Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Bookstore That was Right in Front of Your Face

You may have heard me rant recently that we did an offsite at the Urban Ecology Center, and a decent number of folks (at least three sets of people) did not know of our existence, even though our store is only 12 blocks away and gets more coverage than we deserve in the local media. But hey, we've only been around for a little more than a year, though we are in an ex Schwartz location that opened in '97.

So then I did a Facebook post on Joseph Fox in Philadelphia, a store I had never been to, despite having walked the streets of Rittenhouse Square numerous times, and they've been around since '51. I've hard back from several folks telling me how much they loved the store, and from at least two people (bookish, mind you) who had never heard of it, despite a) numerous visits or b) living in the city of Brotherly Love (not the suburbs, whose love is more like a second cousin) for two years.

So here's a store in Toronto that John of Paper Over Board fame told me about. He knows I've been a bit in mourning for Toronto bookstores, what with the demise of Pages and This Ain't the Rosedale Library. As you can see from my link, Pages has been reborn as an offsite specialist--I'll debate that another time.

This is beginning to remind me of my many years of watching one department store close after another. In Toronto, I would flitter back and forth between Eaton's and Simpson's. And John, on a recent trip to Toronto, brought me back this lovely Simpson's store guide from his new favorite Toronto bookstore, Monkey's Paw. It's a used store, filled with oddities and wonders on Dundas Street. Here's more info.

So don't let what happened to X. (the bookseller who lived in Philadelphia for two years and never found Joseph Fox) happen to you. If you live in Philadephia, go there. If you live in Toronto (or heck, Ontario), go to the Monkey's Paw. And if you live in Southeast Wisconsin and you love books, I will modestly say that you might want to make a trip to Boswell Book Company.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Can Book Club Books be Funny? Contemplating This is Where I Leave You

I finally messed this up. I scheduled our in-store book club for the last Monday in August because we plan to close on Labor Day at 5. The problem was that I have to go to Utah, leaving the group to fend for itself.

Last week, just before I started this month’s selection, This is Where I Leave You, one of our regulars (let’s call her A) told me that she hated the book. Very, very sexist! She couldn’t wait to hear what another regular (let’s call her B) would think. She would hate it!

I panicked. How did this happen? I read a lot of reviews. I was told time and again that I would love this book. I had been calling Tropper’s book, my #1 book of 2009 that I hadn’t read.

Then I saw B. She told me that at first she wasn’t sure why I had picked this book. But by the end, she decided it was the funniest book she’d read in years.

Now I really am sad that I’m not going—what a spirited discussion this would have been!

Tropper’s novel is actually his fifth, but Dutton really did a good job repositioning Tropper. I saw more than one comparison to Perotta. Now I want to contact the editor (Ben Sevier) and ask how he did it (yes, I know it was a team effort). It’s not really different in style or tone from several of my favorite writers, who hardly get the laurels that Tropper received.

Not that they aren’t totally deserved. The story is about Judd Foxman, who finds out his father (the sporting goods titan of Elmsbrook, New York) has died, just after his wife has left him for another man. The family descends (three two brothers and a sister) on Mom, armed with just about every childhood grievance (and dysfunction).

On Facebook, I mentioned that I ran into my ex-coworker Dan, who had just finished this and was reading Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, while I had just finished Ferris and was reading the Tropper? It’s a surprising coincidence, but not totally, as they are two very, very funny books that are face out in the front of our store.

And one other connection—if Then We Came to the End is a literary variation of “The Office”, then Tropper’s current novel is, as Lisa Schwartzbaum suggests in her Entertainment Weekly review, the book equivalent of “Arrested Development.”

Lisa Schwartzbaum in Entertainment Weekly
"Tropper steadily ratchets up the multigenerational mayhem, often involving unwieldy lust or vociferous inter-sibling squabbling, with the calm authority of someone who knows his characters from deep within his kishkes — that's Yiddish for 'guts.'

Janet Maslin in the New York Times
In a wry domestic tone nicely akin to Tom Perrotta’s, Mr. Tropper goes on to introduce a darkly entertaining bunch of dysfunctional relatives.

Caroline See in the Washington Post
The Foxman brothers must become men, though, God knows, they don't want to. They want to remain hard-punching, dope-smoking, lighthearted pranksters, but life won't stand for that.

Tod Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times
There's nothing perfect here for the Foxmans -- a father dead and a son cuckolded, and that's just what can be revealed without spoiler -- and Tropper wisely lets these characters exist with -- and without -- dignity.

The group meets tonight, August 30th, at 7 PM. Our next meeting is Monday, October 4th, where we discuss Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women. Both are featured in our fall-winter book club brochure.

PS--I love how Bantam repackaged Tropper's backlist!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

We (Pretty Much) Love (Like a Lot) Girl of All Work (Get it? They're Office Supplies)

One of the gift lines I've been eyeing over the last year was a company called Girl of All Work. I don't know why I was so skittish. I guess I wasn't quite sure what our store's esthetic would be, then I second guessed myself, then I thought, oh this is a fall thing.

In any case, this summer I brought back the catalog, committed to bringing in the line, and my I-don't-know-what-you-call-them-but-the-folks-who-like-looking-at-the-gift-stuff team was very enthusiastic.

Yes, it's more of girl thing (hey, that's their name), but it works surprisingly well across a broad range of ages. It's commercial stuff that nonetheless picks up on the Esty crafting vibe.

I can imagine the conversation at their offices:
Let's make page flags, but pretty!
Let's make thumb takes, but pretty!
Let's make magnetic bookmarks, but pretty!

Done, done and done. We also brought in some journals and holiday cards.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Take Your Sock Monkey to School

We went on a sock monkey diet for spring, but when Amie saw the sock monkey tins (effectively lunch boxes), we knew there was a "take your sock monkey to school" display in our future. The calendars are in and selling, we've sold several lunch boxes, and a few monkeys as well.

When the sock monkey wize cozy came in, I considered changing the sign. Then I thought, "Well, I guess you could take that to graduate school."

Coming soon, mini sock monkeys. They're supposed to land in October.

Top 5 Sock Monkey books on the Ingram demand list:
1. Sock Monkey and Friends Kit, by Samantha Fisher and Cary Lane
2. Ten Little Sock Monkeys, by Harriet Ziefert
3. Sock Monkey Rescue Kit, from Peter Pauper Press (temporarily unavailable)
4. Fuzzy Little Monkeys, from Klutz

I'm not exactly sure why Sock Monkey Rides Again is not doing better! I think it is osi with the publisher, but we still have one for your sock monkey collection.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Yes, a Second Post on The Unnamed, Because 1) It's Almost in Paperback and 2) On my Book Club Selections and 3) We're Hosting Him on 9/26.

