Sunday, August 29, 2010

First Officer's Log No 13: Books and Cats, What More Does One Need?

This past week has given us the return of the student body of Iowa City. In that week, we've seen a lot of old, familiar faces, and a whole host of new ones. I like this time of year because it brings people to the shop who might not otherwise venture into the Northside neighborhood, shows them that there are two nifty bookstores on our side of town (Murphy Brookfield is right down the block on Gilbert Street), plus a fantastic knitting store next door, a cool record shop in the same storefront as the bookshop, and a cozy coffee place across the street. Also, we have cats.

Yes. Cats.

Logan and Nierme are our two resident felines, if you haven't met them. The longer haired gray one with white feet is Mr Rambunctious Flying Dingo Baby, also known as Logan. The short haired dilute tortiseshell is Nierme, our shyer, slightly more introverted cat.

One of the great things that the cats do is make people feel welcome. Logan lurks by the door, ready to greet everyone who comes inside with a playful 'meow' and the thunderous impact of his scampering feet as he bolts from one side of the shop to the other. Nierme is content to linger behind the counter, and sometimes fixate on one or two people, mewing contentedly as she follows them around; other times, she hides behind the counter, chilling out with the boss and me, waiting for familiar people.

The cats do wonders for people's moods, and make them happy. A lot of the apartments in Iowa City don't allow pets, so when people require a kitty fix, they come to us. Sometimes they just come in and play with a cat for awhile, and other times they follow one of the cats to a section and find a book. All in all, it's good times all around.

Morning routine around here before we open the doors is pretty good, too. On Sundays, when it's just me, I open the door, walk in, and see Logan, sitting there, waiting for me to arrive so he can complain loudly about not being fed. So I walk in, lock the door behind me, drop my bag behind the counter and walk back to the stage, where Nierme is waiting patiently, offering a tiny mew in exchange for breakfast. After feeding them, sometimes it's necessary to just kick back and watch them, before scooping one up to snuggle it.

All in all, cats are good, so are books. When they're together, it's all good.

So! if you are wandering by some day and require a book and / or a kitty fix, come on in. Logan and Nierme will be happy to beg for attention and adoration, and Nialle and I can probably help you find a book. See you then!

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 15: Six Ways of Being Green

Anybody who has really tried to live greener knows it involves commitment and sometimes a little extra work. We honor those who make the choices to be more green, and we strive to be ever more green, too.

The Haunted Bookshop is, by its very nature, a green business. We help people reuse books. We buy books from people in the Iowa City area, organize them, and help people to find the ones they're most likely to enjoy. But we are also actively committed to many other ways of being green.

1. We don't just reuse books. We reuse bookcases, bookmarks, bookends, tables, comfy chairs, good ideas, plastic crates, computer parts, and anything else we can obtain used and reuse until we have to recycle them. Nearly every piece of furniture in the Haunted Bookshop we bought at a garage sale or consignment shop, received as a gift from someone moving away who didn't want to throw their furniture in the dump, or salvaged. We even take other stores' bookmarks out of books we've bought and use them when we recommend those stores to our customers. The blank scrap of paper you left at page 103 becomes our notepaper.

2. We recycle. Anything that we can recycle in a way that is safe and useful, we do. We even save up recycling by the carload so that we use less gasoline getting the recycling to the recycling center. If we can't donate leftover or unwanted books in a way that benefits somebody, we even recycle those books.

3. We reduce. I have made it my personal goal to see that this shop produces no more than one kitchen-sized garbage bag of trash per week - at most. And we're succeeding. Actually, if anyone knows where we can send #6 plastics, that would cut our waste even more; meanwhile, I make a point of not buying #6 or otherwise unrecyclable plastic if I can avoid it.

4. If we have to use chemicals for cleaning purposes, we buy only the ones made in ways and from materials that don't damage the environment. The three chemicals we use most are plain rubbing alcohol, another organically based sticky-stuff-removing solvent, and an environmentally safe wood cleaning soap. We also refuse to purchase products made in harmful ways or that contain or emit harmful substances, such as pressboard. When we have the option to buy products that are better for the environment, such as more efficient light bulbs or printer paper with higher post-consumer content, we do it. A few cents extra? It's our deposit in the savings account of world safety.

5. Our charity dollars go to support a green organization, Local Foods Connection, which connects CSA shares of organically farmed, local produce with the families who need help filling their plates. The organization benefits organic farmers, the local economy, and the people who can have nutritious food grown in safe ways.

6. We educate. Many people don't know there is a place to recycle books; we give them directions. Others haven't heard about all the ways to buy green in Iowa City, from the Farmer's Market to businesses who have made commitments to going green to restaurants that use safely, locally grown foods to make tasty meals (Red Avocado! Motley Cow! and more); we make recommendations. We demonstrate how to use simpler, friendlier products to clean books and other things. And we take every good suggestion we get (we get lots, thanks to this very conscious place in which we live) and share it with anyone who can use it.

None of these things are really that hard. Most can be accomplished simply by being a patron of the many fine resale shops around town, choosing good places to purchase organic and safe products, and being supportive of good ideas like Local Foods and the book bin at the recycling center. We're not shooting for special credit here; many citizens and businesses in town have made at least this much of a commitment to the environment; we're just saying - we're green, we're proud, and we're happy to help you if we can in this big, cooperative effort, too.
"Behold! The hem of my t shirt!" - Nialle, to Logan

Sunday, August 22, 2010

First Officer's Log No 12: "Where's Your Nonfiction Section?": How This Question Leads to Awesome Things

"Excuse me, where is the nonfiction section?" It's a question that I hear pretty often, especially now that school's back in session. Yes, fellow bibliophiles, the University has begun classes and it is madness all around. The good news, the city is having fun with the students returning. Today, there's a Taste of Iowa City thing going on, where the local restaurants put out tables with samples of their cuisine and the locals and the newcomers get to discover the joy of food in this town. Fun things happen when Iowa City does festivals and weekend events; people get interested in what's going on, and some of them end up in the bookshop, and ask for books related to the event. It's a win-win.

"Non fiction" is a term that I find myself having something of a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, I love it, because it encompasses all those subjects near and dear to my heart, and the real events and people of the past and present who influence and effect the world. On the other hand, some people tend to stay away from non fiction, I think, because it features writers who are, at best, informed about their subject that doesn't interest the general public, and, at worst, writers who have interesting material but are terribly boring writers. However, most non fiction writers that I've encountered are good writers who want to share their expertise with the world, and they do so in good natured, well written fashions. I've said before how half the fun of my job is watching who goes for what subject when they come in the door.

So, when gastrologues, or books about food that are not cookbooks, come across the desk, it's interesting to see who buys what. With all the interest in organic produce, haute cuisine, and the popularity of chefs in our society, we see a lot of these kinds of books come through. Young men and women and the hip foodie people amongst us, like reading the abrasive, yet amusing, Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential), while more upscale yet relaxed tastes prefer the entertaining, optimistic outlook of Jeffrey Steingarten (The Man Who Ate Everything). Other people look for Julia Child's memoir (My Life In France), or Ruth Reichl's food criticism books (I recommend Garlic and Sapphires).

Regardless of the time of year, the interest in cultural studies, current events, and political science is never out of style. The same can be said of history. With the present political climate, there's a lot of interest in race relations and religious studies, as well as a boost in military history interest. Since we expanded the section, we've gained a few more shelves of American Civil War studies, and some more World War II.

I realized earlier this year that my knowledge of World War I was lacking, so I picked up John Keegan's The First World War; the book details the lives of soldiers, the politics and events of the time, and distills the history down to a compact yet informative size. More personal conflicts in military time are also gaining attention, including Michael Herr's account of Vietnam, Dispatches, and Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah, about the Iranian hostage crisis. Sometimes, in reading about the military history of our country and others, it's easy to lapse into a somewhat depressed thought of "How did we come to this? And why?" In that case, I'd strongly recommend War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges.

Ancient history is riddled with great books, from the original historians and philosophers. From Herodotus' Histories to Thucydides' The Peloponnesian Wars to Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul, there are stories, legends and cultural insights to be had. Who says history is boring? Send them into the shop. We'll change their minds.

It's an interesting world, and non fiction writing helps us explore it. I love non fiction, especially history and social studies, because I truly do think that we can understand our contemporary state of affairs and life better if we learn how it used to be. I'm not saying that we should return to those old ways of being - believe me, I like the amenities of our present life -but I think a bit of understanding and genuine interest can go a long way.

