Monday, December 26, 2011

Psalm

The Lord is our shepherd
The flock has found wanting
And so put out to pasture.
We now lead thirsting to water;
We now restore souls.

Though we walk through
The Valley as the Shadow of Death,
Fearsome and evil, we say
“Thou art with me.”
With rod and staff
We comfort.

And prepare a table before others
As though they were enemies;
Anoint our own heads with oil;
Run bitter cups over and serve.

Surely goodness and mercy
Have fled from us as days
Follow days, and we have dwelled
In the wilderness without God
Too long.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Amazon's Offense

All week I’ve been fuming. Nothing gets my goat like Amazon, and they’re at it with disgusting abandon. On Saturday, December 10, their new promotion goes live: price check an item in a retail store with the Amazon app for smart phones, then buy it from Amazon for an additional 5% off, up to $5. The promotion lasts only a day, but still, in the busiest season of the year, in the month on which many retailers rely heavily for future existence, and on what tends to be the biggest shopping day of the week, Amazon encourages consumers to flip the bird to store owners and employees who pay rent and taxes to be considered more than a free showroom, all for a measly five dollars.

Not only has Amazon been aggressively attacking books in short-sighted bursts of lunacy, but many consumers still go along with them. And the new campaign only capitalizes on a practice that already occurs frequently.

Now, maybe I’m getting ahead of my furious self. Dan Mitchell at CNN Money seems to think so, that my outrage is misguided because the Amazon campaign will deal most damage to other giants like Walmart and Barnes & Noble. He goes on to dismiss any concern that local stores will be affected because “those kinds of stores were mostly obliterated years ago” and the “victim is theoretical” in instances of Amazon’s greedy money grabs and sales sniping.

Tell Capitol Hill that Bailey/Coy Books was merely theoretical.

And, for the record, the Elliott Bay Book Company wasn't obliterated; it moved to a new location.

Other arguments pose that Amazon’s new campaign will bring foot traffic into stores. Once there, customer’s are positioned for impulse buys. It’s a funny thing, 5% is. It’s not enough to get people off their couch to try and get a deal. No, it’s a discount designed to entice shoppers who already bothered to leave the house. Then, in the store, that added discount (up to five measly bucks) is designed to tip a customer on the fence toward buying from Amazon, where prices are already gouged deeply, and shipping costs are nil. Impulse buys are never Nathan Myhrvold’s elaborate cookbook and food-porn masterpiece, Modernist Cuisine ($625, available at Elliott Bay Book Co.); they’re more likely to be chocolate bars, greeting cards, and Bananagrams. But those don't really pay the bills, do they.

It has never been a small irony to me that Amazon chose a Bradburian name like Kindle and Kindle Fire for their e-reader, as they continue to set fire to booksellers, publishers, and writers alike. Why Jeff Bezos and company hate books so much, I’ll never know. But I urge all readers to strike against Amazon and not buy into their underhanded ploys for business. You’re smarter than Amazon. Buying from them is like saying you don’t care what you’re buying, where it comes from, or who it’s for.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Defense of the Bookstore: Eighth Day Books

Wichita, KS. At the intersection of N Erie St. and E Douglas Ave. sits a bookshop, since 1988, as a testament to renewal.

Eighth Day Books is heralded by Image Journal as the “Miracle of Wichita,” and for its owner, Warren Farha, there’s likely more truth in that single statement. The store’s inception was grown from Farha’s own love of books: “I remember lying on our living room floor with a book called The Real History of the Wild West when I was three or four years old, looking at the pictures and pretending I could read. Reading led me into other worlds as often as I wanted.”

That, and the 1987 car accident that took away his first wife. “A completely intimate and unspeakable event, yet to describe the store without saying anything about that would be, fundamentally, lying,” said Farha. “In the midst of the cataclysm, one of the things I knew was that I had to start my life over in certain deep ways. Part of that starting over was entering a new vocation, and my umbilical attachment to reading, and the influence of the circle of friends I had inhabited for the previous ten years, pointed, in my head, to a bookstore.”


So here it sits, across the street from a rug shop and a bed and bath gallery, Eighth Day Books, with a name suggesting there’s renewal beyond the end of the week. The eighth day is the first day of the new week, the day symbolic of Jesus’ resurrection.

Devoted to “classics in religion, literature, and history,” Farha is hesitant nonetheless about the store being pigeonholed as “religious.”

