Monday, April 30, 2007

Changing Hands Bookstore PW's Bookseller of the Year

A very good New Age vibe leads to success.

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 4/30/2007

Maybe it's the perfect 80-degree weather or the scent of fresh coffee wafting from the Wildflower Bread Company next door, but when the staff at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., gather at 9:45 a.m. around the front cash wrap for their morning meeting, most are smiling—beaming, even—when faced with the work ahead of them.

Co-owner Gayle Shanks runs through the day's events, which include a performance by a Putumayo recording artist, a seminar on journaling and a visit from the C-Span Book TV bus, before sending everyone bustling off to their stations.

Unlike most bookstores, there's not a curmudgeon on-site.

When I later ask Shanks if the staff is putting on a show for the visiting PW reporter, she replies, “No, they're like that all the time. The people working here are happy, and they're happy to be working here.” She adds, conspiratorially, “Anyone who is a downer doesn't stick around for long.”

Shanks says her only major problem with her 48 employees is when they call in sick. “There are too many smokers on staff,” she says. “Two or three times a month they call in sick, and when they do, it really screws up my schedule.” The schedule at Changing Hands is a finely tuned instrument, one that instructs each employee on their responsibilities hour-by-hour.

As the first customers filter through the door, many exchange personal greetings with the staff; others immediately head into the 10,000-sq.-ft. showroom. A few customers linger outside to browse the store's bargain books, which are displayed in a year-round “sidewalk sale.”

The name Changing Hands derives from the store's origins as a used bookstore, where books were not so much purchased as they “changed hands.” One consequence of the hippie-ish name is that new customers often mistake Changing Hands for a New Age bookstore.

Yvette Roeder, the store's PR manager, says nothing could be further from the truth. “We're a world-class, full-service bookstore in the fifth largest city in the United States,” she says, referring to the Phoenix metro area. “We cater to suburban moms, dads, kids—anyone who treasures great books. Our demographic is more Trader Joe's than poor student.” Tempe is home to Arizona State University.

Nevertheless, a bit of New Age vibe still clings to the store. A few minutes after my conversation with Roeder, I find her sitting in an empty room staring at a blank wall. “I'm testing the room's feng shui,” she says, explaining that we are standing in a new office, one that's been created to give room to the five-person marketing team, which includes a full-time graphic designer. When I leave, Roeder is trying to find the most auspicious place to put her desk.

As for feng shui, the store's must be pretty good: last year Changing Hands racked up nearly $4 million in sales—50% from new books, 25% from gift items and sidelines and 25% from used books and remainders.

Throughout, Changing Hands combines a laid-back Southwest aesthetic with a 21st-century sensibility. Take, for example, the new floors, which Shanks selected for their environmentally conscious materials as well as the way they helped define the sales space. She points out how the section of gifts and sidelines is distinguished by subtle parquet-patterned bamboo; a path leading around the cash wrap is demarcated by a soft, thatched vinyl walkway, while everywhere else is covered in a carpet in the comforting hue of red earth.

The store's most striking visual feature is a series of hand-painted murals depicting nature scenes lining the walls above the shelves. Hand-lettered signs—one in blue and yellow announcing “community” beneath an image of people walking hand-in-hand—hang from the ceiling, and a smiling orange sun is suspended over the doorway to the back office, all reminders of the store's priorities.

Pinna Joseph, who has worked at the store for 28 years and serves as Changing Hands' marketing and events manager, points out that these artifacts date to the store's first location in downtown Tempe; after each move, first to a two-story location, and now to its present spot in a suburban strip mall, the signs and the sun came along. “Some new employees don't like them,” she remarks, “but I think they help connect us with our past.”

Changing Hands opened in 1974 with a communal ownership scheme that gave every employee a share of the business. Only Gayle Shanks and her husband, Bob Sommer, remain as owners. Suzie Brazil later came on as a third partner. The three divide the duties of ownership equally: Shanks handles front-list buying, Sommer buys remainders and oversees finances, Brazil is night manager.

The owner's principles may be rooted in the 1960s, but their attitude toward business is as rigorous as that of any other 21st-century business. Various booksellers tell me they're encouraged to keep abreast of management trends and incorporate best practices strategies gleaned from ABA education sessions and books such as Paco Underhill's Why We Buy.

It's understandable. Changing Hands needs to be on the top of its game if it is to prevent its customers from transferring their loyalty to any of the half-dozen chain bookstores within a short drive.

As part of their own effort at self-preservation, Changing Hands was a founding member of Arizona Chain Reaction, a 500-strong consortium of independent businesses that encourage customers to shop at locally owned stores.

The store's watershed moment happened a decade ago, when Shanks had an epiphany. “I realized that if I wanted the store to be sustainable while maintaining the same values—being able to pay the staff a living wage, give money and services back to the community, while still providing a wonderful customer experience—Changing Hands had to be profitable,” says Shanks. Accordingly, profit is a word that comes up in nearly every conversation at Changing Hands.

“Each employee is invested in the success of the business,” says Shanks. Year-on-year sales figures from the previous day are posted next to the time clock. A storewide profit-sharing program guarantees a check to every employee at the end of each quarter, provided sales surpass those of the same quarter the previous year.

Cindy Dach, director of marketing and events, believes this emphasis on profitability empowers employees. “If you come up with an idea that will make the store more money, you can create a new role, if not an entirely new job for yourself.” Three years ago, an employee suggested the store list its used books on Now, three employees spend up to four hours three times a week listing used books online, an effort that generates $4,000 a month for the store.

The owners also encourage employees to experiment. Dach cites herself as an example. Searching for a way to promote debut authors, she conceived of the First Fiction Tour, which took authors from five presses to a half-dozen bookstores and bars around the West. She did this despite a demanding in-store events schedule, one that consists of 350 events annually, from readings to book clubs. Though the First Fiction Tour wasn't profitable, it did “generate enormous amounts of publicity and goodwill.”

Together with in-store graphic designer Brendan Stout, Dach has created a variety of programs to promote books in-store, including a “We Love These Books” display of discounted staff recommendations, and “New Essentials” and “Forever Favorites” sections in the children's area for parents.

Changing Hand's most recent marketing program is “Page 23,” devised to highlight “contemporary fiction that is all too often overlooked by mainstream culture.” The first “Page 23” display offers some two dozen edgy titles, such as The Little Girl and the Cigarette by Benoit Duteurtre (Melville House) and African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou (Soft Skull).

Dach explains the idea originated in response to the NEA's 2004 Reading at Risk Study, which cited a decline in reading among 18–35-year-olds. Accordingly, the program is being promoted in the store with hip-looking signage, as well as on MySpace ( Dach is striving to persuade other stores to pick up the program and contribute their own suggestion.

Unsurprisingly, a store as finely tuned as Changing Hands has even managed to put a succession plan in place—something that eludes many booksellers. Dach, together with head trainer and floor manager Mary Martiniak, are in line to take over when Shanks and Sommer retire, perhaps two years from now.

When that time comes, Shanks says she'll have no regrets. This honor from Publishers Weekly is simply the culmination of decades of rewarding work.

Ultimately, Shanks credits her staff with winning the PW Bookseller of the Year Award. “They and my bookseller colleagues have enabled me to have a profession that still thrills me each and every day,” she says. “The books, the customers, the conversations, the energy that surrounds my life is a gift.”

Abu Dhabi Book Fair Bridges East and West

By Edward Nawotka

Simultaneous translation facilities helped the non-Arabic speakers get a handle on the professional programming featured at this year’s Abu Dhabi Book Fair, held March 31-April 7 in the United Arab Emirates. It was the first conducted in partnership with the Frankfurt International Book Fair, who introduced a wide variety of sessions addressing publishing issues in the Arab world, including translation, censorship, and, especially, rights.

The Fair, now in its 17th year, took on a radical new look, moving from outdoor tents in the city center to Abu Dhabi’s shiny new multi-billion dollar exhibition center on the fringe of town. Some Arabic-language publishers grumbled about the imposition of German “efficiency” on the Fair, finding the higher fees (raised from $45 to $150-$300 per booth) and new antiseptic environs less accommodating than the traditional souk-like atmosphere of previous years.

In total, 406 publishers from 46 countries participated, putting approximately 600,000 titles on display. Though the Fair had no official tracking facility, organizers estimate some 400,000 people visited the Fair, most of whom were locals who attended to buy books. In particular, school children, both boys and girls, flooded the floor, many armed with one of the 3 million dirhams ($1 million) worth of book vouchers donated by local government.

Brandishing a fistful of such vouchers exchanged for books at his booth, Chris Terry, international sales and marketing manager for the American University in Cairo Press, told PW he was having a difficult time converting them to cash. “As is typical throughout the Arab world, there’s a little bit of chaos involved,” he said. “The line to cash in the vouchers is out the door, and, of course, the Fair is closed between one and four in the afternoon [for the traditional Gulf States siesta], so I will have to wait and see how it goes.” Watching as readers, librarians and teachers descended on his booth to buy up titles on display, Terry admitted that he wasn’t fully prepared to sell so much of his stock. “It’s more of a book bazaar atmosphere than I initially imagined,” he said.

Among the vendors, Scholastic was the only American publisher to have a booth, though translated editions of books by a wide variety of American and European authors were on display -- many of them in pirated editions.

Cecile Barendsma, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, roamed the show floor purchasing pirated editions of her agency’s authors. She explained to PW that piracy was as much the result of competition as an outright disregard for the law. “I think the Arabic language market is professionalizing, but it's not fully realized yet: For example not all countries have signed up to the Berne Convention [for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works],” she said. “Though there are publishing houses elsewhere that would live by the law, they are up against their own competitors who don't live by the law. If a publishing company wants to secure rights, there's the possibility that if the author or topic is hot and getting international attention, another publisher will put out a different, unauthorized edition without bothering to secure rights.”

One issue confronting US publishers who wish to sell rights to the Arab world is, though distribution in the region is piecemeal, it’s still often possible for an edition from one country to seep into another country, making it counterproductive for publishers to try and break up the territory, thus limiting the potential profitability.

Mohamed Hashem, publisher of Egypt’s influential Dar Merit Publishing House and winner of the Association of American Publishers’ 2006 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, agreed. “I suppose my typical print run of 2,000 copies is not appealing to them,” he said. “Perhaps they think it isn’t worth their time,” adding that while he was still eager to acquire legal rights to American books “publishers rarely ever return my calls or emails.”

At the Al Markez Al Thaqafi Al Arabi booth, a publisher from Morocco told PW he found it much easier acquiring rights from French and Japanese publishers and showed off translated books by Foucault, Amelie Nothomb and Haruki Murakami as proof.

Barendsma from Janklow & Nesbit, who described her trip to the Fair as “a reconnaissance mission” said she believes there’s still a strong potential market for American publishers in the Arab world. “Having done a number of Arabic language agreements, I know the market is difficult, but it’s also expanding,” she said. “We’re certainly getting more requests.”

Barendsma also found an unexpected upside: “For people like myself, I think it was wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues and editors from Southeast Asia, China, Pakistan and India, which is something that is more difficult at fairs like Frankfurt or London. Abu Dhabi is a great gateway from East to West and the Emirates is used to having international guests and expatriates. The Fair may be in its infancy, but I was impressed.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

Son of Poseidon Gaining Strength

By Edward Nawotka

Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly, 4/23/2007

As booksellers await the seventh and final Harry Potter title, due in July,another promising fantasy series has quietly gained traction among young readers and booksellers. It has even attracted Hollywood and an award-winning Potter film director. The third installment of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, titled The Titan's Curse, is due from Hyperion next month, with a 150,000-copy first printing.

Riordan's first book in the series, 2005's The Lightning Thief, has sold 275,000 hardcover and paperback copies combined; his second, The Sea of Monsters, which sold more than 100,000 copies in hardcover, has just been released in paperback. Last week Variety announced that Chris Columbus—who has directed two Harry Potter films—has signed on to direct and produce The Lightning Thief.

Percy Jackson is a wisecracking dyslexic boy with ADHD who also happens to be the son of Poseidon; in a modern-day setting, he finds himself caught up in stories from Greek mythology. Booksellers are keen on Riordan's approach, complimenting not only his use of classic story lines but the contemporizing twist of having the hero be learning impaired.

At Wellesley Booksmith in Wellesley, Mass., children's buyer Alison Morris reports The Lightning Thief sold 128 copies in hardcover and 525 in paperback, and was the bestselling title at her store last year. “And Sea of Monsters was our third bestselling title, behind Lemony Snicket.” Smith has ordered 400 copies of the new book for a launch party.

She says that the books are especially appealing to reluctant readers, particularly boys. “The action takes off on the first page,” she said. “Riordan takes the old familiar stories, which have gore, action and romance, and makes them work in a contemporary setting.” Morris added that the books' sympathetic portrayal of Percy's dyslexia and ADHD helps some readers identify with the characters more easily.

BookPeople in Austin, Tex., got behind the books very early, and has moved more than 500 copies of The Lightning Thief in hardcover and some 1,200 paperbacks. Last year the store promoted the hardcover of The Sea of Monsters, and has sold more than 800 copies thus far. They've ordered 500 copies of The Titan's Curse for their own May 1 party.

Riordan's sales at BookPeople can largely be attributed to Topher Bradfield, the store's children's outreach coordinator, who in 2006 was inspired to create “Camp Half-Blood,” a summer camp based on Riordan's series.

BookPeople plans three more Camp Half-Blood sessions this summer, each with different mythological underpinnings, including Labors of Heracles, the Lyre of Orpheus, and Theseus and the Minotaur. “We've got 80% of the kids from last year coming back,” said Bradfield. Hyperion Books for Children is providing $6,000 to help cover the cost of the camps and pay for one student from a disadvantaged school district to attend each of the camps for free.

Bradfield's Camp Half-Blood idea caught the attention of Diane Capriola, owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. She has been working with Bradfield to devise her own Camp Half-Blood to take place this summer. “Parents like the idea of a literary camp because it is educational,” Capriola says. “Kids like it because it doesn't seem educational.”

Scott Meyer, owner of Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, N.Y., said he only recently discovered the series—after a sales rep sent him copies on tape. “I came late to the books,” said Meyer, “but once I heard them I immediately knew I wanted to handsell them in the store. We're always looking for the next Harry Potter, and this is a very good series to promote in that vein.”

Nancy Gallt, Riordan's agent, says she always knew Riordan's books might bear comparison to those about the boy wizard. But she sees one distinct advantage her author has over J.K. Rowling: “Rick is writing them faster—one per year—which means his readers won't grow up faster than the characters in the book.”

With the total number of Percy Jackson books set at five, that means Riordan's fans will be able to read their final installment in spring 2009. After that? “We're already talking about prequels and spin-offs,” Gallt says. “Rick has tons of ideas.”

Abu Dhabi Book Fair Bridges East and West

By Edward Nawotka

Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly, 4/23/2007

After a reorganization and relocation, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, held March 31–April 7 in the United Arab Emirates, attracted large crowds and exhibitors from 46 countries—in addition to raising a few Western eyebrows over the number of pirated editions on display. A total of 406 publishers from 46 countries participated at the revamped book fair and organizers estimated some 400,000 people attended, mostly locals there to browse the 600,000 books on display.

Now in its 17th year, the fair took on a radical new look after partnering with the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, moving from outdoor tents in the city center to a shiny new multibillion-dollar exhibition center on the fringe of town. Some Arabic-language publishers grumbled about the imposition of German "efficiency" on the fair, finding the higher fees (up from $45 to $150–$300 per booth) and new antiseptic environs less accommodating than the traditional souk-like atmosphere of previous years.

Scholastic was the only U.S. publisher to have a booth, though translated editions of books by a wide variety of American and European authors were on display—many of them in pirated editions.

Cecile Barendsma, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, roamed the show floor purchasing pirated editions of her agency's authors. She explained that piracy was as much the result of competition as an outright disregard for the law. "I think the Arabic-language market is professionalizing, but it's not fully realized yet. Not all countries have signed the Berne Convention [for international copyright protection]," she said. "[Law-abiding publishers] are up against competitors who don't live by the law. If the author or topic is hot, another publisher will put out an unauthorized edition."

Mohamed Hashem, publisher of Egypt's influential Dar Merit Publishing House and winner of the Association of American Publishers' 2006 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, agreed, but also placed some blame on Western publishers. "I suppose my typical print run of 2,000 copies is not appealing to [rights holders]," he said, complaining that American book publishers "rarely return my calls or e-mails."

While the Arabic market may be difficult, Barendsma said it still has "strong potential" and is expanding. And she noted that the Abu Dhabi Fair has another up side: "It was a wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues and editors from Southeast Asia, China, Pakistan and India, something that is more difficult at fairs like Frankfurt or London."

Walls tumbling down: Jonathan Lethem satire blurs the lines of artistic ownership

By Jonathan Lethem.
Doubleday, 224 pp. $24.95.p>

The February issue of Harper's Magazine featured an article by novelist Jonathan Lethem titled "The Ecstasy of Influence," in which he issues a manifesto calling for "open source" culture, based on the share-and-share-alike underpinnings of jazz and the Internet.

He suggests that the very idea of "intellectual property" is preposterous and proposes that art is better suited to a "gift culture" in which creators freely borrow from others works. "Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master," he writes. "That is to say most artists are converted to art by art itself. ... Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist of creating out of void, but out of chaos."

On his Web site, Lethem has been putting his theory into practice by offering the rights to a handful of his own short stories for a dollar. It's a program he calls "the Promiscuous Materials Project." In addition, he's running a contest to give away the film rights to his new novel You Don't Love Me Yet so long as the winner agrees to return the rights to the public domain after five years. The new novel itself explores questions of proprietary ownership via a Los Angeles rock band coping with stardom.

First, let's introduce the band. Lucinda, bassist, answers phones for a faux "complaint line" that's part of a performance art experiment run by a former lover. Lead singer Matthew has kidnapped a kangaroo from the zoo where he works and is hiding it in his small apartment. Denise, the drummer, is relegated to a dead-end day job at a porn emporium. Bedwin, the band's reclusive muse and guitarist, rarely ventures into daylight and instead spends his days compulsively watching Fritz Lang's Human Desire on his VCR looking for discrete visual clues.

As the novel opens, Lucinda and Matthew have just broken up, threatening to break up the band, which is already struggling to produce a playlist that goes beyond the five clichéd songs the four have already written and played to death.

What initially appears to be a fanciful tale of slacker sex and introspection — the kind of quirky setup seen in a dozen indie comedies — quickly becomes something deeper: a critique of artistic inspiration and ambition.

After Lucinda begins a mystifying phone relationship with a man she calls "the Complainer," a talker with beguiling tales of romantic misadventures, the band's fortune changes. The stories serve as the raw material for a series of new songs — Dirty Yellow Chair, Secret From Yourself and Monster Eyes, the last a likely hit that also provides the band with a name.

The band is invited to play at a highbrow happening. Dubbed "Aparty," it has a farcical twist: The band is expected to play silently while headphone-wearing party goers dance to their Walkmans (it is the early '90s, thus no iPods). Aparty — apart, a party, get it?

Fortunately, the organizer's absurd plans are thwarted, and Monster Eyes plays a full-volume set, one that leads to its big break: a chance to showcase its talent on the absurdly named Fancher Autumnbreast's radio show, a local music kingmaker who has launched numerous careers and appears based on the real-life Nic Harcourt, a famous DJ on Los Angeles' KCRW.

But here's the dilemma: The songs technically don't belong to the band, since they originated with the Complainer's calls. Carl — Lucinda discovers the Complainer's real name after impulsively becoming his lover — is upset and demands to become part of the band, which throws the quartet into disarray.

This somewhat absurdist plot is Lethem's way of illustrating his theory that art is not created in a vacuum, that it does not arise sui generis from its creator.

Besides embodying an agenda, the novel offers real pleasure, particularly in the witty way Lethem depicts the milieu of the L.A. art/rock scene: a gaggle of aging record producers are "unyouthful men in youthful clothes"; a local alternative weekly is titled "The Echo Park Annoyance"; perhaps best of all, he proffers a number of clever, hipster coinages, such as "Astronaut Food" as a metaphor for the meager sustenance one gets from an unfulfilling relationship. In this lovely sentence he describes a middle-aged man's body hair: "His hair, white at his throat, darkened below the curve of his stomach, as though night's setting had recorded itself across the field of his body."

The book's jacket may feature a stern-looking Lethem posing with a guitar — the very picture of artistic ennui — and promise "a romantic farce." But this slick, entertaining novel offers a relationship with the writer and his characters far more satisfying and serious than mere "Astronaut Food."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Mark Doty's 'Dog Years'

Mark Doty's 'Dog Years'

The latest chapter in Mark Doty's ongoing autobiography focuses on his love for his canine companions

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Among the hundreds of poignant images to come out of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy was a photo of a dog swimming through the floodwaters, most likely searching for its lost family. Undoubtedly, its owners were just as distraught by the separation.

As Mark Doty writes in his new memoir, "Dog Years," "One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over the animals who live and die with them, how real that emptiness is, how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake."

"Dog Years" spans a decade of Doty's life, one filled with many deaths, including those of his lover Wally from AIDS in 1994; an acquaintance on Sept. 11, 2001; and, most central to this book, his beloved dogs Beau, an energetic golden retriever, and Arden, a loving black lab.

A peripatetic writing instructor, Doty takes his dogs with him to numerous locales — Vermont, Iowa, New York, Provincetown, Mass., and Houston (where he now teaches half the year at the University of Houston). The canines explore each landscape with their noses to the ground and as much, if not more, enthusiasm than their owner.

Anyone who has read any of Doty's seven books of poetry and three previous volumes of prose knows that he has long dwelled on the "always present" specter of death: "peeking out of the pocket, down in the socket of the bone, the shadow in the photograph, the fleck in the iris of a living eye." His 1996 memoir, "Heaven's Coast," offered a vivid and moving diary of Wally's battle with AIDS. "Dog Years" serves as a companion piece to that volume, one that documents every detail of his affection for his dogs and their eventual demise: Beau, at age seven, from kidney disease, and Arden, at 16, from old age.

Beau, who was introduced to Wally just a month before Wally's death, was intended as a new companion who would comfort him in the bed he was confined to. Arden, whom the couple had raised since a puppy, had become too fat to jump on the bed after eating so much of the hospital-cooked bacon that Wally was surreptitiously feeding to him. Beau ultimately serves his purpose, providing one of Doty's enduring memories of his lover — that of Wally fighting his crippling disease to lay a trembling hand on Beau's flank.

After Wally's death, Beau and Arden become Doty's primary companions, reminding him to pay attention to the quotidian demands of life — walking, eating and sleeping. Later, a new partner, Paul, makes the family a foursome again.

Doty is a capital "L" literary writer who separates his chapters of narrative with brief "Entr'acte" — short meditations on topics such as dog names and photographs, grave sites, time and God. These observations alternate between pithy — "The saddest dogs in the shelter are the ones without any names" and downright sententious: "Sometimes I think the place where God is not is time; that is the particular character of the mortal adventure, to be bound in time, and thus to arrive, inevitably, at the desolation of limit."

In short, "Dog Years" isn't "Marley and Me" — John Grogan's saccharine 2006 best-seller that was loved and loathed in equal numbers by dog owners. For starters, it's unlikely Grogan would ever consider comparing the smell of a dog to the richly scented rooms described in Joris-Karl Huysman's 1903 novel "Against Nature."

Doty challenges time-worn clichés about pets, asking, for example, "Does everyone truly want a baby, or a baby substitute? The idea seems reductive. But the truth within it is that we are charmed by certain kinds of limitation: the dog's dependence, like that of the little child, engages rather than repels. There is a certain pathos in the fact that they cannot speak to us, that they can be so fully present without entirely communicating."

"Dog Years" is itself something of a personal challenge for Doty. He strives to match, in prose, his poetry's ability to communicate the paradoxical emotions in our lives, such as simultaneous feelings of love and despair. Doty's touchstone is Emily Dickinson, whom he calls "the great teacher of contradiction," and her verse serves as a kind of refrain throughout. But, he realizes, there are moments poetry itself fails: In January 2001, near the sixth anniversary of Wally's death, Doty experiences what he calls "the worst moment of my life" when he suddenly feels an urge to drown himself by diving off the Staten Island Ferry. He relents after looking down at Beau and, he writes, "something in me breaks." He continues, "The purpose of poetry, it has been said, is to bring more of the unsayable into the world of speech, but poetry fails me in my attempt to evoke that moment."

Unsurprisingly, there are moments when Doty still finds poetry to be a reliable medium of expression. Doty's most acclaimed book, 1993's "My Alexandria," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, opens with a poem titled "Destruction." It describes the razing of an old building in New England, where "Suddenly the stairs seem to climb down themselves, /atomized plaster billowing." A similar image resurfaces here when Doty describes the tumbling of the first of the World Trade Center towers, which he watches, as it happens, on a computer in the New York Public Library: "One of the twin images on the screen begins, it seems, to consume itself, from the top down, the smoke billowing out only a little before it is sucked down into the great earthward rush and road. Well, no road, on the computer screen: a silent, shimmy column of smoke climbs down itself, in a few seconds time."

When Doty returns to his apartment later that day, it is Arden whom he seeks solace from, as much as Paul. Arden, too, is affected by the tragedy: he can smell the acrid scent of the fire for many months thereafter.

The passage is key to Doty's overall message: Animals are not divorced from the greatest events of our lives, as we are not from theirs. We share life and death equally, but it is our duty alone to try to understand the meaning of it — they're just dogs, after all.

Despite occasional lapses into highfalutin' aphoristic moralizing, "Dog Years" delivers an eloquent meditation on the symbiotic relationship between humans and their dogs, one that is likely to provoke owners to view their dogs less as pets and more like partners. As Doty writes, dogs are blessed with "a fixity of devotion, a deep reliability" — something only the truly fortunate can expect from their human companions.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Third Spring Book Show Blossoms

More aggressive advertising and a partnership with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance helped boost bookseller attendance 18%, to approximately 650, at the third annual Spring Book Show, held March 23–25 in Atlanta. SBS director Larry May said he was encouraged that the new initiatives had helped lift the turnout this year.

The most dramatic change was the addition of educational seminars, held in conjunction with SIBA. "I primarily came to the show to attend the SIBA education panels," said Elizabeth Grant-Gibson, co-owner of Windows a Bookshop in Monroe, La., "but after perusing what was offered on the show floor, I decided to spend about $2,000 on books from AMS and Daedalus Books. We don't carry remainders, but I thought I'd get my feet wet. I'll definitely be back next year."

Joining independent booksellers on the floor were buyers from the national chain stores. Joey Middendorf, used product manager from Hastings Entertainment, said, "I did just as much business there, if not more, as I did in CIROBE. I had more time—I think the selection was a little better, and the vendors had exactly what I was looking for. I was charged with looking for bargain software and DVDs, and it was nice to see some of those there as well."

There were 130 exhibitors at this year's SBS. Buyers from both indies and chains were noticeable around the Advanced Marketing Services booth, which appeared to be having a fire sale of titles from AMS imprints not acquired by Baker & Taylor. John Weber, a buyer for remaninder dealer US Media Partners, was struck by some other fallout from the demise of AMS—a number of former distribution clients of PGW were at SBS. "Maybe some small and mid-size publishers are finally catching on to the idea that you can recoup 60%–80% of the manufacturing cost of your unsold books by selling hurts and remainders—something the majors understand very well," Weber said.

Perhaps as a result of SBS's Southern location, Christian vendors reported strong sales. Barry Baird, executive director of Bargain Books at Thomas Nelson, said, "This show was bigger in terms of orders and dollar amounts than this past CIROBE, and CIROBE was good. We've been going to the Spring Book Show since it started, and this was the best one yet."

Baird indicated that some of his top customers this year were not "mom-and-pop" bookstores, but rather nontraditional outlets. He said that general retailers, such as the bargain clothing store chain Ross Dress for Less and City Trends, a chain with 300 stores that cater to the African-American urban market, have been purchasing larger and larger quantities of books.

In addition to the educational panels, SBS held a two-day writing conference concurrent with the trade show. While about 70 aspiring writers attended the conference, some vendors complained that the competing events caused slow periods on the floor.

One of the busiest people at the show was Larry May, whose company L.B. May and Associates recently purchased Nashville's five-year-old Onboard Remainder Book Show. May was signing up vendors and attendees for the revamped, as-yet-unnamed event, which last year drew only 100 attendees. May had already registered more than 200 attendees and sold 300 tables for this year's show, set for August 10–12 at the Georgia World Congress Center, the same venue as the Spring Book Show.

