Saturday, December 6, 2008


Anyone who has chanced upon this blog will have noticed that I haven't posted for umpteen months. It's my understanding that this happens to many people who go off all bright-eyed and enthusiastic and start a blog, but then quickly come to resent their own blog, because they feel like failures if they don't post every day or two. Who needs additional stress? Anyway, I may or may not post again. Check out our website at ,and you'll be sure to catch my deathless prose there from time to time.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sebastian Faulks and James Bond

Did the world need another James Bond novel? I would argue that it did, if only to keep the Bond estate from making another film from recycled material. Certainly a talented filmmaker can breathe new life into an old source, as Casino Royale just proved, but still it will be nice to see a fresh story onscreen.

And rest assured that you will, because what Sebastian Faulks, the talented author of Birdsong and Engleby, has given us is, more than anything, a treatment for a future script. It's hard to read Devil May Care, the new Bond novel, without imagining how it will translate to the screen. As a novel, it's only as good as it needs to be, and you can sense Faulks holding himself back from the literary flourishes that mark his earlier work in order to conform to the dictates of the Bond canon--or "Bondage," as he puts it. It's just a film waiting to be made.

Faulks was an inspired choice to write the new installment. Birdsong showed that he could write both sweeping historical fiction and romance that crosses cultural boundaries. Engleby showed his deft hand depicting the world's villainy and creating psychological suspense. Both talents are relevant to the Bond universe.

Becky and I met Sebastian at a dinner thrown by Random House last fall to celebrate a few new books. New England booksellers joined the publisher in Boston to break bread with Faulks, Jeffrey Toobin (author of The Nine), and a less well known but talented novelist named John Burnham Schwartz (author of The Commoner). I spent a lot of time that night both with Faulks and with Toobin. I came away from the evening having learned two things: first, that no matter how famous a writer is, he will practically melt with gratitude (Toobin) when you ask him a halfway intelligent question about his new book. A new book is like a new baby, you see.

Second, I learned that Sebastian Faulks is a funny, funny man. He has that British facility of being able to talk extemporaneously in an incredibly witty fashion and in complete sentences. Paragraphs, yet. He had the entire room in stitches.

A sad coda to this story. I asked Sebastian if he would ever consider extending a tour that included Boston to also include Concord. He thought for a second, and replied that his writing was too important to him to take too much time away from it, especially if that time was spent slogging through unpopulated countryside only to find oneself addressing 20 people and no more.

It was a point that filled me with bitterness but I had no argument against it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

That Garage

The phone rang just half an hour before our event with Bishop Gene Robinson.

“I was calling to see if your event with the Bishop was still tonight,” came a voice of a certain age.

“It sure is,” I replied. “Hope to see you here.”

“Will there be plenty of on-street parking? That road race is tonight, and part of Main Street is closed, and I don’t want to have to walk far.”

I have a ready-made answer for that one, now. “Ah, you can use the garage. It’s free after 5 PM, there’s plenty of space, and you walk out of it 20 feet from our door.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I won’t use the garage. Everyone says it’s awful. The paper said so, too. I’m not going to do that. Don’t you think there’s enough parking on the street?”

It depends on how far you’re willing to walk, I thought to myself. We only have six spaces on our side of the block now. Freight Street is gone, our temporary diagonal parking is gone, and Capital Commons swallowed all the spaces on its side of Main Street. The garage was supposed to be the answer. I tried again: “Oh, no, the paper said that the garage was a great unused resource, and just needs a few tweaks and some marketing to make it a success. I have the article right here.”

“Huh, that’s not what I heard,” she said, and hung up in my ear.

Well, I’m not sure if she came to hear the Bishop or not. We had plenty of people, anyway, and I think a lot of them used the garage. To their chagrin!

My wife came in at 7:30, while the Bishop was speaking. “Did you know that there’s a line of 20 cars all trying to get out of the garage?” she whispered. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “Nope, not kidding, it’s all those road racers, someone forgot to validate their ticket on the Main Street level, so everyone has to wait while they sort it out.”

I guess the lady was right. That experience was repeated when my wife left to get the kids after their music lessons—her ticket jammed, and she had to wait 10 minutes for an officer to open the gate.

Needless to say, I have done a lot of thinking about this garage. Adequate parking is life itself to a retailer. And the revitalization of this entire end of Main Street depends on the success of the garage.

What’s more, I have done a lot of cheerleading for the garage. In email after email I have extolled its virtues. We’ve even been offering coupons for 30% off any one book if you use the garage. Only three people have taken us up on that, as opposed to the hundreds of people who have used our new “Sunday shopping” coupons. Coupons work, but the garage isn’t working.

Sadly, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. The garage isn’t working.

Two weeks ago, The Insider ran an article outlining a few quick fixes that can make the garage a lot more user friendly. The City has not adopted them, nor even to my knowledge responded to the Insider article at all. Here is my quick version of that list, for the City’s benefit:

1) Move one of the ticket validation machines to the Storrs Street level, right next to the gates. I don’t want to hear how much it would cost—that’s a ludicrous argument compared to how much an abandoned garage would cost. The machine should have been down there to begin with. Fix your mistake.

2) Start marketing the thing. Put appropriate signage throughout the neighborhood. Run promotions, generate news, get creative. Put reminders about the garage in with parking tickets issued on the street, for Pete’s sake. (Great idea, Mark.)

3) Think about ways to get people to adopt it. Sacrifice a little short term revenue to rescue your multi-million dollar investment. For instance, after that road race, why didn’t you just leave the gates up from 6 PM on? You knew lots of people would be parking in there after 5. So what if a few people who had parked there earlier got away with free parking? You would have had a hundred people sharing a great new experience with their friends, instead of who knows how many people grumbling to all their friends about how lousy the garage is.

The problem is that no one city official is responsible for the success of this garage. Getting it built, sure, but getting people to use it? No one’s job.

It needs to be someone’s job. I challenge the mayor and the city council to make that happen. One important key to downtown revitalization has already been built. Let’s make it work.

(If you would like to write to the Mayor and City Council on this or any other issue, click here.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Advance Readers' Copies

Aargh, we're being inundated with them. These are the pre-publication paperback editions, not for resale, that publishers send around in the hope that bookstore staffers will read them and hand-sell them to a grateful public once the finished books come out. But how can we read a dozen books a day? Our back office is filled with these proto-books.

If you or someone you know works in a library, hospice, non-profit, or some other worthy organization that might have a use for these books, please come take them off our hands, one or two boxes at a time. We will love you for it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

O Brave New World

Everyone can be an author now!

Stirring words-- noble words--proclaiming a faith in technology and in democracy itself. New ways to self-publish have leveled the playing field. This can only be a good thing, yes?

Well, no. Let me tell you how this looks from a bookstore’s perspective.

There are over 100,000 books published every year by what we call mainstream publishers—by companies as large as Random House or as small as David R. Godine (one of the last great independent houses), and by hundreds of publishers in between. These books are of varying quality. Some are classics. Some are creatures of the season, transitory entertainments that will not be remembered but which are perfectly fine. And a lot of books, sad to say, are complete dreck. D.O.A., or they deserve to be. Sometimes we will hold our noses and stock them, because we believe that there might be local demand, and we are not censors. But a great many we exclude from the store because we can tell, from catalogue copy and in conversations with publishers’ sales reps, that we simply do not want to carry them in the store. We will special order them, but we will not stock them.

We only have room for so many books, you understand. There are, in fact, many classics in various fields that we do not carry because we have no expectation of selling them in a reasonable period of time. We have to make those kinds of choices all the time.

But now, back to the slush pile.

Even the books that we think are awful or that would be redundant in our store have gone through a vetting process that has been developed over decades. They have been judged by publishers to be of sufficient quality to earn a contract. They have been edited and copy edited, their covers designed. Marketing plans have been developed for their release. Sales have been projected, print runs established, pricing determined. They are books and more: they are commercial objects poised for maximum success in the marketplace.

Do you see where I’m going with this? The idea that everyone can be an author now—that new technology allows authors to bypass publishers and bring their books to the public directly—is like a vision of hell to a bookseller.

We already have so many books whose quality we distrust in varying degrees. We do not open the store each morning in the hopes that your Uncle Jack will supplement our stock with the unedited memoir he had printed at Kinko’s last week. Sure, self-published authors may be bringing us the next Moby Dick or Goodnight Moon, but what are the odds? We don’t really have time to read it. We’re already working more than 40 hours per week, believe me.

…Okay, the rant is over. Now to accentuate the positive.

As an independent bookstore, we are eager to feature local authors and local content. This is the kind of thing that can distinguish us from the more anonymous chains. There are lots of books that fit that description from mainstream publishers. But sometimes books are too local to be published by a mainstream house. Sometimes they have to be self-published. And we want to have those books! And if our friends and neighbors—local folks--publish books, we want to have them too, because we are a community bookstore. So we take those books on consignment and try to keep track of them. With the authors’ help, we can.

It’s a real balancing act. It has always been a balancing act, because there have always been vanity presses.

But back to my original point. It’s not a brave new world that technology has brought us. It’s just new to thee. If you or a loved one have a self-published book to show us, take the time to consider the bookstore's position. Work with us to place the book appropriately in our store, drive sales in our direction so that we will reorder, give the book its best life possible life. We want it to succeed as much as you do, we only ask that you maintain perspective and manage your expectations.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Obama and "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

As everyone knows by now, presidential candidate Barack Obama was surreptitiously taped at a fundraiser in San Francisco last week, and an offhand remark he made has set off a firestorm of criticism--criticism that, to my mind, has been almost completely phony.