This week I did a presentation for an AAUW book club. Thank goodness for the American Association of University Women (see, I know what the acronym is for)—they are linchpin of book clubs all over the country. I think Schwartz helped provide books for at least three of them in the Milwaukee area.

It was an exciting day for me to test my skills at presenting my new collection of titles, with a few sleepers carried over (The Tortoise and the Hare, Yarn) and a few titles from spring that seemed perfect for this club (Let the Great World Spin, Brooklyn).

One of the things you quickly learn is that what’s good for one book club might not be good for another. This club likes a background material and a challenge. They didn’t might reading something fat, like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, about which some groups will fuss. We discussed including Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, but an objection was raised that it might not work for them on this level. On the other hand, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (an easy read that nonetheless has a lot of meaty research available) was a big hit, but some of my other groups would scoff at that.

The big question is, how does the book club feel about books that might be divisive? What’s your feeling about a book you don’t like that nonetheless provides a good discussion? There are book clubs that are there to get the group to read outside their comfort zone, and book clubs that are there to get the group to read, period. And then there are book clubs where you don’t have to read, but that’s for another post.

I’ve been thinking about this as I discuss Joshua Ferris’ novel, The Unnamed, with groups, the story of a lawyer with a wife and daughter, pretty comfortable, in the midst of a case. Inexplicably, he finds himself wandering off, walking until he is beyond exhaustion. Physical or psychological, it seems to be a degenerative illness, and like any illness, it takes a terrible toll on his family.

Let’s just say this is not an easy book. It’s certainly not the playful but dark satire of Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came to the End, and yet, I see several connections with that novel, particularly in the way that work holds modern lives together and the loss of that work can lead to a terrible identity crisis.

Tod Goldberg, needless to say, a fan, called the book "accomplished and daring" and daring in this review in the Los Angeles Times.

In the Washington Post, Ron Charles called the book ultimately frustrating--I paraphrase, but you can read for yourself. Now this is not a compliment, but think of how much discussion this can create at a book club: “What exactly is it -- a medical thriller, a domestic drama, a murder mystery, a survivalist tale, a metaphysical fable?

And Juliet Lapidos makes the case as to why the two novels are ultimately tied together in her Slate article, posing that the two novels are ultimately about distraction.

So if you’re up for the challenge, consider The Unnamed, either for your book club discussion or just to read on your own. If you're tired of reading books that you can't remember ten mintues after you finish them, this is one that you're going to think about it for a while.
And I highly recommend it for book clubs--just make sure that the book is bookended by a selection that most of the attendees are likely to like.

We’re hosting Joshua Ferris with Patrick Somerville at Boswell on Saturday, September 25th, at 2 PM. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I have some things to say about Patrick Somerville’s The Cradle as well, which you can read on an earlier blog post.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Jason's Morning at the Urban Ecology Center--A Fascinating Example of Why We Do Offsites

If you read our email newsletter, you know that we are participating in the Eat Local Challenge. Jason spent last Saturday morning at the UEC selling books on eating local, environmental issues, farm to table cooking, and the like, while I hosted our events with Denise Du Vernay and Ted St. Mane.

We brought in no extra books for the event, aside from stocking up on Plenty: Eating Local on the 100-Mile Diet, which is the subject of the Eat Local Challenge discussion group at the UEC on September 14th, at 7 PM. But putting together books from our green section, cooking, nature, current events, and even business (including of course, choice second-hand titles) made a formidable spread, and we got many compliments.

"You really carry all these great books in your store?"

That was often followed by, "What store are you?"

And then came "Where is that?"

With a capper of"There's still a bookstore on Downer Avenue?"

When I do an offsite downtown or in an outlying suburb, I'm not surprised to hear this. This is part of the idea of these offsites--tell customers about our store and maybe they'll visit. A certain amount of folks who visit are going to love the store and come back. Well, you hope.

We get a lot of press, and do a decent amount of advertising, but shockingly enough, there are booklovers out there that neither read a newspaper or a free weekly, and don't listen to public radio. (And note to all the ad reps, I'm still not going to advertise on commercial radio or television--we're just too niche a business to make the numbers work).

But the Urban Ecology Center is 12 blocks from our store! Click here for the map. And surely they read papers and listen to public radio. But Jason didn't hear this once, but at least three times.

I'm not upset by this; in fact, I see this as a very positive development. There's a lot more market penetration for us locally.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Club Presentation (9/24) Guest Speaker Eric Puchner on the Present Vs. The Near Past for Setting Model Home

Today’s the day our fall 2010 book club brochure comes back from Clark Graphics (print local). I was pretty happy with our spring brochure. We gave away about 300, and saw a nice pop on several titles.

The fall list is totally updated, with only two titles repeated from spring. I left off the titles everybody is talking about, such as Little Bee and Cutting for Stone, and only carried over the two sleepers we’ve sold so well, Yarn and The Tortoise and the Hare.

Our launch event is our book club presentation and featured speaker Eric Puchner on Friday, September 24th, at 7 PM. Eric Puchner’s Model Home will be out in mid-September and I thought it was a wonderful book to feature.

It’s about a Milwaukee family who heads to the California desert to strike it rich in real estate, only to find their fortunes much altered. It’s a classic novel of family dysfunction, told through multiple perspectives in the family. Father Warren is hiding the massive debt, Mom Camille suspects an affair, oldest son Dustin finds elusive rebellion in the form of his girlfiend’s younger sister, while his sister Lyle is surreptitiously dating their planned community’s Mexican security guard. And the youngest son Jonas? He’s rather obsessed with death in general, and the fate of a missing neighborhood girl in particular. The situation is nothing less than a tinder box.

One of the things I noticed about Puchner’s novel is that he set the book not in the present, but in the near past, specifically the 1980’s. Aside from the autobiographical elements of many novels, I have my theories on why this is happening more often, and I asked Puchner to elaborate on his setting.

"Apart from being a time I know well and feel personal affection for (yes, affection!), I thought it would be interesting to re-examine a time when people still to a large extent believed in the American dream - the California version, in particular - and its seductive power. And though I wrote the book before the full brunt of the financial meltdown, I wanted to show how there's been a confusion between the American dream and the mercenary spirit for a long time, and that things we think of as being unique to the 21st century - reckless real estate markets, debt-smitten consumerism, etc. - have been in place and brewing for a long time. I'm also interested in the rise of the exurbs and the gated community, both of which occurred in the eighties, and by what these things have done to our sense of community: I'm fascinated by what started to happen to the American lifestyle and the sacrifices we decided to make - commute two hours to work, live in a place inhospitable to human life - to be homeowners. The second half of the book is set in a deserted bedroom community in the Mojave desert, which seems perfectly emblematic to me of all this.

