Wednesday, September 17, 2014

From a Job to a Community

After two years as an Americorps Vista volunteer in Burlington, VT, family reasons brought me to the Boston area. I already knew I wanted to be a writer and so was only looking for a job that left me enough time and energy (both physical and mental) to write. I figured working in a bookstore would do just that. I got a temp job or two and then a job at an after school program. Finally, the sign went up that Porter Square Books would be opening about a five minute walk from my apartment. For the next two weeks I walked by the windows every day, waiting for them to put up a “Help Wanted” poster. They finally did, I emailed my resume and a letter of recommendation, had the interview, and was hired.

I started part time, working nights and weekends on top of my job with the after-school program. When the store needed someone to manage their website, I fit the “under thirty so he must know computers” qualification, and so, with no prior experience, started managing the website along with working on the floor. Not too long after that I started buying the store’s magazines.

Ten years on I’m still writing and still finding new things to do at the store. (Still mostly on the Internet even though I no longer fit the “under thirty” qualification.) When I started at Porter Square Books, I mostly focused on what a bookstore wouldn’t do: make me wear a suit, compromise my lefty politics, and leave me too drained to write; but my decade with PSB has been much more about what the store would do; create a community of writers, editors, and other publishing professionals, connect me to hundreds of readers, give me access to all the galleys I could ever read, allow me to be a champion of the weird books I (and a few other tortured souls) love the most.

One of the buzzwords writers hear at the beginning of their careers from potential agents and publishers is “platform.” One’s “platform” consists of the resources, publicity potential, and community that will help sell an author’s book. For example, a celebrity author would already have a substantial “platform” built from her existing fame, as would an expert in some field who presents at related conferences. A non-celebrity writing a novel is going to have to build that platform himself, most likely through social media and publication in magazines and journals. Porter Square Books has been a lot of things to me this decade; it started out as a job, but now, with my novel coming out in March, it is my platform, and it will always be a part of my community.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Introducing David's Dinners

I've found that often publishers invite me to dinners with authors I've never heard of, and I end up meeting some super interesting people and, usually, reading and liking their books. And as often as not, they're books I wouldn't otherwise have picked up. I’ve gotten to meet a number of authors this way and I’ve had great conversations that have really informed and enriched my reading of their books. I’ll often be at the counter when someone comes to buy a book whose author I’ve met, and I find I can tell the customer so much more about the book and the experience of reading it because of that special contact I’ve had with the writer.  

This got me to thinking: we should do something to make opportunities like this available to our customers as well. After all, authors go on tours, many of them come to Porter Square – and they too love the idea of connecting with readers, of schmoozing in a context less formal and structured than a reading at the store, and of enjoying a good meal while talking about their books. And our readers love to come to events – how much more would they love to come to dinner? We’re lucky enough to have a lovely restaurant across the street, Christopher’s, and so I came up with the idea of author dinners as a way of introducing our customers to less-than-famous writers. (Not that this was really my idea; there are certainly other bookstores that have done author dinners, but it’s a first for us.) If it works as planned, it will become a regular way of introducing our customers to authors they might not have otherwise read, and who we know (through having met them before) are particularly fascinating or cool people who have written particularly fascinating or cool books. We decided to call them David’s Dinners, mainly because we couldn’t come up with anything cleverer and we love alliteration.

One author I met in the late spring at the BEA conference was Laird Hunt, author of the new book Neverhome. A couple of weeks later we went to a dinner with him and had a grand time. As I always do when I’m invited to these author dinners, I read the book. It really struck me; I’m a sucker for narrative voice, and Laird was a man writing as a woman who was pretending to be a man. He rooted the book in real history – there were many real-life Ash Thompsons in the 1860s – but added a clear and direct, unsentimental but touching, compelling narrative style. I was so taken with the novel I chose it as my staff pick for this month. I then found out Laird was going to be in Boston in the latter part of September and I was able to arrange for him to spend an evening in Cambridge. Voila, the kickoff event for our dinner series. Sunday evening the 21st. He’s interesting and personable, the book’s a terrific read – and to top it off, it’s on the Indie Next list for September so it’s even 20% off (only $20.80, hardcover). We worked out an arrangement with Christopher’s, so we have the room upstairs all to ourselves and they’ve given us a menu with choice of appetizer, choice of entrée and a beer or glass of wine, for only $36 including tax and tip. You don't have to buy the book, but if you do (either in advance or at the event), Laird will of course inscribe it for you.

I really want people to come to this – I’m hoping to make the series a success so we can have a regular way of introducing our customers to some of our authors in a way that can complement our normal schedule of in-store readings. So I hope you’ll sign up. I guarantee you’ll have a delightful, literary, insightful, and gastronomically satisfying experience – and you can say you were there when it all started.  Here’s the link.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Staff Picks of the Decade

It all comes back to books. Every month for the last ten years, the booksellers at Porter Square Books have made staff picks. We’ve picked brand new books by debut authors, masterpieces by established literary stars, unjustly forgotten books from the past, quirky books, classics to revisit, beach reads, dense tomes, and everything in between, under the sun, and over the moon. And out of all the hundreds of picks we’ve made over the years, and the thousands of other good books we’ve read in that time, the booksellers of Porter Square Books have each chosen their Pick of the Decade. For some, the pick was obvious and for others it was about the most difficult decision you can ask a reader to make.

Over the course of September, leading up to our anniversary celebration on September 28th (where you’ll hear about these picks again, in the context of a raffle prize!), we will be sharing Picks of the Decade on Twitter and Facebook. You can keep track of all the shared Picks here. So much goes into keeping a bookstore open and thriving and with all the daily challenges and little triumphs, it can be easy to lose perspective. But it all comes back to books, and we couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate our ten-year anniversary than doing what we most love to do: introducing readers to great books.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peter May's North American debut

I will go right ahead and say from the outset that I do not generally read detective novels, or crime novels, or mystery novels, or Section 940 (as we call them in the bookstore). I don't dislike them, they just don't often make it to the top of my list. But a dear friend, and someone whose taste I trust in books, talked to me last month and said "I just finished the best book I've read in two years. You have to read it. The writer's name is Peter May and the book is The Blackhouse." I nodded politely because I knew I had no plans to read the book (there was just too much on my pile right then - galleys of the new Ian McEwan novel and Maureen Corrigan's book about Gatsby, and Josh's staff pick for this month, The Most Dangerous Book, and all sorts of other stuff). And that was before I even knew that it was a detective/mystery novel, which made it even less likely that I'd read it. But then I mentioned it to my wife, Dina, and she said "Peter May - he's coming to the bookstore in September, I think." Well, sure enough, he was. And then the stars aligned further because in the back of the store I found galley copies not just of The Blackhouse, which came out in the US a couple of years ago, but of The Lewis Man, the new book for which Mr. May is coming to visit us next week. Score. (These two books are the first two of a trilogy - the third, The Chess Men, is out in Britain but not yet here.) Then I started reading about him and the books and how people have gone nutso over them in the UK and Europe (France especially), and I found out that his appearance at Porter Square will be his first in the US for this book (I believe he was in the states briefly in 2013 when he won a number of awards for The Blackhouse). The signs all added up to the fact that it looked like I was going to be reading these books.

So I read The Blackhouse. Wow. This is a phenomenal piece of writing. The story takes place on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland (May is from Glasgow). Fin MacLeod is an Edinburgh detective, originally from Lewis, who is called back to the town he grew up in, and which he had left years ago, to investigate a murder that appears to have parallels to a case he had handled in Edinburgh. The novel alternates chapters between the third person narrative of the present - Fin's investigation - and a first person narrative of the child Fin growing up with many of the characters who are still around and are now the primary figures in the investigation. May's descriptions of place are magnificent and evocative - Lewis seems indeed to be God's country, forsaken and bleak and harsh, and he writes as well about weather as he does about landscape. His characters, and his dialect, are brilliant.

So that's enough about Blackhouse - just go read it. (We have plenty of copies at the store.) Now I'm halfway through Lewis Man and basically all the things I said in the last paragraph about Blackhouse are true here as well - Fin is again the central character, investigating a murder in Lewis, alternating voices between a first and a third person narrator. And also, as before, the past not only informs Fin's memory and psyche, but becomes inextricably woven into the events of the present, and is part of the mystery (and, I can predict, its solution). Many characters return along with Fin, and the physical setting is again a crucial and mesmerizing part of the story. But don't worry, this is not just a rewrite of the first book.  Far from it - and in fact so far I like it even better.  This is a you-need-to-go-to-sleep-but-you-can't-put-it-down-and-you-stay-up-til-3-in-the-morning book. You are naturally curious about solving the mystery, but that is only a fraction of the delight of the experience of reading the novel. I'm hooked, and am waiting for Chess Men to finish the trilogy.

I predict you will hear a lot about Peter May in years to come. And you will be able to say that you saw him his first time here, when he landed in America with his new book. Even if you've only just started The Blackhouse, and even if you haven't (yet), please come and meet Mr. May on Tuesday the 3rd. You'll thank me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Booker Long-list at PSB

The Man Booker Prize might be the most prestigious book award in the English language, making the revelation of the long and short lists of the finalists a major event in the book world. This year’s announcement of the long list drew particular attention because 2014 is the first year in which Americans are eligible to win the prize. As interesting as it is to see four Americans on the list (especially Joshua Ferris who read at PSB for the paperback release of his National Book Award finalist novel Then We Came to the End) the Americans didn’t catch our eye; the two finalists who will be reading with Porter Square Books in September did.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, September 5.

The Guardian calls Flanagan’s long-listed book “A masterpiece . . . A symphony of tenderness and love, a moving and powerful story that captures the weight and breadth of a life . . . A high point in an already distinguished career.” The Australian says, “Nothing could have prepared us for this immense achievement . . . The Narrow Road to the Deep North is beyond comparison . . . Intensely moving.” And from The Observer: “A novel of extraordinary power, deftly told and hugely affecting. A classic in the making . . . Masterful.”

