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An Interview with the Year 2017

Kenny Brechner -- January 12th, 2017

It is a fair question. The obvious one, I mean. Here it is January 12 and my annual interview with the new Year has not appeared yet. Why? What happened? Until this morning I had no idea myself. My interview was scheduled for New Year’s Eve, as usual, when I received this terse note.

It was with some trepidation that I approached the Glade of Years for my rescheduled interview. Here is what I discovered.
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Flying Solo

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 10th, 2017

Sir John Tenniel’s White Rabbit, from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll.

In almost eight years of blogging and twenty years of bookselling, this is a first: I’ve never written a post as sole proprietor of the store. My Flying Pig co-founder, Josie, has officially stepped into her new full-time role at Pride Center of VT. This transition has been a year and a half in the making, but it became final on December 31. Over the past year, I’ve been learning the pieces of the business that Josie used to handle, especially since August when I took over almost all of her duties. It’s given me extra appreciation and gratitude for all of the tasks she used to do that I never had to think about.

I also have newfound admiration for bookstores with sole owners—especially those with a small staff. There is SO much to do, all the time! This has always been true about running a small business, of course, but jeeminy, it becomes critical to strive for laser focus, crystal-clear priorities, and streamlined efficiency. It’s its own extreme sport. Here’s what I’ve learned so far: Continue reading

90-Second Newbery Revisited

Leslie Hawkins -- January 9th, 2017

[Today’s post is brought to you by Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville NC. And the letter Y.]

Last night, film fans around the world had their eyes glued to the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards ceremony and the red carpet hoopla beforehand. Today, I’d like to turn our collective kid-lit-loving attention to another exciting film event: the Sixth Annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.

A few years ago, Elizabeth Bluemle interviewed the festival’s founder, author James Kennedy.  (You can read that wonderful post about the festival’s origins here.)  I’m revisiting the topic in this, my first post for ShelfTalker, because I’ve had the great pleasure of being part of a community effort to bring an official 90-Second Newbery Film Festival screening to Asheville, N.C., for the first time. That’s right—we’re going to have a glamorous red carpet event of our own, Asheville Kid Style!

On the film set of THE HUNDRED DRESSES,

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Hello from Austin, Texas!

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- January 6th, 2017

As the newest member of the ShelfTalker team, I wanted to say a quick hello. I’ve been lucky enough to buy books for BookPeople’s children’s book department in Austin for the last 10 years, and I’m really looking forward to exploring our ongoing adventures in bookselling with you and my fellow ShelfTalker contributors in the upcoming year!
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‘Amazon’s Stranglehold’ Co-Author Stacy Mitchell Breaks It Down

Kenny Brechner -- January 5th, 2017

I am a big lad for Amazon antitrust issues. Given their onerous impact on both bookselling and the human condition we need all the perspective we can get. In the past, for example, I’ve interviewed both John D. Rockefeller and John Locke to gain further insight into various stages of the malady’s morbid growth. Given these past interviews it would be shameful on my part not to mark the recent release of the powerful and vitally important new report by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities, by interviewing an even more august person, the ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell, one of the report’s co-authors.

Kenny: If getting the attention of the Justice Department and garnering public interest and public will to effect change regarding the Amazon anttrust issues has been challenging in the current political landscape, how do you see the issue changing under the Trump administration where economic regulation seems sure to be far more lax than it already is?

Stacy: Polls show that there’s widespread antagonism toward big business, on both the left and the right. There is a pervasive sense that corporate consolidation has left most Americans worse off, with fewer job prospects, lower wages, and less opportunity. And a growing body of economic research confirms that this is in fact true. When you have a few big retailers, Wall Street banks, and agribusiness giants running everything, it’s harder for people to find good jobs, start businesses, and move into the middle class.

Trump’s rhetoric taps into this anxiety. The trouble is, there is no indication so far that he is actually going to do anything about it. Quite the opposite. The point person for antitrust on his transition team, Joshua Wright, is an academic who has helped Google fend off accusations of violating antitrust laws and recently argued against stepped up antitrust scrutiny in a piece for the New York Times on the grounds that “concentration in an industry simply does not mean the industry lacks competition.”

So, the good news is that there is a convergence of scholarship and popular opinion around the idea that companies like Amazon have too much power and that they are using that power in ways that harm the economy and our democracy. The challenge is that doing something about this is going to take a bottom-up, grassroots movement. That’s really always been the case, though. It was a grassroots movement that fought the power of the East India Company by dumping a bunch of the company’s tea in Boston’s harbor. It was a grassroots movement that ultimately led government to break up and constrain the big trusts of the last Gilded Age. There are moments in history when we are called upon to protect our liberty and our democracy from concentrated economic power. This is one of those moments.

