 14th, we hosted eight events in nine days.

Somebody get me pillow. I am still convinced that I have to be the face at our events, but it gets to the point where you’re running on nothing but adrenaline. I’ve had disappointments, but not embarrassments, and because of that, I now offer our first (and possibly only) super event wrapup.

1.What a joy to host Jane Hamilton! Critics who were surprised that she wrote a comic novel have obviously never met her. Kathleen Dunn graciously allowed me to hawk our opening on during WHAD's one-day pledge drive. (By the way, it turned out to be quite the success). I brought my pledge to the show, but then forgot to talk about it.

2. An off-the-cuff remark to either C.J. or Liam (I forget which) let us to create the first (in our memory) inter-university undergraduate fiction read-off. The students were great, and we wound up having 35 folks attend, and I’m not including the students. Maybe next year we’ll take Liam’s advice and have the school mascots spread team spirit outside the store.

3. Spectacular event with Mameve Medwed, Anita Shreve, and Elinor Lipman , or rather two. In the afternoon they were booksellers, and in the evening, they talked, read, took questions, and of course cut our grand opening ribbons (see photo). The only problem was that it was asking a lot for folks to come in twice, and several people afterwards told me they didn’t come because they couldn’t make it at 3.

It turns out some folks got confused about there being a 7 PM event and thought the whole shebang was at 3 PM. If you work at another bookstore and try this, have the bookselling part be right before or right after the reading/talk/signing, not 4 hours apart.

I would recommend any of our three speakers for a bookstore job, by the way. Ms. Lipman mentioned she had prior sales experience and sure enough, she charmed anyone she talked to into leaving with a pile of books. I think this is another aspect of the Lipman effect. Brookfield customer Patti said that reading Lipman is like getting your favorite soup in a restaurant you love to go to (specifically in this case, it was the chicken tortilla at Water Buffalo, but you must order the large so you get the skewer of grilled vegetables with it).

It is surely a crime that we couldn't bring in Bernard McLaverty's Cal or most of Brian Moore's backlist for Anita Shreve to sell. Note to these rights holders--I bet Ms. Shreve would write an intro for you. The Best Buddies picks are selling well enough that we are keeping the section for several more weeks. Come check out what Shreve, Lipman and Medwed are reading.

4. Saturday’s event with Dwellephant was amazing with one caveat; I wasn’t sure beforehand exactly what we were doing. I marketed the event, a publication party for his book Missing the Boat, as a talk/scavenger hunt. There was no talk, and the scavenger hunt was more like a search for raffle tickets. Instead, the results were a sort of brainy marketplace, with folks from Hot Pop, WMSE, Zewing Girl (pictured), Cedar Block, and Alverno Presents offering their wares, services, and information. The whole thing was very-interconnected; these were all folks that had worked with Dwellephant before. It was a really great event, a mix of camaraderie, community, commerce, and controlled comedy.

(According to Jane Hamilton, a thriller writer told her his editor said to avoid using alliteration in his writing. He asked if she, a literary writer, had such restrictions. It turns out she does not. One genre where it is almost de rigeur to use alliteration by the way, is in self-help books. If you don't believe me, pick up some titles in the psychology, business, or health areas of our store that promise a better you, and you'll likely find some list with a "live, love, learn" type checklist.)

5. My former colleagues at 800-CEO-READ hosted “Business Rx”, a workshop for their book The Best 100 Business Books of All Time. It was a modest affair, but we still handily beat attendance at their previous Milwaukee event at a local chain store. The biggest surprise was an appearance from longtime friend Tom O’Keefe, who drove up from Chicago to see Jack and Todd.
6. Next up, an offsite at the Italian Community Center where I sold China Inc. for a conference of Wisconsin manufacturers hoping to do more business in China. I had a nice chat with Ted Fishman and discussed the delicious dumplings from Taijin with one woman, a government employee of that region. My thanks to my sister Claudia for clueing me into these famous baoza. It was my only multi book sale of the day, and I think she gets some of the credit.

7. Leif Enger appears at the Wisconsin Club for the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library annual Literary Lunch. He was lovely, as always, and charmed every attendee. Since the book was included with the ticket, and we were giving a percentage of sales to the Friends, we set up a mini bookstore to hawk some of Boswell’s bestselling titles. I thought I’d continue my streak of selling an extra Little Bee (sigh) every day but instead, Amie and I had much success with The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the now-in-paper Guersney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

8. Finally, that same evening we hosted Patrick Jones and Margaret Rozga in a conversation about the Milwaukee Civil Rights movement from the perspective of a historian and a poet (who was also active in the movement.) I was honored to meet at least one other participant. Jones is hoping his book will highlight the local heroes that made a difference in open housing, work laws, and education. It was very inspiring and I was proud to have helped organize the event.