In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway in 1943, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle's young wife two years earlier. His life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from pitiless beatings - until he receives a letter that will change him forever. Moving deftly from the POW camp to contemporary Australia, from the experiences of Dorrigo and his comrades to those of the Japanese guards, this savagely beautiful novel tells a story of death, love, and family; exploring the many forms of good and evil, war and truth, guilt and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

Richard Flanagan is the author of five previous novels, including the widely acclaimed Gould’s Book of Fish, which have received numerous honors and have been published in twenty-six countries. He lives in Tasmania.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, September 18

Joe Hill, who will be in conversation with David at our event says “The Bone Clocks is a stunning work of invention, incident, and character. The levels of awesome in this book are off the charts,” and Publisher’s Weekly wonders if The Bone Clocks is “the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” while calling it “a thing of beauty.”

Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as "the radio people", Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life. For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly's life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

Rich with character and realms of possibility, The Bone Clocks is a kaleidoscopic novel that begs to be taken apart and put back together by a writer The Washington Post calls “the novelist who’s been showing us the future of fiction.”

And while we’re talking about prizes, Eimear McBride, winner of the most recent Bailey’s Prize for her first novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, will be in conversation with Madeline Miller, winner of the 2012 Orange Prize (the original name for the Bailey’s Prize) on October 29th, which should also be an amazing event.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Books on the Bottom Shelf

Serendipity is one of the great joys of shopping in a bookstore. You wander in, maybe not even planning on buying anything, and you walk out with the exact book you need to read right now, just because the cover caught your eye while browsing. These powerful moments are created by the physical interaction between the reader and the store. But, surely, you’ve noticed in your travels that the physical world has some limitations. Our space is finite which means there will be books on bottom shelves. The cruel forces of organization and alphabetizing conspire to make it almost impossible to just bump into one of these books.

Perhaps the books most victimized by this cruelty of order are those works of adult fiction written by authors whose last names begin with “z.” Not only are they all the way at the end of the fiction section, not only are they all the way down on the bottom shelf by the floor, they are also right next to cafe seating. Often, you can't bend down to look at them even if you wanted to. So I decided to show some love to the bottom shelf and share some of the best books you’ll probably never see while browsing.

Green Girl
A brilliant work of alienation, Green Girl is the story of Ruth, an American in London drifting through jobs, men, and friendships. Zambreno’s book was originally put out in a limited run by a small publisher, but now with wider distribution, Green Girl should become a post-modern classic.

By turns affecting and inspiring, Loteria is a powerful novel that heralds the arrival of an outstanding writer, one who reminds us of the importance of remembering even when we are trying to forget. Seems a shame that such a beautiful cover is so rarely seen.

Stefan Zweig:
Thanks to Wes Anderson and The Grand Budapest Hotel and the new biography, Zweig is having a bit of a moment. Start with his novels like The Post-Office Girl, Chess Story, and Beware of Pity, or, if you prefer big beautiful hardcover editions, just get The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig.

The Silent Woman 
The publishing world is hard enough on feminist works in translation without the array of shelves hiding Monika Zgustova’s novel. A rapturous novel of love, longing, and exile, The Silent Woman depicts a twentieth century woman's life against a backdrop of war and political turmoil. Monika Zgustova was born in Prague and lives in Barcelona, Spain. She has published seven books, including novels, short stories, a play, and a biography. Silent Woman was a runner-up for the National Award for the Novel, given by the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Zgustova has also received the Giutat de Barcelona and the Mercè Rodoreda awards in Spain, and the Gratias Agit Prize given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague. She has translated more than fifty books of Russian and Czech fiction and poetry, including the works of Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, into both Spanish and Catalan.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

More Books Signed by Neil Gaiman!

Well, we had so much fun last year sending thousands of signed copies of Neil Gaiman’s book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, around the country, we decided to do it again!

Starting now, we have a limited supply of signed copies of:

You can also order all three here.

Orders will be fulfilled while supplies last.

In related news, we now accept Paypal on our website and, drum-roll please (or whatever counts as a drum-roll in your part of the world) we now ship INTERNATIONALLY. For international shipments we only accept Paypal. The charge for shipping everywhere but the US and our neighbors to the North in Canada, is $20 for the first book and $6 for each additional book for orders up to 4lbs. For oversize orders, the charge is $25 for the first book and $15 for each additional book. For shipments to Canada, it is $14 for the first book and $6 for each additional book up to 4lbs. Above 4lbs. the cost to Canada is $19 for the first book and $11 for each additional book. Domestic rates are the same at $6 for the first book and $1 for each additional book. Orders will ship starting on August 13th. If you choose to pick up in store, the book will be available as soon as you get a completed order email from us.

Big thank you again to Neil and as always, thank you to everyone who supports us.

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