This is already old news, but last week Jessica Stockton Bagnulo announced she had signed the lease and Greenlight Bookstore now has an official address: 86 Fulton Street in Fort Greene. If all goes according to plan, the store will officially open in September.
It’s great to see this finally happen . . . For as long as I’ve known Jessica, she’s been working on her plan to open her own bookstore. She’s worked at a number of indie stores in New York, wrote extensive strategic plans (which even won her some cash), and thought this all through very, very carefully.
I have complete faith that Jessica will do everything right in terms of launching this store (like displaying a lot of Open Letter titles, right Jessica? Right?), and from what I’ve heard she nailed down the perfect location. Congrats to Jessica and be sure to check out the Greenlight Bookstore blog for further updates.
In stark contrast to Jessica’s wonderful news comes this statement from 3P favorite, Karl Pohrt:
On the advice of my accountant and my business manager, I am closing Shaman Drum Bookshop June 30. Despite a first rate staff, a fiercely loyal core of customers, a very decent landlord and my own commitment to the community of arts and letters in Ann Arbor, it is clear to me that the bookshop is not a sustainable business.
In spite of the downturn in the economy, Ann Arbor continues to be an excellent book town. There are wonderful independent stores here (Crazy Wisdom, Nicolas’s Books), fine specialty book stores (Vault of Midnight, Aunt Agatha’s) and great used bookshops (Dawn Treader, West Side Books, Motte & Bailey). They need your support.
Over a year ago we began a process to become a non-profit center for the literary arts. I am decoupling Shaman Drum Bookshop from the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, which should simplify and streamline our IRS application. I will pursue this new venture after we close the store.
Shaman Drum Bookshop has been here for 29 years. We had 28 good years. Thank you for your support. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a bookseller in Ann Arbor.
We live in a world in which the community of Ann Arbor—Ann freaking Arbor, the home of one of the best universities in the country—can’t support an independent bookstore. As Karl wrote, it seems like a perfect storm of things went wrong to sink Shaman Drum, but still . . . If there’s one city in the Midwest that should have enough intelligent readers to support an indie store, it’s Ann Arbor. My faith has been shaken . . .
Karl’s a close friend, and I know that he’ll come out of this OK. Very interested to see what happens with the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, but from now on, I know that every trip through Ann Arbor will be incomplete. . .
A few weeks back we mentioned the then upcoming symposium at the University of Michigan on the “future of reading.” Well, the amazing Karl Pohrt was able to attend and wrote this comprehensive piece on the somewhat bleak gathering.
Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age is the title of a symposium held today at the University of Michigan.
New Fate of Reading? Uh-oh . . .
The event announcement features an illustration of books rendered as if they are a flock of birds flying above the reach of a group of young people standing in an open field. The image is ambiguous. Are the books flying toward the people or away from them? Are people greeting the arrival of the books or are they ecstatically waving goodbye? In both instances I fear it’s the later. This might be due to my anxiety about the precarious economics of the culture of books these days. Or perhaps it’s just my bad attitude, something that surfaces now and then despite years spent practicing hardcore zazen.
The text accompanying the picture poses some key questions: What new literacies are generated in the digital era? What happens to the cultural practices associated with the traditional book? How are institutions responding to this new situation? Bookstores are specifically mentioned, along with libraries, publishers, and newspapers. And finally, moving from the descriptive to the prescriptive: How ought they _(to) respond?_ This is what I’m really interested in. What is to be done?
The symposium, sponsored by the Michigan Quarterly Review and the Rackham Graduate School, is held in Angell Hall on the U of M’s central campus, and is divided into two sessions. MQR editor Jonathan Freedman tells us the morning panel, New Reading Practices and Literacies in a Digital Age, is devoted to questions of theory and history. The afternoon sessions will examine new institutions.
The program kicks off with a talk entitled “The Aesthetic of Bookishness in Twenty-first Century Literature.” Jessica Pressman, who teaches at Yale, informs us that the role of the book will change—has changed—from an essential format to one medium among many. She says the recent talk about the death of the book is a literary response to the perceived threats of the digital age. The theme of the death of the book has become a source of inspiration for writers, despite the fact that literature was never about information delivery. Book bound content is now associated with the literary.
She cites The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall, as an example of a new literary form in which the novel itself exists as a character.
“_Shark Texts_ begins with the main character reading himself back to life from near death,” she says.
Pressman describes an aesthetic of bookishness in which books are viewed as a haven from the increasingly threatening digital age. This position is most certainly retro because “we now live in a world in which the text no longer exists just on the page.”
Within the bookish aesthetic, bookstores (“spaces for bound books”) are like sanctuaries or churches. They provide a safe location from which readers can network with each other and critique the digital culture. For bookish folk, bookstores are “shields against the shark.”
Frankly, I never thought of bookshops as lairs of a bound-book Ancien Regime, but I take her point.
“The book is a reading machine and data mutates across discourse networks,” she tells us, channeling William Gibson or William S. Burroughs.
Obviously the practice of reading and the bookish experience have changed in the digital age. Nostalgia for the world of print doesn’t cut it anymore in our multi-modal world.
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The “Bookishness: The New Fate of Reading in the Digital Age” conference taking place at the University of Michigan on Friday, May 15th looks pretty amazing. There are two main panels: one on “New Reading Practices and Literacies in a Digital Age” and one on “New Institutions for the Digital Age.” Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times Book Review is on the second—very curious to hear what he has to say about this topic.
Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum (also know as “our man in Ann Arbor”) is planning on attending, and might write something up for us.
As you can see on the right side of the page, our featured indie bookstore for the month of April is Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Karl Pohrt and I are good friends (he’s actually on the advisory committee for Open Letter as well), and worked together to help launch the Reading the World program.
Although Karl and his store have been mentioned on Three Percent dozens of times, I really wanted to specially feature Shaman Drum this month to bring attention to a few different things, both good and frightening.
First off, as you may have heard, Shaman Drum has run into a bit of trouble. Back in February, Karl wrote a letter to the Ann Arbor Chronicle detailing the plight of the store and the fact that textbook sales were down $510,000 from the previous year and that the store might not survive.