Thank you to everyone who participated. I couldn't have asked for a better program. I'm sad to say that my pictures didn't always come out so well. I didn't post the really crappy ones.

Now we’re down to 2-3 events per week and I can catch my breath.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Imagine What Could Have Been--Hear Michael Perry's Funny Take on Raising Chickens (and Pigs) this Saturday, May 23rd at 2 PM

The great dream of raising chickens in Shorewood will not come to pass. You can read more about it in the Journal Sentinel here.

Oh, what might have been! Luckily, we can hear about it firsthand. Wisconsin humorist Michael Perry tackles the subject in his new book Coop. He also raises pigs. We've been loving Mr. Perry since Population 485 (on his life as an EMT), and we're thrilled that he is reading at Boswell Book Company this Saturday at 2 PM.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sitting Here in Limbo at the Midwest Airlines Center

I’m sitting here at another offsite

I’m at the Midwest Airlines Center selling books for the Manufacturing Matters conference. The keynote speakers are Tim Sanders (his latest books is Saving the World at Work) and Steven Little (most recently of The Milkshake Moment). Both authors wanted their books available for purchase and I complied.

Sales have been a bit slow. One customer asked if I matched Amazon’s prices, while another browser was sked by his colleague why didn't he just download the book on his Kindle? Just for that, I’m buying all my components for my thingamajig elsewhere. Maybe Vietnam, although I'm also sending a bid to India.

I’ve never had much luck with offsites, but since I keep hearing great stories from my current and former coworkers, I plow on. My gimmick is to round down to the nearest quarter, and then I get to say that the books are on special, they’re discounted nine cents! Also, I don’t have to carry anything but quarters.

At least this time I’m in the hall, but is it better? There are few organized breaks and I’m not directly on the flight path between workshops. Last week at another manufacturing conference (this one was about doing business in China), they stationed me in the same room as the speakers. It was very difficult for folks to buy books as they’d be interrupting the speakers who were giving advice about tax holidays and import fees. Oh, and I also drifted off to sleep

This time I brought two books to read but neither worked out for me. One, a novel, I found quite unreadable—flat and plotless and yet contrived (and no, I’m not telling you what the book was). Another, called Retail Anarchy, was a mishmash of stories about bad practices at various retailers and how the author one-upped the evil folks trying to sell him stuff. Sadly, the author didn’t seem like the kind of guy who might shop with me…in a million years.

(Mr. Pocker replies to my comments: "I just wanted to clear up one misconception that you expressed. I absolutely would shop in your store, I am a strong supporter of independently owned and operated businesses.")

I actually wound up reading parts of both authors' books and am working hard on being more likeable, having ingested the vital parts of The Likeability Factor. Everybody working on this conference must have read the book because the trade organization and the folks running the show are all very nice.

Last story of the conference. I like to make small talk with the folks, but seem to stick my foot in my mouth a lot because I’m out of my element. There’s some browsing but not much buying. At one point I said to a customer, “One great idea and the book more than pays for itself” and she bought four of the five titles. So later on I was chatting with another attendee and said the same thing, adding, “And it’s much cheaper than a consultant.”

“I’m a consultant,” he replied. I did not make the sale,

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A World of Maybe's in Joe Meno's "The Great Perhaps" but He's Definitely Coming to Boswell on May 29th.

Once upon the time there was a man named Joe Meno, a writer for Punk Planet in Chicago. His first novel was published by St. Martin's in 1999 and then, a breakout...maybe. His second novel was picked up by Judith Regan's legendary Regan Books for release in 2001.

The Regan list was tight, with very little fiction, but among those fiction authors were Gregory Maguire and Wally Lamb. Each book was marketed aggressively--she came from a background at Pocket, and before that, the tabloids. There was always lots of publicity.

The book was How the Hula Girl Sings, a post-pulp novel of an ex-con pumping gas, trying to escape the ghosts of his past. My fellow bookseller Dan was a big fan (oh, and he wouldn't mind you stopping in for a drink to talk books at the Palm Tavern, where he tends bar) but this was in the days before social networking. Our marketing was mainstream, and Meno was anything but.

In the end, the event didn't work, and the book probably didn't either, because Meno stepped back and had his next book published by the indie, Akashic Books, run by the visionary Johnny Temple (I think I've run on about his "Noir" mystery series in some blog or indexed email, but if not, I should have).

Hairstyles of the Damned, a novel of growing up punk in Chicago, wound up being quite the success, both in a number of indies and even B&N, which several times mentioned it in reports as a surprise success. Temple wound up publishing How the Hula Girl Sings in paperback as well.

The next novel, The Boy Detective Fails, a tale of said detective after ten years in a mental hospital and his attempt to determine the reason for his sister's suicide, was also published by Akashic. Here's where my lapsed memory comes in. I fear we had another event, and I fear it didn't work.

You can see where this is going.

Meno's now at Norton, a large publisher but still indie, and ready for the publication of his new novel The Great Perhaps. It's still got Meno's experimental stylings but it's bound into the structure of a classic family dysfunction novel, revolving around the academic Caspers of Hyde Park, Chicago, their two children, and patriarch Jonathan's father. It's smart, surprising, meditative, and packs an emotional punch without the least bit of treacle.

Everybody's searching for meaning and connection, their younger daughter Thisbe through religion, their older Amelia through justice, their grandfather Henry through memory, mother Madeline through controlled experiment and father Jonathan through exploration. This is the kind of novel where the stories and themes and images interconnect in boundless ways, where you put the book down for a while to make some flow charts.

It's all connected by clouds and cloudiness, uncertainty and maybe's.

I loved it, thought of Meno now teaching at Columbia College in Chicago, and figured it would be not that hard to get him to come up for our opening month of events. I wasn't counting on my location's legacy of past failure. It was time to beg.

Meno suggested another author to read with him. We've got a solid opening act, and I'm very proud to host him. It's Bayard Godsave, ex Schwartz Bookseller, solid contributor to numerous literary journals, and instructor at several institutions around Milwaukee. I so much enjoyed hearing him read a few years ago when we had a bookseller/writer event that I hoped to have a bigger platform for him.

And I'm no fool either; I think the folks who know Bayard and will come out to hear him read will love Meno too.

So this is out last chance, Milwaukee, our big maybe, at least at 2559 North Downer Avenue. The event is Friday, May 29th at 7 PM. Come out in force to meet a couple of fascinating authors and we've got a friend for life. Skip it, and next time he'll definitely be bypassing us for greener pastures.

Oh, and here's another thing. Boswellian Sharon read Hairstyles of the Damned after spotting it in a library's young adult section. This is the perfect book for your angsty teen apparently. She gives it a big thumbs up.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Kathleen Dunn and I Talk Books, Both Admit to Not Reading Ulysses

Here's Ms. Dunn's show from May 6th where we talk new books and new bookstores. Did you send your pledge to Wisconsin Public Radio? I actually gave my $75 pledge to Dunn in the studio, and then forgot to mention it on air. I'm sorry about all the "um's."

Tonight! UWM and Marquette Undergrads Face Off

So I was in a meeting about the Milwaukee Book Festival . C.J. Hribal was there from Marquette and Liam Callanan from UWM was teleconferencing. I started not paying attention to the details (we either had a concentrated spring festival or we didn't, I still don't know.) and thought, UWM and Marquette have so many student readings (I've been to a few at each school) but it might be more interesting if several schools were involved.

I also was looking for an event that would indicate that I'm serious about new writers and storytelling. Local folks tend to bring their friends, so I wouldn't have an event where nobody showed up. Plus it might be interesting for the students to read in front of people who didn't know them, and I might hear some really great writing.

So both Misters Callanan and Hribal were amenable and they sent in two of their best students to read tonight. If I knew what I was doing, or if I wasn't constantly scrambling, I'd now give you bios on all four participants and told you a bit about what they were writing. I might have contacted more schools in the area with writing programs. But I didn't so you'll be as surprised as me when the writers read tonight (Thursday, May 7th, at 7 PM).

Representing UWM are Alex Rewey and Louise Mortimer. They are both wearing jaunty caps. Marquette has fielded Austin Gilmore and Claire Cesarz. Their photos are grainy because I took them during a writing class.

I found the class really interesting. A fellow named Ray was reading a story that the class had already heard, about two roommates whose surfacey seeming relationship masked a deeper bond of friendship, revealed when the narrator revealed more problems with a past relationship that he had previously. So they weren't commenting on the story, so much as how it had changed. This led to Hribal drawing a very dramatic picture of an iceberg on the chalkboard.

