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.
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