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A Bookseller’s Year-End Reflections

December 29, 2010

Sometimes, I feel like the iceman watching the first refrigerators roll off the truck.

I get asked about once a day, maybe more, whether my store, a large independent bookstore, carries the Kindle, or a cover for the Kindle, or e-books for the customer to download onto his Kindle. I am always tempted to respond by picking up a hardcover book off a nearby table, dropping it on the floor from about head height while saying, “See that? I can still read that. Try that with your Kindle,” or by delivering an impromptu lecture on how your Kindle is another outpost of the empire of the Wal-Mart of the publishing world, a monster that leaves publishers and authors at its mercy. But I don’t, and I won’t today, either, because here at the end of my third year selling books for a living, I find myself strangely at peace with the world of books.

Maybe it’s because two major literary prizes – the Pulitzer, for Paul Harding’s Tinkers and the National Book Award, for Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule – went to books with tiny initial print runs and little to no publisher backing. This year, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter at work – marking the first time I have followed anything at all on a service whose point I still don’t really see – and I thought two things: one, I hope Great House wins, because that’s one hell of a book (and the probable subject of my next column in this space) and two, I really, really hope Lord of Misrule doesn’t win, because we’ve never even seen it in the store. Naturally it did, and later I found out that not only is it now a major prize-winner, it’s a horse novel, and not only is it a horse novel, it’s an Appalachian horse novel. It may as well have come addressed to us, situated as we are in the very heart of horse country and a stone’s throw from Appalachia, though on review, it’s doubtful whether many of the local blue-bloods really wish to read about the seamy, gritty side of their beloved thoroughbred industry and the shady, desperate souls trying to squeeze what they can from their broken-down steeds at a run-down West Virginia track, on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from the glitz of the Kentucky Derby. Apparently only about eight thousand copies were printed in the initial run. Obviously, its fortunes changed; hopefully, the success of these two little books that could will teach big publishing a lesson.

Maybe it’s because for every person who comes in asking for an accessory for their new gadget (break it, break that thing right over your knee, I’m telling you) I get two or three telling me how much they love the feel of a real book in their hands. To open a book is to touch a tradition centuries old, a tradition unlikely to be killed off by the latest gadget (seriously, it’s going to be obsolete in three years max and they’ll be dunning you to buy another, only heartbreak lies that way, reader.) It may be that the mass market paperback – the cheap, poorly-bound, disposable vehicle for equally disposable genre fiction, such a throwaway that publishers actually want retailers to strip the covers from unsold copies and send only those back, recycling the rest of the book – eventually disappears from store shelves, but the sturdier trade paperback and hardcover aren’t going anywhere in the long run.

Maybe it’s because after decades under the long shadow of New York, literary agents are turning outward to look for talent. “We all live in New York,” one said in a recent Writer’s Digest roundtable, “and we’re tired of hearing about it.” The best books these days – Lord of Misrule being one of the more extreme examples, but also the inescapably Midwestern Freedom – are coming from a world just being discovered by the Manhattanites that run the book industry. New York, it seems, may be tired of being the stage and wouldn’t mind a turn in the audience for once.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because I have found, at long last, the place I belong, doing the thing I was born to do – connecting people with books, putting meaningful words before eyes that have, without knowing it, longed to read them.

Nah, I’ve sold too many copies of Nicholas Sparks for it to be that.   Has to be something else.

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