Rebecca Luker reads "Remember" by Christina Rossetti

In celebration of National Poetry Month, every day we're posting a new poem from the spoken-word album Poetic License, a three-CD set that features one hundred performers of stage and screen reading one hundred poems selected by the actors themselves. From Shakespeare and Dickinson to Lucille Clifton and Allen Ginsberg, the lineup spans contemporary American poetry and classics of the Western canon.    

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was an English poet of the Victorian era known for her mystical and religious themes and children's verse, but also for her examination of the experience of women during her time. Rossetti's poetry collections include Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), A Pageant and Other Poems (1881), The Face of the Deep (1892), and Monna Innominata: Sonnets and Songs (1899).

Rebecca Luker has recently appeared in Mary Poppins and Nine on Broadway. The New York City actress and singer, whose latest album is Greenwich Time, has received award nominations for stage performances in The Music Man, The Sound of Music, and Show Boat, among other musicals.

"Remember" by Christina Rossetti, from Poetic License produced by Glen Roven. Copyright © 2010 by GPR Records. Used with permission of GPR Records.     

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A Virtual Forum for Women Writers

by
Elrena Evans
11.1.09

She Writes, a Web site established for women writers, has joined the ranks of literary social-networking utilities. Launched in June by author Kamy Wicoff, in collaboration with Deborah Siegel, She Writes aims to provide a place "where women writers working in every genre, in every part of the world, and of all ages and backgrounds, can come together in a space of mutual support." At the time of this writing, nearly four thousand women writers—from poets to novelists to biographers—have joined the community. Well-known members include poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker, novelist Kate Christensen, and fiction writer and essayist Francine Prose.

While social-networking giants Facebook and Twitter allow writers to promote books and events, and other literary sites such as Goodreads and LibraryThing offer authors further opportunities to connect with readers, She Writes provides social-networking tools for writers as well as offering a range of practical information through member blogs, forums, and Webinars. But, perhaps most important, She Writes distinguishes itself by hosting discussions about some of the most pressing issues facing women writers today.

She Writes is deeply rooted in the concept of social networking. In fact, it's an offshoot of a series of salons for women writers first established in London in 2003 by Wicoff and the late biographer Diane Middlebrook, who together wanted to facilitate "an intergenerational discussion ranging from the practical to the theoretical but sharply focused on the business and craft of writing," as Wicoff puts it, "an exchange both supportive and provocative—food for the soul."

Both Wicoff and Middlebrook eventually returned to the United States, but the London salon continued for several years under the direction of editor Sarah Greenberg and author Lisa Appignanesi. Middlebrook then went on to form another branch in San Francisco with Marilyn Yalom, who has written numerous books and articles on literature and women's history, while Wicoff started a third outpost in New York City with memoirist Nancy K. Miller, who teaches comparative literature at Columbia University. Over the past five years, the New York City salon has hosted over twenty gatherings, and has included distinguished women writers such as Vivian Gornick, Erica Jong, and Katha Pollitt.

Siegel recalls attending one of the New York City salons earlier this year, at which Elaine Showalter discussed the negative review the New York Times Book Review had given her latest book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf, 2009). Showalter was "passionate," says Siegel, "about the resistance she felt within the established literary community to the first comprehensive history of American women writers." The women writers in attendance then began discussing the larger issue of what is deemed acceptable in the realm of women's literature.

It's precisely this kind of conversation that Wicoff and Siegel now foster on She Writes. Topics of discussion have included the role of feminist bloggers; writing and technology; and issues facing writers addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes. Along with providing information about practical matters that pertain to publishing, She Writes, like Facebook, allows users to post profiles, add events, "friend" other writers, and contribute to ongoing conversations by joining groups structured around topics such as Historical Fiction, Virtual Critique, Marketing and Promotion, and Across/Beyond/Defying Genre. Users may also join groups designated by geographical areas, through which the founders hope additional branches of the flesh-and-blood salon that started it all will be established. 

"She Writes was founded on the psychology of abundance, the belief that more is more," Wicoff says. "How much time each of us could save, how much more effective each of us could be, if we all told one another what we've learned."

Elrena Evans is coeditor of Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008).

She Writes provides social-networking tools for writers as well as offering a range of practical information through member blogs, forums, and Webinars.

Scribd Unveils New Social Features

by
Adrian Versteegh
8.11.09

In a bid to position itself alongside social networking phenomena like Facebook and Twitter, online publishing service Scribd unveiled a host of new social features yesterday. Users can now create personal reading lists, connect with those who share similar interests, and subscribe to instant updates from favorite authors, publishers, and even other readers. The company’s Web site says the overhaul is part of a strategy “to create the world’s largest reading club.”

“The next major evolution of the ‘print’ medium will be social, with readers participating in the never-ending life of the document, the book, the presentation,” Trip Adler, Scribd’s cofounder and CEO, told Publishers Weekly. Yesterday’s update included a new rating system and the launch of the “Scribble box,” which allows users to share their musings in the manner of other social networking services.

Tammy Nam, Scribd’s vice president of content, says the site has found favor with writers as well as readers. “The written word is no longer static,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “People want others to participate in the process of creating their works. We have authors who tell us that readers give them feedback about grammar or plotlines. So their works constantly change.”

Traffic at Scribd has reportedly dipped over the summer, but the San Francisco-based startup says about forty million people each month still use its site to access documents and e-books. An iPhone application supporting the service is expected to debut soon.

Simon & Schuster Partners With Scribd

6.15.09

Simon & Schuster has become the first major publisher to sell its titles through the online document-sharing service Scribd. Under the terms of a partnership announced on Friday, nearly five thousand e-books from the Simon & Schuster catalogue are being made available for purchase on the site, along with digital previews of thousands more.

Scribd, a San Francisco-based start-up, says sixty million people use its service to read, upload, and share documents each month. In May, the company expanded its database of free content to include for-purchase works with the launch of Scribd Store—now the site of Simon & Schuster’s new electronic storefront. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle service, Scribd permits sellers to set their own prices and allows them to be adjusted in accordance with sales data. E-books from Simon & Schuster will initially sell at 20 percent below the list price of current print editions.  

“It means new revenue on the sales side and lets us experiment with various pricing models,” Ellie Hirschhorn, Simon & Schuster’s chief digital officer, told the Wall Street Journal. “They [Scribd] have a large audience, which is important to us, and they’ve made an effort to install anti-piracy measures.”

Scribd has been the target of piracy complaints in the past, with publishers claiming the service doesn’t do enough to keep users from sharing proprietary material. The Scribd Store lets content owners specify whether files may be downloaded, read exclusively online, or downloaded only along with so-called “digital rights management” technology. Titles from Simon & Schuster will include Adobe anti-piracy software, which means the books will be transferrable to devices like the Sony Reader but will be incompatible with the Kindle. Scribd also says work is underway on a reading application for Apple’s iPhone.

Along with bestsellers by authors such as Stephen King and Jodi Picoult, Simon & Schuster’s e-book offerings on Scribd include Pulitzer Prize-winning titles from Frank McCourt, Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Mitchell. The Associated Press reports that Hachette Book Group and HarperCollins are considering similar partnerships with the site.

New iPhone Reader to Offer Over a Million Books

6.9.09

ScrollMotion, a developer of applications for Apple's iPhone, announced yesterday that it will release a new digital book reader for the device that will offer users a more comprehensive reading experience. The Iceberg reader 3.0, which will launch this summer with the next generation of the iPhone, will offer over one million books, as well as subscriptions to magazines and newspapers, that can be purchased and downloaded within the application itself, as opposed to linking to an outside retailer.

While Iceberg will price titles at $9.99, higher than rival app Stanza's average, according to Darrell Etherington of the Apple Blog, the number of its offerings is a draw, as well as the purchase function that allows users to pay for items using their iTunes accounts.

"The sheer volume of content it seems to be bringing to the platform definitely excites me as a reader," Etherington said of Iceberg. "I want choices, and I want them in one place, easily accessible without a lot of switching stores and digging around."

The new reader will also offer a bookshelf feature that allows users to view covers of purchased titles on virtual shelves, an updated book navigation function, and the ability to copy and paste selections of text to e-mail messages—an option that is made possible by advancements in the iPhone 3G S, which will go on sale later this month.

Strangers Meet in Virtual Libraries

by
C. Max Magee
7.1.06

Bibliophiles are easy to spot at cocktail parties. They are the ones lingering near the host's bookshelves, their heads cocked at a forty-five-degree angle, scanning the collection of books and comparing it to their own. Tim Spalding, a computer programmer and former employee of Houghton Mifflin, can easily spot them—he's one himself—and, up until last year, he wondered what would happen if bibliophiles could look at other people's books even if they weren't standing in their living rooms. Now he knows: In 2005, he launched a Web site designed to re-create this library-gazing phenomenon online.

Spalding intended LibraryThing (www.librarything.com) to be first and foremost a book-cataloguing Web site, a quick and convenient way for readers to keep track of their collections. His idea was to use the various book databases already on the Web to make the process simple for users. But LibraryThing has evolved into more than just a handy tool; it has become a thriving community of over thirty thousand book lovers. "It's taken off in a way that I couldn't anticipate," Spalding says.

Here's how it works: After setting up a password-protected LibraryThing account, a user can create a catalogue of his collection by entering the ISBN number or Library of Congress call number of each book. LibraryThing gathers information about the book—the title, author, publisher, and, when available, an image of the cover—using data available from Amazon.com and numerous online libraries, including those at Boston University, the University of California, the University of Chicago, and Yale. It then stores the relevant data in the user's catalogue.

Cataloguing the first two hundred books is free. Beyond that, unlimited use of the site for a year costs ten dollars, and a lifetime subscription costs twenty-five. Users can view their books as a list or, if the cover images are available, on a virtual bookshelf; sort their books by author, title, and other criteria; and create a profile page featuring a personal photo, a message board, links to the catalogues of other users, and details about their collections, such as the number of books and the languages they were originally written in. Since it launched in August 2005, forty thousand people have signed up for LibraryThing's services and entered over 2.8 million books into its database. In May, Abebooks.com bought a 40 percent stake in Spalding's Web site.

Whereas some Web sites, such as Friendster and MySpace, promote connections among users through "friends" in common, LibraryThing uses books to connect people. "Thingamabrarians," as LibraryThing's users have dubbed themselves, can find those with whom they share literary tastes and, as Spalding puts it, "hook up with people about pretty obscure stuff."

On each Thingamabrarian's profile page is an automatically generated list of links to fellow users whose libraries have the most books in common with their own. Eric Grunin, a New York–based composer, has entered close to sixteen hundred books into LibraryThing. On his profile page, he can see that one Thingamabrarian has 189 books in common with him, another one, 177; the list continues all the way down to people with whom he has just one book in common. As with other social networking sites, users can post notes to one another's profile pages. Grunin describes the sense of community generated by these interconnected libraries as having a "village intimacy."

As LibraryThing continues to grow—users are cataloguing more than ten thousand books a day—Spalding says that the site's potential as an online forum for serendipitous discovery grows too. "When you find someone that shares ownership of an obscure or meaningful book," he says, "all of sudden every [book] that person has is of interest to you."

C. Max Magee is a writer living in Chicago. He writes about books at the Millions (A Blog About Books).

LibraryThing has evolved into more than just a handy tool; it has become a thriving community of over thirty thousand book lovers.

AbeBooks Creates Book Recommendation System

3.21.07

The used book Web site AbeBooks recently launched a book recommendation system that draws titles from personal collections compiled on LibraryThing, a book cataloging Web site created by Tim Spalding in 2005. Whenever an AbeBooks user searches for one of the ten million books listed in the databases of both AbeBooks and LibraryThing, the new BookHints system will generate a list of three to six other books that the user might enjoy.

LibraryThing, which is partially owned by AbeBooks and currently has 155,000 users, lets people catalog, rate, and share listings of volumes in their personal libraries. AbeBooks, which was started in 1996 and calls itself the world’s largest online marketplace for books, lists over one hundred million used, rare, and out-of-print titles for sale by more than 13,500 independent booksellers.

AbeBooks Reveals Ten Most Expensive Books Sold

6.12.06

To celebrate its tenth anniversary, AbeBooks recently compiled a list of the ten most expensive used books that have been sold on its Web site since 1996. The list includes a first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, published in 1937. The book, one of only 1,500 copies printed, sold for $65,000. A copy of the first collection of John Donne’s poems, published in 1633, sold for $60,000. And an inscribed copy of George Orwell’s 1984 sold for $26,500. (Orwell was hospitalized with tuberculosis following the book’s publication, and died shortly thereafter, leaving behind very few signed copies.)

More than 13,500 booksellers are registered members of AbeBooks, which lists eighty million books—including more than a million signed copies—with a total value of $3.4 billion.

Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago


by
Jeremiah Chamberlin
5.1.10

When I walked into Women & Children First, the feminist bookstore that Linda Bubon and her business partner, Ann Christophersen, founded more than thirty years ago, the overriding feeling I experienced was one of warmth. And it wasn't because Chicago was having a late-winter snowstorm that afternoon. From the eclectic array of books stacked on tables, to the casualness of the blond wood bookcases, to the handwritten recommendations from staff below favorite books on the shelves, everything feels personalized; an atmosphere of welcome permeates the place.

In the back of the store, a painted sign showing an open book with a child peering over the top hangs from the ceiling, indicating the children's section. Not far away, a similar sign, this one of a rainbow with an arrow below it, points toward the GLBTQ section. Despite these signs—not to mention the name of the store itself—Women & Children First carries more than books for women and, well, children. The literature section stretches down one wall; there are stacks of photography collections; books on writing fill an entire bookcase; and disciplines as diverse as cooking and psychology have healthy offerings. Though conceived as a feminist bookstore three decades ago, since moving in 1990 to its current location in the Andersonville neighborhood (an area originally home to a large population of Swedish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century that has since evolved into a multiethnic community, and one with an equally diverse range of locally owned businesses such as Middle Eastern cafés, an Algerian crepe house, and, of course, a Swedish bakery), Women & Children First has become as much a neighborhood shop as a specialty store. And because the area has become popular with families and young professionals, the clientele is just as likely to be made up of men as women.

Still, books related to women and women's issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality, literature, criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store's focus. Such lauded authors as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Annie Leibovitz, and Hillary Rodham Clinton have all read here. Many now-famous writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, Margot Livesey, and Jane Hamilton got their start at this store. Needless to say, Women & Children First has a devoted audience for its events, and many who attend are well-known writers themselves. So on any given night you'll be as likely to be sitting next to authors such as Elizabeth Berg, Carol Anshaw, Rosellen Brown, Sara Paretsky, Audrey Niffenegger, Aleksandar Hemon, or Nami Mun as hearing them speak from the podium.

Like co-owner Bubon, Women & Children First doesn't take itself or its mission too seriously, despite its long history and literary laurels. Twinkle lights hang in the front windows facing Clark Street; there are jewelry displays around the front counter; and tacked to the community bulletin board are flyers for both theater performances and burlesque shows. When I met Bubon, she was wearing a simple, black, scoop-neck sweater and a subtle, patterned scarf in shades of red, orange, and cream. (She also wore Ugg boots, which she unabashedly raved about for their comfort.) Because Christophersen had to be out of town during my visit, Bubon took me around the store herself—not that I needed much of a tour. Women & Children First is only 3,500 square feet in area, most of which is one large open room. Still, the store carries more than twenty thousand books, as well as journals, cards, and gifts. And perhaps it is this combination that adds to its coziness.

But nothing captures the laid-back feel and philosophy of the bookstore better than the wooden kitchen table that sits in the back, near the children's section. Around it are four unmatched wooden chairs. Bubon brought us here for the interview, and it seems a perfect example of the spirit of openness that pervades this place. Several times during our conversation customers wandered over to chat with her and I was generously introduced. And more than once Bubon excused herself politely to help a nearby child pull down a book he couldn't reach. But never did these interactions feel like interruptions, nor did they ever change the course of our conversation. Rather, it felt as though I was simply a part of the ebb and flow of a normal day at Women & Children First. Nothing could have made me feel more welcome.

