Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Little Note on Greeting Cards, Part One

One of the things I decided to take on in the new job is buying cards, together with my bookseller Anne. Before I left Schwartz, our then buyer Catherine emphasized a sage piece of advice: "See if you can do it without a racker."

A racker is when the retailer contracts out to the card company to fill the racks. Hallmark likely racks the Walgreens in your neighborhood, Carlton Cards probably takes care of the Target, and Sunrise is most likely handling the Barnes and Noble that you frequent..."Just for that magazine you don't carry, Dan!"

Over the years, Schwartz used rackers for things like maps (not much of a business left there for us) and Cliff's Notes (and even less there). In other words, things you thought you could sell that you didn't care about messing with yourself. In both cases, I eventually cancelled the programs because we were oversaturated with product. If you're a big company, they may rack you on consignment, but not the small guy--you generally pay up front.

But it turns out that we like cards very much, and it's much more interesting to find cards you like. We're using about a dozen companies, leaving out the key lines that our friend Lynn at Paperwork carries (including some of the best lines like Caspari and Great Arrow). This gives us a very different selection.

I'm not giving much away here because you'd figure it out in a minute if you came to our store, but I'd say our core line is Madison Park. It's either because it's a pretty broad line and several of us like the cards a lot, they turn quickly, no one close to us carries them aggressively, or perhaps because several years ago I went to Seattle and my coworker Sarah's sister gave me a tour of their offices and warehouse. It was very fun and I feel connected somehow.
We find cards in lots of different ways. We have sales reps, just like for books. It's the easiest way to learn about product; the downside is that sometimes the lines will be in too many nearby shops. I picked up a few lines at the Chicago gift show from a rep that has the Milwaukee territory but doesnn't make it up here much. When I travel, I look for interesting lines, buy a card, and try to bring it in for our store.

I thought the card was dead; I have sent my share of ecards myself. I'm finding that like many other things, it's an age thing. Then there are certain types of cards ("sympathy" for sure, also "thank you") where an ecard doesn't show enough effort. The birch tree card at left has proven to be quite popular as a sympathy card--something different from the flower and the sunset, I guess. And finally, when you're buying a gift, it makes sense to have the card with it, as opposed to coming separately via email. And finally, if you subscribe to an email service, you run out of good options pretty quickly.

So card sales turn out to be tracking okay, not quite what we were doing before percentagewise, but hardly plummetting. We're getting our fair share of compliments and nary a complaint. For some reason, a few of us get a real thrill when someone comes up with a pile of them to buy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

NPR's Discover Songs Program. We've Got Everything but the Explanation

Jason is very excited about the NPR "Discover Songs" program, distributed to us through Baker and Taylor. Every six weeks, we'll get new CD's that will be promoted on NPR.

The September selection consists of:

Playing for Change sampler
Pete Seeger at 89
Mindy Smith, Stupid Love
Levon Helm, Electric Dirt
Christopher O'Riley, Out of my Hands
Tim Buckley, Live at the Folklore Center.

Now our only problem is that the sign they gave us on a pdf doesn't fit in the signholder. After sending them this photo, someone realized I was trying to stuff the sell sheet into the slot for the header sign. Another one is on its way--hurray!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Coming into an Author's Oeuvre Late, or What to Make of Richard Powers' "Generosity"

So I was off to Chicago for a trade show (yes, this happened a while ago) and I decide what I need is a book set in Chicago. So I pick up Richard Powers' Generosity and give it a go. Many books into his writing career, I'm late to the party. I'll never catch up, and I'll never be a fan the way the folks who discovered him back when did. My ex-coworker Jack was handselling Powers at Schwartz back with his first novel, Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance twenty years ago. Am I that old? Yes I am. End stream of consciousness here.

Sometimes just reading one book by the author can give you insight into his or her entire output. OK, that works a little better with Danielle Steel (I read Fine Things, since it was set in a department store) but most writers do have a certain style and care about overarching themes.

Generosity is from the perspective of a not-very-successful writing instructor. He realizes that in his class is someone who may have a condition known as hyperthymia--she's just pretty much always joyful, despite being an Algerian refugee who's been through the playbook on suffering. The story jumps back and forth between these two (and the guidance counselor who gets involved with both of them) and an futurist-industrialist who's looking for just this sort of breakthrough. Some chance revelations to the media spins the story out of control for all the characters. It's the kind of book that makes the mind spin; the future's just a bit closer and it balances on the precipice of dream and nightmare. I really enjoyed reading it, but it also made me nervous.

But without knowing too much, I wonder how Powers' works connect. Do they always have that meta quality? In Generosity's case, the author reassures us he's telling a story, despite the whole thing being ripped from today's headlines. Would the hordes of readers who jumped on the Powers bandwagon with the last NBA-winning Echo Maker happily go back into his collected work?

So I look back to his other books for clues:

Three Farmers...(1985)--Two plots spinning off the World War I-era photo. One of them involves a computer scientist.

Prisoner's Dilemma--A son recounts his father's mental decline

The Gold Bug Variations--An affair between two scientists intent on modeling DNA.

Operation Wandering Soul--A ward of refugee children, an overworked doctor.

Galatea 2.0--A neurologist teaches a model of a human brain English literature.

Gain--I always seem to think this is a historical novel about Procter and Gamble (of course it isn't it's set in Illinois), and as almost always, there's another parallel story about a woman with cancer.

Plowing the Dark--This novel is about research into virtual reality, and there's another story about a hostage. Get it? Both sort of contained in nothingness.

The Time of Our Singing--A white physician marries a black singer, and the kids sort of follow in their parents paths, sort of. OK, I had trouble figuring out exactly what the boys did from the reviews, but the daughter because a militant activist.

Echo Maker--Man has traumatic head injury. Thinks his sister is an impostor.

Heart and mind? Heart vs. mind? Science (one hand) and the effect on us (the other).

My idea. I'm going to try to suggest Powers to anyone browsing intently in our SCG (that's cognitive science) section and see if I successfully make a convert. I probably won't let them read Gain first. We'll see how it goes.

(Richard Powers' Generosity goes on sale tomorrow, September 29th).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Painting Some Ugly White Bookcases

As you may know, when we transitioned from Harry W. Schwartz to Boswell Book Company, we got rid of our tall center-of-the-store cases. They were too heavy to move out of the way for events, and they blocked some key store sitelines. It was great that we were able to negotiate for some lower bookcases that previously graced Schwartz Bookshops in Shorewood and Bay View (Thank you again, Carol and Rebecca.)

We also came into possession of three white pressboard cases. They also have wheels, which is a positive. But their white color is glaring, and it's always been our game plan to paint them before they came out on the floor again.

Amie and I bought some spray paint on sale at Downer Hardware, a shade of green that is not too dissimilar from our greenish-gray doors (which match the darker green of the pipes and the lighter greenish-cream of our walls). Bookseller Jocelyn agreed to take on the challenge.

Here's what we learned. Those cases eat paint; we have used many, many cans, and Jocelyn has not even completed the first case. Considering the cases are flat surface, we should have used traditional paint. It turns out the other cases may be in complimentary colors instead of matching.

Another lesson for the future.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Checking in with ex-Milwaukeean Ben Percy on the "Refresh, Refresh" Graphic Novel

Former Milwaukeean (he taught at Marquette) has published two short story collections. The second, Refresh, Refresh, won some awards, and the title story was featured in a recent volume of Best American Short Stories. It's the one edited by Ann Patchett, and if you used to subscribe to the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop email newsletter, you heard me go on about this in the past.

It's a wonderful collection, and we still sell it pretty well. In fact, we may be the only place you find his first collection, from Carnegie Mellon University Press.The Language of Elk. Last time I looked, we still had a copy.

So I'm reviewing the catalogs for fall and I come across a graphic novel version in the First Second catalog. I wasn't able to see the whole thing, but from what I looked at, it totally captured the book's feel. Then I learn that it's more connected to the book's screenplay than the story.

Screenplay? It's time to contact Ben. Fortunately I still have his email address.

Ben's Reply: RR has become a cottage industry. Next up: "Refresh, Refresh" the lunchbox.

The graphic novel is pretty badass. Especially the end, when she intoduces these nightmarish watercolors. PW said it was one of the most anticipated YA titles of the fall and First Second Books is saying that it's the best thing they've published, so I'm crossing my fingers, hoping it will make a big splash.

I enjoyed working with the artist so much, we're collaborating again on an illustrated book of dark fables.

The screenplay is solid. I helped edit it and the writer/director has received a lot of support from Sundance. It's in preproduction now and we're trying to raise the final chunk of money needed to begin filming. (Editor's note. If you'd like to give them a big chunk of money, I can connect you.)

Anyway. I'm certainly grateful that a short story - a form so regularly ignored - has made such an impact.

Hey, so are we! I'm still waiting to say "I knew you when" to somebody.

RR the graphic novel is out now, more or less. The lunchbox is still in preproduction.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Learning to Run a Kids Event, Yet Another Work in Progress

Last Saturday we hosted Laura Numeroff. Big author, right? If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and many, many other titles. Our turnout wasn't embarrassing, but it was disapointing. Ms. Numeroff did three stores in the market area, and we placed in the middle.

What did we learn? Timing is very complicated. 2 PM is nap time for a lot of kids. 11 AM starts closing in on lunch. At least one parent thought that 7 PM events would be fine, but isn't that getting close to bedtime for a lot of kids?

And what makes it more complicated of course is that just kids of different ages have different needs. So this makes our upcoming events all the more...interesting.

On Wednesday, September 30th, we're hosting Lisa Yee, author of Bobby Vs. Girls (Accidentally), and several more books for kids. When the event was originally set up, Scholastic told us that they were more interested in us doing school visits. Well, Pam set up two almost immediately. But it was my thought that we'd like to do some promotion with Yee, and we couldn't do that unless there was at least one event that was open to the public.

We're trying a 4 PM, after-school event. Among Yee's other popular books are:
Millicent Min, Girl Genius
Absolutely Emily Ebers
Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time
and the American Girl title Good Luck Ivy.

Both schools hosting Yee are reading her new book and the feedback from kids is great. If I were a better bookseller, I'd have quotes for you from little Edmund and Hilary. That's a good idea for next time.


Different issues come up with our event for Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and Front and Center (oh, and just to make things complicated, the totally not connected Princess Ben).

This is a really great teen series, that has resonated well with critics, booksellers, and kids. The story is set in Wisconsin (though the author lives in Pennsylvania, albeit still on a farm), so we're hoping to get some press on the titles.

Murdock is doing several events in the area, including one at Next Chapter and another at Books and Company in Oconomowoc. She normally doesn't do city stores; let's see if our appearance breaks the urban curse.

But how to have a successful event? How many teenagers read this blog? How many kids have friended us on Facebook? And our email newsletter? I don't think so. We're hoping some word of mouth helps. A blog posting like this might get us some extra hits from kids searching for Murdock-related happenings.

Perhaps one day we'll have some sort of teen board (How very classic department store!) like some of our other bookstore friends. Knowing what's involved in starting things up and keeping them going, I'm going to tell you it's not happening in the near future.

I'm nervous before every event, but these are out of my comfort zone. I'm hoping that a year from now, that statement won't be true.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Creating Never Ending Displays (and One That's Still in Disarray)

Having put up our kids Halloween display and found that books were selling, we decided to start our adult display. (Note: we are hanging some Bats at the Library but I have to buy some more fishing line for that")

Regarding the book-heaviness of the displays, the gift buyer (me) was a little panicky about marking down non-returnable holiday stuff and kept the seasonal merchandise at the minimum. Also, a few things I ordered on the late side sold out.

That said, we really like our monster rubber duckies and they give a little pop to the table. We sold out of our skull pens rather quickly.

We've got small window displays where we feature upcoming events and one big window. We took down our "win a free Dan Brown" display for the book's release and realized it was already time for Banned Book Week.
This year we ordered a poster from the ALA with a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird. Alas, folks didn't realize I was waiting for it and it went with various other promotional posters near Jason's desk. Panic, then Amie found it.

The window is not quite put together yet, but that's ok as Banned Book Week doesn't start until September 26th. Oh, and we've got construction starting in front of our store so traffic might be a bit less. The timing couldn't be better. We have 25 events going on in October.

I'm Ordering Supplies, and It Makes me Wish I had an Office Supply Department

Like most enlightened folks in the world, I want to and like to shop local. The thing that scares folks is that they think it's all or nothing. But it isn't. Our Milwaukee recommends increasing your percentage of local purchases. Read more about their philosophy here.

So for us, that means shopping Downer Avenue Hardware for more items. And using BBC Lighting for our bulbs. And using DPI Supply for some of our paper and toner. I'm usually hot on someone having a retail storefront too, so the first two get more points from me.

But I'm in a quandary when it comes to most office supplies. I'm afraid it's chain or catalog/web site. When I think back to the time when we had as many as four independent office supply stores to choose from downtown, and several more on the North Shore..sigh. I still head up to North Shore Office Supplies when I visit my friends at Next Chapter (here's a post on our friends when they were part of Schwartz, and most of the booksellers are still with Lanora), but it's pretty far away, and they've been moving away from the traditional supply business and building up other areas.

And for some things, I've been known to head to the UWM Bookstore. For now, it means I have to do some purchases at places that aren't the most PC.

Do you know of a great indie office supply store in the Milwaukee area? I've still seen them in other cities, albeit far fewer than before. But isn't it time for a resurgence? When the chains first opened, their selection was broad, now it's far-more often cheap private label stuff. Anyway, if you do have a find, let me know.

Catherine (our most-recent gift and sidelines buyer at Schwartz) had a similar interest in the product and even brought in cool file folders and the like. I just don't feel like I have the right way to display them. And I've already seen lots of knockoffs at the chain office supplies and mass merchandisers. This is how it is--five years ago I couldn't find anything interesting, and now everyone has the same idea. Or rather, one person has a good idea and everyone else knocks it off.

It's a tough business, this product development. That's why I chose the much more stable and lucrative field of bookselling.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I Love Soup! A Blog Post in Three Courses

I was poking through the cookbook section this weekend and came upon Anna Thomas's newly released Love Soup. Being a pain, I brought the book over to Jason and whined, "How come this book is called Love Soup, when it seems to be filled with recipes for salads and sauces, breads and spreads?"

"I don't know," he replied, "but Johanna the rep told me it was a soup cookbook." OK. Well, I listen to ANYTHING Johanna says, so if she says it's a soup book, that's what it is. To be fair, there are almost 400 pages of soups in this book. Soups are the star--the rest is bonus. There's arugala and apple, roasted squash, sweet potato bisque, nettle soup, pickle soup, and chestnut soup. As it's a Norton cookbook, it's edited by Maria Guarnaschelli. That means you'll likely see it nominated during awards season.


I love soup. I love it at restaurants, and I love making it, though I haven't made it much lately. Takes too long. Working at the old Schwartz offices, I was lucky enough to be surounded by soup places--TLC, Soup's On, Soup Brothers, and Soup Market. There's also Uncanny Soup Company, that used to be called Soup Ladle. Let me just say this concentration of soup cafes is rather unusual for a city.

So it's been a bit of a harsh awakening to move to Downer Avenue. Sendiks has one selection a day, Hollander has two, but I'm used to six. There's more variety on North Avenue (and it's really not that far all you pedestrians on North), but it's a bit tough to do in the half an hour we usually allot for lunch.

I've been aching to do a post on my favorite varieties of soup in Milwaukee, but I couldn't figure out how to put it in this blog. I was going to cook a chicken tortilla out of one of our cookbooks, but who has time. I'm afraid that by the time I get around to it, one of my favorite places will either close or change their recipe.

So soup. Today I'm going to talk about chicken tortilla soup, I love it, and in particular, I love three varieties in Milwaukee. They are all so different, that you could rotate among the three for breakfast, lunch and dinner and not be bored. (Soup for breakfast is not a bad idea. When I visited my sister in Beijing, we ate in a traditional breakfast spot, where we were served broth instead of tea as our beverage, chicken or duck!)

So let's start with my tour of chicken tortilla.

Oh, TLC Soup, how I miss eating there three days a week. I still am able to stop by when I'm working a closing shift, but it often means eating lunch at 10:30. Doesn't phase them. They are at the corner of Michigan and Milwaukee downtown, and are known for having very long lines and selling out of many varieties by 12:15. Renee tends to spice aggressively, so you should always ask beforehand if your sensitive to that sort of thing. She also notes vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options, and usually has some gluten-free bakery. Her son Dan works with her, and Ruby's also been there quite a while. Everyone is as friendly as Renee, who knows many, many of her customers by name. (Note that I am reading John Eisenberg's That First Season; he's appearing at Boswell on October 15th. Yes, I am reading a book about football.)

Their chicken tortilla is a staple of Thursdays. It's a chicken and cornmeal-based soup and packed with vegetables too. They'll top it with chili fixings, though it works very well plain, thank you. It's hearty, meal-sized, and just delicious. If you take out, they'll give you the tortillas separately (make sure they include them), but I like them mooshy.

It's a really great place, and I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Milwaukee. It's great for kids too, and once she opens for Saturdays in the fall (if she does so--every year I think it's going to end), you won't have to deal with crowds.

Head a few blocks south into the Third Ward for Water Buffalo. It's on the corner of (wait for it) Water and Buffalo. It's a restaurant, not fast casual like TLC, but prices are moderate and I think they do a decent bar busines, and in nice weather, you've also got riverside seating.

Their chicken tortilla is cream based, and not quite enough for a meal. But hear's the thing--order the large, not the small! The small is missing something, and that is a skewer of roasted vegetables that accompanies the top, pepper, onion, and...I think tomato. Maybe not. I love deskewering things, but aside from my interest in playing with my food, it really adds a lot to the dish. Very yummy. I must head back there soon.

And then there's Riviera Maya in Bay View. Yes, I'm sure you were a bit skeptical--he's talking about chicken tortilla soup and he's not including any Mexican restaurants? Well, I am. Almost weekly, Kirk and I head to this restaurant on the KK-Howell triangle (alas, where the last Bay View Schwartz was located), generally on Sundays, and indulge.

It's tomato based. They have a vegetarian option, but I always include their shredded chicken and rice. And I almost always get a large. They give a small soup instead of the traditional chips and salsa here. You can order them off the menu, but really, what you really want to do is order their chips with their mole sampler. That's six moles--traditional chocolate, plus pumpkin, almond, tomatillo, peanut, and sesame. It's a great appetizer for a large group, and don't let them tell you what each one is. Guess for yourself--it's not easy. If folks so desire, they can get one of these sauces on their enchilada later.


Well, this is way too long a posting. But I had another angle in talking about soup. It's Empty Bowls season, and my ex-coworker Nancy Quinn is once again volunteering her time to make this event a great fundraiser to ease hunger in the Milwaukee area.

A whole bunch of chefs and restaurants get together on Saturday, October 10th, at the MATC South campus in Oak Creek. For $20 donation per bowl, you get to pick from a delicious soup, and have a beautiful handcrafted bowl to take home. I've gone several times and have always enjoyed it. Your dollars fund local food pantries so that others can eat soup too. And they are always looking for volunteers.

I don't know if my favorites will be there, so now you've got four places to go. And please consider opening a soup place on Downer Avenue. Fast casual is fine, but please include a decent amount of table space. I know the Soup Brothers Outpost on Prospect and North didn't work, but though I love their soups, the place never looked liked it was quite open, and certainly didn't have the charm and humor of their Walker's Point home base.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Goodbye Moment from Sherman Alexie--On an Author Leaving his Long-Time Publisher

Over the years at Book Expo, I've been to a lot of parties. Sometimes I get an invite and I feel I don't belong; it's a big publisher party and I recognize hardly anybody. The floor is filled with suits from media companies, foreign publishers, and lots of execs from corporate. I've got the ticket, but it still feels like I'm crashing. Nobody talks to me, except perhaps for the publicist who checks my name off. If I'm lucky, one of the folks from field sales (indie bookstores are the field, by the way) recognizes me and says hi...if they were allowed to go.

But Grove Atlantic is different. One of the larger independent publishing houses, Morgan Entrekin and Joan Bingham have dinners too, sometimes at restaurants, lately in someone's apartment. There are other folks there too, but boy are there a lot of indie booksellers. I'm not feeling lost, and I'm not feeling unwanted.

I'm sure that's why Sherman Alexie stayed there as long as he did. He's a star player, and capable of huge advances. He moved to Little, Brown/Hachette for his kids' book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and sales were phenomenal. They came calling for an adult contract and he moved.

But first, one last book for Grove, a new collection called War Dances. It's stories and poetry, which from some authors might be second string material, but not from Alexie...
“The Senator’s Son” is the story of a gay bashing in Capitol Hill, and the few twists that turn the story around. (I’m always ok with Alexie’s treatment of gay men; whatever his personal life, he “gets it.” “Breaking and Entering” is about a film editor who is caught up in some politics after he attacks an intruder. “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” follows a middle-aged lothario with an earnest streak who obsesses over a woman he runs into at the airport.” I'm sure there are flaws in the stories and "blah, blah, blah" but I never was less than entertained (and was often much more) while reading them.

And the poetry. I'm going to have to stop saying "I don't do poetry" since I seem to reading and listening to it more and more. Alexie’s verse is imbued with a sense of storytelling that makes it come alive for me. It doesn’t hurt that he wears his emotions on his sleeves, a mix of anger and humor and romance, particularly in “On Airplanes” and “Go Ghost Go.” Sometimes Alexie can let his sappy side overwhelm him, particularly when it comes to his kids. But hey, that’s programmed by genetics, right? Is he just a great parent, or a darn good writer who's convinced me those kids are very lucky.

Really, the whole tone of the collection is particularly sweet. And why not? This is the celebration of long relationship, leaving on (hopefully, mostly) good terms. It's a toast. And the dedication says it all: For Elisabeth (editor), Morgan (publisher), Eric (associate publisher), and Deb (a publicity director).

So thank you for letting us be involved with this tour; we hope to do a great job. And to you folks on the fence, it might be the last time you see Alexie in Milwaukee for a long time. He's appearing at Boswell Book Company on Wednesday, October 21st, at 7 PM. There are no tickets or requirements to hear him, except that you better come early. We will close the doors when we hit capacity, and knowing his fans, that could be as early as 6:30.

If you don't make it, come back at 8:15 or so and you'll be able to come in and get your books signed. We've got Alexie's backlist too, as well as his new poetry collection, Face, from Hanging Loose Press.

Monday, September 21, 2009

When They Talk About a Big Fall, September 22nd Pretty Much Sums it Up

It's only when I review the big Street Smart titles for the upcoming week that I realize just how big this fall is.

Street Smart is a program our wholesaler Ingram provides for customers. It's an affadavit program where retailers agree to get books before their on-sale date, but keep them off the selling floor. But the database is one place where the hard on-sale date titles are in one listing, across all publishers. We are large enough to buy most of our new titles from publishers, who do a great job of getting books to us on time (though you may noticed we were one day late on the new Anita Diamant, Day After Night, which was the #1 Indie Next Pick for September.

Oddly enough, some of the largest accounts for titles, generally mass merchants, also buy from wholesalers, through their jobber divisions.

Here's what the Ingram buyers are hot on for their marketplace.

#1 is Arguing with Idiots, by Glenn Beck. No surprise, considering how well his recent paperback original did nationally.

#2 is The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins.
They must have done this on purpose. Imagine Beck and Dawkins locked in a studio together.

#3 is the new What Color is Your Parachute. I heard that sales shot up this year, what with the economy and all the layoffs.

#4 is Diana Gabaldon's Echo in the Bone. My bookseller Sharon is a big fan. Don't knock 'em till you tried 'em.

