BOOKSELLING IN THE 21ST CENTURY: WHEN YOUR BOOKSTORE GETS ROBBED

This feature was originally published at Literary Hub on 9/29/16

Anything can happen in twelve hours. Twelve hours: we close the doors on Sunday, September 18, and arrive the next morning to find the front door shattered. Inside, the usual signs of petty theft: the cash register broken, anything that had been locked now torn open like a wound. That call—the one that demands leaving the house without a shower, that summons for police reports—is never wanted, but it comes regardless.

No victims, no suspects, no witnesses. It is just a thing that happened. A thing happened and we did what is done when things happen: fret some and plan our next move. Phone calls are made; emails are sent. We do what we are supposed to do and hope the rest of the Monday is kind. We gather in front of the now pixelated front door and take a photo for our social media: six of us put up our middle fingers at someone who may well never see them. We tweet, “To whoever broke into our store & took our monies & hurt our door—screw you! #IndieBookstores #riseabove #alsowhy”

We laugh and it is enough. In Tacoma, Washington, fellow indie bookseller Kenny Coble sees our post, calls the store to order a book, and posts this tweet: “Someone broke into one of my favorite bookstores, @BrazosBookstore. Let’s show them some love and buy a book. brazosbookstore.com.” The hope? That a few people might follow his lead.

Coble, after all, has over 4,500 followers but often, it is hard to measure what that means, outside the abstract non-country that is the internet. Soon, we find out. Twelve hours: Coble posts one tweet and 21 people from 13 different states order from our website. Some orders are from friends—you know who you are—but many more are people who have never been to our store, or even the state of Texas. A few orders arrive from Litsy members (despite that we have yet to create a Litsy account).

It was not always like this, as Scott Esposito can attest. Founder of Quarterly Conversation, Director of Publicity and Senior Editor at Two Lines Press, and author ofThe Surrender, whose original publication was funded partially by Kickstarter, owes much to the internet. When I ask him about social media over email, his response is that social media is “the glue that holds it all together.” He reminds me that 20 years ago, it would be impossible to have “regular, day-to-day interactions with people in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Paris, Melbourne,” where we can trade book recommendations and quotes we love “without paying thousands of dollars” to do it.

What social media does, Esposito says, is “[allow] a new kind of group consciousness to arise among the different parts of the literary worlds… the emergence of various online literary scenes that are not bounded by geography.” Today, the book community now reaches beyond publishers, bookstores, state lines, or any other arbitrary limits. That is how people from Ohio and Massachusetts can cross another book off their To Be Read pile by poking through our online store, because we are part of the book community which has no borders. “When I saw what was happening with Brazos… I thought how much I love being in this community and how many good people there are here who care about things and will take the time to do the right thing,” Esposito writes.

Total, we had almost 30 orders from 14 states and one from D.C. We had retweets from readers, writers, booksellers, bookstores, publishers, literary magazines, publicists, every type of bookish citizen. At the time of this article, our original tweet had over one hundred retweets with over three hundred likes. In what other industry could this happen? In what other time could this happen?

Perhaps most surprising was the kind note we received from the lovely Valeria Luiselli, author of many titles including The Story of My Teeth. In an email addressed to store manager Mark Haber, she writes, “my humble contribution to Brazos’s convalescence” and attached this talisman, a relic from the days when she dreamed of opening her own bookstore:

ATTENTION BIBLIOPIRATES

Stealing books is a centenary Practice. It is not a good Practice, though in some cases it can be deemed respectable, as it may come to constitute a form of redistribution of our greatest Wealth. But even in a trade like this one, there is a Code of Conduct. Any Bibliopirate worthy of his or her Guild, must follow at least three norms:

1) Never steal a book by an author who is still alive.

2) Never steal a book published by an Independent Press.

3) Never steal a book from an Independent Bookstore.

VL & Brazos Bookstore & Bibliopirates

No books were harmed during our robbery but the message remains the same: where there are books, there will always be book people, and where there are book people, there will always be ideas, and people willing to support and protect them.

Twelve hours: we asked each other why anyone would choose a bookstore as a mark. Twelve hours: we remember a bookstore is more than its building.

“whoever”

You are not even dead yet.
I saw you again this morning
in Penn Station. In your disguise.
Small, thin, elderly. Dressed
haphazardly in unbuttoned layers.
With the cane, cap and scarf.
Unloved, but not as invisible
as you want. I don’t know what to feel.
I am glad to see you sometimes.
I think there is a tenderness
in you. Like the way a bird flies.
Other times I think it is to keep
people away. Always it is unrehearsed
need. A fist of need. Never having
food set before you.
linda gregg

chaotic and/or exuberant

mark haber & mauro javier cardenas discuss the revolutionaries try again, language, etc:

For me Latin American English doesn’t simply mean sequencing words from both languages but tilting English to sound like my strand of Spanish such that, for some natives, the language will sound chaotic and / or exuberant, while for Latin Americans living in the USA the language will scan. Carmen Boullosa, the first Latin American who read my novel, picked up on my Latin American English immediately. I hope there will be more readers like her in the years to come.

( full Q&A here )

laia jufresa & valeria luiselli in BOMB magazine

excerpts:

I had never really read what you were supposed to, and I was always trying to pretend I had, or saying, “Well, I haven’t, but I will!” I thought I was doing something wrong. The idea that I had to read certain books was a little overwhelming and had nothing to do with the way I wrote. Bradbury showed me that you have the right to follow your own path, both as a writer and a reader. He had made his own way, and he was very sure of himself in telling other writers that it was all right.

*

You learn by doing. You have to read a lot to be a writer. But I don’t think it necessarily makes you better. Only writing a lot does that. It would be ridiculous to say that going to museums makes you a better painter. It just doesn’t.

*

When I’m painting, I’m very comfortable being a beginner—trying things out and making mistakes. It feeds my writing. When you begin to feel like you’re a professional and have deadlines to meet, it becomes really important to still be able to play.

*

Mexico is incredibly porous to the English language in ways that are interesting and different from the situations in other Latin American countries. English seeps into Mexico at all social levels because of the enormous number of people moving constantly back and forth. But I don’t think I will ever stop writing in Spanish.

*

VL: Gilles Deleuze says that all great writers are foreigners in the language in which they write, even in their mother tongue. Do you feel that foreignness in Spanish?

LJ: I do, but probably not as much as you. I haven’t lived abroad as long as you have, but I didn’t grow up in Mexico City, so Mexico City Spanish has always been always a little strange for me.

VL: It’s hard to speak good chilango.

LJ: I always feel like I am imitating someone, and I am very imitative. I used to feel bad about that. I thought it implied a complete lack of personality.

VL: I was always proud of being that way, until recently.

LJ: You should be proud. Someone explained to me that it has something to do with mirror neurons. It means you’re very empathic.

*

I had left Mexico some years before because I had been in a shooting. Fourteen people were killed sixty feet away from me. I couldn’t bear it, and I had the privilege of leaving. So I did, and I didn’t want to give violence any more space, especially not in my writing. But I wanted to write about grief because we were all traumatized. Every time someone dies, it touches a lot of people. The same is true when someone disappears, though in a different and equally horrible way, because there’s no closure. So writing about grief was my way of making space for it.

*

In elite international circles, “global” Mexican writers, the civilized barbarians of the south, are expected to both embody and contradict the national narrative, perhaps so that bien-pensant intellectuals can confirm their well-intentioned beliefs about us. At the same time, inside Mexico, those same writers are seen as a disconnected bourgeoisie who are not entitled to their opinions, because they speak from a situation of total privilege. In one world, we are smart little underdogs, in another we are oppressors.

*

Mexicans are very politically incorrect. They have always disdained American political correctness. I myself did until I moved to the US. Now, I have these immense fights with my family when they say horrible things. I think that violence, whether it is social or personal, begins with language, which is much more powerful than people think it is. As a writer, what do you think about political correctness?

*

full interview here

review: UMAMI by laia jufresa (translation: sophie hughes)

This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16

Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.

It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”

It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”

As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.

But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.

The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”

It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”

The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.

“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.

In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.

Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.