If the Food Issue is the highlight of the New Yorker publishing year, then the Style Issue is certainly the nadir. Crammed full of glossy ads, the too-thick-to-not-be-a-double-issue magazine dwells endlessly on profiles of fashion industry bigshots, all of whom seem to have shared the same eccentric quasi-European upbringing. (They bring to mind Dr. Evil and his famous: “My childhood was typical – summer in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we would make meat helmets. When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”) And don’t get me started on those Patricia Marx shopping sprees. I do, however, note that Oliver Sacks has an article about amnesia in there, so perhaps it won’t be all bad.
Scott’s Friday Column is a thoughtful look at why independent bookstores in the Bay Area, and everywhere else, seem to be disappearing.All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
In September, I posted that Michael Chabon’s next book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was to be released on April 11, 2006. Alas, the book has been delayed. Chabon’s done with the manuscript, but there were scheduling problems with his publisher, HarperCollins. Chabon announced the delay on his Web site:HarperCollins had been sort of rushing the thing along, over a steady but polite murmur from the author that perhaps they were moving too quickly. The manuscript was complete. It was not impossible to make the April 11 pub date. But we didn’t even have a finished jacket. Many people who were selling and marketing the book hadn’t had the opportunity to read it. Everything just felt too rushed and when that sense of undue haste finally caught on at the publishing house, I was able to persuade them to see reason, and wait.The new date is now “Winter 2007.”
New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose global warming opus Field Notes from a Catastrophe has been much excerpted in the magazine of late, is blogging for the week at the Powells.com blog. From her first entry:When you write about global warming, you start to feel that a lot of what we all spend our time worrying (or blogging) about isn’t what we should be worrying (or blogging) about at all. (Which isn’t to say you stop worrying about it – or, I suppose, blogging.)By blogging, Kolbert is briefly joining another New Yorker staff writer who has taken up more permanent digs in the blogosphere.
Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while know that during the summer I tend to pen the occasional post about baseball. Feel free to skip them if you like, but I just can’t help myself. Now, on with it. In Chicago, I’m finding that the start of baseball season seems to awaken a collective joy across the city. Riding the El on Friday, I was startled by the conductor’s gleeful announcement that the slowness of our train was due to the Cubs home opener. I also learned that the Cubs typically eschew night games at Wrigley Field because, essentially, night games would wake up the neighbors. Most modern stadiums are surrounded by moats of asphalt, but ancient Wrigley is nestled into a city block and surrounded by rowhouses and city traffic and streets lined with bars and diners. Driving north on Clark Street, the stadium explodes into view, surrounded on game day by throngs of fans. A whole section of the city turns into a clamoring carnival of baseball ferment. And then, a few blocks beyond, one returns to quiet streets lined with leafy trees and brick three flats. In the past few days I have noted the pleasure with which the Cubs fan declares that the season has returned. In my experience, they don’t talk about the team’s chances this year or the strength of the bullpen or anything pulled from the sports pages, they talk about how it feels to have baseball back. They tell me that it’s so great to see people drinking beer in Cubs gear on their front porches and shouting “hey” to fans walking to the game. But mostly they sort of cock their heads back so as to gather in some springtime sun, still new enough to be a novelty. In Chicago, baseball doesn’t just mean baseball, it means that the gloomy, icy, sunless winter is over. No more trudging through the ankle-deep snow in the pre-dawn darkness to the El, and no more returning by the same route – stepping in the same holes my feet made that morning – in darkness to a home whose clanging radiators provide a cozy warmth, which, over time, simply seems to be the temperature they have set for your prison cell. But, if you see Cubs fans marching through Wrigleyville, all that can be put to rest and forgotten until October, a whole baseball season away from now. There are some grizzled Chicago vets who insist to me that we’re not out of the woods yet, that April chills and snows are not unheard of, but I ignore them because, well, baseball is here!(I should note that my already considerable happiness at the return of baseball season has been further enhanced by the book I’m reading right now, a collection of baseball writing by the incomparable Roger Angell called Game Time : A Baseball Companion)
