As you may have heard, venerable children’s bookseller Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., will be retiring in January. Carol is a close pal, and we have shared many confidential communiques over the years, but I suspected that some of her best stuff was still being held in close reserve. An exit interview seemed to be the perfect cover to lure Carol into making an astonishing disclosure or two.
Kenny: Dog years have a seven-year ratio with ordinary years. How does it work with bookstore years, would you say?
Carol: Drills, rather than dogs, are the correct metaphor here. Bookselling operates on variable speed calendars: fast when the customers are buying, endless when they’re not. To counteract this, I always feel we need to be twice as busy during the slow times, doing all the things that we won’t be able to take care of when we’re gift-wrapping and receiving and shelving double time.
Kenny: I’ve always been jealous of the shoemaker who had those nifty elves come in at night, though I haven’t found any spell or incantation to summon any. Have you had any luck with that?
Carol: Hah, my secret is secure!
Kenny: One always seeks to avoid the horror of being ahistorical. For example, people of every generation believe that the last generation was more moral and religious than the present one, that teenagers are running wild, that the world is going to pot, and so forth. Pliny the elder believed that and so do we. It is not likely that there has been a 4,000-year-long greased slide, though. That being said, do you feel that there are in fact deep-seated changes at work in our bookselling world?
Carol: Sure thing. We just don’t know what they are yet. E-books might give way to digital injections, or the internet could mutate into a Bhutanese dance form. Our job is to find what endures. I’m still betting on books.
Kenny: What are the worst and best publishing trends in your view?
Carol: The same ones as ever: despair and discovery.
Kenny: What bookselling truism is all wrong?
Carol: That Amazon (toward which none have greater scorn than I) is the enemy. The enemy is resignation. If you’re energized about something – not always easy, and impossible to fake for long – you’ll find a way to fan the spark, and other people will catch fire from there. Use what you have! Do what you can!
Kenny: What Chittenden wisdom would we ignore at our own peril?
Carol: Booksellers are the salt of the earth.
Kenny: There is talk about the importance of elegy in culture generally and regarding physical books and bookstores in particular. I hate that. Do you see this as a choice between fighting for what you believe in or wallowing in misguided pathos, or am I being simple-minded?
Carol: Thoughtful change isn’t the end. I’m a lousy fighter, and only a fair to middling wallower, but when something is beautiful, promising, poignant, funny, interesting, stirring, full of memories or anticipation, why would one shrug and give up? Just because life isn’t easy doesn’t mean all is lost.
Kenny: Thanks, Carol.
Carol: Carry on, Kenny.