#5 is Stuart Wood's Hothouse Orchid. The more he publishers per year, the more he sells. Our customers tend to tire of heavily-published authors, but the mass merchants like the brand names. James Patterson = Kleenex. James Patterson Presents = Scotties (which is actually another Kimberly Clark brand. To get the whole story, you'd have to find an out of print copy of John Byrne's Chainsaw.)

You have to go all the way to #13 to get to the new Stephen King, Just after Sunset. Who'd a thunk?

And to #15 to get to the new Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood, which I was thinking would be our big book for the week (and Michiko Kakutani must have agreed, because she reviewed it a week in advance). It's a parallel story to Oryx and Crake (like a dystopian Marilynne Robinson), post-apocalyptic, following the lives of Toby and Ren, two women followers of a fundamentalist environmental group, God's Gardeners. Early reads from our staff were great! I'll mention that Amie (which I spelled "Amy" in a recent email newsletter) has been talking about this book for months.

Not only did she love it, she reminded me that there will be a third book set in the same world, leaving us with three parallel stories. It's like a dystopian Norman Conquests.

Come in this Tuesday, September 22nd, and survey the bounty.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Vegetable Chowder from "The Moosewood Cookbook" Inspires a Quarter Century of Food Memories

My cooking obsession seems to have begun and ended with the Moosewood Cookbook. I've been several of the follow-ups, both from Mollie Katzen, and the Collective (who split after the second book, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest), but I never found more than a recipe or two that touched my fancy. In the original, I've made more than 20 of them numerous times.

This comes to mind, having just finished my annual preparation of Vegetable Chowder, using as much produce from the South Shore Farmer's Market as I could. You have to wait until late in the season, cool enough for the broccoli and cauliflower to return. This season I also got my potatoes, onions, and garlic from there, but had to go elsewhere for carrots (because I forgot), mushrooms (because this year there's no mushroom stand) and celery (because you cannot buy celery in Wisconsin. I don't know why but I assume it's too cold).

I also bought some heirloom cherry tomatoes from Ken, but those were eaten in about ten minutes (and I bought two packages).

There are two copies of the Moosewood on my cooking shelf, having bought a second copy when Mollie Katzen jiggered the recipes. In the end, some of her "get rid of all butter" initiatives have fallen out of favor. This recipe dropped from one stick to one teaspoon; my soup had something between the two. My obsession with the book started in New Hampshire, not too far geographically from Ithaca. I've been making broccoli mushroom noodle casserole ever since, and I have pencilled in notes that reflect my changing tastes.

So it's nice to see that the book, though not the sales dynamo it once was, still has some life in it. We sold one at the store last week. The book outlasted Katzen's association with the Moosewood, and it outlasted Ten Speed itself, the publisher that earlier this year was sold to Random House.

I love a comment I heard from some Random Houser (and I know scores, so you'll never know who leaked this anecdote) about the purchase. Well into the process, Ten Speed made mention of Tricycle Press, their kids' line.

"You have kids' books?", a rather surprise executive replied. Apparently, this was substantially into the purchase negotiations. It's probably not true, but I like it anyway.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Follow Up on Lorrie Moore--She's Milwaukee Bound! Mark your calendars for November 12th.

You remember my post about Milwaukee not getting Lorrie Moore. I included a handy schedule if you were so inclined to organize a trip around seeing her read. My friend forwarded me a review from ex-Milwaukeean Patrick, ecstatic about her recent appearance in Seattle. It was definitely an event not worth missing.

Well, Milwaukeeans, cancel your flight plans. Ms. Moore is appearing at Boswell on Thursday, November 12th, at 7 PM. It's a free event, with very few restrictions. (She won't sign backlist without purchase of a new book.) We ask that you buy your book from us; if nothing else, that you leave your competitor's bag at home.

While we're still on the subject of Moore, I want to give a big thank you to everyone at Random House and the Knopf Publishing Group (ok, and anyone I knew who knew her* to put in a good word) who helped make this happen, as well as Ms. Moore herself. I know she is pulled every which way by publishing demands this fall, what with all the great attention her novel has received. I'm glad to say that A Gate at the Stairs is our #1 hardcover fiction book for the second week in a row. As a special thank you to our customers, we're going to keep this book discounted 20% through the end of the month.

If we reach capacity, the doors shut for the reading. But folks who want their books signed will be able to come back in once the reading is over and some of the crowds have left. Go have a drink at Hollander or Henry's. If this happens, you'll need one. But don't have more than one or you'll get obnoxious and we won't let you back in anyway.

Look, I don't expect this to happen. But for our big names (that would include Sherman Alexie on Wednesday, October 21s, 7 PM, and the just-added Ralph Nader on Sunday, September 27th, 5 PM), my suggestion to you is to get to Boswell Book Company early, at least a half an hour beforehand.

Remember, the success of our events determines whether we get events in the future. (This translates your book from us, or at least from another local indie in the area).

Footnotes, effectively:
*Or knew someone who knew her. Or knew someone who knew someone who knew her.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Calendar Cubes Come Home to Roost

Every since I started working at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop Iron Block store (in 1986), I've been dealing with the lucite cubes. We used them for displays (to give them height). We used them for storage. But mostly, we used them for calendars.

Twenty years later, we were still using them, and the same ones at that. They were a bit scuffed, and some had broken. We had gotten new calendar racks that faced out more wall calendar, but they also have a taller profile. We took cases that had books and tried to adapt them to calendars.

When the Schwartz stores were closing, I had to decide how many cubes to take along. Many of Downer Avenue's were gone, and I was graciously offered some of another store's stock. I didn't take enough. I learned a bit of a lesson, as replacement cubes turned out to be far more expensive than I expected.

So when my pal Sue visited for lunch this week from the wonderful Lake Forest Bookshop, she commented on our calendar cubes. And though I spend just about every moment I'm not in Milwaukee visiting other folk's bookstores, my first reaction was "Doesn't everyone sell calendars like this?" But I think, on reflection, the answer is no.


