Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bookstores and romance

1. A couple years back, I agitated for -- and then organized -- a romance-focused session at Winter Institute. An RWA staffer and a couple booksellers from member stores that offered decent romance sections told booksellers what romance readers expect, and why they should care.

2. I’m a fan of romance without actually being a big reader of it. The truth is, I’m kind of a prude. Also, I’m a bitter single lady. We offer full disclosure here at Archimedes Forgets!

3. There have been versions of this post written every few months, with the same sort of arguments hashed out in the comments. And to be fair, I’m probably not saying anything new here either.

4. Don’t even get me started on the difficulty of trying to apply any sort of absolute to the independent bookstore sector. Which is not to say I haven’t done it before, because it’s human nature to look for the defining characteristics of a group.

5. What I feel reasonably confident in saying about indie booksellers as a class is that they don’t like being told what to do. I think that, even more than platitudes we throw around like “a passion for books,” is why people are willing to make sacrifices to run or work for small retail enterprises.

6. When I talk about independent bookstores, I mean the ones that sell entirely or primarily new books. I know next to nothing about the used book business.

7. Romance readers have, in general, been poorly served by many independent bookstores over the past decade. (Quite probably before that, too.) I’m not arguing with that premise. I’m not saying that romance readers should feel any sense of obligation to stores that don’t meet their needs.

8. We -- readers -- don’t make coldly practical economic decisions when it comes to books. If I’m talking about a clothing store that carries dresses outside my price range or below my size, I can be fairly dispassionate about it, but if a bookstore doesn’t carry the authors and genres I like -- especially if there’s an indication that they actively disdain them -- there’s more of a sense of judgment. Psychology people, have at it.

9. Booksellers are used to hearing complaints about their selection. Last week a customer told my coworker that he hated our store because we don’t carry computer books. A couple months back, a customer told me that she had stopped shopping with us because we carry too many new bestsellers and commercial fiction writers. It’s easy to accept that you can’t please everyone, but there are days when it feels like you can’t please anyone.

10. Shelf space is always a problem. Even stores that want to increase their romance (or whatever) inventory have trouble finding a place to stock it. Part of the problem is that bookcases are large pieces of furniture with fixed dimensions. It doesn’t help your picture book overflow if you’re able to free up half a shelf in memoir and one shelf in sports.

11. I don’t know what fraction of the book-browsing population notices, but cheap paper does not age well. The groundwood used in pretty much all mass-markets (along with an increasing number of trade paperbacks) turns yellow very quickly. If something’s been sitting on the shelves for a while, it shows.

12. There’s often a significant overlap between a store’s customers and its employees -- many booksellers started out as customers. So a store that isn’t drawing romance-reading customers is unlikely to acquire romance-reading employees unless they look elsewhere. (Thanks to Ann Kingman for pointing this out in the comments to a Booksquare post, ages and ages ago.)

13. Romance readers are well-served by e-books. Independent bookstores are not. This gap in interests may prove to be unbridgeable.

14. No store can be right for everybody. If you’re looking for an inexpensive book to read once and get rid of, a used bookstore is probably the best fit. This isn’t the “fault” of the independent bookstore selling new books at their cover price, it’s just another gap in interests.

15. There are, without question, a non-trivial number of book snobs working in independent bookstores. (And probably chain stores as well.) Some of these people have no compunctions about sharing their snobbery with the objects of it. Which sucks, because it’s very easy for a bad experience in a single store to color a customer’s feelings about independent bookstores in general. (Which brings us back to #5.)

16. For the record, I’m far from perfect, but I do try really hard not to display any judgment on people’s reading choices. (I wanted to say “not to pass judgment,” but who am I kidding? I judge based on footwear, hairstyle, and whether you understand the proper use of “literally.” I just try not to show it.) I’m no fan of Fifty Shades of Grey (see prudery reference above), but I’m not going to mock you for asking for it. Even if you’re the one saying derogatory things about it.

