Monday, October 25, 2010

It Sometimes Takes a While for Me to Get My Thoughts Together on These Things--Thoughts on Carla Cohen.

Over the years, one of the highlights of the Book Expo convention has been a dinner for booksellers put together by FSG. Even though I have seemingly abdicated my space for our buyer Jason (one year I didn't go, the next I inadvertently RSVP'd to another dinner first), I have very strong memories of the evenings that have convinced me that I have never missed one in thirty years. (Yes, my memory is shaky enough that I can be talked into something as ridiculous as that. Note--I was in college 30 years ago, not attending publisher dinners.)

At one dinner, I sat next to Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, and asked him to write a note on my paper table setting for one of my fellow booksellers. At another, I asked Chris Adrian, the author of Children's Hospital, if I he would write a note on...a paper table setting. Yes, I only have a limited number of ideas on how to make conversation with dinner companions. Sometimes there would be authors; other years there would be editors. I remember one particularly enjoyable dinner with Rebecca Saletan. She was friends at the time with our beloved FSG sales rep, the late Mark Gates, a man who was well known for making good introduction. Gates wound up connecting Saletan with Dean Bakopoulos, whose first novel, Please Don't Come Back to the Moon, was a staff favorite, and whose next book, My American Unhappiness, arrives in June 2011.

Much of the fun of the evening, however, was in getting to spend time talking to other booksellers. It is generally a great bunch of people, well-read (of course), opinionated (of course) and a little loud about it. And one of the booksellers I got to know through these dinners was the co-owner of Washington D.C.'s Politics and Prose, Carla Cohen, who recently passed away.

I was rather nervous about our first interactions. Cohen was not afraid to argue that a book I had just praised was absolute crap. I'm the sort that would probably hedge it in niceties, unless I know you very, very, very well, and maybe would still need a glass of wine. Over these dinners, I was of course interested in hearing about books that Cohen loved, but unlike some other interactions, I looked forward to the ones she hated.

We had a few other times to chat. I think we shared a cab to a dinner in L.A. with Jhumpa Lahiri and sometimes I'd run into her at the booths, where she was taking a rest from the hours of walking the aisles.

Cohen was one of the first people (outside of our Norton rep, and an early read from a Schwartz coworker) to rave about Nicole Krauss's History of Love (can I mention again she's coming to Boswell on Wednesday 10/27 for Great House?) and I have vivid memories of her introducing me to Andrew Sean Greer, who turned out to be a friend of her daughter's, and in short order convinced me to read The Story of a Marriage, which went on to do very, very well for us in paperback at Boswell.

I can't forget another interaction, which may have actually had an effect on Milwaukee bookselling. Cohen approached me to complain (are you shocked?) that Lanora Hurley, who had previously worked at Politics and Prose, wasn't being fully utilized at Schwartz. We had recently brought in an outside manager instead of promoting Hurley when the job came open. I'm happy to say that the next time the opening came, Hurley was promoted, bringing new life to the location. The move positioned Hurley to be able to buy the assets of the Mequon shop that became Next Chapter when Schwartz closed.

What a weird scattering of memories. I wasn't in a regional with her, or on an ABA committee, so I didn't really talk that much. The couple of times I visited the store were a late weekday evening and a Sunday afternoon, where I didn't recognize any of the staff. And then I missed a couple of dinners, and And then I missed a couple of dinners, and yes, Carla complained to Spenser about it.

That said, when I started Boswell, Carla was one of the booksellers who gave me some good feedback on our early programs. She noticed our photos were a little distorted and I learned to resize them before I placed them in Constant Contact. She offered concern that our in-store book club suggestions were a little cerebral, and I offered a few more mainstream selections (not too mainstream, mind you). And she occasionally told me that a book that I was touting was actually kind of crappy.

Cohen recently died at 74, of a rare form of cancer. There are a lot of obituaries out there, as Cohen touched a lot of lives. Here is Politics and Prose's website. Contributions are welcome at Jews United for Justice, Washington DC Literary Council or Community Hospice

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