"From a purely selfish standpoint, I wanted to write about adolescents in a way that felt true to my own experience. I don't have a Facebook account (yet) and have never touched a Nintendo Wii, and so I wouldn't be able to write about a teenager in 2010 without doing tons of research. (There was already plenty of research to tackle for the book.) Teenagers these days spend half their lives online: it seems to me that this is a major ontological shift, one that's going to be a challenge for fiction writers in the decades to come. But I also wanted to show, in some important ways, that teenagers haven't changed at all, that all the cries of alarm about the end of adolescent innocence aren't overblown so much as moot. In my experience, at least, childhood innocence was well in to its death throes by the time the eighties rolled around."

Thanks, Eric. We’re looking to hearing more about Model Home on September 24th!

To me, technology is playing havoc with classic fiction writing, and that’s not just through ebook readers. In addition to many writers setting what I’d call contemporary novels in the past, I think the technological challenges lead to more folks looking at speculative writing, where they can adapt reality to suit the needs of their storytelling. Perhaps their alternative world has more technology. Often, especially with the explosion of dystopian tales, they have less. I wonder what 20-something writers are thinking about this. Time for me to check out some writers’ blogs.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mockingjay on Sale Today--Now What Should You Read? We've Got Some Suggestions.

Well, we double checked all our numbers on Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay, the conclusion of the Hunger Games trilogy. We had to back up our publisher order with some copies from a wholesaler, when one of our reorders didn't make it to the publisher in time for the first printing.

It's on sale today!

We have our largest amount of holds on this book since The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Now we have high expectations for Freedom, but our holds on Franzen's novel pale in comparison.

Really, we are excited about Freedom! Here's Conrad's rec on the new book:
No one writes about dysfunctional families and individuals better than Jonathan Franzen. The struggle to achieve personal independence and identity–battling the constraints of family, friends, lovers, society, and the unrealistic expectations (both our own and other people's for us) that map our lives- is explored with hilarious results in this splendid new novel. If you liked The Corrections, you'll love this!

Back to the Hunger Games trilogy and Mockingjay. Another book on sale today is the paperback release of Maze Runner, the first book in the Maze Runner trilogy. A lot of booksellers are highly recommending James Dashner's series to folks who like Suzanne Collins. Book two in that series, The Scorch Trials, goes on sale October 12th, and we're having an event with Dashner at Boswell on Friday, October 15th.

We don't often have booksellers fighting over galleys (well, actually we do) but Dashner was one that was on four Boswellians' must-read lists.

Another idea for fans of young adult dystopia is Michael Grants Gone series. We are actually co-sponsoring an event for Michael Grant at the Whitefish Bay Library on Friday, October 1st, at 6:30. It's for his new middle-grade book, The Magnificent 12: The Call, but I exepect fans of Gone, Hunger, and Lies to show up too.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Spirits Infuse Joseph Skibell's Wonderful New Novel, A Curable Romantic, Coming for JCC Preview Night, Monday, October 11th

There are some books you remember reading for a long time, and Joseph Skibell’s A Blessing on the Moon is one of those books. It seems like 15 years ago (it was actually 13) when I first read the story of man who climbs out of his mass grave through the help of his rabbi/bird. Skibell’s take on the Holocaust was like nothing I’d read, mixing folklore and the fantastic with harsh reality. And then I passed the book to my sister Claudia, and she loved the book even more. It seemed like we discussed A Blessing on the Moon on and off for over a year.

There was one book in between (which I admit I didn’t read), but now, after many years, is a fitting follow up. A Curable Romantic has just arrived in stores, and is one of those books that you keep talking about long after it’s over. It start in 1890’s Vienna, where Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn (check spelling) is an optometrist, helping Austrians fake eye exams to get government aid.

He falls for a young woman from afar at the opera; she’s in the company of Sigmund Freud, and Jakob decides to befriend Freud to get to Emma. But Emma is not just a family friend of Freud’s, but a patient. Maybe she’s a hysteric, but maybe she’s possessed by a dybbuk, and not just any dybbuk, but one connected to Jakob’s dark past.

The story careens through the Esperanto movement and into the Warsaw ghetto, like spirits jumping from body to body. The writing is masterful, but the plot is not for the lazy, as Skibell raises as many questions as he answers. Did it matter to me that I had to read chunks of the book twice? No, it made it better. And did I care that the language was peppered with Hebrew lettering and Esperanto dialog? No, it was mesmerizing, as were the juggling balls of philosophy, theology, and politics that careen through the novel.

There’s a Chabon-like chaos to the story, as well as a similar attraction to traditional Jewish imagery, though not so much with the intense male bonding. Now I did have one old coworker and current customer, Tom, who stopped me when I said Chabon. He said, “That’s not going to sell me the book.” Yes, but I play the odds, and I’m more likely to find folks who are attracted to this comparison. Plus, I think it’s a fair one.

And yes, Joseph Skibell is coming to the store, on Monday, October 11th. It’s a JCC preview night, for the Jewish Book and Culture Fair that is going on through November. It’s a great lineup of authors, headlined by the great Myla Goldberg.

Monday, October 11th a shopping night for the JCC, as you can designate a 10% of your purchases to go back to the JCC, instead of your normal Boswell Benefits. And I’m honored to have Jody Hirsh, Judaic Education Director of the JCC and also a big fan of A Curable Romantic, introducing Mr. Skibell.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Problem with Visitors to Milwaukee Rating Milwaukee Restaurants--Looking at the Zagat Guide

We don't have a strong Zagat Guide culture in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee restaurants are listed at the back of Chicago guide.

As a result, it's my perception that most of the folks that do the rating are from out of town. And there's no question that they miss things, and tend to be chain oriented. How chain oriented? Only a few years ago, one of the top ten restaurants in Milwaukee was Panera. Now I go to Panera, but there are certainly ten better places to go here and there were five years ago too.

Here's the other thing with chains. Because they are all over the place, they have better penetration in the market. You have to be particularly amazing and also a bit savvy to overcome the fact that you're likelier to rate someplace a mile away rather than ten.

I look at the list and still see these kinds of problems. Five Guys? Really? Better than Sobelman's? Better than Kopp's? I've been there a few times. Come on...although I do wish more Milwaukee eateries used fresh potatoes for their fries. If you do, you should brag about it, otherwise I assume you are lazily dipping into the freezer.

This "best of" thing is part of Five Guys shtick, as you can see when you look at the signage in their restaurants.

And Edwardo's? They are not even trying anymore. I used to go to Edwardo's a lot when it was on Van Buren and so was I. And I wouldn't even rate them the city's fifth best pizza. Here are the pizzas that I think are way better than Edwardo's: Zaffiro's, Transfer, Classic Slice...and you can probably think of a dozen more.

