Monday, December 31, 2018

December 31 is Lillian Boxfish Day

Those of you who shop at Boswell, or subscribe to Boswell's email newsletter, or follow Boswell on social media, know that a number of us are fans of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. This was one of Jane's favorite books in 2017 and definitely her favorite paperback to hand-sell in 2018. While it sold quite respectably in hardcover, it definitely had not reached its potential, and working with Kathleen Rooney to do some book club talks at area libraries in late spring definitely helped jump-start renewed enthusiasm. Jane and I made a vow that we would sell 200 copies of the book and while we actually did achieve that goal if you include the hardcovers, I really think our goal was 200 paperbacks. Hey, we got to 185 copies and there's one day left. Can this blog sell 15 copies at Boswell in one day? Probably not, but I'm writing it anyway.

This "let's sell x many copies of this" is something I've done since the Harry W. Schwartz days when we had a bunch of reads on the same book that wasn't exactly exploding in the national marketplace, like Linda Olsson's Astrid and Veronika or was selling but not at bestseller levels, like Nicole Krauss's The History of Love. A lot of this energy came from our old Schwartz marketing person Nancy, who is now at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. If she were a bookseller, she would be leading the charge for Lillian, which at least as of September, was still her favorite book she read in 2018. I haven't had a final update. In fact, she's still sending folks to Boswell to buy the book.

Why is December 31 Lillian Boxfish Day? New Year's Eve 1984 is when Lillian sets out for dinner at Delmonico's Steak House and winds up taking a ten-mile walk around Manhattan. It's a flâneuse novel, as Jane would say, a contemporary take on stories of women walking. We've actually been keeping copies of Lauren Elkin's Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London next to Lillian on our book club table. It actually had a nice paperback Christmas this year, and we're #4 in Treeline sales - that's the inventory service where we can compare our sales against other unnamed independent bookstores. By the way, we're #5 for Lillian, and that's pretty good, because we're neither in the city where the book takes place (New York) or where the author lives (Chicago). But the key here is that the contemporary thread of the story takes place in one night.

Lillian's walk is the framing device for a historical novel, which reaches back to 1920s New York. And if you know anything about the book, it's based on the life of Margaret Fishback, considered the most prominent woman in advertising at the time. She made her mark at Macy's in New York, and then went on to successfully freelance. Don't get her confused with the other Macy's copywriter, Bernice Fitz-Gibbon. Fishback was also known for her light verse - the Ogden Nash of her day, so to speak, and published four books of poetry. She also wrote one etiquette guide and a parenting manual. Here's a Poetry Foundation link. Rooney decided to change Margaret Fishback to Lillian Boxfish because the 1980s part of the story is completely made up, but the historical part is straight from the Fishback archive at Duke.

When I think about Lillian Boxfish Day, I think about Bloomsday, which is celebrated on June 16, especially in Dublin, and commemorates the day that James Joyce's Ulysses takes place. I believe that Webster's Books (which was in our space in the 1980s) celebrated it and particularly after we closed, there was one bus driver who would ask me why Schwartz did not celebrate Bloomsday. I did not have an answer for him. You'd think this would stop after one conversation but they did not, and I eventually started avoiding his bus routes. I guess he'd be sad to know that we only sold two copies of Ulysses in 2018, though we sold more in 2017. Or that I I've never read Ulysses, though I did finish both Dubliners and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Both were school reading.

The starred Booklist review of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk itself had some sparkling sentences: " Her delectably theatrical fictionalization is laced with strands of tart poetry and emulates the dark sparkle of Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Truman Capote. Effervescent with verve, wit, and heart, Rooney's nimble novel celebrates insouciance, creativity, chance, and valor." And here's the Chicago Tribune review from Beth Kephart.

So what is it about Lilllian that has struck a nerve? Somebody asked me, "Will you still like the book if you're not a fan of New York novels?" Of course, desperate to sell it, I said yes. Boxfish is a powerful character in her own right, a proto-feminist who must learn to adapt to changing times. There is also the Man Called Ove "don't be afraid of different-ness and change" that weaves through the contemporary story. But really, it is a New York novel and it reminds me of many times taking long walks in New York. And of course it is a department store novel, and I am known to like these sorts of things. I did, after all, buy a copy and read the recent Thank You for Shopping: The Golden Age of Minnesota Department Stores cover to cover.

I really didn't think about this initially, but I've been contemplating the hold that Lillian has on me, and I would note that there's been a Lillian in my life who also loved to take long walks in Manhattan. Not only that, but in her twenties, she worked in a small advertising agency, and then at Grey Advertising, which still exists as a division of WPP. The fact that they are even still using the name, when so many others have disappeared, is shocking to me. My mom talked about working at the ad agencies well into her eighties - it was a memorable time in her life, I guess, because it might have been the first time that she had a modicum of independence. She didn't write poetry or ad copy, but it is said she wrote wonderful letters, and sometimes I think there was untapped potential in her ability. Our Lillian went back to college and then grad school after I was born and wound up teaching in the New York  City public school system. She died in April without being able to read Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. But I think she would have liked it.

So happy Lillian Boxfish Day to you. Boswell is open 10 am to 5 pm on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. We open late on Friday, January 4 (approximately Noon) for our annual inventory, and then it's regular hours for the foreseeable future.

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