Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Couple of Picks from One of Our Sales Reps, but Not for Books He Represents

There’s a lot I can’t take credit for at Boswell Book Company. After all, I moved into a space that was mostly conceived by the folks at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, particularly Carol Grossmeyer, our store designer in those days, and John Eklund, the first manager of the Downer Avenue branch of Schwartz.

For many years a sales rep for the university presses of Harvard, Yale, and M.I.T., John remains a good friend to me, and a regular visitor of the store. We retrieved one of his brainchilds, the wooden entry display bench with slots to display books in the window on the back, from storage. They certainly have a pew quality about them, and that seems appropriate to me.

Mr. Eklund’s always been a wonderful writer, and here’s a link to his periodic blog entries in Convolutes. I like that the design he picked reminds me of his fondness for Converse sneakers.

John’s also been reviewing books for my good friends at Seminary Coop in Chicago. Here are some recent write ups he’s done:

That Mad Ache, by Francois Sagan, translated by Douglas Hofstadter.
Praise for a recent translation of a 1960’s novel by a notable French writer. Let’s just say that if Douglas Hofstadter wrote a cookbook, Mr. Eklund would host a dinner party.

The Post Office Girl, by Stefan Dweig
The Anita Brookner of Austria (that’s high praise, by the way) writes of the meeting of two very different types who discover how the other half lives.

I would normally quip that nobody is a bigger fan of the NYRB Classics, the perfect match of smart editorial and beautiful package, but I know so many folks obsessed by this series that I think we’d have to host a tournament to determine the winner.

There are new reviews to come for Seminary’s front table. I can vouch for this because I watched some being written in a nearby coffee shop. Watch for them on their blog.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Am I Really Going to Give the Turnout for Every Event? Let's Stop Now Before One is Particularly Embarrassing.

1. We had 17 people last night for women's history icon Gerta Lerner. Not that we didn't have small events at Schwartz, but Schwartz did have more people for Lerner last time. I worried about having an event before May, as I didn't think we'd time to promote it properly. Guess what? I worry about the May events too. If you missed her, she's appearing again today at 3:30 PM at the UWM Bookstore at the student union on Kenwood Boulevard, just east of Maryland Avenue.

1a. That said, our first two events for Joshua Beckman and Roya Hakakian had 25-30 people apiece, certainly at our expectations. I credit the local involvement and thank the connected parties.

1b. Poetry Everywhere reception from 5-7 tonight, before the screening at the Downer Theater of new animated shorts. There are snacks, it's a shopping night too--designate your sales and we'll give 10% of the proceeds to Liam Callanan's project. After the screening, there's a reception at Cafe Hollander, and unlike us, they can serve alcohol. (Note: by reception, I am talking a cheese tray and some fruit.)

2. Thanks to several customers who suggested we put the phone number and address of the bookstore on the header of the Boswell and Books blog. It's great news, because that's the way these folks got information about the event. Done!

3. That said, our website has obviously been delayed while we figure out how to use Drupal (and just to answer that question, no I don't have money in our budget for you to program it for us.) My apologies.

4. In case you missed it, here's a great article on The Flavor of Wisconsin in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We are hosting an event with Ms. Allen on June 11th at 7 PM, with food samples provided by Outpost Natural Foods. More to come.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Our Best Buddies Night Brings Together Anita Shreve, Elinor Lipman, and Mameve Medwed as Part of our Grand Opening Weekend

When Boswell Book Company announced its opening, one of the first people I talked to was Elinor Lipman, author of Then She Found Me (the basis for the recent film directed by and starring Helen Hunt) and numerous other novels.

We met many years ago at a publisher dinner for Lipman’s second novel, The Way Men Act. So many of the folks I worked with were fans of Then She Found Me; my coworker Jeanne loved to tell how she came to the rescue at a quiet call-in radio show to rave about the book. How can I not succumb to this enthusiasm? I quickly became a big fan.

Lipman and I bonded further when Pocket gave her a layover day in Milwaukee for her novel Isabel’s Bed (or as I call it, “the bagel novel”) We had a lovely day, capped off with a bookseller dinner at Mader’s. It didn’t hurt that Lipman also bonded strongly with Schwartz’s marketing director Nancy. After that, we became one of Lipman’s few regular tour stops outside her stomping grounds in the Northeast.

Now I do not have many author friends of this sort; Lipman is gregarious and kind, the sort that makes it easy to fall into friendship, and seems to know everybody. So when she emailed out of the blue to say “What can I do to help? When is your grand opening?” I had no other option than to schedule the grand opening around her.

Lipman had another brainstorm, with origins in a successful Schwartz event some years ago. It came to pass when Anita Shreve had to cancel her initial appearance in order to be present at the Orange Prize awards, where she was nominated for her wonderful novel, The Weight of Water.

It was their idea to schedule an event together. “What could be more fun?” they proposed. What followed was a wonderful bookseller dinner at Bartolotta’s (this time featuring David Schwartz and Carol Grossmeyer among the attendees; I still have the photo), and then a very popular event, with many fans of one author being turned on to the other.

Then I thought of Mameve Medwed, an old friend of Lipman’s who has also become a friend of mine. They met together in an adult ed class before either of them had published a novel. They have always been champions of each other’s work, and often function as an early reader for feedback.

Medwed appeared once at Schwartz too for her second novel Host Family. Sadly, there was a terrible snowstorm the day of her event. I always hoped we could one day give her the audience I thought she deserved.

When asked if Medwed might fit in to this event, Lipman replied, “I can’t ask her now. She’s spending the weekend at Anita’s.” (Editor's note: totally untrue! The actual response was, "I'll ask her this weekend. We're all going to be together." Thanks, Ellie!)

They’re not the same kinds of writers (Lipman and Medwed tend towards the comic, Shreve thrives on dramatic tension) but they share many fans. I’ve read all three of their new novels and enjoyed them greatly.

Lipman’s new novel, The Family Man, is sort of a bookend to Then She Found Me, the story of a gay man rediscovering the daughter (well, step-daughter) he lost many years ago. It’s my favorite kind of book, about rebuilding family, written seriously but not taking itself seriously.

Medwed’s Of Men and their Mothers is also a meditation on parenting. Her heroines are generally put upon by the world, and part of the joy in reading them is seeing the bullies get their come-uppance. In this case, it’s Maisie Grey, who contends with a bullying ex-mother-in-law and a son whose new girlfriend has Maisie fearful that she’ll be falling into a similar role.

Shreve, you must know, is another beast altogether, and I say beast not in reference to Shreve herself, who is as charming as an author can be, but because so many of her novels explore the dark animal in our souls. Her new novel, Testimony, is about a boarding school scandal and how it destroys the lives of so many folks it touches.

Never content to write the same book twice (I’m particularly fond of her written-backwards book, The Last Time they Met), this time Shreve draws on her journalistic background to create a tableau of voices, using in novel form the techniques of the classic biographies Edie and Capote. It’s a powerful story, that, like so many stories I love, blurs the line between good, evil, victim, and abuser.

Our event starts at 7 PM, but really, the fun begins at 3 (and lasts till 5), when all three authors are joining us on the bookstore floor to be honorary booksellers. Medwed tells me this is practice for when she applies for a shift or two someday at her local Porter Square Books in Cambridge. All voracious readers, they’ve got recommendations aplenty. We apologize for not being able to stock some of Shreve’s favorites from Bernard McLaverty and Brian Moore; they seem to be out of stock indefinitely and possibly out of print. It’s a crime!

Come join us midafternoon on Friday, May 8th for this celebration of friendship. Bring your best buddy to the bookstore for some suggestions, have dinner (there are lots of wonderful eateries nearby) and come back for the reading at 7 PM.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Genre Pecking Order Comes into Play, Even When the Author is Trying to Subvert It--Another View of "Laura Rider's Masterpiece."

I’m always thinking about how folks respond to genre fiction. I recently wrote about us talking to customers about science fiction, and why a lot of indie bookstores have trouble keeping a good section. Now I want to broach a section that many indie bookstores avoid even mentioning—romance.

I’ve talked to a few customers about why the section isn’t at the Downer store. In fact, the bigger names are mixed into fiction. One was looking for books in the style of Catherine Coulter; another liked Connie Briscoe. I’m actually working on some sort of plan that might help sales, or at least test to see which sales are there. I’ve already had to poke through fiction looking for certain authors for a customer. I’d like to save this discussion for when I actually do something about it.

This prejudice certainly extends to critical reception. I think it's fair to address your audience in terms of thier expectations, and it’s also fair to say that there is a lot of by-the-numbers publishing that calls for reviews not on individual titles but on authors. You like Stuart Woods or you don’t. Vince Flynn is your cup of tea or he isn’t. But it’s the profile of the series that makes a difference to the reader, more than if book five is better than book four.

But the real prejudice to me comes out in literary fiction that plays with genre, in a way, breaking the rules but still usurping the form. I think this is called genre-bending, or at least that’s what I call it.

Adding a crime and its detection, doesn’t seem to affect the status of lit fiction at all, especially if you focus on the psychological underpinnings. Adding sf elements sends a novel into the realm of the speculative, with numerous people arguing over which case it goes in, but young writers have done much to elevate this technique. Plus you always have 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to fall back on.

There are unwritten rules for literary fiction too. Read Michael Chabon’s essay on the elements of the modern short story in his Maps and Legends, now out in paperback.

Steve Hely touches on these structural conventions, both for commercial and literary novelists, in his upcoming novel How I Became a Famous Novelist, the advance copy of which is making the rounds of my booksellers (and somehow veered into the Starbucks next door). I’m not writing about it more, as it’s not out for two months, Jason would suggest you have us call you when it comes in.

But romance? Romance is the prissiest of genres. Writers should wash their hands of it. It’s most tarnished by the factory assembly lines of Harlequin and Silhouette, for many years, the same company, different lines. And I’m not sharing in the trashing. Not only do their series serve a purpose, but it’s my thesis that great works are possible within very strict structural requirements. Isn’t that a basic writing school exercise?