So next time you come in, go ahead and ask one of us "Where's the non fiction section?". If you want cultural studies or general non fiction interest, flag me down. Nialle is a font of knowledge on just about anything, and she's got (several) books worth of Irish history in her head. We'll be happy to introduce you to the good stuff.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 14: Full Marks for Awesome - ACE Experiment

I'm perpetually amazed by the awesomeness of people who come to the Haunted Bookshop. They're interesting, they're funny, and they have great taste. Even the casual remarks they exchange at the register and the books they decide not to keep are awesome. I feel privileged to be in this town.

One of the best things here is a group called ACE Experiment. We've had the pleasure of hosting a few events of theirs so far, and by pleasure, I mean oh wow, that was awesome layer cake with awesome frosting and a glass of fine, vintage awesome on the side.

ACE Experiment invites people to a wide range of activities all over town, simultaneously making fun available, making a stand for really good causes, and supporting the places that host their events. Here, we've hosted read-throughs of Shakespeare plays - so far, Twelfth Night and Merry Wives of Windsor. These read-throughs are free and open to the public. Anyone can come and watch, or better yet, come and participate. Participation involves reading along in the script, taking the lines assigned to you (you get to play lots of different characters in different scenes), and adding your unique humor, style, and interest to the 'performance.'

I haven't just laughed until my guts hurt and loved the wide and wild range of readers and readings - I've learned more about the plays. For example, last Twelfth Night, I abruptly realized that reading Antonio and Sebastian's scenes with homoerotic tension actually works as an interpretation while it also causes people to crack up in a delighted, completely nonhomophobic way. Okay, that's not news to a lot of people who have read or seen the play before, but now I get it, too. I wonder what other people have learned from the readings? Some had little to no experience of theater, so it might have been the first time they got to try turning lines on a page into living action. That experience changes the way people read anything, for better and forever.

They were certainly having fun. The guy who read some of Olivia's lines as though he were Humphrey Bogart had everyone in stitches. The night we all chimed in to say "By gar!" throughout Merry Wives brought together an incredibly diverse group of people, from trained actors to ACE regulars to folks who just happened to see the event listed in the program for the Book Festival (these were overlapping groups). I've also noticed how people really pay attention to how a line sounds when it comes out in different ways, from funny to insightful, and both give attendees pleasure. Everybody leaves grinning, even a little giddy.

In a time when everyone is overworked and undersatisfied, when making time for evening events seems like a big gamble few people feel able to take, when classic theater seems like work to enjoy or even inaccessible, ACE read-throughs are panacea. It's free. It's just people - there are no entrance requirements. The plays become accessible (don't get a line? interrupt and ask! someone will explain in a friendly, fun way); the folks around you are great company; nobody says a discouraging word; and everybody has a good time. It's just what we needed.

So here's my toast to ACE Experiment. Watch their blog and/or Facebook page for notifications of upcoming events, and we'll let you know whenever we get the chance to host an ACE gathering. We're in the business of circulating Iowa City's awesome, and we're sure you'll get your awesome's worth out of a night with ACE.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

This just in:

This week, most of the arriving books went to a scattered variety of sections, but we have NEW TOYS, including some favorites - Qwirkle, the Raven and Fox finger puppets, and retro UNO - and some things you might not have seen yet, like Chaos, Ben Franklin Action Figures, and Shakespearean Insult Gum.

We're also trying out some math workbooks. We have addition, subtraction, and multiplication books that aren't just lists of problems to learn by rote - you solve the problems to find your way through a maze or to create a picture. They come very highly recommended by two of our favorite teachers. Would you like to see what the company offers in the way of division, algebra, logic, analogy, spelling, and more? Just ask - we'll show you the catalog.

Monday, August 16, 2010

First Officer's Log No 11: The Graphic Novel as Literature

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved art. I still dabble in doodling and drawing, and whenever I prepare to write a short story or a new part of a longer one, I usually spend several hours drawing and inking in portraits of characters or locations. I like to see with my eyes what I see so clearly in my mind. Sometimes, I even see something new, something I hadn't focused my attention on. There are little things, small objects, or symbols, that can tell a great story in their own right.

This brings me to this week with your friendly First Officer - the graphic novel as literature. Or if you don't want to call it literature, think of a graphic novel as something special, something that transcends the simple 32-page format every month to truly tell a grander story, something epic and meaningful. Of course, that could be wishful thinking on my part, but every once in awhile a graphic novel comes along that actually does qualify as something bigger than the usual comic book offering.

No list of graphic novels that are worth your time would be complete without Alan Moore's Watchmen, or Art Spiegelman's Maus. However, I'd like to draw your attention a few stories you might not know about, or even a common series or two that I think can be elevated above the standard comic book fare.

I admit tend to favor Moore's other series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Ignore the movie that shares its name and focus on the two-volume central story, its follow up The Black Dossier, and the new series, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, a three-volume set that begins with 1910. The beauty of Moore's series is the way he explores literature and has fun with it, while showcasing his own clear love and admiration for the book serials of the late 19th century, and yet making it accessible to an audience that might not seek out those stories on their own.

By now, you're probably familiar with the central League characters and the novels from which they hail: Mina Harker (Dracula), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Allan Quatermain (H.R. Haggard's adventure novels, beginning with King Solomon's Mines), the mysterious Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and the elusive Invisible Man. The literary references don't stop with our adventurous quintet, though. The first volume features the dastardly Professor Moriarty (of Sherlock Holmes fame), and the curious M (there are many Ms throughout the series, all leading up to the M with which many are most familiar, James Bond's M - Mr Bond, himself, makes an appearance in The Black Dossier, to much hilarity). The second volume features the Martian invasion from H.G. Wells' war, and additional appearances by Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic hero John Carter of Mars, along with the mad Dr Moreau and his bizarre creatures.

Moore's literary flair culminates with The Black Dossier, and the appearance of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a flamboyant, amusing and amused character who also wields Excalibur... and you get the idea of how much fun Moore has with his story. It's a wild ride, but well worth sticking out, especially for the visual gags that artist Kevin O'Neill spices up his art work with - including a previous group of the League, featuring the Scarlet Pimpernell and Natty Bumpo (aka Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans). It's a great graphic novel series for the literary aficionado to explore.

Another series is the Hugo-nominated Y The Last Man, Brian K Vaughan's 80 issue story about Yorick Brown, the last man on earth. After a mysterious plague kills every creature with a Y chromosome except for Yorick and his trust monkey friend Ampersand, he goes on an epic road trip seeking answers, with two women, the mysterious Agent 355 and the brilliant Dr Mann. Vaughan's series asks big questions about gender roles, the fate of human beings, intelligence, and even throws some spirituality in there for good measure. By asking those questions, Vaughan shows himself to be a strong writer, with a novelist's eye.

During his series, Vaughan also wrote a beautiful stand alone piece called Pride of Baghdad, based upon the true story of a small group of lions escaping the Baghdad zoo following the bombing of the city in 2003. In his story, Vaughan imagines four characters, two lionesses, a lion and a cub, and the world that they discover upon their escape from the destroyed zoo, using the real animals as stand ins for the people of Iraq War. Through simple dialogue and rich, gorgeously painted artwork from Nico Henrichon, Vaughan writes about the Iraq War from a decidedly non-partisan view, with no political axe to grind. Instead, it is a story about the devastation of war, how it destroys not just lives but cultures and history.

Other series that seem to transcend the general comic book shelves include Warren Ellis' delightfully subversive and cynical Transmetropolitan, about outlaw journalist Spyder Jerusalem, his two assistants, and the mad, psychotic future of politics, war, and the hunt for the truth about a corrupt politician and the world he runs, eerily reminiscent of the early 2000s in the United States.

Bill Willingham's Fables reimagines classic fairy tale characters relocated to the real world, exiled from their Homelands by a horrifying enemy, forced into the reality of New York. It is a series dedicated to great characters and classic tales, recreated and drawn out into a new, fearsome world that is like their own, and yet not. It is a series populated by famous characters including Snow White and Old King Cole; the gritty Big Bad Wolf (called Bigby); the clever Little Boy Blue; and a host of other classic fantasy characters, all contributing to a larger, grander story.

These are five graphic novel series that I think everyone should give a chance to if they can. Next week, I'll look at authors whose work has helped change the graphic novel into a respected format, as well as a few mystery writers who've decided to contribute their own spice to a particular series.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Note!! - I thought of another one: Grant Morrison's We3. Think... well, 'Homeward Bound' meets 'Robocop' seems to suffice. Morrison's one of the best of the contemporary comic book writers, and with his semi-regular artist Frank Quitely doing the art, this particular book, about three pets turned into living weapons by the military just trying to get home, hits home in all the right places. It's lovely, sad, heart breaking, and, ultimately, hopeful. One of Morrison's finest titles.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 13: You Know You're A Bookseller When

Do you ever have one of those days on which you are cranky about the idea of moving Schleiermacher from Christian Contemporary Theology to Christian Classic Theology?

