Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ruminating on Madison Bookstores, Present and Past, and Dean Bakopoulos, the Ex-Bookseller Who Has Written Not Just One, but Two Great Novels (and is Coming Thurs. June 9 for the Second One).

Here's a little post about Dean Bakopoulos.  But first, a meandering note about Madison, Wisconsin and its bookstores.

As you know from the blog, I still field a lot of comments from customers about Schwartz closing, a bit from folks around the Shorewood store, and even moreso from people in Brookfield and Elm Grove.  Heck, people like to tell me they miss the old Book Nook in Whitefish Bay, and Audubon Court in Bayside (or maybe that is Fox Point, I'm never sure where the line is.)

But that is nothing compared to the bookstore sadness I get from folks coming over from Madison, particularly since the Borders on University closed.  It was well known that that store performed well, in part because the Michael, the manager, geared the store to the market, often by tweaking inventory and display guidelines.  You might say, "It couldn't have been a great store if they closed it," but if you say that, you haven't, alas, been following the Borders bankruptcy saga closely.

There are still great stores in Madison. The University Bookstore is still around, albeit with a smaller trade presence than in its heyday.  There's Rainbow Coop (somewhat akin to Milwaukee's Peoples), Booked for Murder (not too different from Milwaukee's Mystery One) and A Room of One's Own, which I'd compare more to Chicago's Women and Children First.  It's a feminist bookstore that has branched out to the more general market in the last few years. They are part of the American Booksellers Association and have an ABA ecommerce website that sells Google ebooks, just like us.*

But folks still mourn the bookstores that are gone. Remember Pooh Corner, the kids' bookstore?  I went to my first Madison reading at Five Star Fiction and Video. And I have one friend that used to love to go to Pic-a-Book, mostly for the magazine selection. But if I had to do a countdown, I'd have to say, adjusting for inflation, that more folks come into Boswell mourning Canterbury, the independent bookstore that spent a decade on State Street, than anything else.  Doing this research, I also learned that the bed and breakfast attached was converted to apartments

Why do I say all this?  Firstly, because it seems like there are markets like Madison that seem ripe for either a new indie or the expansion of a specialty store into a more general indie retailer. It's not that I think you are going to make a lot of money or anything.  But since that gourmet brat stand (24 kinds of brats, hot dogs, not dogs, et cetera), 12 kinds of mustard, six buns, 36 toppings) was going to fail anyway, you might as well invest in something for the community and feel good about yourself. Just consider partnering with someone who knows how a bit about bookselling.

Secondly, because we're hosting Dean Bakopoulos, one of the legendary Canterburians, for his second novel, My American Unhappiness, next Thursday, June 9, at Boswell. And though he has yet to write a novel that uses his bookstore experience as a jumping-off point (his first novel, Please Don't Come Back from the Moon, is sort of high school/college-y), this book does play on his time as the head of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. 

Here's my recent writeup from the NPR webiste.  I might have told you 300 or so times that Susan Stamberg spoke to me about Ex Libris: the Art of Bookplates and My Korean Deli on Memorial Day, and there were some runners up, including My American Unhappiness

"In Dean Bakopoulos' hilarious and heartfelt new novel, Zeke Pappas is head of a small nonprofit that grants funds for cultural projects in the Midwest. He also happens to be a widower who is taking care of his two orphaned nieces, an arrangement made precarious by the fact that Zeke's mom, who officially has custody, is dying of cancer, and has decreed that if Zeke isn't married by the time she passes, the kids should go to his sister-in-law. But don't worry, as Zeke's got prospects — sort of. In addition to his assistant and a local barrista, he's also interested in Sofia Coppola. At the same time, Zeke's work at Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative is under investigation by a wing of the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to let their biggest donor use his GMHI credit cards for sexual trysts. All this could threaten Zeke's pet project, the "Inventory of American Unhappiness," which is a sort of "This I Believe" for this distraught. This funny-sad novel seems to take elements of the author's own life (happily married, with kids) and twists them in a funhouse mirror — with delightful results."

And of course this was probably too personal for NPR, but the inclusion of Mack Fences, a play on our beloved sales rep and friend Mark Gates, was a particular thrill.  I knew it was fiction, however, when it seemed as if Mack was constantly scurrying.  I don't really think of the late Mr. Gates as a scurrier.

So it's a sad book, but in some sense, it's a blues muzzler.*  And if you have any knowledge of Madison, you'll like it either more. And yes, if you've ever jumped through the hoops of a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant, add twenty pounds of lovin' to that. Remember--funhouse mirror. Did I mention that Milwaukee doesn't seem to have a book festival, but Madison does?  Did I mention that even Waukesha and Sheboyagan have book festivals? I digress.

So what celebrates bookstores more than a bookstore reading?  OK, maybe buying the book at a bookstore reading.  So join us on Thursday, June 9, 7 pm, and toast bookstores past, present, and future, as well as life beyond them, when all you have to do is walk in at 6:45, read a bit, answer a few questions, sign a few books and leave. Let someone else put away the chairs!

*I left out the second-hand and antiquarian bookstores, but they are all listed in my heart.

**Thanks to Arthur Plotnik for that superlative, straight from Better than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives.  Plotnik is speaking on Tuesday, June 7, 7 pm, at Boswell. More on our events page.

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