BEA: Part 2
Friday morning, groggy and stiff, I took the train to the LA Convention Center. I spotted Steve Bercu, owner of legendary Austin, TX indie Book People on the train (this is what passes as a celebrity sighting in the independent bookstore world). At the Convention Center, I got my badge and wandered over to the West Hall to prepare for the BookSense.com users group meeting. The excitement was palpable.
After waiting in the longest Starbucks line imaginable, I drank my venti coffee ($14.50 for a large coffee, a muffin, a cookie, and a bottle of water...Burn in a fiery hell, Aramark) sitting on the floor. I bumped into our Harper rep Gabe Barillas, who seemed stunned to see someone at the show as early as he was, and Emily from Skylight, who was also getting a jump on things.
One of the interesting things about attending any convention is putting a face to the names you deal with everyday. It was fun to meet Scott and Ricky from Book Sense (er, Indiebound...more on that in a second). I never would've guessed that Scott had a pony tail. He was probably equally stunned to see that I had a beard. We just never talk about these kind of things. It's always server failure, slow load times, and adding inventory with us. Anyway, at the Book Sense meeting, they unveiled some new website capabilities that I thought looked very good.
Book Sense, of course, is on the way out. By the end of the month, it will be replaced by IndieBound, a newer, hipper brand that hopes to unite all sorts of independent business together in an effort to capitalize on the growing shop local movement. This means no more Book Sense picks, no more Book Sense logos on our website, no more Book Sense anything. All of that will be gone in a month's time, replaced by the IndieBound brand. I think it's a good thing. Book Sense had served its purpose, but it was time for a change. I like the idea of uniting local businesses and stressing the incredible advantages of supporting local businesses (keeping the money in the local economy, less of an environmental impact, preserving the unique local character, etc.), although I wonder if the local shoe store will be as psyched about it as those in the culture industry -- bookstores, movie theaters, record stores -- will be. At the very least, the logo is nice.
After the thrill of the website meeting, I wandered onto the floor for a quick tour of the booths. I dropped in on McSweeney's and chatted with Andrew Leland, managing editor of The Believer. We talked about McSweeney's newest book, All Known Metal Bands, which is a list of...wait for it...all known metal bands. That's it, just a long list of every metal band this one guy could think of. What's interesting about the book -- aside from very sharp design (silver ink on black paper) -- is that, if there were multiple bands named Destroyer, the author lists the name "Destroyer" multiple times. There's a certain charm to the book, which I compared, perhaps inappropriately, to the Vietnam War Memorial.
After my McSweeney's visit, I headed over to hear Thomas Friedman give his keynote address. I ran into our IT guru Henry, and we sat together to hear Friedman. I like some of Friedman's columns, but I found his reading style to be overly didactic. His new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded is about how emerging middle classes in India and China are forcing Americans to adjust many aspects of their lives, primarily how they produce and consume energy. He makes a compelling argument. (As an aside, who decided that we need a "Manhattan project for sustainable energy?" Both Ed Begley, Jr. and Friedman used exactly this phrasing, and I've heard it several other times as well. Anybody know who coined this term? Maybe it was Thomas Friedman himself...) After that, I had a free hour or two before the panel I wanted to attend, so I drifted off in search of food.
My main complaint about BEA was that the food was miserable and miserably expensive. It was like being trapped in the Jet Blue terminal at JFK airport for three days. On Friday afternoon, I ate a plate of cold, slimy "Chinese" food. It cost $8, beverage not included. I heard later on that the tacos were better, but we can't undo what's done.
In the afternoon, I decided to drop in on a panel entitled "Evolution of In-Store Events: From In-Store to Online." The panel included Tyson Cornell, who runs events at Book Soup, Charles Stillwagon, his opposite number at the great indie Tattered Cover in Denver, the director of online promotions for Powell's, and the events and promotions director from Book Passage in San Francisco. While there were some interesting ideas thrown around (Powell's has become a mini film production company, producing slick documentaries about Ian McEwan and others), I felt like none of the people on the panel had really cracked how to put an event online in a relatively easy yet still compelling way, which just goes to show how hard that is. Tattered Cover seems like they've done the most in this direction, podcasting and video-casting some of their events, but Stillwagon confessed that they haven't necessarily seen sales resulting from that. Towards the end of the panel, the discussion disintegrated into more of a discussion of how to get a big-time event, as several authors asked what bookstores look for in a prospective event.
After the panel, my energy was beginning to ebb, but I forced myself to see a few booths before i knocked off for the day. I went straight to the Small Beer Press booth, were I talked with Gavin and Jedediah about the NBCC Good Reads list, the Book Sense picks, and how a small press like theirs can break out. They're both really nice guys, and I think their catalog is great. They gave me a copy of The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, by John Kessel which I'm eager to read.
After that, I checked out the Grove/Atlantic booth, where their rep gave me a copy of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. It's always interesting to see which books the major publishers have decided to push at BEA. Grove/Atlantic had copies of Leif Enger's newest (we're hosting Enger later this month), Mark Bowden's book about the NFL championship game between the Colts and the Giants, and a few other books. FSG was pushing Jonathan Carroll's The Ghost in Love, Marilynne Robinson's Home (which is the story of Gilead from the women's perspective), and Robert Bolano's epic 2666, which has the best design of any ARC I've ever seen -- blood red ink on a craft paper cover. I picked up a copy of all three books from FSG. Over at the Picador booth, they had Tree of Smoke and The Shock Doctrine prominently displayed, but I didn't take a copy of either, since I watched a guy argue his way into multiple copies of each. The whole scene turned me off to swag grubbing for the day. It was time to go home.