After a trip to Nicaragua, he wrote a second letter saying that he would do all he could to keep the bookstore going.
During that trip he met Ernesto Cardenal, whose Pluriverse came out earlier this year from New Directions. Cardenal is going to be in Ann Arbor later this month, and we’re planning on running info and interviews from that event here on Three Percent.
Also in terms of good news, not everyone knows about this yet, but it looks like instead of a traditional Reading the World program this year, we’ll instead be having a RTW party at Idlewild Books in NYC on Thursday, May 28th in honor of Karl. Soo Jin and Declan from New Directions have been working on this, and I’ll make a special post with all the details in the near future. We’re hoping to have someone interview Karl about his life in bookselling, and we’re also planning on having a raffle to benefit Shaman Drum, RTW, and Idlewild.
In addition to linking all book titles to Shaman Drum’s online catalog, we’re hoping to post more information about the store, its history, employees, etc. Since this is one of “those stores” that people remember fondly for years and years, if any of you have any stories about S.D. that you’d like to share, please e-mail them to chad.post at rochester dot edu, or simply post them in the comments below.
In response to two open letters from bookseller Karl Pohrt to the Ann Arbor community, a loose coalition of booklovers is coming together to save Shaman Drum bookstore from closing its doors. In a letter sent out to Shaman Drum’s e-mail list Friday and discussed on the front page of the Ann Arbor News the next day, University of Michigan English professor Julie Ellison warns that the 29-year-old booktore is “dying.” Ellison and the letter’s co-signers, who include former poet laureates Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, bookseller Richard Howorth of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., plus 40 Ann Arbor residents, propose solutions meant to turn the bookstore into what she calls a “humanities commons.”
Ellison’s proposals include the University of Michigan changing its current textbook policy to include a statement on the benefits of buying textbooks from local booksellers; individuals buying shares in the bookstore’s nonprofit arm, the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center; the University of Michigan Humanities Center making space available for arts center classes; the university using the bookstore as a site for teaching students about consumer behavior in the digital age; and students and faculty in the university’s Nonprofit and public Management Center and the School of Information assisting the bookstore in developing a new business model and writing grants to support it.
We really hope some good comes out of all of this, and that they find a way to keep Shaman Drum alive.
Weeks ago, I mentioned the idea of interviewing a number of booksellers on the state and future of independent bookselling and book culture in general. My goal is to talk from a wide range of booksellers, managers, owners, and buyers, to get as many different viewpoints as possible from the people who are at the “front lines,” so to speak.
Chad W. Post: How did you get into bookselling?
Karl Pohrt: I recently came across a sentence by Orhan Pamuk from Other Colors: “To carry a book in your pocket or in your bag, particularly in times of sadness, is to be in possession of another world, a world that can bring you happiness.” The book, in this formulation, is an emblem or icon of solace. That’s always been true for me.
In Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf argues that it’s important to read to children because they will grow up associating being loved with reading. Both my parents read to me and my brothers when we were young.
For years I believed that one day I’d open a book that would explain everything. I trace this directly to my early religious education (Presbyterian), but I bet many of us share this fantasy. Jews, Muslims and Christians are, after all, People of the Book.
When I was in elementary school I frequented the neighborhood branch of the Flint Public Library. I also purchased comic books at the local drug store (Uncle Scrooge, Classics Illustrated) with my weekly allowance. Books, comic books, and later bookshops (along with movie theaters), were portals to a wider world.
I was a conscientious objector during the Viet Nam War, and I worked in a hospital for two years in lieu of military service. One of my daily tasks was to transport cancer patients to the Radiology Department for cobalt radiation treatments. This was rewarding but oftentimes depressing work. The patients I worked with didn’t get better. After my shift, I hung out in the bookshops because these places made me feel good.
In 1972, when I finished my stint at the hospital, I started working in a bookshop. After a few years I went to graduate school and I taught English for three years. In 1980 I returned to the book business and started Shaman Drum Bookshop.
CWP: What has it been like running an independent store literally down the road from the Borders headquarters? I have to say, it used to be a running joke with the Borders people I met with that they all shopped at Shaman Drum.
KP: It’s relatively easy to sell books in Ann Arbor. This is a good book town. The flagship Borders store, which is right around the corner from Shaman Drum, is a general interest store. We specialize in literary and scholarly titles. Of course there is some overlap, but the customer base is different.
CWP: What role in book culture do you think Shaman Drum (and/or all independents) plays?
KP: I think independent bookshops are essential for a healthy book culture. Variety is the key to a robust and vital intellectual life.
A climax community ecosystem seems to me to be a good metaphor for the ideal book culture. It’s a system that contains a maximum diversity of life forms. If a disease or predator moves through the community and wipes out a few species, the system will probably recover fairly quickly.
To deliberately reduce life forms by, say, draining a wetlands or clear cutting an old growth forest and then replanting it with just one or two crops makes an ecosystem much more vulnerable. If a disease moves through this community, it’s probably finished.
Category management might work in a supermarket, but it’s not appropriate for the life of the mind. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
This is the big picture. On a more specific level, the independent bookseller retail channel launches books and acts as an early warning system for publishers.
CWP: That’s an interesting metaphor—one that I think is applicable to independent publishers as well. Seems to me that indie bookstores and indie publishers share a certain outlook (and business practices)—do you see a natural alliance between these two groups?
KP: Yes, absolutely. As you well know, many independent booksellers and indie publishers are pals, but we need to create more explicit partnerships and alliances. Maybe the new ABA IndieBound program would be a good vehicle for these projects.
CWP: What are the biggest challenges for Shaman Drum? For independents?
KP: The decline of reading, the shrinking of public space and the lack of leisure time are all terribly difficult problems. You could add to this list an economy in freefall, the rising price of oil and incompetent political leadership (which hopefully will change soon). I fall back to a theological vocabulary in the face of all this. I would describe these as spiritual issues because spiritual is the most inclusive word I can think of.
And the business model for bookstores isn’t very good. We need to think carefully about new business models. We need to figure out how to pay ourselves and our employees adult salaries. Otherwise, we’re asking everyone to commit to lives of voluntary poverty. Of course, this would be just fine if you think of bookselling as a religious vocation, but I find fewer young people out there these days who believe.
CWP: The “war” on the middle class hasn’t made this any easier. And the problem seems to be exacerbated at the chain stores, where there’s a clear financial division between management (enough to survive) and booksellers (not even close). I can imagine that it’s getting harder and harder to find young people interested in staying in bookselling for the long haul. Do you see a younger generation of booksellers coming along that will own and run all the great indie 10-20 years from now?
KP: In the past twelve months Harvard Bookshop’s Frank Kramer passed the torch to Carole Horne and Vromans’ owner Joel Sheldon appointed Allison Hill Chief Operating Officer for his store.
And it is important to note that a number of young booksellers who work in ABA member stores have organized an Emerging Leaders group. Megan Sullivan (Harvard Book Store), Jessica Stockton (McNally Jackson) and Jenn Northington (King’s English) are among the talented young people who are involved in this organization.
CWP: Several of the people I’m hoping to interview as part of this series . . . Going back to your comment on needing a new business model, I know Shaman Drum is becoming a nonprofit (the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center). What is this going to entail for Shaman Drum?
KP: You can read the current version of our plan at our website.. The plan will probably change, so stay tuned.
CWP: This is an incredibly ambitious plan (really—everyone should take a look), and one that would do a world of good for Michigan’s book culture. One of the things that I find interesting is how the store is being incorporated into something larger, and that rather than selling the store, you’re converting it into a nonprofit, and essentially giving it away to a board of directors to use in order to grow the GLLAC. What led you to this decision? And on a broader scale, do you think the nonprofit route is something other indie bookstores should explore?
KP: I’m sixty years old. I love what I do, but it would be irresponsible not to plan for future contingencies. I would prefer to see the bookshop live beyond my tenure here, and I was very impressed when I visited the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis a few years ago. I thought my bookshop might function as a node around which people could organize a center that celebrated the culture of the book. This culture is endangered, so the nonprofit route seemed the way to go.
Booksellers talk about being indispensable to the communities they serve, but is this really true? I thought I’d test it out by giving my store to the community. We’ll see what happens.
CWP: What do you think the future holds for Independent bookselling, 5-10 years down the line?
Given the rapidity of change these days, it is very difficult to speak with any authority about the future beyond a three year horizon. I admire Peter Osnos’ Caravan Project and I’m interested in how that develops. I also believe that what we think of when we use the noun book will be around for a long time because it is still such an efficient technology.
I don’t have a lot to report on this conference that took place last week, except to say that the whole thing was pretty amazing and that it’s wonderful to see such a public celebration for a bookseller and his store.
Karl is one of the giants in terms of independent bookselling and one of the most knowledgeable book people in the country. The standing ovation he received on Thursday night was well-deserved, and it was fantastic to hear so many personal anecdotes about Karl and Shaman Drum. Really goes to show how a bookstore can be the cultural heart of a community.
The panels themselves were also interesting, from the one on publishing with Sven Birkerts of AGNI, Michael Wiegers of Copper Canyon, and Rebecca Wolff of Fence, to the very inspiring panel on writing in the schools with Terry Blackhawk of InsideOut Literary Arts Project, Jeffrey Kass of Pioneer High School, and Michele Kotler of Community-Word, to the very funny discussion of movie adaptations, which included Charles Baxter (Feast of Love), Laura Kasischke (The Life Before Her Eyes, and Jim Burnstein (Renaissance Man).
There really should be more events like this honoring booksellers. Karl has had such a huge impact on Ann Arbor’s literary scene, despite the fact that Borders is headquartered there . . .
And speaking of Borders, if I have one regret about attending this conference, it’s that I didn’t have a chance to go see the new concept store that recently opened and that Karl wrote about on his blog.
I have to admit, I’m a bit scared of a bookstore with TVs in it, but I really wanted to see the “Digital Center” and the Borders vision of the future of the bookstore. And visiting this store next to Kohl’s and Best Buy would’ve been a stark contrast to my visit to Shaman Drum and the conference. . . .
As can be expected, this is a really smart and interesting website. It doesn’t hurt that Phil Pochoda brings in so many great speakers to his Book Publishing class at the University of Michigan (which is right next door to Shaman Drum, Karl’s bookstore) . . . Since the beginning of the month, Karl’s had the opportunity to listen to—and now blog about—Stephen Levy from Newsweek talking about the end of the physical book, Peter Osnos talking about the Caravan Project and the future of bookstores, and Ben Vershbow discussing the Institute for the Future of the Book.
Definitely worth reading and subscribing to . . .
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop to China to attend the Beijing Book Fair, and give this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s wrote a daily blog about the trip, which can be found in its entirety here.
Karl’s back in the States now, but has a couple of thoughts about the trip that are definitely worth sharing.
Postscript to China Report #2: Deep Literacy
for Paul Yamazaki, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & City Lights Bookstore
I ended my presentation in Beijing with this appeal to our bookseller comrades:
The social, political and ecological issues we all face are absolutely daunting, and we need a literate citizenry with attention spans long enough to honor the complexity and subtlety of these problems. I first heard the phrase deep literacy from my friend Paul Yamazaki, and I believe this is where we begin to solve our problems—with a commitment to deep literacy.
The first question someone asked me following the talk was: “What do you mean by ‘deep literacy’? How can we do that?” I mumbled something to the effect that this wasn’t meant to be programmatic, that the phrase “deep literacy” is richly suggestive.
It was clear to me that my answer wasn’t going to get me a pass with this audience, so I briefly talked about the medieval monastic tradition of Lectio Divina, of reading as a kind of prayer or meditation, but given the baffled looks I was getting, I don’t think this was a satisfactory explanation. Either that or what I was saying wasn’t getting translated into anything that made sense in Chinese.
So I wanted to offer some reflections on the topic of deep literacy in the hopes that maybe we could get a conversation going about this. Maybe we could figure out how to reverse the direction we seem to be headed in, buck the historical trend. Maybe we could start something.
Some synonyms for Deep are complex, focused, discerning, resonant. The opposite of Deep is shallow, trivial, diluted, light.
When we think about Literacy, I believe we tend to think in terms of two stages: Illiterate (stage 1) until we become literate when we learn to read at age 6 (stage 2). This is an impoverished view of a lifelong process.
Here are some books and an essay I’ve come across that I think are particularly interesting:
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf (HarperCollins). Ms. Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts, has synthesized a vast amount of information in this wonderful book about the complex processes that make up literacy. She never loses sight of the miraculous gift of reading.
In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon, Ivan Illich (University of Chicago Press). In 1128 Hugh of St. Victor wrote a guide to the art of reading, which he saw as a moral activity that would result in enlightening the heart and mind. Illich argues that Hugh inaugurated the culture of bookishness from which we have now exited for a new social reality—the culture of the screen. This is a learned, clear and brilliant book.
Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Michael Casey (Liguori/Triumph). Casey, a Cistercian monk firmly grounded in Benedictine monasticism, has written “a book of instruction” for the practice of sacred reading. Written for a lay religious audience, it is particularly helpful in discussing the difficulties practitioners may encounter in this meditative tradition.
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans). Peterson writes personally and his tone is pastoral. The title comes from a strange and interesting metaphor in Revelations (10:9-10):
I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.
A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs (Westview). Jacobs, an English professor and Auden scholar, has written a smart book about what it means to read charitably. He is very well read—from Aristotle and Augustine to Bakhtin and Ricoeur—and his book is a joy to read.
The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures, Stephen M. Wylen (Paulist Press). Despite Wylen’s linkage of Jewish critical methods of reading Torah with contemporary Deconstruction theory, this is largely a historical description of traditional Jewish interpretive readings of the scriptures. It is a clearly written explication of a complicated subject.
Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, Simone Weil, Waiting for God (HarperCollins). In this nine page essay Weil argues that the point of reading (in fact, all school studies) is to develop our powers of concentration for prayer. She moves beyond the efficaciousness of religious texts to an over-the-top inclusiveness—all reading…”thought of in this way is like a sacrament.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in what you’ve read that you would recommend.
You have undoubtedly noticed that most of these books articulate religious ideas about reading. Judaism and Christianity are both scriptural religions after all, and—speaking personally—it is clear to me that my childhood religious education profoundly shaped my ideas about books. I attended a small Presbyterian church when I was young, and I grew up believing there was a book—the Bible—that explained the mysteries of the world. I fell away from the church, but I continued to believe that there was a book out there somewhere that broke the world open for lucky readers.
The books and essay I mention that use religious understandings of reading are all essential, but maybe the God talk unnecessarily complicates what are some fairly simple propositions:
Reading is an experience—a process really—that changes and deepens as we age.
During a publisher luncheon a few years ago, Christopher Hitchens told me that he thought you have to be of a certain age to read Proust. He’s right. There are books that were closed to me in my 20s, 30s and 40s that have opened now. I find this is one of the consolations of growing older.
We can increase the quality of attention we bring to reading with practice.
In this way, becoming a sophisticated reader is like getting good at sports or learning how to throw a pot.
Perhaps these points are banal and obvious. These are the same things, after all, that I was taught when I was six years old by the librarian at Civic Park Elementary School in Flint, Michigan in the 1950s. But they are worth repeating.
This is a photograph my wife Dianne took in 1992 at the Tikse Gompa, a Buddhist monastery in Ladakh. Note the monk’s intensity. He is reading a Buddhist sutra out loud (just as we’re told Christian monks did in the Middle Ages) from a book whose individual pages are each a single block print of text. This is pre-Guttenberg.
In this religious tradition, monastics go through a long period of preparation before they are allowed to see a religious text, and then they commit it to memory.
What is the difference between the reading experience of this monk and the way you read?
Finally, I want to call your attention to Single-Minded Way, a teisho by the Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Substitute “read” for “cook” in the following:
To cook . . . is not preparation, according to Dogen; it is practice. To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice.
I’m particularly intrigued by the word sincerity here. Isn’t sincerity an odd but appropriate word to use in this context?
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt — owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop — went to China to attend the Beijing Book Fair, and give this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s wrote a daily blog about the trip, which can be found in its entirety here.
Karl’s back in the States now, but has a couple of thoughts about the trip that are definitely worth sharing. Below is the first post. The second one—all about “deep literacy”—will go up later today.
A week and one day later, still jet lagged and sleeping badly, I fly down to Louisville, Kentucky for the American Booksellers Association Third Annual Winter Institute. Sarah McNally, Rick Simonson and Paul Yamazaki are here.
Paul’s report of our trip to his boss Lawrence Ferlinghetti pleased Mr. Ferlinghetti so much that he inscribed copies of Poetry As Insurgent Art for each of us. I am enormously touched.
“This must feel like the ultimate summer camp experience for you guys,” someone tells me during dinner. “You must feel incredibly bonded with the people you were with.”
Actually, it feels much stranger than that. Reentry following this trip has been difficult for me.
It will pass, I suppose.
Rick Simonson is posting a blog of the trip here.
You can read an interview with Allison Hill here.
Certainly we’re not the first western booksellers to visit China, as I was reminded when I saw my friend Tom Hallock, Director of Sales and Marketing at Beacon Press, this weekend in Louisville. In 1990 Tom taught English in Beijing, and he wrote a graceful essay, An American Bookman In Beijing, for the American Bookseller magazine. You can read Tom’s essay here.
This morning is chock full of good news—all via Shelf Awareness:
In honor of Karl Pohrt, founder and owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop, Ann Arbor, Mich., the University of Michigan’s department of English is holding a conference March 6-7 called Writing in Public: A Celebration of Karl Pohrt that consists of a series of author readings and panel discussions.
Panels will address “subjects near to Pohrt’s heart,” including literary publishing, writing in the schools and transforming books into films. Readers include poet Gary Snyder and author Andrea Barrett. Panelists include critic and author Sven Birkerts and author Charles Baxter.
