The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Another winner from Liz. It felt for a split second like it was going to be a bit too easy a meet-cute, but things got immediately complicated for the better.

The first thing the reader sees at the start of Part I is a brief annotation to Roald Dahl’s story “Lamb to the Slaughter,” by an A.J.F. (we assume, the title character). These annotations begin each chapter, but it takes a while to discern their intended destination or use.

Next is a chapter starring Amelia Loman, whom we meet painting her nails yellow on a ferry ride from Hyannis to Alice Island. She has a mild hangover but still feels upbeat about the appointment she’s ferrying toward: she’s a new publishing sales rep going to call on A.J. Fikry, proprietor of Island Books. Amelia is a likeable character, but A.J. – first encountered through her eyes – is prickly. I was surprised to learn that he is just thirty-nine years old, because my first impression was of a crusty old curmudgeon of a shopkeeper (a ‘type’ I recognize from bike shops, but bookstores will do just as well). He certainly fits the type, just younger than I’d originally guessed. And after that first chapter, Zevin wisely takes us from Amelia’s focus (in the close third person) to A.J.’s. I love a jerk whose bad behavior is suddenly complicated and made sympathetic by backstory.

A.J. has suffered a major loss, and he is a jerk – or at least he’s coping poorly – but then the unexpected strikes. It’s not Amelia, as I’d originally thought. It’s something a little different, and my synopsis stops here.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is delightful. It has grumpy but endearing book nerdiness; earnest, messy human emotion; the complications of grief and loss and family; whimsy and mishaps; and yes, a little romance. Also, a bookshop in a small town, with all the social drama and love and support that that can entail. It’s definitely on the sweet side, approaching precious, but never saccharine; I’m pretty sure when Liz recommended it she acknowledged that it would be best read in a mood for something sweet and light-ish, but it’s not the least bit fluffy, and even involves a sequence about the line between fiction and memoir and does it even matter? I read it in a single day and wish it had lasted longer. I could sink into the world of A.J. et al much further. I am off to see what else Zevin has written. Do recommend.

Rating: 8 vampires.

movie: The Booksellers (2019)

Thanks, Pops, for making sure I got the chance to see this documentary. The Booksellers is about, yes, booksellers – really, book dealers, those handling antiquarian and rare books and ephemera, rather than the clerk at your local. It therefore covers a handful of collectors as well as the rarefied worlds of New York and London book fairs and dealer circles.

Obviously as a librarian and book lover (and blogger, hello) I appreciate the appreciation for books, the excitement and fascination, the enthusiasm for this or that object; I love the visuals of books and of libraries. I roll my eyes again at predictions of the death of the book; but the film mostly rolls its eyes as well, pointing out why this will never happen. (Quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz is a welcome breath of fresh air and sarcasm throughout: “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.” Etc.) I guess I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but it was neat to get a closer view of what it looks like to really live and breathe books in a different way than I have ever known personally, even though you could say I live in books to a large degree – librarian, book reviewer, MFA student, English teacher. I confess that, while I’m committed to reading print books rather than e-books, the book-as-object is important to me only as a vehicle for the words it contains; I don’t often really geek out on the object itself. I get the appeal, though, and I dig what these folks are into, and I’m so glad they’re out there, documenting the history of print.

On the other hand, it’s a world of great privilege and funding (and the odd bit of nepotism, as frankly stated by one profiled bookseller), and it’s overwhelmingly white and male. Early on, there’s a quick flipping through of pictures of booksellers, as voiceover discusses the stereotype (old guy in tweed with pipe), to demonstrate that they’re actually not all old guys with pipes! – but they were all white. It looks to me like the documentary made an effort to showcase diversity, and good on them; I counted a whopping three people of color in the whole film, with women relatively well represented and with plenty of discussion of the women in the boys’ club situation. (All but one woman were white.) Race was not discussed until the 1:15 mark, by which point I was getting pretty frustrated with that silence. Only oblique reference was made to the fact that this stuff takes a lot of money. I guess I was left feeling a little disenchanted: cool old books and history are awesome, but very few people get invited to this party, and it’s a damn shame not to state that early and talk about it at the forefront.

We are all on our own personal journeys of woke-ness and of noticing what the world around us looks like. These days I’ve been noticing a lot of all-white or almost-all-white spaces.

