Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Review of "My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop"

It has been a while since I posted anything to this blog, having been distracted by many things over the past months (writing a screenplay, writing a novel, plotting world domination - the usual). And while I had planned to kick off a new round of book reviews on January 1, there really is no better way to close out 2013 than to introduce readers to the book My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop.

It is an obvious truth that writers and bookstores have a symbiotic relationship; ultimately one cannot survive without the other. This relationship is explored in a most interesting and entertaining way in My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. Edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America, with an introduction by Richard Russo, the book is a series of 81 essays by noted authors about bookstores that hold a special place in their hearts. Unlike the standard, generic "independent bookstores are good" comments you often hear, these vignettes are quite specific.

Between these covers you will read of Isabel Allende's love of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California; she sums it up nicely with the line "The only place as comforting as a friendly bookstore is probably your grandmother's kitchen." John Grisham writes of how, when he couldn't generate any interest in the first printing of A Time to Kill,  Mary Gay Shipley of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas saw something in him and his work that others did not and enthusiastically pushed the book. Ann Patchett, now a bookseller herself as well as a novelist, writes of McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan: "I walked into the bookstore of this dreamy little town and at that moment all the other bookstores I'd known in my life fell away." High praise indeed.

What becomes clear early on is that this book could just as easily been titled "My Bookseller." Far more is written about the people running these bookstores than the stores themselves, and this makes complete sense. The physical building houses the books, but it is the passionate and dedicated bookseller who makes readers aware of the treasures contained within their walls. And who better to seek out for guidance on which books are amazing and which are dreck than those Quixotic souls who devote their lives to a love of books, knowing full well they could make more money doing almost anything else.

In My Bookstore you will learn of shops like Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn and The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. But you will also meet Greenlight's Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and The King's English's Betsy Burton. Just as there is no way to think of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore without also thinking of Sylvia Beach, these bookstores and their proprietors are virtually one and the same.

So pick up My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop and spend a quiet evening with some great writers and even greater bookstores and booksellers. But be sure to get it from your local independent bookseller; you might just start a relationship that will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Makes Harry Potter So Magical

Earlier today I shared a Harry Potter-themed meme that read "Harry's life would have been very different if Hermione didn't read." What surprised me a bit was the number of people who not only missed the fact that this was simply an encouragement for all of us to be readers, but even more so that a number of folks flat-out disparaged the Harry Potter series in general. Apparently it's time to revisit the impact of this phenomenal series.

J.K. Rowling's tale of a boy wizard has held the world spellbound for more than fifteen years now, and done it while using story elements so ingrained in our collective memory that readers were amazed by the freshness of it. Albus Dumbledore may be the greatest wizard of all time, but when it comes to weaving a magical tale, he doesn't come close to his creator.

The good versus evil storyline has existed since the beginning of time; in fact, it is ultimately the basis of most of the world's religions. Stories of magic have existed almost as long, and the story of the orphan who overcomes great odds was popularized by Charles Dickens more than 150 years ago. Yet J.K. Rowling took these very well-known elements and through a gifted literary alchemy produced something both familiar and new at the same time.

Harry Potter himself could have easily been a one-dimensional character, the lone hero forced to confront the greatest evil the world has ever know. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings is such a character, never really growing or maturing during the journey, simply putting one foot in front of the other. But Rowling did something with Harry and the rest of the young characters that hadn't been done before in children's literature: she let them grow up. Harry is 11 years old when we meet him, downtrodden by the Dursely's and unaware of his magical abilities. Over the next 7 years he grows in the same way any child does, through trial and error, having goods days and bad (sometimes very, very bad), and discovering who he is as a person, a friend, and a reluctant hero.

The other characters, particularly Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, also develop and grow throughout the series, and the romantic tension between them in the later books was yet another twist on "typical" children's literature. Rowling also makes the stories and characters real by having them deal with death in virtually every book. Death is a subject that rarely receives thoughtful consideration even in adult fiction, yet Rowling tackles it from the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The way Rowling portrays the adults in the Harry Potter series is yet another surprising piece of magic. In most children's books, adults are either not present at all or are little more than bumbling idiots for the kids to outwit. The adults in the Harry Potter books are fully formed characters whose stories could stand alone if you removed the kids entirely. Rowling shows us the adults' strengths and flaws, glories and failures, and she does it from the perspective of the students in most cases; what they (and we) learn about Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Lupin, Snape, and others comes out in bits over the course of the narrative. And as in life, sometimes the kids seem more grown up than the adults and sometimes it's the other way around.

None of these things, however, would make the Potter books the best-selling series of all time (400 million copies in over 30 languages and still growing) if Rowling hadn't also written an amazingly compelling page-turner of a series. That it is both a great beach read and truly literature at the same time is all the more remarkable. She has woven the best parts of the hero-quest, magical fantasy, romance, Gothic suspense, social commentary, and even detective fiction into a tapestry that looks like nothing we'd ever seen before.

J.K. Rowling may not be able to turn lead into gold, but getting both a generation of kids and their parents to put down the PlayStation and TV remote long enough to read a tale that spans 7 books and more than 4,000 pages is an even more remarkable feat of alchemy. She is without a doubt the greatest magician in the literary world.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Time Was Soft There: A Review

Jeremy Mercer’s 2005 memoir Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. is a book that in many ways defies conventional classification. It is obviously a memoir – it says so right on the cover – and it is certainly a snapshot of the famous Paris bookshop at the start of the 21st century. But this entertaining and engaging book is far more than that.
The book chronicles the brief but eventful 9-month period that Canadian crime reporter Jeremy Mercer spent living at Shakespeare & Co., and in that sense it is a memoir. Mercer is a talented storyteller, and there were many points where the book seemed more like a novel than non-fiction. The only flaw in his delivery is a penchant for melodrama, particularly concerning the "death threat" that caused him to flee Canada for Paris in the first place. But the relationships, both good and bad, that he builds with the other staff and residents of the bookstore more than make up for this.
More than an autobiography though, Time Was Soft There is also both a history and a current view of the bookstore itself. The original Shakespeare & Co. was founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and was the home of the "Lost Generation" of American writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce until it was closed by the Nazis in 1941 during the occupation of France. In 1951, George Whitman opened an English-language bookstore in Paris; after seeking Beach's permission he later renamed his store Shakespeare & Co. as well.
It is George Whitman's life story that truly drives Time Was Soft There; it is in many ways more about Whitman than Mercer. Whitman (who lived at the store until his death in 2011 at the age of 98, though management of daily operations had passed to his daughter Sylvia just after the time this book chronicles) was an unabashed socialist, telling Mercer early on that "I run a socialist utopia that Masquerades as a bookstore." This worldview is the reason Whitman allowed artists, writers, poets, and wayward travelers to live for short periods at the store and share in communal meals for more than 6 decades, with the only requirement being working around the store.
But despite his declarations of Marxist thought, Whitman was a bookman to the core. The lengths to which he goes to keep his beloved bookstore afloat are a testament to his love of books. He was single-minded in a way that few are these days, and the book faithfully shows both the good and bad side of the vagabond-yet-stationary life of both Whitman and his employee/guests. He summed up his philosophy about books and book selling this way: “The book business is the business of life."
Jeremy Mercer has given us what is the final extended look at both George Whitman and Shakespeare & Co. during Whitman's lifetime. In its own small way, Time Was Soft There is a link in a chain extending back to Sylvia Beach's memoir Shakespeare & Co. and Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. For lovers of books and bookstores, it is a must-read.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Indie Bookstores Rise from the Ashes

For years now the media has covered stories about the closing of independent bookstores with an unexplainable glee. Yesterday a story in The Christian Science Monitor went the opposite direction, devoting their feature story to the fact that independent bookstores are actually on the upswing, with more opening every year and 2012 having been a banner year for sales.