“It slices ultimate truths from the stuff of life, defines it as one category among others, and also repels those for whom ‘religion’ has a viscerally negative connotation.”

He takes the distinction farther. “We’re aiming here at an all-embracing universality… We believe, in our souls, that all truth is interconnected—if rightly considered, Beatrix Potter and Curious George and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Wendell Berry can be as religious as Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus Confessor and Augustine and Aquinas.”

In an atmosphere where bookstores in general are increasingly considered quaint specialty shops, it begs the question of specializing further, but Farha persists in his now twenty-three year commitment to bookselling, his way. “From the beginning, I knew our selection…could not be supported solely by the local community,” though the store boasts a wide clientele from varying denominations, traditions, and depths of belief.


“A year after we opened, we mailed our first catalog, a 24-page broadside of our favorite books and short appreciate reviews… Our infant website was launched in 1998, mirroring the titles contained in our ink-and-paper catalog. By 2009, our website became comprehensive, presenting all 27,000-plus titles we stocked on the shelves, both new and used.”

Almost from its inception, Eighth Day has also been the representative bookstore at many an Image Journal event, along with Touchstone, the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, the Baylor Institute of Faith and Learning. It all started when Madeleine L’Engle came to speak at a local university in 1988. “A month after that was an event called ‘Assisi in Wichita,’ a gathering of representatives of the major religions from all over the world.” Later, Image seized on the bookstore for all their conferences, the rest followed. “We just sort of fell into this kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, Eighth Day Press does what it can by extension to make available books that fit the store’s niche. “Eighth Day Press began only because we felt compelled that certain books, whether old books now out of print, or—in the case of our first book, an original publication, The Feast of Friendship by Fr. Paul O’Callaghan—deserved to see the light of day. We don’t have the resources to do all we’d like to do, but we’re proud of the books we’ve published or reprinted. It’s more of a personal commitment to the books themselves.”

As I continue—albeit infrequently as ever—to mount a defense of the bookstore, I’m heartened to find each one is more different than the last, fitting their communities by engaging on the level of need, desire, passion. And I’m inspired with words Warren Farha left with me:
I nurture the hope that our nature as human beings cries out for the physicality of the printed book, and the almost endless and surprising variety a bookstore uniquely offers. Without wishing to offend anyone, I believe digital books are a Gnosticizing technology, by contrast with real books sterile and ephemeral, offering only convenience and novelty in exchange for the more subtle and enduring genius and delightful corporeality of the codex…I have no Plan B. I’ll keep doing this, as much as it depends on me, until by last breath.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What to Do With a Corpse

“Oh...” The word dribbles down the tear in my friend’s mouth as she enters the parlor, where I seat her near the wicker basket full of this month’s newspapers. “So this is your place.”

Her eyes are on the mantel, but I direct her attention to the new floor rug I had shipped from London, special, three-day guarantee. “The weaver threads everything with unmatched attention to detail, on a loom that’s well over a hundred.”

“Is that so.”

“Do you notice the knot density?”

She’s still not looking when she asks, “The what?”

“The knot density. It’s how you know the quality of work, really. Nothing like this in stores. And it’s all done by hand.”

“Hand?” She jerks and kicks the basket of newspapers, which skitter behind her like mice, all claw against the hardwood. Her own hand is at her brooch before she knows it. Which gives her another jolt.

“Are you okay?” I wince.

This is the first she looks at me. The hand once at her breast gestures with timidity, and undue reproach, over my shoulder.

“Ah! The new mantelpiece.” I sigh into my teeth as a smile draws the drapes. “You noticed.”

Aghast, she nods.

“I thought about a clock, but these days, who has the time anyway?” I choke on my own wit. A brief moment regains my composure. “It’s hard to decorate sometimes. I get an idea in my mind of how things should look. A certain picture. Frames and pillows. Rugs. Mirrors? Do people decorate with mirrors still? Then there’s the ironwork, the woodwork, wicker, plastics—ugh! who can stand it? Marble. There’s the upholstery. I want it all to work, right? I mean all together. In harmony. But when I buy things and get them where I want them, I wonder if it’s really worth the effort. It’s never exactly right.”

I can see my friend is only half listening. Her eyes are glassy, but I’m almost certain she’s looking in mine by now. So I carry on.

“It’s like there’s something inside me that knows how a place is supposed to be, supposed to look.”

My friend stammers. I smile.

“Well—I can’t show everyone what’s inside me, now can I.” I turn and gaze again at the mantelpiece, cock my head to catch it in a different light, a different angle.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Day of Their Own Design

Heavy dusk fire casts the wedding party’s long shadows across a patio overlooking the harbor, a crowd of young men and women looking on at Bobby and Emily, and the couple’s families gathered along the perimeter. Considering I’ve attended about as many rehearsal dinners as Liz Taylor, you’d think the piano player serves a purpose before the actual ceremony. Considering the absence of any instrument tonight, and the complete dearth of music altogether – except the quiet lap of water on the rocks behind us – it’s clear just how important the wedding music is (not).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Old Man

a voice like yours
might coax a saline bead
along my cheek.
The way you read
or speak,
the rasp in your laugh
and after you’ve sung
every bit
moving through your lungs,
with a note of grief—
rather, relief.
If one day I speak
with all your honest tone,
know from you I learned,
too, how to hold my peace.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Defense of the Bookstore: Changing Hands

Meteorologically speaking, I’m predisposed to a reading climate best described as mostly cloudy, with a chance of showers, breaking occasionally for strolls down by the water. When a friend told me about a bookstore in Tempe, AZ, I was dubious – In the desert? As if. That is, until I got e-hold of bookseller Brandon Stout, at Changing Hands.

Changing Hands exterior

The store, a pillar of literary culture in the American southwest since 1974, gushed from the pipedreams of three alternative school volunteers. And, being volunteers, Tom Brodersen, Gayle Shanks, and Bob Sommer kept their community service in mind as they determined to create an outlet for hard to find books. Dealing in new and used books, Changing Hands overwhelmed its original space by 1978, expanding twice within just a few years, and eventually covering 5,000 square feet. In the next twenty years, they would open a second, much larger location.

In that time, the bookstore developed from a small outfit into a collective of friends, a worker-owned operation. Since then, with all the expansion, a core group of decision-makers was determined, taking on employees from then on, still heavily valuing fairness and involvement from all bookshop workers. Staying open for over three decades, the bookstore has seen its fair share of recessions and changes in the book business, and to have expanded so much in that time—incredible!


Changing Hands interior

Still, bookseller Brandon Stout is willing to claim, “right now is the most exciting period in history to be a bookseller.”

Anyone who’s glanced at the New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, or clicked on over to Salon or Huffington Post knows that books are yet again changing, in some ways nearly on par with impact of the original Gutenberg printing press. E-commerce and e-books are seeing a significant upswing compared to bookstores and print media, traditionally published authors are going self-pub, self-published authors are signing six figure contracts with big presses. It’s enough to make your head spin.

“It’s all changing so fast, and yet by working hard, being creative, and by loving books, authors, and readers infinitely more than chain stores do, or any online algorithm that ‘recommends’ your next read, indies remain a vibrant part of their communities,” Stout says.

And it’s community that Changing Hands has always concerned itself with, from the very beginning. The bookstore has benefited schools and organizations in support of education and the arts, generating an impressive list of recipients positively impacted by the participation Changing Hands has had in their fundraising.

In addition, the store plays host to over 300 author events offered throughout the year, big names like Barack Obama and David Sedaris to local authors—Stephanie Meyer alert! the Twilight author hails from Tempe—and indie press darlings, like Brady Udall, whose novel The Lonely Polygamist (an intricate and enchanting piece of fiction, in my completely objective opinion, and now out in paperback) is currently a finalist for the Booksellers Choice Award.

Sherman Alexie signs latest War Dances

“As far as connection goes,” Stout offers, “there's no substitute for author events. Yes, you can chat on Facebook or Twitter (provided it's not a personal assistant hosting the feed, as is often the case), but meeting your hero in person? Shaking his or her hand? Having your book signed and your picture taken? Take that, social media. Hell, take that, internet!”

Which isn’t to say Changing Hands escapes the World Wide Web altogether. “We got a late start on the social media front, so I made catching up a priority last year. Our Facebook community, which is approaching 8,000 fans, is particularly vibrant, because that's where our customers are, people who actually live in the area and come into the store, or might be induced to come in.”

They keep a Twitter feed, too. “Twitter is the sexy platform, right?” But there’s an inexplicable trend Stout points out: “I love our Twitter community, but in our case at least, it's an entirely different audience than Facebook. Very few locals. Other booksellers tell me the same about their own feeds.”

That such a distinction becomes apparent to someone like Brandon Stout goes to show how closely he and his colleagues are paying attention. It cultivates a sense of community for readers much in the way that friendships use social media to enhance relationships, an added ease in communicating events and other points of connection, while not diminishing the enriching power of those real life interactions.

As to why he remains passionate about bookselling, Stout puts it succinctly, if only in someone else’s words:
Patton Oswalt spoke at the store yesterday. When someone asked him why he persevered for so long as a young comedian, why he endured the crappy clubs, hostile or apathetic audiences, the lousy pay, he said, "I wanted the lifestyle long before I wanted the success. The lifestyle of a stand-up comic. Most of all, I wanted to hang out with other comedians, which is the best version of life you can live. When I was finally able to support myself by doing what I love, that was it. I'd already won. The success is just gravy." Substitute "bookseller" for "comedian" and there you have it, really.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Passing Note

We’re just looking
they said,
mom and dad, pacing
the piano showroom
next door
to the teacher, who mom
quit months
after purchase. I tapped
at the keys
enough in the meantime
they thought to get me
private lessons
for my new inheritance.



Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Defense of the Bookstore: Lindsey at Village Books

Lindsey McGuirk began her career in books as the Events Coordinator for Village Books in Bellingham, WA. She took a two year stint at Algonquin Books in North Carolina, where she learned about the publishing end of the business, but returned to her true love of bookselling at Village Books in 2009. She is now the Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator and handles the online marketing and working with authors to get their books printed on the store's print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.

These days we all talk. A lot. But not necessarily in the ways we used to—face-to-face, letters, phone calls. Now it’s emails and texts and IM’s and Facebook and Twitter and whatever else our ever-typing fingers desire. Caught somewhere in the middle of online communication are brick and mortar stores who still rely on that face-to-face interaction with customers, but know that their customers are spending much of their time on the internet. So how do those businesses reach those customers? By heading to the internet.

I wasn’t too interested in online marketing until a diehard online marketer and former co-worker at Algonquin Books opened my eyes to not only the possibilities, but also the fun of connecting with customers via the web. She shared much sage advice and when I moved back to Bellingham to restart my gig at Village Books, I was equipped with a great deal of online marketing know-how.

When I came back to Village Books, I was hired on as the (get ready for it) Digital Marketing & Publishing Manager. It’s one of those titles that requires an explanation. I handle the online marketing (Facebook, Twitter, VB’s website & blog) and work with self-publishing authors who want to have their books printed on our print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.

Facebook and Twitter have opened up doors to staying relevant as a small, independent business. You may or may not have heard the rumor, but apparently books are dead. Being a, um, bookstore, that’s a bit disheartening to hear. Yet you rarely hear that from folks actually in the book business. Not because we’re in denial, but because we just don’t see it. And one of the ways we know people are still loving books are from the conversations we have through our Facebook page and Twitter feed.

In a year and a half, we’ve gone from 600 “fans” on Facebook to more than 3,500 and from 400 “followers” on Twitter to more than 2,700. Taking into consideration that many of our fans on Facebook are some of the same folks following us on Twitter, we’re still reaching at least 4,000 people through these online streams. We’re having a sale? With one click we’ve just spread the word to thousands of people. We’re doing a giveaway? One click lets thousands of people know about it. And what I love about these means of social marketing is that these people have chosen to listen to our messages—they’ve decided they like us enough that they want to hear what we’re saying on Facebook and Twitter.

Probably one of my favorite perks to social media is we don’t have to be stodgy in our messages. We can have the personality that traditional marketing may not afford due to space availability and cost. Village Books has always allowed itself to have personality, which is a huge perk of an independent business, but these other venues give us yet another way to show our goofier side. It’s almost as though we’re letting our hair down and yelling, “Yes! We know we’ve been curators of free speech and intellectual thought for years! But look, we’re wacky too!”

So yeah, social media lets us keep in touch with our customers in a new way and lets us show our wild side, but is it going to keep us alive? Well, no. Ultimately our customers are going to keep us alive. But social media helps us stay even more connected with them.

Now, going back to that nasty rumor about bookstores dying. We’re not dying, but we have to change. Being a bricks and mortar store in a world where online shopping is becoming prevalent brings new challenges. Being a bricks and mortar bookstore that sells physical books when e-books are growing in popularity brings about even more challenges. But these are challenges, not defeat. People are shopping online? We make sure to have an e-commerce site. People are moving toward e-books? We make sure they can buy them through us.

These changes can’t be taken on alone, so fortunately independent bookstores in the U.S. have the American Booksellers Association (and each other) fighting the good fight. The ABA does things like make sure independent bookstore members have the websites that can handle e-commerce, that all online retailers are subjected to the same laws and, most importantly right now, that independent bookstores make a profit on e-books. These are huge strides in keeping indies alive.

I’m not fooling myself into thinking that bookstores are impervious to all the changes that are happening. I know there are very real struggles going on every day. But with constant vigilance of the changing structure of bookselling, as well as the recent surge in consumers’ awareness of the importance of keeping money local, independent bookstores certainly have a fighting chance.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Guest Post at Literary Magpie: On Sound & Vision

Check out a post I contributed to my friend, poet Jory M. Mickelson's blog, Literary Magpie.
On Sound & Vision
Closing their 2003 offering, One Bedroom, post-rock quartet the Sea and Cake covers one of few singles from the first of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy albums, Low. All things considered, their version of “Sound & Vision” remains fairly true to the original. Such unabashed homage, I don’t often gravitate toward in a cover. If I wanted something so straightforward, I’d listen to the original. However, it is plain to see that the Sea and Cake is much indebted to Bowie and his Berlin collaborator, Brian Eno; half of the band’s sound is comprised of synthesizers and uncommon percussion. At the time of Low’s production, grounding an entire rock project in synthesizers was certainly not taken seriously, if not altogether unheard of. The sonic experimentation that resulted in not only the (eventually) critically acclaimed Low, but “Heroes” and Lodger as well, was a revolutionary move for any musician, particularly one so iconic.

I must have I surprised a friend after reading a poem called “Sound & Vision,” as unabashed homage as the final track on One Bedroom.
[Read the rest.]

Monday, March 7, 2011

In Defense of the Bookstore: Why I Am a Bookseller

A recent article I have written for the Elliott Bay Book Co. blog, The Ship's (B)log addresses bookselling in the age of the internet, beginning what I hope will mount as a defense for bookstores everywhere, as a lately unsteady terrain continues to shift. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl, we have freedom to admit our book lust. And with Jessa Crispin, the Bookslut, on our side, we have no reason to be ashamed, of how much we read, how quickly we jump from title to title, how we just can’t seem to get enough. Something very visceral drives us to the book, it seems. The textured stroke of each page, the brilliant colors and covers, some ravishing, some demure. An altogether magnetic attraction. Something romantic, something animal—let’s not split hairs.

So who among us isn’t dubious of the e-book? Who among us doesn’t look askance as bookstores close doors across the country? For every book lover, every literary Don Juan, bibliophile, codex Casanova, who among us isn’t as passionate for the very houses that store them? We sometimes feel as star-crossed lovers in our digitized era.
[Read the rest.]

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hear here! for ThereThere

Family, friends, critics, and lovers alike. Please, please make your way over to the site for the official release of my music project There There. Listen & download; name your price, including FREE!

A great deal of thanks goes out to my producer, engineer, mixer, and musical co-conspirator Chandler Stone, for his time and patience, the use of his studio, his expertise and instrumental talents. Thanks also to DJ Morgan for not only constructing and contributing drum parts to nearly every track, but also for designing cover art for the album. To Joel Sheppard of Bear Cove for playing bass on several tracks; to Bobby Morgan for guitars and bass on several others. To Dana Little for her vocal styling on the duet "Trouble My Heart," but especially for encouragement and advice in this whole process. To Christine Bron for offering vocals to "Hard Heart"; to Michelle McKeown for her cello on "There is Nothing." And, finally, to Martin Feveyear and Jupiter Studios for the final mastering.

Thanks, also, to you: for listening. Enjoy!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Listen Here: Sydney

The album is off to the mastering studio.

By March 1, I should be releasing my full-length studio album There There, thanks to Martin Feveyear at Jupiter Studios, who recently worked with my friend Dana on her new solo album, Patterns, which just released this weekend.

While you wait for the mastered and final product, take a spin with Sydney. I like to think of her as the second single, a song about travel and abandonment, consolation for the absence of a wandering love in the form of guitars shredding over the pop of piano staccato. Enjoy! And share with your friends.

Monday, January 31, 2011

An Adoptive Father

for Jim

consider the weight
of love, the heft
arms make in arms
and legs hold
against your chest

how they act a ballast

how they weigh
everything and nearly
nothing at all

when their bodies rise
like pop flies
toward your open hands
where they land
to rise again

consider boy for boy

consider it all joy
how pound for pound
you’ve raised each son


For Random Acts of Poetry at The High Calling.