Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Expo America

This week marked the annual convention of booksellers, publisher and authors held nowadays in New York City.  In years past, the convention moved around among such cities as Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.  Those were the days!   I have nothing against the Big Apple except the huge number of cabs transporting single individuals up and down the island.  Crazy.  But it's an exciting city, no question.  And since most publishers are located there, it makes sense.

You might guess that the hot topic was ebooks and the devices on which to read them.  How we bricks and mortar stores will become purveyors of same was much discussed.  Fair pricing of ebooks began and ended conversations.  Big changes are afoot, all agreed.  And yet,  a workshop on book buying habits in the US revealed interesting statistics.  Though the media, overall, would have us think "the book is dead", probably by next week,  stats show 98% of all books sold are still physical books.   To be in a busy, independent bookstore is to know there are bunches of folks who want a place to see books, talk about books with knowledgeable people, browse at length,  discover new authors to try or new subjects to learn about.  I'm no ostrich, but I do think the media has the sky falling prematurely on this one.

 A highlight of BEA for me is always seeing and hearing authors.  We do have a fantastic line up of author events at our store at all times.   It's the groupings that are unique to the convention.  A breakfast on Thurs. was emceed by Jon Stewart and included Condoleeza Rice,  John Grisham and Mary Roach.  All have new books out  now or coming out by Fall.   All were fascinating to hear.   All were funny in one way or another.  Funniest of all was Jon Stewart looking quietly at Dr. Rice after her very articulate and charming talk and saying,  "Don'"   The audience erupted in laughter as did Dr. Rice.

Good times in the land of books.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Do You Want Your Booksellers Reading at the Register?

Is it a requirement that booksellers wear glasses? Kind of. Is it a requirement that boys that work at Trader Joe's wear carabiners with keys on them? Most assuredly. There are some stereotypes that are offensively true. The point I'd like to raise is one of great contention, and the mere fact that I hesitated to even bring it up is proof of its divisiveness... reading, while working at the cash register. Is it okay? Why or why not...

When you walk into a bookstore, you expect the booksellers to be, well,...hyper literate. This quality takes a good deal of time to develop. If you are working at the register, and there aren't many customers around, and everything had been straightened and it ok to read? Would you be put off if you saw an employee reading on the job? Or would you see it as on the job training/ or product placement?

I personally have mixed feelings on the issue. If I saw someone reading at a coffee shop, and they didn't look up to acknowledge my presence as a paying customer, I would be miffed. I would feel neglected...but I would also be curious as to what the are reading. Now let's say we have the same scenario, but this time we are in a bookstore...if the reader/employee in question looked up and acknowledged me as a customer, I would be fine with them reading at the register. I would think to myself, what a wonderful job they have! I wonder what they are reading? As surely it must be good, I mean they work here and have the pick of the litter! They practice what they preach!

I am honestly curious as to what you think as a customer, is it beneficial to have booksellers reading on the job? (while at the register)

Friday, May 28, 2010

dozing off...

If you want me to keep turning pages in the Spring and Summer, make the land a character in your novel. I just finished Tinkers; I'm reading The Wind in the Willows for the first time. Urban novels are not for the heat. I want to read under a tree, high grass waving around my head, insects buzzing in my ears, ants on my forearm, the imprint of clover crushed by my cheek as I inevitably doze off, reading the same paragraph three, four, five times over until it slips me into a dream of maybe my own Mole End, where the shelves are dusty but my friend is industrious with the feather duster, and there are little ones running about eager to run errands to the store for a pound of this and a bottle or three of that. I want the smell of earth and the tickle of grass, and the history of the hills and valleys in your story. This urban life is a construct, a dangerous one, and I for one don't want to forget how close we all are to the land out there, the land that we have boarded up, paved over, and tamped down to build our human dreams upon. If you want my attention these days, your story will have grass stains and muddy feet.

Notes from the future.

Recently, thousands of graduates and their families flocked the city like swallows through San Juan Capistrano, and it got me thinking of my own graduation, two years gone, and what exactly it means to have a piece of paper on the wall (other than the fact that it makes my room feel more like a dentist's office).

Throughout school, I remember there was this often-unspoken pressure, this constant feeling that life was like a tower of blocks: each year built on the last in a straight line, and if I screwed up once (and who under such pressure wouldn't?) the whole thing would come crashing down. You're told you have to do well in classes so you'll get into the honors' classes. Then you have to do well in them to get a high GPA. Then you have to study and do well on the SAT's, the ACT's, to get into a good college, where you must do well to get a good job.

And mind you, not just any degree. You must study business or science or math or computers to get a good job. But, if you choose to study literature, well plenty of literature students go on to be lawyers, the college career center likes to remind us. And if you study writing, well, there's always journalism or business writing to be done. Communication skills are very important, after all, in the business world.

Recently I spoke with one of my former professors, and he told me that college freshmen were coming up to him, demanding information about what types of jobs they could get in this type of economy. And my professor had no idea what to say to them.

So I will say this: knowledge is not measured by sheets of paper. And life is not a tower but a random sequence, a pile that by sheer chance builds to a height but that has no simple sense of order. But that's okay. As a pile, it's more stable, and it cannot be knocked down, only rearranged.

If any recent graduates, or parents of recent graduates are reading this right now, I have some small pieces of advice, from two years down the road:
1. Expect life to be hard, at least for a while. Expect to have no money and no sense of direction.
2. Value your education not for the doors it opens in the world but for the experience and effort that went into it.
3. Find something that interests you and go after it passionately. I don't say follow your heart or dreams, because hearts and dreams change. Drive towards your interests until they no longer interest you, or until you realize that they will never lose your interest, at which point you've found a calling.
4. Relax. It works out, eventually. Just not ever in the ways you plan.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Podcast Dorkitude

I had a crisis the other day. As I was loading my new iPod, I realized that the majority of what I load onto Walter (named after the main character in Jonathan Franzen's soon-to-be-released epic, Freedom) isn't awesome music, but podcasts. Specifically, BBC and NPR podcasts. Here it is, folks -- your first-ever glimpse into the iPod of the Brookline Booksmith's events director. It ain't pretty.

Thinking Aloud
The BBC's weekly nerd fest, where a bunch of dorks talk about intellectual pursuits of a sociological nature.

WNYC's not as regular as I'd like it to be science podcast that frequently reduced goobers like me to tears. Check out the one on the chimp that was raised as a girl if you want to feel my pain.

Sound Opinions
WBEZ Chicago's weekly music show. It bills itself as "the world's only rock-n-roll talk show," but most of their stuff isn't exactly rockin' because it's for NPR dorks like myself. Be sure to listen to the end, where people with Chicago accents stronger than mine lament about host Jim DeRogatis's fixation on Brian Eno.

I Love Movies
This one is slightly less nerdy because the host, Doug Benson, is well-known for a movie he made about smoking pot. It's still pretty nerdy, unfortunately, because it relies on OCD-like knowledge of movie arcana.

The Savage Lovecast
Finally, something not humiliatingly nerdy! It's about s-e-x! A weekly dose of love advice from Dan Savage, my favorite pundit.

There you have it, folks! Now excuse me while I put my headphones in while avoiding eye contact.


Is your budget so tight that finding a penny in the crack of the sidewalk is the highlight of your day? I know the feeling. But don’t let that let you go without reading anything all summer.

We have great bargain tables in our store that allow you to save around 70% on all types of titles: cookbooks, biographies, art collections, novels, a wide array of children’s books, and more. What a deal, eh? It’s better than! What I love about these tables is that they’re not sale carts filled with strange books we just can’t get rid of. Our bargain tables contain towering stacks of great reads, newish titles, classics, and old favorites. Occasionally, we even get bargain books that are out of print. I was ecstatic when we got in The Amazing Adventures of Bathman by Andrew Pelletier this past week. (It was a sad day when I learned that it was out of print.)

The Amazing Adventures of Bathman is great for the admiring-superhero-boy! Trust me, good boy books – while they DO exist – are harder to come by.

There’s only one boy who can take on this tub full of trouble, where a kidnapping has taken place. “Bathman is on the job!” And, the comic book style layout only adds to the fun.

So, come on, kersplash into summer reading with us. When these bargain titles are gone, they’re gone! (Same goes with our used book $1 cart right outside the store.)

In the words of Bathman, “’See you next time gang! [and] Keep your noses clean!’”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Celebration of Life

My daughter, until one week ago, worked in the social work department for oncology at Beth Israel Hospital.  Each year there is an incredible day long event put on by the department for cancer survivors and their families.   It includes a breakfast, workshops of all kinds and a beautiful lunch under a big tent.  Hundreds of patients and families, doctors, nurses, social workers and other support staff attend.   This is truly an awe-inspiring occasion.  And it's a very emotional one with plenty of joy to it and many tears, as well. The passion and compassion of the hospital folks is amazing.   Patients and families inspire huge admiration for their courage and stamina.  The entire day is infused with triumph and hope.

I attended my third Celebration yesterday with my daughter.  We registered and checked out the raffle and silent auction items.  Booksmith donates a big basket of books and other goodies.  I noticed another basket of books,  donated by a group of nurses.  In the complimentary tote bag given to each attendee were books - one a photo essay of breast cancer patients, a pamphlet of writings of patients, families and docs/nurses, a notepad and pen, and a booklet listing the days events.   The written word in one form or another is a balm.  And it connects us, one to the other.

The luncheon includes a keynote speaker, this year a fine, bestselling author who is now a cancer survivor.  His talk was all one could wish - earnest, funny, engaging,  inspiring.  But the most incredible part, for me, is the panel of five or so patients who speak of their experience.  Some are survivors of some years, some are in second or third battles with the disease.  They are young and not so young.  They are multi-ethnic men and women.  They are not polished speakers.  But their stories are riveting.
There is much applause and cheering for them.

It was a Celebration of Life, indeed, made up of stories, shared orally or in writing.  Traveling the few miles from the bookstore where I work surrounded by stories to this event so rich in stories, I realize yet again the proximity and importance of stories in all our lives all the time.  Where would we all be without them?   

So I realize I've used the words stories and inspiring many times in this post.  I could try to mix it up with other versions of those words, but really, they are the best words for this story.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Libbie gets halfway through a board book, turning one stiff page at a time, and then she gets pretty focused on finishing the darn thing. She's at her strongest when you're trying to tell her what the hungry caterpillar is gonna eat next, and she just wants to close the book and move on to the next. She's got no time for the wrap-up. "I get the idea", she says. "Now what's that one over there, the one with the hippos?"

Along with a host of other parents, we are constantly amazed at Jackson's memory. Drop an unnecessary word out of a sentence in the middle of a book at the end of a long day, taking this minimal shortcut once you see that his eyelids are drooping, and he twitches and turns to you, "No! 'The dog', daddy. Go back."

When you take your two little kids out for a romp in the cemetery, you search for that thick bed of moss, sphagnum I think, because it's the perfect bed for a three -year-old to spin and fall on, and for a one-year-old to roll and crawl and have her little spell of wailing and her long stretches of cooing and questing on. And, if you take my advice, you will lie on you belly, drop your face into the thickly tickling moss, let it take all of your weight and find that you can breathe easily through your nose. And you will smell the smell of cool earth and growing dense moss and that will be how you know it is a good day despite all of your questions.
Just watch your back, because your three-year-old will be jumping high into the air and crashing down butt-first right in the small of it at any time, now.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

First Love and Other Finds.

I have to admit, I recently fell in love. My girlfriend will have to forgive me. It's just the way it is. It was a German woman who teaches schoolboys English in a small seaside town. Her name was Stella.

It was a tragic, mad, ill-advised affair, the type that changes you forever and leaves a name always on your tongue.

And what's so amazing is that it all happened by chance. If I had not looked at that particular book at that particular time, I might never have found her.

The affair lasted about a day, but perhaps that's because I couldn't stop reading.

Of course, I'm talking about a book: Stella by Siegfried Lenz, which is due to come out in August. I highly recommend it. It's a small, simple book about a boy falling in love with his teacher. It is haunting and beautifully written, and is as strong a rendering of first love and the sorrows of growing up as any I've encountered.

But it got me thinking about how we find the books we love. For me it is a haphazard process. Sometimes I get recommendations, from other booksellers or customers, from book reviews or authors I enjoy. Other times they just seem to fall into my hands. I see an intriguing cover or title, perhaps a name that looks interesting (I must admit to profiling here. If I see a foreign name, be it German or Czech or Japanese or Spanish, I become intrigued.) Or maybe it is just sitting next to a book I already love, or it's out on a table.

I read the back first, look for blurbs from authors and reviews on the front. And then I give it the first line test. I thrill over first lines. A good one can sell me on a book instantly (Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie caught me this way). This becomes the first page test, which becomes the first chapter test, and then I buy the book because there's no chance of stopping after that.

I would like to pretend I have an organized system. As a bookseller with college degrees in both writing and English literature, I should have a system. I mean, I know books as well anyone my age can be expected to, so how can I explain such disorder? If I were a mechanic, my garage would be a pile of random tools and a ouija board used to locate them. The engines I built would become ineffectual pieces of modern art. But somehow, with books, it works.

My point, and you've probably already gleaned it, is that random encounters are, with books as with love, one of life's great joys. The things you don't expect to find are often the most meaningful, the most affecting.

And you can't find such treasures everywhere. On a website, you might get suggestions by an equation (You searched for Raymond Carver's "Cathedral": Perhaps you would like "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"). But would I find a small German novel from a small imprint about first love by an author I had never encountered through an algorithm? Perhaps. I am not saying math never works. Sometimes it does (although as a former English major, I am forever skeptical on this point).

This is why I love physical bookstores, physical libraries. Because the book you are looking for is surrounded by thousands of other books you've never heard of. And they're just sitting there, waiting.

P.S. Mark the date: Stella comes out August 3rd.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Joy of Pictures

One great thing about coming back from a long vacation is to check out all of the new books that have made their way to the shelves. There is always one unexpected book that appears. This week’s pick? Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud’s Popville.

Popville is a new intricately designed pop-up book that follows the development of one house in the country. But what happens when more and more buildings surround this little house? My favorite part about Popville is that it’s a wordless picturebook.

Ah, wordless pictures! I love ‘em. But, unfortunately, so many people really don’t understand the essence of them. “They’re not really stories…” “Oh, those are for babies…” “There’s nothing to read in it…” “You can’t do anything with them…” I’ve heard all of the excuses…stop it!

I can write a five page paper just on one page spread, so I’ll just say this: Wordless picturebooks help children to expand their art and story telling skills. It’s not just words that make up great stories, right? It’s also the illustrations. Pictures provide details that words can’t say and also portrays what does not need to be said. One time a three year old, whom I was babysitting for at the time, asked me what a character liked to do for fun. So, we went through the book just looking at the pictures. She had so much fun discovering more about this character. Plus, I’ve heard other parents say wordless picturebooks are great because it’s the child’s turn to read the story to them (even if their child cannot yet read).

More Awesome Wordless Picturebooks
by Suzy Lee
Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann
You Can't Take a Balloon into the Museum of Fine Arts by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Glasser
Lion and Mouse (Caldecott Winner 2010) by Jerry Pinkney
Flotsam by David Wiesner
Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thank Heaven for Little Girls

A nice dad brought his lovely daughter to tonight's event with Brady Udall. To my childless Auntie eye, she appeared to be around my niece's age, maybe six or seven (Hi, Katie honey. You don't read Auntie's blog do you? Kisses!). As Zoe later confirmed, she was seven years old and in the first grade.

Before that, though, during the reading, Zoe laughed uproariously at a passage that involved the words "intestine," "butt," and "confetti." She asked a great question during the Q & A: why did Mr. Udall have four wives in his novel, no more, no less? She was very satisfied with his answer (that four was the maximum number of wives whose children's names he could remember). This was music to my jaded ears -- how many times can you hear questions about process before you stop caring whether a writer writes in his study, on a boat, before breakfast, fully clothed or in the nude, anyway?

After the reading, while her dad discussed Mormon history with our honored guest, Ms. Zoe helped me sticker books, carry books up and down the stairs, and restock the shelved with signed copies. She confided to me that she loved her dress for its ruffles and lavender color and confessed that she worried that her comprehension skills would continue to outstrip her reading ability. ("Well you see, my parents read me Harry Potter, so I already understand it, but I can't read it. When I finally can read Harry Potter, I'll probably like more difficult fiction." Direct quote.) I bet Zoe $7 that, one day, she'd be able to both read and understand in equal measure. She took me up on it.

So Zoe, I doubt you're reading this, but I am grateful for your spontaneous assistance, your eloquence and your ruffly lavender dress. I'm proud to have taught you the word "chartreuse." Trust me when I say you're my favorite audience member, and I encourage you to attend our readings again, and often.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Sadly, I learned this week that Rodney's Bookstore of Central Square will be closing its doors for good following a massive liquidation sale. A number of years ago I used to live in Cambridgeport and would frequently spend an afternoon hoofing it to the various Cambridge used bookstores. There was House of Sarah in Inman. There was Hopewell's up on Mass Ave. There was that store in the Porter Square (below Bob Slate). And there was Rodney's. Now all of those have vanished. How could this have happened?

Now, I won't bore you with cliches or mantras or statistics. I won't regale you with poo-poo chain store stories. I'm certainly not dapper enough to forbid you from shopping at one of 'em. Instead, let me casually suggest that you to buy A BOOK locally. If you're thinking of buying five books this week, make one of those books from a local bookseller. There. That was pretty casual, right? Good.

Yep. That's right. I'm taking the initiative and declaring this week "Locally Buy A Book Locally To Keep Your Locally Owned Locale Open For Locals To Shop Locally Week!" Or "LBABLTKYLOLOFLTSL-week!"(That's going to look pretty [expletive] sweet on a t-shirt.)

That's right. Let's do this, my fellow townfolk. If you live in Central Square, ride your recumbent bike to Lorem Ipsum or Raven Books. If you live in JP, go to Jamaica Way Books before you buy your organic sprouts at City Feed. If you live in Middleton, stop on over to Booksmyth (it exists, I have proof). If you live in Salem, buy a book at Cornerstone Books or Derby Square right before you get that hex lifted by a freelance gypsy. Every town has a bookstore. Gloucester. Danvers. Plymouth. Newburyport. Brookline. Somerville. Northampton. West Roxbury. Beverly. Etc... They are out there. They need you. They want you.

I know, you're saying "Well, its not like my $14 is going to make or break a store." And yeah, if you want to talk semantics you'd be correct. But if 50 people in East Buttsville spend $14 at the quaint indie bookstore in downtown East Buttsville then the game gets sent into overtime. Independent bookstores win the coin toss, and elect to receive. And together the people of East Buttsville split the uprights and chalk up another win for the community.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

National Spotlight

It fell on Brookline this week.  The town suddenly felt like the scene  of  an episode of "Law and Order"  or  "Criminal Minds".  Yellow crime tape,  multiple helicopters overhead for hours, FBI jackets galore, and media present  in astonishing numbers all  marked the site of a local gas station two blocks from our store.  Allegedly, a Pakistani employee of the station has financial ties to the Times Square wanna bomber.  This you know if you are even peripherally aware of the news whatever your chosen source for it.

What you may not know so well  is the effect on the owner of the station and his family.   This is not a person who would ever seek 15 minutes of fame.  He is truly the proverbial pillar of the community having been generously and genuinely involved here for decades.  But he does this quietly and modestly.  He has a large, close-knit extended family in the area.  Since Thursday they have been besieged at work, at home and wherever they go by  cameras, microphones, TV trucks with long satellite dish necks. Even after the FBI allowed the station to reopen, he kept it  closed out of courtesy to the residential  neighborhood, in hopes that things would quiet down.  Local friends, business and personal, staged a rally Sat. a.m. in support of him, and he is open for normal business now. 

This has been an interesting and up close experience of how readily guilt is presumed.   And how the sensational overrides the sensible.  Many people in our town know this man personally and professionally, myself among them.  Most of us leapt to offer our support for our friend knowing in our bones that he has nothing to with terrorist networks.    But some have been heard to say, "Well, you never really know..."  and  "Isn't he Muslim??".    Because the family is originally from Lebanon, an assumption is made about religion and then, further,  political allegiance.  And so, guilt is presumed.

I do realize how charged and sensitive any discussion of our country's safety from terrorism is bound to be. There are serious reasons for our concerns.  But  because we traditionally don't know or understand other cultures particularly well in this country, suspicion and worse can rise to the surface in some pretty broad brush stroke ways.   An important part of our democracy is that one is innocent until proven guilty.   And don't get me started on media frenzy.

Okay, down off the soapbox with me.  I'll just say further that it's been a very eye-opening week indeed and a thought-provoking one, too.   At the bookstore, we have scads of books to educate on all points of view.   Everyone can learn something new, I suspect.  Come on by.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Healthworks in Cool-kids Corner?

Can it be true? The wealthy-women-only gym maybe taking over the space occupied by our long standing and victoriously defeated foe, Barnes and Noble?

I'm feeling such a strange mix of emotions. Currently I have an underutilized "student" membership at the Healthworks across from BU. I moved, and traveling there truly sucks, but if the rumors are real and I could workout before or after work right here in Coolidge Corner, well....let's just say there would be no fear of bathing me with a stick on a rag...

What would that experience be like? Working out next to customers? If you know me , you know that I am very into sustainable community living, and the shop indie/local ideals...but I do have boundaries.

I've been working in Coolidge Corner for 6 years, and my customers still do a double-take when they see me out of context. For example...sometimes when I am shopping at CVS, or grabbing a coffee I'll run into a customer who I can tell is struggling to place me....and usually they think I work wherever it is we happen to be standing...I have even fitted some folks for bras at Lady Grace even though I do not , nor have I ever worked there...because service workers all kinda look the same...and I don't like to disappoint......(i kid) my point is....

If I'm at the gym, will you be asking me for advice on proper free-weight techniques? (I could actual give it but still) And will I want to see my community lounging in the sauna?

This begs the much is too much community? Privacy and convenience are at odds here, and this Healthworks possibility is really giving me some anxiety. I'd love to know your thoughts. How much living should you do near your job? How close am I to living in a commune?

Will you make fun of me if I slip during step-aerobics?

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Today was the day that the FBI raided Coolidge Corner. A gas station 2 blocks down from us on Harvard St. has been surrounded by the law, the media, and gawkers aplenty.

I just left my register shift and the rumors were swirling. Were they actually connected to the failed bomber jerk of Times Sq. or not? Was there a bomb here in Brookline? Did it have something to do with this guy? Could I possibly have wrapped a present in paper with winking owls for a terrorist before?

As of now, it's not entirely clear, but, at least thankfully, as of this moment, Brookliners are told we're safe.

Anyway, I am not trying to be glib here, but let's turn it back to what I planned to blog about today - let's talk about number one. I will tell you about being personally terrorized in my own work space.

Welp, I should preface this story by saying here at Booksmith, I help with the event series, and am sort of a comedian (with income in the triple digits!) It will all connect in a couple of paragraphs.

So sometime in late April 2008, my former sketch comedy group, Anderson, opened for national cult comic / personal favorite Neil Hamburger at the Middle East Club in Cambridge. The sketches we planned for that night had all been previously performed at other shows to much laughter. We opened for Mr. Hamburger the year before and the crowd really seemed to like our brand of smart-ish, anxiety-ridden potty humor. In other words, we felt good going into the show.

But sometimes you have an off night as a comedian or as an event host or a person trying desperately to write a work blog, and your jokes fall flat. Sometimes, there are crazies.

There was a man who was walking around outside of the club telling Mr. Hamburger's jokes to the passersby. The man was unmistakable. He was 50-something, his salt & pepper hair had not had contact with soap in sometime, wearing a filthy black track jacket, the foam headphones around his neck were deteriorating and attached to a Walkman cassette player. Neil's fans are loyal and he is so very quotable (I can't hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a frequent target of Neil's, without launching into his trademark "WHYYYY..."). So we didn't think anything of it.

An hour later, we Andersons got on stage. About one line into our first sketch, someone at the very front of the stage shouts "WHERE'S NEIL HAMBURGER? NEIL HAMBURGER! NEIL HAMBURGER! BOOOOOOO!" Sure, heckling is part of Neil's act, but not ours. The yeller was the man we'd seen reciting Neil Hamburger's jokes outside. He jeered loudly throughout our set until my friend did a very brave thing and chased him out. His jeering meant we were thrown off and, well, we didn't recover, and it meant people couldn't hear our jokes' setups. That meant weak laughs. Silence.

It kinda hurt. Okay, it was awful. Afterward, Neil reassured my friend Rob & said that he had a similarly horrific experience opening for a musical act - everyone who performs on a regular basis has some kind of experience like this.

Still, we were pretty bummed. We worked so hard!

The next night, I introduced Mary Roach's reading here at Booksmith for Bonk, her spectacularly funny exploration of the science of sexual physiology. It was my very first event-hosting experience. I was a wee bit nervous, and, I don't know, still hugely disappointed from the night before. I probably came across like an awkward doof more than usual, but there you go.

So, of course, she gave a wonderful talk. She is a wonderful lady and Bonk is a wonderful book. It answers the eternal question, "What is the deal with that inevitable, uh, occurrence occurring during rope-climbing gym class?" In addition, her description of pig insemination could very well terrify you into veganism for life. Also her account of the research study she partook in - amazing.

During the Q&A, a man stood up. He asked, "Have you read any Terry Southern?" He was 50-something, his salt & pepper hair had not had contact with soap in sometime, wearing a filthy black track jacket, the foam headphones around his neck were deteriorating and attached to a Walkman cassette player.

Rob, Brian (our former events director, who'd come to the comedy show the night before), and I all looked at each other. Was that the - yes, yes it was.

Ms. Roach paused. What would the midcentury cult fiction writer and man behind Easy Rider, aside from some of the sexuality in his works and who doesn't write about sex really, have to do with the science of sex? "No, I'm afraid I haven't."

"You should," he said definitively. He turned and clomped out of the room.

The sight of him struck terror deep into my soul. Would this man appear around every time I spoke into a microphone in front of a large crowd? Well, readers, he hasn't. I hope that he is okay, but I hope never again.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ms. Manners Does Books

Dearest Reader,

The other day, I, Ms. Manners, walked into my favorite boutique, Mint Julep. I saw the most striking dresses from L.A. Made. I said hi to the super nice salesgirl, the one that helped me pick out earrings for my friend's wedding. She showed me some different colors and necklines.

I tried on the one I liked best. Not to toot my own horn, but I looked fantastic. I hung the dress up and walked out of the fitting room. "How'd it work out?" the salesgirl asked. "It looks great on me, and it's super well-made!" I replied. She took the dress out of her hands and made her way over to the cash register. "Great choice! That'll be $129.25 with tax."

"Oh, I'm not going to get it here." She looked at me, confused. "I'm going to order it online. I can get it for at least $20 cheaper on Thanks for your help! See you later!" What a nice girl! What a nice store! I thought, then I was off to Starbucks.

As a bookseller, I have been on the other end of this very same interaction many times, with a couple differences. First, instead helping someone find a dress, I've been asked to write down the title of the book (don't think I don't know what you're up to, mister). Next, the stakes are far lower -- hardbacks are generally only $7-9 cheaper on Amazon, and that's only if you buy more than one and qualify for free shipping.

Far be it from me to want to talk about brick and mortar stores vs. giant faceless warehouses (I agree with the independents argument, obvs.) but years of having people tell me about their decision to shop at the A-word has lead me to believe that they don't know any better.

I came to this realization on Saturday, when a young couple, standing there at the front of the store, yelled loudly about hardbacks being much cheaper online. They seemed perfectly nice -- they didn't have any prison tattoos or racist slogans on their shirts. And they seemed perfectly smart -- they were speaking in grammatically correct sentences and they even had glasses! They made me wonder why a perfectly smart, nice couple would be so rude and horrible.

Again -- they just don't know any better. Nobody ever told them that booksellers have feelings. Nobody ever told them that bookstores were businesses subject to the vagaries of the market like tax, rent and inflation. I'm telling them now: I am a person, the store owners are people, and our livelihoods depend on your not doing exactly what you're talking about doing, right in front of me.

Would you tell a homeless person you were giving money to the beggar down the street because they asked for thirty five, not fifty cents? Would you tell a neighbor kid you were getting your lemonade one block over because of his ten cent markup? Of course not. Well, quit bragging to me that you're downloading a $10 e-book on your $400 e-reader.

I kind of take it as a compliment that our store seems to be a library to some people. But not that much. Cut it out! I mean, please cut it out!

Your friend,

Ms. Book Manners

Monday, May 10, 2010


Sometimes life rules. Case in point: this weekend I welcomed a beautiful 92lb baby into my life thanks to my wife. Woah, slow down, there. I'm talking about an actual letterpress. A Kelsey 6x10 Model X letterpress. Battleship gray. Oh My.

Last week the Chapbook Festival, most of my free time was spent drooling over various press's letter pressed work. I mean a lot of the stuff was downright gorgeous. Criminally gorgeous. I will refrain from going into great detail how excited I get around printed matter.

One week later, my wife is paling around with some chums. One of the chums mentions he has a letterpress sitting in his basement. Its there for the taking. Long story short, cash was exchanged. The machine was hoisted out of a basement and into our hatchback. The machine still is sitting in our hatchback while I look for a sturdier desk.

I'm sure the joy of having an actual flesh-baby is one of those unbearably wonderful moments of joy, but this tops it by about a factor of 100. I literally cried tears of joy in the shower the other day.

Sure it needs a lot of work. There's quite a bit of rust. It needs new rollers, trucks, and a chase. But the springs are intact. Nothing is bent or broken beyond repair. There're places to go locally for parts and knowledgeable folks at hand who can help me with the restoration process. I guess I'm really excited more about the process of taking it apart and spoiling my hands with grease, oil, and ink, and really getting to know my machine as if it were an actual flesh-baby. Plus I'll be able to make my own letter pressed books someday. Stay tuned for restoration updates!

Also, another lucky break: the Brimfield Antique (info)show is this week. Its a huge beast. I'll be looking for type and paper. And a new table.

Mothers and Museums

Mother's Day was a blast, start to finish. With a 3 1/2 year old boy who will usually tell you "I don't want to do that" once you mention that something might be fun, and a 1 year old girl who believes it is her duty to bring a smile to the face of every person in JP, on the Orange Line, in Harvard Square, and on the 66 and 39 buses, my wife (the mother) and I visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Jackson, in heaven, ran from one animal to the next for what seemed like hours, "I want to see even MORE animals!". Libbie pointed knowingly at birds and monkeys and sharks and fossils and nodded her head emphatically, as if to say, "What's that?, Oh, yes, I thoooooought so.", before retiring her sweet head (her breath smelled of french fries and ketchup) to my shoulder for a walking nap.

None of us had ever been there before, and of course we now smack our heads for having taken so long to go. The museum is perfect. It feels like you are stepping back in time just walking into the first exhibit. The wood framed glass cases, the dried-out, in places stitched together animal hides that often expose the stuffing underneath, the haphazard (at least, in comparison to the modern way of organizing in museums) organization, so that you come to expect the odd juxtaposition: chimp next to whale, thrush next to otter. I may be remembering incorrectly, but I like a museum where a mammal is a mammal, and there isn't any space left for wall sized descriptions of why mammals are important, and what our connection to them might be. Here are the mammals, here are their names. Marvel, and move on, young sir.

Jack loved it, and Libbie loved it and then had a nap. And, as I'm sure most moms and dads would agree, when the kids are happy, everyone is happy.

Kind of on the topic of families and species and manners of organizing, we're doing some re-organizing of our own. You may have noticed some new signs in the aisles of the store. Biography is now "The Examined Life". "Modern Thought" encompasses what used to be Cultural Studies, and most of what used to be Essays. "Here on Earth" was Nature. We were thinking of changing Education to "The Study of Test-Taking Skill Set Enhancement", but that seemed too bleak.
We're attempting to be more specific - a memoir is not a biography, as you know - and more thoughtful. Let us know what you think.

Always let us know what you think!


The week before Mother's Day is a fun one here at the store. As the day itself draws closer, the shoppers grow more focused. We have a table full of ideas - many, many books from funny to moving, fanciful aprons, just-add-water minigardens, ruffled dishwashing gloves, flowered hammers - at the front of the store. We do pride ourselves on being a one stop shopping emporium for all things bookish with "trimmings". Being at the register or out in the aisles on Saturday was a fine little study of human psychology. I observed a Dad with his 6 year old son explaining why the gorgeous Italian cookbook might be a better match for Mom than the big polka dot bouncy ball. The boy came to agree but stated that he, then, wanted the ball for himself. Or the preteen girls browsing our jewelry collection seeking Mom -appropriate items and having a great time trying on this or that. Another Dad was heard to say to his young daughter, "No, she's not MY mother but she does expect a gift from me, her husband." Ringing up the selected gifts at the register was a short course in the variety of things Moms are interested in. Don't think for a minute that it was all predictable either. Vampire tales, make furniture manuals, guitar shaped spatulas, pirate-themed lunch bags and rather naughty humor all made the cut. I especially love seeing the cards people choose. It's a rather bonding experience, honestly.

I know alot of folks consider these "holidays" crassly commercial, made-up occasions for the profit mongers. It's true that some of the faces in the crowd here on Saturday had a certain distracted, stressed look. Dads with small kids in tow had their work cut out for them, sure. And I'm not saying one has BUY something for such special days. But by the time each person fetched up at the check out counter, they were proud and pleased to have thougth about the Mom(s) in their lives and picked something to show appreciation. To me, that's a good thing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Summer Reading

I just returned from a vacation in glorious Los Angeles. In between jaunts in the white Mustang convertible we rented and celebrity sightings (well, sighting, and it was only Kevin Connolly from Entourage), I read. I'm thrilled to report that the glowing reviews of Tom Rachman's blowup first novel, The Imperfectionists, are in no way exaggerated, and Us Weekly still does a bang up job of proving that celebrities are just like us.

My time in the sun and the nice weather that greeted me upon my return got me thinking about summer reading. It takes a special kind of book to hold your attention in the park. (Incidentally, can you imagine taking a Kindle to the beach? I can't. Last I checked, sand and water are anathema to electronic devices.) DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince know what I'm talking about.

This year's contender for #1 Summer Beach Read is Holly LeCraw's The Swimming Pool. Check out the publisher's description:

A heartbreaking affair, an unsolved murder, an explosive romance: welcome to summer on the Cape in this powerful debut.

Seven summers ago, Marcella Atkinson fell in love with Cecil McClatchey, a married father of two. But on the same night their romance abruptly ended, Cecil's wife was found murdered—and their lives changed forever. The case was never solved, and Cecil died soon after, an uncharged suspect.

Now divorced and estranged from her only daughter, Marcella lives alone, mired in grief and guilt. Meanwhile, Cecil's grown son, Jed, returns to the Cape with his sister for the first time in years. One day he finds a woman's bathing suit buried in a closet—a relic, unbeknownst to him, of his father's affair—and, on a hunch, confronts Marcella. When they fall into an affair of their own, their passion temporarily masks the pain of the past, but also leads to crises and revelations they never could have imagined.

In what is sure to be the debut of the season, The Swimming Pool delivers a sensuous narrative of such force and depth that you won't be able to put it down.

My only question is, where's the darn swimming pool? I'm sure it will come up, but they could be a little more forthcoming. I'll be sure to bring up my tiny quibble with Holly LeCraw when she reads here on May 24th.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Empty Hands

It's Sunday May 2 and some 20 towns in our area are under a "Boil Water" order because of a major water main break in Weston, Ma. This means the polluted water (they do keep working to correct this) from the Charles River is now mixing with clean water supply. It's a mere trifle in the world of woes around the planet, weather-related or caused by humans. But it is striking in some ways. To wit.

We open at 9 a.m. on Sundays. By noon our two trashcans at the front door are already overflowing with empty coffee cups of an amazing variety. Mind you,we have Starbucks on one side of us, Peet's on the other, Dunkin' half a block away, ditto Panera - just to name a few of the local "watering holes". Today, nary an item in our trash. None of the restaurants can make coffee because they cannot boil water in any quantity. We might have empty water bottles in the trash, as usual, but for the fact that the two CVS stores and Walgreen's and everywhere else are already empty-shelved on that score. I'm picturing fleets of Poland Springs trucks clogging the highways coming down from Maine.

I walked over to our bank to put the deposit bag in the overnight vault and was quite amazed by all the empty hands I saw. We have heavy pedestrain traffic in our area on any day. Today is sunny, 80 degrees and the weekend. Normally, one would see literally hundreds of folks strolling with their beverage of choice. It's quite amazing, this change. I think it must mean something major about our society. I saw one woman in Starbucks pretty much flipping out with the Barista. "If I don't care about taking the ecoli chance, why should you??", she protested with arms akimbo. There's now a sign on Starbucks' door saying they are closing at noon. Wise move.

So now I'm wondering about two things. What if all the money spent on all these bought coffee drinks went to good causes? Same thing with all the bottled water. Wow. And if most of the population drank a heck of alot less coffee all day long, would there be less road rage, rudeness, lack of consideration for others and lots more civilty, do unto others and kindness?

I like a cup of coffee as much as the next gal, but brewing at home or in the break room is a nice alternative to the buy it elsewhere habit. I guess I just hadn't totally grasped how big a piece of modern culture the specialized coffee thing has become. Reading about the successful purveyors of it is one thing. Seeing it completely missing like this is another. As I look out over the store, I realize that a huge percentage of our customers are always coffee or water in hand as they browse. Today, inside the store and out, everyone just looks really different.

This must be a "duh" moment for me, not exactly like an "aha" moment but similar.

p.s. We did fill our dog water bowl for out front from our water cooler and put a sign on it to say so. This is a big dog neighborhood, after all.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Reading Toys. (kindle talk.)

Dana graciously lent me the kindle that we bought for the store to see what all the fuss was about...."know thine enemy" and so on...I took the device home intent on giving it a real chance...and the following is exactly what happened.

I downloaded a few magazines with diet and exercise tips (don't judge me)....and I began reading Dexter Filkin's "The Forever War." On the train home I began with the magazine and was disappointed with the grainy black and white images...It was nice to have no little white subscription cards falling everywhere...but the images were a B-.

As I progressed onto book-readin' I found myself feeling oddly claustrophobic. There was something disorienting about not really knowing, or feeling where I was in the book. The gradual transition from East to West of the page-girth was something I only really missed when I didn't have it.

On the subway I felt self conscious, in the way I always do when I'm holding something expensive...which is infrequent. This is a larger class issue I'm tentatively broaching here....but it still warrants unpacking. Holding the thin, delicate sleekness of a device out of my price range made me feel uncomfortable. I felt like I was an easy target for theft, or gravity. God forbid the train stops short and I huck the thing... If my book gets stolen, that's heart breaking too....but less economically devastating. If the train stops short and I drop my book, the most I can loose is my page.

Then there was the problem of moisture. I had to be chronically aware of that. No bath reading. No post- shower handling. No beverages near by. This may sound paranoid...but it is absolutely not when one has invested serious cash into a toy. This delicacy limited my intimacy with the text.

There were some cool things about the reader. I like the idea of not accruing crap-tons of magazines, but getting to read the articles I want without the detritus of advertising. I think If the screen were larger a la Ipad...reading newspapers, and email would be great.

The kindle, for me is just silly. It is a one trick pony. If I'm going to have to be hyper vigilant with something, it better be serving more than one function for me...such as email, word processing, picture storage, and e-reading/music downloadin' capabilities. If you must sell your soul...make it for the best possible model. Amazon's audacity is pretty righteous, when you consider the fact that you don't have a choice where you can purchase your books from on the Kindle. breathtaking really.
Now, I must come clean. there was an accident. It involved me. It involved the kindle. It involved gravity. It slipped out of my hand...and fell 10" onto my linoleum floor....(I was already crouching over my purse, I'm not that short)... I picked it up sure nothing was wrong, (as it was such a modest fall...)but no. The screen was bifurcated, torn asunder mid- image of a page holding- gryphon, and chapter 3 of "The Forever War." You may be asking yourself, "maybe she's one of those people who just can't have nice things?" I offer you this... I have managed to keep my Ipod alive through 2 marathons and 4 years of training, including many a public spill of both myself and the device. I am not a careless lady, I took meticulous care of the kindle. There was simply a moment of humanity that caused the thing to leap.

I am going to contact Amazon (as it is still under warranty,) and I am going to hope they do the right and noble thing, and replace the kindle.

I am going to email Dana, and throw myself on her mercy.

I will update more on my progress next week. With the installment I shall call...what do you do when your kindle stops working? hint: (Go back to your bookshelves and beg forgiveness)

say a prayer, light a candle (not your kindle)