So who knows? You might look back on this night and say you heard one of these students read back when they were just getting started. Or you might kick yourself for not having heard them.

And if enough of you show up, next time I'm actually going to talk to them beforehand.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Milwaukee Civil Rights History Brought to Life on Thursday, May 14th

Up until now, much of the focus on documenting Civil Rights history has focused on the South, with Milwaukee being ignored until the riots of 1967 and the march along the 16th Street viaduct later that year.

Patrick D. Jones, Assistant Professor of History and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska, will be speaking on Thursday, May 14th, at 7 PM. In Jones's new book, Selma of the North, he traces developments back almost a decade earlier, looking at Milwaukee's unique circumstances that led to a white Catholic priest (no several, Father Groppi was just the most notable) working with African Americans to desegrate schools, joing the Eagles Club, and have equal access to housing.

Joining him will be Margaret Rozga, Professor of English at University of Wisconsin Waukesha, who is also Father Groppi's widow. Rozga recounts the era in her new book of poems, 200 Nights and One Day, distilling the turbulence of the sixties and the activism of the times in 70 pages of verse that chronicle the open housing movement in Milwaukee.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

We Interrupt This Blog for an Annoucement from Dwellephant

Here is an unabashed plug for an un upcoming event. If nothing else, you must come see the exquisite hand-painted books.

"This Saturday, I'll be tucked away somewhere in The Boswell Book Company , drawing and signing in every copy of my new book, Missing the Boat , that you buy. But before you can even reach me, like a force-field of purchasable awesomeness, will be my friends:

And as if that weren't enough, rumor has it Pezzettino will be performing live, WMSE's DJ Dori Zori will be providing the overall soundtrack, AND there will be a raffle."

A raffle? A raffle. An AWESOME raffle. With original art from yours truly, as well as amazing gifts generously donated by RISHI TEA , TEECYCLE and others

I know what you're thinking: "Mr. dwellephant. What do all these people have to do with your incredible new book, MISSING THE BOAT?


I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for these people supporting me and inspiring me with what they do. Milwaukee is an incredible city. I wouldn't have moved here six years ago if it weren't. I wouldn't still be here SIX YEARS LATER if it still wasn't. And the only way to make sure one of us keeps doing what we're doing? Make sure ALL OF US keep doing what we're doing. Supporting them = supporting me. Embracing that philosophy will do you wonders in life. I promise. (And if you don't live in Milwaukee, apply it to YOUR city!)

Bring your kids. Bring your friends. And definitely bring your wallet."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Everybody Wants to Know What's Going to Happen to the "Lucky Girls." Mei-Ling Hopgood Gives us an Early Perspective on May 18th

I'd be very surprised if you don't know a family that has adopted a child from China. According to the website, over 40,000 children were adopted from China between the years 1983 and 2003. I'd susprect that the rate for the next four years was similar or even higher, until the requirements were tightened (excluding single, older, and same-sex couple parents, for example) in 2007. Most were girls, as these adoptions were fueled by their abandonment, a result of the one-child policy enacted in 1979.

Here is some background history if you'd like to read more.

There have been a plethora of memoirs from the perspective of the adoptive parents. Some titles that have come out over the years include:

The Lost Daughters of China, by Karin Evans
China Ghosts, by Jeff Gammage
Forever Lily, by Beth Nonte Russell
From China with Love, by Emily Buchanan

There's another kind of book that's been popular, kid's picture books targeted at Chinese adopted children, and also their friends. The White Swan Express, by Jean Davies Okimoto, has been recommended to me several folks as an entertaining and informative book on this subject.

But I think the books we are all waiting for now are the stories of the adopted girls themselves. Mei-Ling Hopgood's new memoir is one of the first of this generation. My former coworker from Schwartz Nancy, a voracious reader on this subject (well, and many others), turned me on to this book and I'm quite grateful.

Her story, told in Lucky Girl, is slightly different in that she arrived from Taiwan in 1974. That's how she got the jump on her mainland cousins and was able to polish her writing chops. But the root cause of the adoption is the same; Mei-Ling's father desperately wanted a boy and continued fathering children until there were eight daughters, at least two of whom they gave up for adoption.