Who’s going to write about that? And who’s not going to be tarnished by a literary writer playing with the genre, unless they ultimate give it wide birth and show their disdain. That’s the problem with today’s review in the Journal Sentinel for Laura Rider’s Masterpiece. (OK, there’s another problem: it didn’t mention our event on May 6th).

I’ve had several good reads on the book, all of them from women staffers. One friend came into the shop, telling me she was afraid to read Hamilton’s new book, because, well, she didn’t really like When Madeline was Young. It turns out she loved it and bought another copy for a friend. I think you have to go into Laura Rider’s Masterpiece with the understanding that this is a book that can’t be rushed through for deadline, event though it reads very quickly. There’s a lot of structural and thematic playfulness that needs some time to savor.

It’s a story that defies expectations of who Jane Hamilton is, and that’s always a tough thing for any writer, genre or literary. Think of all the mystery writers like Martha Grimes, who tired of writing bestselling mysteries and wrote a string of novels. Even when she returned to the genre, her sales never returned to former levels. Every writer who makes his or her mark with dark drama eventually wants to write a comedy. It almost always comes off as a blot on their bibliography.

This is not a rebuttal to Fischer’s review. Not to be sexist but if I were you, I’d probably go to a woman for a critique on this book before making a decision. I’ve had a number of reads on this book and I just don’t think he got it.
Jane Hamilton will be appearing at Boswell Book Company on Wednesday, May 6th, at 7 PM, as part of our grand opening week.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

We Had Several Visitors this Week.

It's another week at the store and things are making progress. We still don't have a sign outside--this is a great source of anxiety for me and I hope to write about it when I make a decision. It's something I know I won't really be able to change for many years, and I don't want to live with something I don't like.

That said, we had our best day ever yesterday. Saturday followed up the worst of our three Fridays to date so things kind of balanced out. But I was starting to get crabby when folks asked me how things were going, and I'm hoping that I have a better reaction to the question this week.

We had some visitors this week. Our first event was on Monday. Joshua Beckman, poet and editor at Wave Books read with locals Drew Blanchard and Derrick Harriell. You can ead more about it on the Boswellians. We had a nice turnout of 27 people, which I hear is quite respectable for a poetry event. This is actually a picture of Sarah introducing the event. The authors are sitting front row right.

On Saturday, our second poetry event also had about 25 people. It was a visit from Roya Hakakian, author of the memoir Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iraq. If nothing else, sit down when you're next in a bookstore and read the part about when her Jewish Day School's principal is replaced by a Muslim, whose goal is to get the students to convert. Hakakian tries to recreate one of her daily lectures, and the results are quite amusing.

Because she was on a whirlwind tour of Milwaukee (I think the folks who brought her in at Alverno College and the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning had her do six events), we asked if she do something different and read a bit of her Farsi poetry. Following that, three locals also recited poems, one in English and two in the original tongue. Much as I enjoyed the rest of the evening, this was perhaps the highlight for me. Both readers (not readers really, they had memorized the work) were passionate and brought the work to life. I got a little teary at one point. (This might have been tears of fear with me wondering "What am I doing here?" but I think the rhetorical question was asked in a good way.)

As an owner, perhaps I am better in the past at saying, "Buy the book, buy the book" than I used to be, though I can't say I have been bad at it over the last few years. But we did sell 4 copies of Hakakian's poetry book in Farsi; that has got to be a first for any bookstore where I've worked. Zohreh, my contact, was wonderfully gracious and bought Mudbound at my recommendation (oh, and her friend she was with was also encouraging).

Our last visitor this week was ABA president Avin Domnitz, who was in town for family. It was great to see him and Rita, and I was glad to get his benediction. Paint good, lower fixtures, good. We discuss this a lot with customers. There's no question that the store doesn't only look brighter, it looks bigger.

Avin is a straightforward guy but he also has tact. I'm not sure how I would have reacted if he had a lot of negative things to say. Because it's a work in progress, I alternately bristle (on bad days) and chirp "I'm totally on the same page" (on good days) with customer suggestions that I agree with, depending on how positive I am that this change is actually going to happen.

For now, I have to remind myself (and my fellow booksellers) that we can only do one (ok, four) things at a time. We've got to prioritize and we can't always be perfectionists. We can always go back and change section placement, or book assignments, or procedures later. Oh, except for the outdoor signage. That I have to get right, which is why it isn't done, and this delay is not preventing me from still messing it up big time.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Our First Shoplifted Title, A Follow Up

Dr. Ian K. Smith called to ask me about the shoplifting incident that happened over the weekend involving his book The Four Day Diet. He offered to get the thief in question a copy of the book.

"No need," I replied (and this is paraphrased), "She still has the copy she stole."

"Oh, so you didn't catch her," which is effectively what the very kind Dr. Smith said in reply.

And I know this is setting me up to be the biggest mark in Milwaukee with this statement but the thought that immediately came to mind in response was, "Me? Catch somebody? Are you kidding?" Fortunately I did hire Amie, who is very good at catching people. Shoplifters beware! (Note to shoplifters: she's off on Fridays).

Also note that I have made it clearer in the posting that the woman took the book but left behind the dust jacket. Shown right is the couch in question.