The Monitor's story, aptly titled "The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores," summed up the current climate for indie booksellers this way:

Community support is by no means unique to Bank Square Books (in Mystic, Connecticut), and it may be the secret ingredient behind a quiet resurgence of independent bookstores, which were supposed to go the way of the stone tablet – done in first by the national chains, then Amazon, and then e-books.

A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.

While beloved bookstores still close down every year, sales at independent bookstores overall are rising, established independents are expanding, and new ones are popping up from Brooklyn to Big Stone Gap, Va. Bookstore owners credit the modest increases to everything from the shuttering of Borders to the rise of the "buy local" movement.

There is graphic evidence from the American Bookseller's Association to back up these claims:

After a steady decline in the number of independent bookstores during the rapid expansion of Barnes and Noble and Borders, we have gained more than we've lost in the past four years (a net gain of 166 stores and 249 additional locations). And 2013 looks just as bright, in spite of the sluggish economy, with stores like Farewell Books in Austin, TX and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI (to name just two) opening this spring.

More stores will follow as book lovers with an entrepreneurial spirit see the gaping hole the loss of bookstores has left in our communities, and as people in those communities recognize that there are some things that mean more to the soul of a place than saving a few dollars on Amazon. As I've said for years, the book isn't dead...and neither are bookstores.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Ideal Bookshelf

A few days ago I discovered a new book at the library called My Ideal Bookshelf. The editor, Thessaly La Force, interviewed 100 leading cultural figures (writers, artists, musicians, actors, chefs, and fashion designers among them) and asked them to share their ideal bookshelf. "Ideal" was defined as "books that define their dreams and ambitions and in many ways helped them find their way in the world."

It is an intriguing premise, both as a window into a large group of very successful people and as a challenge to each of us to look hard at what we would place on our own ideal bookshelf. We all have long-time favorites that have influenced us throughout our lives and shaped how we see the world. We also have books that we discover at a point of specific need we may not have even recognized (when the reader is ready, the book will appear, to paraphrase the Zen saying). All of them impact who we are.

My Ideal Bookshelf is a compelling combination of words and art, and it explores what books mean to the people included in the volume using both. Each contributor was interviewed about the books they chose for their ideal shelf, and we learn what the books meant to them. This would have been interesting enough, but the editor took it a step further. She brought in artist Jane Mount to illustrate each person's bookshelf, exactly as they set it up for the interview.

The result of these illustrations is both a presentation of the book-as-object and a further glimpse into the person who chose them. Some arranged their books alphabetically, as you would in a store or library, while some had them stacked haphazardly in a pile. Some had very few volumes, while others packed almost more than the artist could fit on the page. And some, particularly the artists, had them arranged in a way that made the sizes of the books or the colors of the spines most pleasing to the eye.

As for the actual books chosen, they were as varied as the people interviewed. There was a consistent representation of authors like Hemingway, Nabokov, and Garcia Marquez, as you would expect. But there were a huge number of titles I had never even heard of, and I consider myself fairly well-read. That's the other joy of this book; it can lead you to books you never knew you wanted to read.

I encourage all book lovers to pick up My Ideal Bookshelf, and check out the books chosen by people like Jennifer Egan, David Sedaris, James Patterson, Tony Hawk, Michael Chabon, and 95 others. And while you're at it, why not take a little time and ask yourself what books you would put on your ideal bookshelf, the ones that say the most about you and who you are. It's self-examination of the best kind.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Razor's Edge: A Review

There are innumerable books that have been labeled "classics" over the years. Sadly, the very point at which a book receives this designation seems to be the point at which people stop reading it. In the case of the great English novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham, this "classic" label has long been applied to his book Of Human Bondage. Fortunately this is not as much the case with his best novel, The Razor's Edge, so we are all free to continue reading it.

The Razor's Edge is not simply Maugham's finest novel, however; it is easily one of the best novels of all time. I freely admit that I am an evangelist for this particular book, having read it every year since 1985. When I'm finished I give that copy to someone who has never read it and buy myself a new copy. Some have seen the 1946 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power, which was fairly true to the book, and almost 40 years later Bill Murray attempted an ill-conceived film version that was, in a word, awful. Neither film comes close to the greatness of the novel.

The Razor's Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, a World War I flying ace who returns to his native Chicago profoundly impacted by the events of the war and unwilling to join in his friends' pursuit of money and leisure in booming 1920s America. Rather than enter the business world (as everyone expects him to do), he leaves his home and his fiancé Isabel and travels to Europe to, in his words, "loaf."

Loafing as Larry practices it is quite strenuous however, consisting of days working on a farm or in a coal mine and nights reading the great philosophers and mystics. He eventually travels to India and comes under the teaching of a guru who helps him greatly in his search for meaning. As these events transpire, back home Isabel has married Larry's best friend, the stock market has crashed, and the friends are ultimately reunited at the Paris home of Isabel's uncle Elliott Templeton.

One unique feature of this book is that Maugham inserts himself in the story as its narrator, giving the novel the feel of a memoir; indeed, after the publication of the book in 1944 there was no small amount of speculation as to the identity of the person Larry is based upon. While putting himself in the story is an unusual plot device, it allows for what are some of the best scenes of all: the interplay between Maugham's character and Elliott Templeton. And while Larry is certainly the main character, Elliott steals every scene he's in (this happened in both film versions as well).

Although not as well known today as some of Maugham's other novels (including The Painted Veil and Up At the Villa, both of which have been made into films in the past decade), The Razor's Edge was a huge bestseller upon release, selling over a million copies in the 1940s; it has never been out of print since. It is as relevant today as when it was written nearly 70 years ago, and contains some unmistakable and prophetic parallels to our society today, from the dangers of a consumer society to the effects of war on those who fight it to the search for meaning through Eastern religions. It is also the only book I've ever read that makes the search for meaning both interesting and entertaining, which may be the most amazing thing of all.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Real Books Aren't Going Anywhere

As most booksellers expected, recent sales trends show that the e-reader/e-book phenomenon is losing the huge momentum it first enjoyed, and the percentage of e-books sold vs. printed books is reaching a point of equilibrium. I personally never believed that printed books were in danger of going the way of the dodo, for the following reasons.

1. Printed books provide a tactile experience. Music is heard, and films are both seen and heard, but books are experienced both visually and by touch. There is an aspect to the feel of books (the smooth glossy cover, the roughness and even smell of the paper) that provides a physical sensation that is both separate from and intimately linked to the story you are reading. We bond not only with the author (novels being the only art form that requires many hours of commitment on the part of the audience) but with the book itself.

2. Great novels, from War and Peace to The Shadow of the Wind were not meant to be read on a digital screen, no matter how much “like paper” they try to make that screen. Most of us spend our entire workday staring at a computer screen, plus additional hours in front of a computer or television after we get home. The last thing most readers want to do is spend even more time staring at a screen.

3. Books can be written in, dog-eared, loaned to friends, stuffed in your back pocket, browsed for on rainy afternoons, and then sold to a used bookshop for cash to buy yet more books. Try that with a Kindle.

4. Most readers (and we have always been remarkably few as percentage of the total population) like having a personal library. It may or may not contain highly collectible items like a signed Hemingway or first-edition Faulkner, but a bookcase loaded with books can be much more than a simple collection. It can serve as a timeline of our lives: the copy of Homer you read in the same college class as your future wife, that Robert Parker Spenser novel you read in the hospital waiting for your son to be born, that copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets you read to your daughters over a snowy weekend, and that biography of Maugham you discovered in a cool little shop in London. These are books you pass down through generations, even though they may have value only within the context of your own family. Once again, you can’t do that with an e-reader. The books in a Kindle don’t even exist except as bits of binary code.

5. Finally, we need only look to our own history to see that printed books will always find a way to survive. Books have weathered far greater threats than the Kindle for over 100 years. The book's demise was first predicted with the advent of radio, then with the arrival of motion pictures, television, video games, and finally the Internet and the iPad age. It was even thought that the launch of Penguin Publishing's paperback book line in 1935 would quickly spell the end of hardcover books; 78 years later hardcovers are still around.

So even if you have a Kindle, or a Kobo, or an iPad, go out and buy some printed books from your local independent bookseller too. They hold your memories much better than any gadget can.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Most (and Least) Literate US Cities

A few weeks ago Central Connecticut State University released its annual survey of the most literate cities in the United States. The study ranked the cities based on six areas of literacy: size of library systems, presence of bookstores, educational attainment, digital readership, circulation of newspapers, and other publications. Only cities with a population of 250,000 or more were included, and in the bookstore category those listed as either "religious" or "adult" were excluded.

The top-ranked cities came as no real surprise; here are the Top Ten:

1. Washington, DC
2. Seattle, WA
3. Minneapolis, MN
4. Pittsburgh, PA
5. Denver, CO
6. St. Paul, MN
7. Boston, MA
8. Atlanta, GA
9. St. Louis, MO
10. Portland, OR

The lowest ranked cities did surprise me, for one glaring reason::

67. Long Beach, CA
68. Mesa, AZ
69. Aurora, CO
70. Fresno, CA
71. San Antonio, TX
72. Anaheim, CA
73. El Paso, TX
74. Stockton, CA
75. Corpus Christi, TX
76. Bakersfield, CA

Of the 10 least-literate cities in America, 8 were in either California or Texas. Being a Texan (and obviously one concerned with books, reading, literacy, etc) this concerned me. So I looked at where cities in my area ranked. (Note: Austin came in at a fairly respectable #23, but is not close enough to be considered local).

45. Plano
47. Dallas
52. Fort Worth
64. Arlington

So of the two cities closest to me (and the most likely locations for the brick-and-mortar incarnation of Somerset Books), Fort Worth couldn't crack the Top 50, and Arlington only missed the Bottom 10 by three spots.

Some would look at these numbers and tell me that if I want to open a bookstore, then get the hell out of Texas (and stay out of California), and that is certainly a point to ponder. Yet there is obviously a great need for independent bookstores in my area, and someone needs to meet that need. So the the optimist in me looks at these numbers and thinks that maybe I'm right where I'm supposed to be.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to Identify a Book Club Edition

Nothing is more disheartening for a book collector than discovering a perfect copy of a coveted volume only to find that it is a book club edition. Even worse, many novice collectors have paid exorbitant prices for book club editions that were sold by unscrupulous dealers as "first editions." With very few exceptions, like a Hemingway signature on the title page, book club editions are virtually worthless; even with such a signature the value is only a fraction of what a true first edition would be worth.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to recognize a book club edition if you know what to look for. Even though the dust jacket and print layout are the same, in most cases there are multiple identifying marks and characteristics that distinguish a true first edition from a book club edition.

One of the easiest ways to recognize a book club edition is by its size. Book club books are typically noticeably smaller than the original first edition. While nowhere near as small as a paperback book, the difference in size is obvious even when there is not a non-book club edition with which to compare.

The dust jacket can also help with identification, the most obvious clue being "Book Club Edition" printed at the bottom of the inside front cover of the dust jacket; this clear mark is most common in book club editions issued before the 1990s. Another telling sign is that book club editions do not have the retail price at the top of the inside front cover of the dust jacket. Recently, at least one British publisher stopped printing the retail price on the dust jacket of first editions, but this is far from the norm even in the U.K., and not done by American publishers.

One note of warning regarding dust jackets. Closely examine so-called "price-clipped" books (where the upper inside corner of the dust jacket has been cut out). In some cases there was never a price there in the first place, and the seller is using this tactic to make it harder to identify the volume as a book club edition.

If any doubt remains after checking the size and the dust jacket, the "blind stamp" can erase all doubt. A blind stamp is a mark on the back cover, and can range from a round indentation in the cover to a small yellow or white dot at the bottom of the back cover near the spine. If any such mark is present, the book is definitely a book club edition.

Taking all of these things into consideration will keep the book collector from ending up with a book club edition of a sought-after volume. As a reading copy there is nothing wrong with them, but as a collectible they aren't worth the paper they are printed on.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Haunted Bookshop Series

For those who like a good mystery series the list of choices can be daunting. Several publishers (particularly Berkeley Prime Crime) release new installments each year in a plethora of mystery genres, from hard-boiled to cozy. One of the best of the last few years is the Haunted Bookshop series by author Alice Kimberly.

The first book in the Haunted Bookshop series, The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, presents both an interesting premise and a different twist on the mystery genre. Penelope Thornton-McClure is a young widow who owns a mystery bookshop in a small town in Rhode Island; she's the "cozy" side of the story (think Miss Marple). The shop is also inhabited by the ghost of Jack Shepard, a private investigator murdered in the store 50 years earlier; he's the "hard-boiled" side of the story (think Sam Spade). I've never seen the two mixed before, and the effect is surprisingly satisfying.

Thus far there are five titles in the series: The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, The Ghost and the Dead Deb, The Ghost and the Dead Man's Library, The Ghost and the Femme Fatale, and The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion. The most recent, The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion may be the best one to date, and is evidence that the series is not becoming too predictable or formulaic. Too many of these "specialized" mysteries go flat after a few years; this one has not.

The plot lines in the Haunted Bookshop series are all solid, and the violence is realistic, limited, and understated, which is a nice change from some of the gore-filled tomes put out today. But the novels are first and foremost character-driven. The best parts are the ones that feature interaction between Penelope and Jack, especially as they seek to overcome the "language barrier" between Penelope's 21st century vocabulary and Jack's 1940's street-wise slang and deal with the whole "I'm dead and you're not" obstacle to what might otherwise be a budding romance.

Each of the novels is a fast read, making them perfect for either end-of-winter-by-the-fireplace reading or  stormy-spring-afternoon reading, depending on what's happening in your part of the country right now. You also get a peek inside the world of the bookseller (though not to the degree found in John Dunning's Bookman series) that is interesting in itself.

One last point about this series. Alice Kimberly is the pen name of Cleo Coyle, author of the very successful Coffeehouse Mysteries series. And Cleo Coyle is actually the pen name of the husband and wife team of Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini. You can find more info about both series' at their website.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box: A Review

I'll be the first to admit that I'm typically not a big fan of the horror genre. This may be the result of having read The Shining as a twelve-year-old...I think the damn thing both scared and scarred me. Which is why it's ironic that Stephen King's son (who writes under the name Joe Hill) is the one who made horror enjoyable for me again. Not long after starting this blog I reviewed Hill's second novel, Horns. Given that (and since his newest novel, NOS4A2, will be out in May), I think it's time to take a look at his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, as well.

Long before anyone knew he was the son of horror legend Stephen King, Joe Hill's outstanding debut novel Heart-Shaped Box made it clear that a major new voice had arrived on the literary scene. And not just the horror scene. As the San Francisco Chronicle said in their review, it is a "story likely to be enjoyed by horror enthusiasts and mainstream readers alike."

The premise is simple: an aging heavy metal icon named Judas Coyne has a macabre collection, including a peasant's skull, a witch's confession written 300 years earlier, and a snuff film. When he sees an online auction offering the ghost of a woman's stepfather, he doesn't hesitate to add it to his collection. She sends him the dead man's favorite suit in a black heart-shaped box, and that's when his troubles begin. Because he didn't just buy an empty suit, or even some anonymous ghost; this is much more personal.

What ensues is, for Jude, a road trip where he switches back and forth from hunter to hunted so fast it's sometimes hard to keep up with who's chasing who. The tension builds, gives you just enough time to take a short breath, then builds some more. And Hill understands very well what Hitchcock meant when he said there is no terror in the "bang," only in the anticipation of it.

Like his father, Joe Hill is firmly planted in the horror genre. But Hill diverges from most horror writers in that he creates truly literary novels at the same time. His plotting is tight, and his characters, both hero and villain, are fully formed. In fact, what makes them so real is that none are completely hero or completely villain, just like in life. You find yourself caring about the characters because they are not cardboard cutouts of people; they're us, even with ghosts hot on their heels (in Heart-Shaped Box) or horns growing out of their heads (in Horns).

Make no mistake: Heart-Shaped Box will scare the hell out of you. But in the process of being scared you'll also see a remarkable transformation in Jude that I certainly never saw coming at the start of the book. Too often in novels today we see no development in the characters, regardless of genre. That is not the case here. It is an amazing debut novel, and as Horns has shown, it was no one-hit wonder.

So pick up a copy of Heart-Shaped Box and settle in for a great read. Just be sure to lock the doors first. And you'll probably want to leave all the lights on too.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The 2013 Texas Storytelling Festival Starts March 7

Ever since the advent of television effectively killed the radio drama, oral storytelling has been in a fight for survival. Now that we have the Internet, iPads, YouTube, and any number of other visual media at our fingertips, some may think that storytelling is completely dead. Well, there are some folks that beg to differ. And while this may seem like an odd post for a blog about books, people who love books love stories, so I think it fits.

Starting March 7th and running through the 10th, the Tejas Storytelling Association will host the 28th Annual Texas Storytelling Festival. This year's festival will be held in Denton, just north of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and will feature storytellers from across the country, including Andy Offutt Irwin, DeCee Cornish, and (back by popular demand) Willy Claflin and his sidekick Maynard Moose.

The Tejas Storytelling Association was started in 1985 with the mission of perpetuating the art of storytelling. TSA promotes all facets of storytelling and hopes to expand the understanding and experiences of storytelling by nurturing storytellers and listeners and recruiting new audiences. They named the new organization Tejas to express founding member Finley Stewart's grand vision of creating an organization that would bring together listeners and tellers from throughout the Texas region (Tejas is the Caddo Indian word for "friend," from which Texas derives its name).

Some of the highlights of this year's event include:

GHOST TALES: Thursday night means ghost stories. Tales begin at 6:30 pm with frights appropriate for the younger set: the really scary stuff for adults begins at 7:30 pm, with haunting legends and eerie tales of the unexplained and unexplainable.

TALESPINNER DINNER AND SILENT AUCTION: From 5:00 to 7:00 pm on Saturday, March 9th you can join the featured storytellers for dinner before the evening concert. There will be great food, plus a chance to place bids on a number of goods and services at the festival's silent auction. All funds raised will go to support activities of the festival.

LABYRINTH WALK and SACRED TALES CONCERT: On Sunday, Jay Stailey will lead a Labyrinth Walk, a kind of moving meditation that opens you to think about your own life journey. The Sacred Tales Concert will offer stories from diverse spiritual traditions.

WORKSHOPS: There are storytelling workshops each day of the festival, ranging from an introduction to storytelling to how to share scary stories to how to use storytelling as a tool in the classroom.

The festival will be held at the Denton Civic Center. Visit the Festival’s website for ticket prices, hotel accommodations, and a full schedule of events.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Online Store Is Up and Running

As promised, our online store on is now up and running. You can access our catalogue using the search box on the right side of the page (below the "Upcoming Events" section). There are only a few books listed thus far, but more will be added every day.

Please note that leaving all search fields in the box blank, checking  "search only our books," and clicking "Search" will bring up our entire inventory. (I'm sure I made that sound much more complicated than it actually is.) If we don't have what you're looking for right now, you can also search all of Biblio and support other independent booksellers by unchecking the "search only our books" box and entering the title or author you're looking for.

Buy local and help us move closer to the brick and mortar store that will be a gathering place for the community.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reading is Cool: Photographic Evidence

Far too often I hear people (of all ages) lament that reading is boring; this usually translates into "I've only ever read what I was forced to school." At that point I will typically recommend a book that I think would grab that particular person's attention, which works often enough to at least open them up to the idea of reading on a regular basis. Once you read a really great book, one that you simply can't put down,  the search for more really great books will keep you busy for a lifetime.

Then there are those who say reading simply isn't cool. For those folks I offer the following photographic evidence to the contrary. You may think you're cool, but there's no way you're close to as cool as these people. And they're all reading.

Paul Newman

Frank Sinatra

Darth Vader (reading "Harry Potter")

Johnny Depp

Keith Richards

Ben Affleck

Bob Marley

Grace Kelly

Jennifer Lawrence

James Dean

Stephen King


And no list of cool readers would ever be complete without:


Friday, March 1, 2013

Shakespeare and Company: A Review

Sylvia Beach in front of Shakespeare and Company

It seems only appropriate (given my goal of opening a bookstore) that I review the book written by the woman who should be canonized as the Patron Saint of Booksellers. Just under ninety-five years ago, American Sylvia Beach opened the now-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, and her memoir of the same name chronicles the roughly 25 years that her shop was the center of the literary world.

Before delving into the particulars of this wonderful book, it is probably best to clear up any confusion over the store itself. In an earlier post I reviewed Time was Soft There, a memoir by Jeremy Mercer about his time at Shakespeare and Company. However, the store Mercer writes about is not the store Sylvia Beach founded, but one that another expatriate American named George Whitman opened in 1951 and renamed Shakespeare and Company after Ms. Beach’s death. In what was either a double homage or a case of grand larceny (depending on your viewpoint), Whitman not only took the name of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore for his shop, he also took her name as well: his only daughter is named Sylvia Beach Whitman, and she now runs his Shakespeare and Company.

The original Sylvia Beach started Shakespeare and Company in 1919 with $3,000 borrowed from her mother. As is the case with independent booksellers to this day, it was never a lucrative enterprise but rather a labor of love. She began the store as a lending library for those looking for books in English, charging a small monthly membership fee; this practice was quite common in the early part of the last century, but has essentially vanished today. As time went on she began selling more books than she loaned, but the shop’s fortunes remained tenuous for its entire existence.

What makes Shakespeare and Company (the memoir) so appealing is the melding of Beach’s light, anecdotal writing style with the monumental people about whom she writes. This is more than a book about a bookstore; it is a chronicle of the writers, artists, publishers, and others who essentially made the shop their second home throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And while anyone writing a memoir likes to drop a name or two, the names in Shakespeare and Company stand out a bit.

One of Sylvia Beach’s best customers was a young, unknown (when she met him) writer named Ernest Hemingway. He was covering sports for a Canadian newspaper at the time, and it was to Sylvia Beach and her longtime partner Adrienne Monnier that Hemingway read his first short story. Hemingway and his wife Hadley later introduced Beach and Monnier to the grand sport of boxing. She knew all of the so-called "Lost Generation" writers, and her memoir contains stories about Hemingway, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, Robert McAlmon, Thornton Wilder, Andre Gide, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. It was Sylvia Beach who took F. Scott Fitzgerald to meet James Joyce when Fitzgerald was too nervous to go alone.

Her relationship with James Joyce and his family takes up a good part of the book, and with good reason. By her own admission, Sylvia Beach worshiped James Joyce. Her shop became an office of sorts for him; he met with other writers there, received his mail there (as did many other writers who had no stable address), and read through the inventory of the bookstore. But Sylvia Beach’s greatest contribution to both Joyce and literature was offering to publish his novel Ulysses when it had been rejected as obscene by his publishers in England and America. The trials of publishing and distributing Ulysses are interesting not only as history but as a cautionary tale against censorship even today.

Because she felt that authors deserved to be paid more for their work than the people who published them, she took no royalties from her publication of Ulysses, and nearly sent herself and the bookstore into bankruptcy covering the costs and expenses. It was only the intervention of several writer friends that saved her from having to close her doors permanently, but she seemed not to be concerned about what happened to her as long as Joyce’s novel made it to the readers who clamored for it.

Shakespeare and Company is a quick read, although you may have to look around a bit to find it. I was determined not to buy it online, but rather from a real local bookstore, and it took me about a week to track down a copy. It is a glimpse into an amazing time in the history of American literature, a wonderful chronicle of a bygone era, and a fine portrait of the woman to whom Hemingway gave his highest praise:

"No one," he wrote in A Moveable Feast, "was ever nicer to me."

And the Loser Is...

In honor of Fifty Shades of Grey winning our poll as the worst-written best-seller (beating out Twilight and The DaVinci Code)...

Have a great weekend everyone.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Starting a Book Club

Book clubs are a great way to both discover new writers and develop new friendships. Many readers, however, do not have a book club they can easily join, and are unsure how to start one themselves. However, starting a book club is far easier than most would imagine.

All you really need to start a book club is two or more friends or acquaintances who share a love of books and reading. Co-workers, neighbors, and friends from church or other organizations are all people you can ask to join your book club, as long as they share your love of books. They do not have to love the same types of books, however; discovering new books, authors, and genres is part of the joy of being part of a group of fellow book lovers.

It is best to limit the group to a small number at the outset; no fewer than three and no more than eight is probably a good guideline. If there are too few it will be difficult to get a good discussion started, and with too many someone will invariably be a wallflower and never join the discussion. And the discussions will lead you in directions that will both surprise and enlighten you.

Once the membership of the book club has been determined, there a some logistical items than need to be taken care of, such as how often you will meet, where the meetings will be, and in what order people will choose the book the group will be reading. These may seem like insignificant issues, but they are actually critical for the club to run smoothly and keep members interested and engaged.

In most cases, meeting once a month will give time both for everyone to read the current selection and to arrange things like childcare for the meeting night. The order in which people will choose the book to be read can be done in any number of ways, from alphabetically by name to drawing names out of a hat. It may make sense for the person who organized to group to choose the first book, and then follow the decided upon order after that.

Book clubs can meet almost anywhere, from the house of the person who chose the current book to a restaurant or coffee shop. You can also take trips to museums or art galleries if they match up well with the subject matter of the book. Just be sure to leave plenty of time for discussion. The person who chose the current book should have questions prepared before the meeting in order to both stimulate the discussion and keep the conversation on topic.

Over time, usually during the first year, one or more people will drop out of the club and others will be added. As time goes on, you will have a feel for what the right size for your group is, and may choose to either expand it to more than the original number or to keep it at the same size. You will also learn what types of book will or will not work for your particular group.

Finally, while each person will tempted to choose a favorite book to share with the group, one they have already read (and should re-read when the group does), one of the most rewarding things about a book club is discovering new authors, especially ones you would never have chosen if left to pick for yourself. In this way book clubs open up new worlds of reading and expand your horizons, both in the literary sense and in our view of the world. There will inevitably be books most of the group hates, but even this can be a valuable experience, as knowing what you don’t like helps steer you toward what you do like.

So don’t be afraid to start your own book club. Reading is a solitary endeavor, but paradoxically one that can and should be shared with others. Discussing books with friends is a great way to strengthen the bonds of friendship and share something you all love.

Thoughts After Reading "Destiny, Rewritten"

If you follow my Facebook page, you know that I just finished the wonderful new novel by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, Destiny Rewritten. What I wrote on my page was not exactly a review, but it summed up what I felt after reading it:

"Go buy it now (you'll find it in the children's/Young Adult's the one NOT about vampires). Whether you're 10 or 110, it will captivate you, and leave you better for having read it. And isn't that what good books are supposed to do?"

I had intended to write a more straightforward review here, but the book has had me thinking, which is always dangerous. For those who want to know a little more before heeding my command to go out and buy it now, it is the story of 11-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis, who has been told her entire young life that she is destined to become a poet like her namesake, the famous poet Emily Dickenson. But what her mother wants for her destiny and what she wants for herself may not be the same thing, which leads her on a quest: a quest for a lost book of poems that contains her life story, a quest to find her father, and a quest to find out if destiny really is set in stone, or if we can help it along. And who doesn't love a good quest?

My synopsis doesn't come close to doing the novel justice, so here's a passage that will show why Fitzmaurice is the writer and I'm the bookseller:

"We circled the store until we found the poetry section, which was as big as they said it was in the phone book, with shelves to the ceiling and stools you could use in case you needed a book that was higher than your arms could reach. Possibilities, everywhere. It was exactly the kind of place you never wanted to leave."

Possibilities, everywhere. Best two-word description of a bookstore ever.

As I said above, this is a rare Middle-Grade/Young Adult book that doesn't follow the trendy vampire formula, but it is much more. The reason it will appeal to young and old alike is that it's a well-crafted story with real characters and great dialogue, and that's what readers of any age want. Think about some of the great books: Treasure Island (an adventure story for boys and a literary classic), Winnie the Pooh (a children's story and a literary classic), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (a kid's book and one of the best novels to come out in decades, hype notwithstanding).

I mention these books to make a simple point: great stories are timeless and ageless. Carlos Ruiz Zafon put it this way when asked about his young adult novel The Prince of Mist, released a decade before The Shadow of the Wind: "I did not write it for teen readers, but rather for everyone who loves to read."

That pretty much summarizes my feelings about Destiny, Rewritten: it's for your kids, and for you, and for everyone who loves to read.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The "Flabbergasted" Trilogy: A Review

The so called "Christian fiction" genre has grown steadily over the past several years, boosted by the fact that stores devoted solely to Christian books have been opening as fast as other brick-and-mortar bookstores have been closing. The problem with most of these Christian novels is that while they do have religious overtones and far less sex, language, and violence than mainstream fiction, they are typically not very well-written stories. One notable exception is the Flabbergasted trilogy by Ray Blackston.

Flabbergasted is Blackston's debut novel, and it gives the name to the trilogy that ultimately followed. Set in Greenville, South Carolina, Flabbergasted is one of the best beach novels I have ever come across. The characters are vividly drawn and definitely grow on you as narrator Jay Jarvis and his friends navigate the Southern singles scene by, of all things, visiting various church singles Sunday school classes. Not a bad idea for those tired of the online dating sites.

I was well into the book before I realized that it fell into the "Christian fiction" description, because unlike many others of its kind, it was not dogma converted into a novel. And when the subject of salvation did finally appear, it was written with humor and subtlety, something many Christian writers (and preachers) lack. From girls who church-hop looking for husbands to missionaries with a fondness for throwing food at people, this is an entertaining group of characters, not some fictionalized hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.

The second book in the series is A Delirious Summer. The premise is similar to Flabbergasted, but with a twist. The narrator this time is Neil Rucker, a missionary on furlough for the summer looking for a wife in the wilds of Greenville, where he encounters many of the same people Jay Jarvis met in the first book. He quickly finds that Carolina beaches may be even more dangerous than the Amazon jungle, and watching this young man try to navigate the Greenville social scene is a lot of fun. Allie, Darcy, and Alexis form one of the most hilarious (if sometimes dangerous) trios I've read in a long time.

The final novel in the series is Lost in Rooville, and it is here that Blackston falls a little flat. For most of the book the characters are lost in the Australian Outback, and while there are entertaining parts, taking the setting outside of South Carolina hurts the story somewhat. We do get to see the resolution of these myriad relationships that started in the first two books, however, and that combined with the familiar and likable characters makes it worth reading.

So if you're looking for some well-written, funny, and sometimes enlightening novels for those long winter nights, check out the Flabbergasted trilogy, particularly the first two books. If nothing else, you'll never look at dating the same way again.

The Shadow of the Wind: A Review

Rarely will a novel be critically acclaimed, a huge commercial bestseller and a cult classic, yet Carlos Ruiz Zafon accomplished this literary hat trick with his novel The Shadow of the Wind. First released in Spanish in 2001, and translated into English in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind is the first of a series of four planned novels revolving around the city of Barcelona (The Angel's Game and The Prisoner of Heaven are the second and third installments, respectively). To date, the novel has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, and the most common reaction of readers was that they were sad to see the story end. It is one of those books you wish would go on for another 500 pages, and one you buy multiple copies of to give to friends (I gave away a copy just last week).

The novel is the story of Daniel Sempere, who at age 10 is taken by his father, a Barcelona bookseller, to the amazing Cemetery of Forgotten Books. While there he chooses a book called "The Shadow of the Wind" by Julian Carax. He is so enthralled by the novel that as he enters adulthood he sets out to find every book Carax has written, but encounters a sinister obstacle. Every copy of every book the author has written is being tracked down and burned by a disfigured man who bears a striking resemblance to a character in Carax's novel. Daniel's quest to save the remaining copies is intertwined with the story of Barcelona and its recovery from the Spanish Civil War.

But The Shadow of the Wind is much more than a literary mystery. It is a Gothic masterpiece, filled with action, romance, mystery and, of course, books. One reviewer has called it a "love letter to books," because it examines the power of books to change our lives in ways we often don't even realize. One quote from the novel sums this up:

"Every book has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."

This is not something we often consider in our electronic, Kindle e-book reader world. Books, real ink and paper books, matter. They challenge us to examine our inner selves and the world around us, and they can change us, hopefully for the better, while at the same time being a tangible creation, a contract of sorts between writer and reader. The Shadow of the Wind is such a book. It is a novel with a very strong soul, and books like this don't come around nearly often enough. It is a modern-day classic that everyone should read.

The Bookman's Wake: A Review

Take a detective turned book dealer, a rare volume of Poe's The Raven, and a young woman with the improbable name of Eleanor Rigby, and you have John Dunning's second Cliff Janeway mystery, The Bookman's Wake. However, like the now-classic first installment, Booked to Die, there is much more here than a typical formulaic mystery novel, and if you're not careful you might just learn something about rare books (as well as the long-lost art of book printing and binding) on the way to the book's climax.

The novel begins with Denver ex-cop turned book dealer Cliff Janeway on his way to Seattle to bring the young Eleanor Rigby (yes, like the Beatles song) back to New Mexico for trial; she is accused of stealing a rare 1969 Grayson Press edition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Then the real trouble begins, because Janeway is won over by the girl's claim of innocence and sets out to protect her from an unknown assailant who has been killing people for more than 20 years in an attempt to get the book. Along the way we get more insider information from Dunning (himself a rare book dealer in Denver) on the book trade, including some amusing rants about inscriptions and remainder marks. As with Booked to Die, Dunning accomplishes this "reader education" without ever slowing down the pace of the story.

The Bookman's Wake solidifies John Dunning's place as the master of the serial bibliomystery. A bibliomystery is one in which a book, manuscript, author, or bookstore is central to the plot of the novel; there have been quite a number of them, from the 1920s up to the present day. And while Lev Grossman's The Codex and Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas are both outstanding examples of stand-alone bibliomysteries, only Dunning has been able to successfully convert the genre to series form. For those who love both books and book culture, this is a very satisfying combination.

Though the plot is not as tight and the ending a little less surprising than Booked to Die, all in all The Bookman's Wake is still a fine mystery novel. Janeway remains one of the most interesting main characters in mystery fiction this side of Robert B. Parker's Spenser. And as is true with all of John Dunning's books, the time spent reading them is always rewarding.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Booked to Die: A Review

Every so often a book catches readers by surprise; even more rarely that book becomes part of the very world it seeks to chronicle. Both were the case with John Dunning's Booked to Die, the first in the remarkable Cliff Janeway "Bookman" series.

Booked to Die is the story of a burned out cop named Cliff Janeway who quits the police force to become a rare book dealer. Janeway has turned in his badge; he keeps both his gun and his penchant for solving crimes. The mysteries now revolve around the new world of rare books he inhabits, which puts this book squarely in the genre of bibliomystery.

As I wrote in an earlier post, a bibliomystery is one in which a book or manuscript is central to the plot of the novel. The definition can be expanded to include mystery novels in which libraries, librarians, bookstores, booksellers, publishers and/or authors play a key role in the story. The genre existed well before Booked to Die, going back at least as far as Agnes Miller's The Colfax Book-Plate in 1926, but Dunning's contribution was a turning point, much like Springsteen's Born to Run (which helped both save and redefine rock music in the 70s). In many ways, Dunning opened the door for many of today's hugely popular bibliomysteries, from Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind.

What stands out in Booked to Die is not simply the solving of a mystery, though Dunning takes the reader on a non-stop thrill ride in doing so. This novel is unique because it gives the reader a behind the scenes look at the world of rare book dealers, as well as an education into rare books themselves, without ever bogging down the narrative. In the end, watching Janeway scout through a pile of books in an East Denver thrift shop is as interesting as witnessing the brutal fight that ends his career as a cop. And Dunning gives us some twists at the end that would surprise even Sherlock Holmes.

John Dunning is himself a rare book dealer in Denver, and Booked to Die made the leap into the real world of rare books in a way he never imagined. The initial print run was a minuscule 6,500 hardcover copies, at least in part because Dunning had not published a book in more than ten years. He says he doubted that even that small number would sell out; he was wrong. The book sold out overnight, and has since gone through at least five hardcover printings and more than 20 paperback printings.

That first hardcover print run is now one of the most collectible books on the market. Unsigned copies sell for as much as $800.00, and signed copies for close to $2,000.00. With a novel this good and print run that small, Dunning should have seen this coming. Cliff Janeway certainly would have.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Thirteenth Tale: A Review

I have to admit at the outset that I doubted Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale could live up to the hype surrounding it. In various reviews it had been compared to everything from Dickens to the Bronte sisters to Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind (this seemed the most outrageous claim to me, loving that novel as I do). After reading it I can honestly say that it lives up to the hype.