The story is from Mei-Ling's perspective, not searching for her roots but having them fall into her lap. How she connects with her birth parents and learns to adjust to the joys and disappointments of this new family form the basis of Lucky Girl. I don't want to give anything away, but one of my favorite ironies was that Mei-Ling was the only one of the sisters who had not taken on an English name.

My only regret was that I wanted to know more about how her adoptive parents adjusted to their new shared custody. But lucky me, I'll get to ask her about this when she comes to Boswell Book Company on Monday, May 18th, at 7 PM.


Here's a cool, bookish blog from longtime publishing icon Paul Kozlowski, including a tongue-in-cheek look at a recently published table. Hey, I read those comments! (Oh, and erase the ones from authors touting their own works who clearly didn't even make an attempt to read mine before they promoted their book. Note: if your post has even some sort of vague connection to the subject at hand, I'll leave it.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

An Update on How Things are Going--And this if Officially Grand Opening Week

Well, by grand opening, you should everything done, right? Not exactly. My mantra of "Every day is a little bit better" still holds true. Our books are beginning to come in through Jason, our accounting system is finally working such that Amie understands it (I'm hoping I'll be next) and we're beginning to get in our sidelines such as Moleskine journals, Galison boxed cards and stationery, and Melissa and Doug and Mudpuppy toys. Card orders from Madison Park and Artists to Watch are en route, as our stuffed animals from Kids Preferred.

Bev is particularly fond of the social notes line, boxed cards with a postcard-style enclosure. Shown is the popular Scandanavian Modern collection. We also have a matching journal and sticky notes. I was more of a fan of the dandelions, which are featured on our gardening table, next to our new whimsical wooden animal compasses, which are only $2.50.

Signage? Our permit for our banner is approved and I'm paying the fee on Monday morning. I expected to have a temporary banner up right away and a finished sign for our opening. Now it seems like the latter was for our opening and maybe the finished sign will be up for our one-year anniversary.

Customers are already talking about which sections they'd like to see bigger, and we're working on that. We've got more books coming in every area, but aside from kids, there's been a lot of talk about our mystery section, which probably calls for a second post. (Note: Anne's mystery group is reading John Dunning's Sign of the Book on May 19th). Also poetry, but that might have to do with the fact that our first three events were all poetry-oriented.

We know how important signage is, and we're trying to get that up; I'm not a fan of our signage typeface and wanted to change it; in the end, I decided there was a lot of money I could save by holding pat. It's a project for another year. (I'm not even positive what the typeface is: I should probably ask Barb at DTS images. I think the closest we came up with was Arial bold.

Our first bookmark is clever, but the design is effectively a bust. Sadly, I didn't really focus on this until after it was printed. We're going to chalk that up to a $35 lesson and redo it. For the next couple of days, you'll get a slightly pixilated version with a badly thought out border and dueling typefaces. I'm hoping Monday will be, not amazing, but improved.

If we play our cards right, we'll even have some tee shirts by the end of the week.


Here's a nice piece in this week's Shepherd Express about the closing of Schwartz and the opening of the two new shops. It seemed more like an article for February, when the Schwartz closing was announced, and I'm sad that, despite being a week beforehand, there was nothing about my wonderful grand opening events, but it's still a nice cover story, and should probably remind folks not to take these new independent bookstores for granted.

Here's a piece about our upcoming events with Jane Hamilton, Anita Shreve, Elinor Lipman and Mameve Medwed. And don't forget Mequon's Next Chapter has Elizabeth Berg coming. Whatever you say about the state of newspapers, we are very lucky in Milwaukee that we have local book coverage in our paper. Please consider subscribing--I do and I can read them in my store for free! Oh, and if you do, it wouldn't hurt to say you subscribe because of the book coverage.

We took an order for Anita Shreve's Testimony from a fan in Virginia!

Here's an interesting article in the Journal Sentinel about Mary Nohl, the folk artist of Fox Point who left an amazing legacy. We're hosting the authors on June 4th.

And this great article about the new edition of The Flavor of Wisconsin has left us scrambling for books. Thanks to Terese Allen who made sure we had an event booked (on June 11th) before the article went to press.

It looks like I'm going to be on Kathleen Dunn for pledge week this Wednesday, May 6th. Dunn's show is on WHAD from 10-11 AM. Here's a link to info about the show, and it also has Nancy Pearl's recent booklist. Here are the show archives.

On Monday, May 4th at 7 PM, I'm leading my first in-store book club since 1996 in Mequon for the wonderful novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. Hope I'm not too rusty!