Our First Shoplifted Title; Where's the Greeting Card Section for That?

Congrats, Ian. You are now the first officially shoplifted title from the Boswell Book Company. I'm sure there were others, but none have been so blatant.

Several days ago a middle-aged female customer came in and asked us if we had The Four Day Diet, from Ian K. Smith. Gracious and poised, she sat down in one of our chairs to take a look at it. About two hours later, we found the dust jacket stuffed into the cushion of the chair. And a fine welcome to the neighborhood to you too!

(Note to all fans of Dr. Smith. This is no reflection on the author or his other fans. All kinds of books get stolen.)

Shoplifting and theft is an issue I've been thinking out since the store opened. Well no, I've been thinking about it for years. How do you balance a comfortable space with one that doesn't become an easy target?

We gave up the nooks and crannies of the classic bookshop for a more open feel. We've positioned our bookcases for better sightlines. But there are still things to be done. My friends at other bookstores have mirrors, and cameras, and security tags. And of course, every bookseller talks about the importance of regular greeting and acknowlegement.

But that's not going to stop that person who looks you in the eye, says thank you, and then slaps you in the face.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

You + Us = Bookstore, a Concept Further Explored

Recently I had a great conversation with a couple who came into Boswell Book Company to wander around. Both readers and neighborhood supporters, they found themselves still drawn to the Bayshore Barnes and Noble. Why? Because our science fiction and fantasy section was not up to the level of what they were looking for.

This is a common issue in many indies. Read this wonderful piece about Brookline Booksmith in the Boston Globe. They recently lost a nearby competitor when B&N closed, and one of the sections they are attempting to beef up is sf/fantasy. Thanks to several friends and relatives who forwarded me this article, both in hard copy and via email, especially my mom!

So they asked what our plans were, and I told them we do have plans to make it a better section (not necessarily that much bigger--we are a third of their size, after all) and I sent him over to Jason, who knows more about the genre in his pinky than I do altogether.

(An aside, do you now check spelling by seeing which variation has more Google hits? My nephew taught me this trick. So I didn't spell the word "pinkie" as a result. But on the other hand, it shows you how many words are spelled incorrectly on the internet. I'm sure you're shocked.)

Regarding this couple, they never came in and spoke up before because well, they didn't think we'd listen. I'm not really sure what the answer was before, but I'm trying to listen now. I can't do everything folks suggest because:

1. I have limited cash
2. Many suggests contradict other suggestions
3. I just don't always want to. But see the "storage" option that follows.

Sometimes I know that I'm going to make decisions that people don't like. Most folks really like the lighter paint color in the new store, but at least one of my favorite customers told me he preferred the old burnt sienna. Many people tell me how much they enjoy new and second-hand books integrated (a book is a book is a book) but I know there are people who do not, some of whom won't shop my store as a result. (Most toddlers, however, seem very happy with the decision--see photo).

I can't do both, and I've decided this new/used hybrid format positions us best for the future. But hey, I'm always willing to say I made a mistake. If it doesn't work, we'll try something else.

We're not going to open another location in the near future, and unless we can negotiate a better discount with the supplier (it dropped dramatically about a month before Schwartz closed), we're not going to be able to carry foreign magazines and newspapers. I'm not doing food service--you drank my lattes back in 1996 when I managed the Mequon Schwartz and you were not pleased. Well, I actually did have a few regulars but they were obviously desperate.

Another customer came in and pretty much wanted me to recreate the old Oriental Drugs on Farwell and North. That was a new one! Up till now, all I'd been asked for was a new version of the Shorewood Schwartz cafe.

Oriental Drugs, Oriental Drugs. Who wouldn't want to recreate that? Now I read an article that said the number of independent drugstores was inching up again due to young idealists involved in shop-local movements. Not that I've seen one sprout up anywhere I've been, but still. We do already have a CVS on the next block, but I don't mind someone competing with them; they don't even belong to the Downer Avenue Merchants Association.

But on the other hand, I really love Hayeks on Downer and Capitol. Why can't people go there? Oh, and one other thing; I don't have the money.

And another thing, I do pay attention to whether you buy a book after you talk to me. If you don't make an attempt to shop with at my store, your great ideas are put in my markdown bin. Sometimes people forget I'm a for-profit merchant, paying employees, taxes, and the products I sell.

The truth is that if I don't listen to suggestions, I'll miss out on the good ones as well as the bad ones. And I can always store some ideas for later.

When a second couple came in several days later and we had almost the exact came conversation about science fiction (voracious readers that wanted to shop Downer Avenue merchants but wound up going elsewhere because of our mediocre sf section), we knew this was something we needed to at least try. By the way, the one topic common to both conversations? The Gathering Storm, the unfinished manuscript from the late Robert Jordan. This is not the final jacket.

Final note: it turns out the dunking of my skin in hard-coat enamel (as described in our recent email newsletter) was not entirely successful. I do sometimes get defensive. Here's how to handle this: 1) Roll your eyes in an exaggerated fashion. 2) Say to anyone nearby, "Oh, that Daniel!" 3) Sit down and read a magazine (first shipment came last Thursday, with more to come this week.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Our First Email Newsletter Went Out on Tuesday and I'm Posting Most of it Right Here, Even Though That's not Really Correct Blog-i-quette.

They said it would never be done. I said it would never be done. It may never happen again. But on Tuesday, I sent out our first email newsletter. At Schwartz, we used to archive it on our website. Constant Contact has a function to archive newsletters as well. However, I was thinking of using the system to send sort of non-public emails, to staff, media, publicists, and those don't really make sense to be publicly archived. The short answer, is that I can't like you to the email right now. I can, however, print a bit of it.

You want poetry events? You've Got Poetry Events!
Monday, April 20th, 7 PM. Acclaimed poet and Wave Books editor Joshua Beckman reads from his new collection, Take It. Also appearing are local faves Derrick Harriell and Drew Blanchard.

Saturday, April 25th, 7 PM. A taste of a traditional Persian poetry night features several poems in English and Farsi. That's just a warmup for Roya Hakakian, acclaimed poet and author of the memoir Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iraq. (Hakakian is coming to Milwaukee through the sponsorship of Alverno College and the Wisconsin Society of Jewish Learning.)

Wednesday, April 29th, 5-7 PM. It's a pre-screening reception for the 2nd annual Poetry Everywhere collection of short animated films. It's also a shopping night for this worthy project. Ask for 10% of your sales to benefit the cause. Then head to the Downer Theater at 7 PM for the show. For more info, contact Christi Clancy.

We Just Couldn't Wait More Pre-opening Events
Sunday, April 26th, 11 AM-6 PM. It's a shopping day for SEED, the organization that helps Shorewood public schools. For more information contact Kathy at Fireball Communications.

Tuesday, April 28th, 7 PM. Acclaimed feminst Gerda Lerner appears for her new collection of essays, Living with History/Making Social Change, where she looks at how she transformed the history profession and established the women's studies as a mainstream field. Can't make this event? Lerner will be appearing at UWM Bookstore on Wednesday, April 29th. Contact Erik Hemming at UWM for more info

Grand Opening Preview
Our Upcoming Events. (More to come in our next email, when we hope our web site is up and running!)Wednesday, May 6th, 7 PM Wisconsin's own Jane Hamilton talks about and reads from her new novel, Laura Rider's Masterpiece.

Thursday, May 7th, 7 PM. The best of the undergraduate writers, hand-picked by C. J. Hribal and Liam Callanan. Come cheer your favorite at Boswell's first fiction smackdown.

Friday, May 8th, 7 PM. The big day, featuring Elinor Lipman appearing for The Family Man, Anita Shreve for the paperback of Testimony, and Mameve Medwed for Of Men and Their Mothers. It's Best Buddies Night--the authors are not just friends of Boswell, they're pals with each other. Bring your own best buddy. And here's my favorite part--all three authors will be guest booksellers on Friday afternoon, recommending their favorite books to all comers.

Saturday, May 9th, 2 PM. It's our talk and scavenger hunt featuring Dwellephant and Friends. It's all a celebration for the publication of Dwellephant's illustrations for the new and wonderful kids' graphic novel Missing the Boat, written by Wayne Chinsang and Justin Shady. Even I'm not quite sure how this is going to work, but five minutes with Dwellephant (you know his illustrations from WMSE, Alverno Presents, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, plus his exhibit at Hot Pop) and I was hooked!

Our In-Store Book Clubs, Mark Your Calendars
Tuesday, April 21st, 7 PM. The Shorewood Schwartz Mystery Book Group has moved to Boswell Book Company on Downer Avenue. This month they're reading Agatha-Award-winner Rhys Bowen's Murphy's Law. Contact Anne for more information.

Monday, May 4th, 7 PM. Yes, I'm trying to start an in-store book club. Why not? The first selection of the First Monday book club is Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor. All you folks who loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog have got to try this. Here's a rave from Jim Higgins in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Contact DG for more info.

I'm not going to copy my email newsletter into my blog every week (or as often as we send it out). That's not what a blog is. So really what you should do is sign up. For now, the best way is to send an email to and put "newsletter" in the heading. I've got about 600 subscribers, but I think I need more than that to get the word out.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

More on Memory--Arthur Phillips, "The Song is You", Music, and Reading

I have suddenly discovered the joy of the prelude. It happened in Zoe Heller's The Believers, with that first 20 pages about young, wonderful Audrey, leaping 40 years ahead to terrible, totally unpleasant Audrey and compelling me to read the entire book to figure out what happened to her.

It happened again in Arthur Phillips' new novel, The Song is You. It starts with a memory of a young soldier, a Billie Holliday concert, and how it shapes his entire life. Phillips totally captures the experience of a song in this memory, pushing the exact buttons in your brain so that you want to read the piece over and over.

It sets the tone, but it's not the story. The Song is You is about the son, filmmaker-turned-advertising-director Julian Donahue, Brooklynite estranged from his wife Rachel, who comes across this young Irish rocker chick singing at a bar.

