Beautiful Mural at Circle City Books

Warm weather and sun in North Carolina brought the completion of the Circle City Books wall mural last week. Onlookers and photographers were a constant presence as the final strokes were applied by artists Bailey Friedman (Number One Daughter) and her friend Emily Kerscher. Then, off into the sunset rode Bailey, jet-bound to New Zealand, for an indefinite adventure of indeterminate duration. But what she and Emily left behind was a sensation that scarcely goes an hour without being remarked upon by another newcomer who is just astonished to see such a sight in Pittsboro.

book mural in Pittsboro
The Great Book Mural in Pittsboro

Though the mural is finished, I’ve conceived of a plan to extend the process (some might say drag it out) for several more months. With an eye toward the good opinion of the community, and because I think I can still squeeze a couple more books onto the wall, I have determined to hold a contest to elect an additional two or three titles to be added this summer. They will be placed horizontally across the top of some of the existing books. My proposal is to allow visitors to the store to nominate up to three titles each, and after a several months of voting, paint the new books on the wall in June. It will be especially interesting to me to see if the choices favor local authors or nationally known authors.

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Dear Reader: Give Plays a Chance

Looking at a shelf undisturbed by browsing hands, I wonder, “Why don’t people buy plays – or more directly, why don’t people read plays?” I suppose those of you in the bookselling trade know, and maybe have always known, that people don’t buy plays. I was warned by my senior advisor, Dennis Gavin, not to devote too much time and space to plays, and he was right. Today, two forlorn shelves of masterpieces sit untouched and unwanted in my store. But, really, can a bookstore cull Ibsen and Chekov; Tennessee Williams and Pinter; and, let lightning strike me dead, the Bard? No, I’d sooner go broke than admit to a customer that I have no space for Eugene O’Neill and Noel Coward because room must be made for 65 Tom Clancy novels. Still, I ask, why don’t people buy plays?

Further Reading: Killing a Section in Your Bookshop

Saint Joan playHow often does the New York Times Book Review feature a new play? I don’t know the answer, but I read the review every week and I don’t remember many. I know that playwrights continue to produce plays and the Pulitzer Prize continues to issues awards, but there’s little attention paid to the published version of these works. This year the Pulitzer for drama went to Quiara Alegria Hudes for Water by the Spoonful but if you wanted to buy the book, you couldn’t; it hadn’t been published, at least not at the time the award was announced. The Pulitzer (and the Tony Award, for that matter) honor theater productions, not published literature; they provide no encouragement for readers who might want to consider buying the book. And when Hudes’ book was finally published in September, it failed to earn a book review in the New York Times. And the Times’ list of 100 notable books also omitted “Water by The Spoonful,” even though every other Pulitzer winning book (biography, history, non-fiction and poetry) was cited. Perhaps they just don’t consider plays books.

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Can Digital Books Furnish a Room?

Manchester Last Lion with ReidIf I were to make a New Year’s resolution for 2013, it would be to read William Manchester’s Churchill biography, the last volume of which was completed by Paul Reid in 2012, nearly eight years after Manchester’s death. Of course, I don’t make resolutions since there are more than enough failures to tolerate in life without me adding to the list. But Reid’s story is almost as interesting as Churchill’s. Reid was a college dropout who went back to school in his 40s, and at 46 became an intern at the Palm Beach Post. It was through his newspaper work that he met Manchester, who was ill and dying and unable to finish the last volume. Manchester unexpectedly chose Reid to finish the third volume, even though Reid had never written a book before, let alone a biography. He wasn’t even a historian. Yet Manchester saw something appealing in Reid’s background and approach, something a more conventional thinker would have missed. For me, the subject of middle-aged career metamorphosis has a new relevance; I am often asked why, as old as I am, would I want to recreate myself as a bookseller. The answer, which is hard to explain, is that I just didn’t see it as a big deal. I never thought of changing careers as being that strange. And neither did Reid. He seems to have moved from one thing that interested him to the next, taking opportunities that presented themselves and not spending too much time doubting himself. So, that’s one book I hope to read this year.

On the subject of doubts, one that I felt gently tugging at my sleeve as I prepared to invest myself into this new business was my awareness of the steady migration of book buyers from paper reading to digital reading. It was hard not to take seriously the threat to hard-copy booksellers implicit in headlines like this from the New York Times from January 22, 2012: “Tablet and E-Reader Sales Soar.” The article reported that the number of adults in the United States who own tablets and e-readers nearly doubled from mid-December to early January last year.

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Bookshops Vs. Gunshops

Sunday’s New York Times featured an article about the diminished literary scene in Manhattan, highlighted by the loss of bookstores – all of some three dozen bookshops on what was once Book Row (Fourth Avenue between Eighth and 14th Street) are now gone. But what I found interesting was the connection between a community’s literati and its bookstores. Writers, it seems, rely on a network of common hangouts (bars, hotels, restaurants and bookstores) to interact with other writers, or at least those who are interested in writing. Here in Pittsboro, I’ve been surprised – amazed really – by how many of the visitors to Circle City Books over its first two months have been writers. Many self-published, some still agent and publisher shopping, some who’ve already fought their way into the business and now just need to write, but all illustrative of the symbiotic relationship writers have with places like mine. Today a writer from Brooklyn came by and we talked at length about his project – a history of a strike at a nearby wood mill. I don’t know how he found my store, but I guess there is an unmistakable scent that attracts practicing wordsmiths.

Book Row Map
Book Row NYC (Strand Books)

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Recommended Books

Last week I reflected on the expertise I’ve been extracting from my customers. Lately, though, it’s been my counsel that’s in demand. Christmas is the time when people realize how little they know about their loved ones, at least in so far as in pegging them for a gift. So, naturally, they come to me for sage gift advice. I was asked today to provide for a Californian a recommended book that most embodies the essence of North Carolina. I first assured him that no such book existed, but then got down to making the best of a fool’s errand.

“Living or dead?” I asked.

“What’s the difference?”

“The living ones publish more frequently.”

“I mean, would it matter in choosing the book?”

It makes a great difference. The essential North Carolina book today is nothing like the essential North Carolina book of the 1950s, and farther still from the essential North Carolina book of the 1920s,

recommended books
Me Talk Pretty One Day by Sedaris

which, for instance, would be “Look Homeward, Angel,” by Thomas Wolfe, or “In Abraham’s Bosom,” by Paul Green. A hundred years ago Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman,” might be the book you would choose to reflect the soul of the state. North Carolina literature today is just as likely to be set in a suburb, as in the dusty, sweltering tobacco fields of the rural old south. North Carolina characters today have gay friends and travel abroad; they buy vegan falafels and drink beer that wasn’t made in a bath tub. I ended up recommending a Lee Smith novel, “Cakewalk,” but I could have chosen David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” and I wouldn’t have been wrong.

Later, I was asked by a woman to help find a book for her 15 year-old grandson. I asked the standard question: “What does he like?” (as prescribed in the “Idiot’s Guide to Bookselling,”), but she admitted, forlornly, that she really didn’t know.  “He lives so far away, I hardly see him,” she confessed. I knew right away that I had the ideal book. First, before I reveal my choice, I need to assure you that I know perfectly well that it is impossible to guess what book someone you don’t really know will like. It’s hard enough to pick a book for someone you know well. And even if you were able to guess what book might be enjoyed, that’s just half the battle. The most perfectly chosen book won’t do anyone any good if the recipient can’t be induced to start reading it. Do you have any idea how many swell book spines have gone uncracked by apparently enthusiastic birthday boys and girls? A lot. The book not only has to be good; it has to look good and sound good, too. And even then, if the reader isn’t in the right mood, he may give it up after five pages, before the story really starts to hum. It’s not easy to get someone to read what you want them to read! Then again if this sort of help didn’t interest me I would have set up a shop to rent textbooks.

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My Bookstore: A Constant Education

As a new bookseller, I have to work hard to familiarize myself with subjects that I have heretofore overlooked. I know very little about art books, for instance, and this week, thanks to three Don McCullin bookscustomers, I learned something about photography books. One fellow pulled a book off the shelf and told me it was an important book, and that I had underpriced it. It was a book of photographs by Don McCullin, “Hearts of Darkness,” from the Vietnam War. I didn’t remember pricing or shelving the book, but I gratefully took his recommendation and researched the book. It was easy to see how dramatic and provocative the photos were and, though I did re-price the book, more importantly, I put it on display. The very next day someone asked for the photography books, and I showed him the McCullin book. It wasn’t the book he was looking for, but he was glad to have found it and he bought it straight away. In the meantime, the buyer and I talked about what made the book so worthwhile. He was a photographer, and I benefitted as much from his knowledge as from the first customer who had pointed out the book to me. I know a little about a lot of books in the store, but almost everyone who comes in knows a lot about one genre or one author. Without being too obtrusive, I am trying to take advantage of my customer’s expertise.

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Good Time for a Civil War Display

Because I spend so much time brainstorming about how to  find good books to put on the shelves I sometimes forget about the importance of crappy books (to use an idiom common in the trade). Today my first customer came in search of “Vanna Speaks,” which, as you all know, failed to win a Pulitzer in 1989, and is today rarely found within Ivy League curricula. My customer bought the book when it came out all those years ago, but foolishly lent it to an unreliable friend and never saw it again. She was hoping to replace the lost copy that she had once enjoyed so much and, thusly, is a consumer of multiple copies of this book. Sadly, I didn’t have one for her, but I was able to learn how she had come to be such a loyal reader: she thought it was a great job, Vanna White’s assistantship on Wheel of Fortune, and wanted to know how it all happened. Recently she met the now 50-plus year-old letter-turner and was reminded how impressive she seemed back then, and still is. This online review of the book accentuates its lasting merit: “Turns letters, writes books, does sit ups – I LOVE HER!!!”

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One Month In and New Bookshop Doing Well

Tomorrow begins the second month of Circle City Books’ existence. That’s the day on which I change the coding that I assign to every book when I price it. Until now, I’ve coded all my books “CC1” indicating that the book went on the shelf during the store’s first month. Starting tomorrow, and lasting for another month, the coding will be “CC2.” At some point I suppose, books that have been on the shelf too long will be sentenced to some kind of punishment: the bargain bin, execution, maybe a pep talk. In any case, the end of my first month finds the store still in business, and doing better than I expected.  (I admit to low expectations.)

we're open signThe time change has revealed to me a heretofore unknown problem. When the sun sets at 5:00 p.m., it means that the last hour and a half of business passes with my store cloaked in darkness. When I first opened it was light until closing time. But I have no neon light; no flashing sign; no spotlight illuminating my storefront. I do have lights in the window, but even with those on, it is surprising how dark the store looks from the street. People driving by wouldn’t know I am open. So this is one of the things that I overlooked. Sometime soon I’ll have to correct that.

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