Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Brooklyn Book Haul

I visited Brooklyn a few weekends ago and, because that's how I roll, I asked my friend @corpuslibris (Emily Pullen) to put together a book store tour for me. (And no, this post is not just a chance for me to brag that I totally know Emily and totally knew her before Corpus Libris and Emerging Leaders and Skylight and Word, and speaking about the realities of ebooks for indie bookstores, but I do and I did.) It was a mostly walking tour, so not only did I get to visit a bunch of cool bookstores, I also got to see a bunch of Brooklyn.

The most striking feature of my tour was how different each bookstore was, from my store and from each other. Even the new, general, independent stores I visited, the ones whose booksellers I see at trade shows, who are members of the ABA, who use IndieBound marketing material, who share demographics are strikingly different from not only Porter Square Books, which is in a different state, but from each other, even when they were only a ten minute or so walk apart. These differences weren't just in the staff picks, which are obviously going to distinguish one store from another, or in what books are displayed and where, or even how the categories are organized on the shelves, but in the actual books on the shelves. Sure, there were the books everyone was talking about, but the backlist (older, still in-print books) and the mid-list (books by not-so-famous) authors were all totally different. In every section, of every store I visited, even the ones that should have been selling books to pretty much the same customer base, I saw books I had never seen before. Not at my store, not at my house, and not at the other stores.

In some ways, the way bookstores stock their shelves is the same way every other store stocks their shelves; they carry what they think will sell. Obviously, lots of other factors go into a book getting on the shelf of a bookstore, but they all still really boil down to whether or not the buyer thinks the book will sell enough to justify its space. This means people buy different books at Greenlight than they do at Community and Word and they buy different books at Porter Square Books than they do at Harvard Bookstore. And given that what we read reflects who we are, this means every bricks and mortar indie bookstore is a portrait of the character of its community. Through the books bought, and thus, the books stocked, every community with a bricks and mortar indie bookstore creates an image of its own character. If you want to know what a neighborhood is like, walk into its bookstore, go to its fiction section, and see which books by which canonized authors are there.

I had a couple considerations when I was shopping at the stores I visited; first, I'm a bookseller and I have yet to meet a bookseller made of money, second, I live in an apartment that is not bigger on the inside and is already filled with books, and third, you've heard I work in a bookstore, right, so I was looking for stuff I wouldn't find at my own store. (I even intentionally brought one of my smaller tote bags to act as a physical purchase limiter.) With those considerations in mind, here's my Brooklyn Book Haul.

From Greenlight

Coda by Rene Belleto
I picked up Coda because it fit all the other requirements and looked really cool. Ironically, in the Alainis Morrisette way, since I started working at the book store, I almost never browse the shelves and buy something that just happens to look interesting. I go to conferences and trade shows, galleys are mailed to me, and I read a lot of book media, so I don't randomly happen on to books very often. And come on, “Playing with the expectations of the reader, Belleto constructs a logic puzzle that defies logic, much like the 'almost-perpetual motion machine' invented by the narrator of this novel and his father.” If it weren't already covered in words, my name would be written all over this book.

One Sleeps the Other Doesn't by Jacqueline Waters
Since I know how much effort I put into my staff picks, I always make sure to check out the ones at other stores. At Greenlight, a certain “Michael,” had staff picked The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which means that “Michael,” totally rules. Of course, I already have a copy (or three, including the absolutely amazing Visual Editions, um, edition) of Tristram Shandy and so I got “Michael's” other pick.

The Crisis of Infinite Worlds by Dana Ward
I ended up chatting with a couple of the booksellers at Greenlight, a couple I'd met at various events and one I met that day (who coincidentally is friends with one of the cafe's former managers). He saw the copy of One Sleeps the Other Doesn't in my hands, instantly knew I was a cool kid and we started talking about poetry. (Yes, mostly small press poetry.) We traded recommendations and, of the ones he gave me, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds was the most interesting to me. I also want to point out that right before he talked small press poetry with me, he was singing nonsense songs to toddlers for Greenlight's story hour. To reiterate; at Greenlight, the person who reads picture books and sings nursery rhymes is also totally down with cutting edge American poetry. This is why booksellers, in general, fucking rule. When you love books, when you read a lot, you end up knowing a lot about whatever it is those books are about. One of the ways to “contain multitudes,” is to read and so booksellers, in general, kickass at the whole multitude containing game. Where you can have the most in-depth, intelligent conversation about cinema in Cambridge? At Porter Square Books during the evening when Gary and Nathan are working. To be an expert in books, you kinda have to be an expert in everything, so you can go to a book store and talk sports, movies, politics, history, pedagogy, TV, cooking, brewing, knitting, biking, hiking, running...and that's just what I know from the booksellers at my store I happen to know pretty well. Who knows what you could talk and learn about at your local book store?

From Unnameable Books

Two American Scenes by Lydia Davis and Eliot Weinberger
Lydia Davis is a genius. Sometimes her work pops up in pamphlets like this one. I had specifically told myself I was not going to buy anytThe Man without Qualities hing when we went into this store, but, well, when I see a Lydia Davis pamphlet, I buy it.

From Community

Five Women by Robert Musil
The Man Without Qualities is a towering work of modernism, a kind of Don Quioxte at the end of the Belle Epoque in Austria involving politics, national identity, and healthy dose of the impossibility of solidifying meaning in the modern world. It's the fourth corner of European modernism with Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, and Mrs. Dalloway. I had never planned to delve into Musil the way I did Joyce, not because I didn't love The Man without Qualities, but because, despite the best efforts of super-science, I am still not made of time. So when I saw Five Women on the shelf at Community (by the way, this was the store featured in Louis AND they totally nailed handselling when he was looking for a book for his daughter.) (I also just noticed the bottom of their receipt has a quote, which is awesome.) it was obviously a book I needed on my shelves.

From Word

Get Jiro by Anthony Bourdain (and also some greeting cards, one of which, not gonna lie, was pretty lewd.)
Of course, I couldn't come to Brooklyn, demand Emily Pullen lead me all over the borough, and then not buy something at Word. I may be poor, but I'm not an asshole. I decided to get my partner a present because she couldn't make the trip, because she has a “real” job and works “during the week.” Since we're both fans of Anthony Bourdain, and who doesn't love a little sushi themed ultra-violence, I got her Bourdain's graphic novel Get Jiro. And since there was a lewd greeting card, I was obligated by law to get it.

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