Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I Voted for Ann Patchett - have you?

You know that list Time Magazine does?  The 100 Most Influential People in the World?  This year, I want you to vote for Ann Patchett, so click here - and we only have until Friday, April 6th.  (I wouldn't have known about the Vote except for the fine people at the American Booksellers Association - but alerting their membership to important issues is what fine trade organizations do.)

If you trust me, you don't need to know more than that.  Just go here and vote - it'll help take the sting out of Justin Bieber getting put on the list last year.

If you don't trust me, if you need to know more about Ms. Patchett before you vote, I'll tell you this:  she's a terrific writer.  Bel Canto is my favorite - it's South America, it's opera, it's terrorists.  Just go read it.  And if you love it - and you'll love it - there's more.  There's State of Wonder, her latest, out in paperback next month.  Or there's Truth and Beauty if you want a devastating and beautiful memoir.

In other words, Ms. Patchett is a brilliant wordsmith.  But the funny thing?  She hasn't been nominated by Time because she's an author.  She's been nominated because she recently opened a bookstore.  Since then, she's become the face of your local independent bookseller who's fighting the good fight - championing voices, young and old, famous and undiscovered.  Fighting to give those voices a chance to sing.

Oh ho! you think to yourself.  That's why Nick wants me to vote for Ann Patchett, because he's a self-serving so-and-so.  And to that I say, Absolutely.

Look, I know some are tired of me ranting about the good that bookstores do.  But the littlest thing will set me off - like having a stranger come into my store (and yes, I say stranger, not customer, because she didn't actually buy anything and she was strange) all I need is for the Stranger to come in, all excited, and say, Do you have Adriana Trigiani's new novel?

Why, do you mean the Shoemaker's Wife? I ask.  And I'm excited, too, because I love Ms. Trigiani.  Ask me about her first novel, Big Stone Gap, and the great event we hosted for her - great because she was there, and wow, once you meet Ms. Trigiani?  You're going to want to be friends immediately and you'll want to have read her books yesterday.

So when the Stranger asked about the Shoemaker's Wife, the Stranger with her sunglasses on even though she'd been inside the bookstore for about fifteen minutes, I matched her excitement with my own.  It's right here, I said, as I plucked a copy from our shelf.

Do you discount hardcovers? the Stranger asked as she refused to take the book and instead pushed her sunglasses tighter against her face.

No, I said.  We just go ahead and charge the price the publisher has conveniently printed on it.  Kind of like magazines and newspapers.  It takes the guesswork right out!

Well, that doesn't make you very competitive, does it? the Stranger said.

Looking away from the Stranger for a moment, I saw that I had a patron who actually wanted to patronize my shop, and she was waiting patiently for me at the register.  When I looked her way, she kind of shooed me with her hands.  It's ok, her gesture said.  You go right ahead and talk to that Stranger a little more if you need to.

So friends, I did what I instruct my coworkers not to do.  I engaged the enemy.  And the reason I engaged is because even though there was no way this Stranger was going to buy anything from me, I decided to make this a teaching moment.  Isn't that what the cool kids call it?

With whom should I be competitive? I asked.  There used to be a Borders down the street, but they went bankrupt.  It seems their business model - offering books at oftentimes insanely low prices - was, um, unsustainable.  There are some other Indies around, but we don't consider ourselves competitors, more like complementors.  And I smiled.

No, no, the Stranger said.  I mean online.  I'm sure Amazon has it cheaper, right?

  Friends, I've had this conversation so many times.  Yes, you can get It cheaper on Amazon - whatever It is.  And while there are a host of reasons why I believe Bookstores are important - and yes, many of those reasons are highfalutin - the reality is that I am running a business.  Kind of like, you know, Amazon.  Just cuter, smaller and tax-paying.

So, yes, I'm trying to turn a profit on the books I sell.  You know what I also try and do?  I try and hire people who live where you live.  I pay my taxes - did I mention that already?  Oh, and I try and give back to my community.

Go on, the next time you want a donation to benefit the Silent Auction of your choice, ask Amazon for a gift certificate.  Or the next time an author is launching a new book, like Christopher Moore with his novel, Sacré Bleu, and you want to attend an author event where you can meet him, where he might sign your copy, give Amazon a ring.

(Oh, and hey?  For me?  Don't go to that event at your local bookstore with the book you purchased at Amazon.  That's kind of like going to the French Laundry with a steak you bought at Costco and asking the chef to cook it for you.)*

Or how about this?  The next time you want to talk to interesting people who might share your taste in books, or the next time you want to talk to someone who might turn you onto a book that you wouldn't otherwise have thought twice about, click on Amazon and see what People Who Bought This Also Bought.

I mean, you won't get to actually talk to anyone - it's an algorithm doing all the work - but talking?  To, you know, a person?  That's so old-fashioned.

I wish I was as succinct as Ms. Patchett.  She was interviewed in the New York Times last year, just before her bookstore, Parnassus, opened.  Near the beginning of the article, Ms. Patchett described why she would launch a bookstore during a horrible economy - especially since bookstores in particular are struggling against the mighty Amazon.  Her opening salvo:

“I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore,” Ms. Patchett said ... “But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”

The article closed with these words: 

Ms. Patchett said that she is counting on her store to drive home a sharp, tough-love message to book lovers:  buy books at independent stores, or the stores will go away.  “This is not a showroom, this is not where you come in to scan your bar code,” she said. “If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”

Friends, that's all I wanted to say.   I feel passionately about this thing.  This thing called books.  If you want your choices determined by the shelf-space that Walmart will allocate to the ten picks they think you should read, then don't shop Indie.

I'm selfish, though - and I want selection.  I want to browse.  I want to talk to people who care about this Thing, and so what I want is for this Thing to survive.  I want new authors to be discovered and cheered on by a bookseller near you.  I want that book from 150 years ago, if it's still in print, I want it to have life on my shelves if I can put it into your hands.  I want authors to have a venue to interact with their readers.  I want a free exchange of ideas - in person - not in some comment-thread between and

I want you to be excited about what you're reading and to come in and tell me about it.  I want to give your dog a treat, ask about your Uncle, and tell you that the best burger on the Island is at American Oak (their whiskey selection is also extraordinary).

So, I want all that, but did I mention I also want you to vote?  For Ann Patchett?  Because I do.  Because I think it's important that she, in the words of Time Magazine, has placed "herself on the front lines of several ongoing battles for the fate of the printed word."

*(Thanks to Michael Barnard at Rakestraw Books for this fine example of the odd choices made by the Strangers among us.)