After a quick shower, I threw on my best duds and raced off to drinks with Alec Baldwin at the Sunset Tower Hotel. Okay, it wasn't just me and Alec. I mean, Stephen Baldwin was there, too. And like fifty people from St. Martin's. And a few librarians. And my wife. They served really tasty finger foods like sliders and damn good pigs-in-blankets. I talked to some folks from Books Inc., a Northern California chain of indie stores, and then had a strange discussion with a reporter from the New York Post who was in town specifically to cover the party. Alec gave a pretty moving speech about how hard divorce and custody battles often are for fathers. For a cocktail party, it was pretty heavy stuff.
After a non-BEA related dinner (one of the perks of being the hometown for BEA), Edan and I rolled to the Book Soup/Ecco Press party at Palihouse. All the folks from Book Soup were there: Charles, Manny, Joseph, Julia, Tyson, and Glenn Goldman, the owner. Gabe from Harper's introduced me to Harper's Senior Vice President or sales, Nina Olmsted, and we had a great discussion about how one comes to do what one does for a living (she has a degree in molecular biology and now she works in publishing. Go figure). After a few hours and a couple of sickly sweet cocktails, it was time to go home. We passed on the after party, which was going to be held at a bar frequented by transvestites (that wasn't why we passed on the party, we were just tired).
Saturday morning, I let myself sleep in until 8, then ate a big breakfast (I learned my lesson after Friday's extravagant meals) and headed down to the convention. My plan was to do nothing but walk the floor, seeing as many booths and meeting as many people as I could. I think I did alright. I ran into Mark from The Elegant Variation, and he introduced me to Jim Ruland, who hosts the Vermin on the Mount reading series. Mark led us to the Greywolf Press booth, where we met some of the marketing and publicity folks. I picked up an interesting short story collection by Jeffrey Renard Allen called Holding Pattern. At the Da Capo booth, they had all my favorite books: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Ghosts at the Table, and the new Sonic Youth biography Goodbye 20th Century, of which they graciously gave me a copy.
The best part about BEA, for me at least, is meeting all the cool small presses out there and seeing what they're putting out. I made a point of thanking the New York Review of Books for keeping so much great literature alive. It's because of them that I'm obsessed with J.F. Powers, and for this, I thank them. I had a great conversation with the people at the Tin House booth, and they gave me a copy of Adam Braver's interesting novel November 22, 1963 (I'll give you one guess what it's about) as well as a copy of Jim Krusoe's Girl Factory (we're hosting Krusoe in July, and I'm psyched). Crown Point Press was tucked way away in the back corner of the main hall, but some clever jacket design caught my attention and I grabbed a copy of Beer, Art, and Philosophy, a memoir about modern art by Tom Marioni. I had a great talk with Laura from Ammo books. They publish the most gorgeous books of art, graphic design, and pop culture. I loved a book they had there called The Red Shoes.
Towards the end of the day, I ran into Janet and Amy from Avid. They had a crazy weekend in LA. In addition to immersing themselves in ABA and BEA craziness, they saw fellow Athens natives REM at the Hollywood Bowl. After the show, a friend of theirs was hit by a car and they had to race him to the hospital. Hopefully he'll have a full and speedy recovery. Janet and Amy introduced me to Eric and Eliza Jane Obenauf, of Two Dollar Radio, another great small press. They have a great catalog of books out right now, including titles by Amy Koppelman and Rudolph Wurlitzer, who I mentioned here earlier this week.
On my way out, I nearly made the mistake of talking to someone dressed as a pirate. They were there selling Scientology books. Thankfully, someone warned me, and I steered clear of them.
In the end, I thought BEA was great. I met so many impressive people and caught up with a few old friends. I had lunch with Lucia Silva, the buyer and manager of Portrait of a Bookstore in the Valley, and one of the best booksellers I know. That was a lot of fun, despite the disgusting barbecue we ended up choosing. Meeting so many talented and bright independent booksellers was a treat. People like Karl Pohrt (owner of Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, MI) and Steve Bercu are really legendary figures in the independent bookstore world, and getting to hear their thoughts on bookselling was a treat. Meeting booksellers like Emily Pardo, the incredibly sharp Children's Events coordinator for Books & Books in Coral Gables, FL, and Shannon Mathis, the Children's buyer for Books Inc. (and former Vroman's employee!), was a real thrill. It made me feel like I was part of something larger than just my store (hey, maybe this IndieBound thing will work!). Obviously, dealing with the huge crowds, the oppressive lighting, the overpriced, sub-prison grade food, and the other woes of the conventioneer can be a drag, but it's worth it when you can meet great booksellers and cool publishers. I'm glad it's over for now, but I hope get to go again next year. (I might try to bring more of my own food, though.)
Vroman's folks Justin and Guinevere embrace the new brand.