So what would happen if a chain like T.G.I.Friday's, which does happen to be all over New York, made the top ten through sheer omnipresence, and a little "get out the vote" exuberance on the part of Riese (the New York franchisee?) If you've been to one (and we were with my parents years ago, and we were served the tourist menu with higher prices), you know it's not likely. But still.

They'd probably exclude them somehow. But in Milwaukee? Who cares.

See more of the winners in this OnMilwaukee.com wrap up.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Fascinating Thing About Markdowns

We've had sale tables. We've done offsite clearance sales. I've written 25% off and 50% off on lots of gift items (and bargain books, and sales books) over the last year. But I'm surprised at how just marking the item down and leaving it where it is, as long as it includes the comparable price, often spurs sales.

Last week we had some outdoor stuff at higher price points that we decided to sell at 25% off for a few weeks before we decided to either mark it down further or hold it for next year. We'd had these frog games for about 5 months with not a bite. Within two hours of the markdown, we sold one.

I was even more surprised by a toy lace-up shoe. We had three of them for over a year and they were pretty reasonably priced. This vendor (I'm keeping everything nameless, as I'm sure they don't want me talking about their stuff in this manner). That said, they didn't work. We came up with all sorts of ideas--kids don't tie shoes anymore was our favorite. In this case, we cut the price in half. No sale sign, no 50% off, just a comparable price of what we had been chargin (in very small type) and the current price. In a few weeks, all three were gone.

There are other stories, but you get the point. Folks check out items that they like (and I liked them too for the most part, because I bought them), decide whether it's worth it at that price, and buy it. It's different for books, as that's our mission, and everyone knows that, and buying a book at retail is sort of an investment in the store, yes, but also in the kind of book that you're buying. If you like to browse serious education books, you have to buy some or the assortment will deteriorate. Same for urban planning, economics, European history, cognitive science.

But for the gift stuff, I think people make the decision a bit differently. And they are checking out the prices, and if the item is priced right, it goes. Sometimes the right price is the original one we price it for (boy, have we been having success with our leather banks, which we have no intention of marking down--the original price seems to be quite popular) and sometimes its after markdown.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Confusion By Customers About Firm On Sales, Soft On Sales, and Pub Dates

When Michiko Kakutani decided to review Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom* well before its on sale date, our customers were rather confused. As Franzen is also on the cover of Time magazine this week, it makes it seem like it was less the jumping of the gun than a planned campaign. It helps us build holds, but I think sometimes it makes customers who are on the fence between us and ordering online to go in the other direction. So we have customer holds on the book, but not as many as we do for Mockingjay, by the way.

I think our customers have figured out that it's not unusual for a book on the front page of the New York Times Book Review to go on sale the following Tuesday. If they are one of my customers from the East Side of Milwaukee or Shorewood, it's usually not an issue. At the same time, I have regular customers from Fox Bay, Brookfield, Oak Creek, and Waukesha**. Many of them are regularly good customers, but I don't usually get the chance to bring them back in less than a week. We do a little Ingram-direct-to-home, and we have a few customers that build up to $50 (after which we don't charge frieight***)

The trick is trying to convey the difference between firm on sale, soft on sale, and who-knows-when on sale. And even we get a little confused when publishers mix firm on sale and soft on sale in the same box. Last week we had a customer trying to get our copies out of the back room of The Power (the follow-up to The Secret). Fortunately we didn't have it, so I didn't have to hear a bookseller say, "We have it but we're not selling it to you." So much easier to say, "We don't have it."

Nowadays, most of the publishers let you know within a day or two when you should be getting your new books, that is, if you keep track of all the scheduling changes. I used to try, but that's one thing that's harder for a small store to do. And for smaller publishers, we often have no idea. They designate a pub date, and usually keep to it, as they adjust shipping dates over what can be a two-month window. In the old days, I remember books that would have a February pub date that would ship in November to get the Christmas sales. Now most larger publishers will let you know if it's been moved up (or you can check one of several websites) but for less-than-lead-titles from smaller publishers, we often just don't know. They're usually working like us, a little tight on staff and resources for what they want to do, so it's just a happy, old-fashioned surprise when the book comes in. And you know something? I like that.

*Conrad read Freedom and loved it. Everything's in place for Franzen's follow up to to The Corrections to be a huge hit. Isn't that nice when that happens to a literary novel?

**Yes, I know I have wonderful customers from other wonderful neighborhoods of Milwaukee and its suburbs. Gauge how hard it is to come back by how close or far it is from the listed locations. And for another post, why is it so hard for some people, and so easy for others?

**If you are sending books from a bookstore you like to your home, please consider sending it to your work address. It saves us a substantial amount of money. Of course I wouldn't put How to Quit Your Job on that order.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Newsletter goes out. Fish tee is in.

These email newsletters are beginning to wear me out. It's not that they take along time, sometimes at the expense of sleep. It's that I found myself not able to write afterwards. Don't get our newsletter? Here's the latest, which went out yesterday.

Aside from all the event info, the big news is that our fish tee shirt is in. I wanted to have Aaron Boyd, our artist, wearing his, but I wasn't in the store when he came in with it. Instead I just took a photo of our display. Here it is.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Booking Events, and Booking, and Booking, and Booking

OK, our event bay is pretty much full. Last year we were usually able to get all the event order on the bay, but this year we have to use overstock.
Some not-so-interesting observations:

1. Last year we had four football events; this year we have none. It's not like they didn't work; one was a bomb, one was disappointing, and two were actually quite successful. And both of our baseball events this spring were quite respectable. Go figure.

2. No crazy out-of-the-box stuff like Manette Ansay's book and concert this June, but we are just about to announce Neal Pollack's yoga class at Invivo. It will be at 5:30, before his 7 PM talk.

3. Folks are always asking me the best day of the week to book an event. It's my thought that the better the day, the more competition there is. And for lots of direct competition, I don't know what's going on until shortly before the date, and for tours, I almost never get a choice of days.

4. A friend of mine at another bookstore avoids booking events in August because everyone is out of town. Maybe so, but since nobody's doing anything, it's easier to get attention for the books.

5. Though I obviously can't do every author's event in town, we do more than our share of small press and even smaller-than-small press. The author just has to understand that the ball's in their court to get a crowd, and sometimes I have to make a judgment call that whatever we do and whatever they do, nobody's going to come. Some take to the challenge and not surprisingly, some don't. And yes, we've had our share of nobody shows up by the author fiascoes, as does just about every store. But whether it's a big or small crowd at their event, I find it really sweet when they pose for a picture in front of their author window.

Anyway, Stacie's out of town so I'm making the signs. It's only because I was making the signs that I realized that our joint event for Jean Reynolds Page and Isabel Sharpe on Sunday, September 19th has more in common that they are Wisconsin writers (Page newly so) published by Avon. It turns out both books are set in North Carolina. What's up with that? Must be investigated.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I Need to Take a Train 100 Miles to Buy Gift Items from a Vendor that was an Elevator Away for 12 Years

I often find myself chatting with folks about where I worked at Schwartz, particularly as I didn't regularly work out of the Downer Avenue location. I explain that I had two runs at the Iron Block building, spent four years commuting to our Whitefish offices, and managed our Mequon location for a year. I explain that I spent time working at all the Schwartz stores, mostly at holidays, sales, and big events. I was also sent in periodically to help pull returns.

But for most of my career as a Schwartz bookseller, I worked at the Phoenix Building in the Third Ward. It was once a factory that made stockings and other hosiery, and Jackie the manager has collected a number of Phoenix artifacts, including tips on what shades a woman in the know would wear in the 1940's.

What I know now that I wish I knew then--taupe is always a safe bet.

There were many interesting tenants in the building, but one company that always caught my eye was Pilgrim Imports. There were a couple of folks I said hi to on the elevator, and they had an annual Christmas sale that was open to other building residents (and likely, the general public, though I think ads were limited to the elevator). I didn't really know what they sold and I mostly buy books as gifts (yes, shocking) so I didn't much pay attention.

So this past month I was at the Chicago gift show and was shopping the temporary booths. I came across a Pilgrim Imports booth. I hadn't seen them previously at the show, but maybe I had just sped by. We're always looking for a nice bookmark, and they had these book charms that I thought we could sell.

While chatting, I asked where they were from, and when the salesman said "Milwaukee", I realized these were my old neighbors. They're still in the Third Ward, though in their own building, on the other side of the parking garage. I went up recently to see the new 800-CEO-Read offices, and wondered if I could see their building through the window. You can't--it's blocked (see photo).

For all these years, I had no idea that Pilgrim Imports is more than just your average importer. No sweatshop buying for them. Instead, they have partnered with a village in Thailand, where the families craft jewelry, ornaments and other handiworks using sustainable and environmentally sound techniques, which also preserve village traditions (they stop work in harvest season). Pilgrim's partnership has led to many village improvements, such as a water purification system. Read more here.

I do have visions of being able to run upstairs and buy product for the store, but alas, that didn't happen. For the next best thing, I picked up our order while changing buses from the 15 to the 30. We should have the book charms on display in the next few days--the assortment consists of dog, cat, treble clef, heart, butterfly, and dragonfly. Each is $9.95. Being that we sold out of our dragonfly wind chime rather quickly, I wouldn't be surprised to see this one be quite popular.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Busy Weekend--and a Visit from a Bookselling Legend

The weekend wore me out, hence no post on Sunday and a late one today. I worked Sunday to cover for Jason, who is helping out at the Urban Ecology Center next week for the Eat Local open house. Now that I'm looking at our stock, I really didn't bring in enough copies of Plenty. If we do run out, you can pick one up at the store; we'll call you when more come in. The Fair is from 10 AM to 1 PM on Saturday, August 21st.

We also hosted our discussion with Marilyn McKnight last Sunday. We had a solid group of folks turn out, and while it was going on, one of our upcoming authors who was dropping off his books and had suggested we do more events where there isn't an actual book involved looked over and said, "Like that. That's what I meant."

But the real excitement of the weekend was a visit from Prairie Lights buyer Paul Ingram and his wife Ellen. They were in town to see the Winterthur quilt show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and couldn't resist the short drive up the lake to see Boswell. We had a great time wandering around the store, trading recommendations, and sometimes vehemently disagreeing.

No revelations here on those--my code of conduct among booksellers is that you never tell the public when another bookseller confesses a dislike for the book. That's for that bookseller to make public.

Here's the really great thing about the visit. Paul knew not one, but four separate customers who were in the store over the course of his visit, and they weren't even in a group together. L. came up to the desk with a pile of Paul's recommendations. She was so excited that he was now working with us; I didn't have the heart to tell her he was just visiting and couldn't help himself.

Here's his blog, Paul's Corner. His new post is about the movie release of Winter's Bone, a book he loves, loves, loves! We of course like the original jacket better, but here's the tie-in cover.

And here's his video recommendations of new hardcovers!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Another Post for Jason to Skip Over--The Fascinating Success of the Low-Key Markdown

Yesterday we were pondering the fate of our outdoor kids activity stuff. I decided to mark down some of the more expensive items. We'd rather not store them through the winter. It was a 25% reduction. I reprinted an inventory sticker, which listed our previous price and the new price. We'd been sitting on three sets of this frog game for six months; in about an hour, we sold our first one.

I have two similar stories about a journal that was a dud, and a toy lace-up shoe. Modest sticker, three copies of each sold through in weeks.

In my first year, I made big markdown signs, advertising 25-75% off. I added stickers to the items. I sold items at "garage sales." But when I've found is that a very subtle sticker indicating the markdown, with the item pretty much mixed in among our regular product, clears out merchandise without making the store look cheap.

Now we went a little more aggressive (don't worry--it should all fit on two book-filled tables) on fall holiday stuff this year (Halloween, Thanksgiving, and particularly Christmas) so I will have to markdown the leftovers, but I'm hoping I bought smart enough that it's not too much. If it doesn't work, we'll retrench next year.

Here's the take-away for my customers. Just because there's not a big sale sign up doesn't mean the price isn't good. You never know. And how this becomes a more interesting post--reading a few behavioral psychology posts makes me consider that some folks use a different part of their brain when shopping for books with us as opposed to gift items.

Friday, August 13, 2010

To Ostrich or not to Ostrich--Why Doesn't Daniel Whine About Ebook Readers More?

Watching everything play out in the bigger world of books, you'd think I'd be more panicky about this whole thing. All my friends at independent bookstores are following the moves of Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and what the heck, even Indigo (Canada) rather closely.

The court hearings. The buyout offers. The changing merchandise mix.

Are we worried about the future? Of course we are. I've been worried since the first B&N opened down the street from our the Brookfield Schwartz store in the early nineties. Heck, I was worried when Audubon Court shocked the system of the Book Nook in Whitefish Bay in the late eighties (It was a great store and we are friends with lots of the folks from there, but at the time, it was our competitor, and you know how I worry about that).

And when Amazon started growing. And when Costco opened. And when Target dramatically expanded its book section. And when Schwartz closed. And when Soaps and Scents closed on the next block. (But I am still loyal to Karen's store at Mayfair. How could I not be? It's wonderful. Here's another weird voting site with her details. Did I mention she's a fan of North Point Historic Districts).

Yes, we're finally back in stock on North Point Historic Districts. How's that for a detour?

This is why I don't worry about the big picture. I sweat the small stuff. Today we were ordering from Tag for Christmas and we had to decide how much to go into tabletop. Magnets? Yes. Ornaments? I've been talked into them, and we probably need a better tree this year. Candles? OK, but not scented. Silly dishes and mugs? Well, only if we really, really like them. Dish towels? I had to keep them out of the store because two of my booksellers got a little freaky on me about that.

How can you worry about ebooks destroying the culture of indie bookstores when you're busy worrying about magnets?

There's a conversation going on, but I can't bring myself to join in. Coward? Breaking relationships? One of my ok customers is now using an ebook reader in the coffee shop next door. How would I feel if he used one here? As it is, customers (in quotes) bring in library books and read here. Other folks grab a pile of books and make lists and leave. Those lists are often using cell phone apps nowadays. It still leaves a pile of books to reshelve, and sometimes a coffee stain.

I could have whiney signs up, but as a customer, they just make me uncomfortable.

Oh, and the website's shopping cart is still unfinished. Not that we'd be selling piles of ebooks if it was working correctly.

For the record, it behooves me as an indie bookseller to link you to the Regulator Bookshop's great blog piece, "Five things Jeff Bezos doesn't want you to know about the Kindle." The Regulator is a great bookstore in Durham, North Carolina. Here's their website.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Working with The Reader's Choice on Some Upcoming Events

Back when I lived in the Yankee Hill area, I used to take a lot of walks. (I wasn't just more centrally located; I also seemingly had a lot more time). One of my favorites was to wander around the Brewer's Hill and Beerline neighborhoods. I was fond of taking the steel staircase from the Van Buren-Holton Street bridge down to river level and look at the construction of all those condos. We toured a few too!

If I was with friends, I might take them to Roots on Hubbard Street. If it was a Friday or Saturday, I'd head over to Northern Chocolate to stock up on Jim's fruit and nut delicacies, or perhaps some of chocolates set in antique molds. I'm already getting hungry thinking about it.

Another great place to stop by is The Reader's Choice, located on King Drive and Brown. Carla Allison has a great selection of what she calls "The best in literature by minority authors." She's also got a very good history and culture section, plus a wonderful assortment of kids books.

I stopped by the store this week, to brainstorm about upcoming events with Rebecca Skloot (on September 1st) and Michele Norris (on September 30th, at Alverno). As I entered, she was talking up The Fourth Turning to our friend Eric. I was embarrassed to say I hadn't read it, even though I am interested in that kind of thing. Carla was quite passionate on the book and if he didn't buy it, I was ready to.

I asked her for three of her favorite books, to feature here. They were:

The Right Mistake, by Walter Mosley. She's a huge fan of Mosley, and promises that there is life beyond Easy Rawlins. This is one of his more recent books (Mosley is prolific, and has been known to publish a couple of books per year). Hey, this is a great suggestion for Socrates Cafe, the philosophical discussion group that is returning to the Boswell location this fall. The first meeting is Saturday, September 11th, at 2 PM. It's free and open to the public.

I think people who like Walter Mosley might enjoy Attica Locke's Black Water Rising, so I suggested that go on Allison's likely quite substatial "maybe I should read this" pile.

Black Women in the Image of God, edited by Dorothy Winbush Riley. This is one of Allison's all-time favorites, and not an easy one to find. It's a collection of art, photography, and even sculpture that depicts women of African descent through the ages.

Oy, there was a wonderful kids book that we talked about, but I can't read my scribble. I also failed the famous author test on their wall of past events. To my credit, I'd probably fail the test at most other bookstores.

When you're done, cross the street and head to Fein Brothers. It's a really great restaurant supply store. Oh, and you are only a block from Northern Chocolate. Or just walk up and down the blocks east of the store, with some of the finest historical housing stock in the city, much of it in beautifully restored condition.

And don't forget about our events with Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, on September 1st, at Boswell, 7 PM, and Michele Norris, on September 30th at Alverno, with tickets available at the box office.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It Seems That Everybody is Rooting for Kings of the Earth

About three years ago, John Clinch's novel Finn was released. Told from the perspective of Huck0 Finn's father, the book had a lot of buzz, great reviews, and comparisons to none other than Cormac McCarthy.

But buzz on the first book doesn't always mean the second will do even better. For every Middlesex, you can think of dozens where the second was much quieter. In my youth, every music fan knows about second album syndrome, but now I'd say most fans don't know about albums, making the comparison rather meaningless.

I'm told that Clinch's new novel, Kings of the Earth, more than satisfies the promise of Finn. Carl, our fan on staff called this "An amazing gothic story for a new master." The story of the Proctor Brothers is based on the true-life Ward Brothers, whose story was documented in the film, "Brother's Keeper." Carl recently told Jason that it's been a tough sell, but that doesn't mean the book isn't great or that readers won't come back to thank Carl when they take his advice. (And don't I know. It hasn't been easy to sell our 31 copies of Day for Night, but I've had no end of folks come back and tell me how much they loved it afterwards.)

Apparently, this is the kind of book that also generates great passion. Today I talked to none other than Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife, who told me how much he loved the book.

Here's a quote from Goolrick's Washington Post review:

"To say that this novel brings others to mind is not to denigrate it. It recalls the finest work of John Gardner, and Bruce Chatwin's On the Black Hill another exploration of the bonds between brothers that go unspoken but never unexamined. Kings of the Earth becomes a story that is not told but lived, a cry from the heart of the heart of the country, in William Gass's phrase, unsentimental but deeply felt, unschooled but never less than lucid. Never mawkish, Clinch's voice never fails to elucidate and, finally, to forgive, even as it mourns."

There are books I write recs for that I like ok and there are books I write recs for that I love, love, love. The same is true for reviewers. Goolrick's obviously in the latter category on this one. Read the rest of the review here.

I congratulated Goolrick on his continued success (it had just popped onto The New York Times bestseller list in paperback when we had his event last winter) and he told me its great performance has led to some interesting rights sales. Can you imagine A Reliable Wife published in Turkey and Indonesia? Well, it's happening.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wood is the New Paper, Apparently

Several months ago, I said that I'd brought in Spitfire Girl postcards, and that if I sold them enough to reorder (having seen them on a markdown table at another bookstore right after I placed my order), I'd bring in the bookmarks.

Well, several months later, done and done. We have a nice mixture of pretty and odd. The early favorite seems to be the teeth.