The story jumps back and forth between Julian and Cait the musician. One star's is on the rise, and one has crested. Julian's got unfinished business with Rachel and with his brother Aidan as well. The story jumps in and out of memory, touched off by music, and these memories and what they do to us appear in the form of an aging rocker turned painter, once Julian's idol, and now rival for Cait's perhaps real, perhaps imaginary affections.

How does Phillips do it? How does he get my brain pulsing the way music did for much of my life? It doesn't hurt that he's hidden references to so many of the artists I've loved over the years, from the could-be-hip Blow Monkeys to the on-the-fence unhip ones like Swing out Sister. (Just an aside here, there was a lot more to this band than "Breakout." Their faux jazz stylings, a popular trend in the UK circa 1984, turned into a half dozen authentic and pure albums that riffed on 40 years of music.) Oh, and their new album, Beautiful Mess, is coming out soon.

I don't much listen to music now (the switch got turned off when I turned 40--it still galls me) but the music of my past still pushes all the right buttons, just the way I'm sure it does for you. That's one of the things I love about The Song is You. He pushes the buttons as a novel, and also as music, and that's something. I'm not a critic, but a bookseller, but I hope this gives you an idea about the power of this novel. For more, check out the New York Times rave in the Book Review.

Just about every writer who likes music has to write a music novel. It might be a satire of the industry, like Jonathan Lethem's You Don't Love me Yet, or it might be a memoir, like the incredibly popular Love is a Mix Tape. It could incorporate music into its soul but not be about music, like Adam Langer's divine Crossing California, or it might be about the industry itself, like Jennifer Trynin's Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be. If I had had a blog at the time these books came out, I would have posted on all of them, but time has past, I just have memories, and they just appear now as lists, much like the lists of music I exhaustively kept for 25 years.

Yes, when our sales rep Alex finished an early manuscript of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity many years ago, he called me up (no computers) and said, "I've just read a book and it's sort of about you." Most people who know me now can't believe it. Oh, and it wasn't. I was never so cool--my music interest was awkwardly nerdly in a way that could never be misconstrued as hip nerdly.

So here's my Phillips' memory. I read his first novel, Prague, loved it, sold it, went to his event at the Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue. I had chatted with him at something or other, was it the event, was it publisher lunch? I have no idea. Note to Jason, we have to bring in a few copies of Prague as it turns out I'm still thinking about the book, one of the best novels I've read about youth abroad as I've read. OK, I might also suggest Daphne Beal's In the Land of No Right Angles.

The next book comes out, The Egyptologist. I don't read it. I don't know why--there are other books I'm under deadline with, I have a personal crisis, the cover rubs me the wrong way, I'm a lazy oaf who spent the available time watching sit-com reruns. None of these reasons are true and none of them are false. The memory isn't there any more; it's filed in a place I can't reach it.

I don't show up at the event. I'm younger and I haven't perfected the art of fudging a read. (I read a lot but I can't read everything and for some authors, that is a crappy excuse). He tells Dan to ask me why I wasn't there. OK, that means I must hide from him forever.

But writing a blog means you can't hide forever. Oh, and owning a bookstore too. They can all find you eventually (except for Tuesdays, when I'm officially off). So this is for you Mr. Phillips--I know my life is worse for not having read The Egyptologist or Angelica. But it's much, much better for reading The Song is You, and for that I offer thanks.

Oh, and we're closed for Easter, at least for this year.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Team C.O.T. Celebrates "City of Thieves" in Paperback, Launches Next Initiative

In a blast from our past, Penguin Los Angeles-based sales rep Tom Benton detoured from a family gathering in Chicago up to Milwaukee to visit Boswell Book Company. Tom was an early champion of David Benioff's City of Thieves, and if you keep track of old Schwartz newsletters, so were we. In the end, the Schwartz stores did sell over 100 copies of the book in hardcover, but I learned from Tom that the wonderful Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colorado, sold over 400!

City of Thieves is now out in paperback and my dream is to sell tons. We have at least four booksellers who loved the book and I promise you this will not be my last post on this book. But just in case you're browsing randomly and came upon this entry, it's about two Russian young men during the siege of Leningrad on a wild chase to find a dozen eggs for a wedding, with execution in the cards if they don't succeed. It's dark and funny, working as a straight-ahead thriller and a stylized modern story. This is off the top of my head; wait till I practice better. I want to be one of those stores that sells 500 copies of something; why can't it be Benioff's novel?

Benton sat me down to chide me for not having more than one copy of Kathryn Stockett's The Help. it's the first released from the boutique imprint from Amy Einhorn, a lovely editor previously at Hachette who ran the Five Star program and also shares my mom's name (no relation to our knowledge). The Help is the easiest book ever to hand-sell, says Benton, a story of 1962 Mississippi with echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since it is actually fabulous, we don't have to worry about steering anybody wrong. The reorder went in immediately.

What we're really gearing up for, however, is Ron Currie, Jr.'s Everything Matters, coming in July. He is over-the-moon about it, and the publicist Shannon at Viking/Penguin was already talking it up as well. It bodes well for us, because Schwartz in general, and the Downer location in particular, actually did pretty well with Currie's previous God is Dead, and that book was relatively quiet.

