Saturday, December 29, 2007

NYTimes: "literary center of gravity"

Our Towns: Get Your Motor Running, Head Out to the ... Bookstore?

IF someone was going to start a literary motorcycle club in New Jersey, it figured to be Alex Dawson. So, no surprise, there he was, leader of the pack on his Kawasaki Vulcan Classic, when the club roared out on its first road trip earlier this month to the house in Burlington, where James Fenimore Cooper was born.
O.K., it was just five members, but you have to start somewhere. "It's a very difficult demographic to mine, finding people who are interested in literature and motorcycles," he said.
But then Mr. Dawson, it turns out, is already an expert on mining difficult demographics. Witness his main gig, his attempt to start an independent literary bookstore, writers' salon and literary center of gravity in Metuchen, N.J. And, quite amazingly, a year and a half into the game, his bookstore, the Raconteur, has become slightly famous in literary circles in Brooklyn and Manhattan as well as Edison and New Brunswick, even if the jury is still out on whether anyone can make much of a living this way in the age of Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble.
"Making a lot of money has never been my main goal, so buying a bookstore is not like buying a Jaguar dealership," said Mr. Dawson, 36, at his store, nestled between Charming Nails and Metuchen Savings Bank. "But you have to remember that I ran a theater company for the last six years, so this isn't a financial step down, it's a financial step up."
Mr. Dawson grew up in New Jersey and then on a horse farm in Alabama, studied art at Rutgers, wrote plays, staged plays, tended bar, worked at a beloved independent video store in town and was working at the desultory secondhand bookstore on Main Street when he heard the owners wanted to sell it. He decided to jump in and opened it with a business partner, John W. McKelvey, as an entirely new business in November 2004. The shop mostly sells used books, rents DVD's, stages readings and film events, offers writers' workshops, and operates as he puts it, like Floyd's Barber Shop for people who like books and art films and want to exchange ideas.
So yesterday the French classic "Rififi" was playing and the store did have the incongruous air of clutter, order and surprise you used to find at bookstores but don't much anymore.
FIRST impressions to the contrary, Metuchen in central New Jersey is not an entirely insane place for Mr. Dawson to try to create what he likes to think of as his version of legendary bookstores like Shakespeare & Company in Paris or City Lights in San Francisco. There is, after all, the slightly obnoxious local slogan, "the Brainy Borough," which dates back at least a century. There is a fairly rich literary history that includes figures like the late poet and novelist John Ciardi. Main Street is still vital with shops and coffee bars and restaurants. It feels like one of those suburbs with a center and a soul.
Still Charing Cross it is not, and it's safe to say the leaflet on the front door from last Saturday's event probably would not have been found on any other front door in town.
"Party #18!" goes the teaser for a reading by Clay McLeod Chapman, quoting The Village Voice's description of him as a sort of "a younger, weirder" Eudora Welty "who dishes out plate after plate of Southern Fried Gothic."
You wonder how much of a constituency there is in Metuchen for younger and weirder versions of Eudora Welty, but shoppers and fans like Tom Lynch, a high school teacher, or Beth McLure, who's in advertising, or Shaun Boyle, a film and media technician, say the shop is a godsend. A recent extravaganza entitled Wordfest ("Three Hours/15 Writers!") drew 400 people to the nearby Forum Theater for readings by writers famous and obscure leading up to Jim Carroll, best known for "The Basketball Diaries."
"My mother asked me how it went, and I said the bad thing was it went five hours and the good thing was that people didn't seem to mind." Mr. Dawson said.
He says the venture is only about 40 percent of what he wants it to be. "I'm waiting to be shocked by a business boom, but it's been about what I expected."
And if things get too frustrating, there's always the motorcycle club. He's hoping to do an overnight next time beyond the New Jersey universe to the Robert Louis Stevenson cottage in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

from Peter Applebome

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Raconteur in the London Guardian

Jeremy Mercer sounds a call to arms to all real book lovers to rally and keep the independent bookseller alive

Saturday December 8, 2007
The Guardian

Ever since I crossed the threshold of George Whitman's bonkers bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris some eight years ago, I have been happily entwined in the world of independent bookselling. It was this independent bookshop which gave me a place to live and work when my life derailed. It was an independent bookshop, John Calder's in London, which supported my first attempt at magazine publishing. And when I wrote a book about a bookshop, it was independent bookshops, more than 30 of them, that welcomed me on that nerve-racking odyssey that is an author's tour.

As a rule with few exceptions, these establishments nurture local authors and provide a hub for bibliophiles. Although they may not be the place to get the steepest discount on Harry Potter, you are far more likely to find absorbing conversation, obscure reading matter, and even a stray friend or lover while wandering among their shelves. These stores, by some magic alchemy, actually transcend commerce and become communities. As Paul Collins put it in Sixpence House, his ode to the booksellers of Hay-on-Wye, the more time you spend in such places, "the more you suspect that what you are looking at is a sort of personal library, a living room with a cash register."

Even with the onslaught of online and big box booksellers, I once believed that independents would survive if they were financially creative and catered to their local readers. You know, sell shortbread on the side or offer writing workshops, that sort of thing. Sure, there were casualties, such as the closing of Compendium in Camden in 2000, but I was convinced that a core of independents could endure.

Then there was an email recently from author Sparkle Hayter announcing that Black Orchid, one of the finer independents in New York City, had closed its doors. "It mixed sit-around-the-cracker-barrel comfort with twisted big-city sophistication," she wrote. "It always attracted a crowd, just not enough to keep it going."

It was that proverbial straw and I realized that we, the habitu├ęs of these bookshops, must do more to protect the institutions we claim to love. This is not to say we should boycott the large chains, for selling books in any manner is noble work. Rather, we must, if you will, 'procott' the independents and dedicate our book budget to a precious store of our choosing.

It will not be an easy task. It is ridiculously convenient to order that hard-to-find book on Amazon or to nip into the airport boutique and snap up the newest literary sensations at fire sale prices. But convenience be damned. We must mould ourselves after the magnificent Helene Hanff, the New York City book lover who maintained 20 years of correspondence and put up with interminable frustrations just to buy from London bookshop Marks & Co. "You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizzbang like that," she lovingly sniped in one of the letters that make up her fact-based novel 84, Charing Cross Road. "You probably don't realise it, but it's hardly more than two years since I ordered them."

In the spirit of Ms Hanff, I hereby vow to do my part. Lacking a decent English bookshop in my home city of Marseille, I have been guilty of ordering books on the internet. Yet, if I travel 20 minutes by metro and another 20 minutes by intercity bus, I arrive at the Book in Bar, a splendid bookseller in Aix-en-Provence that does, in fact, offer shortbread with its coffee. If Ms Hanff could wait two years for her books, I can certainly wait a 40-minute journey to Aix for mine.

It is incumbent upon us to go to such lengths to help those foolhardy dreamers who still insist on opening bookshops. Just look around: on the Greek island of Santorini where a band of young idealists created Atlantis Books or in the New Jersey town of Metuchen where a bearded maverick opened The Raconteur or in London where Lloyd's of Kew has been lovingly revived complete with tree sculpture bookshelves. If these folks are willing to gamble their meager resources on the absurd adventure of bookselling, the least we, the bookstore faithful, can do is match their bet. It might cost a little more in time and money, but consider it a form of tithe. How else will we preserve our literary sanctuaries?

· Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix, £7.99) is out now in paperback.