I spotted another vendor at the gift show, Night Owl, that I hadn't seen around much, and we decided to bring in their letterpress cards as well. I was just telling our friend Angie as she bought the cherry card that this was my favorite. We brought in several of their cards with decorative wooden buttons. But the real wood star goes to the journals. We brought in the panda journal, with fir covers, the pup journal made of walnut, and the foxy fungi journal, sheathed in birch. All three have been deemed "cute" by my panel of gift experts.
They are for the creative sorts, being lineless. Each runs $18.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Reading Plenty for the Eat Local Book Discussion, Failing Miserably, and Then Experiencing the Real Thing in Little Rock

I'm leading a discussion of Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet, by Alissa Smith and J.B. (James) MacKinnon at the Urban Ecology Center on Tuesday, September 14th, at 7 PM, at the Urban Ecology Center. This is part of the annual Eat Local Challenge, sponsored by Eat Local Milwaukee, Slow Food Southeast Wisconsin, the Urban Ecology Center, and I guess, effectively, Boswell Book Company.

Am I the right person to lead this discussion, he who can barely make it into the kitchen since starting Boswell? Hey, why not--I've got as much to learn as anyone. But here's the confession, I suggested Plenty based on great word of mouth, but I hadn't read it myself. My readers were trustworthy--connected to the Slow Food movement and everything, but I was a little nervous, particularly as I positioned it as Bill Bryson funny.

Well, I read the book, and it's like Bryson in that it takes a serious subject, mixes it in with a story, and does lighten it with some humor, a little gentler and more earnest, admittedly. James is very, very earnest. Alisa and James make it a challenge to eat local for a year in Vancouver. There are some caveats about travel, whatever's in the house, and so forth, but they even stick to the no coffee, no salt rule, after they run out of whatever they had in the house. See, they had wine, and that makes every other ingredient lessen in importance.

I got one detail wrong. I knew they had trouble getting grain, having assumed that it wouldn't grow in their climate. But in fact, wheat goes great there; it was just that farmers weren't growing it. I learned that farmers markets actually weren't legal until recently, with legislation in the 1970's making it ok to sell to consumers. Since then, they keep growing.

On our recent trip to Little Rock, we saw this for ourselves at the Little Rock River Market. Yes, there were lots of artisans and crafts, and yes, it was hard to tell exactly who was selling local produce, as a number of vendors had very professional looking boxes. But I'm sure it wouldn't take me much time to learn who was local and who was simply contracting produce from elsewhere.

I love how you see lots of produce you don't see in grocery stores. And I particularly enjoyed how many peaches were available, something we don't ever see in Wisconsin.

Join us for the Eat Local book discussion on September 14th at the UEC. And I've got at least one more Little Rock post in me, so hope you aren't bored.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Getting to Little Rock--an Unpleasant Trip turns Pleasant at the 11th Hour (Yes, Literally)

I'm on the first of several weekend trips, which I guess constitutes vacation. The first is a visit to Hot Springs Village for a 50th anniversary party. We took an unnamed airline to Little Rock, through Atlanta. It reminds me how bad service can be in the modern age.

First our initial flight to Atlanta was cancelled, and we were automatically rebooked. Then the connecting flight was cancelled. Then the next connecting flight was three hours late to leave. Then our luggage showed up on a different flight a half hour later. We were not flying budget, having put almost $500 per person into these flights.

The killer was that at no point along the way could we get us to tell us anything. "Go to the machine! Go to the machine!", every employee gestured. Admittedly, they were all very short staffed, and for some reason, an outfit of jeans and tee shirts didn't make them any friendlier, despite the probably convincings of a paid consultant.

I'm not singling out this airline. I had two different trips to the east coast in the last three months, filled with cancellations, no explanations, and my favorite, false apologies. That's when you say "I'm sorry" with sort of a sneer, or after all the problems, the admittedly under-pressure phone operator tries to convince you that the service was great.

When I talk to these folks, I immediately say, "I know this is not your doing. I know you have no control over this", but the key is that you will never ever talk to someone who makes the decisions. It really makes me never want to travel again, which is good for all my customers at Boswell, I guess. (And no, I'm not bragging about the incredible service at the bookstore. I know we have our issues. I forgot to reassign someone to check our info address when our regular went on vactaion. My bad! But still, nothing as bad as what I just went through.)

There was one highlight, of course, and it turned not to be the infomercial for a classic collection of L. Ron Hubbard's short stories at one of the bookstores, being piped out in five minute intervals. There were a lot of bookstores or bookstore equivalents at the Atlanta terminal. I'm not sure who was "hosting them", despite being under various nameplates. I felt bad for the seafood restaurant who gave us an atrocious overpriced meal. It was an airport franchise, but after that meal, I would never, ever, ever eat at one of their actual restaurants.

No, browsing the airport bookstores was not a highlight.

No, it was looking over, in our 12th hour on the road, and seeing, in a sea of uninteresting very commercial novels and ebook readers (yes, some, but not as many as I expected), a copy of Bo Caldwell's The Distant Land of My Father. It reminded me that even though Caldwell is every other thing my Nancy B. (one of my favorite regulars) and I talk about, I still haven't read her new book coming in late September, City of Tranquil Light. Yes, it's another China novel!

So I thought, "Why not?" and asked the woman how she was enjoying the book. S. told me that she had read a bunch of bad books in a row and the person at her favorite bookstore, WordsWorth Books and Co. (it's on our short list of must visits) said, "It isn't new but I love it so much and you have to read it." Where do I find that bookseller?

We then had this wonderful 20 minute conversation of books we love and those we didn't (S. hated Middlesex, but she wrote down The Lonely Polygamist anyway. It's not that similar, just a hook for me really, especially because the thing that made Eugenides difficult was some of the factual errors in the science. I know how that is, having just read a book where the author has someone go from Madison to Chicago by train. Why not bus? Why not bus? There is a bus!) and S. came away with a page of book recs, and we came away with some restaurant suggestions.

When S. told me how much she liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I convinced her to move The History of Love (event with Nicole Krauss at Boswell on 10/27)to the top of her pile (she already had it!) and then of course, told her to run out and buy (order in) Frederick Reiken's Day for Night. She might wait till paper, but I think, after our conversation, that she will trust me and buy it from WordsWorth.

It made the whole trip worthwhile. Note to airline personnel. If things are going particularly badly for me, find your best reader and get me involved in a conversation. I'll forgive just about anything after that.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Not Being Silent About The Grace of Silence and Our Event at Alverno College on September 30th

You may remember that Norris took a short leave of absence from hosting "All Things Considered" to put The Grace of Silence together. What started out as a book about keeping the discussion on race going in the age of the Obama presidency became something quite different, something very personal. It turned out in the Norris family that there were a few secrets on both sides of the family, and it took some detective work on Norris's part to find out all the details.

