There are many reasons why the tiny, scrappy independent publisher I ran from 2001 to 2009, Soft Skull Press, became a publisher with a Pulitzer finalist and books on bestseller lists from the Singapore Straits Times to the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. Those reasons include the quality of the books themselves, the engaging authors, the supportive media (sometimes!). But the main reason people discovered our books, read them, and told their friends about them, is that thousands of people over the decade unpacked a box of books and, in the process of putting one on a shelf, got curious about it, decided to read it, and recommended it to friends, co-workers and, yes, customers.
This process replicated itself for hundreds of publishers and tens of thousands of books, numbers that grew as technology made it easier and cheaper to create traditional printed books. America’s book retail sector grew fast in the 1990s and 2000s (with hindsight, faster than the economy could sustain) to keep up with the growth in the publishing of books, enabled by cheap credit (again, with hindsight, perhaps too cheap). Superstore after superstore opened, offering customers more choice than had ever before been found in most physical bookstores.
But selection, whether of books or of music, was hardly a compelling reason to go to Borders, when Amazon had all the books you could want, and iTunes (or the file-sharing site du jour) all the downloads you could want. We have more culture, more media, than we can now consume in a thousand lifetimes — we don’t need any more choice. What we need is help in choosing. Borders was not offering that. [. . .]
Where will we find all the mini-Oprahs we need to connect writers and readers? Bookstores can and should be sites for this conversation. Increasingly, the good ones are places where people seeking deeper engagement with their culture and society choose to congregate. They are offering language classes, reading groups, singles nights, writing workshops, self-publishing solutions.
Not all bookstores have gotten on board with the transition from being a place where books await customers to being a locale of social and cultural exchange, which happens to support itself in part by selling books. The brilliant Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has noted that the less a retail experience is focused on selling stuff and the more it is about something else — an event, an occasion, a vision — the more a store will sell.
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Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .