Saturday, October 20, 2012

Alex Green talks about Waltham's Back Pages Books, the care and feeding of authors, going into publishing, and so much more

Waltham's my home town (and my novel coming out this May, Is This Tomorrow,  is set in 1950s Waltham), I went to Brandeis, and I love bookstores. Those three components all figure in with Back Pages Books, one of my favorite places on earth. Brandeis grad Alex Green is absolutely wonderful--he fearlessly opened a bookstore with Ezra Sternstein (now practicing law)  at a time when some were closing, and he made it a place authors talk about with reverence. And no wonder. I love this interview and adore Alex and Back Pages was chosen as Boston's Best New Bookstore in 2005. And praise goes to store manager and exceptional writer Robin Beaudoin and fabulous writer and events person Ian Ross. Thanks so much, Alex for letting me nag you with questions.

So, how did a Brandeis grad start a bookstore?

A dangerous first question!  Folks ask this often, and it gets scarier each time I hear it, because it suggests, more than anything in my life, how fine the line is between a moment and a memory.  So let me start with one far extreme and get to the other.  We were broke.  All of us from college.  And we didn’t want to go back to school.  I studied archaeology—not something that you can do without more than a BA.  I was at a barbeque.  It was September.  A friend from college and I were talking about how miserable we were (he was an English major).  I was doing contract archaeology work, digging in the rocks of rural New England.  He was working in data entry.  We talked about how much we had liked Waltham, and how it was missing just a few things when we were students that would have drawn us into the town center.  I said, “We needed a bookstore.”  [long pause].  “We should open a bookstore.”  And then I went to sleep.  Two weeks later we were driving somewhere and he said, “We’re opening the bookstore, right?”  So we did it.

He left after a year, and I kept going, and I love it.  And it’s terrifying.  There’s not a week that goes by where there’s a moment in which I think, “What the hell am I doing?”  That how I know I still love it, still cherish it, still care for it.  My girlfriend is teaching Emily Dickinson to her students, and I think Dickinson’s a great access point to that kind of fear.  The shop is so small, and we do so much, and so many people, myself obviously among us, believe in it so deeply that you can’t help but realize at points that this tiny little compressed room is this dangerously prismatic thing that takes in light and casts it in different ways every single day.  Some days you know it’s a diamond.  Some days it’s as fragile as crystal.  True for all of us, I hope . .

So can, you talk about the care and feeding of authors?  How do you do what you do so well?

The Care and Feeding of Authors!  That’s a book title, if ever there was one!  You know, Emerson’s earliest speaker fees included four quarts of oats for his horse.  I suspect he actually drove a mule.
In short, I’m a writer, too.  I’m aware that the “circuit” for authors can be an awful thing.  Authors, as I see it, are writers because writing is the best way for them to communicate.  In our celebrity-driven culture, we say to them, “look, that’s all fine and good, but now get up in front of 200 people (or 2 people) and read.”  I’m aware that it’s as much a blessing as a curse for many writers.  I’m also aware that some of the smallest events can be the most meaningful for authors, and that the best thing, at the end of the day is that whoever shows up to hear them, and whoever shows up to read, both feel comfortable enough to be honest with each other."

What authors often don’t realize is how hard it is for audience members to come to a reading because most folks don’t know what one is!  I remember hand-wringing over what an awful word “reading” is, with my father.  He said, “Well, yeah, it’s about as exciting as calling sex ‘intercourse’.”  But we don’t have a better word.  So the best thing I can do is play off of all the uncertainty that exists for an author and an audience member and make them realize that it’s all about feeling good.  That’s where we’re blessed by having a small store.  It’s easier to get people to feel comfortable. Last week I hosted a reading for the author of the classic book “Raising Cain,” about how to raise young boys.  I can’t help but feel that so much of encouraging positive interactions between adults is the same as getting two terrified kids to play together on the playground.  I was at least one of those kids, if my recollection is correct.

It would have be mortifying if nobody had come to your reading, (NOTE: Alex hosted a fabulous, packed reading for me, which was equal parts, delight, surprise and pure pleasure) but that wasn’t the case, and this is one of those areas where being a somewhat more tech savvy (somewhere my staff are laughing) bookstore owner helps.  We do a lot of legwork for our events, and over the years, of course, you get more entrenched and it gets easier to reach out and spread the word.  But we also use a lot of RSVPs, we bust it out on Facebook, and we try really hard to represent a presence equal in our own way to the big giant online beast out there.  There’s increasingly little difference between us and them, if we want there to be.  Our goal is to use the same tech they do, to the same aptitude for what we want, in a way that gets folks to feel good justifying an extra few bucks here or there.  That’s also why I sell used books on top of the new ones.  It’s an integrated approach that requires a lot of energy and a lot of calibration, but we even keep notes on what RSVP rates translate into with actual audience size.  At this point, I’ve peeled back enough of the curtain that I should probably stop talking.

What can devoted readers and writers do to make booksellers' lives easier?

As for making my life easier, it’s a big question.  There’s a book length for the history of authors making booksellers’ lives worse.  And there a book vice versa.  And there’s a book of hope.  They sit on a shelf next to Dante’s Divine Comedy in my office.

I have thought for some time about teaching some of this, or consulting on it, but I’m not sure I want to open that box.  In short, authors, like all of us, need to think and be savvy, and when they’re not able to, they need to ask for help.  I say this knowing that truly, it’s one of the hardest things to do in life.  How do say you don’t know something?  And what if the answer, as it often is, is really big and scary?  You’ve talked about your editorial process—going through dozens of edits with your editor.  I write very closely for someone who I encourage to beat the crap out of me.  And he does.  My premise is, I’d rather be embarrassed in front of him than in front of everyone else, and we only have one opportunity to make that happen.  But it hurts to hear that you’ve really blown it sometimes.  And then to have to get up and do it again? 

“Easier’s” a hard word to get at, but many authors could do a better job of fostering a sense of camaraderie with booksellers.  We’re the group of people who they first encountered, by and large, when they fell in love with books.  We share their sense of wonder.  And quite frankly on a crass commercial basis, there’s almost never been a print bestseller that hasn’t first been championed by an indie bookseller.  I think all we want to know is that they value and respect what we do, even if they don’t know how it’s done, just as much as we try to care about what they do.

The problem, of course, with this ideal, is that plenty of authors don’t have local booksellers anymore (just like readers don’t), and plenty of authors have jerks for local booksellers.  This shatters my ideal.  But it doesn’t mean we can’t all do the National Geographic think of approaching each other slowly, throwing out a bone, stepping away skittishly, and eventually getting to the point of a nice pat on the head in both directions.

In a much more concrete way, I would love it if authors would tell other authors about our store, and to come read at it.  Simple word of mouth among authors can save a bookstore.  After the first few years of running my store, I really hit the skids because I didn’t know what I was doing when I opened.  I wrote to Junot Diaz and said, “I’ve really hit the skids because I didn’t know what I was doing.  If you came a read at my bookstore, it would provide enough revenue to keep us open for a month.”  And he came.  And he was somewhere on the spectrum between gracious and badass about it.  And I wasn’t lying.  Junot Diaz saved the bookstore.  Plenty of authors have.  It’s why I love authors.
Just think of it.  If you want to have an old-school little bookstore in your hometown and keep it open, it takes one major author a month, and all they have to do is spread the word.  I think that’s one of the greatest things in the world.

So what's next for the store?

In recent years we’ve gotten into publishing bit by bit.  I grew up with City Lights Books, and with the sense that if someone asked for something and it didn’t exist (still possible in the world of books), then your bookseller should publish it.  And that’s what was done right up until the 20th century.  Booksellers were publishers and bookbinders and whatnot.  At this scale it can be awesome and really, really creative.  With the technology available, it no longer has to be such a loss, which small publishing used to be. 

We’ve already published one of Howard Zinn’s last books (a little book), and chapbook by Pulitzer winning-poet Franz Wright.  We now have all sorts of chapbooks on the way, by young, up and coming poets like Jonathan Weinert and Gregory Lawless.  We have an IL Peretz story translation by a young woman named Rose Waldman, who is a native Yiddish speaker from Brooklyn.  An illustrated poem by a mathematician named Mike Shapiro and Dan Wuenschel, former manager of the Grolier Poetry Workshop, and the list goes on.  I think the biggest one is a memoir that is the only account by a Jew available in English of life in the Soviet Union during World War II.  It’s one of the great things I’ll ever come across in my lifetime.

I also set type by hand, on an old letterpress.  It’s tremendously calming and we produce small runs of fine press works.  We’ve put out poems by Louise Gluck and Robert Bly, and we have a forthcoming piece by Denis Johnson among others. As for Ian Ross, who also works at the store, it’s tremendously exciting.  All three of us are writers.  Robin is tremendous, and also phenomenal editor—one of the most gifted I’ve seen, heard of read of, or anything else.  A patient, visionary figure.  Ian – to have written a full-length novel at this age, of this dimension, it’s tremendous.  What’s next for them?  Hopefully long and flourishing careers as writers.  They’re already the antidote to any such, “books are dead,” nonsense. 

What two books are you insisting your customers read?
That’s difficult. I loved David Kaiser’s “How the Hippies Save Physics”.  Freaking fantastic counterculture, a bit of science (without being Stephen Hawking) . . . just wonderful.  I’m  tremendously enjoying Roger Owen’s “The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life”, and I just spent a day tearing through “Trout Fishing in America” by Richard Brautigan, in a sitting.  “ The Subversives” was  another great one . . . I’m way over two. I’ll just quickly also say that Robin picked, “I was told there’d be cake” by Sloane Crosley a few months back in our staff picks.  I’ve been going through it ever so slowly, and it’s completely phenomenal.  I think I really am an essay junkie and the book is fantastic.

What questions didn't I ask that I should have?

I was reading your last question to Jackie Blem about getting someone to open a bookstore and while I like her response, because Ann Patchett is freaking amazing, I think your best answer for where you are might come from Sarah McNally, the young and completely awe-inspiring owner of McNally-Jackson books in lower Manhattan.  Sarah doesn’t run a used bookshop, but she runs one of the most fantastic bookstores in America, opened it just a few years ago, is (I imagine) under 35, and a driving force for all of us in the book world.  Paul Yamazaki, the guru book-buyer for City Lights Books has said correctly (I think) that nobody in a bookstore in America puts books out on display quite like Sarah McNally.  Sounds simple.  It’s not.  And that store is elegant. I have my own thoughts, of course, but they’re rambling and rough hewn . . .

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