poetry, Uncategorized

An Elegy for Booktraders

photo

Recently, one of our local traditions here in town closed its doors for good. Booktraders was a staple in downtown Winter Haven for decades, and after two different owners’ attempts at reviving its business, the used bookstore was decorated with deceptively happy-looking yellow signs in its big front windows: FREE BOOKS.

I entered just like dozens of times before, this time with less enthusiasm and curious optimism. The smell of old paperbacks, wood shelving and historical bindings filled me as it had during all those other prior visits, but this time, it was the scent of defeat. People were inside filling carts and boxes with books that they probably never would have “traded” their own used books for previously. During this glut of knowledge, it seemed to matter little whether the books had any real appeal to the hoarders or not. Books were free! The scene was not confrontational like the 1980s ugliness of Cabbage Patch Kid mania, or more recent consumer battles for the hottest items or gadgets. Nonetheless, it was an unseemly display of avarice at its basest: Humans turned hyenas by someone else’s loss.

The real sadness of the situation was its broader commentary upon our current culture. Thanks to electronic everything and a constant shove toward productivity, efficiency and expedience, Booktraders met its La Brea Tar Pits-style extinction, a slow and steady groaning descent into fossilization. I remember summers when my mother, an English teacher for our local public high school, would leisurely read through paperback after paperback. She instilled this love of pleasure-reading into all of her children, myself included. Her friends, more literate members of our community, likewise would consume books by the handful, especially during the summer. That type of leisure reading, however, seems more and more to be a thing of the distant past. Certainly, there are those select bibliophiles who consciously consume traditional texts, but the larger portrait of American reading habits paints a grim picture — one comprised of people engaged in more reading-like activities (texting, Facebook-checking, etc.) than in actual comprehension.

I admit it: I was not above the shuffle and scavenge of Booktraders’ end, I hate to say. I, too, walked away with three free books (pictured above) that actually piqued my interest. At least by saving these few volumes, I could promise them a good home rather than some cold resale. This act was a first for me as a lover of literature: walking away sorrowfully with books tucked beneath my arm. The creak and close of the store’s wooden doors behind me resonated like a casket’s final seal before burial.

The shuttering of Booktraders is a totem of a larger societal shift that is neither promising nor positive. When we are willing to prey on books but not give them our earnest attention and appreciation, we can no longer call ourselves a civilization. As publishing undergoes increasing transition, I suspect that real readers will become the  fulfillment of Ray Bradbury’s prophecies in the iconic novel Fahrenheit 451. We will be the outliers in a world walled in by electronic messaging and superficial relationships. Eventually, those of us who have bothered to memorize important passages will be glanced upon skeptically, even suspiciously. Perhaps this sounds extreme and even conspiracy-nuttish, but history paints a picture of prior societies who have fallen under similar strains. When we lose our love of literature, we lose our humanity.

For now, Booktraders does not rest in peace. It rests in pieces — fragments of disheveled disarray, the byproduct of mindless consumerism. It deserves better. It deserves honor. It deserves love. Farewell old friend, and thank you.

 

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poetry, Uncategorized

Business and the Personal

Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com
Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox, multi-millionaire chain bookstore owner (played by Tom Hanks), advises small bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan): “It’s just business. It’s not personal. … Recite that to yourself.” Ryan’s character responds with, “Whatever something else is, it should begin by being personal.”

I see the merit in Kathleen Kelly’s sentiment, but having been in the rough-and-tumble world of publishing recently, I think I’m inclined to lean more toward Joe Fox’s approach. Yes, poetry, writing, and book-making are all endeavors that involve a person’s heart, even the soul. However, when it comes time to negotiate about matters like royalties, author’s copies, and similar factors, it’s time to put away the purple prose and break out the spreadsheets and graphs.

Lots of writers don’t want to hear this. They’d rather live in their sheltered creative Xanadu, pondering air castles and planning their next great narrative. On the other hand, rarely does one find publishers who can’t distinguish pragmatics from the emotional. Publishers, for the most part, are able to put aside their feelings and prejudices in favor of their latest project. I recently dealt with a publisher (name omitted intentionally) whose approach to book production was seen not as a creative-commercial enterprise, but rather, as an extension of her/his inner self. The publisher in question viewed the relationship with the writer as an deep emotional bond rather than seeing it primarily as a business arrangement. This person also slammed the work of similar publishers, some of whom he/she had worked with in the past.

As things became increasingly unprofessional, I politely declined the services of this publisher. I attempted to word the rejection softly, as I too have had my fair share of let-downs. In response, I was told that seeking a traditional or academic publisher was “insulting.” There were hurt feelings, apparently, despite my best attempts to avoid such ugliness. As a recent MFA grad seeking an experienced and respected publisher for my creative thesis (a mighty fine collection, if I do say so myself), I really don’t need a business partner who is affronted by every minor exchange.  It’s great to be invested in your craft, whatever that may be. Likewise, it’s necessary to differentiate between an expression of intellect and an expression of love. A consumer decision is not a romance.

Yes, creating (be that writing or publishing) is showing the world a piece of yourself. But when that creation crosses the transom into product, it’s time to evolve into strategist. Even for those of us who’d rather “dwell in possibility,” there must come a time when strictly cognitive and logistical decisions predominate. Once the art is done, business belongs in its proper perspective. Let’s keep it professional.

poetry, Uncategorized

Bookstores, Amazon, and Other Such Things

So, I went to my local bookstore today to purchase one of the texts I need for my MFA readings. This book happens to be by our newest poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey. I perused the one measly section of poetry books tucked into a single section of a poorly lit aisle, only to discover that, not only was Trethewey’s work unavailable, but so was work by other established and well-known poets. This lackluster selection inspired me to visit the “customer service” desk of the establishment in question.

“May I help you sir?” the somewhat bothered clerk asked.

“I believe you can. I’m looking for a volume by Natasha Trethewey, the poet laureate.”

“Who?” she hooted, blinking repeatedly from behind extra-large lensed glasses. “Oh, let me look it up.”

Her fingers dashed across the keyboard, entering letters then backspacing furiously in frustration.

“Can you spell that?” she finally requested.

“T-R-E…” I went on, giving her the name in its entirety, letter by carefully pronounced letter.

“Oh, Natasha!” she said, as if the two of them had been classmates in another life.

Here came the kicker: “We had two copies by her, but they’ve both been sold.”

SERIOUSLY??? The woman is the poet laureate of the United States, and you have TWO copies of her work in inventory? Now, mind you, this so-called bookstore can boast countless aisles of Twilight toys and fairy princess bookmarks, but GOD FORBID they actually carry work of literary value. I maintained a poker face, took a deep breath, and then administered some kind advice:

“You may want to think about getting some more. She’s very popular right now,” I said.

“Oh, well uh, would you like to order one?” she offered, still rapid-fire blinking.

“No, that’s okay. Just thought I’d check,” I answered. “Thanks anyway.”

As brick-and-mortar bookstores bemoan the loss of business to megalithic online entities (Amazon, etc.), encounters like these only encourage consumers to seek out alternatives that are less inconvenient, i.e. internet buying. Listen up, literature vendors: If you want to sell books, stop sitting around sipping lattes and whining about how the big, bad capitalist machine is eating up your sales. Stock your shelves, know your stuff, and offer service with a smile. For today, I’m ordering the Kindle version of the book I needed — cheaper, faster, and easier.