I am by no means saying that Setterfield is Dickens, nor that The Thirteenth Tale is The Shadow of the Wind. Neither is true, and Setterfield never claimed this for herself or her novel. But in a world where we love to stuff people, books, and everything else into neat little categories, invoking these literary greats when talking about The Thirteenth Tale is understandable, because it is one beautiful read.

This is one of those novels that literally has everything you could want jammed into its 416 pages, and yet it all works. There is mystery and history and ghosts and danger and romance and books and feral twins and even two heroines, and all of it weaves together perfectly. Maybe best of all, you won’t guess the ending midway through (I thought I had…wrong). And yes, in that list of things a few sentences ago I included "feral twins;" got your attention now?

The publisher’s blurb on the inside flap of the book says: "The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading…a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied upon the shores of your everyday life." That’s one bold guarantee, but Setterfield delivers.

This is the kind of book that deserves to be read in front of a crackling fire in a comfy chair over a long weekend; a storm raging outside would be a nice addition, but isn’t critical. What is critical is that you make sure there are no pressing items on your calendar, because you won’t get to them once you start this book. It is a literary escape of the very best kind.

Early in the novel, there is an exchange between the two main characters, the elderly reclusive author Vida Winter and her young, naive, would-be biographer Margaret Lea:

"You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone."

Vida shrugged. "It's my profession. I'm a storyteller."

Vida is indeed one hell of a storyteller, and so is Diane Setterfield.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Heaven in Scotland

The video below is from a BBC News Magazine interview with Jessica Fox, author of the upcoming book Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets: A Memoir. Fox is a former NASA employee who left a great job in Los Angeles and found real life (and love) in a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. Wigtown has a population of 1,000, 1 grocery store, and 16 bookshops. Heaven indeed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Friends of the Library" Book Sales

Most children develop a love of reading at their local library, and few people can afford to own every book they want to read. Therefore local libraries and local bookstores coexist in an important literary ecosystem. With cities around the country facing huge budget deficits, however, funding for libraries is often one of the first items slashed.

One way to help your local library (and get great deals on books in the process) is to support the annual book sale held by the Friends of the Library in your town. And if you happen to live in a large metropolitan area, there is the added bonus of multiple sales every year, since each city has their own Friends of the Library chapter. At these sales you can find books, sometimes in like-new condition, at prices even lower than at the average garage sale.
There are a few things to know in order to make the most of a library sale, and the first is when and where they will be held. The best resource for library books sales is the website Book Sale Finder, which lists every book sale in the country by state. The site lists both annual sales and ongoing sales that some libraries have.
When researching an upcoming sale always look at the total number of books items and the percentage of donated items (this will also be listed on the Book Sale Finder site). The best sales will have at least 25,000 books; those with under 5,000 are often a waste of time. This is because the total number includes things like textbooks, VHS tapes, and vinyl records, and without a high number of total items, the number of books will be too small for a good selection.
The number of donated items is equally important, especially if you are a serious collector. Donated books are copies given to the Friends of the Library by the public. If 50% of the items are donated, that means that the other 50% are ex-library copies that have been removed from the shelves for one reason or another. While these are perfectly fine reading copies, most folks don't want a bunch of tattered, discarded library books on their shelves at home. Look for sales where at least 75% of the items have been donated.
The next thing you will want to do is check the hours of the sale. Most will start on a Thursday night and run through either Saturday or Sunday. Thursday nights are usually a "sneak peek" for those who have a membership in the Friends of the Library. Those who are not members can join at the door for anywhere from $10.00 to $35.00; it is a good way for the Friends to increase their membership and for members to have first choice of the books available. Prices for the rest of the weekend will usually be $2.00 for a hardcover book and $1.00 for a paperback. Many sales will use a sliding scale over the course of the weekend, with hardcovers dropping to $1.00 on Saturday or Sunday and paperbacks to fifty cents.
If you attend on a Thursday night or Friday morning, arriving at least thirty minutes to an hour early is essential; even then there will already be people in line. If the sale allows, you should bring an empty box or crate for the books you choose; most sales only have small plastic bags available for patrons' use. There will also typically be a map showing the layout of the sales floor. Look over this before the doors open so you can determine the best route to your areas of interest. Also, although most sales now accept checks and credit cards it is always best to bring cash just in case.
Finally, bring a large amount of patience with you. There will be a lot of waiting, both for the doors to open and during the checkout process (the books will be tallied at one table and paid for at another, and there are never enough volunteers). People will push and jostle, and it is entirely possible that a sweet little old lady will punch you in the kidney so she can get to that Janet Evanovich hardcover before you do. Such is the gentle passion of book lovers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

When is the last time you wrote someone a letter? Not an e-mail or text message, a real, handwritten with pen and paper, mailed in a stamped envelope letter. That's what I thought. And while this may seem an odd question to pose on a blog about books and reading, I think that they actually go quite well together.

We have become so addicted to instant communication that the very idea of writing someone a letter seems as ancient as 8-track tapes (if you don't know what those are, ask your mom). Even the speed of text messages and e-mails isn't fast enough for some people, giving rise to a host of abbreviations that I can't even begin to keep up with. And whether we realize it or not, there is a great danger in the loss of the letter.

The danger is that we will become the first generation in history to leave no written record of ourselves. If George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Ernest Hemingway had only used e-mail, would we have the same record of them that we possess through their letters and journals today? If Jefferson had sent text messages to Adams, think what would have been lost to history.

I realize the irony of saying this as I type an article that people I have never met will read. But will anyone go to the trouble of printing the article and filing it away for posterity? Not likely. Because it's just one of possibly hundreds they'll at least scan over the course of the day. It may have good information, and they may even put some of it to use, but no one will keep the article.

Even if they did, it is still not the same as a letter. A letter is a personal thing, even more now because we receive so few of them. They matter because they are personal in an increasingly disconnected world, and because they take time and effort (just like reading a book...see, the two can go together).

Here are a few suggestions for getting your letter writing started, and at the same time leaving a tangible, personal record that you really existed:

1. Choose a few friends or family members who are most likely to agree to begin a written correspondence with you. While it is not critical that someone respond to your letters, it helps if you have an actual correspondence going. This worked quite well with a friend of mine until I moved to a house only a few blocks from hers. It makes more sense if there's a little distance involved.

2. Use good stationery and a quality pen. Don't just scribble off a note like you're making a grocery list. This has its place, of course, but not in this instance. Take the time to make your writing legible, something we have done less of since the proliferation of computers.

3. Write about what's happening in your life, but try to leave out the mundane things we often include in text messages, e-mails and tweets. Use this opportunity to delve into deeper things, either about the world, or your relationship with the person you're writing to, or just about yourself. If, for example, your great-grandson someday reads these letters, you wouldn't want him to think great-grandpa was nothing more than a boring complainer.

4. While many of your letters will go unanswered, keep writing them. You will ultimately derive as much pleasure from writing the letters as you will receiving one in return. Be prepared, however, to receive e-mails in response to your letters. It takes a while to change people's habits.

In the end, one of the greatest benefits of letter writing is that, like keeping a daily journal, it forces you to slow down and think about the events of the day and your part in them, and all of us can benefit from slowing down a little. So think of someone you care about, turn off your computer, and write them a letter. You'll both be glad you did.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What Makes a Book Valuable?