It's a gently powerful book that still has me thinking about what it must have been like for her grandmother to play Aunt Jemima at county fairs. Even at that time, African Americans likely understood the connotations of the product, offering what was M. M. Manring called a "slave in a box."

Norris is traveling the country to discuss The Grace of Silence. We're hosting the event at Alverno College's Pitman Theatre. (Of course we hope for the best, but you know the drill--if we don't sell enough tickets, the event will move to one of the very close, slightly smaller spaces). Tickets are $26 and include a signed copy of the book. If you wish, you can substitute a $20 gift card. There's a box office fee of $5, but remember that is per order. If folks are coming together, by all means by your tickets in one transaction.

We've got a lot of sponsors on this one!

WUWM is our lead sponsor. Mitch Teich of Lake Effect will be introducing Norris and handling the question and answer session. The event is also sponsored by the Alverno College Research Center for Women and Girls and the Alverno College International and Intercultural Center.

And finally, we are also working on outreach with Carla Allison at The Reader's Choice: Presenting the Best in Literature by Minority Authors.

That's a full plate! Let's hope for the best. With a worthy endeavor like this, you want to go the extra mile. Don't forget, it's Thursday, September 30th, 7 PM, at Alverno's Pitman Theatre. Buy your tickets on their handy website!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Test Your Wisconsin History Skills with Erika Janik on September 8th

I've lived in Wisconsin a long time, but I still feel like there are gaps in my Badger knowledge. So when a customer several weeks ago encouraged me to read Erika Janik's A Short History of Wisconsin, I listened. We'd already booked an event with Janik (Wednesday, September 8th), so there was incentive right there. But Mr. W. (a long-time customer who reads regional and Catholic history and I would run into on the 15 bus between bouts of helping him as a customer all the way back to the years when I worked on the floor of the Schwartz Iron Block store) told me that not only was the book well written, but had some facts that even he didn't know.

The book is organized by chronologically, but also by subject. I'm sure there's a tendency to be a little Madison-centric (The Historical Society's home base). I also find a lot of state books (like the state, sometimes) tend to be a little negative about Milwaukee. I thought Janik's book was quite balanced.

There are a lot of positives with being a short history. I wasn't intimidated about reading it, for example. On the other hand, there were some things I wish had been included. There are several mentions of Allis-Chalmers (which makes sense, as it was the largest company in the Milwaukee area) and Case, but Hamilton Beach, the Racine company that decamped to North Carolina years ago? Why them and not Oster or West Bend? Where's Kohler, a strong influence on the state? And a talk about Wisconsin baseball without mentioning some of the minor league teams? I would have been more Madison-centric in this case and mentioned the Muskies.

In the spirit of Mr. W. (who loves this kind of thing), let's all read the book ahead of time and bombard Ms. Janik with what was missing. She'll love that!

Just kidding of course. This book is terrific for any resident who didn't grow up here and have a local history course in grade school. I myself had the New York course, including a special section on Queens. We were taught that Flushing was named after the Dutch town Vlissingen, but apparently, that is now in dispute.

Here's a short quiz, based on things I learned in A Short History of Wisconsin.

1. What metals were mined in Wisconsin enough to be substantial industries?
a. copper
b. gold
c. iron
d. lead
e. silver
f. tin

2. In the early years, Wisconsin was the second largest producer of automobiles outside of Michigan. Which car companies were based here?
a. Crosley
b. Kissel
c. Mitchell-Lewis
d. Nash
e. Studebaker

3. Which environmentalists had ties to Wisconsin?
a. Rachel Carson
b. Al Gore
c. Increase Lapham
d. Aldo Leopold
e. John Muir

See if you can take it without resorting to internet searches!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Cell That Changed the World--Rebecca Skloot Visiting for Wednesday, September 1st

Having just hosted an event about the unforeseen dangers of cloning (in a futuristic literary thriller, The Bradbury Report), I was ready to tackle a contemporary story of cell cloning. So we’re thrilled that after much work on everyone’s part, we’re hosting Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Wednesday, September 1st, at 7 PM.

The book’s been in my to-be-read pile since it came out in the spring, but there’s nothing like an event booking to send a book to the top of the pile. And what a story it is—Skloot tells the story of Lacks’ cancer cells while also telling the story of Lacks’ family, and how they were left behind in the profits made from the cell cultivation.

It's an amazing story, and if you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.

Want to see a video? Here's Skloot discussing the book with Tavis Smiley on PBS. And for a different take, here she is on The Colbert Report. Just a correction, her next book is on leeches, not this one.

If you read the book, one question you might have is whether Skloot started the educational foundation she proposed during the narrative. Well, she did. Here's a link on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, providing educational scholarships and help with healthcare costs to the descendants of Lacks. And yes, Skloot is donating a portion of the proceeds of the book to this effor.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How Did Book Club Go? A Mini-Discussion of The Little Stranger

It's interesting to me that some books get more of a book-club pop than others. Though we only have 8-12 folks show up for discussion, The Little Stranger went from selling 1-2 copies per week in June to 4-5 per week in the last month. In addition to being on the new paperback table, the book does get a face out in our heavily browsed book club case. It's a nice side benefit of the meeting.

All in all, the group liked The Little Stranger by about 3 to 1, though there were certainly several attendees who might have cut 100 pages. We liked the look at the class system in England and how the almost feudal nature of England persisted until after World War II, much longer than several of us imagined.

There was some interesting thoughts on repressed sexuality, and of course, how can you discuss a book that Stephen King called his favorite of 2009 without analyzing its supernatural elements. Our crowd is a little on the rational side (for the most part), so it would be interesting to hear a book discussion where most of the attendees favored explanations from the other side.

Like many books we read, this one seemed to be filled with homages to past works, particularly The Turn of the Screw and The Fall of the House of Usher. Nancy could not attend, but she sent me an interesting email filled with insights. And since she is our resident expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald, she illuminated the Fitzgerald connections as well.

I expected at least one of the Carolines to recognize Caroline as the hero, but no, that duty was left to me and Chris. I thought everyone would agree with me that she was the most sympathetic character, but it turned out not to be the case.

Our upcoming book club schedule:

Monday, August 28th, 7 PM (special date)
This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper
My favorite book that I haven't read of 2009. I'm very sad that I am out of town for this. The other thing I find so interesting is that Tropper seems like a totally different writer when published by Dutton than he did when published by Bantam. Why is that?

Monday, October 4th, 7 PM
A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert
I read her short stories many years ago, but have yet to read one of her novels. How exciting!

Monday, November 1st, 7 PM
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
And yes, I have never, ever read a full-length work by Eggers. Another breakthrough!

As always, this is an open group. Like the book and want to talk about it more? Come join us.