Saturday, April 29, 2006

Proving that you CAN judge a book by its cover.

A boy sits and reads a Russian picture book. Rather than simply admire the cuteness of the scene my mind slips immediately into bookseller mode: "That cover is dog eared in the corner and has signs of handling wear. I wish he'd turn so I could see the name of the publisher on the spine, not that I could read it anyway. I see that the spine is peeling and it's likely there are scuff marks on the back cover. The book is probably worthless."

I enter Borders and am incapable of browsing for books that I might enjoy. I automatically scan the spines of the books, looking at the names of publishers. "Look! That one is a Wiley! Probably worth at least $20." Or, "Look! A Da Vinci Code hardcover! I wonder if it's a first printing, first state, with the error on page 152!" Then I remember I'm in a retail bookstore and there is no possibility that this is anything other than the 8000th printing. No wonder I buy all my books online now. Going to bookstores is no longer restful, now that I'm a bookseller.

I walk past one of my children and note that they are reading a book. Instead of merely appreciating that she is reading, and not fighting with a sibling or using the computer, I think: "That looks like a scarce title. I don't think it belongs to our personal library. Oh no! Is she reading a listed book? They know they aren't supposed to do that! I'd better look it up on the database. If it's not in our database I'd better research it and see if it's worth anything. But it looks like she's enjoying it. I'll have to wait until she's asleep."

So, as you can see, one CAN judge a book by its cover. All. The. Time.
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Thursday, April 27, 2006


Today's career mom is often trying to make partner or become regional sales manager or executive editor, jobs that require a tremendous amount of hours and a willingness to allow urgent appeals, via BlackBerry or cell phone, to interrupt even the best-laid plans for family time. And all the while, breathing down their necks, unwilling to give an inch, are the women who have chosen to stay home. They've given up on power and the autonomy of work for one signal reason: to ensure that their children get the best of themselves. And every day they're raising the stakes and the standards on what is required to be a good mother. These, of course, are the tensions of our times (Caitlin Flanagan in To Hell with All That : Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife).

To be a mother is to, at times, neglect oneself and one's children, whether or not one earns a paycheck. There is tension, hypocrisy, and grinding anxiety sandwiched between the moments of transcendence. Can we talk about these things already without the polemics of the working mom vs. at home mom debate and have some fun while doing so? Caitlin Flanagan does just that in To Hell with All That : Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.

Flanagan herself is a living contradiction. She is an at home mom to two twin sons and has a gardener, maid and organizer. She writes at length about the relationship she had with her sons' daytime nanny. True, I am a bit jealous of her ability to outsource so many menial tasks but her writing style is sparkling and witty and she doesn't have a "do it my way" attitude.

She warmed my heart by devoting several pages to columnist Erma Bombeck , the icon of the post-World War II housewife. A housewife from that era was a different creature from today's at home mom. Housewives didn't trail in the wake of their children the way today's at home moms do. House and husband came first. And they had Erma to make them (and their teenaged daughters) laugh. When I heard the report of her death ten years ago I sat down and cried. It was almost like losing a friend. Today's icon is Martha Stewart, who doesn't make anyone laugh (except, maybe, when she's sent off to prison), but seems to inspire many and Flanagan spends some time pondering the core questions of her phenomenal success.

Flanagan gives lavish weddings a proper dissing, discovers that de-cluttering is the new housekeeping, and tells the compelling story of how her competent and seemingly content housewife mother abruptly sought employment in 1973. And she makes her readers laugh along the way.

If you're looking for a Mother's Day present, this book might be just the thing.
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Friday, April 21, 2006

Putting in overtime at the pretend bookstore

Children need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much that this working together should be what is called 'quality time' but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value - Wendell Berry (from What Are People For?)

Last night I was home alone with the youngest children. I suppose I could have found a few moments to sit at the computer and work. But why do that when I can watch them work? Two boxes of unlisted books were sitting there, as tantalizing as boxes of Playmobil dolls. So I let them have at it.

Not once did I have to leave the chair and browse the books on my own. Over the course of two hours each book was hand delivered to me, one by one, with a sales pitch. "Your husband might like this one." Or, "this one has special prayers just for you." There was a pile of "listed books," which were off limits, of course (they have learned well). And a pile of "bad books." They saved the four purple books for the very end. With some reluctance they agreed to sell all of them to me as a group lot for $45.

The terms of sale at the pretend bookstore: debit cards are allowed if purchasing a minimum of three bags of books. Otherwise "paper money" is required and they'll be happy to search your purse for you to find the cash (I declined this gracious offer). They'll also carry the books to your vehicle for you.

As you can see, there isn't a dress code at the pretend bookstore. Pajamas are allowed. As are oversized big sister flip flops. The pretend bookstore doesn't have set hours but it becomes obvious when it's time to quit for the day. Last night it was when the youngest took a pen and wanted to write in one of the books and would not accept drawing paper as a substitute. But they'll be open again soon, I was told.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Rethinking Danielle Steel

I can hardly believe I typed those three words. It's all Snoopy's fault (see the book on the sidebar. And thanks to BookLust for making me aware of it).

As a bookseller I don't give her books the time of day. I trip over Danielle Steel books everywhere I go scouting for new inventory. They are even more ubiquitous than microwave cookbooks and Reader's Digest condensed books and just as worthless for resale. If I were to stumble across a large batch of non-book club hardcovers I might pick them up if they were dirt cheap and sell them as a group lot on eBay. But other than that, I avoid her books and have even been known to thrown them in the trash if one surfaces in a box of unlisted inventory, figuring it's not worth the effort to donate it to Goodwill or the library.

As a reader I have never given her books the time of day either. Without reading anything written by her I have dismissed her as a formulaic romance writer and would rather page through a microwave cookbook. Her popularity (550 million books in print, 66 bestsellers) has always put me off. But last night I read the short essay she wrote for Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life. Here are a few excerpts:

"Anyone who tells you how to write bestsellers is a sham and a liar. I can tell you how I write books. I write them with fear, excitement, discipline, and a lot of hard work. It takes me a year to write the outline and about a month to write the first draft. For me that's the shortest part of the process. But that's a matter of twenty-two hour days, of not leaving my house or my office, of not speaking to my friends, or speaking to anyone other than my children. All I do is write...the whole process takes me about two and a half years.

Where do the ideas come from? I really don't know. I've always had a deeply religious feeling about my writing. I feel very unimportant in the scheme of it all. I pray a lot before I start a book and as I work through it. And the less important I feel, the better the book goes.

I sit at my typewriter and type until I ache so badly I can't get up...Everything hurts...And after a while my whole body goes numb. I have often typed so long that I saw double. I have had to close my eyes to keep typing because my vision was so blurred. I have fallen asleep face first in my typewriter and woken up the next morning with the keyboard marks on my face."

Steel understands the importance of humility in the writing process. She works very very hard at her 1946 Olympia manual typewriter and says her work is a "job and a career" and "not an artistic pastime." I looked at her website and found out that she has nine children. One of her sons had bi-polar disorder and committed suicide at age 19. Now that I know these things about her I will trip a bit more respectfully over her books. And who knows. Maybe the next time one of her books surfaces in one of my boxes I will try reading it, instead of automatically throwing it in the trash.
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Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Future Offices of the Ashland Book Company

The front stoop. The chair by the play house. The picnic table. We now have a laptop and wireless internet access and these are but a few of the new work stations that await me. If only the warm spring weather would return.

Getting wireless internet access is even more life-changing than when we first got DSL. It won't take as much motivation to list a pile of books, or research completed eBay auctions, now that I can do it anywhere. Call it Extreme Telecommuting.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Sometimes I fantasize about starting a big bonfire and burning books. I'm not the only bookseller who thinks this way. The Art of Books is hosting a campout in Indiana this summer for booksellers. It's a "primitive" camp site with no hook-ups yet they hope to have internet hook-ups on site. woo hoo! Who needs electricity and running water as long as you can access the internet and keep an eye on your business. They will also have a bonfire for burning books.

You probably think that booksellers are all about acquiring books and selling them. Every week, however, some of the books we bring home turn out to be worthless and can't be sold. Also, some of the books we add to our inventory each day just sit there on the shelf month after month and don't sell. Eventually this deadweight has to be removed from the inventory. Instead of schlepping them all to Goodwill or the library it'd be nice to throw them in a heap in the backyard and light a match.

Right now we're in the process of removing 1000 books from our fiction section. Normal people can probably live their wholes lives and never experience the thrill of getting rid of 1000 books at a time. Too bad. It's very liberating and a great physical workout. It will free up storage space and make our inventory more lean and mean. As a result we now have more refined criteria for choosing fiction and know which books we should never ever purchase again. Even though we didn't read any of those 1000 books, they taught us well.
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Monday, April 10, 2006


Here in Wisconsin the weather is FINALLY spring-like. It's that wonderful time of year when one can sit in full sun and feel comfortable. I was able to package our books outside on the picnic table today.

As much as I enjoy spring flowers, my favorite part of spring is the arrival of the white throated sparrow (see our new banner, designed by our 13-year-old daughter). The white throated sparrows descend on our backyard in mid-April and stay for a few weeks before heading north for the summer. I know that one of these mornings I'll wake up and the first thing I'll hear is
their song and it will fill our yard all day long. When you hear a few dozen of these sparrows singing their song at the same time it is very charming.

At the grocery store today I picked up a ten pound package of bird seed and will scatter in the backyard. I always do this shortly before their anticipated arrival so that they will feel welcomed.

OK, this doesn't have much to do with bookselling. But when it comes to white throated sparrows I can't help myself, I guess.
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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Saint Valentine's Day, 1944

Most Valentine's Day presents don't last 62 years, but this one has. Between Tears and Laughter by Lin Yutang is a book about Chinese philosophy. I found it at a sale yesterday. A minds-on Valentine present, but with an elegant gift inscription:

Saint Valentine's Day, 1944

My Dear -

This book speaks as you have so often - simply and with a beautiful charity. It restates without the crustations of a weary, aged cynicism the breathtaking essence of what we know as Christianity!


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Thursday, April 06, 2006


Many booksellers buy their postage online. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, if one doesn't mind the monthly fee.

I, however, choose to schlep our packages to the post office 3-5 times per week (I do print out postage for the eBay orders). It gets me away from the children gives me an opportunity to leave the house. I enjoy the banter of the post office clerks. But here's the real benefit: I get free candy.

Everyday one of the clerks hands me a fistful or an envelope full of Smarties (called Sweet Tarts when I was a kid). Even if he's not waiting on me on that day he interrupts his work and reaches over and hands me the candy. He does this because he knows I have four kids and assumes I will take the candy home and distribute it to them. But here's my secret : my children don't like Smarties.

I haven't had the heart to tell him this, of course. And, really, why should I tell him? How often can a mother enjoy a treat without hearing, "Can I have some?!" I stash the candy in my van or in my jacket pocket and occasionally partake of these candies. In peace.

So, until or the other online services start giving away free candy, I'm going to keep going to the P.O.
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Monday, April 03, 2006

Can someone tell me why this book sold for $2100?

This children's book from 1975 sold for $2100 on ebay a couple of weeks ago. Why oh why is it worth that much?

I googled the author's name and title to see if there was any info about the specialness of this book. Nothing. I looked on Amazon. There are no customer reviews (paperback copies of this book sell for $400-$1100 on Amazon, by the way). There are scads of other title written by this author that aren't worth anything.

Here is a page of text from the book: "Arthur said, 'The lifeguard looks just like Chester.' Martha said, 'The lifeguard looks just like Chester.' But mother said, 'Don't be silly, that's not Chester. Chester is at Aunt Maude's house. And what's more, cats can't be lifeguards. Cats don't like water."

Not exactly prose comparable to Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum or even Dr. Seuss (first edition books by these authors sold in the $1800-4000 range last month). And look at the tape on the hinges. And the boring illustrations on the cover.

What gives? Who knows. If the book someday gives us a nice chunk of change I won't complain. Going now to write that title down in my bookseller notebook.
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