Very cool documentary, lots of great visuals, and plenty of romance to appreciate about rare and antiquarian books, the quirky folks who deal with them for a living, and the histories we have yet to uncover. I am so glad there are professionals doing this work and continuing to uncover those histories. I love books, and I think I’d be tickled to get to hang out with one of these people in real life. It’s important that we recognize where money and resources keep this field pretty undemocratic, though. The hard work continues in all spheres, and radical book collections are no exception.

Still recommended.

Rating: 7 fabulous plates of fossil fish.

Pops’s visit to Powell’s Books in Portland

Just wanted to share a few photos from my father’s trip to the famous Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

A quotation he thought we’d like, on one of their blackboards (I especially appreciate that the book’s location is noted!)

LOVE these bike racks with related book titles. (click to enlarge and read ’em all)

“our room at the trendy Ace Hotel – old encyclopedia pages wallpapered to plaster walls!” (is this especially for Powell’s customers?)

And, well, this one is not so directly connected, but: you may recall that Pops and I both read and both raved about Fire Season, by Philip Connors. (My review… and his) So he snapped this fire lookout station for me “at the top of a volcanic butte south of Bend, with a view of the Cascade snow-caps as far north as Mt. Hood, and east into the Oregon desert.” Very nice, Pops.

On a related note: Pops has also been getting into Edward Abbey this summer. I’m not sure if I had a role in that or not; I did strongly (forcibly?) recommend Fire Season to him and cite Edward Abbey as a related recommendation. He may have gotten there on his own, but at any rate the two authors (Connors & Abbey) have a clear link. He actually approached Powell’s with an Edward Abbey need, and reported that, while he’s aware that Abbey is a somewhat obscure choice, they had a full shelf of it and were very happy to talk and help. He points out that this is unsurprising, for Portland and for Powell’s – should be a specialty of theirs – but no less gratifying. He bought three books, including one of Abbey’s novels. I’m not sure I even knew he wrote fiction!

So, I have only read his Desert Solitaire, which I believe is his best-known. It is the nonfiction account of his solitary experience as a park ranger at Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. I read it many years ago, and I retain more of an impression than a distinct memory; what I do recall is that I found it very moving. I recently picked up another of his, The Journey Home, although I haven’t cracked it open yet.

And now Pops has three new books, including a novel. He mentioned that the novel is about a fire lookout, so I think that makes it Black Sun. I’m hoping that he’ll report back to us here on his continued reading, and maybe even loan me a book or two! Hm, Pops?

from today’s issue of Shelf Awareness

Today I just want to pass along two items from today’s Shelf Awareness newsletter. The first is about Houston, and the second is about the bike business! (You can read all of today’s issue, and more, at the Shelf Awareness website).

In the latest segment of its Houston by the Book series, the Houston Press profiled Brazos Bookstore and Jane Moser, who “manages the day-to-day operations, scheduling appearances, and–most importantly–buying the books. While she admits that it indeed is no picnic, it’s a job that clearly brings her a good bit of joy.”

In 2006, when previous owner Karl Kilian was ready to step aside, Moser, who had been a children’s bookstore owner, was one of 25 Houstonians who “came together and formed an LLC and bought the store. I was one of the people who worked on the deal to get it together…. I had been a customer of this store for years, and knew the owners. So when it came up that they were trying to put a deal together, none of the people who bought it wanted to run it. They just wanted to save it.”

Moser added, “Everybody loves the idea of a strong, independent bookstore in town. People like the idea, but now we’re in a changing age, and people are going to have to support the sale of physical books as well, or we’re going to lose these opportunities for meeting the authors, etc. That serendipitous experience of walking in a bookstore and seeing a book you didn’t know you needed, or meeting an author you didn’t know about before, or seeing another book by an author, or seeing a cover that just grabs you–those are things that just aren’t yet possible online.”

Christopher J. Zane will be the opening plenary speaker at the American Booksellers Association’s Day of Education at BookExpo America on Monday, May 23, Bookselling This Week wrote. Zane is a 29-year veteran of the retail bicycle industry who bought his first bike shop at age 16 and has built Zane’s Cycles into one of the largest retail bicycle stores in the nation. “His unique approach to marketing includes strategies that stress continual learning, the lifetime value of a customer, guerrilla marketing, and cost-controlled customer service,” BTW reported.

