Friday, April 18, 2014

On Gabrielle Zevin's "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry," Bookseller (and Sales Rep) Love, Five Years of Boswell, and a Toast on April 28.

Today is day 1842 of Boswell being in business.

It's not unusual to have early buzz from booksellers about a book from Algonquin; this is the publisher of Water for Elephants, A Reliable Wife, and The Art Forger, after all. That said, 2013 was a quiet year. The lead titles for the spring and fall books were more well-known authors, Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith, and even though McCorkle had the #1 Indie Next Pick, tied with the identically titled Kate Atkinson, neither book successfully got to that "everybody's reading it" stage of handselling, at least at our store.

So it's late 2013 and that means spring 2014 is coming, and in the case of Algonquin, this meant that the buzz was building on some book or other, with advance manuscripts (probably paper and electronic both) making the rounds. I'm not great about advance-advance reading, so I don't always make said first round, but lo and behold, by the time I do get an advance copy, it's accompanied by something like thirty recommendations from booksellers for The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Alas, this blew me away the first time I saw such a thing, but after seeing it a bit, my emotional reaction was, once again, that I am not on that list because I'm reading a book for an event that is next week. Darn that towering pile and my limited reading abilities! That alone would have gotten me to read the book.

But then I got another note from Craig Poplears, the man who makes this stuff happen. He had done an advance mailing of the book to sales reps. Really? And still I didn't get anything? Is my early reading reputation that bad?

Now sales reps are really busy, and almost all of them spend their reading time pouring through their own lists. I find that many of the best sales reps read outside their lists as well. They are often more aware of what works and what doesn't. And some of them are just amazing readers. So it turns out that two of the responders were either current or former sales reps of mine, both of whom I liked, but more than that, both of whom had taste that not only resonated with me, but also with our customer base.

So I read letter number one about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (called The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry in the UK, which often feels the American title is quite right, though honestly, what's the difference?) from my old friend Johanna Hynes. I've gotten permission to reprint it here.

"Two weeks ago I was walking out the door to sales conference, when my mailman put a package in my hand. I was late and so just shoved it in my bag and made my way to the airport. It wasn’t until we were ten thousand feet in the air that I looked carefully at it and realized it was the package I was desperately waiting for from you.

"I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say I will remember reading this book for the rest of my life. I read it every moment I could spare during a busy week of sales conference- waking up early to do so, and crawling into bed after a long day of listening & schmoozing to spend just a bit more time with AJ. When I got to the end, I wept and wept and wept, and the only thing I could think to do to fill the ache in my heart was to start the book over again. So I did. And when the end came around again, I closed the book, went for a walk, then came back and began it yet again.

"There is the old cliché that books find you at the right time. Having recently switched publishing houses, and having the great fortune to work this summer at Carmichael’s Bookstore, I fell in love anew with the publishing industry. With connecting people to books that will change them forever- both as a handseller on the bookstore floor, and as a publishing rep making sure stores have those gems on their shelves. I have not read a book before that illuminates all the glorious pieces of bookselling so vividly, and with such precision.

"I hope you will forgive my belated thank you. I wanted to begin to find the words for how deeply this novel has moved me. As you know I originally wanted to read it because of its connection to the man in publishing I most adored and revered, which it so lovingly pays homage to. But beyond that personal connection, I found it is a book to read and reread to be reminded of why so many of us have given our lives over to the pursuit of literature.

"Please let me know of anything I might do in my small capacity to help evangelize for this novel. I am committed to making sure this book finds its way into the hearts of thousands of book lovers like me.

"And so, thank you. The galley you sent was a gift beyond measure."

So Johanna has always been one of my favorite people. We are sort of bonded by several things--our love of books, our work commitment, and perhaps a tendency to gossip a bit. Its a strange bond--we were meeting together the day of the World Trade Center bombings. We listened to the news, we cried, but in the end, I wound up continuing to buy books for Schwartz as news came in about the New York tragedy. 

We shared a lot of books together, and Johanna is one of those folks who read lots both in and out of her bag. She wound up being one of the early readers to bond with me over Chris Cleave's Litle Bee. I will never forget the message I received on my answering machine after she read the book. But we also bonded over that person that A.J. Fikry sort of pays homage to, our late sales rep, as beloved a figure as you could possibly be in Midwest book circles.

Mark is sort of the sales rep who has disappeared at the beginning of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, with the new rep taking his place. Always knowing what book to recommend, he also had the ability to enchant the most cantankerous buyer. He was every bookseller's buddy, wowing the staff at our rep nights, and getting us all behind titles. I remember when he sold me Alan Bennett's An Uncommon Reader. We just kept chatting about it until we came to the same conclusion--not only are we going to sell a ton of The Uncommon Reader, but we're going to make a lot of people very happy when they read it. And it turns out that was a case--we wound up selling well over 500 copies, and to this day, one of the book clubs who registers at Boswell has the name "The Uncommon Readers."

