Karl Pohrt in China: January 7th
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s writing a daily blog about the trip, which we’ll be running here.
January 7, 2008
“In the Red Army there are also quite a few people whose individualism finds expression in pleasure-seeking. They always hope that their unit will march into big cities.”—Mao Zedong
For the last forty-five minutes I’ve been sitting trance-like watching MTV China. Coltish dancers move through their routines in compelling visual landscapes on the flat screen television set in front of me. I don’t speak Mandarin, but it’s easy to understand what this is about—romance, sexuality, a perky attitude. I’m in a room on the thirteenth floor of the China Travel Service Hotel on the No. 2 Beisanhuan East Road, Chaoyang District, in northeast Beijing. At night the neighborhood looks like an industrial park.
Roughly 23 hours ago I boarded a plane in the Motor City and was slingshotted across the world, emerging from the flight somewhat dazed into the wintry temperatures and particle laden night air of Beijing.
The flights were uneventful, and I passed the time reading, watching movies and fitfully dozing. I brought along The Authentic Confucius, by Annping Chin, and Wolf Totem, a fine novel by Jiang Rong that will be published in the U.S. this March, but I entered a kind of hallucinatory space during the last jump (Tokyo to Beijing) and I don’t think I retained much of what I read.
The invitation for this trip arrived just as I was ramping up for holiday sales in my store, and I didn’t have time to prepare much. I reread Red Pine’s felicitous translation of the Tao Te Ching and an anthology of the writings of Mao Zedong. Both texts offer advice, but I’m at that stage of the life cycle where I lean more toward Lao Tzu than The Great Helmsman. It is probably true, however, that neither is of much relevance in explaining contemporary China. In retrospect, I would probably have been better off reading Donald Trump’s most recent book.
I was met at the Beijing International Airport an hour ago by Kong Deyun, a very polite young woman who efficiently whisked me here. In the taxi Deyun asked if I sold Harry Potter books, and she seemed slightly surprised when I told her we filed them in our children’s section. I did not have time to slip on one of the twenty disposable surgical masks I’d purchased last week after reading a frightening description in the New York Times of pollution in Beijing. The article portrayed Beijing as a kind of 21st century version of 19th century London. In my (admittedly unscientific) opinion, the pollution crisis seems overstated, but then I grew up in Flint, an industrial city, and I smoked too many cigarettes when I was young.
I’m a member of a delegation of five American booksellers invited by Sichuan Xinhua Winshare Chainstore Co., Ltd, and China Publishing Today to attend the Beijing Book Fair. My companions are Allison Hill from Vromans (Pasadena), Rick Simonson from Elliott Bay (Seattle), Sarah McNally from McNally Robinson Booksellers (New York), and Paul Yamasaki from City Lights (San Francisco). I’m sure none of us would claim sage status, but collectively we’ve had well over one hundred years of experience in the book business. Sarah and Allison don’t look anywhere near that old, but after the long flight I’m feeling like a bohemian bookseller version of the stoic sheriff Tommy Lee Jones plays in No Country for Old Men. Paul and Rick look none the worse for wear, but they both arrived yesterday and seem to have already successfully acclimated themselves to the thirteen hour time difference.
We are joined by Bronx librarian Barbara Genco, Ruediger Wischenbart (a German consultant with BookExpo America) and a small group of British publishers and booksellers.
The man who finessed this visit, Lance Fensterman, Reed International Vice President for BookExpo America, thought he would join us, but other responsibilities came up at the last minute. Lance is a man of great good humor and I’d memorized some jokes to tell him, although I’m too addled from the long plane ride to deliver the correct punch lines. I’m sorry he can’t be here.
The Beijing Book Fair is described by China Publishing Today as “the most important event in the Chinese book industry” and around 6,000 people are expected to attend. We’ll visit Chinese publishing houses and bookstores this week, and we’re scheduled to give presentations during a forum on Friday. Despite the wintry climate (Beijing is on roughly the same latitude as Pyonyang, North Korea and Detroit) I am absolutely delighted to be here, especially by the opportunity to meet Chinese booksellers.