As the morning plenary speaker, Zane will share insights on the lifetime value of one customer to a store’s bottom line, and discuss unique approaches to customer relationship marketing, understanding the psychology of today’s customer, and acquiring the tools to build lifetime relationships in the B2C and B2B markets.

(The above content belongs to Shelf Awareness.)

where do you get your books?

Today’s subject is independent booksellers.

I found an interesting article in yesterday’s issue of Shelf Awareness. For your sake I’m giving you the whole article here since there’s no direct link, although you can find it along with other news at the link above. So first, from Shelf Awareness:

“Local independent booksellers are still fighting the good fight–and winning” was the headline for a Pioneer Press feature on Minneapolis-St. Paul area booksellers, noting: “Strong indie bookstores contributed to the Twin Cities’ rankings in Central Connecticut State University’s list of most literate cities. The annual study included six criteria, one of which was the number of bookstores per capita. Minneapolis came in third; St. Paul was seventh.”

Among the secrets to indie success cited were “hiring knowledgeable staff, selling books off-site, making available books that are hard to find in chain stores and working to become part of their communities,” the Pioneer Press wrote.

“A good local bookstore is like a good local bar, where everybody knows your name,” said Sue Zumberge, manager of Common Good Books.

The increasing importance and popularity of shop local movements was another critical factor mentioned by several booksellers.

“People are recognizing the limits of shopping online, where you have to know what you’re looking for,” said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawbers Books. “My favorite thing, which happens in our store on a regular basis, is when a customer says, ‘I had no idea this book existed.’ That’s why you need a knowledgeable staff.”

Birchbark Books manager Susan White added, “This buy local-spend local trend has been building for several years, and we are benefiting from it. Customers who think about where they want dollars to go purposely come to us, even though it’s out of the way for some.”

The e-book sales option for indies is gaining national attention with the debut of the Google eBookstore. Michele Cromer-Poire, co-owner of the Red Balloon Bookshop said, “We’ve been selling e-books a long time, and with publicity surrounding the Google website, we are hoping things pick up. We want our customers to have options and understand they can get e-books from us at prices competitive with big retailers. But e-books are only a part of the mix. I don’t think picture books are ever going to go away.”

Jay Peterson, manager at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, envisions two models of independent bookstores surviving: “One model is like Birchbark and Micawbers–small, strong stores that do a great job of picking books for their neighbors and the neighbors are supportive. Our model is the other–a mix of new, used, rare and bargain books that covers a lot of price points and a lot of breadth.”

I really appreciated the bookseller’s reference to the larger buying-local movement. I think of “localism” as applying to fresh food, like produce, because from a nutritional standpoint your food will be fresher and more suited to your climate if you buy locally; but of course the larger issue is economic and political. Supporting local and/or small businesses is an admirable cause, and I subscribe to the concept, but I could certainly do a better job, in practice, of supporting my local Whatever-It-Is. (By the way, shameless plug, for a local Houston bike shop I recommend Bikesport.) And in the world of BOOKS this makes at least as much sense as, well, anything else I can think of. I’m a little bit perturbed at e-readers… I’m rather a Luddite, very late to email and cell phones but here I am with this blog and this website, don’t get me started… and I DO see the advantages, really I do. But I am adamant that the printed book is NOT dead, nor should it be, nor am I even that worried. There are just too many times a person needs a BOOK.

But where are we getting our books these days? I stay aware of this issue mostly thanks to Shelf Awareness, which as I’ve said before covers bookselling more than it does libraries, and often beyond my level of interest; but this little article really drew me. Your local book store is important! Again as mentioned by some of the booksellers interviewed, one way in which your LBS (that’s local book store in this case, although I’m more accustomed to it being local bike shop) is important, is in having rare or used books. (I shop for books almost exclusively at Half Price Books.) But the other way in which the LBS is indispensable is in personal relationships: knowing you, knowing your tastes, making recommendations. (Another crossover concept from the local bike shop.)

I want this to be a personal appeal: go shop at your local book store! But I would be a little bit of a hypocrite, you know why? I don’t shop for books much. I don’t think I’ve bought a book in ANY book store for a year! (Maybe once or twice.) I work in a library, which provides a seemingly infinite tempting array of more than I could ever read; and when I need something specific I don’t have, there’s the larger Houston Public Library system, just ready and waiting to serve me. For free. (That is if the budget cuts don’t get them. Don’t get me started.) So really, I don’t buy much from anybody. :-/

Where do you get your books?

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