As anyone who has worked as a bookseller before can attest, book stores seem to attract a disproportionate number of crazies, people with odd obsessions, questionable hygiene, and/or highly developed eccentricities. Some might decry the modern online book store because it does not allow for this unique slice of life, but, as it turns out, even Amazon has its own resident crazies. Check out the reviews by the Amazon.com JFK obsessive. For a quick taste, here’s his take on Seven Deadly Wonders, a thriller by Matthew Reilly.7 Deadly Wonders has America as the Bad Guys and England not even seriously in the race for the Capstone of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. When I read the plot outline I thought the old Gizar is plateauing. On a happier note I had a dream about 4 Year Old Caroline Kennedy describing a crayon drawing to President Jack Kennedy saying “I hope you like me Daddy” The next thing you know I’ll be tapped four the Skulls. Well I have always been a Kennedy family loyalist. Thanks to JFK and his clever and beautiful First Lady La Loi Exige. Following your Taft outline of going to Texas Florida Arizona and then back to Texas I am guessing that you are in Texas at a secure bunker Mister Shadow President. As your second in command I would like to join you with my Daughter Julia at that bunker as soon as possible Sir. Thanks to Amazon for allowing freedom of speech like the kind President George W Bush supports.(via)
In July 1995, Barnes & Noble opened a 25,000-square-foot superstore in Portage, MI, on a suburban strip teeming with mall complexes and fast food chains. Coexisting among the global brands were a number of independently owned businesses, including John Rollins Booksellers, a much-loved local outfit. Rollins had moved to Portage in 1986, fleeing a withering retail climate in its original location, downtown Kalamazoo. By the time Barnes & Noble set up shop—literally across the street—Rollins had expanded to 13,000 square feet and stocked 80,000 titles.
I was a longtime Rollins devotee—its Kalamazoo store was the first bookstore I remember being in—and feared Barnes & Noble would extinguish not only it, but all independent bookstores in the area, including the Michigan News Agency, where I was then employed. Nevertheless, as someone who loves books in virtually any context or quantity, my resolve slowly faded, and sometime that fall or winter, I paid my first visit to a Barnes & Noble. I walked around for a moment, feeling oddly guilty, then left without buying anything. My boycott didn’t last long.
Here’s how it is with me: Whenever I show up at a place with books for sale—superstore, indie, thrift store, library basement, street vendor—more than half the time, I’ll leave with at least one. And I go to bookstores at least twice a week. I’ve bought new titles in hardcover, then again in paperback; I’ve bought used copies of books I already own so that I can have all the different covers (in this way I acquired three copies of Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis); often I stand gazing at the hundreds of books on my shelves, thinking a single, urgent thought: I need more books.
Now and then I’ll make a vow to shop only at independents. I usually stick to it for a month or two. Then I’ll find myself at, say, Barnes & Noble in Union Square (where I will have gone to kill time before meeting a friend), surrounded by “browsers” who’ve practically set up shantytowns in the aisles, pondering a Michael Connelly paperback and deciding, finally, that I must own it.
In years past, Borders was a sanctuary for me, a place to flee the boredom and disappointment of the various office jobs that prevented me from writing my own stuff. Being among books for an hour or more (I was never a model employee)—touching them, leafing through them, and, yes, buying them—helped me to regain a tenuous equanimity and get through the mind-numbing afternoons.
It was largely a coincidence of geography that Borders served this purpose. I worked in the World Trade Center for the last year and a half of its existence and went to the Borders in the Five World Trade complex several times a week. After 9/11, I found myself back downtown—another cubicle, another unfulfilling job—and sought refuge in that store’s replacement, on lower Broadway (I also frequented the Strand’s Fulton Street Annex, now defunct). In 2007, I landed uptown, in the most soul-killing corporate office I’ve worked in. By the end of my first week I was roaming another Borders, on Fifty-seventh Street and Park Avenue.
There was another reason why I was drawn to Borders and happily spent so much money there—the chain, like me, is from Michigan, a state whose economy you may have heard something about. I’ve been to its original store in Ann Arbor many times. So, even on Park Avenue, in one of hundreds of Borders locations worldwide, there remained a dim sense that I was supporting a “local” business. For all these reasons, I was unaccountably depressed when I learned not only that Borders had filed for Chapter 11 protection, but that the list of stores set to close as a result included two of my former havens—lower Broadway, and Fifty-seventh and Park.
Is it odd to mourn the closing of certain big-box stores? You could argue that Borders brought trouble on itself, that after years of outrageous expansion, partnering with Amazon, and failing to keep pace with the rise of e-readers, it deserves whatever it gets. Intellectually, I might agree with you. But as the author of three books, I have an emotional stake in this too.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ecstatic the first time I saw my book at a superstore. No less than seeing it on the shelf of one of New York’s great indies, this signified “making it” to me. Over the years I’ve heard from a fair number of readers who tell me where they first encountered my books. Often they mention one of the big chains. These are actual human book buyers, not numbers in a newspaper article about the death of publishing, and some of these book buyers, I gather, are writing from places where a chain store in a mall is the only game in town.
On the other hand, I’ve developed the kinds of relationships with store owners and staff at independent bookshops that aren’t possible at a chain. Three Lives & Co. in New York, to name just one, has given my books crucial store exposure and word-of-mouth support. It also offers something that would seem like a no-brainer but that no superstore provides: a deeply pleasurable browsing experience. It’s one thing to seek out a public restroom, or to prefer a certain bookstore to your cubicle. Abandoning yourself for long stretches to the sensuous art of aimless browsing is quite another.
As a reader and writer, the current moment is endlessly confusing to me. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a one-man mission to save publishing, buying books weekly from indies and chains alike, for the sake not only of my future work, but that of future writers, young people far from urban centers, dreaming up stories in Texas or Idaho or Michigan.
When I was teenager I spent hours at John Rollins Booksellers, fantasizing about one day seeing my own book for sale there. By the time my first one came out, it was too late. Rollins tried to compete with Barnes & Noble, opening a second, hangar-like location with a cafe across town. That store closed in early 2000, and the Portage store followed soon thereafter. The Michigan News Agency, however, is still in business, as it has been since 1947. They carry a wonderful selection of new paperbacks and a staggering number of magazines. Stop by if you’re ever in Kalamazoo.
(Image: Borders Books Reflected from doortoriver’s photostream)
A Salon.com piece from last week is creating a buzz among publishing industry watchers. In it, an anonymous “midlist” author bemoans the consolidation of publishing companies and the ever shallower tastes of the reading public for contributing to the demise of authors who don’t write blockbusters. Almost taunting the reader, she drops clues throughout the article, tempting diligent gossips to discover her true identity. (Were she outed, I suspect she wouldn’t mind the publicity.) First, here is the article. (Use the day pass to view the article… you just have to watch an ad first). As soon as the article was published, the gossip erupted at, where else, gawker.com. Here the speculation begins, readers begin jumping into the fray, and, finally, Gawker, wanting to put the subject to rest, guesses: Amy Bloom. As they freely admit, though, Bloom is not a perfect fit, and I’m not convinced either. I’m on the case, though. Maybe I can figure it out. As far as whether or not I agree with her: I agree that publishing industry consolidation makes for a dull literary marketplace, but I refuse to believe that quality writing, no matter how uncommercial, is unsellable. The American people are not as dumb as some like to think, but I’ll tell you one thing, they don’t like whiners. Possibly more on this later.A PunditI always enjoy hearing from people who have been willing to publicly change their opinions on things. Somehow I find them more believable than the one note folks who populate the right and the left. This is why I like reading Christopher Hitchens. He is incredibly prolific, putting out what seems like a book a year and appearing almost daily in newspapers articulately presenting his singular points of view. As an example, check out his review in Canada’s Globe and Mail of the new book by Ian Baruma (another frequently-published commentator whose writing I enjoy).