Wednesday, September 30, 2015

So Many Books, by Meg Schmidt

Guest writer and blogger, Meg Schmidt, weighs in again today on her experience owning an independent bookstore. Welcome back, Meg!

Buying a bookstore was an impulsive and imprudent decision. But how could I turn away from the possibility of owning that little shop on the corner, cozy, welcoming, filled with appealing books? A place where people gathered. A jewel in the community’s crown.

There were no arguments compelling enough to dissuade me from such a romantic notion: Would a bookstore be profitable? Of course! It would just take initiative and hard work. Could I manage a small business with a young family at home? Sure, with a little juggling. Did I know anything about bookselling? About retail? Well, no, but I could learn...

After some hurried negotiations, a flurry of paper work, and an inventory check, the Corner Book Store was all mine. And my detractors were right: I didn’t have the slightest notion what to do.

Charlotte, from whom I bought the bookstore, tried to reassure me. “Oh, it’s simple, really,” she said. “You buy books and you sell books. Hopefully you sell most of what you buy. That’s all there is to it.” This sounded too easy. 
“Okay, but how do I know what to buy?” I asked. “How orders are placed? How inventory is tracked? How sales are recorded?”
“Oh, I’ll explain all of that,” Charlotte said cheerfully. “Let me show you the inventory system.” She pulled out long tattered cardboard boxes filled with 3x5 index cards.

Within a few days Charlotte was gone, leaving behind her index cards, too many unanswered questions, and a terrified new owner who realized she was in very deep water.

Those first few weeks were filled with missteps and inefficiency. Where was the copy of Hamlet that someone wanted? How do I order a book on Roman aqueducts? Where is the card for The Joy of Cooking? Backlist, frontlist, fall list, spring list, remainders, returns, ISBNs, IS, OS, BO, TBO, PO, it was an entangled mess.

The biggest challenge of all: What books, and how many, should we have in stock?
“Your order indicates you want a standing display, twenty-four copies of Anne Tyler’s new book,” Bob Brown, the rep from Random House remarked as he looked over my order. “That’s being very optimistic.”
“Anne Tyler is terrific,” I reminded him. “My favorite author! Don’t you think I could sell twenty-four copies?”
“Well, no, I don’t. Not Anne Tyler. Maybe Danielle Steele or Stephen King. You like Anne Tyler, but are twenty-four of your customers going to buy her book?”

Apparently not.

Somewhere along the way, the bookselling jargon made sense, and I learned what to order and what people were likely to buy. (Although there were frequent surprises.)  We computerized the inventory and threw away those index cards. When it became necessary, we diversified, adding more greeting cards and gift items. Eventually we relocated and after that expanded our floor space.

Bookselling was, as I had envisioned, a remarkable experience. Our employees were committed and hardworking and became lifelong friends. The distributors and publishers with whom we worked were unfailingly helpful. We enjoyed the support of the town in which we were located, as well as nearby communities, and we worked together on numerous programs and events, many of them for children. We spent every day with people who loved to read, faithful customers who stayed with us when they could have bought books less expensively elsewhere.

Still, after fifteen years we went out of business. The giants had multiplied: large and alluring bookstores offering an impressive variety of books, deep discounts, and cozy caf├ęs. Then along came an Internet company calling itself Amazon. When it became clear no one was interested in buying my little bookstore, I liquidated and closed the doors.

I was ready to retire; as fulfilling as bookselling was, it was also hard work, long hours, and endless challenges. Buying a bookstore may have been an impulsive and imprudent, decision, but it was the best worst decision I ever made.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Creating Space in Your Garden/Life/Writing

I did a lot of gardening this weekend. Weeding, mostly, but also "editing." 

Since the last time I'd visited my garden, the plants had tripled in size and now looked like commuters in a subway car at rush hour. The less aggressive ones, like Jacob's ladder, were being crushed by the robust day lilies and the ever-encroaching lady's mantle. The solomon seal had marched its way across the bed, infiltrating and colonizing neighboring settlements. Nothing, it seemed, could stop its relentless assault. 

I have long held the belief that it's sacrilegious to divide plants in June in Vermont. Our season is so short I felt it my duty to let each plant fully manifest its destiny until September. Besides, I wanted as much color as each plant could muster.

But I found myself craving space. Each plant had grown indistinct. What I faced was a mass of leafy green giants, elbowing one another aside in their frenzy to attract pollinators. I hate to anthropomorphize, but some plants are greedy.

So I started pulling and digging, first lily-of-the-valley, and then violets, and iris, and gooseneck loosestrife. I carved out pathways and established boundaries. Now that I can see where one ends and the next begins, each plant has taken on an identity. More, I found, isn't necessarily better. Neither is bigger.

This got me wondering what other areas of my life might benefit from a little space. My writing? My volunteer work? My teaching? Each of my friends? My family? Exercise? Do I crowd so much into each day that I can't enjoy and appreciate the component parts?

If so, how do I go about making spaces? Something to think about.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review of YA novel Seriously Wicked by Tina Connelly

In case you’ve been wondering, pixies are green, frog-like creatures with wings. You have to be a witch to see the wings. Seriously Wicked contains all the classic elements of a good commercial novel: a plucky protagonist with a quantifiable goal, friends in peril, an able ally, an antagonist who knows too much, complications aplenty, high stakes, and a ticking clock. This one also has at least one seriously evil witch and a really sympathetic dragon named Moonfire.

There are also star-crossed lovers, Camellia, our narrator, and Devon, the new boy. Their meet cute involves a goldfinch and a flaming phoenix feather, which might be a first in literary history. Seriously Wicked reads a bit like Harry Potter lite, but Connelly has developed her own taxonomy of elementals, witches, and spells, and a delightfully relatable alternative witch-world, whose residents rely on items like dragon tears, werewolf hair, goats blood, and elf toenails for their spells, and on WitchNet and Witchepedia for much of their information.

While you could read Seriously Wicked as an allegory about the demon in each of us and what we would sacrifice to save humanity from annihilation, it’s more fun to sit back, suspend disbelief, and enjoy the dilemma of a high school girl, imprisoned by a witch named Sarabine, who has summoned a demon that inadvertently gets trapped inside Devon, Camellia’s crush. Sarabine casts a spell, commanding the demon to accomplish a series of tasks, including locating a phoenix stored somewhere on the high school grounds in order to control its supersonic explosion, which is timed to coincide with the Halloween dance just days away. Camellia must find a way to stop this. There’s more. Much more.

If Seriously Wicked suffers from anything it’s a slightly overcomplicated plot. It is so convoluted (although clearly well thought out) that Connelly inserts summaries periodically to help the reader out. The narrative bogs slightly toward the end when the clock slows so that all the answers Connelly has withheld (Why does her friend Sparkle’s nose keep changing? Why aren’t Camellia’s real parents looking for her?) can be revealed in a flurry of expository dialogue. Great. But at this point readers might really just want to know if the town is going to blow up and whether Devon will be restored to his former “boy-band” self.

Connelly exhibits a sharp wit and a keen tongue that make Seriously Wicked a fun read. There is a grocer who stopped doing business with one supplier because he was “caught doing business with people who do business with people who don’t compost.” And our persevering protagonist at one point confides to the reader that she owns jeans that “don’t understand my butt.”

But, there are deeper issues to consider here: What would you do if someone whose beliefs diametrically opposed yours were driving your life? How does one choose between competing desires in a moral dilemma? Camellia insists that she is not a witch. And yet, in order to save the school, her friends, Devon, the town… She must learn, and successfully cast, a very powerful spell (and, meanwhile, not flunk her algebra test).

This is a fast paced, entertaining drama that offers readers the chance to contemplate the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, selfishness and compassion (as well pondering the current color of their auras). Readers will find a happy escape in Camellia’s fantastic world that includes a werewolf puppy and a dragon. But Connelly understands that we face real end-of-the-world threats in these days of rising sea levels, nuclear threats, and terrorism. Camellia, speaking here about witches (who live a really long time) makes a note-worthy observation. “If you know you’re going to be around to see it, you look at the fate of the world differently.”

Connelly supplies a satisfying ending for readers of Seriously Wicked, and some bonus material if you want to try casting your own spells. Before you do, you might want to brush up on your math.

(This review was first published on the New York Journal of Books website:

Monday, March 23, 2015

What Cupcake Wars Taught Me About Getting Published

I am a self-professed Cupcake Wars junkie. I love the inventive combinations: applesauce cake with cinnamon goat cheese frosting, double-shot mocha latte with espresso cream filling and chocolate frosting, salted caramel cake with pecan coconut brittle crumble and caramel Swiss buttercream. I would happily devour them all.

Each show, for those unfamiliar, begins with four bakers. After two elimination rounds, two finalists duke it out in a bake-off that requires them to produce 1,000 cupcakes in 90 minutes and shelve them on a display of their design, executed by one of two bearded, flannel-clad carpenters. They also get four baking assistants.

When the winner is announced, the audience is generally treated to a tearful acceptance speech. "I've worked so hard to get here. It's so nice to have that recognized."

Right. And what about the other contestants? Did they not work hard, too? Could we not acknowledge that in some way?

Writers are in constant competition. I'm not talking here about actual writing competitions. I'm talking about the competition for agents, editors, reviews, publicity budgets, shelf space, and sales. 

Most of us are aware that we're competing for agents and editors, but might not be aware that, once we have representation and a signed contract, we're in competition for the rest. There are elimination rounds, and most of us won't win. In publishing, winning means national advertising, a book tour, a major online publicity campaign, lots of social media outreach, a floor display, and wide galley distribution. By your publisher. 

The non-winners must do our own publicity and, no matter how hard an author promotes her own work, very few can compete with the marketing muscle of a major publisher.

It's usually clear long before the judges decide, who’s going to win Cupcake Wars. It’s less clear which book will be chosen as the winner of a big publicity campaign. Obviously, one that is expected to earn a big return, but which one's that? Not even publishers know for certain. 

What is certain is that a quiet book without an obvious “commercial hook” doesn’t necessarily take less time or thought to write than one with the potential to be an international best seller. Most authors bring their best game to every book: an original combination of ingredients, quality workmanship, a few fanciful twists, reduced fat... They work very hard and give it their all.

Clearly, not everyone can be declared the winner in Cupcake Wars, nor in publishing. There is only so much space on the dwindling supply of bookshelves, only so many readers divided by the dollars they’re willing to spend, divided by the hours they’ll devote to reading. 

Here’s what watching Cupcake Wars has taught me: Acknowledge the journey. To all you writers, bakers, and everyone else out there who’s worked hard to deliver a great product and wasn’t declared a “winner.” Congratulations on a job well done. Thank you for your effort, time, and dedication. You are a winner.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March in Vermont

Here's what I like about winter in Vermont: I can curl up, without apology, in the over-sized armchair in front of the fire and read at 4:30 in the afternoon because there's only darkness beyond the window.

Here's what I don't like about (this) March in Vermont. It is no longer dark at 4:30; darkness now doesn't fall until after 7PM. And yet, snow still blankets our field, and today the wind is whipping up snow devils and rocking trees. The ambient temperature hovers around 20.

My biological clock is telling me, urging me, to stop reading and start looking for signs of crocuses making their way through newly warmed soil. (Theirs is probably telling them to get growing.) I can barely see my garden, let alone anything small and green making its present known. Let's not even discuss purple. Or yellow.

I could shovel and scrape some of the snow from the garden. At Fenway and the Esplanade in Boston, MA, they are sprinkling dark soil on top of the snow to attract heat and encourage melting. I could do that. But what self-respecting crocus is going to poke its nose out in weather like this anyway?

I don't have a date such as Opening Day, or the Fourth of July, by which my garden must be green and lush. I have only my need to dig in dirt, to welcome back my foliated friends, and to be reassured that the cycle of life will, eventually, make its way around.

Nature teaches us patience, forbearance, and acceptance if we're willing to listen. And so I keep curling up in that chair and reading. It's not what I want to be doing right now. But it's a pleasant way to pass the time until spring.