When did you meet Christophersen?
We met in graduate school. We were both getting a master's degree in literature, and we became very good friends.

Was that here in Chicago?
Yes, at the University of Illinois. Our class and the one just above us had a lot of great writers—James McManus, Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover. It was a very fertile atmosphere. So as we were finishing the program, Ann and I started talking about opening a business together, and the logical choice was a bookstore. There was only one local chain at the time, Kroch's & Brentano's, and there were probably sixty or seventy wonderful independent bookstores in the city and the suburbs of Chicago.

That many?
Yeah. There were a lot of independent bookstores. It was a really great environment for booksellers. I mean, we all thought of ourselves as competing with one another, but really there were enough readers to go around. By the mid-1980s, however, we were feeling crowded—after five years we had outgrown that first place. So we moved to a larger store, two blocks away, at Halsted and Armitage.

Did you decide from the beginning that you wanted to specialize in books for women and children?
Yes. It was what was in our hearts, and in our politics, to do. We were part of an academic discussion group made up of feminist teachers from all the nearby universities that met at the Newberry Library. Two of our teachers were part of this group and they had asked us to join as grad students. They were discussing Nancy Chodorow, whose book The Reproduction of Mothering had just come out. Also Rubyfruit Jungle. I was like, "Oh, my goodness!" because I had never read any lesbian literature, and here was this group of academics discussing it. They discussed Marge Piercy and Tillie Olsen. These were writers whom, when I went looking for them at places like Kroch's & Brentano's or Barbara's Bookstore, I wasn't finding. Similarly, as an academic, I knew how much Virginia Woolf had written. Yet I would look for Virginia Woolf and there would only be To the Lighthouse. Maybe Mrs. Dalloway. Or A Writer's Diary. But we envisioned a store where everything that was in print by Virginia Woolf could be there. And everything by outsider writers like Tillie Olsen or Rita Mae Brown would be there.

It's interesting to hear you describe these authors as being outsiders at one time, because when I was growing up they were people I was reading from the beginning.
Oh, back then you had to go lookin', lookin', lookin', lookin' to find these writers. And they certainly weren't being taught. Alice Walker had written The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and maybe Meridian had come out. But all the stuff that you think of as classic women's literature—Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison—they were not a part of the canon. They were just fledgling writers. It was much different. And, again, there was no gay and lesbian literature. None. I mean, it just didn't exist. We put a little sign on the shelf that said, "If you're looking for lesbian writers, try Virginia Woolf's Orlando, May Sarton, Willa Cather...." You know, writers who historians had discovered had had relations with women. [Laughter.] Nothing public at all. We had a little list. Back then our vision was about this big. [She holds her hands about eight inches apart.] Now, thirty years later, it's incredible to look back and see the diversity of women writers who are published, and the incredible diversity of gay and lesbian literature, and transgender literature, that's being published.

I still think women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in getting critical attention. So there's still a need for Women & Children First and stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers. But, at that time, we had to work to fill up a store that was only a quarter of the size of this one. That first store was only 850 square feet, yet it was still a challenge to find enough serious women's literature to stock the shelves. Because we didn't want to do romances. And it's not that we didn't have a vision of a bookstore that would be filled with works by women and biographies of women and eventually a gay and lesbian section and all that. But I had no idea that there would be this renaissance in women's writing. That it really would happen. That women would get published, and get published in some big numbers, and that I would finally be able to sell books by women who were not just white and American or British. I mean, the internationalizing of women's literature has been very exciting, I think.

What precipitated the move to 
this neighborhood and this bigger store, then?
In those first ten years we had double-digit growth every year. Ten percent up, 11 percent up, 15 percent up. I don't think we even made returns until we'd been in business three years. We were just selling. I had no ordering budget. "Oh, new stuff by women?" I'd say. "Great! We need it." Business was growing.

Was that because nobody else was selling this type of literature?
Yes, and because women's studies was developing as a discipline. Also, I think we were good booksellers. And we had great programming right from the beginning. Not so much big-name authors, but interesting stuff.

So like the first store, you outgrew the second one.
We outgrew it. Our landlord had also sold the building and the new owner was going to triple our rent. So if we needed any more motivation to move, that was it. What was tough, however, was that we'd been ten years in the DePaul neighborhood, which is very central to Chicago. You can get there very easily from the South Side, from the West Side, off the highways...yet we couldn't really afford to stay there, and we couldn't find a new space that would suit us. But then we were recruited to move up here by the Edgewater Community Development Organization. Andersonville is a part of Edgewater, which goes all the way to the lakefront and west to Ravenswood. They literally came to us and said, "The people in our community would love to have a bookstore in that neighborhood. There's a lot of spaces that are being renovated, and we wonder if you're thinking of opening a second store, or if we could encourage you to."

This happened by coincidence, while you were already considering a new location?
Yes! And we said, "Well, you know, we need more space. We'll come up and look." At the same time, there were two women who were opening a women's arts-and-crafts store, and all their friends said, "It doesn't matter where you're located as long as you're next to or on the same block with Women & Children First." So we came up to Edgewater to look, and they showed us this building, which had been a big grocery store. It was being renovated and gutted, so we could get in at the beginning and say, "We want the corner and we want this much space." The arts-and-crafts store opened next door. They stayed open for seven years, and when the partnership broke up, in 1997, we took over their space. In terms of our growth, business kicked up 20 percent the first year we were here. We opened in July 1990, and that first year people came in and brought us plates of cookies and said, "Thank you for coming to our neighborhood." It was just great.

But the move itself is the best story. Remember, this was still a shoestring operation. We had to rely on the community. So we organized seventy volunteers. Four different women rented or had trucks. And those seventy people moved every book and bookshelf out of the old space and into this space in one day. We organized people in groups of three or four, and we said, "Okay, you have the Biography section. You pack up all these books in these boxes, mark them ‘Bio,' pull out that shelving unit, you go with that unit and those boxes to the new space, and there will be somebody here to help set it up." We had other women who went out and bought three trays of sandwiches and fed all the volunteers. We started on Friday night, worked all day Saturday, and by two in the afternoon on Sunday we were open for business. We were only really officially closed for one day. And women still tell me, "I remember helping you move." They'll come in and they'll say, "That's my section; I put this section back together."

Have readings and events been a part of this store from the beginning?
They've been a huge part of the store. Getting to meet all these wonderful writers whom I've read—in person—is also something that's kept me motivated and excited. And, you know, the excitement of discovering a new writer is always great.

We have a lot of local politicians who shop here too. When Jan Schakowsky decided to support Barack Obama in his run for the U.S. Senate, she had a press conference here. She asked if she could use our store to make the announcement that she was throwing her support behind him in the primary. And I remember her saying to me, "If we can just get people to not call him Osama." I mean, that's where we were at that time. Nobody knew who he was.

So the store has been important for the community in many ways.
A political gathering place, and a literary gathering place, and a place where we have unpublished teen writers read sometimes. We've developed four different book groups, plus a Buffy discussion group. And if you came on a Wednesday morning, you'd see twenty to thirty preschoolers here with their moms for story time, which I do. I love it. I just love it. It's absolutely the best thing of the week. I have a background in theater and oral interpretation, so it's just so much fun for me.

Has that grown over the years as the neighborhood has developed?
Grown, grown, grown. For many years I would have nine or ten kids at story time, maybe fifteen. Then, about four or five years ago, it was like the neighborhood exploded, and I started getting twenty to thirty kids every week. In the summer, I can have fifty in here. That's why everything is on rollers. For story time, the kids sit on the stage and I sit here. For regular readings, it's the opposite—authors read from the stage and we have chairs set up down here. We can get a hundred, sometimes even a hundred and fifty people in here.

A year and a half ago, we started Sappho's Salon. Once a month, on a Saturday night, we have an evening of lesbian entertainment. Sometimes it's open mike; sometimes it's acoustic music. Kathie, who does our publicity, generally runs it, and her girlfriend, Nikki, who is a part-time DJ, brings her DJ equipment. Then we set up little tables and candles, and try to make it feel like a salon. We've even had strippers. [Laughter.] But right from the beginning we conceived of having a weekly program night. Author readings weren't happening much, so we decided we'd have discussions on hot books that people were reading. We knew a lot of teachers from this Newberry Library group who were writing, and who were in the process of writing feminist criticism, so we invited them to come and do a presentation on an idea.

Then we conceived of having a topic for each month. For example, "Women in the Trades." So every Tuesday night in March a woman who was working in a male-dominated trade would come and talk about how she got her job, or how women can get into engineering, or what kind of discrimination she's experiencing on the job and what her recourses were. I think one of our very biggest programs in those early years was on the subject of sadomasochism in the lesbian community. And we had eighty or ninety women who would come and sit on our shag rug—we didn't have chairs and stuff like that then—and listen to people who had differing viewpoints discuss the issue. It seems almost silly now, but it was a big issue at the time, and people were really torn about whether this was an acceptable practice or not. Also, whether we should carry books on the subject. There was one pamphlet available at the time: What Color Is Your Handkerchief? Because you would put a handkerchief of a certain color in your back pocket to indicate what your sexual proclivity was.

It's amazing how subtle the coding had to be. It was so discreet.
I remember the first time I saw two women walk out of my store holding hands. I was walking to the store a little later because somebody else had opened that day, and when I saw them [pause] I cried. Because it was so rare in 1980 to see two women feel comfortable enough to just grab each other's hands. And I knew that they felt that way because they'd come out of this atmosphere in which it was okay.

At our thirtieth anniversary party [last] October, the Chicago Area Women's History Conference recorded people's memories of Women & Children First. They had a side room at the venue where we were having the party, and people took time to go in and talk about, you know, the first time they came to the bookstore, or when they saw Gloria Steinem here, or how they met their girlfriend here, or that when their daughter told them she was gay and they didn't know what to do about it they came here and got a book. People shared all these memories. And that's going to be part of our archive too.

This celebration was also a benefit for the Women's Voices Fund, which you started five years ago. Can you talk about its mission?
Several years ago, Ann and I were looking at the budget and, frankly, there wasn't enough money coming in for the expenses going out. Meanwhile, we were planning the benefit for our twenty-fifth anniversary—this party that we hoped would raise some extra money—and other people in the not-for-profit world who were advising us said, "People will pay for your programs. They will make a donation to keep your programming going." So Ann sat down and calculated what it cost to print and mail out a newsletter, to put on these programs, to advertise the programs, and then to staff them. What we discovered was that is was about forty thousand dollars a year we were spending on programming. And we thought, "If there's a way to remove that expense from the budget and use people's donations to fund that, that would be a smart thing." So that's what we did. Now anytime we have an advertisement or a printing bill or expenses related to providing refreshments at programs, that cost comes out of the Women's Voices Fund.

So the store's not a nonprofit, but it has a nonprofit arm.
It's not a 501c3 on its own. We are a part of the pool fund of the Crossroads Fund in Chicago. So you can send Crossroads a check, have it be tax deductible, and have it earmarked for the Women's Voices Fund.

Few people realize how expensive readings and events can be.
Occasionally there are readings that are profitable. Occasionally. But very, very often, even with a nice turnout of twenty to fifty people, you still may only sell three or four books. Maybe five or six. But it's not paying for the program. And from the beginning we didn't want to look at everything we did in terms of whether it was going to make money: "If we have this author we gotta sell ten books or we're not gonna pay for the Tribune ad, or the freight." No. Having the fund means we pass the hat at the program, and maybe we take in twenty or thirty dollars. But sometimes people put in twenties, you know? And we raised thirty thousand dollars at this benefit.

But obviously something changed in the bookselling industry or you wouldn't have had to hold this fundraising event. You said earlier that when you first moved into this neighborhood you had double-digit growth. What happened?
Well, the rest of that story is that a year and a half later our sales dropped 11 percent. This was 1993. And the next year, they fell another 3 percent. So that was a 14-percent drop in two years, for a store that had never seen a loss. Borders and Barnes & Noble started in the suburbs, but then they gradually came into the city. In 1993, when this hit us, Barnes & Noble and Borders had put in stores three miles to the south of us—right next to each other—and three miles to the north of us, in Evanston. Then, about seven years ago, Borders put the store in Uptown, which is just a mile from us, and they put another store west of us by about two miles. More recently, B&N closed the store three miles south of us, and Borders announced over two years ago that they were trying to rent all the stores around us.

They overextended themselves.
When everybody else was starting to downsize, Borders opened several new stores in Chicago, including this one in Uptown. And, you know, we'd almost gotten past the point where the chain stores were affecting us, because they've had to stop widespread discounting. But the month this Borders opened that close to us, our sales dropped 12 percent over the year before. And then over the course of that year our sales were down 5 percent. But, you know, it's been an underperforming store. They put it in between two underperforming stores in a neighborhood that was more economically depressed than Evanston and Lincoln Park.

Do you think five years from now they'll be gone?
I do. I do.

Can you wait them out?
You know, from what I can observe, Barnes & Noble seems to treat their employees pretty well; they seem to put stores in locations where there's actually a need, and to close stores down when needed and redistribute employees. It seems to me Barnes & Noble plans very carefully. Borders, on the other hand, has changed hands several times since 1990. I just don't see how they are going to survive. When I go in there now all I see is...sidelines. Candy.

I think what's been particularly frustrating for independent stores like ours that have developed a reading series over the years in Chicago—you know, attracting more and bigger-name authors, and more interesting authors, and conducting ten to fifteen programs a month—is when publishers take an author who has a real base in our store, and for whom we have a real audience, and they say, "Oh, but the Michigan Avenue Borders wants this author, and that's a better location."

Why does that happen?
They don't always realize that our location is not downtown, and that it attracts a different kind of clientele. And I've seen situations where we'll have a local author—one who we have a close relationship with, and who's done every launch with us—whose publisher will now say to her, "You know, two thirds of your books are sold in the chain stores, and so you have to do your launch at the chain store." But those authors try to figure out things to do for us to get us some extra business.

The author tour itself seems to be waning. I don't blame publishers for their reluctance to send a writer out on the road—after all, it probably seems hard to justify paying for an author's travel expenses when you see only eight or nine books sold at an event. But people always forget the long-term sales that readings generate.
Right. Because I've read the book, and so has one of my coworkers, and we'll both put it on our Recommends shelf. We're going to keep selling this book long after the event. And we do find, when we look at our year-end figures, that our best-sellers for the year are almost always written by people who have had appearances here. Or, if not here, they've done an off-site event that we've been in charge of. Those books turn out to be our number one sellers for the year.

So what does the future look like for you?
I'm a bookseller, but I'm a feminist bookseller. Would I be a bookseller if I were going to run a general bookstore? I'm not sure. Sometimes I think, "What will I do if the store is no longer viable?" And I think that rather than going into publishing or going to work for a general bookstore, I would rather try to figure out how to have a feminist reading series and run a feminist not-for-profit. Because the real purpose of my life is getting women's voices out, and getting women to tell the truth about their lives, and selling literature that reflects the truths of girls' and women's lives. Sometimes we're abused; we have to talk about that. Sometimes we take the bad road in relationships; we have to talk about that. Sometimes we're discriminated against in the workplace; we have to talk about these things. Violence against women in the United States and worldwide has not stopped. We don't have a feminist army to go rescue women in Afghanistan—would that we did.

The goal of my life has been to get the word out, to understand women's lives. We have to continue to evolve and change if we're to have a full share, and if our daughters are to have a full share of the world.

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INSIDE WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST WITH ANN CHRISTOPHERSEN
What were some of your best-selling books in 2009?

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout; Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger; Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti; Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood; The Sisters Grimm Book 1: Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley; In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Hardball by Sara Paretsky; The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart; Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers; Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; Mama Voted For Obama! by Jeremy Zilber; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz; and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

What is the best-selling section in your store?
Paperback fiction.

What do you look for in terms of an author event?
First we consider whether the book fits with our specialty—books by and about women—or ones that offer a feminist perspective on any subject. It is also important to us that we can provide an audience for the author. Finally, though we always want to host women writers with a national reputation, we are strongly invested in supporting local writers and those launching their careers with debut novels, poetry, or nonfiction.

In what ways have your events changed over the years?
In the store's early days, many of our events were feminist issue–based, sometimes with an author or book involved but not necessarily. We were a hub of feminist and lesbian politics and culture, and produced feminist plays and women's music concerts, sponsored women's sports teams, and provided support for almost every women's/lesbian project in our city. Over the past number of years, however, we have focused our energies and events on books and other written material, knowing that that was our unique role in the women's movement.

What challenges do women still face that you hope your store can help address?
Women writers are still vastly under-represented in review vehicles, which means their books are less visible. This can be verified by keeping a gender tally of writers reviewed in the NYTBR or the New Yorker, for example, during any given month. Though women artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still struggle for opportunity and recognition. Women in general have also, obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a long way to go. Women's right to control our own bodies is constantly being challenged; we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few good options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and children; women are seriously unrepresented in political decision-making. I could go on, but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and bookstores—that focus on women.

How does feminism in the twenty-first century differ from when you opened this store?
The main difference is that the second wave of the feminist movement in the seventies was just hitting the streets and was brilliantly, feverishly, and obviously active. New organizations were being created every day to deal with issues like incest, domestic abuse, healthcare, job opportunities, equal pay, the absence of political power, and many others. The work that began then has become institutionalized over the years since. It continues to advance, but people don't always notice it now since it's become deeper, more complex, and, some might say, mainstream. Another significant difference is that many of the growing pains have been outgrown: Feminism has been able to overcome many of the challenges posed by race, class, and national boundaries, becoming truly global. 

What role does technology play in your store?
It has played an important role since we bought a computer and began using POS/IM bookstore software in 1985. We had a Web site for marketing purposes and then took advantage of the American Booksellers Association's Web solution so we could sell books online; we switched from print to e-newsletters several years ago; we use social media, first MySpace and now Facebook and Twitter. And we have the technology—and desire—to sell e-books.

How do you think the rise of digital reading devices will affect your future?
The extent to which e-books affect our future depends on how large that segment of the market grows and whether there are any real opportunities for stores our size to get a share of online sales. There's little to no local advantage online, and when your competitors are large enough to dictate market prices, it is somewhere between extremely difficult and utterly impossible to get even market share to scale.

Where would you like to see Women & Children First in ten years?
I would like to see us still finding ways to serve our community and fulfill our mission of giving voice to women.

How about feminism?
Continuing to make steady progress toward a world in which women are free to live an unobstructed, rich, creative life.

What do you most love about bookselling?
Going through my days surrounded by books and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and talking about them. 

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

Ann Christophersen photo by Kat Fitzgerald.

Women & Children First in Chicago

For the third installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Chicago to speak with Linda Bubon, who, along with Ann Christophersen, owns Women & Children First.

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Founded more than thirty years ago in Chicago, Women & Children First is only 3,500 square feet in area, most of which is one large open room. Still, the store carries more than twenty thousand books, as well as journals, cards, and gifts.

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Twinkle lights hang in the front windows facing Clark Street; there are jewelry displays around the front counter; and tacked to the community bulletin board are flyers for both theater performances and burlesque shows.

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"In the back of the store, a painted sign showing an open book with a child peering over the top hangs from the ceiling, indicating the children’s section," Chamberlin writes. "Not far away, a similar sign, this one of a rainbow with an arrow below it, points toward the GLBTQ section. Despite these signs—not to mention the name of the store itself—Women & Children First carries more than books for women and, well, children."

 

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The literature section stretches down one wall; there are stacks of photography collections; books on writing fill an entire bookcase; and disciplines as diverse as cooking and psychology have healthy offerings.

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"Nothing captures the laid-back feel and philosophy of the bookstore better than the wooden kitchen table that sits in the back, near the children’s section," Chamberlin writes. "Around it are four unmatched wooden chairs. Bubon brought us here for the interview, and it seems a perfect example of the spirit of openness that pervades this place."

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"The goal of my life has been to get the word out, to understand women’s lives," says co-owner Linda Bubon. "We have to continue to evolve and change if we’re to have a full share, and if our daughters are to have a full share of the world."

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Co-owner Ann Christophersen says what she loves most about bookselling is being "surrounded by books and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and talking about them."

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"I still think women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in getting critical attention," says Bubon. "So there’s still a need for Women & Children First and stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers."

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"Though women artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still struggle for opportunity and recognition," Christophersen says. "Women in general have also, obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a long way to go. Women’s right to control our own bodies is constantly being challenged; we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few good options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and children....I could go on, but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and bookstores—that focus on women."

Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

by
Jeremiah Chamberlin
3.1.10

Few independent bookstores are more iconic than Powell's Books. Even readers who've never been to Portland, Oregon, know about the store from its ads in places like the New Yorker, or from its prominent online presence, or from its reputation as the largest new- and used-book store in the world. The "City of Books," as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there. (And if you can't, try one of the seven branch stores in five other locations throughout Portland, specializing in everything from technical books to home and garden.)

I was early for my interview with owner Michael Powell, so I decided to get a coffee in the attached café. Like the bookstore itself, the guiding aesthetic is simplicity—no overstuffed chairs, no fireplace, no decorations on the salmon-colored walls other than some taped-up flyers for local bands and a Buddhist meditation group. Not that anyone seems to notice. While I was there, every single person I encountered was reading. At the table nearest me a high school girl in cat-eye glasses and a ski cap read Lucy Knisley's French Milk (Epigraph Publishing, 2000), with a stack of David Sedaris waiting at her elbow. A well-dressed elderly woman flipped through the Oregonian not too far away. And on the other side, near the windows, a young woman with black hair and piercings through both her cheeks was making a list of recipes from The Garden of Vegan (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003). Filling the rest of the tables were hipsters in zip-up sweatshirts and Chuck Taylor All Stars, a young father in a shirt and tie with his two children, construction workers wearing Carhartt overalls, and women with trendy bags and knee-high leather boots. All were reading. Here was a microcosm of the store: A diversity of people and interests, sure, but what's most important in Powell's is neither image nor decor but the books themselves.

This is not to say that the store doesn't have a unique vibe. Like Michael Powell himself, there is a straightforwardness to Powell's that puts a person at ease. When the owner and I met, he was dressed casually in jeans and a pullover sweater. And though he had to attend a black-tie community event later that night, he was generous with his time, walking me through both the history of the business and the store itself—how the portion of the building with terrazzo floors had originally been an American Motors dealership; how when they built the newer sections of the store, more than a decade ago, they'd intentionally left the concrete floors bare because the industrial feel not only complemented the plain, pine bookcases but also added to the laid-back atmosphere; and how proud he is that their foreign-language section alone accommodates more than thirty thousand titles.

Michael Powell's philosophy on bookselling is simple: He wants to provide people with books. He has no interest in telling people what to read. Nor would he ever judge a person by the type of books she purchases. New or used, dime-store paperback or first-edition hardcover, manga or metaphysics, all are equally at home on his shelves.

This sense of equality permeates every aspect of the Powell's business model, from the practice of shelving used and new books side by side in each section, to the store's long-standing advocacy on free-speech issues, to the fact that its five hundred employees are unionized and have a matching 401(k) plan. Likewise, Powell may be the boss, but it's clear that he also sees himself as a fellow employee. When we left the downtown location and he drove me across town to the former ball-bearing warehouse that is now the site of the online bookselling operations, no one had to "look busy" when the owner arrived. Instead, they chatted with him as we walked through the facility, offering updates on their various ongoing projects, including ideas for how best to recycle used packaging materials. The warehouse, which feels like an airplane hangar but with the sound of jazz floating in the air, processes up to three thousand online orders daily. And 70 percent of those are single-title orders, a fact that amazes Powell, a logical man who never ceases to be surprised or impressed by his customers, even when they pay more than twenty dollars to have a four-
dollar book shipped overnight. It makes him wonder aloud how he can better meet their needs.

This, then, might be the trait that best characterizes Michael Powell: curiosity. He is endlessly curious about the world, about his employees' ideas, about what his customers want to read, and about innovative ways to do business. It is a trait that has served him well during his last four decades of bookselling. And though he'll officially hand over the reins of the business to his daughter, Emily, in July, when he turns seventy, one gets the sense that Powell will always be dreaming of how to connect books and people. Because it's clear that he loves them both.  

How did you become a bookseller?
In the mid-sixties I ran a little student co-op [at the University of Chicago] where students could sell textbooks and other books on consignment. I also rode my bike around to various thrift shops in the general area and went to the Sunday morning flea market called Maxwell Street—which was very famous in its day in Chicago—to buy books and put them on consignment. Then I sold books by catalogue for a couple years to university libraries, mostly out-of-print social science and history, before I opened my first store in 1970, in Chicago.

Early on, I was thinking of opening a store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because my wife and I had traveled to Santa Fe and saw it for the first time and everybody falls in love with Santa Fe the first time. She was being offered a job as a Montessori teacher there and I was going to open a bookstore when I got a phone call from a mentor in Hyde Park, in Chicago. He wanted to move his store because he'd been attacked by a customer.

He'd found a new location that was closer to campus, and the reason it was currently vacant was that the Weathermen had firebombed its previous occupant out of existence and he didn't want to go back into it, he was too nervous. And the university—well, not exactly the university, but whoever was in charge of organizing these things—had approached my friend. However, the space was too big for him; he wanted to take only half of it. So he said to me, "You take half and do mostly paperbacks, and I'll do hardbacks." And I said, "I could do that, but I don't have the money." My wife says I was always good for twenty bucks but never for a hundred. And he said, "There are some professors who would like to talk to you about that; they're kind of the patron saints of bookstores." There were three of them: Morris Janowitz, Edward Shils, and the third one was Saul Bellow. Morris Janowitz, who was the lead, came to me and said, "What would you need?" I had no idea. So I said—and this is, remember, 1970—I said, "Probably three thousand dollars." And he said, "We can do that. We can loan you three thousand dollars." Then I said, "But, you know, I've got a problem. I don't know how quickly this will get up and running. And there's all the rent." So he said, "We can help with rent, too, for a little while." Rent was, I think, a hundred dollars a month. So, okay, now they're rehabbing the building and there's some time before I can occupy it. So my wife and I take a thousand of the three thousand and we travel across the country to Oregon to visit my folks. [Laughter.]

When we were back in Chicago, I took the remaining two thousand dollars and bought some books. A friend and I built some shelves, and we opened. Like I was saying, it was a small, small store. But we did well. The students, of course, liked used paperbacks. They thought that was great. At some point my neighbor moved away and I took his space. Then there was another business in the back...and when they went away I took that space. So, ultimately, it was about four thousand square feet.

And then my dad [who had come to Chicago to work in the bookstore] went back to Portland in 1971. He opened his shop, moved once into a space of about ten thousand square feet, and had begun to introduce new books into the mix, shelving them side by side with used books. In 1979 he said, "You know, now wouldn't be a bad time if you're interested in coming back." I always thought I would come back. I always thought of myself as an Oregonian, always kept my Oregon driver's license. And I said, "Yeah, I'd like to do that." There had been a huge snowstorm in Chicago that winter; we'd had an infant—she was born in November—and we had to get out of the neighborhood we were in. It wasn't suitable for raising a family, and I'd had it with the weather. So coming back to Oregon sounded great to me.

Well, the night before we left Chicago, my dad called. He said, "I've got some news: We've lost our lease." Our landlord, which was a brewery, had wanted to take the space back and had given us a year to find a new location. So we spent that year searching, and we found the space that is currently Powell's Books. In the mid-eighties, we started opening branch stores. I was always curious about new ways to do things with books; I didn't want just to replicate anything. And one of the questions was if we could do our new-used mix and do it in the suburbs, where everybody's perception was that it would have to be Borders or Barnes & Noble or something.

By that you mean nice carpeting and polished wood, soft lighting—
The whole nine yards. We weren't getting women to our downtown location in the proportions that most people have women as shoppers, perhaps because our area was a little bit edgy.

It was a developing neighborhood?
It was an undeveloped neighborhood—mostly warehouses, wholesalers, and auto repair shops. Kind of funky stuff, but not retail. Not restaurants and bars. Now it's all high-end national and local boutiques, and dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars. It's quite fashionable, I suppose.

In any case, I wanted to see if we could capture a different audience if we opened the store in a suburb, and that went well. And each year for about six years we opened a store. First, we did a travel bookstore downtown in about 1985. Then the Hawthorne District stores in about 1986. Then the cookbook store...somewhere in there we opened a store in the airport, and a technical bookstore. So I was both interested in segmenting books like technical and travel and cooking, and I was also interested in demographics, like urban centers, suburbs, and airports. It sounds like it was planned, but it wasn't. It was just opportunity and impulse. The only one of those that we don't have any longer is the travel store. The Internet took that business away enough to justify not keeping a whole store solely focused on the subject. And the cookbook store sort of morphed into a lifestyle store, with gardening and cooking and interior design. And now we have three stores at the airport.

What did you find with the suburban store that you built to look like Borders or Barnes & Noble?
Well, we were going to build a fairly fancy store in the suburbs—nice white shelving, a tile floor, banners over the aisles, and colors, and so forth and so on. But the aesthetics weren't right. So the first chance we got to get rid of all that, we did.

You shut the whole store down?
We moved it. And when we moved it, we moved it into a larger space. And at that point we went back to wood shelves. Pine wood, cement floor, more of an industrial look. That has always worked for us well downtown. That was my misreading of the 
suburbs—that I had to sort of pretty it up, and I was wrong. We've more recently moved that store into a space double the size—thirty-two thousand square feet. And once again we have a cement floor. In fact, the ceiling has exposed insulation as a sort of architectural touch. It looks very industrial.

Why do you think that works?
People want a calm background for the books. I don't think they need...I think Borders's and Barnes & Noble's message is "Buy the book and get the hell out of here" in some subliminal way. It's too bright, the shelves are low so everybody's watching everybody. You feel very exposed. Our shelves are about twelve feet high. You live in these little alleys, and there's a kind of cozy feel in that that makes it comfortable for customers. And you can sit on the floor, you know, you can spill something on the floor. It's not a big disaster.

You don't have to worry about messing up someone's living room.
No. And the used books look more comfortable in that environment, because they look a little shabbier when they're too exposed. So, that's where we are. In 1994 we went on the Internet with the only inventory we had in the database at that point, which was the technical bookstore. I'd only been up for about a month when I got a letter from England from someone saying, "I was looking for this technical book, and I was told in England it would take six weeks to deliver and would cost me the equivalent of a hundred dollars. So I thought, ‘Well, I'll just check out the Internet and see.' You had the book for forty-five dollars and you could get it to me in three days."

When I read this, I thought, "Holy hell! Here's an opportunity." So we got all our books into a database. We had what we called "the river" and "the lake"—there were all the new books coming every day that had to get entered, but we also had to back enter everything that was currently on the shelves. So it took a year.

Is that lake dried up now?
The lake is now part of the river. And we built up the Internet business to where it was about a fourth of our sales. So we were an early adopter for selling books online. Amazon came along, of course, and blew right past us. But we sell a lot of books via Amazon, and we sell books via eBay and Alibris and AbeBooks in addition to on our own site. We also carry inventories from England and Germany—our books are drop shipped to the customer. We do what we can.

I imagine that most people think of you as being in direct competition with Amazon. But, in fact, you're actually doing a lot of partnership with Amazon?
Well, I don't know. We are in competition at one level, certainly. I'm sure some of our business has turned over to Amazon. But I'm not foolish about it. If there's an opportunity to sell books, I'm going to sell them. Amazon is my opportunity. And we sell some new books there, but mostly used.

So you ship to Amazon and then they repackage and ship them?
No, we package and ship. We can ship in our boxes with our materials inside. So we can brand that shipment. They're good with that. And if somebody just orders a new book from us, we'll usually have a wholesaler fill that order. Ingram or Baker & Taylor drop ship for us in our boxes, so it cuts out shipping to us. That works well. We do the same thing with Gardner Books in England and Lieber in Germany, both wholesalers. And it works. Some of it is hard. It's not easy—a lot of infrastructure crossed with the Internet.

What are some of its particular challenges?
I think everybody, me included, thought the Internet was going to be this miracle way of making money, because for not very much money you could make all these books available around the whole world. Well, people didn't count on all the software writers you need to keep your Web site hot and current, or the editorial work that has to go into maintaining a Web site both in terms of the tracking game and also making it sticky for people to visit and to find value there so that they'll shop with us. Because we don't discount the books, you know. It's a small number—twenty, thirty books—otherwise it's retail. You would think we'd have no business, that people are nuts for ordering books from us.

Because there are cheaper places?
There are cheaper places. And yet, the brand, the interest, whatever...we maintain a good new book sale. I won't say it's growing, but it's steady. There's a lot of price competition in both the used book world and in the new book world. So it's been hard to build that business, but we think we can. We have a lot of people who visit the site but don't stay, and we have to find a way to encourage them to stay. A small percentage of these customers mean a lot to our business. My daughter's working with some consultants to redesign and redeploy our Web strengths. 

The site certainly has a wonderful array of resources—interviews with authors, blogs...
We Tweet; we do everything. We do everything we possibly can with the resources we have. I always say that the people I have working on our Web site are a rounding error for Amazon. Amazon would have thousands of employees dedicated to what I have twenty dedicated to. On the other hand, I have to say we go toe-to-toe with them. They have things we don't have, but we have things they don't have. Sometimes they have them pretty fast after we have them, but we think of ourselves as innovators.

One of these recent innovations is our online buyback. Anyone in the U.S. can go to our Web site, check via a book's ISBN number to see whether or not we want to buy it, and then find out how much we want to pay for it. We'll pay the freight; all you have to do is box it, print out our label and packing list, and ship it in. Once it's received and we've checked the condition, we'll pay you via PayPal, or you can get virtual credit, which you can spend as you will. That has given us a pretty hefty flow of books.

So even after paying shipping costs it's still worthwhile for you to buy these books?

 

Yeah. In order to maintain our inventory, we can't rely only on books bought in Portland. We've always relied on a certain number of books being bought elsewhere in the country, whether they're from store inventories or private collections. Well, that's an expensive way to buy books. You have to fly people there to look at them, then you have to fly people there to box them, and then you have to pay the shipping in. Also, you usually have to take everything, which means you're handling a lot of books you don't want. So the online buyback is great because theoretically we want all those books. And you don't have to go anywhere to get them. And the customer boxes everything up. At the moment, Amazon doesn't do that. There are some people who do, but they're not major players. So that's given us at least a temporary advantage in source of books.

 

I'd like to go back and talk a little bit about the operation of the main store. In addition to the industrial look and feel of the space, another way that Powell's is different from most bookstores is that you mix new and used books on the shelves. Why did you decide to do this?
Well, we started as a used books company. My dad introduced new books in the late seventies, and his mantra was two of everything and three of nothing. So when a local writer like Jean M. Auel published her first book, we had just two copies. Then we bought a bunch of tables from Dalton's, and they asked, "What are you going to put on these tables?" And I said, "Stacks of...something." So that's when we got into the new arrival business.

But now we have about three hundred thousand volumes in the main store, as well as however many in the other stores. It's a substantial part of our business. In dollars, roughly 50 percent of our total business is new books, about 40 percent is used books, and then 10 percent is magazines, cards, and sidelines.

On average, bookstores make about 40 percent on each book they sell. Yet you've managed to nudge that up to nearly 44 percent. Considering that these percentages are before operational expenses, a small difference like this can mean the difference between staying open and going bankrupt. How did you achieve this?
You know, when you're done, you're always plus or minus. Your minus can be a lot, but your plus is hardly ever more than 2 percent after costs. And that's before you make any capital reinvestment. Because we're a larger business, we tend to order in volumes that allow us to get the maximum discount. And we do one other thing: We ship all our books to a central warehouse and then we distribute. I don't know if it's Borders or Barnes & Noble, but whatever the discount those stores got for shipping to a central warehouse, the publishers had to match that for us.

I'm sure that being your own distributor also makes things more efficient.
Yeah. We do all central receiving. Once the books are received, they're labeled and then distributed out to each of the stores. So we have our own truck fleet that runs our books around.

With used books, on the other hand, you've said that your average is closer to 65 percent. Is that also something you've been able to nudge up in similar ways, or is that number static?
We have slowly, over time, pushed that up about five points, either by paying less or controlling inventory better, and by making fewer buying mistakes. In the used-book world the risk is that you're going to buy something that you already have too many copies of, or that sales have evaporated for, or it's a book you had once and never sold. Now computers can tell you all that, so while we don't check every book we buy at the moment we buy it, if there's any doubt about the book we can scan it and see its history, the current inventory level, sales history, and make a judgment based on that. So I think our rate of having to pull things from the shelves has dropped considerably.

What's hurting us at the moment is this move away from people buying new hardbacks. You've probably heard this elsewhere, but in this downturn many people are avoiding a twenty-five-dollar book and moving, in our case, to used books. This has meant that we can try to keep our dollar volume up by boosting the units we're selling, because used books are cheaper, but of course the labor involved doesn't go away.

Or the overhead or the cost of the building.
Right. But the overall dollars have dropped because you're not selling that twenty-five-dollar book. Fewer dollars are coming in. So it's been a challenge. And we've had to do several things in the course of the last year to accommodate that.

Such as?
Well, we had to reduce the number of people working in the company, which we did through not filling positions when people left.

But no one was let go?
No one was let go, no. At one moment we were within two weeks of seriously considering it, but then the numbers looked like they maybe didn't require it, so we backed off. You don't do that casually. You don't turn people loose in this economic environment. I really didn't want to do it, and fortunately we didn't have to. We had twelve months of down business. But [last] September we had our first up month, so that was certainly good news.

What do you think accounted for that?
People are buying more books! I don't know what to say.

Are you a bellwether for the economic recovery?
Well, I hope so. It's not like spending money on cars or houses, but if they're feeling comfortable enough to do that...I mean, listen, they have an alternative. First of all, they can choose not to read. They can go to the library, they can buy fewer books, whatever. But the fact that the customers are back feels great.

Some people have suggested that it's not the fact that Amazon or big-box stores like Walmart and Target are selling books that accounts for many independent stores' losing their footing, but rather it's a lack of readers. Do you feel that's the case?
No, I'm not a subscriber to that. I understand the theory. The theory is that there are only so many hours in the day, and so if you're playing computer games or tweeting or searching the Internet or going to a movie or watching TV, you haven't got time left over for reading. And, yeah, that makes perfectly good sense. Yet we are selling more books. [Last] September we sold more books than we did a year [earlier] by a fairly sensational number. They were cheaper books, but there were more of them.

Long run? I'm not a predictor of the future. I don't know. Will the Kindle and the Sony Reader, or print on demand, or some other phenomenon we haven't thought of yet, erode our business? It's certainly possible. Nothing is forever. And there's no way to say that somebody's new vision of the future won't force us to reshape our vision. But I think as long as we're alert and pay attention and find ways to adapt, then we'll be okay.

Let's talk specifically about electronic books. Do they affect your business?
We sell them. Been doing that for the better part of ten years.

Really?
Yeah. There just weren't very many books and they weren't great and we didn't sell a lot of them, though there have been people trying to do this for a long time. And, you know, it's a small part of our business. But we're positioned to make it a bigger part if that happens.

Now, I want to go back a minute. People always say, "Well, there's this way of doing business and then there's Powell's way of doing business." But I want to point out that I got on the Internet because there was one guy on my staff who came to me and said, "I can put the technical books on the Internet. I need ten thousand dollars to do that." The money wasn't for himself, but for the technology. And I said, "Seems good to me." At the time, Barnes & Noble and Borders were opening stores all around me. My wagons were circled and they attacked from the suburbs, these giant stores. And I thought, "If there's any way to leap over those stores and reach a broader audience, there's nothing better than this thing called the Internet." And I was very enthusiastic. And so for ten thousand dollars—which is a lot of money, I appreciate that—and his time, we got to play. But it's not like somebody handed me ten million dollars and said, "Here, go invest this in the book business." We have built every brick, every stone—every element of the system is a result of organic growth.

In addition to building this business from the ground up, your family has always played an important role in the process. Your father came to Chicago to work in the first store, and now your daughter Emily is involved.
Yes. Emily is going to take over in July.

How long has she been moving into this role?
Probably four years now. She was director of used books for a while, and she worked to get our minds back into the used book world. 

What do you mean?
Well, when the economy started to go bad, we told ourselves that we needed to get more used books on the shelves. That meant changing some of the ways of channeling books to the stores and also boosting the volume. For the last year she's been in charge of the Internet marketing world, with the goal of taking a fairly flat Internet business and seeing it grow. She just finished an executive MBA, and one of the faculty members from her program, along with another fellow he knows, are acting as consultants. So she's been working with them to redirect the energies of staff, reorganize staff, and redesign the Web site, and to do things that make it easier to use, more intuitive. We've always won awards for the content on our site, but I don't think anybody would ever give us an award for the smoothness, or the use of the page. Now we're trying to make it a more intuitive process to use, and that always involves a fair amount of rewrite on software, so you can't do it overnight. But you can do it. So she's been working on that and doing a great job.

Having grown up in a bookstore, she must have a familiarity with this world that few people possess. To say nothing of her commitment, since it's a family business.
There's a great story about Emily. When she was about eight or nine, she and I were doing Christmas cash register work. I would open the book and read the price, and then she would key it in the cash register and make change while I bagged the book. A lady came up who was trying to be nice to Emily and said, "When you grow up, are you going to be a cashier?" And Emily, counting out her change, says, "When I grow up, I'm going to own this place." [Laughter.] And by God, she is.

That was never in my mind, as a given. In this day and age, the world beckons. I just told her, "You'd be a damn fool not to kick the tires that had been good to us. I don't ask or expect you to go in this direction, but I think you'd be foolish not to give it a shot." And out of the blue one day she called from San Francisco and said, "You know, I'm ready to take that shot if you're ready."

Was she in college at the time?
No, she was working in San Francisco. She had a boyfriend down there and she was in a variety of things—she was an apprentice to a maker of wedding cakes, then worked as an assistant to the head of a law firm for a couple years. And, you know, she enjoyed San Francisco very much, but I think that gave her the motivation to say, "Well, I think it's time to try the book business." She had worked here for a year earlier, right out of college, but she needed to really get out and try something else in the world for a while.

How hands on or off will you be once you retire?
Well, I'll tell you a story. I had someone like you come to interview me and he said, "So when you retire, what will you do?" And I said, "Well, you know, I'll probably go out to the warehouse and process books, get them out of boxes. I like doing that." And he laughed. So I said, "What's funny about that? You don't think I can do that?" And he said "No, no. I was out on the floor interviewing one of your employees and I said, ‘What will Michael Powell do when his daughter takes over?' And he said, ‘He'll go over to the warehouse and process books.'" So I guess I'm known for my limited talents.

Somehow I'd like to stay involved. You know, you learn a lot, and business is complex, and you can't know everything and you can't be everywhere. Just walking around you see things and you say, "I wonder why they're doing it that way? That doesn't seem as efficient." Or, "Do they know that people in the other store are doing it differently?" So I think it'll be helpful to have someone with an educated eye watching the business from the inside, to see where those opportunities are. For example, there are several things we're doing by hand that we ought to be doing in a more automated way. At the moment, those are opportunities. You're always working for productivity efficiencies because your costs go up and you've got to keep your costs and revenues in balance. The casual approach we had to the business fifteen years ago just doesn't work. Certainly with the high investment in technology we have and the high investment in inventory, we better be very grounded in what we're doing, and alert.

You came into this neighborhood when it was mostly just car repair shops and warehouses, and now it's become more of a boutique area. Do you think Powell's had a hand in that transition? I imagine that most people must think of you as an anchor in this community.
Well, I think we're an anchor for the city. That may sound immodest, but somebody's got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say "What is there to do in Portland?" If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell's. Because the city's proud of it. You don't even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world. You know, if you've got the biggest ball of string, people think you're kooky. But if you have the biggest bookstore, it says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message. And we try to then earn the respect of the community by not just running a good business, but also being involved in the community. I spend a lot of my time on boards and commissions and planning efforts. I chair the streetcar board. We just created what will now be about eight miles of streetcar. We're the first city in America to put new streetcars back in.

Like old-style trolleys?
No, they're modern-looking streetcars, and they're European built. They're not San Francisco cute; they're modern, sleek streetcars. And we move four million people each year. I've also been involved in dozens and dozens of committees and commissions, some in the arts and some in social services and some in politics. Not partisan politics, but political efforts to do things or to stop things from happening, all aimed at trying to fulfill the vision of a city that is a twenty-four-hour-a-day city, that works, that's attractive and great to do business in, and great to live in. I think people respect the work that we do in that area. People will stop me and say, "I love your store," but sometimes they'll stop me and say, "I love what you do for the community," and they're referring to a broader level of involvement. People ask me if it ever gets tiring, being stopped by people. But I think no; when they stop, that's problematic. That means we're doing something that's not working. I get involved in political things, but they're almost always around censorship or involved with access to books. Oregon has a very strong constitutional defense of books, but we also have the same element of the population that would like to, for a variety of reasons, control that flow. You know: "Don't put gay books in schools, don't let anyone under the age of eighteen be exposed to bad books." But we win those fights.

Still, they usually take a lot of energy and some money, and with the first anti-gay measure in Portland—Proposition 9—businesses were very closely involved. I have gay staff, of course, and friends who are gay, and they challenged me. There was an element of that legislation that involved not letting libraries, specifically school libraries, have gay-related materials. But we just turned the store into a poster board for that issue, and we won it, and we were very proud of that.

So you helped defeat it at the ballot.
Yep. There were two efforts and we won both of those. Not by overwhelming numbers, but we won. If we can define the issue as one of censorship, and they can define the issue as perversity, and you let that go in a challenge, they'll win. But Oregonians don't like censorship, and again I say not by overwhelming numbers, but we do win. And so we get involved in those issues and they seem to come along with certain regularity, every four or five years. Otherwise most of the stuff I get involved in is more planning. I don't get involved in partisan politics as a company. In fact I keep the company very separate from that. Personally I do get involved, but I try to keep it as separate as I possibly can.

As a citizen, not an owner.
Yeah, yeah.

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What do you think people are most surprised to learn about independent bookselling?
I think they're surprised to know how hard it is. I think everybody—or the uneducated person who doesn't know much about the business—thinks that as a bookseller you sit in a store, read books, and when someone comes in you have a nice conversation and then recommend and sell some things to that person. That you have a stock of books you believe in and know intimately. That you wear patches on the elbows of your sport jacket, and there's a cat somewhere in the window, and there's a fire burning in a fireplace, and there's the smell of coffee and all that. That it's a very relaxed and low-key kind of thing. The reality is that it's extremely intense, whether it's a small store or a huge store. You're always pushing the rock up the hill, and it's relentless, and an awful lot of people get ground down by it. That's why you see stores close with the frequency they have. People give five or ten years of their lives and realize it's not going anywhere. And that's hard. It's hard to be in an industry that takes so many casualties and that much stress.

The good news is you still get to work with books. And you get to work with people who really love books, both as customers and as staff. I'm sure people who love hardware love their hardware, but, you know, I wouldn't. There's a high level of gratification. I was trying to calculate how many books I had sold during my life under the Powell's name. I'd like to think it's coming close to a hundred million. You know, in chaos theory there's this idea that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe can create a storm in Africa. Well, what about a hundred million butterfly wings? What has it done? You don't know. People hardly ever tell you, "I read a book and it changed my life." Most books are probably sold for entertainment, some are sold for information, and some are sold for inspiration. Certainly some are sold for all three at the same time. But I say to myself, "Well, at least when you're reading a book it's hard to rob a bank." I like to think that some of those books have had a positive impact on people's lives.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE POWELL'S BOOKS
How many book sales are you processing a day as online orders?
About 2,500. Upward to 3,000. It spikes at Christmas, and it spikes when the school year starts, but otherwise it's fairly steady.

How many books do you have in your warehouse for online sales?
About 380,000 in [the main] warehouse, and then there's about 125,000 in another warehouse.

And how many books do you carry in your stores?
About a million in the flagship store, and probably another six hundred thousand scattered around the other stores. And then we support another two million in Europe. So online we support upward of 4.5 million titles.

How do you determine the price you pay for used books that you buy from online customers? Do you use an algorithm, or is there a person who works on each order?
No, it's an algorithm. We have several million books in our database to match against, so we just take a percent of either the imprint price or the in-store resale price and pay that amount.

Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon

For the second installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Portland, Oregon, to speak with Michael Powell, owner of Powell's Books.

Powell's Books 1

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The "City of Books," as the four-story flagship store in Portland, Oregon, is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. 

Powell's Books 2

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The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. "From the moment you walk in," writes Chamberlin, "it feels as if you could find anything there."

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"People want a calm background for the books," Michael Powell says. "Our shelves are about twelve feet high. You live in these little 
alleys, and there’s a kind of cozy feel in that that makes it comfortable for customers. And you can sit on the floor, you know, you can spill something on the floor. It’s not a big disaster."

Powell's Books 4

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When the newer sections of the store were built more than a decade ago, the concrete floors were left bare because the industrial feel not only complemented the plain, pine bookcases but also added to the laid-back atmosphere. 

Powell's Books 5

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Among the 3,500 sections within the main store, one is devoted to literary journals and books published by small presses.

Powell's Books 6

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"We started as a used books company. My dad introduced new books in the late seventies, and his mantra was two of everything and three of nothing," Michael Powell says. "It's a substantial part of our business. In dollars, roughly 50 percent of our total business is new books, about 40 percent is used books, and then 10 percent is magazines, cards, and sidelines."

Powell's Books 7

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Michael Powell is "endlessly curious about the world, about his employees’ ideas, about what his customers want to read, and about innovative ways to do business," Chamberlin writes.

Powell's Books 8

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The main warehouse, "which feels like an airplaine hangar but with the sound of jazz floating in the air," Chamberlin writes, processes as many as three thousand online orders daily. And 70 percent of those are single-title orders.

Powell's Books 9

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"I think we’re an anchor for the city," Michael Powell says. "That may sound immodest, but somebody’s got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say “What is there to do in Portland?” If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell’s. Because the city’s proud of it. You don’t even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world... It says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message."

An Interview With Poet and Independent Bookseller J. W. Marshall

by
Lisa Albers
6.16.08

For more than twenty years, J. W. Marshall has been recommending poetry to his customers while writing it himself. He and his wife, poet Christine Deavel, own Seattle's Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of only a couple bookstores in the United States devoted exclusively to poetry and a fixture in the city’s literary community.

In March, Oberlin College Press published Marshall’s first full-length collection of poetry, Meaning a Cloud, winner of the 2007 FIELD Poetry Prize. The collection includes poems that previously appeared in the letterpress chapbooks Taken With (2005) and Blue Mouth (2001), both published by Wood Works, an independent press in Seattle, and named finalists for the Washington State Book Award.

The poems in Meaning a Cloud reflect Marshall’s ecumenical knowledge of poetry, a boon to his work as a purveyor of literature in verse. Informed by poetic tradition but shaped by delirious risk-taking, his writing is unabashedly autobiographical, yet stoically refrains from mere confession. Marshall’s poetic gaze into the interior is motivated not by a need to define his own self so much as by a desire to understand all selfhood.

Marshall’s cultivation of poetic presence extends beyond Open Books, as he and his wife cosponsor the Seattle Arts and Lectures poetry series, which brings top-notch poets—Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton, and Edward Hirsch, to name a few—to read in the city’s Intiman Theater, often to a packed house. The couple also participates in poetry festivals and conferences and host readings at their shop, which, they say, pays for itself.

Marshall spoke with Poets & Writers Magazine at Open Books, located in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. While Deavel readied the place to open at noon on an overcast Sunday earlier this month, Marshall described what it's like to take part in both the creation and the dissemination of poetry.

Poets & Writers Magazine: After so many years of supporting the work of poets in a very direct way—by selling their books to readers—you now have a book of your own. How did you transition from bookseller to poet?

J. W. Marshall: Is it easy? No, it's not. The one thing I'm very aware of is book sales, and so I get to look to see if Ingram is stocking my book, how many copies, and has anybody bought it. It's a curse. You know, it isn't a transition; in a way, it's just two different worlds. They have this intersection. I'm glad to have the bookstore because it keeps my mind off my own book.

P&W: How so?

JWM: I come here, and I'm trying to sell books to people. I'm not trying to sell my book to people because that would get old pretty quickly, and you don't want to bore folks with credit cards in their hands.

P&W: Did you learn things in the process of being a bookseller that you're using now as an author yourself?

JWM: Oh, sure. There are connections I have through the bookstore that I very gently tug on to see if I can get readings or offer the book to people who've written reviews. I certainly do that. The thing that I've done that may be the most worthwhile, honestly [has to do with] Oberlin Press—God bless them; they've been very good to work with. David Young is a terrific guy, Linda in the office too. I like them a lot. But they offered their books at a 30 percent discount when the industry standard is 40 or better, and, through Ingram, they offered them at only a 10 percent discount. While I like my book, I was kind of heartbroken thinking that bookstores are not going to order it at 10 percent. So I politicked with them for months. Now [Oberlin has] changed. With next season, they will hit the standard 40.

P&W: It sounds like you reasoned with them on the basis of understanding the business.

JWM: It was the dreaded confluence of bookseller and author. Watch out, publishers! That's an ugly one.

P&W: What has changed for you with the publication of Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It's changed my writing, I think, because now I know what it looks like in a book. The chapbooks were one thing, and those helped a lot, but to see it in a book that has some national distribution makes it seem more real somehow, less ethereal. It actually stopped me from writing for about two months. I try to write every day and was doing a pretty good job of that for years, and once the book came out, I don't know; I guess there was this shadow cast over the typewriter. I couldn't quite get there.

P&W: I've heard other people talk about that same phenomenon.

JWM: Yes, and you know, I have a counseling degree, and I can't psychologize it. It's post-partum something.

P&W: The first section, "Blue Mouth," is about an accident you had that landed you in the hospital. I'm guessing that happened quite a while ago.

JWM: 1972.

P&W: The third section, "Taken With," is about your mother's death. More recent?

JWM: Right.

P&W: You and your mother inhabit parallel worlds during your time in the hospital and her time in a care facility, and the juxtaposition is remarkable, to have the poems bookended in that way. The two sections, beginning and end, had previous lives as chapbooks. What was your process for writing them in the first place for the chapbooks and then bringing them together for this collection?

JWM: In neither case were they written to be chapbooks. The hospital poems were published in 2001, and some of those were written in about 1984. It's just a matter of writing a lot and then pawing back through and saying, “This goes with this.” I give credit to Paul Hunter, who was the publisher of both chapbooks, because he heard a reading and wanted to publish—there's a prose poem in the hospital series, "The Nightshift Nurse Brought Her Shoes to Work in a Paper Bag"—he wanted to do that as a broadside. I said, “Of course.” He knew I had other hospital poems he'd heard at readings, and he said he wanted to see a manuscript, so I put one together for him. He gave me an idea about narrative arc; he gets good credit for that. The mom poems just came; she was in a nursing home, and I would visit once a week or more often, and it would spill over into the daily writing. After she died, at one point I just took two years' worth of pieces of paper and pulled out everything that related to her, and tried to find another chapbook because I thought Paul would publish it.

P&W: The middle section, “Where Else,” is a cogent bridge between those two. The beginning and ending sections deal with inner battles, very personal battles, and then the one in the middle seems to contain echoes of the outside world at battle. In your poems, war filters in through the radio and news or manifests itself in a dream you're having. Did you write “Where Else” later than the other two sections? How did the poems in that section come together?

JWM: Because I'm writing every day, some things just speak more loudly and ask to be followed up on. It's probably true for some books that people actually sit down to write them with a set idea in mind. Unless it's a verse novel or something, that's not how I would write. But you're right on it; those other two sections are internal, and I didn't want to be just internal—I wanted to be part of the public. I wanted a voice that was with and among, not so interior.

P&W: When you're writing daily, are you writing full poems, do you keep a journal, or do you just write whatever comes?

JWM: Whatever comes. More and more, the important part is, whatever's in should come out. I don't want to write the same poem. I could give all these other people's descriptions, which is kind of cheating I guess. Mary Ruefle at Seattle Arts and Lectures said that she used to think writing was about speaking, and then she realized it is about listening. In a way, I'm up for that. I have language going in my head all the time, so I sit at the typewriter and press the keys.

P&W: It sounds like you weren't necessarily seeking publication as much as publication sought you.

JWM: I sent to magazines for twenty years. The great thing about the Oberlin is, they publish FIELD magazine, and it's a magazine I have liked a great deal since I started taking poetry seriously—that would be about 1980. I used to keep little index cards of submissions and rejections, and before I got into FIELD, I had been rejected by them for almost twenty years. Then they took one, they took three, they took another, so I thought, well, I should enter the contest. I'd been trying to get published before, just not rabidly. I was daintily trying to get published.

P&W: How did you get from chapbooks to Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It was [Oberlin's] competition, and it was Alice James, another good publisher. I'd put the two chapbooks together, with nothing in the middle, and sent that in for the FIELD prize four years ago. I got a nice e-mail back from David Young saying, “You're a high finalist,” and that was very encouraging because it was the first time I'd entered a contest. I entered Alice James, and I was a finalist there. In each case, I felt a little guilty because they'd already been chapbooks. I had other work I liked, so I put it in the middle and tried Alice James again but didn't get anything. Then I tried FIELD again and got it.

P&W: You said you have a degree in counseling—do you have formal training as a poet?

JWM: I have a BA and an MFA in poetry.

P&W: From the University of Washington?

JWM: The BA was here. The MFA is from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I came back and got a degree in rehab therapy at Seattle University, which was the best education of them all. They were tough. Creative writing programs are not.

P&W: They're tough in a different way.

JWM: Yes. Right. Socially. [Laughs.] At the UW, the person who got me to really love poetry was Nelson Bentley. Two times a week, he'd encourage us to write a formal poem. He'd say, “Write a villanelle; write a sestina.” As an impressionable, somewhat young person, I tried that, and I liked it a lot. I still look for some kind of iambic progression. I want to bust it up, but I want to know it's there.

P&W: How would you compare those formal experiences with the informal experiences you've had since you've been able to read a lot of poetry and support poetry over the years?

JWM: That's the best education, the bookstore and the customers and the books. I went through school just like everybody else, attending the classes but also attending to my fellow students and my ego and all of that stuff. Reading is by far the best education. We have some great customers who come in and say wonderfully profound, off-the-cuff things that make me look at other writers who I've never looked at. I was just reading an interview with Nathaniel Tarn, and he was talking about Language poetry and how he saw Language poetry against the “workshop” poem and the lyric and talked about people who are doing both. As I'm sure you know, [poetry] is a fairly balkanized art, probably all arts are. What's good about the bookstore is we can't be balkanized or we wouldn't be in business. We each read fairly widely and think widely and don't get into one school or another. That I hope comes through in the writing.

P&W: It does. Even though you're writing daily and you're running the bookstore, you have time to read books of poetry as well?

JWM: You have to in order to sell them. Much less reading just for pleasure: People want to know, “Is this like his first book?” “How is she compared to so-and-so?” If I don't know, then they might as well go to any of our major competitors. We'd rather they didn't.

P&W: That gets me to the next question, too, because you're not just running the shop; you're also supporting poetry in other ways. You've been involved with the Seattle Arts and Lecture series and the local poetry festival. Yours sounds like a dream job to many people, but especially for a poet. Is it all silver lining, or are there any clouds?

JWM: It's retail. There are clouds. This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I was just having a discussion with a wonderful customer, a great guy who was throwing flowers everywhere, telling us what great things we do for the poetry community, and I said, “You know, I'm a clerk. I could be at Les Schwab selling you tires.” There's a hint of that that's true. The Seattle Arts and Lectures work is great for us, but it's economically great for us. While that's supporting the community, it's supporting the bookstore. Anything that supports the bookstore to some degree supports the community. At least it means that people can come here and find a relatively obscure book and find people willing to talk about aspects of poetry when it's difficult to find people who will do that outside the academy, or even inside the academy in some cases.

P&W: Does that ever feel like a drag, the retail aspect: selling, staying profitable?

JWM: Once in a while. In a slow month. There needs to be income. There are clouds to the silver lining. But the silver lining: It's lovely to be surrounded by poetry. And to have the customers who come in have an interest in poetry. That's a godsend.

P&W: How do you choose the inventory?

JWM: That comes from two directions. If we have some knowledge about the writer. Some publishers we trust introduce people to us. We listen to our customers. I guess it's just attentiveness. We're open to failure. On the other hand, we've been in the bookselling business for more than twenty years, and there's a learning curve. We've definitely learned some things.

P&W: Which poets have had the most influence on your own work?

JWM: Because of his love of poetry more than for his own poetry, Nelson Bentley. Bill Knott, and again, partially out of his poetry, which is just wild and liberating in its wildness, and he, too, was a teacher. He at one point asked me in a conference, “So what?” about a poem. That was devastating and was a great question. It's a great question for all art. I'm afraid a lot of art doesn't pass that question, not that there's an answer you could know in advance. Bill was quite important. Then there are people I read, like Dickinson. Early James Tate. White guy American poets in the seventies and eighties.

P&W: What's next for the poet J. W. Marshall?

JWM: I get to do readings in Michigan and Ohio in the fall. I'm still writing every day and liking some of the things I'm writing, and now, I fantasize about a second book. At the rate that I'm liking what I write, it will be a ways off.

Indie Bookstores Face Uphill Battle

by
Kevin Smokler
11.1.06

When fiction writer Barry Eisler heard last summer that Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, California, would close after fifty years in business, his first reaction was a loud expletive. His second was an e-mail to owner Clark Kepler with an offer to help. "I used to see those big author photos in the window…and I was working on what would become my first novel," says Eisler, the author of the Jain Rain series of thrillers. "My fantasies of literary success were all based on doing book signings at Kepler's."

Eisler was part of a cadre of Bay Area authors who offered to give benefit readings and drive as much business as they could to the bookstore. Their efforts, combined with an alarmed customer base and a group of Silicon Valley investors, helped Kepler's reopen to cheering crowds last October.

Kepler, whose father Roy founded the store in the spring of 1955, expressed both delight and gratitude for the community's generosity, but warned that Kepler's future was far from secure. "I think we were like frogs in hot water," he says. "The old way of buying books, putting them on shelves, and waiting for someone to come in isn't working anymore."

What will? Faced with increased overhead, diversified retail competition, and a dwindling reading population, venerable booksellers once thought invincible are changing locations (Denver's Tattered Cover), downsizing (Cody's in Berkeley, California, which was sold in September to Yohan Inc., a book distributor based in Tokyo), or closing altogether (San Francisco's A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books). And while the American Booksellers Association (ABA) reports that its membership has held steady over the last few years, dramatic rescues like those of Kepler's and Brazos Books in Houston, which owner Karl Kilian sold to a group of community investors in March, are becoming increasingly visible.

"When you run an independent bookstore, someone inevitably starts a conversation: 'How do you compete? How do you stay in business?' As if things weren't bad enough with the chains, now you've got Amazon," says Kilian from his new post as director of programs for the Menil Collection, a Houston art museum. Several years ago Kilian wrote a letter to friends and patrons of Brazos warning that the store might be in trouble. Rick Bass, Richard Ford, Susan Sontag, and other authors each wrote back with an offer to give benefit readings. While it turned out not to be necessary, Kilian says that Brazos's reputation for first-rate author events was a significant part of what made the store's potential closing "a loss the community would not tolerate."

One of the less fortunate independent bookstores was Bristol Books in Wilmington, North Carolina, which hosted many readings by students attending the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill. Bristol Books closed last year after fifteen years in business. A rescue effort, says manager Nicki Leone, was neither possible nor practical.

"I think what happened to Kepler's Books is great, but has it proved its case yet? Is it a working business model?" asks Leone. That question weighs heavily on the owners of bookstores who have been given a second chance. Jane Moser, who ran a successful children's bookshop in Houston in the 1980s, was recently hired as the manager of Brazos Books. She says she plans on expanding the store's hours, increasing its children's book and cookbook sections, and improving its online presence, as well as deepening the store's relationship with schools, universities, and area corporations. "Brazos was already an institution," says Moser. "But times change. You can always do more."

The seventy-nine-year-old Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of the two remaining all-poetry bookstores in the United States. In April poet and Wellesley College professor Ifeanyi Menkiti bought the store when its previous owner fell ill. Knowing that his teaching job both enabled the purchase of the store and prevented him from working there full-time, Menkiti hired a manager and declared that Grolier could not remain economically viable based solely on its reputation.

"It's a wonderful little place, filled with great conversation, tradition," Menkiti says. "Our goal is to move that cultural vision forward but still pay our bills and keep books on the shelves. Then the enterprise will have been worthwhile."

Before closure looms, booksellers say, writers can help. Hut Landon, the executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, recommends that authors include links to Booksense.com, the e-commerce arm of the ABA's Book Sense program, on their Web sites. Kepler adds that authors can underscore the difference independent bookstores have played in their success when they give lectures and readings. Tracy Wynne, the owner of Cover to Cover Books in San Francisco, which was saved from closure by community activism and author donations in 2003, reports that many local children's authors now use only Cover to Cover as their bookseller for events and school visits.

Just as authors can no longer publish and then wait for the sales to roll in, more and more booksellers have begun actively finding readers instead of waiting for readers to show up. "If the question is, 'Can independent bookstores survive?' part of the answer has to speak to finances," says Dave Weich, director of marketing and development for the thirty-five-year-old Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. "We have to deliver more value than an ethical shopping experience and a community gathering place.… That might mean reaching out to local businesses or working closely with regional schools and authors."

"You have to be really scrappy," Weich says. "It is all about being proactive."

Kevin Smokler is the editor of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books, 2005). He lives in San Francisco.

Faced with increased overhead, diversified retail competition, and a dwindling reading population, venerable booksellers once thought invincible are changing locations, downsizing, or closing altogether.

NJIT Grads Launch Bookswim: Think Netflix Without the Flix

5.25.07

George Burke and Shamoon Siddiqui recently launched Bookswim, an online operation that allows readers to rent books much the same way Netflix allows people to rent movies. The two graduates of the New Jersey Institute of Technology posted a beta version of the Web site at www.bookswim.com.

Readers can choose from five rental plans that range in cost from twenty-four to thirty-six dollars per month. Once an account is set up, a customer can choose books from more than two dozen categories and place them in a queue. Bookswim then sends three to eleven books, depending on the chosen plan, to the reader, who can keep them indefinitely. When the customer is ready, books can be returned in a prepaid envelope and the next titles in the queue are mailed.

The new venture comes at a time when independent bookstores are struggling, Bertelsmann is cutting jobs at Bookspan, and voters in Oregon are choosing to shut down libraries. "Could the price of books possibly have gotten any more expensive?" Burke and Siddiqui ask on Bookswim's Web site. "During any given week, the average bestseller lists for more than $20. Read three of these in a month and you're spending over $60! What you're paying for is the right to own the book…but is ownership what you really want?"

Bookswim members can review the books they rent and even rate them on a five-star scale. The "best rental" is currently The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult.

 

So Much Depends Upon a New Bookstore: Postcard From Paris

by
Ethan Gilsdorf
11.2.01

On the evening of October 29, more than seventy-five people crammed into The Red Wheelbarrow, a newly opened Anglophone bookshop, to inaugurate a reading series and celebrate two literary magazines: Upstairs at Duroc, published at the Anglo cultural center WICE, and Pharos, edited collectively by poet Alice Notley's workshop at the British Institute in Paris. The enthusiastic crowd spilled onto the cobblestone street, smoking cigarettes and craning their necks for a view of the proceedings.

The reading series, "A Blue Monday," featured sturdy and in some cases spectacular readings by six writers-some Paris fixtures, others new to the scene, and all relatively unknown outside of the literary expat community. Highlights included Laure Millet's "The Crying Bowler," a side-splitting short story about suburban family disorder, and Amy Hollowel's poems about September 11, which she prefaced by saying that "a poet's voice is more essential now than ever before." Srikanth Reddy, a fresh arrival in Paris thanks to Harvard's Whiting Fellowship, read his poem "Corruption (II)," which features the following lines:

"Lately I have found some comfort in words like here. Here was a chapel for instance. Here is a footprint filling with rain. Here might be enough."

An international crowd of English-language lovers, including students and professors from the Paris VII university across the street, had found its own "here," a place to call home, at least for the evening. "The Red Wheelbarrow is my act against globalism, my anti-matrix," said Penelope Fletcher Le Masson, the bookstore's Canadian proprietor. "Bookstores will become shrines." She expects her new venture to complement the existing competition. After two months in business, The Red Wheelbarrow has found its niche among Paris's half-dozen Anglo bookshops-not as high-brow as The Village Voice, and less bohemian than Shakespeare and Company.

Later, at a nearby wine bar, a post-reading gathering brought together six writers, one teacher, a dancer, two artists, and four magazine editors. A zealous activist named Mark Feurst peddled his new anti-war rag The First Amendment. A sighting of the just-released Frank magazine was rumored, and two representatives from Kilometer Zero-after huddling at a private table to plan their Paris-based art and literary center-promised a new issue by the end of November. Their "KMZ Venue," a series of six Sunday night variety shows in a bistro basement, kicks off November 4.

"The whole [Blue Monday] event was a confirmation that a bookstore makes itself," Le Masson said the next day. "People are thirsty to hear what people have written. I especially welcome unknown writers to read, even if they don't have books to sell." Upcoming readings at The Red Wheelbarrow include British novelist Rupert Morgan, American poet Kathleen Spivak and, Le Masson hopes, Canadian-Parisian Nancy Huston.

Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

by
Jeremiah Chamberlin
1.1.10

This is the inaugural installment of Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience. Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished their jobs, it's up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the hands of readers. News of another landmark bookstore closing its doors has become all too common, so now is the perfect time to shine a brighter light on the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Post a comment below to share your thoughts about a favorite indie bookstore.

The first thing customers notice when they enter Square Books—apart from the customary shelves and tables overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks—is the signed author photographs. There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the photos are black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and others. Many have that spare yet beautiful quality of something Eudora Welty might have taken. Collectively, they comprise an archeological record of this place's luminous history—all the authors have passed through these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

Richard Howorth, the store's owner, would modestly deny having had a hand in any of the number of literary careers that have sprung from the fertile soil in this part of the country, but the honest truth is that Square Books has served as a nurturing place for writers—as a "sanctuary," to borrow a word from William Faulkner, another Oxford 
native—for more than thirty years now. He and his wife, Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building. Since then, they've opened two other shops: in 1993, Off Square Books, which specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program; and, in 2003, Square Books, Jr., a children's bookstore. Howorth also helped establish the Oxford Conference for the Book, which brings together writers, editors, and other representatives from the publishing world each spring for public readings, roundtables, and panel discussions on writing and literacy. This year, as part of the seventeenth annual event, the conference will celebrate the legacy of Barry Hannah.

I made my first literary pilgrimage to Oxford nearly a decade ago. At the time, I was running Canterbury Booksellers, a small independent bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin. Invariably, whenever authors visited our store, one of the topics we'd end up discussing was where they were headed next or where they'd just been. Square Books was always mentioned as a place they one day hoped to go, were looking forward to going, or couldn't wait to get back to. Partly this has to do with its lineage, for few places can claim to have hosted readings for such varied and important authors as Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, and others. And partly it has to do with the Howorths themselves, who, despite the cliché about Southern hospitality, make all authors feel as if they were the first to visit the store.

This was certainly the case for me. Even though I wasn't reading, and even though I hadn't been back to town in almost ten years, I was welcomed with enormous generosity when I arrived. For two days I was given the grand tour, including a dinner with local writers at the Howorths' house, a walk through Faulkner's home, a trip to the Ole Miss campus to see the bronze statue of James Meredith under a marble archway in which the word courage is carved into the stone, as well as an oral history of what took place in Oxford during the Civil War as we drove through the shady neighborhoods of town.

No person could have been a better guide to the literary and historical roots of Oxford. Howorth grew up across the street from Faulkner's home (in the house where the bookseller's father, a retired doctor, still lives). Faulkner's sister-in-law used to chase Richard and his brothers off the property for pestering her cow and causing mischief. All the Howorth brothers still reside in town—one a judge, one a retired lawyer, one an architect, and one a retired admissions director at the University of Mississippi. In addition to his thirty years as a local bookseller, Richard, the middle brother, also just finished his second term as mayor of Oxford.

It was with this same generosity of spirit that Howorth agreed to talk with me at Square Books one afternoon. We sat upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. I chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections. Howorth commandeered the espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing us our drinks himself. He is a man quick to laugh, and despite having spent the past three decades as a bookseller and the last eight years in public office, seems largely optimistic about the world. Or, rather, has learned to appreciate life's quirks, mysteries, and small pleasures.

How did you come to bookselling?
Deliberately. I wanted to open a bookstore in my hometown, so I sought work in a bookstore in order to learn the business and see whether it was something that I would enjoy doing, and would be capable of doing.

The apprentice model.
Yes. Lisa and I both worked in the Savile Bookshop, in Georgetown, for two years. In the fifties and sixties it was a Washington institution. It was a great old store. The founder died about ten years before we arrived. It had been through a series of owners and managers, and by the time we were working there it was on its last leg. It was also at the time that Crown Books was first opening in the Washington suburbs—it was the first sort of chain deep-discounter. The Savile had this reputation as a great store, but it was obviously slipping. We were on credit hold all over the place. So it ended up being a great learning experience.

Then you came back here with the intention of opening Square Books?
Sure. We opened the first store in the upstairs, over what was, I think, the shoe department of Neilson's Department Store. Back then the town square was so much different from what it is today, and commerce was not so terribly vital. It was certainly viable, but the businesses didn't turn over very much because the families that owned the businesses usually owned the buildings. Old Mr. Denton at his furniture store didn't care if he sold a stick of furniture all day; it was just what he did, run his store. So when I came home I knew I wanted to be on the square, and I just couldn't find a place. My aunt owned the building where Neilson's had a long-term lease on the ground floor, but there were three offices upstairs—rented to an insurance agent, a lawyer, and a real estate agent who were paying forty dollars, thirty dollars, and thirty dollars a month, respectively, for a total of a hundred dollars. So my initial rent was a hundred dollars a month.

Did you have a particular vision for this store from the beginning, or did it change over time?
The initial vision is still very much what the store is today. I wanted it to serve the community. Because of Mississippi's distinct history and character, as well as social disruptions, the state—and Oxford, in particular, due to the desegregation of the university in 1962, when there was a riot and two people were killed—was regarded as a place of hatred and bigotry. And I knew that this community was not that. I knew that there were a lot of other people here who viewed the world the same way my family did, and my instinct was that people would support the store not just because they wanted to buy books or wanted a bookstore here, but because they knew—not to overstate it—that a bookstore would send a message. That we're not all illiterate, we're not all...it said something about both the economic and cultural health of the community.

Has that happened?
The university, for instance, has made a lot of progress—there's now a statue of James Meredith; there's now an institute for racial reconciliation at the university. And most young people today know what the civil rights movement was, but they don't know the specific events and how tense and dramatic and difficult all of that was at that time.

You grew up in the midst of that.
Correct. I was thirteen when Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who's spent most of his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?
My view of the community is essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would say, I really appreciate all the people who work for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that's because this is Faulkner country—his house is here, and his grave is here, and so on—but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last several decades?
You know, it's a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark Young was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young. And primarily because of the presence of the university, there's always been something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner's major work dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn't quite do that with Oak Park. It wasn't a little native postage stamp of soil. And in Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently, Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store. He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of] Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He was hired by Harper's Magazine to be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in chief. And while at Harper's, he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism. He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" [originally titled "Steps of the Pentagon"], the longest magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a book called North Toward Home, which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the South 'cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or quit Harper's, depending on the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation, believing that he wouldn't accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner's niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the bookstore. He said, "Richard, I'm going to bring all these writers, all my friends. I'm going to bring them down here and they're going to do book signings at your store and we're going to have a great time."

The summer I came back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from Vicksburg; he'd been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South's being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen pregnancy and all the things we're still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October 1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore. So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not a book-signing tour. They didn't go to bookstores. We weren't by any means the first store to do this, but there weren't many who were doing this at the same time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that's kind of how the circuit business got started.

Then Barry Hannah moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing style particularly contrasted with Willie's. Because Willie, he was kind of a journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American letters at that point. There would've been kind of a rivalry with any writer, any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with Faulkner's ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile period in the community's literary history.

So that convergence of events helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.
Right, right. And then, you know, Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the whole time too?
No, he'd been living in north Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That's when John said, "Wow, I'm gonna do something with this."

And now he endows a great fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.
Correct. And he did that because he wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers, I once heard that when Larry Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he should read.
Nah.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and then they're off for forty-eight hours. And then they're back on for twenty-four and they're off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs. They're usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he'd always been a pretty big reader. Larry's mother, especially, was a really big reader of romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction especially. He would read Harper's and Esquire. Larry was a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group, who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on, he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started talking and, you know, I didn't give him a reading list and say, "Read these ten books and that'll make you a writer." Larry was already reading Raymond Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke out. Flannery O'Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would've gotten out of the jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories published and then he kind of couldn't get anything else published. He kept sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me one day—and, you know, I hadn't read anything he'd written, hadn't asked to; I don't go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, "I don't know what else to do. I'm sorry I'm calling you, I don't mean to bother you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything's coming back." I said, "Larry, I'd be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I'm no editor or agent or anything, but I'd be willing to read them."

So he came over with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just started reading. The first story was "Facing the Music." You know, I read maybe four pages and I said, "Larry, this is an incredible story. You're not doing anything wrong." And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine. Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told him, "This is going to be published. I don't know when, I don't know where, just don't despair." Actually I was looking the other day at a note he'd sent me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I don't remember what that was. I may have said, "You might move this sentence from here to here," or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him to keep the faith.
Exactly. Also, I suggested he contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who'd published his first serious publication, a story called "The Rich." I said, "What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the Mississippi Review?" And he said, "No, ‘cause they've already published me."

That's a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these people whose work I deeply admire. They share something...an intimacy with place perhaps?
It often gets explained in phrases like that, but I think that for the moderns...well, Faulkner was a genius. But I think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was one. So I think it's tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There's also the whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

Do you see any collective project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say, the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?
No, but I think there are always different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like right now?
I think Southerners are mostly concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we're talking about contemporary southern writers, let's discuss the Conference of the Book. How did that start?
The Faulkner conference is held every summer. I think it started in 1974. It's always drawn a crowd—people come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would come in the store and say, "I heard about that Faulkner conference and I'd love to come back here and go to that, but I don't think I want to do Faulkner for a whole week." These are people who aren't necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars, but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA [BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which typically were not available to the public. And I thought, "What if we had a conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a more general thing about books?"

So I talked to Ann Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann, who's been a good friend for a long time, "I've got this idea. Instead of just having the Faulkner conference, why don't we do another kind of literary conference? We can just talk about books and what's going on with The Book and how it's doing today. We'll invite editors and agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public." And Ann said, "Yeah, maybe soon." Then, after about three or four years, she said, "Let's do this book conference thing." And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on Southern writers?
No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this conference five years from now? Ten years from now?
In an ideal world it would have a larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that article in the New Yorker about the Kindle. You know, that's a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture, perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all the different intersections, not just publishing.
Right. Everything that's going on that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating table and cut into it and see what's going on.

With developments like the Kindle and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay relevant in the twenty-first century?
I think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments, which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than the way we've historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New Yorker article, digital transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive development.

But the question we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long? And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There's also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it's a perfect invention. I don't care what series number of Kindle you're on, it is never going to be better than this. [Holds up a book.] I don't see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can coexist is what I'm saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe, irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will change bookselling. Because there won't be as many of these [books], and therefore the cost will go up.

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So what is the future for independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become nonprofit entities?
I don't know. I hope not, though. It's a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it's a difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your success?
I don't really think of it in terms of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want. If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are succeeding doing right?
Well, I think a lot of it has to do with adaptation. The business's ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and, in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened, there've always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision of a community place.
Yeah, except that I learned fairly early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can't just be an all-purpose community center; you've got to make it conform to the mission of selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a little kind of a music radio show that wasn't really working at one of the local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them that I'd done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn't going to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, "Maybe if we did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be something." And that's how that got started.

It's been good for our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it's broadcast on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We've had a lot of writers come up there and just tell stories. It's performed, recorded, and broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they rebroadcast the show.

It's often really great. And a lot of times we have musicians who've written books come on the show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show. There's almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn't have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you've finished your two terms as mayor, you're returning to the bookstore full time again. What are you most looking forward to? What did you most miss?
I just missed being here. I missed being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what's come in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out, being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I'm gonna be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I'm doing now is really kind of returning to my roots. I'm just going to be on the floor. I'm not going to resume buying; I'm not going to be doing all the business stuff; I'm not going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the books.
Yeah. There may come a point when I want to do something else. I don't know. But that's the plan now.

Where would you like to see the store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?
No. But returning to that whole future of books conversation, one of the things that I should've added has to do with what's happened at Square Books, Jr. We're selling more children's books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens...if you go in there and hang around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE SQUARE BOOKS
What were your best-selling books in 2009?

John Grisham signs books for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller. Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham's The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in Mississippi.

What books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?
Lark and Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn't have to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his recommendation because he'd written in big letters, "It's great! I'm serious! Just buy it!" It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to see Strunk and White.

Any books you're particularly excited about in 2010?
I'm excited about Jim Harrison's new book, The Farmer's Daughter; that big, wonderful new novel The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our store; and Brad Watson's new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has one of the best stories I've read in years, "Vacuum."

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

For the first installment of our new series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Oxford, Mississippi, to interview Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books. For the past thirty years, the independent bookstore has been a cornerstone of Oxford's literary community. 

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Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.

 

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The first thing customers notice when they enter Square Books is the signed author photographs. There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling.

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The names of sections, grouped by topic, are painted on the stairs leading to the second floor of the stoor.

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Most of the photos are black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and others. Collectively, they comprise an archaeological record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

 

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Jeremiah Chamberlin sat with Richard Howorth upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. "I chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections," Chamberlin writes. "Howorth commandeered the espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing us our drinks himself."

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A bronze statue of Oxford native William Faulkner in front of the city hall, which is located near Square Books.

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In addition to Square Books, Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, have opened two other shops: Off Square Books, which specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program, in 1993; and, in 2003, Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore.

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"To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe, irreplaceable," Howorth says.

 

Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

by
Jeremiah Chamberlin
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This is the inaugural installment of Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience. Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished their jobs, it's up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the hands of readers. News of another landmark bookstore closing its doors has become all too common, so now is the perfect time to shine a brighter light on the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Post a comment below to share your thoughts about a favorite indie bookstore.

The first thing customers notice when they enter Square Books—apart from the customary shelves and tables overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks—is the signed author photographs. There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the photos are black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and others. Many have that spare yet beautiful quality of something Eudora Welty might have taken. Collectively, they comprise an archeological record of this place's luminous history—all the authors have passed through these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

Richard Howorth, the store's owner, would modestly deny having had a hand in any of the number of literary careers that have sprung from the fertile soil in this part of the country, but the honest truth is that Square Books has served as a nurturing place for writers—as a "sanctuary," to borrow a word from William Faulkner, another Oxford 
native—for more than thirty years now. He and his wife, Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building. Since then, they've opened two other shops: in 1993, Off Square Books, which specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program; and, in 2003, Square Books, Jr., a children's bookstore. Howorth also helped establish the Oxford Conference for the Book, which brings together writers, editors, and other representatives from the publishing world each spring for public readings, roundtables, and panel discussions on writing and literacy. This year, as part of the seventeenth annual event, the conference will celebrate the legacy of Barry Hannah.

I made my first literary pilgrimage to Oxford nearly a decade ago. At the time, I was running Canterbury Booksellers, a small independent bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin. Invariably, whenever authors visited our store, one of the topics we'd end up discussing was where they were headed next or where they'd just been. Square Books was always mentioned as a place they one day hoped to go, were looking forward to going, or couldn't wait to get back to. Partly this has to do with its lineage, for few places can claim to have hosted readings for such varied and important authors as Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, and others. And partly it has to do with the Howorths themselves, who, despite the cliché about Southern hospitality, make all authors feel as if they were the first to visit the store.

This was certainly the case for me. Even though I wasn't reading, and even though I hadn't been back to town in almost ten years, I was welcomed with enormous generosity when I arrived. For two days I was given the grand tour, including a dinner with local writers at the Howorths' house, a walk through Faulkner's home, a trip to the Ole Miss campus to see the bronze statue of James Meredith under a marble archway in which the word courage is carved into the stone, as well as an oral history of what took place in Oxford during the Civil War as we drove through the shady neighborhoods of town.

No person could have been a better guide to the literary and historical roots of Oxford. Howorth grew up across the street from Faulkner's home (in the house where the bookseller's father, a retired doctor, still lives). Faulkner's sister-in-law used to chase Richard and his brothers off the property for pestering her cow and causing mischief. All the Howorth brothers still reside in town—one a judge, one a retired lawyer, one an architect, and one a retired admissions director at the University of Mississippi. In addition to his thirty years as a local bookseller, Richard, the middle brother, also just finished his second term as mayor of Oxford.

It was with this same generosity of spirit that Howorth agreed to talk with me at Square Books one afternoon. We sat upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. I chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections. Howorth commandeered the espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing us our drinks himself. He is a man quick to laugh, and despite having spent the past three decades as a bookseller and the last eight years in public office, seems largely optimistic about the world. Or, rather, has learned to appreciate life's quirks, mysteries, and small pleasures.

How did you come to bookselling?
Deliberately. I wanted to open a bookstore in my hometown, so I sought work in a bookstore in order to learn the business and see whether it was something that I would enjoy doing, and would be capable of doing.

The apprentice model.
Yes. Lisa and I both worked in the Savile Bookshop, in Georgetown, for two years. In the fifties and sixties it was a Washington institution. It was a great old store. The founder died about ten years before we arrived. It had been through a series of owners and managers, and by the time we were working there it was on its last leg. It was also at the time that Crown Books was first opening in the Washington suburbs—it was the first sort of chain deep-discounter. The Savile had this reputation as a great store, but it was obviously slipping. We were on credit hold all over the place. So it ended up being a great learning experience.

Then you came back here with the intention of opening Square Books?
Sure. We opened the first store in the upstairs, over what was, I think, the shoe department of Neilson's Department Store. Back then the town square was so much different from what it is today, and commerce was not so terribly vital. It was certainly viable, but the businesses didn't turn over very much because the families that owned the businesses usually owned the buildings. Old Mr. Denton at his furniture store didn't care if he sold a stick of furniture all day; it was just what he did, run his store. So when I came home I knew I wanted to be on the square, and I just couldn't find a place. My aunt owned the building where Neilson's had a long-term lease on the ground floor, but there were three offices upstairs—rented to an insurance agent, a lawyer, and a real estate agent who were paying forty dollars, thirty dollars, and thirty dollars a month, respectively, for a total of a hundred dollars. So my initial rent was a hundred dollars a month.

Did you have a particular vision for this store from the beginning, or did it change over time?
The initial vision is still very much what the store is today. I wanted it to serve the community. Because of Mississippi's distinct history and character, as well as social disruptions, the state—and Oxford, in particular, due to the desegregation of the university in 1962, when there was a riot and two people were killed—was regarded as a place of hatred and bigotry. And I knew that this community was not that. I knew that there were a lot of other people here who viewed the world the same way my family did, and my instinct was that people would support the store not just because they wanted to buy books or wanted a bookstore here, but because they knew—not to overstate it—that a bookstore would send a message. That we're not all illiterate, we're not all...it said something about both the economic and cultural health of the community.

Has that happened?
The university, for instance, has made a lot of progress—there's now a statue of James Meredith; there's now an institute for racial reconciliation at the university. And most young people today know what the civil rights movement was, but they don't know the specific events and how tense and dramatic and difficult all of that was at that time.

You grew up in the midst of that.
Correct. I was thirteen when Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who's spent most of his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?
My view of the community is essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would say, I really appreciate all the people who work for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that's because this is Faulkner country—his house is here, and his grave is here, and so on—but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last several decades?
You know, it's a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark Young was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young. And primarily because of the presence of the university, there's always been something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner's major work dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn't quite do that with Oak Park. It wasn't a little native postage stamp of soil. And in Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently, Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store. He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of] Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He was hired by Harper's Magazine to be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in chief. And while at Harper's, he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism. He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" [originally titled "Steps of the Pentagon"], the longest magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a book called North Toward Home, which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the South 'cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or quit Harper's, depending on the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation, believing that he wouldn't accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner's niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the bookstore. He said, "Richard, I'm going to bring all these writers, all my friends. I'm going to bring them down here and they're going to do book signings at your store and we're going to have a great time."

The summer I came back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from Vicksburg; he'd been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South's being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen pregnancy and all the things we're still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October 1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore. So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not a book-signing tour. They didn't go to bookstores. We weren't by any means the first store to do this, but there weren't many who were doing this at the same time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that's kind of how the circuit business got started.

Then Barry Hannah moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing style particularly contrasted with Willie's. Because Willie, he was kind of a journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American letters at that point. There would've been kind of a rivalry with any writer, any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with Faulkner's ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile period in the community's literary history.

So that convergence of events helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.
Right, right. And then, you know, Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the whole time too?
No, he'd been living in north Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That's when John said, "Wow, I'm gonna do something with this."

And now he endows a great fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.
Correct. And he did that because he wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers, I once heard that when Larry Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he should read.
Nah.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and then they're off for forty-eight hours. And then they're back on for twenty-four and they're off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs. They're usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he'd always been a pretty big reader. Larry's mother, especially, was a really big reader of romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction especially. He would read Harper's and Esquire. Larry was a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group, who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on, he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started talking and, you know, I didn't give him a reading list and say, "Read these ten books and that'll make you a writer." Larry was already reading Raymond Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke out. Flannery O'Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would've gotten out of the jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories published and then he kind of couldn't get anything else published. He kept sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me one day—and, you know, I hadn't read anything he'd written, hadn't asked to; I don't go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, "I don't know what else to do. I'm sorry I'm calling you, I don't mean to bother you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything's coming back." I said, "Larry, I'd be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I'm no editor or agent or anything, but I'd be willing to read them."

So he came over with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just started reading. The first story was "Facing the Music." You know, I read maybe four pages and I said, "Larry, this is an incredible story. You're not doing anything wrong." And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine. Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told him, "This is going to be published. I don't know when, I don't know where, just don't despair." Actually I was looking the other day at a note he'd sent me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I don't remember what that was. I may have said, "You might move this sentence from here to here," or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him to keep the faith.
Exactly. Also, I suggested he contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who'd published his first serious publication, a story called "The Rich." I said, "What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the Mississippi Review?" And he said, "No, ‘cause they've already published me."

That's a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these people whose work I deeply admire. They share something...an intimacy with place perhaps?
It often gets explained in phrases like that, but I think that for the moderns...well, Faulkner was a genius. But I think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was one. So I think it's tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There's also the whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

Do you see any collective project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say, the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?
No, but I think there are always different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like right now?
I think Southerners are mostly concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we're talking about contemporary southern writers, let's discuss the Conference of the Book. How did that start?
The Faulkner conference is held every summer. I think it started in 1974. It's always drawn a crowd—people come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would come in the store and say, "I heard about that Faulkner conference and I'd love to come back here and go to that, but I don't think I want to do Faulkner for a whole week." These are people who aren't necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars, but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA [BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which typically were not available to the public. And I thought, "What if we had a conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a more general thing about books?"

So I talked to Ann Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann, who's been a good friend for a long time, "I've got this idea. Instead of just having the Faulkner conference, why don't we do another kind of literary conference? We can just talk about books and what's going on with The Book and how it's doing today. We'll invite editors and agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public." And Ann said, "Yeah, maybe soon." Then, after about three or four years, she said, "Let's do this book conference thing." And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on Southern writers?
No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this conference five years from now? Ten years from now?
In an ideal world it would have a larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that article in the New Yorker about the Kindle. You know, that's a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture, perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all the different intersections, not just publishing.
Right. Everything that's going on that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating table and cut into it and see what's going on.

With developments like the Kindle and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay relevant in the twenty-first century?
I think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments, which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than the way we've historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New Yorker article, digital transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive development.

But the question we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long? And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There's also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it's a perfect invention. I don't care what series number of Kindle you're on, it is never going to be better than this. [Holds up a book.] I don't see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can coexist is what I'm saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe, irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will change bookselling. Because there won't be as many of these [books], and therefore the cost will go up.

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So what is the future for independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become nonprofit entities?
I don't know. I hope not, though. It's a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it's a difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your success?
I don't really think of it in terms of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want. If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are succeeding doing right?
Well, I think a lot of it has to do with adaptation. The business's ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and, in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened, there've always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision of a community place.
Yeah, except that I learned fairly early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can't just be an all-purpose community center; you've got to make it conform to the mission of selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a little kind of a music radio show that wasn't really working at one of the local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them that I'd done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn't going to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, "Maybe if we did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be something." And that's how that got started.

It's been good for our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it's broadcast on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We've had a lot of writers come up there and just tell stories. It's performed, recorded, and broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they rebroadcast the show.

It's often really great. And a lot of times we have musicians who've written books come on the show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show. There's almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn't have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you've finished your two terms as mayor, you're returning to the bookstore full time again. What are you most looking forward to? What did you most miss?
I just missed being here. I missed being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what's come in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out, being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I'm gonna be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I'm doing now is really kind of returning to my roots. I'm just going to be on the floor. I'm not going to resume buying; I'm not going to be doing all the business stuff; I'm not going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the books.
Yeah. There may come a point when I want to do something else. I don't know. But that's the plan now.

Where would you like to see the store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?
No. But returning to that whole future of books conversation, one of the things that I should've added has to do with what's happened at Square Books, Jr. We're selling more children's books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens...if you go in there and hang around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE SQUARE BOOKS
What were your best-selling books in 2009?

John Grisham signs books for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller. Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham's The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in Mississippi.

What books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?
Lark and Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn't have to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his recommendation because he'd written in big letters, "It's great! I'm serious! Just buy it!" It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to see Strunk and White.

Any books you're particularly excited about in 2010?
I'm excited about Jim Harrison's new book, The Farmer's Daughter; that big, wonderful new novel The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our store; and Brad Watson's new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has one of the best stories I've read in years, "Vacuum."

Pass-Along Poems

by
Staff
4.22.09

Spread the word about debut poets and their work with this Pass-Along Poems chapbook. We’ve compiled poems from each of the twelve poets featured in our fourth annual roundup, “First and Foremost,” in the January/February 2009 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Use these instructions to print, assemble, and bind several of your own handcrafted, saddle-stitched editions. Remember to use a heavy stationery for the interior pages and a card stock for the covers. For an extra touch, forgo the stapler and use needle and thread instead. Add your recommendations for first-time poets on the back pages, and while you’re at it, paste in your own polished, unpublished work or that of others you admire.

Pass Along Poems

Download a PDF of the chapbook here.

DIY: How to Make a Saddle-Stitched Chapbook

A companion to our special section on independent presses.

Figure A

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1. Format and design your short poetry or prose manuscript using word processing software such as Microsoft Word, or a desktop publishing program such as QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign, or by cutting and pasting your text onto the pages (use scrapbook paste; regular glue will cause buckling). Create eye-catching covers using found images, rubber stamps, or—for a minimalist, vintage look—a serif display font on a letterpress. Regardless of which method you use to lay out your book, the pages must be formatted in four-page signatures, a special configuration that ensures the bound pages will end up arranged in numerical order (fig. A). You may want to create a mock-up version using standard paper to ensure your pages are formatted properly.

2. For your final book, use an 8 1/2 x 11–inch stock of medium thickness for the body (a thicker page will cause bowing). Print all the front sides first, then print on the back, making sure to feed the paper in the correct orientation (fig. A). The covers can be printed on the same paper or printed separately on a heavier color stock.

Figure B

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3. Cut each page in half horizontally (fig. B).

Figure C

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4. Fold each page in half vertically, creasing with a ruler or straightedge (fig. C).

Figure D

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5. Stack the pages so that page numbers appear in order, then staple along the middle (fig. D).

 *Makes a 4 1/4 x 5 1/2-inch book with thirty-two pages

Poetry Challenge

4.30.09

Need a dose of inspiration for your writing routine this April? Take our Poetry Challenge and try out a new writing prompt or poetry-related assignment every day during National Poetry Month.

April 30
Transcribe a poem—one of your own from this month’s challenge or a poem that’s spoken to you sometime this month—onto a postcard. By the end of the day, slip that card into the mail to be delivered to a friend.

April 29
Pause today and allow yourself at least fifteen uninterrupted minutes to write freely, using the first word or phrase that comes to mind to guide the entire exercise. If you come to a stopping point in the writing before time is up, revisit the initial word or words as you would a refrain.

April 28
Choose a clichéd phrase ("fit as a fiddle," "think out of the box," "running on empty," etc.) and turn it around. Use the new meaning created by this reversal to fuel a poetic meditation.

April 27
Write a poem to or about a person close to you using any of the senses except sight.

April 26
Choose a word or phrase you find yourself saying often (e.g. like, totally, hate, really, kind of) and write a poem using it as much as possible, turning it over and over, repositioning it, extending it, playing with its uses and the parts of speech into which it can be shaped.

April 25
Write a letter to a landscape or scene you pass through today. For example, “Dear Williamsburg Bridge,…”

April 24
Open a book that you're reading to any page. On this page are the materials you have at your disposal to make a poem. Circle words and phrases that strike you, as well as words with which you're not familiar or are overly familiar. Use the words on this page to make a new literary object. Repeat words as you see fit, but do not add any other material.

April 23
Choose a poem that you are in the process of revising. Create a map of that poem, paying attention to the gradation of its landscape, its realities and abstractions, its landmarks, the spacial relationships among its features. Use the map to guide a revision of the initial work.

April 22
Make a list of the names of your family members and friends. Use all of them to create a poem. Try writing a tiny letter to each name, using free association to link each name with another word, or describing each briefly as if it were a character or object.

April 21
Print out a poem—yours or another writer’s—double spaced. Above each word write another word that is similar in spelling or meaning, until you have the makings of new lines above each existing line. Revise these into a finished poem.

April 20
Take a look at the selection of Keith Waldrop’s collages and consider what Robert Seydel, the editor of Several Gravities (Siglio Press, 2009) writes of the work: "In collage, opacity is the norm, defining a solid architecture through a series of abutments. Certainly Waldrop employs this formal structure on occasion, but he more typically enunciates his picture through transparency. Ghostings, hauntings, veilings, falling and ascending figures, drift are central themes for Waldrop, all concerning the in-between, in part the unbeheld." Now write a poem.

April 19
Choose a poem that you’ve written and rewrite it in its reverse, making the last line the first, etc. Revise this version, creating a new poem.

April 18
Write a sonnet. For examples, visit the Poetry Foundation’s Web site.

April 17
Choose an everyday object (e.g. subway car, elevator, paper napkin, coffee, highway, grass) and investigate the anatomy of that object, real or imagined. What are the specific names for its parts, its origins, its functions, who it touches, how it moves or is moved? Use these terms to fuel the writing of a poem.

April 16
Flip through the dictionary randomly and choose ten words. Write a poem with each word in every other line.

April 15
Choose a favorite line from one of your poems and write a new poem using that line as the first one.

April 14
Find a map—of the Earth, the United States, or your home state or city—or visit Google Maps, pick a town at random, and write a poem about daybreak in that specific location, inventing any pertinent details.

April 13
Take any printed page—from your favorite magazine or book, today’s newspaper, an instruction manual, junk mail—and create an erasure poem. For a discussion of erasure poems and plenty of examples, read Small Press Points or visit the Wave Books Web site.

April 12
For one week, collect words and phrases you encounter throughout the day, from signs, advertisements, menus, overheard conversations, radio programs, television, etc. At the end of the week, write a found poem, using these snippets.

April 11
Go to a used clothing store and choose a piece of clothing that you are drawn to or repelled by. Wear the item and a channel a poem from it.

April 10
Write a poem using the N+7 form, conceived of by the French poets of the Oulipo movement. Choose a text, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s "One Art," and replace each noun in that text with the noun occurring seven entries below it in your dictionary. Next, try the exercise with one of your own poems. For more on the poets of the Oulipo, read "Oulipian Feats: Postcard From New York City."

April 9
Snip apart a draft of one of your poems, line by line or in chunks. Rearrange the elements and rerecord the original work.

April 8
“Translate” a poem into English from a language with which you have limited familiarity. Be attentive to the texture of the language and allow your immediate impulses about what the words mean inform your interpretation. Be sure not to look at an English translation until you have finished writing your imagined translation.

April 7
Select five objects from the room around you. Isolate those objects in a landscape and write a poem that investigates, insists upon, dissects, or contextualizes those objects. If the poem takes you away from those initial objects, and you find yourself stuck or lost in the landscape you’re creating, return to one of the objects.

April 6
Collect images from newspapers and magazines either by clipping them or making a list of the colors, things, people, objects, and their qualities that you notice as you look through them. If you’ve clipped images, create a collage with the clippings as an illustration of a poem not yet written, and then write that poem. If you’ve collected images as text, use the snippets to create a poem.

April 5
Transcribe a snippet of dialog overheard today and use that cue as the opening thought of a poem, like an epigraph.

April 4
Choose a line from those collected below, or a line from the book you’re reading, and embed that line in a work of your own, starting with or returning over and over to it.

“Oh, but it’s dirty!”
Elizabeth Bishop, “Filling Station”

“Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,”
John Ashbery, “At North Farm”

“When I die, I want your hands on my eyes,”
Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet 89”

“Green, how I want you green.”
Federico García Lorca, “Romance Sonambulo”

“Such poisonous families / I startle,”
Cathy Park Hong, “Elegy”

“My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent,”
Frank O’Hara, “In Memory of My Feelings”

April 3
Transcribe the text of a sign that you encounter. Write maintaining the tone—imperative, advisory, declarative, etc.—of the sign.

April 2
Write to and through a work of visual art, such as the piece we’ve selected, Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth. (You can view the painting on Wikipedia's Web site.) Visit a museum or gallery to experience works firsthand or check out a Web site such as the Museum of Modern Art’s at moma.org, which allows you to peruse the museum’s collection.

April 1
Listen to an audio version of T. S. Eliot reading one of his poems. (On Salon’s Web site you can hear him read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.") Internalize the music and rhythm of the poem, and freewrite for a page, interpreting those elements in your own language. Read what you’ve written, circle three to five phrases that you like, and use them to start a poem.

Academy Prepares for National Poetry Month

3.30.09

The Academy of American Poets launches on Wednesday the fourteenth annual National Poetry Month, a thirty-day celebration of poetry in American culture. Throughout April, the organization will sponsor events in New York City and initiate poetry-sharing programs nationwide.

The month kicks off with the Poetry and the Creative Mind gala at Lincoln Center in New York City, featuring readings by writers such as Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, and Zadie Smith, as well as by performing artists such as Joan Baez, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Wynton Marsalis.

Through April 15, the Academy is inviting readers to transcribe a line of poetry in an environment that "invites that line's undoing" and submit photographs of the ephemeral poetry to the organization for possible inclusion on the Academy Web site. Submissions to the Free Verse Project are also entered in a contest to win a copy of Poem in Your Pocket, an anthology published by the Academy, and a piece of jewelry engraved with a selection from a poem.

On April 30, the Academy celebrates Poem in Your Pocket day, when readers are encouraged to carry poems to share with others throughout the day. A selection of print-ready portable poems is available on the Academy Web site. In celebration of the day, a reading from the Poem in Your Pocket anthology featuring Matthea Harvey, Ann Lauterbach, and Meghan O'Rourke, among others, will be held at the Strand Bookstore in New York City.

Readings and programs happening nationwide during April are listed on the Academy Web site, which features a state-by-state map of events. Also available on the Web site are ideas for how to celebrate the month in your community and a list of newly released books of poetry. Visitors to the site can also sign up for the Poem-A-Day service, which will send each day via e-mail a new poem from a collection published this spring.

Academy of American Poets Goes Mobile

3.13.08

The Academy of American Poets on Monday launched a mobile version of its online poetry archive at www.poets.org/mobile. Users can now access the archive, which contains more than twenty-five hundred poems as well as hundreds of biographies and essays, using an iPhone and most other mobile devices. The new service is free.

"I have always believed that poetry has a necessary place in daily life," says Academy executive director Tree Swenson. "As the first arts organization to offer mobile content, the Academy of American Poets affirms its imperative to connect people to poetry by creating free and simple access for everyone." Poems can be browsed by author, title, occasion, and form as well as searched by keyword. Users may preview the mobile archive here.

The new component of the Academy's Web site was unveiled three weeks before the beginning of the organization's signature program, National Poetry Month. On Wednesday, the Academy announced the establishment of a national Poem in Your Pocket Day, April 17, during which Americans are encouraged to carry poems with them and celebrate "the power of the poem to both transport a reader and be transported by one." Also in April, the Academy will hold its sixth annual benefit, Poetry and the Creative Mind, featuring Candace Bushnell, Katie Couric, Jonathan Demme, Dianne Reeves, Meryl Streep, and others. The event will take place on April 1 at Lincoln Center in New York City.

 

Academy of American Poets Elects Three New Chancellors

2.1.06

The Academy of American Poets recently announced the election of Rita Dove, Gerald Stern, and Kay Ryan to its board of chancellors. They will join current chancellors Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Susan Howe, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Pinsky, Susan Stewart, Gary Snyder, James Tate, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and C.K. Williams.

Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Thomas and Beulah (W.W. Norton, 1986) and served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. Her most recent book is American Smooth (W.W. Norton, 2004). Stern won the National Book Award in 1998 for This Time: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 1998) and is a recipient of the Wallace Stevens Award. His most recent book is Everything Is Burning (W.W. Norton, 2005). Ryan is a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her most recent book is The Niagra River (Grove Press, 2005).

The Academy’s board of chancellors was established in 1946. Former chancellors have included W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and James Merrill, among others.

Pause the Podcast and Dial-a-Poem

1.14.09

As poets and publishers have taken advantage of technological advances to present poetry in a variety of new media, from podcasts to video poetry produced for the small screen, one writers organization is looking back to the telephone to spread the word. Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia recently launched 6-POEM, which offers callers a reading of a poem by a celebrated writer from the PennSound archives. The phone number is 215-746-POEM (7636).

Today's callers can hear a recording, from April 10, 2000, of Robert Creeley, once a Kelly Writers House fellow, reading his poem "Thinking." A poem by a student reader affiliated with the Writers House is also featured. The recordings will be updated frequently, according to the organization's Web site.

The dial-a-poem concept dates back to 1969, when poet and performance artist John Giorno and his organization Giorno Poetry Systems set up a call-in recorded poetry project with ten phone lines in New York City. "Using an existing communications system," Giorno wrote in an introduction to a collection of featured dial-a-poem recordings, now available online, "we established a new poet-audience relationship."

According to Al Filreis, one of the Kelly Writers House founders and the director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at Penn, comments on 6-POEM have been positive. "The responses I've received so far typically say, 'Geez, this is so retro it's cool,'" Filreis wrote on his blog, "and 'Everything seems to be converging on the phone,' and 'Telephony rocks.'"

For those looking for a higher-tech poetry experience, the Kelly Writers House also posts podcasts of readings and PennSound houses its extensive archives online. 

 

The Tale of the 10 Cruelest Months

by
Daniel Nester
3.1.05

After winning the Tanning Prize—now called the Wallace Stevens Award—from the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, James Tate gave a public reading in New York City. After reading a few poems, Tate stopped abruptly and said, “Well, we’ve survived [National] Poetry Month. It was a very close call for some of us. Thank God.”

Nine years after Tate got belly laughs from his audience, the Academy is preparing to celebrate the 10th annual National Poetry Month in April. NPM is still going strong, and still eliciting strong reactions from the poetry community. It is seen, depending on one’s perspective, as either a marketing bonanza or a wonderful excuse to bring poems into the public sphere.

“It’s done what it set out to do, which is to seriously raise the profile of poetry,” says Tree Swenson, the Academy’s executive director. “National Poetry Month is one of the components that has raised the water level of poetry.”

The Academy is planning its typical water-level-raising events for this year’s celebration. Book designer Chip Kidd designed a promotional poster, 175,000 copies of which will be given to libraries, schools, and bookstores nationwide. Scores of publishers, labeled NPM sponsors, will schedule special events and new poetry titles for April. And a third installment of the celebrity-studded “Poetry and the Creative Mind” fund-raiser, to be held April 5 at Lincoln Center’s 1,100-seat Alice Tully Hall, will feature actress Meryl Streep, architect Maya Lin, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and network anchorman Dan Rather, all reading their favorite poems.

This year’s celebration will also include two new programs. The first is “Ten Years/Ten Cities,” which will feature well-known poets reading at venues across the country, from Maxine Kumin in Seattle to Jorie Graham in Washington, D.C., all sponsored by the Academy or cosponsored with local poetry organizations. The second is an effort to start poetry reading groups. The Academy will resuscitate its Poetry Book Club—launched in July 1998 but defunct since October 2002—this time with a retail partner. The Academy’s Web site (poets.org) will offer book recommendations for reading groups, as well as free Readers Guides of notable poetry books each month. A guide for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass will be the first.

Charles Flowers, the associate director of the Academy, says the reading group initiative is part of an effort to uphold the larger principle of the organization’s dedication to poetry book publishing. It’s also in response to the NEA Reading at Risk survey, issued in June 2004, which reports the percentage of adults reading literature has decreased 10 percent in the past 20 years (from 56.9 percent to 46.7 percent). “It’s hard to measure how much is read or written during National Poetry Month,” Flowers says. With the reading groups and the book club, the Academy will “try to quantify who’s reading and buying poetry on a regular basis.”

Paul Yamazaki, a buyer for City Lights Books, says in the first years of NPM, poetry sales at the store increased by nearly 18 percent. “It’s a very strong stimulus for independent booksellers and publishers of poetry,” he says. Independent literary presses—Yamazaki cites Copper Canyon, Coffee House, Graywolf, Kelsey Street, O Books, and Sarabande, among others—“have found many new readers who look for their colophons on the shelves of City Lights Books.”

Laura Moriarty, the deputy director of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California, points to the “small bump” in March sales as bookstores plan for April readings. NPM, she says, is a “fine opportunity” to reach outside the admittedly small circles of regular poetry buyers.

NPM, though, has its share of critics. In his keynote address at the 1996 PEN Literary Awards ceremony, past Academy chancellor Richard Howard said that NPM is “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine.” In his essay “Against National Poetry Month As Such,” which he read on National Public Radio, poet Charles Bernstein complains that NPM “tend[s] to focus on the most conventional of contemporary poetry” and suggests an alternative title of National Mainstream Poetry Month.

“We take it all in stride,” says Flowers of the criticism. “The fact that people are talking about it is a good thing.”

The consensus seems to be that the annual poetry celebrations aren’t hurting anyone and may even turn a reader or two to a book of poems, which is generally regarded as a step in the right direction. “I’m certain that anything that brings poetry to a wider audience is a good thing,” Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon says. “At the end of the day, poetry needs to be seen as an ordinary part of our lives rather than something extraordinary.”

Paul Yamazaki, a buyer for City Lights Books, says in the first years of NPM, poetry sales at the store increased by nearly 18 percent.