And why do I find this so funny? Because when Dave Mallmann, my other longtime colleague turned sales rep, read the book, this was completely his instinct. This is what its like when a buyer comes across something he just knows is going to work, when everything comes together, like when Johanna sold us Nicole Krauss's A History of Love many years ago or when Dave said to me, you must, must, must, must read Beautiful Ruins. Here's what he wrote about Zevin's novel.

"Well, this morning (just a few minutes ago, actually) I finished it. What can I say? As a bookseller for 18 years and a Sales Rep for just over 18 weeks, I found The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry absolutely irresistible. All of the characters were perfectly drawn, the writing style was effortlessly charming, all of the story elements--the various relationships, the mystery element, the constant references to literature old and new, the ending--came together so flawlessly and worked so well, I was astonished. It's not often that you read a book in December and say, "that is one of the best books I read all year," but that is certainly the case here for me. As a bookseller, I would be thinking about how to place this book. Certainly in multiple locations: in the section (faced out, of course), on a prominent New Release Table, at the front counter, and almost certainly on multiple booksellers' [Insert Name Here] Recommends shelves. As a rep, the first question I would ask is: what is the carton quantity? Because that's how I'd sell this book in to bookstores: by the carton."

I don't want this to become an homage to Mark Gates post, mostly because I just don't think I could do him justice. For one thing, I think he already go one when Dean Bakopoulos published My American Unhappiness, with its character Mack Fences. Based on the lives Mark touched, there will eventually be more than two characters in novels inspired by Mark Gates, if there aren't already. The connection Mark made with booksellers is the connection that Island Books in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry makes with customers. And that's probably why booksellers like the book so much.

So I read the Gabrielle Zevin's novel. And I'm not going to lie--this is a sentimental story. Very sentimental. But you know what? When it comes to the places we love and our best memories, a little sentiment is ok. Emotion is the connector; it's the emotion that gets us through the hard stuff, right? It often depends on where your head is at the time, what we're being sentimental about, and how the sentiment is drawn. I read this book and thought, not everyone's going to love this book, and I know exactly the kind of critic that's going to not like it. And I also know the kind of person who's going to love it.

Sentimental or not, life can be like this, if not at the time, it can certainly seem that way in retrospect. After all, it's just about ten years ago that my old mentor David Schwartz died, and can it be possible that we got news of his death while several of us booksellers were driving home from the Book Expo America convention where Schwartz was honored as PW bookstore of the year? Talk about highs and lows. And then I think of Beverly Segel. Oh, how Bev would have loved this book!

I send in my quote, and I turn around, and the April Indie Next List comes out and no surprise, the book is #1 for the month. And there my quote is. And the first thing is, hey, I wrote the Indie Next quote for the last Gabrielle Zevin novel, The Hole We're In. People are going to think we're friends, or that I run the Gabrielle Zevin fan club. I wrote to Mark at the American Booksellers Association, and told him this coincidence, and that maybe he should change me out. And he wrote back, and said that he looks for the quote that best personifies the book, and apparently if I really love Zevin's next book, I might still be in the running for the bookseller quote.

Oh, here's what I wrote: "Fikry is a bookseller with a small shop in a sleepy island resort town off the coast of Massachusetts. He’s a bit cantankerous, but with good reason: his wife, the ‘people person’ of the relationship, has recently died and his prized possession, a rare copy of Tamerlane, has gone missing. Despite those losses, there’s one strange addition, a baby girl left on his doorstep with an explicit request for Fikry to take her in. Zevin’s novel offers the reality of both death and rebirth, held together by the spirit of the bookstore. It’s a romantic comedy, a spiritual journey, and if you include the chapter openings, a collection of short story criticisms as well. In short, it’s a celebration of books and the people who read them, write them, and sell them.”

I've yet to have a baby on my doorstep, but now, as we've turned five, I have continued to think about my own bookstore and the function it serves in the community. Needless to say, I am continuously worried, but at Gabrielle Zevin's event for The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (that's the Canadian edition, at right above) on Monday, April 28, I'm going to stop worrying for a second and just celebrate our anniversary.

First I'm going to go to the reception at Villa Terrace for our other event for Timothy Corrigan (we couldn't say no when the event was moved to that date from the 30th) for An Invitation to Chateau Du Grand-Luce: Decorating a Great French Country House ($5 admission to Villa Terrace, event starts at 7 as well, details on our Facebook page) and then I'm going to toast again at Boswell. It might be a long toast--I'm going to say a few words about the state of the store before we start, but I promise there will be toasting accoutrements.

 But if you aren't able to come to either event, and you are a supporter of Boswell, I wanted to thank you again. As I say at the end of each author event, we wouldn't have a bookstore without you, and I mean it. On to day 1843.

No comments: