Monday, August 31, 2009

The Prep School Story, the Coming Out Story, the Iconic Gay Man/Straight Woman Friendship Story...Sebastian Stuart Covers All Three Bases

Over dinner last week while in Boston for the GABBS show, Mameve Medwed (yes, of our grand opening--author of Of Men and their Mothers and How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life is the only book I ever have and ever will likely blurb) suggested I might try a book from a friend of hers (a rather endless list).

Sebastian Stuart, having previously written a thriller (The Mentor), a ghostwritten soap opera book (Charm), a cowritten (but is there really a Judy Goldstein, except in my Hebrew School class?) New York romantic comedy (24 Karat Kids) and who knows what else, has tackled the prep school coming-of-age, closeted gay boy comes out in the sixties and has special friendship with larger-than-life female friend story.

It all takes place (at least the bulk-of-the-story flashback) at a struggling prep school, veering between free spirit (run unknowingly, by Christian Scientists) and discipline. There's also the angsty Jewish guy, the elfin nerd (who as we learn in the book's opening, is now a very successful fellow with a taste for sexual adventure), the free-spirit hippie, and the townie boy who's also seemingly up for anything. He has a name, but after his initial description, I hereby declare him Snaggletooth (which I didn't know was the name of the mascot for the heavy metal band Motorhead).

It's a lovely tale, and I gobbled it up. I wrote to Ms. Medwed with a proposal that I ask Mr. Stuart some questions, and in short order, we had an honest-to-goodness Q & A. Here it is, "A conversation with yours truly and Sebastian Stuart on his novel, The Hour Between."

Daniel: What's the jumping off point to you in the book?

Sebastian: The book is based on a real boarding school that I went to for my senior year of high school. It was housed in an old inn in the Connecticut countryside and run by a messianic Christian Scientist gentleman whose grasp on reality was somewhat tenuous. The students were mostly misfits, the school was a last resort and parental dumping ground. Like Arthur McDougal in the book, I had been “asked to leave” Collegiate, a very fancy boys school in Manhattan.

Daniel: Anything based on a real incident? You seem to have some connection to the world of New York celebrity, judging by some of your previous writings.

Sebastian: There are a number of incidents in the book that are based on real events. I did know some celebrities as a child. My mother was the Entertainment editor of Life magazine, at a time when Life held a preeminent position in American popular culture. My dad was in the film business. They had friends who were famous. The character of Katrina Felt, the troubled daughter of a movie star, is a composite of about a half dozen girls I’ve known and loved – talented, funny, kind girls who seemed to have the world on a string yet were always close to unraveling.

Daniel: I can tell you really love your characters. It almost seemed like you didn't want anything bad to happen to them. You could have been more brutal--after all, this isn't exactly a comedy--yet you chose not to be? Were you consciously thinking about this when you wrote or edited the book?

Sebastian: I wanted my book to be -- at the risk of sounding simplistic and mawkish -- an affirmation of love and friendship. Earlier drafts were much darker. My best friend and soul mate during my childhood was my cousin Christina. She was a beautiful girl, signed by the Ford modeling agency, but she was more interested in writing poetry. She developed schizophrenia and killed herself at age 36. I still miss her terribly. In earlier drafts, the Katrina character was closer to my cousin. But my pal, Mameve Medwed (see above), read the manuscript and said Katrina’s arc was predictable. And she was right – schizophrenia is an intractable, tragic disease, people can stabilize but no one is cured. Mameve’s advice was revelatory for me. Ultimately I want to entertain. Schizophrenia is many things, but it’s not entertaining.

Daniel: Several minor characters seem to have deep backstories that aren't fully touched upon. What, if anything, wound up being left on the editing room floor in order to preserve the size, structure, and narrative arc of the final book?

Sebastian: Quite a lot was left in delete-key land. The book got shorter and shorter and more and more focused on the friendship between Arthur and Katrina. I think friendships can change us forever, particularly when we’re young. That was what I wanted to write about, the sadness and beauty of those long-age friendships. That’s the heart of the book for me. Many incidents and quite a few characters were cut from the book. Once I knew where I wanted to focus, I was ruthless in cutting.

Daniel: Care to reference the title?

Sebastian: It’s from the French expression for twilight: the hour between the dog and the wolf. I thought it was a perfect metaphor for adolescence. And it’s so romantic.

Daniel: Did writing any of your previous books lead you to this one? Was the idea new, or something you've wanted to write for a while?

Sebastian: I’m embarrassed to admit how long I worked on this book, but here goes: twenty years. Way before any of my other books. All I can to other writers is: persevere! If I can do it, anyone can.

Daniel: It strikes me that you may have originally had a different structure than an extended flashback between two short present-day bookends. Was the book always set up this way or did you try other alternatives?

Sebastian: I added the prologue and epilogue later. As the years passed and I got older, my relationship to the material changed. The immediacy lessened. I wanted a way to frame the book that gave it relevance. As we age, I think we tend to look back with a sense of poignancy and yearning, and also understanding. And I was inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is also told as a flashback. I love that book, I think it’s a near-perfect melding of style and emotion. It’s very moving, but somehow light and buoyant. I tried to capture that.

"The Hour Between" is a paperback original, available at Boswell Book Company and other places.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Year of Reading Boswell, part 2 of 300, by Guest Blogger John Eklund

When we last left John Eklund, he was rather ecstatic that he was finally tackling "The Life of Samuel Johnson." I've continued to put it off to another day. I did recently contemplate Stanley Elkin's first novel, "Boswell," which is about a modern-day version of Johnson's biographer. I wasn't even ready for that. So hats off to Eklund:

Reading James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, part 2

My last post on this project, about 250 pages in, was somewhat giddy with the sense of accomplishment that comes with plunging into a fat book about which you are ambivalent and sticking with it. I also made a few observations that struck me about the way bookselling and publishing was done in Boswell’s time, the similarity between Johnson’s early pamphlets and contemporary blogs, and the strangely familiar obsession with ownership of intellectual property that comes across in the book.

Reporting in from page 560 (of 1235, though over 200 of that is back matter and apparatus), I have to say that the going has gotten a bit tougher. Boswell has been credited with producing the template for our modern idea of biography, but it seems to me more a model for a certain kind of biography: the kitchen sink school. Nothing is too small to go unremarked upon- except perhaps the women and children in these men’s lives who, at least through the first half of the book, remain ghosts. And for Boswell, the smallest biographical detail or anecdote about Johnson still seems to call for a footnote to draw the innocent reader into an even more baroque narrative labyrinth. I shudder to think what Boswell would have made of hypertext. His pages would be nothing but hot links.

But reading Boswell’s Johnson is still more joy than chore. I marvel at the extensive documentation. In my job as a book rep, I’m expected to pass along to my presses all the brilliant comments made by the booksellers during our appointments. I struggle to find a surreptitious method to record these so as to not interrupt our flow like some mad scribe. When I give up and decide to just do it later from memory, the flavor is lost. Boswell, on the other hand, would have made a superb rep. Either he has an encyclopedic memory for dialog (and remember, these 18th century people spoke in full sentences- no “I was like’s”), or he had a fantastic imagination. His sourcing is meticulous.

Another important documentary resource that helps make the book so alive is the trove of letters Boswell has assembled. These two men and their vast circle of brainy acquaintances seemed to do nothing but write to each other. In volume, they remind me sometimes of a sustained, urgent email correspondence, but they must have been vastly more time-consuming. And they are vastly more erudite than most of the messages I get and send. As much as a profound early example of the biography form, this is a great monument to the power of a letter collection to make satisfying reading.

The bond between the two men is fascinating. Boswell (Johnson calls him “Bozzy”) was thirty years younger than Johnson, and though there was a distinct sense of mentorship and power imbalance in the relationship, there was also plain love. It’s expressed in such an unaffected way (i.e. “I love you”) that it’s a little startling. It violates our modern expectation of appropriate affection between heterosexual men.

One recurring unpleasantness I’m facing in the reading: Johnson was a jerk. Apparently he was known as a jerk far and wide. Boswell has assigned himself the task of redeeming Johnson’s nasty reputation, but this is not a whitewash. Some of the most entertaining bits are “he said/he said” arguments between the two. Boswell acknowledges Johnson’s frequently appalling behavior, his retrograde opinions, his slovenly personal life and habits. Yet somehow you come away sort of liking the man. He is what we might today call a right wing public intellectual. But he seems to relish taking contrary opinions for the sake of argument, and it’s sometimes hard to decipher what he actually believes. In this Johnson reminds me a little of H.L. Mencken, another right-wing blowhard who many of us love to read because he was so witty and argued so well.

So will I soldier on to the end? I’m in too deep to stop now. But I’m taking a break. There are just too many great fall books piling up and I can’t stand to look at them anymore without wading in. First up: Lorrie Moore’s new novel A Gate at the Stairs, the wait for which has been of Boswellian proportions.- John Eklund

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Store Closing, Bookstore Visits in Boston Area

Store closings expected to his 10,000 this year, says a new study published in the Chicago Sun Times. That's double last year. Bookstore closings are expected to reach 400, which is a 500% increase over last year. Why that's the size of one good-sized chain!

While my panic on retail has been limited to one store closing on my block (Soaps and Scents), you can certainly see results from the real estate bubble bursting around town. And I suspect that some far-out suburban areas, where there was more strip-center development and speculative building, will fare even worse.

In my mom's neighborhood in Brookline (akin to a very, very, very busy Downer Avenue), we were counting the casualties, from a home store I was quite loyal to (Bowl and Board) to several chains including Ritz Camera, Foot Locker, Qdoba, and The Children's Place. The highest profile closing was the neighborhood B&N, with nearby Brookline Booksmith hoping to pick up the slack. About five people sent me this article (either cut out of an actual newspaper or by linking) on Brookline book changes.

On my recent trip to Boston, I did some browsing (and buying) at the various bookstores in the area, including outlets at both Borders and Barnes and Noble (actually three chains as I went to at least one store in the college division, which was until recently, a separate entity).

The five indies I visited were Harvard Book Store, Brookline Booksmith, Porter Square, Symposium, and Trident. The latter two are new to my visit list. Symposium is an academic bargain book store in Kenmore Square, while Trident in Back Bay has been around for 25 years. They love the Dover spinner racks, and while three seemed like too many for me, you might find at least one with the kids titles in our future. I bought pirate tattoos and Jeremy Fisher stickers.

At Harvard Book Store, I got to chat with several of the folk there and hear their picks. Megan loves Generosity, the new Richard Powers (I'll have a post on this when it comes out) while Carole touted Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder. It has much of the power of his previous Mountains Beyond Mountains, which went on to be a huge bookseller and critical fave.

While there, I bought a copy of The Most Beautiful Book in the World, a book they are recommending like crazy at Next Chapter. It's a Europa book, so it's mighty purty. I can't wait (stack is large, may wait a while). It's on the featured on Select Seventy.

At the two other stores, I did some card shopping, partly to buy cards and partly to look for interesting lines. I got at least one good idea, but another needs a local supplier. Someone in the Boston area does beautiful local postcards, on good quality paper. They make a custom card of the bookstore carrying the line for each store. Nice idea!

Aside from that, I visited family, the bargain book show, and tried out a selection of cupcakes from Sweet. Here's their menu.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Another Pile of Books, Another Find from Sharon

Sharon was going through a pile of mass markets. Most of them had broken spines and were only suitable for our markdown cart. We inherited them from Schwartz (and negotiated a set cost per box), but here's something we were excited to see.

It's a rack-size Doubleday Anchor paperback of Leon Trotsky's The Russian Revolution: the Overthrow of Zionism and the Triumph of the Soviets, selected and edited by F. W. Dupress from The History of the Russian Revolution.

Really? Rack size? How things have changed.

So Sharon's pricing the book and the receipt fall out. It's from Cody's the venerable, recently-closed bookstore of Berkeley, California. Most folks think of it as a single store, but I think at one point they had two stores in Berkeley and one in San Francisco's Union Square. Sigh. You can read their story here.

The book cost $2.45 and was bought on April 27, 1970. The customer paid 13 cents sales tax.
Addendum. We sold the book on August 28th.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Attempt at Nonbook/Sideline/Gift Merchandising, Take Two

Hey, it would have been nice for me to include a photo of the display. It's now included.


I've made my first attempt at sidelines mechandising in the adult arena. So far, my theming has been relegated to the robots in the kids section. On the other hand, even though that's where the sales are counted, a substantial portion of the plush, folders, and bendy toys are being bought by adults, for adults. And why not? It's what I'd want. It takes something that I (and other people, I'm assuming) find frightening, and it humanizes them.

So since this is all about me, I thought, "What else do I like?" I like maps, and based on my track record with books over 20 years, so do a lot of my customers. Many years ago, I tried to get us to use a tagline "Explore new worlds" at Schwartz, and my concept involved a lot of mapping and globing, though the idea of the theme was broader than that. I think another book operation used the concept a couple of years later. Let's just say it wasn't patentable. Not like crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But I digress. I present to you our old mappy-themed display. We brought in some paperweights, and journals and water bottles and luggage tags. I know there's lot more to buy (including Replogle globes and those huge displays of back-to-school mini globes that I kept unsuccessfully trying to sell at Schwartz) but what I've bought fills a table. Some of the stuff is for travel and some for an office, but everything has a bit of a retro feel.

One thing I don't think we ever sold at Schwartz that caught my eye were some globe-themed liquor flasks. (We actually probably did sell them at one point, but I can't remember). After seeing two attendees sneaking drinks at our tango concert, I decided that it might be appropriate for our customer base after all. And as long as we're going to do things like the tango concert, why not sell them the flask?

I hope we don't sell out of everything by October 29th. That's when Strange Maps, by Frank Jacobs comes out. It looks very cool! Ask us to hold it for you when it comes in.

The way this gift stuff works is that you often have to take it when you can, or it sells out. And I don't know if you know this (I didn't), but the big gift show is in New York at the end of August, and that backlogs a lot of the companies that provide this kind of stuff. And there's not as much reprinting. We used to stage a lot in the Shorewood Schwartz basement, but I don't have that luxury.

Oh, I've got a Christmas card order in already. And it's chomping at the bit to come out. I'm also on the hunt for a really good African cookbook. Any guesses why?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Meta Blog Analysis--What's My Most Popular Posting of the Last Month? Also, a Video Link

Here's a hint. I wrote it in January. I got the numbers from Google Analytics, which once I figured out how to set up and get working, has been addictive. Don't worry, I'm not turning on the advertising function in the near future...

Our most popular post of the last month is "Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops to Close."

It's proof that we still have a long way to go in getting the word out to the community. And before every advertiser and underwritin coordinator contacts me (again), I get it. We'll be doing some of that. But you didn't have coffee with the friend who had a failed bookstore, who blamed one of the problems on the store being "blowing the marketing money too quickly" by locking into advertising contracts.

On the other hand, I've got a competitor in the making that has already done a lot of marketing, outspending my sign budget alone by a large multiple. Believe me, I'm pretty much continously frantic about the whole thing, and I'm not saying anything more about it on this post.

We've still got some issues, including that dead space in the front of the store near Starbucks. I need to spend some money to fix some things, hard things to do for someone who is by nature rather...frugal.

That said, it's been great to get compliments from folks coming in the store. The store looks full, and while many sections are compact, almost all of them have interesting books in them. Many of the displays have recently been freshened, and some of my initial attempts at sideline buying have been big hits (well, the robots, anyway).

If I haven't said it to you in person, I'll say it to you impersonally right here. Thanks for your support, and we'll keep doing what we're doing, as long as you want us to do it.


Here's a link to a video of Eva Rumpf on Fox News. She's going to be reading from and discussing her new memoir Reclamation: A New Orleans Memoir. We've also got a nice New Orleans table featuring several new and classic books about New Orleans, including Dave Eggers bestselling Zeitoun.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Attend a Bargain Book Show in Boston, Visit Mom

Greetings from the GABBS Bargain Book Show. Though Jason has been buying most of the bargain book titles, I used this opportunity to cash in some airline miles and get some more titles for our bargain book area. We still have at least one table waiting to be converted to bargain books.

This is also my first overnight away from Boswell Book Co. since we opened. The show gave me the emotional ability to leave the store and visit mom in Brookline. Note to all readers: if you've been remiss, you should also visit your parents. Even if you don't get along, it might someday be good fodder for a memoir.

The show was at the Hynes convention center. I missed the first day, which featured a keynote speech from Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, and also duck tours of Boston, like we have in Wisconsin Dells. I ran into Renaissance's Bob John on the floor and he told me it was a mighty good time.

I found the whole thing overwhelming. Not having remembered to download our inventory, I used the day to find titles that might not be on Jason's radar, looking at book categories where I'd seen folks browsing, and most particularly, browsing but not buying. In particular, I took a chance on some titles that might be tough sells, but that I wanted to see featured in the store. It's easier for an owner to make that call. I found a few lines that specialized in academic titles without per-title minimums. I found some great history, philosophy, and cultural studies titles (they are usually in our social crit section) that previously sold for $40 and up, that we're going to be able to retail for under $20. Lots of Oxford, Cambridge, New Press...

At another booth, I found the selection of bookmarks I'd been after but hadn't found at various full-price vendors. One line was too expensive, another's bookmark was too thick, and a third had per-item minimums that were way too high (20). Not only did I find, leather, metal, and pressed-flower bookmarks that matched all our criteria (OK, the metal is still a little thick), but we'll be able to sell them for substantially less than the original price. That's a win-win if I ever heard one.

Here's a photo of me buying titles from Rachel at Great Jones Books. She's a bit camera shy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dan Chaon's New Novel Captures the Horror in Ourselves

So I go to this bookseller dinner in Chicago to meet Dan Chaon. Jason's read his new novel, Await Your Reply, and loves it, but can't attend. I remember how much several of my coworkers enjoyed You Remind me of Me, his last book. Also, there's a gift show going on at the merchandise mart and it makes this a good day to attend both.

I'm hoping to avoid too much face time with the author because I haven't read the book yet. So of course I immediately run into him with Dave of Next Chapter, waiting outside and chatting. And when the dinner begins, everyone wants to talk about the book, and in particular, wants to talk about the surprising twist of the ending.

I'm covering my ears and singing, taking frequent bathroom breaks, doing anything I can to avoid spoilers. Folks are comparing Chaon's writing to all sorts of luminaries, but several got hung up on a comparison to Peter Straub. Horror? This isn't horror, I heard more than one person say. On the other hand, one of those same people talked about veiled references to Thomas Tryon's The Other, and isn't that considered literary horror? I'm pretty sure...

So sometimes after these dinners, if I haven't read the book already, I never get around to it. But how could I resist in this case (Aha! Success on the part of the publisher. Fancy dinner and peer pressure forces me to read outside my comfort zone)?

It's three different stories actually. One is about a young man who has reuinited with his long-lost father, holed up in a Michigan cabin. Another's about a young girl who has run off with her high school teacher. The third is about a man searching for his elusive and eccentric identical twin, taking him all the way to a native Arctic settlement. All the stories are about the elusiveness of identity. So is it a novel or woven together stories? Oh, it packs an impact like a novel, all right, though Chaon did say that he did not originally know how the work would come together when he stared.

And is it horror? It's certainly creepy like horror. And though I haven't read much Straub or Stephen King, Chaon seems to know the rhythms of the genre well; to me at least, it read like King. It almost makes me want to read The Other, especially after hearing a couple of the attendees wax on about it. Eh, I don't think my heart could take it.

Chaon's new novel is scheduled to be on sale this Tuesday, August 25th.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Freshening Up the Film Table with Entertainment Weekly's Double Issue

I love movie tie-in tables. There's no question that one industry dwarfs the other, and even an art film can turn a book that dribbles in sales into a steady seller. And for a Time Traveler's Wife? That would make it a #1 bestseller. Even Evening, the Susan Minot book that was adapted into a poorly-performing movie, albeit with a screenplay by Michael Cunningham, soared in sales.

So that's why our table is more or less permanent, at least somewhere in the store. But it was put together very quickly, because my former boss Carol was filming a promo for the Milwaukee Film Festival just as our store opened.

Now we've freshened it up with a rather complete list of films adapted from books (including a major book with a name change--Saphhire's Push has become Oprah's Precious.) The list is adapted from Entertainment Weekly's double-issue movie preview. I have a subsciption (of course--how could I not when they gave Elinor Lipman's The Family Man a glowing review and also put it on the "Must List.") but it seems like an issue that we should sell out in the store.

Prove me wrong! We put copies of Newsweek on their "what books to read now" display and we sold out the magazine.

I love lists. Did you figure that out yet?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Here's a List that You Wouldn't Recognize in Our Store

For many years, Schwartz discounted the New York Times bestseller list. Eventually we stopped, and there were two main reasons why:

1. We wound up heavily discounting our big event books. We'd invest a lot of many to make these work (P.D. James and Anne Rice are two that come to mind) and then lose the profitability. I understand that for some stores, attracting hordes of people for a celeb is a traffic builder; they buy other things, and they get in the habit of coming again. But for most bookstores, those extra customers don't show up again until your next big celeb author event. In between, they shop at Amazon and B&N and Target and Walmart...or maybe, maybe, another indie bookstore.

2. We wound up churning a lot of titles. That is, bringing in quantity of books that we wound up not being able to sell. This week's NYT fiction list is a good example. #1 is Bad Moon Rising, by Sherrilyn Kenyon. We don't skip her, but we do have problems selling her in promotional quantities. For authors in some of the genres that we haven't been able to master, who get a one week pop at #8 or so, we'd simply order in the books and then return them.

Back when we had 4-5 stores, we would cover pretty broad ground. What might not sell at Downer Avenue could do brisk numbers at Brookfield or Mequon.

Which brings me to this week's top 5 nonfiction titles from The New York Times, week ending 8/23. They say the party that's out of office sells the most books, and this sure is a good example of that theory in action.

1 Culture of Corruption, by Michelle Malkin.
2 Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.
3 In the President's Secret Service, by Ronald Kessler.
4* Catastrophe, by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann. (that's the silly "tie" asterisk)
5 Liberty and Tyranny, by Mark R. Levin.