All in all, a lovely if short trip for Tom. First a pop in at Franklin's Chocolate, then lunch at TLC Soup, a short detour to buy lightbulbs at BBC Lighting, a coffee picked up at the lakefront Alterra. Yes, we've got a local source with national reach that's very competitive pricewise. If Tom had had more time in Milwaukee, I would have made him tour the fascinating showroom. Plus they have excellent initials.

Oh, and did I mention that Tom is Publishers Weekly rep of the year? I would link to the story, but I don't think it's been published. I know my friends at Tattered Cover, Vroman's, Boulder, Skylight and Book Soup are all huge fans. Congrats to Tom, my fellow member of Team C.O.T.

Yes, it galls me too that I'm not yet linking books to our web site. I promise we'll have something up very soon.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Memory and the Sales Floor

There's a certain kind of memory for books and a slightly different kind for people. That's my dilemma as I spend more and more time on the sales floor at Boswell's. I've always had problems with names and faces, and that problem has gotten worse as I've aged. I've always been pretty good at pulling books out of my head, though I find myself becoming more dependent on computers for this as I age.

In my new role, it's really important for me to remember as many people as possible. As you've already heard me say countless times, all we've got to set us apart is our knowledge, our relationships, and the store experience. I warn each person I talk to that I'm terrible with names, but in the past this didn't come up as much as I sat and bought in my buying cave. Now every day there's someone I know, but due to brain malfunction, I sometimes come up with...nothing. Other times, the memory kicks in about halfway through the conversation. Go memory, go!

So I'm working this week and a familiar woman comes in and we start chatting. I say, "I know you from somewhere" and it turns out that no, I know Polly in 17 different ways and she knows every person I know in Milwaukee. She's co-worker of one old friend, ex-landlord of another (both fellow booksellers at one time), campaign manager of another friend, I am more embarrassed by the second! Sad too, because I like her very much and wonder why I don't know her better.

Then another man comes in, they're friends, we talk, and when my brain yet again doesn't function, it turns out we've also met many times before and Michael is married to my friend Jennifer. My embarrassment knowns no boundaries. Then I run into Nick. Since he was a customer from 20 years ago when I worked on the floor of the Iron Block store downtown, I did remember him. He runs the Inova Gallery at UWM. Here's a current exhibit.
I've turned into that person who you've met several times but never seems to know you. I've become that guy! Me! Ick. I can't speak for everyone else who seems to snub you, but I promise I'm not doing it on purpose. I can only blame the old hardware.

To make sure I never forget Polly and Michael again, I've posted their picture here. Michael's in town to possibly work on an upcoming Milwaukee Art Museum project with the Chipstone foundation. Polly seems to do 300 things connected to UWM six blocks away.

In part, I blame files that are overloaded. On April 3rd's On the Media, Brooke Gladstone complained about wanting to get rid of the theme from the Patty Duke show to Gary Small, the author of iBrain. This was about how Google was affecting our brain. "I don't really need that anymore." My thoughts exactly! Only I like remembering the song. That's my problem; I want it all. But there's plenty of other things I wouldn't mind deleting.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hey, I'm Less Than a Week into this Thing and I'm Already in a Feud


My posting on our ex-Downer Avenue Schwartz blog, acknowledging that the new bookstore is no longer connected to the Inside Flap and has a new blog, The Boswellians:

My ex-coworker Jay Johnson's rebuttal that the blog will live on:

More power to you, Jay. I wish you the best.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Our Story So Far

It's been three days of the soft opening of Boswell Book Company and we're learning quickly what needs to be done.

1. Our hours need to be posted online. Since we're having trouble getting our web site up and running, I'll post it here. In my defense, we've done our application, but we have to wait until our training from the ABA (American Booksellers Association) on April 13th.

Monday through Saturday, opening at 10 AM and closing at 9 PM
Sunday, opening at 11 AM and closing at 6 PM.

We will stay open later for certain events and open earlier by appointment.

2. I am naturally averse to spending money. When I see something I like that costs more than a dollar and isn't an amazing deal, I have to process before I spend. I look at the item, leave the store, make sure I want it, and then come back and buy it. There are many good aspects to this personality tic, particularly in a business that is not exactly bleeding profit.

However, it does mean I put off making money decisions. Amie has been keeping me informed daily regarding exactly how much we've spent on everything. As an LLC, the store's money is my money, and we've just:

a. purchased the business
b. split the cost on an inventory
c. painted the store
d. paid a lot of fees to lawyers (Totally fair and reasonable, I couldn't be happier about how that went. No lawyer bashing in this post.)
e. and to our bank
f. and cleaned our carpet.
g. and bought gift cards and bags
h. and looked at the credit card fees as I set us up for processing
i. and really, really, really came to terms with payroll (worth every penny)

And I needed just a little break before I went through the rest of my cash. I feel like walking around with my pants pockets inside out with a horn player following behind me playing "Wah, wah."

That said, I have to get cracking on our outside signage. My mourning period for the wonderful Mackenzie, who was giving me signage advice, and was recently laid off, has to be over. I promise to start contacting people for quotes today. For now, I think we're only going to do the flat letters on the front of the store. I think we're doing white instead of gold (not enough contrast on the latter, which is what Schwartz used) and I'm leaning towards a Courier typeface.