Larry Brown's Last, Unfinished Country Epic

A Miracle of Catfish

By Larry Brown


Reviewed by Edward Nawotka, from the San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2007

The famed Ole Miss journalism Professor Jere Hoar was once asked in an interview, "Why, exactly, does Oxford produce so many writers?" The northern Mississippi town has fostered writers as diverse as John Grisham, Tom Franklin and William Gay, and of course, William Faulkner, now immortalized in bronze on the town square. Hoar replied that when growing up as a child in Oxford, "You saw writers walking down the street every day and grow up thinking that it's a normal thing, wanting to be a writer, the sort of job anybody can do."

Larry Brown was no different. The ex-Marine spent 16 years as an Oxford firefighter before dedicating himself to writing full time. When Brown died of a heart attack at age 53 in November 2004, he'd just delivered the bulk of his sixth novel, "A Miracle of Catfish," to his publisher. In an essay that introduces the book, Brown's friend and fellow Oxford resident Barry Hannah describes Brown as a "late bloomer" who hectored him at the local bar with story after story, some "so bad" Hannah would duck out the back of the bar when he "saw him coming down the walk with the inevitable manila envelope." Brown did improve: In total, he delivered five powerful novels (including "Dirty Work" and "Joe"), a pair of affecting memoirs ("On Fire" and "Billy Ray's Farm"), two story collections, and this unfinished final manuscript.

Sadly, since "A Miracle of Catfish" was left unfinished, it is impossible to ultimately judge. The publisher, who offers ellipses to indicate cuts to the text, provides a single page of notes Brown outlined for the final chapters of what is already a sprawling country epic. As it stands, the book chronicles a year in the life of a small community outside Oxford in the year 2004-2005, beginning with septuagenarian Cortez Sharpe bulldozing the white oaks from his property to make way for a new catfish pond -- an event Brown notes in a syntax that could just as easily have come from the pen of Faulkner:

"The soft earth that had lain hidden beneath rotted leaf mold for millenniums was torn up and printed with dozer tracks and shown to the unflinching sun, where it lay curled and cracked and began to dry and flake and be clambered upon by red fire ants," writes Brown.

Sharpe himself is the most vividly drawn of the large cast of locals, which includes his wife, a stroke victim who sits idle in a wheelchair watching endless infomercials on TV, waiting to die; a young neighbor boy named Jimmy who disturbs Shape's idyll with a noisy red go-kart; and Jimmy's father (who is known solely by that moniker), a factory worker, who, when not drinking beer, is watching hunting videos and worrying over the state of his '55 Chevy and newly pregnant mistress. Sharpe's daughter, a plus-size lingerie model, lives in Atlanta with a painter suffering from Tourette's syndrome who speaks in rhyming vulgarities, whom Sharpe refers to exclusively as the "damn retard."

It may sound as if Brown is indulging in the horny, smoky, trailer-trashy cliches of Southern-fried fiction, but Brown is better than that, and generates tremendous pathos for his people, rendering them far more human than mere caricatures. He's equally adept at incorporating infrequent and surprising picaresque elements, especially in the form of anthropomorphized animals, such as a pair of crows that talk in African American patois, and a behemoth catfish named Ursula who shares Sharpe's pond with 3,000 far smaller catfish.

Eventually, Sharpe teaches Jimmy to fish, an act that begins to close the circle of the generations and the community, but soon thereafter, the story abruptly ends.

Since there can be no resolution to the action -- which includes a number of accidental deaths and pregnancies, as well as a murder -- the cursory plot is ultimately incidental to the vivid, if lengthy depictions of the everyday obsessions of the locals: hunting, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and mulling their lot in life.

Knowing from the start that the book is unfinished -- lacking a roof, so to speak -- means the reader can only take pleasure from being lashed by the elemental energy of Brown's imagination, rather than ever fully inhabiting it.

Ultimately, the experience of reading this finely wrought but unrealized novel is not unlike the satisfaction fishing on a hot, sunny day offers: One sits in a daze, halfheartedly in anticipation of those little tugs on the end of the line that awake you to consciousness. And even if you don't return home with a single catch or a new trophy to mount on the wall, you still believe that your time was well spent.