There's also Bill O'Reilly at #7, but I like to annotate my lists in multiples of five and the rest of the top 10 was not applicable.

We carry 'em all, but we've only gotten Liberty and Tyranny on our bestseller list, and that was only for one week. The others are selling steadily, but aren't blowing out the way they are elsewhere. Hey, we're a city bookstore located near a bunch of universities. You read The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart, right? Actually I haven't, but we sold one yesterday so it came to mind.

I'm waiting for my first customer to tell me they're boycotting the store because I'm featuring book X, which is the most incendiary work ever. It will be another milestone, and since it happened at Schwartz at least once a year, I expect it to happen with us too. The exciting thing is that I can predict neither the book nor the political perspective of the boycotter. What pisses me off? I can't push blame onto the owner.
We have sold a good amount of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism though, including ten to one customer. Well, he hasn't bought them yet. I hope he considers this blog post impartial enough to follow through.
Ooh, one last sort of funny story. We had one store get an incensed complaint because in our bestseller case, books of one political persuasion were clustered towards the top, and books of the opposite persuasion were several shelves below.
Bookseller response: "They're just alphabetical by title."
I'm not sure what the correct response, but this turned out not to be it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Goodbye to Harlequin, my Beloved Cafe in the Third Ward

Today is the last day of Harlequin Cafe, Sanford D'Amato's bakery/coffee/tea shop in the Third Ward. I only learned of its demise because I went in a few days before to do some writing in their wi-fi equipped seating area. The store closes at 3, not the usual time of 4.

I don't really understand why it didn't catch on (oh, except perhaps it was hidden away in an office lobby). The bakery was among my favorite in the city. The croissants were heaven. The seven layer bars were seven times as good as I've had elsewhere. Their Rishi tea selection was superb, and I particularly liked their house specialty blend, which was infused with vanilla.

The food was great too. I'll miss their empanadas, their chicken pot pie, their barbecue pork and roast chicken sandwich. I brought home their breadsticks and their breadcrumbs. The stores got treats of maccaroons and cookies. I had rep meetings there, and used the space to work on Boswell's business plan.

The space was incredibly inviting, a sunny lobby with wifi and lots of outlets. The chairs were comfortable, and it wasn't too cramped. The lobby was a nice mix of classic and modern, with grand pillars mixed with paper globe pendant chandeliers.

I particularly enjoyed talking to Sarah, the manager. We shared a love of Top Chef (how shocking) and food gossip in general. I gave them a copy of Danny Meyer's Setting the Table, a wonderful foodie business manual whose hospitality message I hope I've taken to heart.

There's no question the Third Ward has a lot of cafe for the amount of traffic in the neighborhood. Despite walking traffic that is far less than my neighborhod on Downer Avenue, it continues to get new shops and restaurants while my neighborhood stagnates. These stores go in and out of business, and the ones that are open are often seemingly empty when I walk by. (Not all of course, the chain Anthopologie generally seems to have customers, as does Moda3, the skateboard/snowboardstreetwear shop. Oh, and Broadway Paper does a great job too.). And there are a good number of successful restaurants. But I know bustling restaurant/empty everything else dynamic, because I helped run a bookstore on the KK Triangle area of Bay View. But a bustling street? That would be four times a year on Gallery Night.

I feel the lure of the Third Ward myself, especially as we sell the textbooks for the nearby MIAD. But really, a lot of the momentum is because there is still so much developable space, both to the east (where new construction just started) and over the river to the south, in the Fifth traffic Ward/Walkers Point area, rife with warehouses on their way to become something else. And developers mean marketing money, which means hype, which breeds desire. I get it.

There's no question my block has bled retail and traffic to the Third Ward (and also Brady Street, and Farwell/North) for a number of years. Milwaukee's not exactly a growing market and that business has to come from somewhere. It was one of the things that made me nervous about the location. I'm going to be up front and say I haven't always been the biggest fan. But when I weighed all the options, this seemed like the best location for the store.

And so I still dream of a little bakery like Harlequin on Downer Avenue. We've got a great savory bakery in Breadsmith, but cupcakes and such? Not so much. Ah well, I wish all the folks well, and still look forward to eating at Coquette and for very special occasions, Sanford.

Thanks for all the wonderful food and memories, Harlequin. You will be missed!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Guest Blog! Susan Engberg Says a Few Words About Her Upcoming Reading for "Above the Houses", now in Paperback

I'm honored to host Susan Engberg to read at Boswell for her latest collection, Above the Houses, now in paperback. But I'm not too honored to badger her to say a few words!

Some thoughts for Boswell Book Company’s email newsletter and blog:

~From my first days in Milwaukee in the late summer of 1979, I’ve relished the never-fail pleasure of a trip to the bookstore at 2559 N. Downer Avenue—at first friendly Webster’s, then for such a long inspired tenure Harry W. Schwartz’s, and now, hooray, Boswell Book Company.

~And thanks to the fine old building for housing some of my previous readings. Now I’m delighted to appear once more in the store, this time to celebrate the paperback edition of my fourth collection of stories, Above the Houses.

~When people ask what my stories are “about,” I might at first laugh a little to ease the strain of attempting to fit myself into a niche and then say something like, Oh, you know, sort of everything—life, loss, work, loneliness, illness, mindfulness, sex, joy, love, death—you name it. I’m not being evasive. I’m not trying to get off the hook. Far from it: I’m totally hooked by the wonder of all our stories. May I ask what you are “about”? (And may I please take notes?)

~I’m also often asked why I continue to focus on stories and novellas rather than hefty novels. It’s about the harmony I feel with stories. We seem to belong together. A long time ago I really fell in love with the power of the story form, its ancient roots, its simultaneous affinities to both flowing narrative and poetic compression. So few elements can make such fullness. For now, I just want to go on experimenting with that expansive, beautiful, difficult simplicity.

Engberg will be reading a new story at the event. Note that the accompanying jacket photo is for the hardcover. Long story. It involves weighing the book, believe it or not. I'm not going to tell you any more than that, but it worked out well for us.

Please join us for this bookstore story unveiling!


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Smarting Up the Impulse Table with a Title that While Selling Elsewhere, is a bit of a Laggard at Boswell

Like all other independent bookstores, and who knows who else, we get this monthly newsletter from Carl Lennertz at Harper Collins. He's been doing this off and on for a long time, and though we also get a weekly missive by email, it's nice to get something in print form. It's a free form survey of what's happening at Harper Collins, and this month he mentioned that the backlist title How to Talk about Literature like a Professor had taken off again, with major increased sales levels.

We'd sold the book well at Schwartz for a long time, and I'll bet Next Chapter in Mequon is still blowing it out, because two of its biggest fans were Dave and Susan, who now work there.

On the other hand, we at Boswell haven't sold a copy since we opened. Our two copies have been sitting there for a mighty long time--one of the two copies is from the previous Quill edition (see accompanying photo). Every so often, the folks at Harper Collins like to rebrand a line, and the Quill paperback line, inherited from William Morrow, was rebranded Harper during one of these brainstorms.

I think we can sell the book well off our impulse table, making a nice counterpoint to zombie books, mini vegan cookbooks, and Little People in the City. Let's see how we do.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Battle of the Terrys, and Other New Releases

I'm sure a fan would never get Terry Goodkind and Terry Brooks confused, but I would think that for other important folks might get confused. That's why I'm kind of surprised that The Law of Nines and The Princess of Landover are both coming out today.

For most indie bookstores, the big release would be Philippa Gregory's The White Queen. It's a new series set during The War of the Roses. Like many popular authors who write regularly, Gregory's sales percentage at indies has probably decreased with each book, in favor of other outlets. However, I'm pretty sure I'll sell more than what we did at the Downer Schwartz. We've done better with authors such as Lisa See and Daniel Silva, which tended to do better at Shorewood.

For someone like Joseph Finder, whose publication schedule is more erratic, and gets good reviews, his indie share is probably pretty decent. Also, he writes nice notes to booksellers. His new book, Vanished, is an attempt to change that, being the start of a series, and in a subgenre that seems to do well with mass merchants, and Glen Beck, who is good at driving folks to said outlets. Say what you will about Mr. Beck (and I know some of you would say very nice things and others would beg to differ). He's a reader and he supports the authors he likes, including fiction.

Oh, and one book I'm looking forward to, Frank Bruni's Born Round comes out Thursday (not a hard on-sale, so that's more or less). It's getting great advance reviews and some nice feature story pickup. Until recently, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, this is a memoir about his food issues. I haven't read it yet, it's on the pile.

So that's what our week looks like. I don't think there's anything here to drive customers in like we've had the last three weeks, but I'm ready to be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Friend of Boswell vs. the Looky Lou

I was talking to Lanora at Next Chapter about traffic flow and we were both surprised that our weekends are not necessarily our strongest days. To me, this ties into my theory that I have kept more of the core business of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, and less of the occasional customers. These core folk (or Friends of Boswell, or FOB's) are clearly a key component in what's keeping us going (thank you).

1. FOB customers are more likely to know which stores are still open.

2. FOB customers are more likely to care about the consequences of shopping with us, as opposed to a chain independent or online. (The consequence is that if people don't shop with us, we go out of business, by the way.)

3. FOB customers are more likely to see us as a destination. For the occasional, we're more dependent on what's on the block. And we could still use some more stores leased.

4. Most FOB customers like talking to booksellers (including me), making everyone's day more pleasant. No, it's better than pleasant, at least for the owner (me).

That said, I don't underestimate the importance of the occasionals. I think (and picked this up from David Schwartz) that occasional customers shop more on weekends. Oddly enough, these folks are more noticeable on Sundays than on Saturdays. There are occasionals who are visitors to our fair metroplex. They often make a decent purchase and throw out a nice compliment to the store to boot. These folks make me swoon. Who doesn't want a nice compliment?

There are occasionals that find us convenient, but don't have much need for a bookstore. There are folks who love our store, but are just too far away to shop more often. They come to visit their kid (attending or just out of college) or parent (at one of the senior housing complexes in the area) or sometimes just drive really far for their fix. Many of them I know by sight or even by name and they give you that pleasure you get one you run into someone you know out of context. It's not love (see above paragraph) but there are definitely hormones involved, and it's a nice feeling.

Then there are the folks who stop by, look around for a half hour or so, and leave, usually either without a purchase or with a very minor one (Can we agree that under $5 is minor? But really, mostly it's zero.) One of my booksellers, who shall remain nameless, called them "looky-lou's." (I put in quotes, which I generally don't like, because I'm quoting her, not because I don't think you'd understand the term, or because, and this reason drives me crazy, you think the word would not make sense without them. And of course, it is a word, and people use it all the time, just not me until this point.

It's (and I'm reaching back into my memories here) the person at the bar (ok, or a friend's party, or a religious institution's mixer) who wouldn't respond to your eye contact or your greeting. Or you were introduced and they walked away after two minutes for some more ice. Ice? But just like it's important for those folks to be there, even if they won't talk much to you, these folks are important to our business, especially one of our size.

Looky-lou's may not ring up a lot of sales, but they are often good for the store. They give it life, show that your store is worth browsing, and even, if you watch them carefully, show what displays and sections are most interesting. They also mean there's traffic on the street, and if they like browsing the store, they'll come back to whatever brought them there (dinner, a movie, another store), which will keep the street stronger.

Frankly, without them, the store looks a bit empty. If I had a store that was 1500-2000 square feet (was one of my original plans), just a customer or two fills things up. But for the size of the store I have, I need about ten customers for me to feel like things aren't dead.

As long as they don't do too much harm (coffee stains, tears, rowdiness, and so forth), we should come out ahead.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sitting Here at the Kitchen Table, Reordering Cards

When we opened the store, I had dreams of tracking two kinds of SKU's that we didn't scan at Schwartz.

The first was magazines, which we have done successfully. For some reason, we're not tracking newspapers, but we really don't sell that many.

The only problem with magazines is that I have at least one bookseller who occasionally rings through purchases in the old way. It is throwing off our inventory and it has to be fixed. Unfortunately, none of my staff seems to think they are doing it. I'll have to play detective, and I'll let you know if I ever figure out the answer.

The second was cards, and on that idea, I was overruled. You'd think the owner would get free reign on this kind of thing, but alas not.

We decided to not go with a racker, which Schwartz did generally. It's more work this way, but you can control the cards better in terms of quality (less clunkers) and quantity (the inventory is substantially lower). On the other hand, with the rack program, you generally get returnability. But you have to commit to a lot of space, and honestly, we have a nice-sized-but-not-huge card section that we don't want to tie up with one vendor. We took the advice of Schwartz gift buyer Catherine and went rackerless and it's working ok so far. Thanks, Catherine!

So we reorder using backers (that thing that says, "You've just sold out of card #123. Please reorder!" I don't know if this is actually what you call them, by the way.) This works well, but since some card companies provide backers, and other don't, we often have to make our own. And if someone puts a card back in the wrong place, we might reorder a card we still have. The photo attached is of a bunch of Madison Park backers, which I am reordering at home on a spread sheet.

The biggest problem is finding cards for certain occasions, especially the way we laid our the four areas. We're short on "new home" for example. We've chosen to avoid relative-specific cards (son, grandma), some of which we're still sitting on from Schwartz (remember, we bought the inventory). And we don't know what occasions our customers are looking for that they can't find. Someday I'll have that suggestion box!

Sometimes we run out of envelopes but still have cards leftover. This is sometimes from a customer taking a different envelope than the one that goes with the card (I'm just letting you know folks, that when you do this, we wind up with cards and envelopes that don't match). But the really icky thing that I'm told happens (I'm new to this) is that people sometimes steal envelopes for their homemade cards.

Ewwww. Stealing my envelopes is still stealing. You should be ashamed.

And just a reminder, Paperwork across the street sells envelopes in lots of different colors. Hold your head high and buy your envelopes across the street. You'll feel better about yourself.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Thurber Prize Committee Agrees--"Wrack and Ruin" is the Funniest Novel of Last Year

Now how can I make this pronouncement?

Look at the other nominees?

Lamentations of the Father, by Ian Frazier. Essays. Didn't read it, but read two of his other books and have a subscription to the New Yorker. I "pay" to read it on "paper." Does that count?

I was Told There'd be Cake, by Sloane Crosley. Essays. Hilarious Essays, but essays none the same. Just sold this to my ex-coworker Carrie, visiting from Portland. Sent an email to me saying, "You've still got it. Book is just what I was looking for." Totally paraphrased. But Carrie, you understand that this sort of feedback is a bookseller's coke fix. Unless the bookseller is addicted to cocaine. Then coke is sort of his or her coke fix. Thanks, Carrie.

The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death, by Laurie Notaro. Essays. Sadly, I've never read a Notaro. They're so easy to sell because I've worked with so many other booksellers who loved her that I can always quote one of them. It's no excuse. I'm sad.

Look! Just one novelist! That makes Don Lee's Wrack and Ruin the funniest novel. Hurray. Vindication. Go buy the book. From me. I'd like to sell more.

Winner announced October 1st. Or so Associated Press says. Totally paraphrased.

Friday, August 14, 2009

When Your City has Irish Fest, You Get to Have Two Official Irish Displays per Year

I was chided by Sarah (before she left) for not having a table for each festival. Next year I promise. But we did wind up having an Irish Fest table because two of my booksellers are working it, making scheduling pretty tight.

Also, a customer sold us some very cool old Irish books this week, including some architecture, history, and even a language guide (Jason told me not to take the audio tapes, because they break so easily).

Carl's big pick for the weekend is the novel John the Revelator, which we recently featured in an email newsletter.

Other authors whose titles are popular include:

1) Tana French, because we like her and sell a lot. As did Schwartz. As does every other bookstore now.

3)Frank McCourt, whose books have received a sales pop since his passing.

4) Joseph Caldwell, (The Pig Did it) because he stopped by while visiting family. I've had two great reads on this.

5) Ken Bruen, another Carl favorite. One customer told me he judges stores on whether they carry Ken Bruen. Thank goodness we passed.

Oh yes, and the usual suspects, including Irish Milwaukee. Irish Fest runs through Sunday.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Odd Things I Like in the Store--Robot Edition

If you get our email newsletter, you know that I ended my last email with a photo of my robot exercise class. These were so popular that we sold out our pack of 12 in a week.

We just got in 24 more, plus 4 giant robots. We sold our first giant (actually about twice as tall as the originals) in about 10 minutes.

Here's a shot of the giant robots having a little fun with a mini.

Since they were so popular, I also brought in "My Girls." They are basically the robots but with wigs. If you watched Ren and Stimpy, they are sort of to the robots as "Log" is to "Log for Girls."

The customer I was talking to this morning said she thought she had an old toy like this when she was a kid. We also have another toy using the same elastic cord called a "Wiggle", which is basically a series of wooden discs with a head (duck, cow, frog or clown) that smoosh around.

Everybody's happy about the new arrivals. There was some dancing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Interesting Find in Second-Hand

We are buying second-hand collections every day. Note to potential sellers--we buy for credit and you should really call first to make sure we have someone who can handle the purchase. We really discourage drop offs as it makes the store look like a junk drawer.

To figure out what we might take, you might want to come in and look at the store first. We're picky about quality, but I am sometimes willing to forgive a blemish or two from a cool old mass market from the 50's or 60's. We don't sell galleys--hey, it says not to sell them and my fifth grade teacher would not be happy. We don't pay as much for books that were clearly already used or bargain.

Every so often you find something that makes your day. Here's something we found recently. It's a request from the publisher to make sure they send a tear sheet of any thing written about the book, and it's from 1961.

This is a Scribner title. So being that I'm writing about it, Wendy, Kate, Chris, Michael, Nan, Greg, Katie, Heidi, Brian, Susan, Elizabeth, Brant and anyone else I might have forgotten who would be it OK if I just send you a link?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Boy, It's Fun to Have Big-time Releases Come Out. Is That What Fall is Like?

For the second week in a row, there was energy in in the store as folks came in to purchase the new novels by Thomas Pynchon and Richard Russo. In the end, the former outsold the latter by 50%. We also had a nice bump on Eugenia Kim's The Calligrapher's Daughter, an author with some local connections and a great champion in our bookseller Anne.
Our hardcover fiction bestsellers for the week ending August 8th:

1. Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon (Bosweller's Best at 20% off)
2. That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo (same)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter, by Eugenia Kim (see above)
4. The Girl who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson (also a Best, and last week's #1)
5. Fool, by Christopher Moore (Lamb was #98 on NPR beach reads)
6. The Defector, by Daniel Silva (our sales on this have far exceeded what Downer Avenue Schwartz used to sell. This is a good example of a book that is selling to folks that frequented our Shorewood location. Also, I'm pretty good at talking it up. We sold two backlist titles last week to new readers as well).
7. The Help, by Katherine Stockett. (flurry of publicity about how folks are reading this created more people who want to read this).
8. The Strangers, by Anita Brookner. (OK, that was me.)
9. Jericho's Fall, by Stephen Carter
10. The Dead of Winter, by Rennie Airth (selling substantially better than his last one, which my coworker Catherine at Schwartz said was disappointing).

Still not selling is Jonathan Tropper's new novel, despite our over-the top rec in both our email newsletter and event calendar. This week Entertainment Weekly made a similarly bold proclamation, putting it on their must list and also giving it a big A-rated write up.

We were struck by the similarities in type and background color of these three recently-released novels. We'd probably only noticed it because our Boswell Best titles are currently arranged by title.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Why is Horror a Good Genre for Reading on the Beach?" and Other Questions Answered on WHAD?

If you heard me talking to Ben Merens Thursday (8/6) on Wisconsin Public Radio (WHAD in Milwaukee), you know how embarrassed I am about not remembering the title of David Sedaris' most recent book. It was When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

Other things I couldn't remember:

John Irving's new novel is Last Night in Twisted River and it is due to be published October 27th.

Sherman Alexie's new novel is War Dances; it doesn't have an on-sale date, but he is coming to Boswell Book Company on October 21st, at 7 PM.

Listen to the conversation here. Since you can only winnow the episodes by search, I cleverly put in "best beach reading" to limit the results to my appearance. Alas, if I put in Daniel Goldin, they also list a previous show on which I actually never guested, due to technical problems. Since then, I take the 30 bus to their studios and do the interview in person. I also prefer talking face to face.


Congratulations to Barnes and Noble, who in the face of Amazon, had the courage to move their Boulder, Colorado bookstore across the street, probably to take advantage of development incentives. If you want to write an article about the changing book market, I think it's best to peg the store to a store that's opening or closing. But a replacement store? I just don't get it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Does Stephen Boehrer Like Raspberry Frangos?

So I'm working on doing the prep for the Stephen Boehrer event, basically trying to write something for the email newsletter. He's already appeared at B&N Southridge, so he's gotten the Book Preview in the Milwaukee Journal Shepherd. I decide to link to their writeup anyway.

I'm thinking as I write this, boy does this whole thing sound like Andrew Greeley. Do I say something in my writeup? Maybe he doesn't like Andrew Greeley. I check his publisher website, and not shockingly, they compare him to Andrew Greeley. I leave this out of my piece, but only because my Andrew Greeley references are more bloggish than emaily.

Back at Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing), where I worked in the mid 1980's, Andrew Greeley was our star author. He'd had a huge success with The Cardinal Sins, and for the next few years, he was Warner's consistent top ten author. Though we had huge nonfiction bestsellers, and were seasoned buyers to reprint rights of big-name fiction, this was in the years before Warner learned how to break hardcover fiction with David Baldacci, Nicholas Sparks and others. We had just started publishing Nelson DeMille before I left. So top ten every year was a big deal.

Father Greeley would fly into New York, do the Today Show and a few other interviews, and fly back home (to Chicago or Tucson, depending on the season). He'd leave us with a box of Marshall Field's Raspberry Frangos. Nobody in the office seemed to like them but me; no wonder I wound up within spitting distance of Chicago. First I the first two years, I was pretty much the assistant (though with a better title the second year), then publicist, then manager (that was below director--New York publishing houses had 50 delineations of publicist, so everyone could get a promotion every year).

The last year, I actually was Father Greeley's publicist so I got to book him on the Today Show, plus get him a few other choice appearances. No bookstore author tours for us! I was no Ling, no Allegra (the two powerhouses I followed in booking the Today Show), but there were no big snafus. Soon enough, I was out the door, trying to avoid the constant knot my stomach was in (for another post), and headed for Milwaukee.

But the priest (or ex priest, in this case) sermonizing through a thriller lives on as a concept. Mr. Boehrer will be discussing his novel, The Purple Culture, Friday, August 14th, at 7 PM.

Friday, August 7, 2009

No, I Haven't Read That Not-Yet-Released Book Yet

There are many things I can do with my time, but one duty that calls to me (siren-like) is cleaning the galley shelf. I want to make sure the upcoming titles are clearly visible (eye-level is best) and the older books are gone.

In a new wrinkle, both the cases we use in our break room are rather unstable. If we pile to heavily, the shelf collapses.

In my previous post, I mentioned that I'm not seeing the hotter titles that I once did. And yet our galley shelf is totally filled with just-released and soon-to-be-published titles. So what are we seeing?

1. Thrillers, especially from first-time authors, or genre authors with hopes for breakout.

2. Book clubby (I like to call it middlebrow, and I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean, readers often like it, but while it's considered significant enough to possibly get reviews in the highbrow media, they are usually mixed.)

3. Totally depends on the rep. John Eklund at Harvard/Yale/MIT is obviously feeding us more books than other reps, where we're much lower on the radar.

4. Certain publishers seem to distribute much larger selections of books to indie bookstores than others. Overlook has likely flooded bookstores with galleys for their novel A Quiet Belief in Angels. By "flood", I mean three. It's a evocative serial killer thriller (a series of grisly murders in a boy's Georgia hometown, he grows up to be a New York writer, only to be privy to another crime linked to the murders back home), with enough literary overtones (like the author is British) to perhaps get some critical attention and handsells.

What are we not seeing:

1. Established track writers in the thriller genre. We used to see a lot of these. Published less than once a year and fully not at dependable bestseller levels, or changing publishers? Then we'll see them--Joseph Finder comes to mind.

2. Serious nonfiction. For the nonfiction areas I like to read (perhaps you wouldn't call them serious) such as urban planning and city histories, behavioral psychology and economics, I'm not seeing much. The cooking lit (foodie books) seem more likely to be found, well the memoirish stuff. Cookbooks, on the other hand, almost never.

If I read history, I'd be out of luck. This almost deserves its own post.

3. Small-print fiction from large houses. Exceptions include pet projects, and books that are expected to start out small and grow over time.
And what of the high-profile literary books? We're seeing them, but often one copy. And as I mentioned before, it would not be fair for me to hog them all. That's not what they were meant for. One of my booksellers (actually more than one) mentioned working for a chain bookstore and never seeing advanced reader copies. Oh, they were getting them, but all of them went home with the store manager.

Sometimes it's not such a bad thing. There are wonderful surprises on the galley shelf. But sometimes you just want to read Superfreakonomics or the new collection of Malcolm Gladwell essays (both currently set for 10/20), which is odd, because I have a subscription to The New Yorker.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

We Don't Have as Many Advance Reads on the Hot Titles for Fall, and Here's Just One Reason (OK, Lots More than One) Why

We don't see the number of advance reader's copies that we used to. There are a lot of reasons for this of course.

1. We are a smaller store than before. If a rep got one or two galleys before, we might have been on the shortlist. Now it's less likely.

2. We're a new store and inadvertently were left off mailing lists in the transition. One publisher actually left me on their mailing list but didn't have the new address. Mailings have been going out as: "Daniel Goldin, Address TK, 53202." Believe it or not, these mailings are eventually getting to me, even though our current zip code is 53211. Thank you to the UPS gang (can I give a shout out to Drew?) for forwarding this properly.

3. Publishers are doing less of them. One place where the ebook has really caught on is with uncorrected proofs/bound manuscripts. Most of my reps have Sony Ebooks for this sort of thing. At least one group was given Kindles, even though under that scenario, the publisher no longer has control of their own product. Big mistake, it seems to me. The rep can no longer share that ebook manuscript with a store.

4. In my particular case, I'm no longer the new book buyer. The copy often (but not always) goes to Jason and though he may think of me as the best person to get the galley, he may not. I could say to him, "I want to see everything you get and get first dibs." But how's that going to help the books take off? He's great about divvying up titles to our booksellers, and I can only read seven or so books per month. There's usually a couple that I start and don't finish because, well, I don't like them. I shouldn't have gotten those in the first place.

So I have nothing personal to say about all the exciting August books I mentioned in a previous post. It's all hearsay, of which I am trying to absorb plenty! I've only read four "fall" titles (which I think we consider August through November on sale). I've pictured two of them, from Dan Chaon and Richard Powers, but Jeannette Winterson's cover is changing so I won't post the old one.

Despite this, our galley shelf in our break room is pretty full. So what's going on? That's for another post.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

NPR's Audience Pick--the Top 100 Beach Reads of All Time

What is a beach read?

Is it fat?
Is it breezy?
Does it tickle our most base emotions?
Does it have a fairly upbeat ending? Or does the villain at least get the comeuppance he or she deserves?

Well, all my criteria were tossed in the trash when I saw the audience picks for the Best 100 Beach Reads of All Time.

I think these books were booked because people liked them. Are these also the greatest airplane books of all time? The best sitting by the fire during a snowstorm reads of all time? The best read with a few of your friends just so you can get through it and then discuss it (and so begat the book club) read of all time?

On the other hand, I can't say no to a good list. And for a good list of books you must...count the number of books you read on it.

My rules of thumb:
1. If a series is listed, you only have to have read the first book to count it (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings). After all, there are other series (from Anne Rice, Janet Evanovich, Alexander McCall Smith), where only the first book is listed.
2. If you can't remember reading it, you probably didn't (example: I think I read Huckleberry Finn in school, but I can't pin down when.)
3. You had to finish the book.
4. You can't have skimmed more than 50 boring pages.

I'm currently scheduled to be one of the guests on WHAD's Ben Mehrens show to discuss the list on Thursday (that's tomorrow), August 6th, at 5 PM. The show also airs on many Wisconsin Public Radio stations around Wisconsin. (I'll try to come back and link to it after it's posted online).

Here are the top 5, if you were too lazy to link:
1. The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
2. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
3. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
4. Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding
5. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

August Rush--Stieg Larrson's Word of Mouth Bestseller Explodes

One of the books highlighted in Geeta Sharma-Jensen's column about hot books for fall, The Girl Who Played with Fire, has been our bestselling non-event hardcover fiction novel since we've opened. I spoke to my friends at Micawbers and they concurred--and they've been open a lot longer than we have. Great word-of-mouth on the first book that continued throughout its hardcover life have led to the likelihood this will be #1 on the New York Times for its first week out. Ingram, our primary wholesaler, totally sold out, reinforcing that belief.

It didn't hurt that Michiko Kakutani jumped the gun at the New York Times with a good review; folks came in surprised that the book wasn't coming out for a few weeks. Why does she do this? To set the tone for the book I think. She gets credit for a good review if she likes a book and it sells; for a bad review, she is effectively responded to by other critics who like the book.

It's a big August for names, repeating last year. Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice lands today (August 4th) as well as Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic lands today. Pat Conroy, Terry Goodkind, Philippa Gregory follow. Oh, and there are plans to release a James Patterson book every day, from August 15th through 31st. (No they aren't.)

Last year, publishers were trying to get out of the way of election coverage. This year they are trying to get folks to open their wallets before they shell out for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. Look for that long-awaited thriller on September 15th. That should probably break our new record for first week hardcover fiction sales.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What's a Good Way to Say this? Our Local Arts Coverage is...Changing.

I imply in this post that our arts coverage is going to diminish in the future, but we honestly don't really know what's in our future. I should know better than to make such pronouncements, having been on the receiving end of many when Schwartz closed and I announced the start of Boswell Books.


Well, we had our last column from Geeta Sharma-Jensen as the book editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Over the last ten years, she's been a friend to both the book and the bookstore, opening our eyes to new authors and highlighting many upcoming events, both at Harry W. Schwartz, and for the last three months, at Boswell Book Company.

We know the problem of course. It's that I can link you to all the stories about Sharma-Jensen leaving, as well as Tom Strini and Damien Jacques, our classical music/dance, and theater columnist/reporters, both at the Journal Sentinel, and wherever they appear, for example at the Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee. Or maybe you read the article on this Wisconsin Arts Board headline collector.

(I wanted to find an amateur blog already commenting on the news, but I couldn't find one...yet. So the next person who effectively writes pretty much what I'm saying might wind up linking to me--who knows?)

It's tough on the bookshop, both since we're sort of partners in a changing industry. Many of customers do use old media, where will they get much of their book information, like the fellow last week; he asked for us to reserve just about all of the titles Sharma-Jensen's column highlighted as big books for fall. (note: I cleaned up this sentence from when it was first posted! My proofreader budget is very thin. Sorry.)

We've got assurances that all these folks will still be contributing to their areas of specialty, and it's absolutely true that many larger papers (the Chicago Tribune comes to mind) have cut faster and harder. Read more in Mary Louise Schumacher's column. For the last month or so, the Journal Sentinel's book coverage has actually seemed larger than the Tribune's, and by burying their section in Saturday, they've effectively said "Try and find me."

Less book coverage in our local paper--just another exciting angle we have to deal with as we build the store and try to get authors added to tour schedules. On the other hand, it's happening everywhere else as well.

Anyway, of course we'll be hearing from Geeta and the others in the future; it still feels like a situation where I say, "Goodbye for now, and thank you."

Here's Lake Effect's recent interview on Douglas McLennan on the future of arts coverage.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

No, I Haven't Forgotten About Little Bee.

So I'm talking to my excoworker Nancy B., a Brookfield stalwart whose daughter now lives in our neighborhood and found us located close enough to Beans and Barley* to pay a joint visit.

We're talking about books I love, books I think Nancy would love, and we come across my ever-moving display of Little Bee. Hurray, a sale means I'm one step closer to my personal goal of 100 copies sold in hardcover (the store's at about 63.)

But today I'm tongue-tied? What do I do? I invite Nancy over to watch Green Apple Books promo video when it was their book of the month. She's convinced!

Now they are having a book vs. Kindle smackdown. So here's the link, if you haven't been following it.
Brian, one of the Simon and Schuster regional managers, visited the store this past week. You may know I have been panicking about the paperback cover. I'm positive I'm not going to like it because there's not way they'd keep this one, and what could live up to it? I was sure they'd go mass merch on it, but he says no. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but still suggesting folks go with the hardcover.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Reading (finally) Boswell's Life of Johnson (part 1)--with Guest Blogger John Eklund

It was my initial thought that guest bloggers would populate on our bookseller site, The Boswellian. However, when pressed, I realized that when push came to shove, if someone gave me a great posting, I'd put it wherever they told me to. And what could be more appropriate for Boswell and Books than longtime bookseller/sales rep/friend/mentor John Eklund reading The Life of Samuel Johnson? So anyway...

There are a handful of classics that I've circled for years, intending to read but never quite getting around to them. You probably have a few of your own. For me, one of the most compelling in this genre has been Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. I couldn't even say how many times I've picked it up, considered reading it- I've even bought it a couple times, only to give it away or sell it unread. But still, it calls to me. It was one of David Schwartz's favorite books- hence the bookshop logo, which has now passed down to Daniel Goldin at Boswell Books. "Who is that guy?", people would sometimes ask when I worked at the bookshop, though, thankfully, not as often as you might expect, because I didn't have a very good answer. "Oh, that's James Boswell, who wrote the first modern biography- of the great Samuel Johnson." My boyfriend even dressed up as Boswell (don't tell the Milwaukee Rep we pillaged their prop department for his costume) for the grand opening of the Iron Block store downtown. He knew even less about Boswell than I, but did an excellent impression.

So now that my neighborhood bookstore is called Boswell Books, and now that I'm selling a book on the fall Harvard University press list in honor of the Samuel Johnson tercentenary (sorry, shameless plug: Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson, September 09, $35), the time has come to get serious about Boswell's Johnson. I'm spending a week at our cabin on the Mississippi River with lots of reading time, so I've decided to dedicate myself to Jim and Sam (though of course I brought a shopping bag full of alternative books in case I don't make it. I have looked at it longingly from time to time.)

Have you seen the size of the book? It's one of those great massive Penguin Classics, 1245 pages. It was published in 1791, and at first glance seems impenetrable. Smallish typeface, oddly archaic stylistic flourishes, many long poetic digressions, tons of footnotes (more on that later), and appendix upon appendix. This is not a book for the literary faint of heart. But I've made the plunge, and though a mere 185 pages in, I can file a brief report from the front. (And these notes must be taken as tentative until I actually finish. Daniel chides me for so often raving about a book, demanding that he drop everything and read it when I'm on page 25, only to turn against it by page 200.)

So here are my first three impressions:

1) The structure begins to evolve from your enemy to your friend as the book unfolds. The notes in the back are actually helpful- there's a glossary I discovered (100 pages in, I should have seen it earlier but I was afraid to go back there) which explains each and every personage who is mentioned. There are hundreds, impossible to keep track of them all. And the footnotes, though elaborate and long, can either be ignored, or, once you start paying attention, read with pleasure as well. They remind me very much in places of David Foster Wallace's digressions in Infinite Jest. Boswell can't leave a single thread unpursued. Did I mention that this is a very funny book?

2) Gee whiz facts: booksellers used to be publishers! Much of the work that Johnson published in the mid 18th century was a result of cutting deals directly with booksellers, who paid him a flat advance and then printed and sold the books. If his costs outran his advance, as they often did, too bad. Also no agents. Johnson had a series of publications, issued once or twice a week with names like "The Rambler" and "The Idler," that were shockingly akin to present-day blogs. A reader would subscribe to them, they were published several times a week, and he'd receive them by mail, which was delivered several times a day. The "postings" (that's what they seem like) were about everything and nothing, whatever popped into Johnson's very smart head that day. They were raw and unedited, and he bragged about not even reading them after setting them down. Like most bloggers, he had to push himself to keep feeding the beast. "This year I hope to learn diligence," he noted once in a diary, and another time "I bid farewell to Sloth!." Second that!

3) There's an amazingly contemporary-sounding debate about copyright and intellectual property ethics. (in one of those dense footnotes, good thing I started scanning them). It's 1759, and Johnson is incensed that he's noticed some of his writing from The Rambler in other, unauthorized publications, for which, of course, he isn't compensated. He's outraged, and warns that "those who have been busy with their sickles in the fields of their neighbors are henceforward to take notice, that the time of impunity is at an end." Sounds familiar.

More to come.....

John Eklund