Kenny: You have written that Amazon is relatively invisible considering the depth and dimension of its social and economic impact. If you were designing a potion to increase its visibility, what would you put in it?

Stacy: More and better reporting. In terms of local news, Amazon is having an impact on virtually every community in the country. Its expansion is leaving most places with fewer businesses and jobs, and less tax revenue to support local services. And yet, because Amazon has no physical presence in most of our cities and towns, it’s not on the radar of local news outlets as something they should be covering. But while Amazon may not be in these places, its reach certainly is.

At the national level, there’s been very little investigative reporting of how Amazon manipulates us as consumers: how its algorithms determine what products we’re exposed to; how it steers our choices in ways that make it less likely that we’ll encounter certain authors, creators, and products; and how it uses the vast trove of data it has on our browsing habits to continuously adjust its prices and exploit its information advantage over shoppers. Surely these are topics worthy of the front pages.

Kenny: If Amazon were a sports team, what would its mascot be?

Stacy: A giant octopus.

Kenny: Your new report details Amazon’s monopolization of the economy, its undermining of jobs and wages, and its weakening of communities. Given the scope and scale of the problem, along with the vastly greater efficiency of preserving existing businesses as opposed to trying to re-grow a brick and mortal retail sector, how can booksellers help translate this urgency into effective outreach?

Stacy: We have to find ways to illustrate to people what’s a stake, what their Amazon shopping habit stands to cost them and their communities in the long run. One thing I think is key is to remind people that they have, as we say in the report, “needs and wants from the economy that go beyond the one-click checkout.” Many booksellers have been doing an excellent job of this. Their stores are about so much more than transactions. They are places where the community gathers, where ideas are discussed and authors give readings. They are places that create jobs and support local services and nonprofits. Their owners are our neighbors and they have staked their future on the places we call home. If you are thinking as a citizen and a community member, the choice to shop on Amazon has more costs than benefits.

We also have to find ways to transform the “buy local” movement, which so many people now identify with and support, from a purely consumer cause into a political movement. We need to call for an end to the many subsidies and tax advantages that are propelling Amazon growth. (The data we present in the report show that half of Amazon’s big fulfillment facilities have been built with taxpayer handouts and that the company has used a questionable overseas tax haven to cut its federal tax rate to less than one-third of what other retailers pay.) We need to resurrect antitrust policy, which prior to the last few decades, had a strong commitment to market diversity and entrepreneurship. We need labor policies to protect workers in the digital economy and local development policies that take into account the value local brick-and-mortar businesses bring to their communities.

Kenny: If you could pick one novel and one children’s book for a nationwide community read that would help its readers engage with the issues at the heart of your report, what would they be?

Stacy: Oh, my, that’s a tall order. Let me suggest a different approach, for adults at least. First, make time to read our report; it’s engaging and full of anecdotes and interviews that give the analysis dimension. And then follow it with a short, yummy chaser. I’d recommend P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, or Muriel Spark’s Symposium, or Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

Kenny: Fabulous advice, Stacy.  Since we’re talking chasers here we have to go with that ultimate refresher, The Code of the Woosters! Thanks so much.

Stacy: My pleasure!

‘Under Rose Tainted Skies’: An Interview with Louise Gornall

Kenny Brechner -- January 3rd, 2017

A New Year promises change, and nowhere is change more dynamically an issue than in the static interior landscape of an OCD sufferer’s mind. It is hard to imagine that the unique potential  of an OCD first-person narrator to expand on the concept of interior world building will ever be more powerfully realized than it is in Louise Gornall’s Under Rose Tainted Skies. Gornall channeled her own struggles with OCD into the book’s narrator Norah, and the breathtaking intensity of the reading experience is a tribute both to its authenticity and to Gornall’s skill as a writer. Norah’s derailed quest for normalcy, and the insertion of change into her regulated world,  has dramatic consequences which both mirror and explore more traditional notions of thriller-like action and the interplay of fantasy realms with the real world.

Louise was kind enough to answer a few questions for us to help explore the dimensions of her fabulous debut novel, which is out today!

Kenny: It was highly engaging to have simple plot elements, such as Norah’s mother’s hospital stay, or getting a package into the house, transmuted into a thriller – like scenario due to her OCD. Do you think of the book as a thriller in any sense?