This is fantastic for Karl and sounds like it will be a remarkable event. And based on this and the news about Jessica Stockton, it looks like this is going to be a good week . . .
Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop —is 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 can be found in its entirety here.
January 14, 2008
Paul and Rick leave for home this morning.
“More people mean a greater ferment of ideas, more enthusiasm and more energy.”—Mao Zedong
The pollution index is very high today. The world here is hazy and dim by midday. I can actually taste the exhaust.
I meet Claudia Ross, a Professor of Chinese Language and Linguistics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, in front of the Beijing Books Building. Claudia, my friend Daniel Goldin’s sister, has been in China with her husband on and off since the end of the Cultural Revolution. She is here doing research for the academic year. For those of you who aren’t in the book business, Daniel is the buyer at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee.
Claudia and I have lunch on the top floor of a department store not far from the bookshop. She orders Shuh Yang Rou, which she tells me is a traditional Beijing winter dish. It’s a kind of Chinese style fondue. Our waitress places a pot of boiling spicy broth on a hot pad at our table and brings us heaping plates of mushrooms, spinach, bean curds, broccoli and thin slices of lamb along with a sesame sauce to dip the food in after it is cooked. The food is delicious.
I ask Claudia too many questions about all the things I’ve seen this week that I don’t understand, and she very graciously attempts to clue me in.
Our group has noticed that Beijing is very homogeneous. For the capital of a world class city, there is not much ethnic and racial diversity. Non Han people really stand out here. Claudia laughs and agrees.
On the subject of the relationship between the people and the state here, Claudia says there is a very clear line and everybody understands that if they cross it there will be consequences. On the other hand, average citizens are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, probably a carry-over of Confucian values.
When I mention the problems of cigarette smoking and pollution in Beijing, Claudia tells me that they are making strides. You are no longer allowed to smoke on trains and planes here.
“I suppose you’ve noticed all the spitting,” she says. Yes, I have, but then I’ve been hacking myself in my hotel room in the morning and I figure it is a response to the pollution. “No,” she says. “People here believe it is healthy to clear your throat and spit.”
In retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t connect with Claudia earlier. She is a charming and knowledgeable guide to China.
Allison Hill suggests we all spend our last night in Beijing watching a performance by Chinese acrobats at the Chaoyang Theater. The show is a remarkable spectacle. The costumes, lighting and booming music are over the top, which is completely appropriate. The acrobats hurtle, fling and flip through the air as if they are weightless. The audience is surprisingly raucous. They whistle, clap and shout. The scene reminds me of appearances by James Brown and the Fabulous Flames in Flint back in the 1960s. Many of the people in the audience tonight are elderly Chinese, and this is really pre-television entertainment. The theater is quite cool—it’s probably unheated—and we keep our jackets on.
Allison has also made dinner reservations for us at the Summit Club, which is on the top floor of a high-end hotel. This is one of those circular restaurants that move slowly in a 360 degree circle while diners view the city. Two entertainers are singing soft rock tunes in English (Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell). Unfortunately, the ambiance of the whole experience is compromised by the fact that the city below us is almost unidentifiable in a thick haze of carcinogenic particles.
The Brits tell us they have felt an air of unreality about this trip (so have we), and they cope with this by imagining themselves to be inside a film. This leads to a great deal of cheap talk over dinner about which actors would be appropriate to play us (I suggest Brad Pitt for me) and how the film should end.
Despite our attempts at levity and despite the opulence of our surroundings, we’re all somewhat subdued. It is the end of this remarkable experience. Tomorrow we begin the Long March back home.
We pose for a last group picture on the staircase in the fancy hotel.
January 12, 2008, Part 2: An Interesting Conversation
“In this world, things are complicated and are decided by many factors. We should look at problems from different aspects, not from just one.”—Mao Zedong
On our way to dinner we pass the stunning CCTV building designed by Rem Koolhaas, still under construction. It dominates the skyline in this part of Beijing and looks like something straight out of Blade Runner—a gigantic black building (or buildings) set at odd and unexpected angles.
I’m tagging along with Rick and Paul to a restaurant inside the Beijing Opera House for a small dinner with three Chinese writers. The dinner turns out to be one of the most interesting experiences of the trip.
When we get to the restaurant, Rick introduces me to our host Zhou Zan, a young woman who has written a book of poems and another book of criticism. Last year she was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
Ms. Zhou introduces us to two people she describes as very famous poets in China.
Xi Chuan is the author of many books of poetry, essays and translations, he has won numerous international prizes, and he’s taught abroad. He currently teaches at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, which is located near District 798, the arts neighborhood in Beijing that is so hot right now. He is an intense man who is deeply committed to the poetry scene both nationally and internationally.
Zhai Yongming, a feminist poet, has published six books of poems, 3 books of prose and a collection of essays. She has read at the Rotterdam Poetry Festival as well as in the UK, France and the U.S. She lives in Chengdu, Sichuan, where she owns a bar.
Xi Chuan can speak English very well, Zhou Zan is more difficult to understand, and Zhai Yongming, who seems slightly shy, has Xi Chuan translate for her.
Ms. Zhai is beautiful. She could be a film actress, and Xi Chuan tells us that in fact she was asked to act in a film directed by Jia Zhang. Instead she asked to write the screenplay. The project is the story of three generations of women who worked in a weapons factory that was very successful during the Cultural Revolution. Following the Cultural Revolution, the company decided to diversify their manufacturing base, which was not successful. Currently the people in this community are in trouble because there isn’t anything to manufacture. “Currently the situation of the workers is very difficult,” she tells us.
Rick shows me an acceptance speech Ms. Zhai gave after winning a poetry prize in China recently. In her talk she described the role she thinks poetry should play in China today:
Many beautiful things have been replaced by consumerism. Almost everything has become commodified in the world. People consume and abandon things quickly. Only poetry cannot be trivialized and consumed because of its uselessness, its resistance to the logic of consumption and also because inherently it is an examination of the premise of existence. In a materialistic and entertainment-based environment, we poets must share and create an art of language characterized by a spirit of freedom and independent ideas.
I admire and I share this view of the power and role of poetry.
I recall the Russian poets Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, who attracted audiences large enough to fill football stadiums in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. They were like rock stars. Xi Chuan tells us that the Misty Poets like Bei Dao had the same electric effect on audiences in China. Now the poetry scene here has fractured. Poets are all doing different things, Xi Chuan says. He speaks of the effect of the market economy on poetry.Read More...
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 can be found in its entirety here.
January 12, 2008, Part 1: The Great Wall
“There are no straight roads in the world; we must be prepared to follow a road which twists and turns . . .” —Mao Zedong
It’s a clear, beautiful day. We throw in with the Brits and rent a minibus (200 RMB/$14.38 U.S.) for a trip to the Great Wall.
We drive north and west from Beijing across flat farmland toward the mountains. This landscape conforms to the images I carry in my head of rural China—neat walls around long single-story buildings with traditional tile roofs, trees planted in symmetrical lines, sheep and cattle. The road signs are in Chinese and English: Imperial Apricot Park, Moman Forest, Golf Hills . . . Golf Hills?
We hike the Wall for a few hours. This is a fierce, beautiful place and I feel my meager powers are not up to describing what it’s like here.
Mountains over and over again
fade into a blue haze in the distance.
The world goes on and on—
wind, the sun, silence.
I purchase a large calligraphy scroll in the gift shop at the Great Wall with the Chinese character representing Dragon. Dragons are fierce beings (see Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu) and this will be a fine souvenir from the Great Wall. The dragon is also an important role model for independent booksellers. We’re sure not going to survive in the current retail environment if we’re not fierce.
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. Click here for the January 7th entry, here for the one from January 8th, here for the one from January 9th, and here for the one from January 10th.
January 11, 2008
“ ‘Exchange information.’ . . . This is of great importance in achieving a common language.”—Mao Zedong
I rally during the night, which is a good thing since today is Showtime for the American “Gang of Five.” We’re all scheduled to give presentations at a Booksellers Forum. Around one hundred people have paid 500RMB each ($35.95 U.S.) to hear us speak.
After an hour long ride across Beijing, we emerge from the minibus into a hotel lobby dominated by a huge Christmas tree and a large banner that says Warm Welcome to Western Booksellers. I feel just like a movie star again. I’d like to hang this banner inside the entrance of my home, so it would be the first thing I’d see when I got back from work every day.
I’m up first. There are two translators working at the back of the large room and everyone has earphones, which gives the whole event a certain gravitas it otherwise might not have. My talk is well received.
What follows are my remarks to the Chinese booksellers. I thought about not including this text, recalling Chairman Mao’s excellent advice: “Talks, speeches, articles and resolutions should all be concise and to the point.”
However, at another point he urges people to: “Say all you know and say it without reserve.”
[Ed. Note: This is the same speech that we ran last week and which is available here. It’s definitely worth reading—and worth reposting—but to avoid detracting from the rest of Karl’s post, I’m just going to leave it at this for now.]
We do a short power point show with photographs of each of our stores to give folks here some way to contextualize us.
Allison Hill is up next, and she speaks on the subject of the radical changes brought about by the digital revolution. She warns our audience that the erosion of traditional bookselling seems inevitable, and that we’ve learned very little about how to prepare for what might happen in the future. We tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term.
Allison sees the survival of independent bookstores as dependent on our ability to adapt, and she credits the survival of Vromans, the 114 year-old store she manages, to its ability to embrace change while at the same time maintaining a steadfast commitment to reading.
Sarah McNally sets up what she’s going to do by asking the audience how independent booksellers can compete with chain stores and Amazon, which she calls “the best bookstore ever, with the most books and discounts on top of that.”
Sarah’s solution is to work at making her store look better than the chain stores. “I try to make books irresistible,” she tells us. She shows a number of slides of photos taken inside her store and talks about balanced and beautiful displays.
Sarah ends with a call to arms: “There is no other business that can do what we do for our societies. Globally it is our responsibility to keep bookstores alive in our communities.”
Xue Ye, our Master of Ceremonies today, has scheduled a Mr. Shi, who owns six bookstores in different Chinese cities, to respond to Allison & Sarah’s remarks.
Mr. Shi begins reasonably enough by stating that none of us—Americans and Chinese—have the answers regarding how to compete. His voice rises as he continues to speak, and it appears to me that he is becoming increasingly angry. Later in the day I realize that this may be a regional rhetorical style, but at that moment it is very disconcerting. Both Allison and Sarah remain incredibly poised. He ends by stating that “Chinese people are modest. We think we need to learn from the West, but we shouldn’t look to our foreign counterparts for solutions.” This gets a wild response from the audience. It is the only moment when people applaud spontaneously.
I don’t understand what has just happened. Is this an appeal to Chinese nationalism? What is the real subtext here? Afterwards, someone tells me that Mr. Shi’s remarks were a veiled criticism of the government for not helping independent booksellers, but it could be that the person telling me this is just being polite.
After lunch, Paul Yamazaki tells our audience the story of City Lights Bookstore. He describes the store as a community of resistance. “It’s not enough to just do a bookshop,” Paul says. From the very beginning City Lights was involved in political activity, and the store continues this tradition of community building today. He pointedly adds, “Beijing bookstores feel like City Lights did back in the early days.”
Paul describes booksellers as curators of contemporary literature, and he expands on this idea by citing the example of City Lights Books, which publishes 10 to 14 new titles a year.
Rick Simonson tells the story of Elliott Bay Bookstore by concentrating on its ups and downs over the years. He tells people Elliott Bay is in Seattle, the home of Amazon.com. The store rebounded from its customer base migrating to Amazon by concentrating on customer service, backlist, and author events. Everyone at Elliott Bay works on the sales floor.
Barbara Genco, Director of Collection Development at the Brooklyn Public Library, ends the American portion of the program by addressing the topic of the role booksellers play in the community. She does an excellent job of summing up what we’ve all said. “Adaptability, independence and the issue of how to be unique are the key factors for your survival,” she tells the Chinese booksellers. “China is like City Lights. The more independent you are, the more likely it is you will survive.”
Our British counterparts take it from here. Sheryl Shurville, owner of the Chorleywood Bookshop, and Patrick Neale, owner of Jaffe and Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton, feel their success is due to being rooted in their respective communities. Ron Johns, who owns three bookshops and a small publishing firm (and is a provocateur at heart), suggests that Chinese booksellers ask their government to ban Amazon.
At the end of the day, Xue Ye, our Master of Ceremonies, asks everyone in the room to make brief remarks about what they are taking away from today’s sessions. I’m not sure if this is the way most meetings end here and if everyone just automatically expects to do this, but it is very sweet. People’s comments seem deeply earnest and sincere.
Xue Ye asks people at the back of the room to begin, and by the time we get to the front of the room, which is where the speakers sit, I fear I’m becoming unhinged. I’m afraid I might weep uncontrollably when it comes my turn to speak. It’s a combination of exhaustion from jet lag and my reaction to the genuinely moving comments I’m hearing— I’ve always been a complete sucker for the rhetoric of international fraternity and solidarity. However, at the last moment I get a grip. I retain my dignity. At the same time, I try to communicate what an extraordinary experience this is for us.
Rick bravely attempts to speak a sentence in Chinese. This is not entirely successful, but everyone in the room gets into the spirit of it anyway.
Following the Forum, we go to a restaurant famous in Beijing for its roast duck. Madame Ou Hong, editor-in-chief of China Publishing Today, and her entourage join us, Xue Ye offers a number of “bottoms up” toasts at dinner (getting pretty toasted in the process) and everyone has a terrific time.
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.
January 10, 2008
“Things develop ceaselessly.”—Mao Zedong
We roll out at 8 a.m. this morning. The weather has turned significantly colder and this was not a Blue Sky Day.
We were scheduled today to visit four bookshops in the greater Beijing area, and on our way to the first store we stopped for photo ops near the Beijing Olympic Stadium. This breathtaking structure looks like a landing site for alien interplanetary spaceships. I prefer the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in Tiantan Park.
Our first stop was the Beijing Shuimu branch of the O2 Sun Bookstore. It’s located on a corner, so the store’s visibility to its customers is excellent. There is a beautiful little coffee shop on the second floor, and it has an interesting stationary section. Our info packets contain the following charming description:
An urban living bookstore calls for ‘pleasant reading’, a café fills with cappuccino, a small resting dak appeases your soul. Whatever intent you come to here with, you can breathe the fresh 02 from the photosynthesis. The bookstore doing books about ‘language, walk, and communication’, and it is also has the yellow sun flower and warm lamplight.
Next stop was the All Sages Bookstore and Thinker’s Café Bar, located on Chengfu Street outside the east gate of Beijing University. This is an awesome academic bookstore, one of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The exterior signage is incredibly minimal, and one would not guess what a jewel is here from the street entrance.
After we look around the store a bit, we’re introduced to Suli Liu, the store’s owner and founder. Mr. Suli invites us to tea in the Thinker’s Café, and we quickly get into a conversation comparing the book business in China and the United Stastes. We are joined by Xue Ye, President of the China Private Book Industry Committee, an organization that sounds somewhat like the American Booksellers Association (if I understand Mr. Xue correctly). Xue Ye is an intense man with a good sense of humor. He vibrates with energy.
Suli Liu has decorated the walls of the Thinker’s Café with photographs of bookstores, and we are all enormously pleased to see a picture of City Lights there. Paul poses with Suli Liu for a photo.
Our packet included the following information:
The name of All Sages originated from the western ghost festival-Halloween, the antetype of the bookstore’s logo, blue devil in Indian devil mask. However, with public’s mouth-to-ear transmitting, the meaning of “ten thousand sages” is more appropriate to the bookstore, “I prefer to understand it as ‘ten thousand sages,’ all these ten thousand sages are authors in All Sages Bookstore’s bookshelves, and I am one of readers who get benefits from these sages,” Xichuan, Chinese poet said. So, the English name of the bookstore changes from “Halloween” previous to “All Sages Bookstore” now.
After lunch, we visit the Beijing Books Building, a huge eight floor state-owned bookstore located in a bustling downtown neighborhood that reminds me of midtown Manhattan. We decide this must be the biggest bookstore in the world, until someone tells us there is a larger store in a southern Chinese city. The store is packed with people and seems to have everything, including most of the recent American bestselling non fiction titles, which have been translated into Chinese.
From our packet:
The prosperous customers flow over a long period, the outstanding sales in the book industry, all these help Beijing Books Building stabilize its No.1 status in the domestic book retail selling market. Its sales plan always becomes the vane of domestic book popularity and the information origin for domestic publishing houses which they have to think a lot of as well.
We end our tour at the Beijing Sanlian Taofen Bookstore, another absolute jewel of a bookshop. Rick has friends in Seattle who told him not to miss this place. The info packet tells us:
If you like books about social science and human culture, it is a perfect choice of going to the Sanlian Taofen Bookstore. Beijing Sanlian Taofen Bookstore is one of the most favorite bookstores for many youth who love literature. This bookstore is a best place for free reading, and “reading in stairs” is a specialty of it.
We meet with Zeng Jun, the manager of Sanlian Taofen, a calm and gracious lady who is proud of the long history of the store. Sanlian Taofen has some kind of institutional affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party, if I understood Ms. Zeng correctly. The logo of the store, a stylized image of three workers, is based on a Soviet design.
Although I like nothing more than visiting independent bookshops, sleep deprivation is catching up with me and I begin to feel ill after our banquet dinner. I worry that I’ll vomit on the bus back to the hotel, but I make it. Then I’m sick. Then I go to bed.
January 9, 2008
“We can learn what we did not know.”—Mao Zedong
This morning our delegation attended the Beijing Book Fair, which wasn’t all that different from the American Book Expo except that just about everybody was Chinese and all the books were written in Chinese. And the subject categories on the main floor leaned heavily toward the technical, engineering and medical fields. We were split into small groups when we got there, and I walked through the exhibition halls with Sarah McNally and Allison Hill. Kong Deyun was our guide and translator. The place was packed with visitors and publishers.
After a banquet-style lunch we visited the Beijing Baiwanzhuang Book Building and were ushered into a room on the lower level for a meeting with the General Manager. Baiwanzhuang runs both a large publishing company and this big four level bookstore. One third of the books they publish are textbooks and two thirds are trade books for sale to the general public. We were told they buy many international titles and translate them. They also sell the rights to Chinese books on the foreign market. How this all works is slightly fuzzy to me, and I still don’t entirely understand the business model.
I purchased a book that beautifully reproduces the calligraphy of four poems by the great Song Dynasty poet Su Shi.
In the late afternoon, we soldiered on to our next stop, the offices of the Jieli Publishing House, a relatively new company that specializes in children’s literature. The owner of the firm, Mr. Baibing, (who looks a bit like Al Pacino) tells us they publish books “for babies and on up to the time when people are old enough to fall in love!” His laugh is infectious.
Mr. Baibing tells us that children’s books currently represent 7% of the market share in China. He says children’s books account for 20% of books sold in the United States and Europe, so his company expects to grow considerably as the Chinese market matures.
The Jieli Publishing House has made a small fortune on Naughty Boy Called Mu Shautiao, a series of books for elementary school children. There are eighty titles in the series and they’ve published 14 million copies of these books so far. Mr. Baibing tells us they’ve sold 13 million copies of Naughty Boy in China. If you are curious about Naughty Boy, you’ll get a chance this spring when HarperCollins publishes them for an American audience.
By the time we move on to the excellent banquet the Jieli folks throw for us, we’re all exhausted. Allison asks the Jieli Marketing Director, “What did Naughty Boy do to earn his title?” Huang Xinping has difficulty translating this question, so Allison rephrases it: “What’s naughty about Naughty Boy?” Some tasteless jokes are made, but we’re all giddy from jet lag, lack of sleep and too much alcohol. I suggest they print up Naughty Boy buttons, which just might catch on with the older crowd, etc.
In reference to Karl’s earlier posts re: the Beijing Book Fair, here’s a picture of him with Allison Hill in front of the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Additionally, he’s writing a daily blog about the trip, which we’ll be running here. Click here for the January 7th entry.
January 8, 2008
“Be united, alert, earnest and lively.”—Mao Zedong
Fortunately, today turned out to be what Beijing citizens call a Blue Sky Day—the sun was out, temperatures were mild, and pollution levels seemed low at midday.
Allison Hill, Rick Simonson and I took the subway (price: 30 cents) to Tiananmen Square this morning. We walked through part of the Forbidden City and across the Square. The open space here is extraordinary. There is nothing like it that I know of in the West, except maybe the Mall in Washington (but that hardly comes close). We arrived at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall at noon, which is when it closes, and missed the chance to view Mao’s corpse. I purchased a Chairman Mao watch from a street vendor at an inflated price.
We took another long walk south of the Square, eating lunch in a small neighborhood restaurant where the food was excellent and our waitress seemed amused by our presence here. For the rest of the afternoon we walked through the Temple of Heaven complex in Tiantan Park. This is another staggeringly large public space with beautiful and strange buildings. We watched groups of people folkdancing, singing, playing card games and smoking. Everyone seemed to be enjoying each others company. Allison commented that she didn’t see anyone using cell phones.
Rick, who had visited Tiananmen Square and Tiantan park yesterday with Paul, was our guide, for which I am deeply grateful.
This evening we attended a banquet in a fine restaurant near our hotel organized by our sponsors, Madame Ou Hong, editor-in chief of China Publishing Today, and a gentleman I took to be the owner of the Xinhua Company. At this point, I was starting to flag a bit, although I did manage to successfully offer a toast to friendship between the Chinese, American and British peoples. I was seated next to “Cindy” and “Julie” (“These are our American names”) on my left and three men on my right who worked for the Xinhua Bookstore Co. and didn’t speak any English. This resulted in a kind of whiplash effect—I had to turn left to “Cindy” who translated what my new pals on the right were saying (“They say you are very good with chopsticks!”). It was great wacky fun and the food was terrific.
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.
That would make a good title for a movie . . . Actually, the title of this post is in reference to the group of independent booksellers attending the Beijing Book Fair right now. As previously mentioned Reed Exhibitions/BookExpo America arranged this cultural exchange and organized a special panel on bookselling to take place at the fair.
Karl Pohrt (owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop one of the best bookstores in the country) promised to write a blog about his experiences in Beijing, and as soon as it’s available, I’ll post about it here. In the meantime, he sent me the text of the speech he plans to give, which is a great overview of the current situation in America, and worth reading in its entirety. He presents an interesting perspective on this profession which features a 2% margin and an incredible set of challenges, and yet seems so vital to culture. In particular, the info on sales at indie stores for the top 300-500 books is very intriguing . . .
THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FACING BOOKSELLERS IN A POST LITERATE WORLD
Xinping posed two questions to us prior to this forum:
1. How do booksellers in the United States balance business demands with cultural advocacy?
2. How do booksellers respond to the challenges of the digital world?
Because I want to respond to both of these interesting topics, I asked Xinping if I might speak about the challenges and opportunities facing booksellers in a post literate world. I chose the term post literate in part because I wished to be provocative, but also because I wanted describe our present cultural moment. Perhaps the term post literate is too loaded. It has a kind of science fiction quality to it, and for some people I think it implies a decline in literacy. In the interest of fairness, it might be better to describe the world we are living in as transliterate, a term coined by Alan Liu from the University of California at Santa Barbara. This means the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.
The first time I heard someone describe a book as an information platform was maybe eight years ago. I was startled by the phrase information platform, not because it isn’t absolutely accurate (it is), but because it implies that the book is just one among many platforms for disseminating information. In this formulation, the cinema, television, ipod, compact disc, and the computer are all platforms for disseminating information. The subtext here is clear: The book is no longer in the privileged position it has held since Guttenberg invented movable type five hundred years ago.
The implications of this shift for everyone is enormous, but it is especially so for those of us who make our living as booksellers. How will we remain vital participants in the cultural life of our society? More importantly, how can we even stay in business?Read More...
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To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
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