Monday, June 30, 2008

Using Ebay in the Open Bookshop

Selling books directly in an open shop is a wonderful way to meet customers, discuss literary ideas and favorite authors and move books out of the shop and into customers' home libraries. There's no packing and shipping books off at the post office, no cataloguing of books and listing their every defect, no photographing and no uploading book inventory data. The reality of most open shops these days is that Internet book selling is an integral part of the bottom line and so this extra work must be taken to obtain sales.

When the shop is thinly populated with customers (like this when our regular customers wisely remember that Old Saratoga Books is not an air conditioned sanctuary) and especially during the lean post-holiday winter doldrums, I turn to the Internet for inventory turnover and cash flow. We sell books on our own website, and on several other fixed price used and rare book selling sites, but I use Ebay, the well known Internet auction site in a selective way and for specific kinds of books and paper items.

Ebay is marketed as a bargain-hunter's site, and so in the main I use it as such. I have attempted to sell some high end and rare titles there, but they usually don't bring the prices I would like, so I save them for my in-store customers. I tend to put box lots of books on Ebay when I need to prune a particular bookshelf or section and that seems to do well for our store, which never lacks for walk-in inventory. There are huge numbers of books for sale all over the Internet and there is a glut of them as well on Ebay. I try to market group lots of books about a single topic or by a single author and keep the minimum bid price and shipping rates low to encourage bidders to scoop up these books. Here's a link to our current Ebay auctions, if you want to take a gander at what we're listing.

Lately, our shop has been inundated with children's books and so I have been trying to organize lots of board books, easy readers and books grouped according to reading level for teachers, parents and day care providers to latch onto. This has made lots of extra space on the shelves so I can face out more of the colorful covers and dust jackets that kids' books sport, and notice that this "less is more" strategy seems to sell more of these books in the store.

I have also found that paper items (ephemera) or other interesting non-book things that we find in our book hunting adventures sell steadily for us on Ebay. I never seem to be able to flog ephemera in our shop, but when I put out old postcards, maps, menus, magazines and the other flotsam that wings its way into the shop, they will usually sell. Popular culture items tend to sell better for us on Ebay than in the shop, too, and so if I get in a batch of books about old radio personalities, vaudeville comedians, 60's cartoon shows, or rock stars (excepting Elvis and the Beatles who sell strongly in house, thank you, thank you very much) I'll photograph them and get them up on auction.

I'm sure that other open shops have different Ebay selling strategies and some even use the Ebay store model, so I would interested in hearing about these experiences.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Book Review: The Drowning People by Richard Mason

"The Drowning People", by Richard Mason (NY: Warner Books, 1999)

Boy did this book have a hook. Here's the opening paragraphs:

"My wife of more than forty-years shot herself yesterday afternoon.

At least that is what the police assume, and I am playing the part of grieving widower with enthusiasm and success. Life with Sarah has schooled me in self-deception, which I find--as she did--to be an excellent training in the deceiving of others. Of course I know that she did nothing of the kind. My wife was far too sane, far too rooted in the present to think of harming herself. In my opinion she never gave a thought to what she had done. She was incapable of guilt.

It was I who killed her."
So of course I had to read this book.

And it was a great read, full of psychological intrigue, an island castle in Cornwall, moldering aristocrats, concert pianists, art auctions and coffeehouse arguments in Prague, murder trials, suicides and an intricate, twisting plot. The writing had an old-fashioned flavor, reminiscent of Daphne DuMaurier, and was very evocative. Great comic relief is sprinkled throughout to liven up the melodrama from a minor character, James' witty, patrician dressmaker chum, Camilla Boardman.

My only complaint is that I felt that even though the main character, James, narrates the book in circumspection about events leading to his wife's murder, I never felt that his character is completely fleshed out. The reader understands that he is a celebrated classical violinist and is attractive to others, but I never came to understand why he was so beguiling. He has passion, but that doesn't seem enough to have at least two other characters in the book become wildly besotted.

The book was Mason's debut novel, and finished up while he was a twenty-something Oxford student, so I look forward to more from his pen. He certainly described obsessive love quite well.

Recommended for mystery mavens, lovers of things Gothic, literary fiction fans and anyone who thinks Daphne DuMaurier was not prolific enough.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Bookstore in the Movies: Dan in Real Life

We rented a charming video the other day, Dan in Real Life (2007, PG-13), which featured a romantic encounter in a bookstore/tackle shop (now there’s a business idea!) between Steve Carrell and Juliette Binoche. The curmudgeonly bookstore owner is engrossed in a personal phone call when Binoche strolls in to inquire about a suitable book for her new boyfriend and he imperiously waves her away. She catches the eye of Carrell, who is a browsing customer and asks for his assistance.

He plays along as Binoche rattles off all the things she is looking for in a book, and scoops up titles from around the shelves. She winds down and then Carrell lays out his selections for her: some Emily Dickinson, some Neruda (which they both sigh over), “Anna Karenina”, a biography of Gandhi (Carrell justifies this choice “because he is the coolest guy ever”) and a children’s book, “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi (one of my kids’ favorites when they were little) for levity.

Here’s where the movie veers off into sheer fantasy; Binoche, without looking at one price tag, declares that all of the books picks are perfect and declares to the now-available bookstore owner that she will take them all. Hah! My own Dan in Real Life and I do a lot of book recommendations in the course of a day’s work at our used bookstore, and not once in twelve years has someone slavishly followed our suggestions. We have achieved a reputable bit of handselling success, particularly around the holidays when last minute shoppers zip in and out quickly, but scoring 5 out of 5 is unbelievable. Similarly, it is the rare customer that just racks up a pile of books on the counter without glancing at the price on the front flyleaf.

Despite this lapse into science fiction, the movie was an intelligent and interesting romantic comedy that the whole family enjoyed. The kids got hooked when they found out Dane Cook was involved and the adults enjoyed the interesting characters and side plots. And a bookstore scene always rocks.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cooper's Cave, a Literary Landmark in Saratoga County

I scouted out Cooper's Cave the other day and took these shots of this literary landmark. This spot marks a western bend in the Hudson River and the rushing of the waters over the cataracts continues to provide hydroelectric power for local factories. There is a gated viewing platform underneath the Cooper's Cave Bridge, connecting Route 9 between South Glens Falls and Glens Falls which affords a nice view of the rushing water and rock formations that inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s novel "The Last of the Mohicans" when he traveled to this area in 1823 or 1824. Disappointingly, one cannot actually step into the cave Cooper describes as the shelter for his Munro sister heroines, but you can glimpse it from afar.

There is a good article with historical background about Cooper's travels to this area and several photographs of the cave and falls unobstructed by industrial trappings here.

Here's how Cooper describes the limestone cave in the middle of the rushing rapids at Glens Falls that shelters Alice and Cora Munro, Major Heyward, Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook in chapter six of "Last of the Mohicans":

"We are then on an island!"

"Ay! there are the falls on two sides of us, and the river above and below. If you had daylight, it would be worth the trouble to step up on the height of this rock, and look at the perversity of the water. It falls by no rule at all; sometimes it leaps, sometimes it tumbles; there it skips; here it shoots; in one place 'tis white as snow, and in another 'tis green as grass; hereabouts, it pitches into deep hollows, that rumble and crush the 'arth; and thereaways, it ripples and sings like a brook, fashioning whirlpools and gullies in the old stone, as if 'twas no harder than trodden clay. The whole design of the river seems disconcerted. First it runs smoothly, as if meaning to go down the descent as things were ordered; then it angles about and faces the shores; nor are there places wanting where it looks backward, as if unwilling to leave the wilderness, to mingle with the salt. Ay, lady, the fine cobweb-looking cloth you wear at your throat is coarse, and like a fishnet, to little spots I can show you, where the river fabricates all sorts of images, as if having broke loose from order, it would try its hand at everything. And yet what does it amount to! After the water has been suffered so to have its will, for a time, like a headstrong man, it is gathered together by the hand that made it, and a few rods below you may see it all, flowing on steadily toward the sea, as was foreordained from the first foundation of the 'arth!"

Cooper's Cave is open to the public from Memorial Day to Halloween from 9 am to 8 pm. You can easily find signs leading to the road and parking for the site at the southern end of the Cooper's Cave Bridge (Route 9 in between the Village of South Glens Falls and the City of Glens Falls). There are informational signs about the Mohican Indians, Cooper's writings and other historical tidbits and a good glimpse of this scenic view if you can blur out the industrial buildings, fences, spill tubes and machinery. Admission is free.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Book Review: The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz

The Harafish, by Naguib Mahfouz (NY: Doubleday, 1994)

The third loop of my journey on the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge (nine books by nine authors from nine different countries) took me to Cairo, or at least a timeless, unnamed corner of the Arab Middle East. The late Egyptian writer and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz' book "The Harafish" was a wonderful novel, full of direct, elegant writing about ten generations of the al-Nagi family whose fortunes turn and twist amidst their closed society along an urban alleyway.

The Harafish are the poorest members of this small population, and it is the first great member of the al-Nagi family, Ashur, who stays true to his humble beginnings and remembers the Harafish even when he achieves wealth and status. The remainder of the book chronicles Ashur's descendants, rich and poor, male and female, as they wrestle with their desires and flaws and try to live up to the al-Nagi name. In this sense, the novel reads like a myth or epic folk tale, as each new al-Nagi hero makes his or her fortune but is burdened by some sort of character flaw.

In reading the first few chapters I was a bit overwhelmed by the numerous cast of characters, each with similar-sounding names, at least to my Western sensibilities, but eventually I surrendered to the flow of the writing and worried less about trying to keep track of the al-Nagi genealogical tree (although this might have been a useful addition to the book as an appendix).

Mahfouz' writing was very descriptive and often quite earthy and funny. Here's a sample paragraph:

"Abd Rabbihi was getting drunk in the bar while the March winds raged outside.
"Yesterday I had a strange dream," he said.
Nobody asked him what he had dreamed, but he went on anyway. "I dreamed the khamsin winds blew at the wrong time of the year."
"A diabolical dream!" laughed Sanqar al-Shammam.
"Doors came off their hinges, dust fell like rain, hand barrows flew through the air, turbans and headcloths blew away."
"What happened to you?"
"I felt as if I was dancing on the back of a Thoroughbred stallion!"
"Tuck the cover tightly around your arse before you go to sleep!' advised Sanqar." (p. 247)

It is also full of symbolism and meaning:

"The cart glides along discreetly, garlanded with flowers. No one notices the creaking of its wheels. People only hear what they want to hear. The powerful believe they are joined in eternal union with the world. But the cart never stops and the world is an unfaithful spouse." (p. 89)

Altogether a transporting read and an author I will seek out again. I feel I should brush up on my Islamic history, however, as there are undoubtedly many allusions that I entirely missed.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Susan B. Anthony's Childhood Home

When women's rights icon Susan B. Anthony was six years old, her family moved from their Massachusetts home and extended family to the hamlet of Battenville, in Washington County, New York. Susan's father Daniel had been hired by a family friend, Judge McLean, to build and operate a cotton mill along the Battenkill River, and to build a store and homes for the mill workers.

The family initially lived in one-half of the Judge's home until Daniel was able to build a new house for his growing family, which they moved into in 1832-33. The home is two-and-a-half stories and has fifteen rooms, including a second story classroom where Susan helped her cousin Sarah teach some of the mill girls on Sunday afternoons. From 1834-35 she taught in other area home schools and boarded with the host families.

The economic depression of 1837 caused hard times for the Anthony family when the mill lost business customers and was forced to close. Papa Anthony sent Susan and her sister Guelma to a Pennsylvania school for a year, but they had to leave in 1838, when Daniel Anthony declared bankruptcy and they lost their Battenville home and moved to Rochester, New York.

From then on, Susan taught in order to help support her family, later joining in the abolition, temperance and women's rights movements, and the rest, as they say, is History.

I have driven past the empty home on State Route 29 many times and noticed the historic marker indicating that it was Susan B. Anthony's childhood home, but it wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that I stopped the car to take a closer look. The house sits right on the edge of a very twisty part of the road and I was nearly blown backwards by several speeding trucks as I focused on my shot, but here's a photo of this historic home:

While Anthony's Rochester home is a National Historic Landmark, run by a non-profit organization, her Battenville abode is still in limbo. It was a private residence until January 2006, when it went into mortgage foreclosure (again!) and the minimum bid at auction was not achieved. Luckily, the mortgage holder, Freddie Mac, sold the property to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for a cool $1, and there are long-term plans to try to get this historic building, now listed on the Historic Register, restored and open to the public.

I gleaned a bit of information for this post from the delightful children's book, "Susan B. Anthony: Champion of Women's Rights" (Childhood of Famous Americans), by Helen Albee Monsell, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1986. I also consulted the website of the Susan B. Anthony Rochester Home and the redoubtable Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Young People Sighted in Bookstore

What a pleasant surprise to have a group of students in the bookshop the other day for a field trip. The local high school librarian organized a book club this year and they picked our shop for an end of the year excursion. This delightful bunch had a predominantly female membership, including one girl who reads 10-20 books per week (!) and was spoken about in reverential tones by the others, although the lone young man made up for things by buying the most books.

Not a cell phone or IPod was in sight during this Unplugged Event and it was thrilling to see how excited these young people were about books, as they buzzed about book recommendations and searched the shelves for a favorite title to show to their friends.

The reading taste centered on the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, perhaps because this age bubble was reared during the height of the Harry Potter phenomenon, but only one girl admitted to love-love-loving the series. At any rate, the cockles of the Book Trout's heart was fanned by this excitement for the printed word by such a lovely young group of readers. Each left with a free book, and some even scooped up a bag of novels with their pocket money. A blissful end to a hot, muggy day.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book Review: Reading New York by John Tytell

Book Trout Book Review: Reading New York, by John Tytell (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

The book reeled me in with its grainy old cover photo of a 1911 Manhattan street scene and the sexy subtitle "A Celebration of New York Writers, The Essence of the City, and the Transforming Effects of Reading", but what really hooked me in the gills was the short first chapter which described the author's horrible eye condition which necessitated periodic corneal scrapings and a prohibition against reading. Weepy eyes and parents notwithstanding, Tytell went ahead and read. What a little hero!

The rest of the book interjects snippets of Tytell's youth, university days, sexual awakening with his Arthur Murray dance teacher, and (more interestingly) his interviews, research and sometimes interaction with leading literati in New York City. He offers short overviews of the work of some major NYC writers, including Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and the various Beats.

Tytell's style is polished and interesting, and the fact that he met with Miller, Allen Ginsberg and some of the other Beat writers and can provide a contrast between their private and public personas gives the book a freshness and intimacy with the reader.

My only criticism is that the end was much too abrupt. I was cantering along with Tytell in the 1970s, as his Queens College teaching job was in financial jeopardy, along with the rest of the New York City government, when I turned the page to find out that there were only two more chapters left. The final chapter summarizes the next thirty years of Tytell's writing career in five choppy sentences. He went to Venice to write about Ezra Pound, taught in Paris, hung out in Southeast Asia and then came back to roost with some doves in the Village. I guess that's all fodder for the next book.

The Book Trout recommends this book, particularly for the New York City-Obsessed, Lovers of Literary Biography, Beat Readers and those who fancy good Books About Books.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Beauty in the Eye

In order to release her inner apoplexy at the horrendous book cover art that surrounds her at her job as a public librarian, Maughta over at Judge a Book by its Cover has a pantheon of examples of weirdly proportioned humanoids, bad air brushing and photoshopping techniques and just plain horrendous artwork. My bookseller vision honed by such bloggery, I was recently astounded by the bizarro qualities of this little number at the bookstore:

There is much that is heinous and puzzling about this cover. First, the subject (the author?) has an unnatural tilt of her left hand and this, coupled with the array of red-tipped finger-like lipsticks gives the impression of a many-tentacled amphibious creature.

Second, why are her hair and shoulders that wet AFTER she has applied her makeup, or as the creepy title refers to it, "put on her face". Is this some water-based space alien wearing someone else's face a la cheesy 80s TV show "V" or worse, maybe Hannibal Lecter? People generally put on their makeup after they towel off and get dressed. This cover just weirds me out all around. It's certainly not the glamorous cover you'd expect for a beauty book, unless you are an amphibian.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Drama of Life in my Open Shop

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.

Friday was a real trial for the Book Trout at Ye Olde Book Shoppe. The weather was spongy and muggy with intermittent torrential rain so I had few people in. Of these valued customers, all were were difficult in varying shades: one Baroness requesting title after title and when I would find them, sniffed that they were not in the right edition or condition; the Overbearing Daddy who followed around his poor kid with a negative comment about every single book the tyke picked up and a constant reminder that he only had $6 in his wallet; the Time Waster who spent half an hour chatting me up about the state of the book biz and disparaging those who don't support local stores and then left with a 50-cent bargain rack novel, and several folks who just wanted to step out of the tropical downpour, kill time while waiting for their hairdresser appointment or just take a stinky bathroom break.

I came home contemplating an office job, only to find that my two lovely spawn had each planned a sleepover, AT OUR HOUSE, and promptly hit the Pinot Grigio.

Saturday dawned and I scuttled off into the garden to pull weeds and contemplate another ho-hum day at the bookstore. Things improved when I found out that my two borrowed offspring were now taking my daughters away for a 24-hour respite. I could at least look forward to a snuggle and upscale conversation on the couch tonight with my hubby.

I opened the shop and set out my book carts on the sidewalk on a now sunny and pleasantly breezy day. After a slow start, a herd of lovely bookfolk starting showing up. I immediately sold an antiquarian local history book for a Trout-pleasing price, and which went to a very appreciative home. Ah. A family of inveterate readers stopped in for a first time visit to Old Saratoga Books and were enthusiastic about our selection of classic fiction and children's books. Ahhh.

Other sweet and endearing repeat customers came by to request a favorite title for a gift or for themselves and I had most of them to ring up. A bookselling colleague came in with his wife and a mystery-loving friend and we had a great stretch of convivial shoptalk. Ah indeed.

The showstopper occurred 10 minutes to closing, a time when I usually strain to paste on my welcoming grin, accompanied by meaningful glance at our store hours poster in the front window. A smiling gent came in to ask whether we had a vintage paperbacks section. But of course! That's one of Dan's babies. He loves the range of cover art, the more lurid the better, and lovingly encases these bodacious beauties in see-through sleeves and spends hours shelving them alphabetically by publisher and then by author.

Over the winter we bought ten boxes of these retro numbers and greatly expanded our vintage pb section. My customer was beside himself. He had been out booking all day and had scored several new books for his collection, but this was overwhelming. It turns out that he is a painter and is friends with John Leone, who started out as a pulp fiction illustrator but now paints horses and hunt scenes at his studio in nearby Schoharie County. He was delighted to pick up a couple of Leone covers to add to his collection and we had a great time talking about art and books.

While we were yakking, in came one of my favorite Saratogians, an artist and photographer who was looking for old botany books for an upcoming show. He was delighted to find some great books for his project and some new arrivals from the photography shelves. I introduced him to the other artist and they had a swell time talking about things cultural.

Amazing. From Grouchy Bathroom Attendant to Literary Salon Owner in 24 hours.