Our bestselling calendar continues to be that August to August engagement calendar that comes in a half dozen colors. People are fiercely loyal. They aren't displayed in the cube.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Zing! Rudnick's First Book in Who Knows How Long can be Very, Very Funny

It's called I Shudder, and it's a collection of personal essays mixed with the fictional narrative of Elyot Vionnet. Elyot's spent much of his career as a substitute teacher in the New York school system. He has a wonderful studio on an upper floor and always wears the finest fabrics. These pieces are hit or miss with me, though I did particularly enjoy his teaching session.

It's the essays that I liked the most, profiles of Scott Rudin, Alan Carr, his ill-fated attempt to write Sister Act (the storyline was his idea). But the cream of the crop is "The Sisters", the adventures of his mom (Selma) and his two older aunts, Lil the authoritarian and Hilda the wisecrackers (mom was the Bohemian).

"Look who's here!" said Lil, adding, "So there's no elevator?"

"Of course not," explained my mother. "That's why he lives up here--so we won't come and visit him."

"Well, I guess we showed him," Hilda chortled.

"I'm not kidding, there's no elevator?" asked LIl.

"There is," I replied, but it's restricted. This is a nice building."

Hey, these are the gals from his novel I'll Take it! I laughed pretty much continuously for 29 pages. I show my copy from 20 years ago because I love the original jacket and the author photo. I may have to go back and read it again, and I never do that.

Voicing concern that some of the other essays did not live up, my friend Matt (another bookseller) assured me that there were very few clunkers and their advance copy was making their way to every sophisticated reader (in this particular case, all of them happen to be gay men) in the store.

Oh, and if my ex-coworker James is reading this, there's pretty much an essay devoted to Mr. Rudnick's fondness for Peeps, which he eats as his interpretation of a nutritious meal. It's not just you!

Here are a couple of other people who liked the book:

"I Shudder is filled with deeply funny musings and adventures that elevate Paul Rudnick to the highest level of American comedy writing. It should be noted that I would be at the highest level of American comedy writing if I had Paul's early advantages."
--Steve Martin

"There's no book wiser or half as funny as I Shudder."
--David Sedaris (the quote is longer but my hands are tired)

And I don't have to tell you that Rudnick, in addition to being a very well-known comic screenwriter, was also the voice of the late, lamented Premiere's Libby Gelman-Waxner, do I?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nami Mun and How a Great Short Story Becomes an Even Better Novel, Thursday, September 21st, 7 PM

So it seems that all I can talk about of late are short stories, or at the very least, what becomes of one.

Valerie Laken stopped by, she of the wonderful novel Dream House, to buy the new Lorrie Moore. We started chatting and I invited her to lunch with my friend Sue Boucher, who was visiting from the Lake Forest Book Store the next day, as well as friend, sales rep, Downer Store opener, and guest blogger John Eklund. I took a bit of a chance including her in the mix, but we were having so much fun talking about the ins and outs of book publishing and promotion (I think Dream House will be a great book club book in paperback, and I was trying to offer tips) that I wanted to continue the conversation. It turned out that John and Valerie hit it off well; John is a huge fan of A Gate at the Stairs, so how can two Moore-o-philes not bond?

The conversation veered again and again towards the story form. A piece of Lorrie Moore's novel had been published as a story in The New Yorker. Was it the genesis of the novel, or an excerpt? No one knew.

I mentioned how much I like the new Harper Perennial paperback original program for stories; the new collections from Simon Van Booy and Lydia Peelle seemed to be particularly well published and both got a good amount of attention; it turned out that Laken's book of stories is scheduled to be in that program!

Sue and I discussed our dinner with Dan Chaon, and I remarked how Chaon told me that the novel had the genesis in three disparate short stories that he only into the process realized he could connect. The endwork is reather seemless; it's like three strands of ribbon being woven together. (Laken later returned to the shop and purchased Await Your Reply. Thanks, Valerie!)

We discussed novels that had their genesis as stories. Books that tried to be novels but never fully mutated from their story form. There was discussion over whether Julia Glass might be considered a short story writer, though all her published books have been positioned as novels.

Conversation then turned to Nami Mun, who was soon to be visiting for the paperback release of her first novel, Miles from Nowhere. Laken had been at University of Michigan around the same time as Mun, and had heard everyone at Michigan talking about the story that became the genesis of the novel...there was a lot of buzz and the book had a high-profile sale to Riverhead (part of the the U.S. division of Penguin).

Uh, oh, expectations. Everyone knows of an acclaimed story that became a novel, but the rest of the book never measured up. I don't want to get in trouble so I'm going to throw out Carol Edgarian's many-years-ago Rise the Eurphrates. The first 50 pages knocked me over like a baseball bat (referenced from a story in Sherman Alexie's new collection). The next 300 or so were a coming-of-age story that almost had nothing to do with the rest of the book. It was fine, but it surely wasn't what Random House had hoped for.

We all know other writers who master the short story but struggle with the novel form. Susan Engberg, quoted once again, asks why one has to graduate from one to the other. That's one worry. But Laken had other roadblocks, working against her loving the book. Miles from Nowhere was published at the same time as her novel, and as Michigan alums, she surely felt competition. (Oh, come on. Much as you wish the best for your friends, it's not easy to be second best).

It didn't matter. She wound up loving the book about Joon, the Korean teenage runaway who tries to make ends meet by being an Avon lady, and also a prostitute. In fact, she sent me this rec, to use as I please...

"Miles from Nowhere is that rare thing: a book that lives up to and even exceeds the hype. It's got heart, humor, and great artistry. I think the book succeeds so well in part because Nami uses an incredibly delicate touch with the raw, sometimes harrowing subject matter of her young runaway teens on the streets of New York. In anyone else's hands, this story could seem melodramatic or sensational, but Nami's wit and deft touch make the story feel natural, accessible, and deeply compelling. Also, she's written some of the best metaphors I've ever read. This was one of my favorite books of the past year."
--Valerie Laken, UWM professor and author of Dream House

There has been praise from all sorts of media, some of which we rounded up in our recent email newsletter. But why not offer a few more links?

Here's the Dallas Morning News Review...praising Mun's absorption in the grittier world of drugs, prostitution and violence...for "those who delight in the raw power of words." (I'm still convinced that my ex-bookseller Sarah would have loved this book, but I couldn't get her to read it.)

And here's an interview in Time Out Chicago. Mun feels she was never meant to be a writer. After the first draft, she went out and interviewed marginalized people to bring the story a great authenticity.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Something to do Tonight? Try Listening to Sonnets!

Poetry is meant to be read aloud. But it's not meant to be questioned. That's what I'm learning at Boswell Book Company. You don't usually have a Q&A component when you bring in poets. Why? I don't know. But you don't.

We had a really wonderful event with John Koethe last week, celebrating the publication of his newest collection, Ninety Fifth Street. Close to 100 people showed up, lots of people bought the book, and I even was lucky enough to celebrate nearby with some folks and a glass of wine.

Koethe's poems reminded me of Susan Engberg's recent, enlightening on the story genre. She argued that stories are not a stepping stone to a novel (at least not artistically; perhaps financially), but are an art unto themself, with different rules and different standards of success. In some ways, they are closer to the poetic form. I was hoping I could somehow reprint Engberg's wonderful talk here, or use it in a story display (heck, it belong in a magazine or journal) but it's just another thing you folks missed if you didn't attend our event. Engberg's new volume of stories, Above the Houses, is now available in paperback.

Here's Engberg flanked by local writers Valerie Laken and Liam Callanan. As Tyra would say, this was my best shot. My photos of Engberg reading were a bit blurry.

So Koethe's poems really are like stories, reminding me in some ways of Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, which as you may know, is my favorite collection of poems ever, as it's also a novel. And it's also a sonnet.

A sonnet? Why we're having a celebration of sonnets on Tuesday, September 15th, 7 PM. That's tonight if you're reading this quickly, and you missed it if you're not. You've got to subscribe to our email newsletter.

Marilyn Taylor and B. J. Best are presenting "The Sonnet. Not Just for Dead People Anymore." We're also celebrating Taylor's new chapbook Going Wrong, and we'll have Best's (This Mead Lake) as well. We're working at getting these books on our web site as well. Right now the site uses Ingram's title base, but we're learning how to add our own books.

Meanwhile, we'll try to restrain our tone of suprise (Sonnets aren't for dead people! We're having poetry events and it's not even April!) and just enjoy the whole thing, tonight at 7.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Senator Kennedy Yesterday, Dan Brown Today

I'm not sure I've yet experienced a cultural phenomenon since we opened the store. We're about to have an Oprah's Book Club selection (and though we immediately guessed what the book was, I won't "say" so here.) We haven't had a Secret, or a Da Vinci Code and it turns out that the firestorm of conservative books seem to bypass us.

We sell Stephenie Meyer, and have had some nice first-week sales of other major releases, which have been chronicled previously. But this is the week when Edward Kennedy's True Compass lands (today) and Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (tomorrow).

I can't really write something more interesting here than you will read 100 other places. Jason tracked our order via the UPS site to make sure the books come on time. We have a few other related books (though not as much as our national competitor, who seemed to expect a big pop in Freemasonry the same way Da Vinci Code drove sales of those books that drove sales of various Christian historical conspiracies.

OK, here's something interesting. I was looking on Ipage, our order web site, and looked up Da Vinci Code. They usually include a plot synopsis, a link to trade reviews, and some marketing materials posted by the publisher.

Here were the quotes:
Nelson DeMille
Clive Cussler
Harlen Coben
Vince Flynn.

I'm surprised.

Whether you like these authors or not, these are genre quotes. My memory of the book coming out was how "not genre" the read was. We were so surprised by the folks coming into buy the book who never read thrillers. Were there originally recommendations from folks outside the genre that are now not worth listing? Is the new book back to being just a big, big book by a genre author, like Tom Clancy in his heyday? I'm sure that's what folks at his publisher are wondering now.

(And here's what folks in the industry are probably thinking. If The Lost Symbol had come out two years ago, would Doubleday as a division have been folded into Knopf? I think the answer is, based on the circumstances of the industry and the economy, probably.)

We're still taking names for our giveaway of a signed copy of The Lost Symbol. If you read a lot of bookseller blogs and websites, this is happening at a number of bookstores around the country. No purchase required. Now that it's out, you need to come into the store to fill out a form. The book is 30% off through September 22nd, after which it moves to 20%. And eventually it won't be discounted at all, but I'm sure you guessed that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wanna Buy a Duck? We've Got Some.

Richard Wiseman writes in his Quirkology, his exploration of unexpected psychological studies, that folks find jokes with ducks to be the funniest of all animals. He wonders whether we have an attachment to the animal, or whether we actually are amused by words with the "k" sound.

Mark Caro wondered about this study when pondering our reaction to foie gras in The Foie Gras Wars, which recently won the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association (that's GLIBA) for nonfiction.* He felt that our particular attraction to ducks (and my bookseller Greg confirmed that this was his favorite bird, and not to eat) made the practice an easy target for animal rights activists (as opposed to something like chicken processing. You'll have to read his book for the contradictions involved in all this, because I'm only mentioning this book in passing.)

I've also taken an informal study and found that the duck may not be as beloved in my trading area as some would think.

Study one: I buy animal tape measures to sell, 24 of them. I have 4 left, and 3 of them are ducks.

Study two: I buy Wiggles, these wooden toys that really don't do much of anything but wiggle (they are a variation on my beloved wooden robots). They came in 4 varieties, a mixed prepack, as we say. We have sold 7 of 12. What's the one variety I haven't sold? A duck. We surely thought they would do as well as or better than the scary clown, but no! The clown is sold out.

So now we bought some alarm clocks. They are similar to the ones we had one we first opened, but they have animal sounds for their alarm, instead of a buzz. Most of the booksellers really like them, and we sold a cat almost immediately. I did not buy a duck, and that sort of makes me sad. Did I err? I can reorder.

But look at the results of my study! This is like ordering the author for whom you haven't sold their last two books, but you decide to bring in the next one anyway, even though there's nothing that indicates (more reviews, touring in the area, an endorsement from the Dalai Lama) that things are gonna pick up this time around. I leave out any examples for fear of hate mail.