17. I don’t see any grand solution to the romance reader-independent bookstore divide. I’m not sure there is one. I think there are stores that could benefit from making themselves more amenable to the wants of romance fans, and I think there are stores for which it would be more trouble than it’s worth. And I know I can’t tell any store what to do with its inventory. But I can add my own whinging to the mix when I hear the same complaints again and again.

(Post format shamelessly cribbed from Chasing Ray. When La Colleen starts numbering her paragraphs, watch out.)

Friday, September 7, 2012

This week's links

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Adventure of the Reigate Squire

Also known, in the Project Gutenberg edition, as "The Reigate Puzzle."

Sherlock Holmes has definitely not made it into popular memory as a fragile man, but that's almost the image Watson paints in the opening paragraph:
"It was some time before the health of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes recovered from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of '87."
But of course Watson can't actually tell us what those exertions were, because they're "too intimately concerned with politics and finance to be fitting subjects for this series of sketches."

Besides the Conan Doyle's ongoing "everything you see here is real" conceit, with all the dashed-out names and "oh, I couldn't possibly tell you but I know you'd recognize the reference if I did" moments, these digressions from the narrator make the Holmes universe that much bigger. It's not just fifty-some little stories, it's so many adventures Watson couldn't possibly manage to write them all down, even if he were allowed to.

Anyway. On April 14, 1887 (Watson specifies), Holmes is suffering from "nervous prostration" after the conclusion of a particularly grueling case. It takes some cajoling, but Watson manages to drag him off to a friend's country house.

Tell me, does this sound like the kind of houseguest you want?
"A little diplomacy was needed, but when Holmes understood that the establishment was a bachelor one, and that he would be allowed the fullest freedom, he fell in with my plans"
After he's had some time to mope around, Holmes perks up when he hears that there's been a burglary in the area, with unusual results:
"The thieves ransacked the library and got very little for their pains. The whole place was turned upside down, drawers burst open, and presses ransacked, with the result that an odd volume of Pope's 'Homer,' two plated candlesticks, an ivory letter-weight, a small oak barometer, and a ball of twine are all that have vanished."
Which gives us a chance to watch our two protagonists in opposition. Holmes, as always, zeroes in on an oddity that makes perfect sense to him, while Watson has no idea what he's talking about and dismisses the whole thing -- in this case, by reminding Holmes that detecting isn't much help in a rest cure.

You can just hear the long-sufferingness in Watson's narration when Holmes inevitably gets involved in the case:
"It was destined, however, that all my professional caution should be wasted, for next morning the problem obtruded itself upon us in such a way that it was impossible to ignore it, and our country visit took a turn which neither of us could have anticipated."
The burglars, it turns out, have now taken in a second estate, adding murder to their rap sheet. And it just happens that the two targeted houses happen to belong to landowners with a persistent grudge between them.

Of note: Holmes' experiences with the police have resulted in an amusingly low level of expectations of their competence:
"I have made inquiries," said the Inspector. "William received a letter by the afternoon post yesterday. The envelope was destroyed by him."

"Excellent!" cried Holmes, clapping the Inspector on the back. "You've seen the postman. It is a pleasure to work with you..."
Recourse to Google: Watson observes that the house "bears the date of Malplaquet upon the lintel of the door." For those of us who lack his grounding in English history, that would be the 1709 Battle of Malplaquet, part of the Wars of Spanish Succession.

And a lesson: Whenever Watson thinks that Holmes is losing his touch, you can be pretty sure a major clue has just been unearthed. This story's example:
"I was pained at the mistake, for I knew how keenly Holmes would feel any slip of the kind. It was his specialty to be accurate as to fact, but his recent illness had shaken him, and this one little incident was enough to show me that he was still far from being himself. He was obviously embarrassed for an instant, while the Inspector raised his eyebrows, and Alec Cunningham burst into a laugh. The old gentleman corrected the mistake, however, and handed the paper back to Holmes."
Also, this week in the insights of Sherlock Holmes:
"It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated."