Showing posts with label Bookstores. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bookstores. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Philly poets -- bad news. Readers’ Forum Books in Wayne (N. Wayne Ave just above route 30, half a block from the train station) has to be out of their space by next Sunday. The silver lining in this is that somebody recently sold a very large, very good selection of poetry books and journals and that you can probably negotiate prices below the $3-10 that most of the items in the store are marked at. I got a dozen books that included Hugh MacDiarmid, Roy Miki's anthology of criticism on the Martyrology, some George Bowering, an early Bronk, some Donald Finkel, Marjorie Welish, Paul Beatty etc. Books I did not pick up because I already owned them included those by Kit Robinson, Carla Harryman, Clayton Eshleman (lots!), Jerry Rothenberg, Hank Lazer, Doug Messerli's big anthology. Also remaining a lot of interesting quietist volumes (collected Ted Hughes, the underappreciated George Starbuck, some Geoffrey Hill, Gertrude Schnackenberg) etc. Also lots of issues of Sulfur, Conjunctions, Boundary2, even The Dial. Seriously recommend the trip. Novelist / manager Ed Luoma runs the operation and talks about buying lots of books from Guy Davenport when he'd come and teach at Swarthmore.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Portland as a city is every bit as nice as everyone claims that it is. The big branded chain stores are hard to find, there really does seem to be an indie coffee house that knows how to make a proper double-shot espresso every 1.5 blocks (or less), the airport has a bicycle assembly area, the basement at Yale Union (an art space being crafted out of an old industrial laundry just east of downtown) has – I saw it with my own eyes – an open creek, there are goats in the vacant lot across the street, I had a great time with several interesting poets & artists, and the sea salt ice cream (laced with caramel) that I consumed at Salt & Straw on NE Alberta Street could be the best ice cream ever. Add majestic views (many of them, quite varied, mostly on northwestern themes) & who cares if it drizzles a little?
However, it’s predictable that a grump like yours truly would find one serious downer amid all this compulsive niceness – the poetry section at Powell’s. I’ve been told – I was surprised how quickly & defensively Portlanders were to respond to this charge – that my sampling may have been unfair in that the section has been relocated temporarily out of the blue room (currently undergoing renovation) and moved up to the third floor behind the rather large events area (many rows of folding chairs). So I won’t chide it for being as out-of-the-way as any poetry section you could find in a B&N anywhere in America. But what really struck me was the many, many empty shelves & overall mediocre selection of what Powell’s did have on display. I’m being churlish, no doubt, since they did have one of my own books available new – ® -- a 1995 Drogue Press volume. The website suggests that there may be a few other volumes hiding in a warehouse somewhere. And frankly I was flattered to be recognized by a checkout clerk who told me that I “looked like a poet” he knew, quickly amended to “knew of.” But when Sean in the porkpie hat showed up at the reading with that book in hand to sign, he & I both noted that Powell’s was now stripped bare of my verse, save maybe for the usual anthologies. Big sigh.
I’m less concerned with my own representation there than with the idea that a poetry section with many empty shelves is as good as one chockablock full (see the Chester County Book Company in the West Goshen Mall, for example). That is just not my notion of how a reseller should operate. I could not find anything to buy in the Powell’s poetry section, where I did in the far smaller (but more crowded) Chester County store just this last month (Wendell Berry on William Carlos Williams to be exact). It was a reminder, yet again, that poetry & the publishing industry are two separate fields with relatively little in the way of overlap.
I wouldn’t even call the Chester County Book Company a great bookstore, but you can see their passion for their product, whereas my sense of Powell’s was that its passion was for the store itself. I did buy some books – an early Kerouac novel from the remainders and a paperback from the earth sciences volumes relegated to a second satellite shop across the street (I suppose they could have hidden poetry there, so maybe I’m being overly harsh). But if you were to ask me to name the great bookstores for poetry in the USA – Woodland Pattern, Moe’s, City Lights, Open Books, St. Marks Bookshop, Bridge Street Books in DC would all come to mind well before Powell’s. The idea that the best poetry bookstore in the US still is in Milwaukee pretty much says it all. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Saturday, March 31, 2007

I was pleased to find The Age of Huts (compleat) at Harvard Books in Cambridge the other day. Behind Harvard Books, at 9 Plympton, Grolier Books did not have a copy yet, tho the young man in the bow tie at the cash register (not the new proprietor, Ifeanyi Menkiti) indicated that they had one on order because someone had asked for it the other day. He also explained to another customer while I was there that Grolier was one of two poetry bookstores in the United States. He was not referring to Woodland Pattern, of which he admitted he’d never heard. Nor the store front at Small Press Distribution. Nor Kingdom Books in Vermont. He had heard of Open Books in Seattle. I’ve never been to Kingdom Books, but of the other three, Grolier is the smallest and least well stocked (since you can prowl the stacks of the warehouse at SPD, a process that I’ve found to be an expensive habit to get into). The Grolier website is currently advertising a reading that is scheduled for 2005. Obviously, they take the School of Quietude very seriously in Cambridge. I did buy a copy of Cole Swensen’s The Glass Age while I was there.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Of my checklist for a decent poetry section in a bookstore, Beth Kanell writes, “we fit the four criteria here at Kingdom Books.” Beth goes on to offer proof as well, two photos of the “poetry room” which you see above, chapbooks displayed with their covers facing out, books lovingly placed in what I take to be clear mylar envelopes.¹ I’ve heard of Kingdom Books before, and even mentioned it here last June when the store co-sponsored a celebration of the work of Joe Brainard. In addition to poetry, mystery and fine press editions, Beth and her husband Dave – he’s the expert on the mystery side of the shop – offer a weblog that pretty much covers anything of literary interest in the upper reaches of New England. In the past week there have been notes on Major Jackson & Bob Arnold.

And upper reaches it is. Waterford, Vermont is, give or take ten miles, roughly 150 miles equidistant from Boston, Orono, Amherst and Montreal. It’s 320 miles from the Lower East Side, just far enough to seem like a good get-away spot for folks tired of the cramped environs of Manhattan. But it’s worth noting some differences, say, between Kingdom Books and the Barnes & Noble at 4 Astor Place, around the corner from St. Marks Church (and St. Marks Bookshop). The most obvious is that the revenue per square foot requirement at Kingdom is obviously quite a bit less than it is for B&N or St. Marks. It’s not only visible in the spacious display of books, but in Kingdom’s announced hours as well:

We are ALWAYS OPEN from 10 to 6
on the second Monday of each month:
Please call for appointments on other days

Beth is both a writer & professional copy-editor while David is a retired college administrator. And the kids are all grown. In short, Kingdom thrives because the Kanells have defined thriving to meet their own needs – this is not an operation calculated to put vast sums in the pockets of some conglomerate. One full-time employee would probably drive it right into bankruptcy. This is especially true since Kingdom seems not very aggressive about selling books over the web (I can see, for example, that I have five books currently on the shelves at St. Marks), tho, if you go through ABEbooks, you can browse the stock.

In short, Kingdom Books thrives for the same reasons that Woodland Pattern, Grolier’s or Open Books do as well – the intense commitment of a few knowledgeable, passionate people. This may not be a formula for getting rich, but it does seem to work for poetry. And you have to admit, Waterford, Vermont, with its population of 1,100 people, is an even less likely locale than Milwaukee.


¹ Plastic has the wrong Ph balance and actually hastens the oxidation process of paper.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

For much the same reason why I can write an article on the half dozen major poets who died in 2006, but none for those who were born this same year, newspapers routinely give us the Death of a Bookstore article, but very seldom announce startups of independent books. There were, however, at least 94 bookstores that were created in the United States in the past year, according to Bookweb.Org, the website of the American Booksellers’ Association (ABA). Click on that link to see who and where they are.

These are bookstores that started and joined the ABA in 2006. There are almost certainly others as well. A few of these have taken storied names – Sanddollar, Shakespeare and Company – and at least one ersatz storied name, Shop Around the Corner, but more reflect the personal nature that an independent bookstore often manifests – My Father’s Books is my favorite.

These 94 bookstores will not reverse the trend that has seen the ABA’s membership decline from a high of 4,700 in 1993 to its current figure of around 2,500, but they do slow it down somewhat. Without 94 new bookshops last year, 90 in 2005, the ABA’s annual average decline of 169 stores would be more in the 260 to 270 range and America would be wiped clean of independent bookstores within a decade. That’s a sobering thought.

I have no idea how many – if any – of these stores meet my four simple criteria for maintaining a decent poetry section –

It’s not the furthest most back corner of the store.

It’s more than a single section of one book case.

Most importantly, a majority of the books are from small presses. University presses, by any definition, are not small presses.

And a sizeable majority of the books should be by living authors as well.

But wherever there’s life there’s hope.

It’s worth noting that just nine of the newbies are located in cities large enough to have a major league sports team of some kind (I’m not including Syracuse or Las Vegas, in spite of the recruiting practices of their college teams). One in Brooklyn, none in Manhattan, San Francisco the only city to have two. The only Philadelphia addition is in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Ninety percent of the new stores are located outside major city centers, either in second-tier or edge cities (Hello, Riverside!) or even further out into the vast American sprawl.

Suburban bookshops have different profiles than those of city centers, in good part because they depend on a more localized clientele – city centers not only have immediate residents in higher density, but also the suburbanites who come into town each day. There is a powerful psychological bias that says its easier to go into town than it is out into the ‘burbs – even out here in the boonies, people tend to focus their routines around an immediate radius of their homes & whatever lies between them and downtown Philly. My friends in Philadelphia act as if we live out in Amish country. Likewise in the Bay Area, event planners have known for decades that it is far easier to get people from the East Bay or Marin to come to San Francisco for something, but almost impossible to do the reverse.

What are the chances that a suburban bookstore would meet my four criteria for a decent poetry selection? Pretty close to none, tho Chester County Book Company in West Chester, PA, fails only because of its lack of small press volumes. It would be nice to think that stores that take on names of fabled venues that had a lot of poetry – Sanddollar in Albany, California was basically a poetry only shop, an outgrowth of the original Serendipity Bookstore in Berkeley that also gave rise to Small Press Distribution, which folded when its owners got involved with the start up of Black Oak Books¹ – or which have names like Literary Life or Raven, would do so. But I know that the odds are long.

Still, without these, the inevitability that the United States would be down to two major retail chains and their brand extensions (Waldens, Dalton’s, Borders Express) wouldn’t be something to worry about ten years from now. It would be a present reality. So here’s to the newbies. May some of them survive, and may a few even thrive.


¹ The current Serendipity in Berkeley, located in an old wine shop on University, represents only one aspect, rare books, of the original operation, which got started shortly after the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965 when Peter Howard & Jack Shoemaker took over the stock of the Unicorn Bookshop in Santa Barbara.

Friday, December 22, 2006

From an article in the New York Times about yet another bookstore closing:

There are currently about 2,500 independent bookstores in the United States, not counting stores that deal only in used books, said Meg Smith, a spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association. In 1993 the number stood at about 4,700.

At this rate, which I actually suspect is still accelerating, the number of independent bookstores in another 14 years will be well below 1,000, maybe even less than half that.

Now let’s ask the next question. How many of these bookstores have a decent poetry section? And what do I mean by decent? That’s one of those questions like defining obscenity – you know it when you see it – but I think it tends to have a few obvious characteristics:

It’s not the furthest most back corner of the store.

It’s more than a single section of one book case.

Most importantly, a majority of the books are from small presses. University presses, by any definition, are not small presses.¹

And a sizeable majority of the books should be by living authors as well.

Beyond that, I think it becomes a question of taste, of which books as much as the mere presence of them.

So just how many of the 2,500 independent bookstores in the United States qualify as having a decent poetry section? Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee most obviously. It may be the only bookstore in the country that completely meets those four simple criteria.

City Lights in San Francisco certainly has a large selection, and it’s conceivable (tho I’d have to double check) that it fits the small press/living author criteria as well. But one could easily argue that the “poetry room” up the back stairwell – it used to be a storage area, I think – is about as far off the beaten path in that venue as you could find. I’ve never seen anyone up there, whenever I’ve been in the place, who had wandered into the poetry section by accident. Which pretty much kills the serendipity/seduction element of poetry, which is supposed to be one of the major arguments for an independent bookstore, rather than just buying your books from Amazon on the web.

I’m less certain that Open Books in Seattle fits the small press definition, tho it’s possible – it is one of the few bookstores in the country with a total dedication to poetry – and I haven’t been in Grolier’s in decades. Modern Times in San Francisco puts poetry reasonably up front, and always has a decent portion of small press materials, but it doesn’t have a lot of books, and it reflects the problem of what happens when you don’t have a lot – you become totally dependent on the interests of a single book buyer and his or her take on verse. That may have been pretty good at a store like Pegasus in Berkeley back in the day when Steve Benson ran the store, but people like Steve are as rare as good bookstores. I know that Bridge Street in DC does a brisk online/mail order business in contemporary poetry – strictly because Rod Smith is the book-keeper there – but I don’t know how much of this is available to walk-in traffic. Out here in the boonies west of Philadelphia, the Chester County Book Company is a large independent – equal in square footage to a Borders or B&N, and that’s not counting the Magnolia CafĂ© or the accompanying record store – with a sizeable selection of poetry, not tucked way in back next to the maps. But the poetry section focuses almost entirely on the trades & university presses. Which is fine if I’m looking for Elizabeth Bishop, but not if I’m looking for Elizabeth Willis. Actually, the Chester County Book Company once celebrated March as “National Poetry Month” and, when I asked why, the manager said bluntly, “No one will notice.”

So the only other store I can think of right now that comes close to fitting my definition of having a decent poetry section might be Moe’s in Berkeley, where it’s right in the center of the main floor, has a lot of small press materials & a focus on living authors. Andrew Schelling set that arrangement up originally, and tho he has long since departed they haven’t screwed it up since. You can even look up stock online. Pretty close to a miracle if you ask me.

I’m sure – or at least I hope – that I’ll get a lot of comments today from folks about other bookstores that fit my four criteria. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

I used to feel that authors who put links to Amazon on their websites for their own books were being somewhat traitorous to independent bookstores. After all, if poetry distribution were up to Amazon & the two big chains, we’d all be reading Garrison Keillor anthologies or swooning at the latest translation of Rilke. But the question really is which independent bookstores. I can’t direct readers to my books at Modern Times because it won’t have them. Woodland Pattern doesn’t sell books online & Open Books does so only on a token basis. Indeed, tho it has a lively enough website, targeted mostly at events, exhibitions and fundraising, I could only find one image on the web of the outside of Woodland Pattern at all, on Bob Arnold’s website, which I’ve put up at the top of this note. That’s Cid Corman on the left.

So my links for my own books go first to the publisher if it has any kind of decent page for the item, and, if not, then to SPD. I’m always happy to support independent bookstores. But, frankly, if they can’t meet those four simple criteria, supporting independents bookstores feels pretty hollow. If they were all to disappear, we would have to get over any lingering delusion that poetry and “the book industry” have anything other than an incidental relationship with one another. And that might even be healthy.


¹ Think about it. There are at least 4,000 books of poetry now being published each year in the U.S. Of those, maybe 100 are published by trade presses. Some of these are collected editions by “crossover” authors like Allen Ginsberg, but most are no different from any other small press scene. Maybe 300 more titles are published by university presses. That means that, at minimum, seven out of every eight books of poetry comes from a small press.