Here's what he said, reportedly in response to a questioner who said he was going to canvass for Obama in rural Pennsylvania, and wondered why Obama's "message of hope" had not always generated support in those areas: “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” So the distinction was drawn between hope and bitterness.

On its face, this remark is perfectly true. The only problem is that it's inelegantly phrased, and can easily be spun into something that it isn't: an expression of elitism.

But the remark is inarguable. The success of the Republican party over the last 40 years has hinged on its ability to convince rural voters to ignore their own economic and social best interests and vote instead on so-called "wedge issues"--guns, gays, race, appeals to religious fundamentalism, anti-immigration sentiments, etc.--so that what was once known as the party of class privilege and big-business boosterism, the Republican Party, has instead been identified as the party of regular folks, rescuing the republic from latte-sipping elitists who look silly sitting in a tank or trying to bowl. The only way I would suggest for Obama to amend his remark is to say that these people are manipulated into having these sentiments, rather than that they cling to them, but that's a minor quibble.

The best diagnosis of the situation came in Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, a funny and compelling look at the last 100 years in Frank's home state of Kansas and in the country at large. It's a vivid portrait of an upside-down world where blue-collar patriots recite the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; where small farmers cast their votes for a Wall Street order that will eventually push them off their own land; and where a group of frat boys, lawyers, and CEOs has managed to convince the country that it speaks on behalf of the People. It's the history of a backlash against a Left that doesn't exist anymore except in the fever dreams of right-wing radio.

In addition to plugging Frank's book, I would also like to make an argument in favor of elitism.

First, let me say that none of the presidential candidates made it to where they are without being exceptional. They are all part of America's elite, in any meaningful sense of that term. Being part of an elite is only a problem if you look down on other people; otherwise, it's desirable.

Second, why shouldn't America have the best? Do you want a president who can bowl or toss back shots with the boys, or do you want a president who might actually be great at the job? If you're hiring a plumber or a painter, you don't quiz them on when their daddy taught them to hunt. You quiz them on their professional abilities. Should we not have the same standard when it comes to choosing the Leader of the Free World?

The problem is that in suggesting we hire the best for the job, the idea becomes twisted into "he thinks he's better than we are." ... Well, I am perfectly willing to concede that Obama is a better constitutional scholar and has far greater political skills than I. I'm perfectly willing to concede that Hillary Clinton has a firmer grasp of foreign affairs than I do, and that John McCain would be better at pushing legislation through Congress. Does all this make me bitter? Nope. I don't want to do my own plumbing either.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Meredith Hall

What a delight to have Meredith Hall here at Gibson's last night.

Meredith is the author of Without a Map, the best-selling memoir of 2007 (and 2008, we can predict this already) at Gibson's. It's the story of her becoming pregnant at the age of 16 in a very traditional NH community, being shunned by her family and friends, giving up her child for adoption, and then slowly struggling her way to adulthood and acceptance in later life. It's beautifully written, very honest and true, and the public has responded with the kind of enthusiasm and even adulation that most first-time authors can only dream of.

Meredith read for a long time, and I was afraid the audience's attention would flag, but they were rapt, and peppered her with questions as soon as they had a chance.

She says she's asked this question at every event: "how did you become so heroic?" And I love her reply, that she is not heroic, that she has just lived her life and had a pretty good time, all things considered. ... Real heroes tell you that they are just regular folks, and I am severely nostalgic for that kind of modesty, both in literature and in politics.

But there is a real heroism in her writing. It takes a lot of guts to put the absolute truth as you see it down on paper, to keep tinkering with it until you're sure that it's right, and to jettison whatever doesn't feel completely true, no matter how pretty it is.

After everyone left, Meredith and I exchanged war stories about author tours. She told me how awkward it can be when only a few people show up--yes, it happens to her, too! I agreed, and told her the story of how, when I was living in NY and had first decided to buy Gibson's, I went to an author appearance to see what one was like. One of my favorite authors, Paul Auster, was appearing at Books & Co., the best bookstore on the Upper East Side, and he was sharing the bill with Howard Norman, whose Bird Artist had just come out. Hundreds of people crowded into the tiny bookstore to hear them read and to meet them. What a scene! And as I left, I thought to myself, "Wow, it'll be great to host events like this when I get to Concord!"

Well, needless to say, only a very few events in Concord have even come close to that magical evening on the East Side--most are much smaller and quieter, though we love doing them, and it's part of our mission as a bookstore to bring readers and writers together--but last night's event was better. It was a community that gathered to applaud Meredith Hall. So many people knew each other, or came from the same kind of place, or shared an intimate connection to the same book. It was a community that thanked her for her skill and her bravery, just as a community had shunned her 40 years ago. And that made last night's event very, very satisfying.