Sunday, October 17, 2010

Boston Book Festival report

It's a beautiful fall weekend here in New England, and yesterday saw the exciting, much-publicized Boston Book Festival, now in its second year. I went to one event and then wandered around with some friends to the booths, and it was all in all an impressive showcase of talent and publisher marketing and even bookselling.

I was pleased to see some cool independent publishers present - Small Beer Press, for example, and David Godine Inc, and the relatively new and quite commercial Union Park Press, which does Boston books for Boston folks. I also really enjoyed the book stalls from Symposium Books and the Brattle Bookshop. Lastly, I was interested in this Better World Books, which seems to be a for-profit but socially responsible alternative to Amazon. (Any alternative to Amazon seems pretty damn good by my watch.) They seem to do a lot of work for literacy and they sell these t-shirts, which they had on display and which were charming in their simplicity:


The festival was bustling, unfortunately with many people who were pushy and demanding and ill-equipped to be around other humans, but such is part of the deal in a popular urban festival, especially in Boston. (Sorry, but folks are just a bit more polite in other parts of the country and world - those of us who live here know that!) The exhibitors, however, were friendly, at both these independents and at booths for corporate publishers, such as Harper Perennial. Everyone had a good spirit about them, and the crowd was eating it up. I should call out the young woman at the New York Review Books' stall in particular, who knew her list so well and was just plain charming.

But I have to get around to my frustration. Sorry.

I am working on a book of local interest right now, which just came out. Local independent the Brookline Booksmith had a booth last year at the Festival - which I remember because the weather was horrible, and as I approached the tent, the woman working there warned me not to come in, because the rain and wind were threatening to bring the whole tent down. So this year, I knew that the store had ordered 12 copies of this book in question. I called them up to ask if they'd be bringing the book to the Festival. I was put through to the woman organizing the books for the Festival, who told me that no, they were not bringing any general titles. In fact, they were only allowed to sell books to support one of the multiple venues for the Festival. They said maybe someone else will be selling general titles.

This was Thursday. That night, my partner and I wandered into the mammoth Barnes & Noble in the Prudential - a store where I once worked, which is one of the top-selling stores in the country. In the last couple of weeks, this very large superstore has been transformed per the new B&N model, which I discussed here. It's now happening, for reals. At the front, just to the left, of this huge store, the books have been removed. Completely removed, in a space that once had about 5 or 6 short rows with travel books and cookbooks, I believe. The shelves gone, the store has now put stands to push the Nook, making the store resemble, as I said before, a Best Buy. Charming. We walked to the back of the store, to the decent sized fiction section so my partner could look for Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a novel that was just named a finalist for the National Book Award (as we told you). As he we stood in the last row, with the Y's, I looked across the aisle, and the psychology/self-help section, as well as the Education and exam guide section, has been wholly removed, and in its place? Vaguely educational toys, probably taking up a space where at least 4 maybe 5 rows of books had been. This is the Toys 'r' Us section.

We had seen the novel there just a couple of days before, multiple copies even, so we went to the information desk. The woman struggled a bit, and took us to two different locations. (We noticed there was not even an endcap of National Book Award finalists - !!! Isn't this a bookstore!??!) Unsuccessful, the worker pointed out that "they" had taken a bunch of books out of the store to sell at the Festival, and maybe they took all five copies the computer was saying the store had in stock.

Sure enough, B&N had a huge booth at the Festival, in a central location. They were clearly the official general, new book booksellers instead of local independent the Brookline Booksmith. Very bad news. We found I Hotel there and I asked the worker, whom I recognized as someone I once worked alongside at that B&N, if there were discounts for the books on sale. She said no, then she revised her statement to say that there was no discount for the customer, but a portion of the proceeds would go toward some literacy campaign. Convenient - I hope someone holds B&N accountable for that.

I know that was a long tangent, but I'm frustrated that the Festival organizers went corporate on the bookselling. It was particularly bad timing given that B&N is in the process of backing off from selling books, more than ever. They have turned to gadgets. They were more interested in getting the Nook displays set up than getting news about a major award put out front, with books that were named finalists on display so smart readers could say, "oh, we should read this now, some great novelists said these were the best of the year." B&N didn't care. They probably didn't even let their workers know about this, in case anyone asked.

I'm angry as a reader. I'm sick of not having a bookstore that cares. (Brookline Booksmith is great, but not in my neighborhood, and the same goes for the incredible Harvard Bookstore.) And I'm annoyed that the Book Festival, which was fantastic in many, many ways and will surely enjoy years of continued success, didn't "think local" and celebrate a couple of that top-notch independents still left in the general metro area. I understand the need for corporate sponsors and I applaud the Festival organizers' ability to keep all of these events free. That is huge. Perhaps my frustration stems to how closely they almost made it perfect, and also my current particular frustration, as noted, with the cruel corporate carelessness of B&N.

2 comments:

Becky said...

Hi Brian.

This is a great post. And as a Boston resident, I especially dig it. But what you don't realize (or maybe overlook) is that the entire festival itself is sponsored by large corporations like Google, Liberty Mutual, Bank of America and so forth. So. We shouldn't be surprised to see that the wonderful local indies get squeezed out by mega chains. (Heartbroken, yes, surprised no.)

Becky said...

Hi Brian.

This is a great post. And as a Boston resident, I especially dig it. But what you don't realize (or maybe overlook) is that the entire festival itself is sponsored by large corporations like Google, Liberty Mutual, Bank of America and so forth. So. We shouldn't be surprised to see that the wonderful local indies get squeezed out by mega chains. (Heartbroken, yes, surprised no.)

Sociable