Dispatch from Winter Institute: Lessons in transit

It was in a November post to the CC that I acknowledged, quite in passing, that I had never attended the ABA’s Winter Institute. Serendipitously, I immediately won a scholarship—generously provided by the very lovely people at Other Press—to attend this one, Wi6. I am not a smart traveler. Left to my own defective devices, I fouled up my flight reservations and arrived in the District far too late on Tuesday night to attend the Politics & Prose reception, too late to visit that storied shop, but quite on time to meet some of their great booksellers over the course of the week.  (In fact, the books mentioned in these Wi6 dispatches will link (when I can) to independent shops who sent booksellers to DC. It was great to meet most of you.)

Even the flight was educational. People are reading, or they were on my flight. The battle to expand the market is secondary, maybe, to recapturing what is already out there. Jerilynn, the flight attendant—and lest you think I’m being snide, that was quite nearly the name on both her apron and blazer—noticed that I’d finished my book, the very satisfying A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch.

“Aw, you’re done with your book! What are you going to do for the rest of the flight?”

I opened the bag on the seat next to me and showed her the small library inside. She reached in with both hands—really—and pulled out a few of them: Agaat, Jonathan Yardley’s forthcoming collection from Europa, and Lumen by Ben Pastor (a thriller!).

“I don’t really read books like these,” she said, screwing her face up for a moment at Babyfucker. “I like the bad books.” Bad. Her word and her emphasis. She likes Daniel Silva, John Grisham, and David Baldacci. So do a lot of people. The next day, for example, I learned from an oddly flaccid interview by the venerable Jim Lehrer that Karen Mills of the Small Business Administration is also a blushing Baldacci fan. I wonder publicly where these people get this embarrassment about their pleasures, but not-so-deep-down I know it’s sometimes booksellers’ faults. And sometimes the fault of teachers. And sometimes librarians. And sometimes parents. Sometimes, often even, the people who are most invested in putting books into hands impose a vicious judgment on the cringing reader and her preferences. That shouldn’t ever be our role. During a presentation one morning, Bob Phibbs— the Retail Doctor—showed us a tweet to this effect: “There’s something wrong when booksellers make you feel bad for buying a book.” The good doctor’s attitude and recommendation is that we shouldn’t judge the people who spend money in our stores, and that’s almost right.

I judge them sometimes, sometimes harshly, but I love them all. I love that they’re reading and I love that they’re spending money, and I love, most of all, that they’re giving me the opportunity to sell books to them. There simply aren’t books you shouldn’t read; there are good books and great books in every genre and if then we are part of what drives our customers to the internet retailers—if we are what drives readers of mysteries to the same dark electronic fringe as pedophiles and Nazis, pirates and plushies (furries?)—we need to change the way we do business before we can brag about the level of service in our shops.

More tomorrow, and perhaps we can discuss Francisco Goldman: the king of late night.


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