Louise: Funnily enough, this isn’t the first, second, or even third time I’ve heard this, though it still comes as a surprise. I never considered Rose to be a thriller, but then I was heavily focused on the embarrassment that came with spilling all my real-life secrets. See, most of what Norah goes through, I’ve been through myself, and my quirks/rituals were something I’d kept guarded, under lock and key. For a long time, it never occurred to me that my behaviors were anything more than embarrassingly absurd.
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Bidding Farewell, With One Last List

Josie Leavitt -- December 27th, 2016

This is my last blog for ShelfTalker. I am retiring from the bookstore at the end of the week to work at the Pride Center of Vermont. I have had a wonderful time writing this blog with Elizabeth, and now Kenny, the last seven years, both of whom will be continuing to delight ShelfTalker readers. And how quickly these years have flown by. I have had the privilege of writing about just anything I wanted to, from my first blog about my UPS driver having knee surgery, to my rants about why Amazon sucks, to my favorite books (new and old), and having the fun of sharing stories about my customers and bookselling life. While I’m very excited to begin this next chapter of my life, I will miss so much about bookstore life, it’s hard to even know where to begin. I think the thing about owning an independent bookstore that is so difficult to grasp for non-book lovers is the enormous sense of community the bookstore brings to all, from staffers to customers to once-a-year visitors. So, in no special order, here are the things I will miss. Continue reading

Happy Holidays!

Josie Leavitt -- December 23rd, 2016

As we head into the long holiday weekend, hopefully filled with family, friends and lots of time of reading, all of us at the Flying Pig wanted to wish you a very Merry Christmas and joyful Hanukkah. May there be books you’ve wanted, books you’ve never heard of, and things to make reading more fun waiting for you this weekend. From all of us to all our readers: HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!staffpic

 

Staff Photo Contest

Kenny Brechner -- December 22nd, 2016

Most bookstores have some sort of tradition in place regarding staff photos, and DDG is no different in that regard. Actually, hold on a moment. Knowledge is a funny thing. I don’t really know that, I’m  just assuming that it must be true. William of Ockham is sitting up in his grave totally aghast, horrified that he ever loaned me his razor. All right then, we’ll return to that idea at the end of the post, looking for a proof of concept, but for now let’s start again at the top.

DDG staff photos have long been marked by traditions. For the last decade these traditions have related to my assistant managers. From 2007-2012 my pal and old assistant manager Karen West took the staff photo because she hated to be photographed. What Karen never realized was that someone always held a big mirror in the center of the photo so that you could see Karen taking the photo in the middle. Remarkably she never cottoned on to this ploy. The other two continuity points were the participation of the store giraffe, Clarence, and the holding of our favorite books of the year.
staff11My current assistant manager, the fabulous Karin Schott, is very partial to sheep. She owns sheep, is a professional grade knitter, and has seen to it that the store sheep appear in every photo, as seen here in this 2014 deeply sheep imbued staff photo. Continue reading

Now More Than Ever

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 20th, 2016

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” — Maya Angelou

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People have been streaming into the bookstore, all with a common desire: to share worthwhile books with the people they care about. This passion is stronger than ever this year. We can feel a shift in shoppers’ priorities; families seem increasingly impatient with the consumer madness that overshadows what can be a warm, sparkly time at home with loved ones.

They want quality, not quantity, and this year, they are choosing content over entertainment. I don’t mean that people aren’t buying funny books, but snarky humor—often so popular this time of year—isn’t on their lists. People are looking for hope and greater understanding through books, and they want depth with their laughter.

In addition to the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World flying out of the store, we’ve had a lot of demand for things like I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Love and Joy, a lovely volume of poetry by Hafiz, and Mary Oliver’s newest collection of essays, Upstream: Selected Essays (pronounced “killer good!” by one of our staffers).

Customers buying books for children are especially interested when we recommend books that include hope and show resiliency of spirit in main characters. Since great books for children tend to excel at exploring those exact two things, there is no shortage of them to handsell. For instance, for middle grade kids, this means books like Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Jason Reynolds’ As Brave As You, Susan Beckhorn’s The Wolf’s Boy

There’s also a different aspect to people’s thoughtfulness about books, more felt than articulated. It’s not as “light” a year in mood, not surprisingly, as it was last holiday season. We have felt the commitment to meaningful books from all quarters. This year, our Snowflake Giving Program, which helps provide new books to children and teens through three local food shelves and nonprofit agencies, had the most children in need ever: around 200. And while that was our largest-ever number of recipients, it was also the fastest completed drive we’ve ever had. Our generous customers (who receive a 20% discount off the books and the joy of sharing their own family favorites with their neighbors) seemed particularly moved to participate this year.

“Hope will never be silent,” said LGBT activist Harvey Milk, and I think we need to remember that Hope is always linked to action. Otherwise, it’s just a wish. Now, more than ever, we need hope, grit, and resiliency.

When the craziness of this season winds down a little, I’ll try to post a list of the books our customers have found most helpful, and most hopeful, in this season of change.

If you celebrate a holiday this season, what books are you giving for Chanukah or putting under your loved ones’ trees? Are the kinds of books you are choosing this year any different from prior years? And are you feeling especially connected to books right now?