How about bad dreams in which people have shoved books in the wrong places on shelves, bending covers as well as getting things out of order?

A deep, nearly phobic revulsion at the thought of silverfish? ...Mildew?

Strong opinions on which editions of Dracula go in horror and which in literature? ...No patience for people who would shelve Gabriel Garcia Marquez under M? ...At least one more-than-one-shelf section in your personal library that definitely does not exist in any chain bookstore, e.g., Children's Judaica, Irish History 1900-1916, or Books on the Non-Book-Related Passions of Favorite Authors?

A publisher you like best because of its excellent selections and/or consistently classy cover art? ...More than one such publisher? Are there publishers you don't like because of their bad binding or ugly cover designs? Do you get mad when your favorite author gets a not-appropriate-for-genre cover, like the silly graphic novel covers on some recent copies of literary novels?

Have you ever ended up with more than one copy of a book because a later-purchased version had some special quality, like cooler cover art or better typesetting or illustrations or, best of all, having been purchased in the author's hometown or during some significant time of your life or - well yeah, being signed by the author counts too, but more so if it has a really weird personal inscription (I have one in which the author proposed that my blood should be bottled)?

I do. Also I cheer whenever I'm reading a book in which the bookseller turns out to be the hero, spy, culprit, or Essential Guide (you know, like the traveler on the road who gives the hero a magic item in Russian fairy tales). And I absolutely despise the movie "You've Got Mail," hate any film scene in which a book is damaged (like in "The Mummy" when all the bookcases fall down), and wish someone would make movies out of Peter Ackroyd's novels so that there would be more gorgeous antiquarian bookshops on film.

I stayed up until about four in the morning last night cataloging the books in one of the rooms of my house. Voluntarily. It probably shows. And now I'm going to go hang out with my Shakespeare-spouting friends from ACE Experiment, and next week I promise I will write a coherent entry about them and why they are the hottest thing happening on the IC evening entertainment scene.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

First Officer's Log No 10: And What Remains...

Editor: "But it's the Next Big Thing."
Publisher: "I've got a whole warehouse full of Next Big Things, all waiting to be pulped."
- 'The Ghost Writer' (2010)

My roommate, a film buff, had recently shared 'The Ghost Writer' with me, based upon Robert Harris' novel, 'The Ghost', about a ghost writer hired to write the memoir of a British prime minister, clearly based upon Tony Blair. The novel and film both deal with the stresses of being a ghost writer, but, this being a political thriller, of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. That said, it's a fantastic film, with top notch performances, and very slick writing. It also features some very amusing and agonizingly truthful opinions about the book trade.

The above quotation is from early on in the film when The Ghost (he is never given a proper name) is introduced to his American publisher, his British editor, a lawyer and an agent. The Ghost makes it clear that he doesn't think he should write the book as he doesn't read political memoirs, and, he then points out, no one does. I cringed at that comment; at my roommate's inquiring glance, I said, "I don't think that's an inaccurate statement."

Then comes the true zinger, in the form of the above quote. I winced again, and when we were wandering about the corporate bookstore a few days later, and into the (it seems to me) obligatory bargain section, I must have looked like I had a foul taste in my mouth.

"Next Big Things?" my roommate asked, grinning.

"Next Big Things," I said.

"All waiting to be pulped," we chorused, and had a good laugh.

The sad thing is that the idea of warehouses full of Next Big Things waiting to be pulped isn't really funny. When you walk into the bargain section of a bookstore and see the books, all stacked, with stickers that slash their cover prices up and over 80%, all you see is a great deal, a fantastic bargain. That's what they want you to see. A $30 hardcover book down to $6? A beautiful over sized photography book of a national park slashed from $60 to $10? That's amazing! An Asian-inspired cookbook with authentic recipes and fantastic full color photographs, no cover price, but it's only $8. That is a great deal.

Then you think about it, and realize that there are thousands of these books, books that never sold in new condition, books that a publisher printed too many copies of. These are the books that sit in warehouses, stacked upon one another, on pallets, until someone walks to them with a black permanent marker in hand and marks a vertical line on the bottom of the page block edge for each and every book, therefore marking it as a remainder. These are the books that end up in bargain bins and tables.

The truth of the matter is that once you've spent at least a year working in a corporate book store, you start to notice patterns and trends with bargain books. That big fictional thriller that came out last December? Yep, by June, it's in the bargain bin. Trade paperback history books about current events? Binned. Political memoirs? Marked and binned.

Mass market paperbacks are appropriately named, as they're printed massively, on the cheap, and if they don't sell, the covers are torn off, and the body of the book is destroyed. The covers are sent to publishers, who credit book stores that don't sell them. The first time I ever had to mark a box of destroyed paperbacks a part of me felt guilty. This was perfectly good paper, and it was going to end up in a landfill, somewhere, because of copyright issues and publisher's rules. No bargain bins for these books.

So I suppose the point is that the Next Big Thing isn't always such. There are books that publisher's promote and push and market and they don't sell nearly as well as perceived. Instead, they end up in warehouses, stacked to the ceilings, waiting to be remaindered. Whatever doesn't remain gets pulped.

So the next time you find yourself wanting that new hard cover book, you have two options. You can wait a year, and it might just show up on our shelves here at the shop. Or, you can go check out your local bargain bin. It might be there, too, at 80% of cover.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Who Guards the Guards #2

I recently got home from a four-week vacation of sorts in Europe. For the most part, it was a fairly economical trip. I slept in Youth Hostels and ate packaged rice twice a day like any self-respecting college student would. However, there was one respect in which I was not particularly frugal, and that was in buying books. I purchased nine books over twenty-eight days, including one I picked up in the Dublin Airport in preparation for a three-hour layover and seven-hour plane ride. I even splurged on a firsthand hardcover, which not only cost me a pretty penny but also added another eight ounces to my backpack. (The book was Bill Bryson's At Home, by the way, and I heartily recommend it. If you want the copy I bought, you might still be able to find it at Shakespeare and Co in Paris, where I finally parted with it and a few other books I picked up along the way in order to purchase yet more reading material.)

Because I was constantly searching for good reads, I spent a fair amount of time in bookstores during my trip. Given the cities that were on my itinerary-London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paris, and Tours, to name a few-I reasonably expected beforehand to find good local bookstores along the way. Unfortunately, when pressed to locate a bookstore, shop owners or strangers on the street would almost always direct me to the nearest Waterstone's or WHSmith, chain bookstores that were completely interchangeable save for a couple bookcases featuring authors connected to the given area and local history. Except for the aforementioned Shakespeare and Co in Paris, a few small shops in London's Charing Cross and Soho neighborhoods, and a scattering of rural establishments across northwest England, I didn't actually seek out any particularly special bookstores, generally finding myself in the kinds of stores found in any international airport or large American City, not places that I really would have had to travel 3000 miles to see.

Every time I found myself considering a 3 for 2 deal at Waterstone's (it was just so tempting) I felt a twinge of guilt. No matter how hard I tried to put the idea out of my mind, I kept thinking that I had come this far to shop at a place this dull, and I never felt more guilty then when I actually enjoyed myself or found something I really liked. I'm sort of a sucker for pop sociology and economics, and generally the first thing one sees when one enters a Waterstone's is three or four bookcases of newly released pop sociology and economics, so it became really difficult not to get at least a little guilty pleasure out of those experiences.

I've been to a fair number of bookstores over the years, and I'm quick enough that I can generally tell whether I'll like a bookstore within the first few seconds of entering it. I knew I was going to like the Haunted the first time I came in (fortunately enough, since I was there to ask for a job) and I knew I was going to like the old Northside Book Market when I came in. I got the right vibe off of Shakespeare and Co in Paris, and I got the same feeling from that one bookstore in Chicago I can't remember the name of that my sister hates because it's run by hipsters. And there are certain bookstores (not naming any names, and not referring to any stores in Iowa City) that simply don't feel right. I couldn't tell you what exactly I'm looking for, because if I had to put together a list of my top ten bookstores around the world, they would probably have just about nothing in common. But there are certain stores that I simply like for whatever reason, and certain stores that don't cut it for me.

Now this all probably strikes you as incredibly cliche and trite, and that may be a fair assessment. But I did get to thinking about what the role of the bookstore is in a given context. I used to subscribe to the view, which I now think is much too simplistic, that bookstores exist solely to provide books. But the more I thought about bookstores like that, the less satisfied I was with that theory. The great independent bookstores, whether famous establishments or hidden gems, might not contain books one couldn't find in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere (they do exist, unfortunately) but there was definitely something that made them more enjoyable.

What occurred to me after thinking about this for a while and trying to write on it a couple times-and after all that buildup you might have expected something less obvious or more profound-was that bookstores are very much defined by the context in which they're found. In other words, bookstores (well, most of them) fit in to the surrounding cities, neighborhoods, and cultures. And a few special ones become an integral part of the culture around them. The chain shops didn't give me that good feeling I get from bookstores I know I'm going to like, because they did not really belong. They were simply places where one could find books.

Consider Shakespeare and Co. Founded in the 1950s by an American expatriate, S & C certainly owes some of its fame to its location-Kilometer Zero, Paris, that is to say about one hundred yards from Notre Dame Cathedral and the Ile de la Cite. The bookstore has defined itself by the motto "Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise," and for decades has provided food and shelter to writers struggling to make ends meet in return for a little help around the shop. Shakespeare and Co isn't so much a part of English-speaking culture in the Latin Quarter as a physical manifestation thereof.

A few weeks later I saw a much less subtle attempt to become part of the culture on Charring Cross Road in London. For the first time, and possibly the last, I found myself across the street from a combination bookstore (top two floors) and licensed sex shop (basement). Different neighborhoods have different demands, and this was Soho after all.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 12: The Buck Stops (being so variable) Here

You, and hundreds of other people, go to Big Company for their 20% off sale on a sales tax holiday weekend. Wow! You saved $12.56 on stuff you really needed. But let's stop and think for a moment. Where is the hypothetical $12.56?

Since the state didn't collect the sales tax, it has to slash the budget (threatening your job if you're employed by the university) or raise fees or taxes in some other area, possibly out of your wages through income taxes. No, of course your $4.13 isn't going to make the difference all by itself, but remember how many people were at the sale?

Besides that, Big Company didn't get full price for its goods, so it has to cut an expense or raise its prices, possibly hitting your wallet again. And you paid with a credit card, so Big Company lost another 2-5% of its income on your purchases, meaning Big Company has to up its prices another 5%.

But wait, you say. A lot of companies are slashing prices right now. On some of their goods, yes. All of them? Well, if they're really reducing prices everywhere, then where are they saving the money they aren't raising? Are they closing open stores and cutting employee hours? That's a quick way for an employer to save a lot of money. Or maybe they're cutting their services. They don't fix your toaster anymore; they just expect you to buy a new one. How much money are you going to end up spending on a new toaster? Not $50, but still, more than getting it repaired would have cost if Big Company still offered repair services.

Every time you save money, those savings have to come from somewhere. Out of someone's pocket. Including yours, in the long run. Sure, maybe you're one of the people who is really good at 'beating the game,' but the cost of your savings still comes back around to you somehow, at the very least by making it harder for someone to hire you, for you to take home all the money you earned, and for you to spend money in your local economy to keep a sustainable cycle going.

And isn't sustainability something we all want?

Here at the Haunted Bookshop, we're still charging about half of the original price of goods. We're still paying for books in proportion to purchase price and quality. We're putting the money right back into the community by spending as many dollars as we can locally, especially the money we give to local non-profit organizations. And because you've supported us over the years, we're able to continue playing this role on the local economy.

You can help us in two very important ways: Use cash, which we don't have to pay a 4% premium to get deposited in our bank account, and don't expect us to put on big sales. That way we don't have to raise our prices or cut our budget, which means you can buy a book when you want it - even if you want it on a day that isn't during a Giant Clearance Sale - at a reasonable price, from a well-staffed, full-service store.

Wouldn't you rather stop gambling, waiting, worrying about whether you forgot your coupons or are paying too much or have fallen for an alluring ad campaign? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to count on quality goods and services at stable, reasonable prices all the time? We think so.

The money we don't overcharge you to pay for the money you don't really save just cancels out, while the money we make stays in your community, and you don't even have to try to remember which weekend you get how much percent off if you have a logo tote back and a valid loyalty card thinger from the company that sold your name to a spam sender, and we don't have to put gooey stickers on books and pay you confusingly large or small amounts of money for your books based on varying upcoming deals or on how close we are to another confusing sale season.

Just simple value all the time. Like telling the truth, it's so much easier. That's what we believe, anyway.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Oh honey, honey - they have a Leif Eriksson finger puppet and it doesn't have horns on his helmet! He's historically accurate!" - a customer on her phone

- Ali confesses to giggling aloud when she overheard this

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

First Officer's Log No 9: Bitter, Sweet and Sour - The Curse of Reading Fantasy Series, or The Sequel That Never Came

I think everyone has that one (or 5 or 12) book(s) that alters one's perception of how books and writers actually operate. Sometimes, a book comes along that is brilliantly rendered, with a fantastic story, rich characters and superior writing. Then the writer announces a sequel. It will be an amazing sequel, with a fantastic story, rich characters and superior writing. It will trump the first volume and pave the way for more stories to create a new experience of the written word. We are assured of this by the writer, and, as readers, we sit back and wait.

Patiently. We wait. And wait. And we wait a little longer. And after awhile, we wander away to find something else to read, because this book that we were looking forward to doesn't appear. In the meantime, we discover a handful of other books by authors who prove a bit more reliable in their sequel-issuing, or we give up on the series altogether, because there are so many other books out there to read.

I confess that I'm one of those people who will wait, patiently(ish), for a new book in a series, especially if I have a particular fondness for the writing style or a certain character. I do admit, though, that I've lost a great deal of my patience for series, especially those that have been going on for several years and show no signs of stopping.

When an author commits to writing a series, I believe, then that author has something of an obligation to continue the series in some form. Even if the time between novels is bridged with short stories, that is still a continuation and it fulfills the desire of readers to spend more time in the fictional universe the author has created. This is the peril which fantasy writers seem to face, and since they are the writers whom I am most familiar with, they are the ones who will bear the brunt of my complaints.

A few years back, there was a novel that hit the fantasy market with a quiet little roar. A reasonably thick volume, it clocked in at just under 600 pages and told a remarkable story in the first person of a man who had become both the greatest legend and the greatest villain of his country in his own lifetime. What made the novel stand out from all the others that were released that year was the voice of the main character, a familiar yet disturbing presence, a man who knew exactly who and what he was, and made no apologies for his nature or what he had done. I was enchanted (do pardon the cliche) by the character and the storytelling style, and when I heard that the author had intended two additional volumes to round out his tale, and they would be published in the two subsequent years, I eagerly set aside enough money to pick up both books in hard cover. This was a writer worth my attention and my money, and so I waited, patiently, for March of the following year, when the second volume would be released.

Well. Three years later and still no peep of that rumored second volume. On a whim, a search of an online database reveals that the novel will be released in the spring of 2011, but I find myself lacking in interest. It isn't that I don't want to find out what happens to the fascinating character that I found myself invested in three years ago, it's that I'm not sure I want to commit to a book series that doesn't deliver its promised volumes. I realize that writers have other commitments in life, and that publishers are as much to blame for delays as anybody else might be, but when a writer can spend his or her time ranting on a blog (pot, kettle, yes I know) about writing as a profession, yet consistently fail to deliver even one shred of a new piece of writing (is a short story too much to ask?), then I'm not sure I want to support that writer.

The past ten years have certainly seen an influx of fantasy series. Every new writer on the fantasy scene appears to be striving to be the next Tolkien. Each new writer creates a vast new world, with critters and creatures, mages and nobles, warriors and pacifists. Each one creates a world so amazing that it cannot be contained within one novel. Such is the curse of the fantasy fan who discovers a new series, only to learn, later, that only Seven More Volumes Are Required to Tell The Story As A Whole.

Except that I don't want to read seven novels to read a complete story. Certain writers create series and draw them out for years and years, never telling a new part of the story, or adding more and more characters; perhaps a war takes place, and it will span three novels, and then a fourth will detail a new Big Bad Guy who must defeat the Heroic Good Guy. On and on it goes, until by the time a series is finally complete(ish), the author is dead and being survived as a ghost writer, or the reader who had interest in the author's series is in a different place, biblio-wise, and no longer interested.

I suppose this is the state I find myself in with regard to fantasy. If I were to really push it, I could suggest that I do enjoy a series of books, but two at the very most. Three books is pushing it; four, and the author's probably a ghost.*

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

* apologies to Dorothy Parker