One of the most important things to know when collecting books is that "old" and "rare" are not the same thing. Many people assume that the age of a book is what determines both its scarcity and its value, but this is seldom the case. Antiques dealers are especially fond of putting high prices on books based solely on their age, but most antiques dealers are not book experts.

Rarity, and thus value, is determined by a number of factors. So while a book that's been in your family for generations may have great sentimental value to you, unless that book is a Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare's First Folio it's probably neither rare nor valuable. There are several variables to consider regarding a book's value, and each is important:

1. Condition, condition, condition. Always buy a book in the best condition you can possibly afford. A book is not valuable simply because it's old, and a very old book in poor condition is worth little or nothing. For modern editions, the condition of the dust jacket is easily as important as the condition of the book itself when determining value. In fact, the dust jacket can account for up to 90 percent of the value of the book. For example, a "clipped" dust jacket (one where the original price on the inside cover has been clipped off) can cut the value of a book by 75 percent or more.

Books are graded according to condition. Typical grades include As New, Fine, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor, Ex-Library, and Book Club Edition. You will often see "Near Fine" as well, and it is important to note that Book Club and Ex-Library Editions have next to no value except as reading copies. The problem, especially when purchasing books on the Internet, is that what one person calls Fine may in fact only be Good. If you are unable to personally inspect a book before buying it, at least ask for photographs of the dust jacket, binding, and copyright page.

2. In most cases, only the first printing of a first edition is of interest to collectors. This is one reason it is important to see the copyright page; especially for books printed in the past 20 years, the edition is typically clearly marked. There will be a series of numbers near the bottom of the page, and if a "1" is not visible, then you probably don't have a first printing. For example, you would want to see "First Edition" and 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 or 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1. This is not true for all publishers, however, and it is worth the time and money to become thoroughly acquainted with the different ways some publishers identify a true first printing.

When speaking of first editions and first printings, we are always referring to the hardcover edition. The only exception to this occurs when the book has no initial hardcover run and is released only in soft cover. This is rare for literary fiction, but does occur more frequently in the mystery and science fiction/fantasy genres. When only a paperback first edition exists, the rules regarding condition still apply.

3. Unless a later book was particularly notable( for example, winning a Pulitzer Prize), an author's first book will always be the most valuable. This is because a first book is usually released with a small first print run, making the book scarce from the outset, and more so if the author becomes popular later. J.K. Rowling is a perfect example of this: the first UK print run of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" ("Sorcerer's Stone" in the US) was a tiny 500 copies, of which 300 went to libraries; a first printing now sells for tens of thousands of dollars. The final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," had a first print run of 12 million, assuring that this book will never be collectible unless it has Rowling's elusive signature. A book must be either scarce or rare, or both, to generate enough interest to cause the value to increase.

4. Signed copies are, in most cases, worth more than unsigned copies, but the rules regarding condition and edition trump an autograph. In other words, while a signed first printing of "The Kite Runner" in Fine condition can be worth well over $500, a signed copy of a fifth printing in Good condition will be worth less than the original cover price. Also remember that signed copies of books by an author who is hot today may be over-inflated, and could easily drop in value as time goes on. If you want to collect signed editions, the best way is to go to signings by the author where you can have them signed for free. Some authors will sign and return copies sent to them, but this happens far less often today than in the past. Always check with the author before sending anything.

One last thing to consider is that unless you are planning to become a full-time book dealer, you should stick to collecting books by authors that interest you. This way, even if the value of a particular book doesn't increase (or worse, decreases), you will still have a book in your collection that you actually want, rather than something you bought simply as a commodity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Best Selling Book of All Time

If you ask people to name the best selling book of all time, some will say "The DaVinci Code" or one of the Harry Potter books, but most will correctly name the Bible as the all-time best seller. Amazingly, in spite of the great sales numbers, it is also the least-read book in America today.

Don't get me wrong; most people in America own a Bible, and a large number own more than one. But to borrow the line from a less biblical question, 90% of people don't read the Bible, and the other 10% lie about it. Even many regular churchgoers in the Bible Belt only dust their copy off long enough to carry into Sunday services; they then toss it into the back seat of their SUV until the next week.

We weren't always biblically illiterate; only a generation ago most Americans were at least familiar with the majority of the Bible stories, if not the theology. That's not true anymore, and if you think I'm exaggerating, consider the following responses to some simple Bible knowledge questions:

In the first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, "Am I my brother's son?"

Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients.

Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.

Samson slew the Philistines with the Axe of the Apostles.

Lot's wife was a pillar of salt during the day, but a ball of fire at the night.

Noah's wife was Joan of Ark.

It was a miracle when Jesus rose from the dead and managed to get the tombstone off the entrance.

Keep in mind that these responses came from children ranging from elementary to high school, most of them in Catholic schools. How much worse would the average "man on the street" do, since many can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map of the U.S.? But that's another rant for another day.

I raise the issue of Biblical illiteracy because it goes hand in hand with our growing illiteracy overall. Whatever your religious affiliation, the fact is that many of our laws are based on the Bible, and much of the great art and literature of the Western world was inspired by the Bible. Not knowing anything at all about the Bible is as unacceptable as knowing nothing about the Constitution, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo (all three of these owe the Bible at least some debt for their content).

So here's a challenge: try reading the Bible for 15 minutes a day, focusing on things like the lives of Moses, David, and Jesus. Try either the New International Version or the New Living Translation (rather than the King James Version) as both are extremely readable. And before you misunderstand my goal, I'm not trying to convince anyone to convert; rather, I'm trying to convince everyone to read.

Whether you're Anglican or Agnostic, Buddhist or Baptist, I think you will find that by reading this best-selling book, your literary, historical, and cultural literacy will improve considerably. Plus it's got wars and romance and treachery and heartbreak and redemption, just like a good novel. And if you read close enough, you may even learn the amazing fact that while God isn't a Republican or a Democrat, he is a reader. After all, he gave us a book.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Review

It has been a long time (just over 7 years, in fact) since I stayed up all night to read the last 280 pages of a novel. The other night Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan broke that drought. I realize that the title doesn’t roll easily off the tongue, but do not let that deter you from picking up this marvel of a novel.

In brief, the book tells the story of Clay Jannon who, after losing his position as a San Francisco web-developer (for a bagel company), stumbles upon a job as a night clerk in one of the strangest bookstores he, or we, ever encountered. Since the store’s shelves reach so high you can’t see the top, he is hired mainly on his ability to climb a ladder like a monkey. But in a recession a job is a job.

After a while, however, Clay discovers that there is more to this store than a strange name, strange (and few) regular customers, and an even stranger owner. There’s a secret contained within these walls…a very old secret…and Clay enlists his friends to help him solve the mystery. And once the chase is on, it never lets up.

It sounds like your basic literary mystery, but is much, much more. The supporting characters are all so well written any one of them could have just as easily been the narrator as Clay. The collision of old-world knowledge and modern-day technology is handled with respect for both, and Sloan’s depiction of life at Google’s headquarters is all the more hilarious because it’s probably all true.

Most mysteries leave you feeling either satisfied or cheated; Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore leaves you satisfied and thinking. Sloan has created a world that’s just like ours, yet not like ours. It’s a world that, like the bookstore itself, you will want to explore long after the book is finished.

Looking back over this I realize that it barely scratches the surface of even the first 100 pages of the plot, and even that is only the bones, not the soul...and as Zafon taught us, every book has a soul. Suffice it to say that while the ending is a good one, with this book, as with life, the journey itself is really the best part.

One last thing…don’t wait for the paperback to come out. Buy the hardcover…it actually glows in the dark. Try pulling that off with an e-book.