3. It took a long time to get our Master Card and Visa up. We should be able to take American Express sometime today (Monday). I know a lot of stores still don't take Amex and historically, I understand the feeling. Standard fee is about 3% back to them plus a 10 cent fee, plus there is money to your processsor too. However, it turns out the traditional 2% for small retailers (yes, gas stations and supermarkets and mass merchants pay less) is for the classic bank card, which you hardly see anymore. Branded cards are usually a half a point higer, and corporate cards approximate the Amex fee. As a merchant, you can't distinguish between which Visa and MasterCard cards you take, so why not take the Amex too?

Here's a getting-ready picture we recently sent to the trade. Mark is not in the picture (working at the Better Business Bureau) but from clockwise back row left, we've got Sharon, Anne, Jason, myself, Pam, Amie, Melissa, Beverly, Brian, Sarah, Carl, and special-guest-star Elly.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Today's Boswellian Links

Yesterday was the last day for the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Shorewood and Brookfield. Here is WISN's report on the closing.

Linda Olsson reports in about her time in Milwaukee on Beattie's Book Blog, New Zealand's finest. If you like the ups and downs of book tours in general, the other city postings might be to your interest.

Here's an article on the transition to Boswell Book Company from the online magazine Suite 101. Ms Eirschele is a long-time fan of our Brookfield location, recently decamped to central Ohio.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I Receive Offical Consumer Product Survey, and That is as Unexpected as the New Novel "A Reliable Wife."

Recently we received a survey from the Official Consumer Product Survey of America. Inside was a letter that promised riches of up to $2500 if we just took 15 minutes to fill out a four-page survey. I suspiciously read the following:

“Once in a while we carefully select individuals in your community—those whom we feel represent the smartest, most value conscious shoppers. Then we use some of our research budget (I’m suspecting the estimated cost was 50 cents, including presort postage) to find out exactly what these smart shoppers really want.”

Oddly enough, for all their research, the envelope was addressed to “the Main Grocery Shopper” at our address. Perhaps this is used to get us on some direct mail marketing lists. I don’t think these folks read the book that I recently finished, Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy. Were it the case, they'd ditch direct mailings for MRI machines, and slice up our brains to evaluate stimuli. But that's for another posting, alas.

What I found interesting about the survey is that my survey would have had me constantly checking “other.” My preferred brand of stain remover was not listed (I swear by Tech from Madison; you can get it at Downer Hardware), and we don’t use an air freshener. It turns out my hobbies include neither “cigar smoking” nor “sweepstakes and lotteries.”

This was all fun, but it was the reading question that really got my attention. “What types of books or magazines do your household members read?” Here were the options:
--Best selling fiction
--Bible or devotional
--Cooking or culinary
--Country lifestyle
--Interior decorating
--Medical or health
--Natural health remedies
--People or entertainment
--Science or technology
--World new or politics
--Science Fiction

In this particular case, unlike “Nighttime Sleeplessness Aids”, there wasn’t even an “Other” option.

Where did this list come from? Who is this target person? Astrology but no spirituality? Computer books? Fashion books? In what decade was this survey written? There’s no self-help or psychology? The only history acceptable is military?

For me, however, the strangest thing was that there was no box to check for fiction that was neither best-selling, nor genre. What terrible mistake led “Laura David” at Shopper’s Voice to send me this survey?

I think of this as I contemplate the joys of the new novel by Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife. Set in small-town Wisconsin, Ralph Truitt places an ad for such a woman, and the one he’s chosen, Catherine Land, arrives by train, with a plan to slowly poison him. She, it seems, is not all she appears to be, but neither is he—both have ulterior motives.

Aside from being 1907, this could have been one of the houses that received this survey, and this house would also have been totally inappropriate. Goolrick cleverly shifts our expectations as secrets are revealed, twisting our allegiances, and questioning our judgments of good and evil.

The story is intense and wonderful and unexpected. Do I have quibbles? Yes, despite my cowardly nature, the stern prose demanded a story that was a bit more violent, and I questioned why several female characters popped up and disappeared in Catherine’s history: Alice, Hattie, India... If you read A Reliable Wife, you can argue with me over why this is the case; perhaps it was structurally appropriate.

My point here is really this—what box was I supposed to check here? For most people in the world apparently, a book like this isn’t even an option. I guess it could become a bestseller. Maybe if Oprah took a shine to it. She’s been drawn to small-town Wisconsin stories before, most notably The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Drowning Ruth, and the novels of Jane Hamilton. (Please mark on your calendar that Ms. Hamilton is reading at Boswell on Wednesday, May 6th, as part of our grand opening. She's reading from and talking about her new novel, Laura Rider's Masterpiece. Expect me to gush about that further in future postings.

The odds of this happening would be unlikely, but for one twist--A Reliable Wife is the #1 Indie Next pick for April. So we indie booksellers are working hard to bump this novel into the "bestseller" category.

But say we don't. And what about all the other titles that some of us love but don't fall into easy slottings? For you, the independent readers of the world, this is your secret prize, the category printed in invisible ink.