*The fiction winner of the GLIBA prize is Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps. Both authors read at Boswell!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Boy, do we need your help! It's election season.

We are constantly being judged and evaluated. This owning-the-bookstore thing makes me feel like I'm back in third grade, getting evaluations from Mrs. Mandel, who never liked me as much as Mrs. Launer (2nd grade), Mrs. Brauner (4th grade, and yes, they looked like they rhymed, but they actually did not), and Mrs. Rosenberg (5th grade).

Mrs. Mandel liked to pull ears.

1. The Shepherd Express has their annual Best of Milwaukee poll going on. In order to fill it out on line, you must answer at least 25 categories. Don't have a favorite bartender? I'm partial to Dan Roubik at the Palm Tavern and Sugar Maple myself...ex-bookseller you know. Who else will discuss the new Dan Chaon (Await your Reply) with you over a bottle of Belgian ale? Oh, and he liked it!

Vote for your favorites here. And here's hoping we're your favorite bookstore.

2. Please help us get on the Yelp map. Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop is #2, after Downtown Books. If you like us, let's at least get us placed. And maybe someone can tell Yelp that Schwartz closed. Yelp it up right here.

3. WISN's City Voter website is tabulating best bookstore too. Lanora of Next Chapter told me that folks are voting for Schwartz here, but in their comments, are referring to Boswell. And there's a picture of Boswellian Conrad as the shop photo.

We're trying to get this fixed. I'm hoping that you'll be able to vote for the new us instead of the old us. Here's where to do it.

4. Finally, would it hurt to write a nice review of us on Google? I'm thinking of dictating one from my mother, who thought the store was pretty large when she visited, and had some biographies, which she thought would be quite popular.

Here's how to do this. Go to Google. Select maps. Put in Boswell Book Company. We come up first. Select the one on Downer, not the locations on Oakland or Bluemound, which of course don't exist. Review away! And don't forget about our biographies.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On Archiving Emails that Never Go Away, and How I Plan to Add to the Clutter--more on "The Nineteenth Wife" and "Blame"

Our email newsletters are now archived. It costs $5 a month, but it seems like it's worth doing. Oddly enough, the Schwartz newsletters are still archived somewhere, even though the Dickens folk are not likely keeping up the payments (note to Carol, I hope not!)

That said, I was able to locate an author photo I needed. And here's a link to our essay about authors with Wisconsin ties, featuring David Ebershoff's Nineteenth Wife. We're selling the book quite well in paperback, helped along by a selection by our in-store Readers of the Lost Art. Oh, and I have handsold a few myself.

It's one of those books that can appeal to lots of different customers:

1. It's got a straightforward historical angle with some lascivious details, a la Loving Frank.

2. It's got a strong mytery/thriller component; in fact, in much of Europe, it was published as a mystery.

3. It's got a strong gay character that has closed the deal for some of my customers.

4. It's take on alternative marriage and family can make for a very interesting book club discussion.

Speaking of books I really like and old articles from Schwartz, Nancy led me to this interesting article by Michelle Huneven on walking and reading at the same time. Thanks, Nancy!

That's just another thing I love about Huneven. I am well known for my walking and reading, and feel a bond with others who do so.

You've heard me go on about Huneven's new novel Blame, but our sales aren't much. Here's Entertainment Weekly's enthusiastic take to convince you.

And just to bring it on home, here's our latest email newsletter, which has my ode to Blame, not much different from what was posted on the blog earlier, but headed for 3000 more mailboxes. Oh, and there's other stuff in the newsletter too.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Where Does the Impulse Stuff Go? A Meditation

When I first worked at the Iron Block store in downtown Milwaukee, we had books on our front counter. The craziest things would sell off there, and the less crazy things would move in much better numbers than anywhere else in the store. It made no sense to do anything otherwise than fill it up, though we had to leave space for check writing. Lots of check writing.

I've been trying to think of a crazy-popular counter book from that time. I think Meditations for Women who do Too Much comes closest. Alas, the jacket's changed several times over the years. This is not the face that launched a million busy women into confronting their exhaustion, but it's close enough.

Then we got a nonbook buyer, part-time at first. Later, full. Suddenly the front counter was in play. The books disappeared, and because of the configuration of the store (an L-shape that wrapped around the Iron Block lobby and elevators made our aisles relatively narrow, and after all, space was at a premium downtown, and bargain book tables took the premium table locations), there was no place else to put them.

Fast forward many years. I think we have a happy medium. Sidelines are on the counter, but we have two great new and noteworthy paperback tables (that folks love to browse, and they sell a lot of books, and we get compliments on. Good job, Jason!) and one impulse table near our higher-volume register (per another post, that would be F; it's the one to the right as you come in.)

We're doing very well with these thumb puppets, for example. They come from lots of different vendors (seemingly all made in the same factory in China) at lots of different price points. They are currently at the slower-moving M register. Imagine if I moved them to F!

The impulse table, on the other hand, is filled with what were counter books at the old Iron Block, though we were never clever enough to put Richard Scarry's I am a Bunny there. As mentioned previously, that is probably one of our more successful titles at the counter.

But on a recent bookstore jaunt, I saw another option. That store--and it's a wonderful store, so I'll mention it--Brookline Booksmith, switches it out. Their cashier counter is filled with books, but the sidelines are sort of in a place that is a combination of our impulse table and one of our new paperback tables. It's my thought that the closer you are to the counter, the less time you use to make a decision. And since a register transactions are so much quicker than they were in the past (almost no checks, very quick credit card interactions), who has a chance to browse a book when they are up there. It's while you're waiting. Whereas a bookmark, pen, key capper or robot? You need less time to make up your mind.
But here's the difference with this store. It's really busy! So lots of folks are waiting in line, looking for diversion.

Oh, and one caveat. It's often the person next to the person making the transaction who buys off the counter--the partner, the friend, the kid--so in that way, quicker transactions hurt the counter. Maybe once folks are waiting to be helped, we'll want more impulse purchase options while folks are in line. We might even configure the line method--bank or supermarket style? I've got opinions. And that would be another post.