Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dispatch from Book Expo America, or the "Halapalooza of Reading Quietly in a Room by Yourself"

New York is a city of extremes. As soon as I arrived I remembered how it was possible to love and hate the city at once. “You either sink or swim here,” Pat Carrier of the former Globe Corner bookstore told me as he guided me through the labyrinth of  publisher booths crammed inside the illogically (it seemed to me) laid out Javits Convention Center. I had come to NYC for two days of Book Expo America, beginning with an author breakfast with Stephen Colbert, Barbara Kingsolver, Junot Diaz, and Jo Nesbo, the last of whom, I thought, proved funnier than our host, who kept his punch lines to Fifty Shades of Grey jokes.

After coffee with Colbert (okay, it wasn’t quite as intimate as it sounds, and listening to Colbert crack Fifty Shades jokes over blueberry muffins wasn’t exactly an appetizing way to start the day), I stepped onto the exhibition floor full of publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, and readers all conducting the business of books, which included much elbowing for the latest free advanced reader copy. I wandered disoriented among the chaos for quite some time, unsure of how exactly I fit between the world of swanky New York publishers and the woman in front of me who just jammed a display copy I am not certain was free into an already burgeoning shoulder bag of ARCs.

Unidentified BEA attendee with bags full of free books.
I felt exactly as I had when I first stumbled off my train from Boston the night before, weaving through Penn Station crowds and onto the metro–instantly overwhelmed, intimidated, and drained by the city. But when, 15 minutes later, I had emerged from the underground up onto a quiet, tree lined street in Greenwich Village, where I was lucky enough to find a room, I discovered that I could breathe again, and deeply. Perhaps it was the refreshing contrast from home, the thrill of new streets and shops to explore, perhaps it was the contrast with the crowds of the metro that made the sudden space and sunshine more charming than was their due, but I was enamored.

These extreme reactions continued at BEA, leaving me baffled at first, overwhelmed, then charmed and grateful at once. By the second day on the exhibition floor, I began to take a few faltering strokes. I found space to think and even to be inspired in a few of the educational sessions, and I began meeting people within the book industry, talking, exchanging cards. Once conversations began to open up, I began to see inside the work that was going on before my eyes. Though I had much to learn, I was no longer an outsider.

As Booksmith recently expanded our travel section, the session that most interested me at BEA was a panel of travel publishers talking about recent trends and changes in the travel industry. Yes, people are still traveling post 9/11 and economic crisis, but their habits and tastes and itineraries are constantly shifting, as are the sources of information travelers turn to when faced with an unknown destination. This was an interesting conversation to listen in on as a bookseller trying to find the perfect guidebook for each unique traveler to visit the Globe Corner at Brookline Booksmith, and also as a traveler myself who was at that very moment trying to be at home in a city she felt somewhat intimidated by.

On the exhibition floor.
Publishers of travel guidebooks are doing their best to meet the needs of today’s travelers, who are inevitably turning to the most convenient and local sources for information. I understood this impulse myself when selecting which coffee shop to frequent in my New York neighborhood. I didn’t use a technological device, but I did look at the lines. Where were the locals going? I followed suit, and was rewarded by freshly baked bagels smothered in so much cream cheese that my breakfast resembled a whoopie pie. Local tastes can sometimes seem infallible. And when choosing where to go or what to eat, technology allows us to access our college roommate who lives in the city, or general local opinion, in seconds. The publishing industry has to answer.

And they are. I was impressed with the thoughtful conversation going on around me at BEA regarding how to get the best, trusted, local information to readers, how to edit, filter, and control that information to make sure it is accurate, and how to remain a trusted resource for travelers. The conversation renewed my faith that the guidebook is not obsolete, a belief that is backed up every day I go into work and find our freshly-widened travel aisle crammed full of travelers who want to hear from their chosen guide, be it Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, Michelin, Frommers, Fodors, Moon, Eyewitness, or other trusted sources.

The title of another session I attended intrigued me: “Discovery, Recommendation, Serendipity.” The panel discussed the role of serendipity in getting the perfect book into a reader’s hands and how to create a context for these magical moments. Might it be possible, if not to do the work of serendipity  itself, to at least do the work that might create a space—physical or virtual—in which these moments between a reader and a text, might occur. After all, wasn’t it in the service such moments as these that we were all gathered at the convention, “the halapalooza of reading quietly in a room by yourself,” as Colbert put it?  Most of the discussion surrounded the tools we have to create such contexts, such as blogs and websites, which can be used to reveal the inter-connectivity of stories and make apparent the threads of culture that make up those stories, in the hope that one of these threads might cross with, connect to, coincide with, a reader’s life experience–thus creating a serendipitous and meaningful moment.

Boy practicing violin on the street in my neighborhood.
On either end of my days at the convention, I was getting to know my neighborhood, striking up conversations with the local baristas and booksellers I discovered along the charming streets of Greenwich Village. That evening, as I stumbled back to my room, I passed a used bookshop, just two doors down from my own that I had somehow missed upon my arrival. I did not stop in at first—I had to take off my shoes after a day of traversing the exhibition floor. But I ventured out again an hour later. And there, staring out at me from the store front window, was Fernando Pessoa. I have had a fascination with the poet and his city of Lisbon for years now, and I ducked inside to inquire about the book.

“I just put that out, 90 seconds ago!” the bookseller inside told me, and I reflected that had I stopped by earlier, Pessoa and I might never have exchanged that potent glance that sometimes passes between a reader and a book. The thin volume, I sensed, was something of a rare find, from a 1985 London exhibition and full of precious autobiographical information surrounding the life of the elusive poet and his over 72 alter egos, or heteronyms.

“Can you part with it so soon?” I asked the bookseller, whose name was Zeke. He was soon convinced that he could, once I had told him of my obsession with Lisbon and opened my wallet. After we completed our conversation and transaction (which was, Zeke admitted, the fastest sale in Left Bank Books history), we exchanged cards (I’d gotten into the habit at BEA). I stepped out the door into a fresh downpour but did not mind. I knew that I had just experienced the serendipitous moment we had been discussing at BEA. There was the work of the artists, writers, curators, publishers, and a bookseller about to make his fastest sale behind it, but there was also the sense of a connection made up of countless threads beyond my control magically coming together in that moment when Pessoa caught my eye. I suddenly saw the chaos of the exhibition floor at BEA as many of those countless threads weaving and interweaving and creating a web of meaningful conversation that, at its best, might somehow converge to create a moment for a reader like the one I had just stumbled into. And I left BEA motivated to work to create a context and place for others to discover their own moments of serendipity, when a story they had no idea was coming, converges with their own.

Whenever I visit NYC I always end up, on my last day in the city, seated on the banks of the Hudson with my back to the skyline, staring out into open space, absorbing it, if at all possible. Perhaps it’s the Midwest in me, longing for horizons. For while I have learned to love the city, I have also discovered its pace: sprint and recover, sprint and recover. This was the strategy my Iowa high school basketball coach once instilled in me, and the mantra I found myself repeating under my breath whenever overwhelmed by the crowds. And while I can’t say I prefer the pace to the slow laid back swagger of the West Coast, almost lackadaisical in comparison, or to the industrious steady tread of the Midwest, or to the unceasing marathon that is Boston, I find that somehow it works—I lose my breath but always find it again, I sink, but then—buoyed up by some unlooked for thrill or serendipitous moment—I float.

No comments: