Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A PSB A-to-Z

Our anniversary party is right around the corner, and bookseller Susannah has gone above and beyond the call of duty to put together an A-to-Z of our indie decade.

A: Is for Anniversary! Our tenth! How time flies when you love what you do. And so happy to be a fiercely independent bookstore during these times. Time to party! Also A is for Authors! We never know who might be visiting us season to season but hosting new authors never gets old. Meeting John Waters and Ian Rankin were personal highlights for me.

B: Is for Bestsellers! Our Indie bestseller list has held such gems over the years as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Olive Kitteridge and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.

C: Is for Customers! For all those loyal customers who have supported us since the doors opened and for all the new ones who continue to find us. And for all the avid readers who love to browse, who can't leave with just one book, and love an impromptu book discussion at the cash register. Also for the children who have graduated to the Young Adult section who first came in as babies. And for those who come looking for that elusive book with almost no information - I love a good treasure hunt! Keep coming back - we love you all.

D: Is for Dogs! Dogs are customers too and we love to see them. We even printed a calendar a year or so ago featuring regular canine visitors. We have cookies behind the counter for all good dogs - please come up and shake paws!

E: Is for Events! Famous authors, local authors with their debut book, poetry readings, Harry Potter parties.... and so much more - we've done it all in the last ten years.

F: Is for Froggy paper! What do you mean you've never had a purchase gift-wrapped in our signature froggy paper? What are you waiting for?

G: Is for Neil Gaiman! We had over 5000 special orders for The Ocean at the End of the Lane and a sold-out speaking engagement that none of us will forget for a long time.

H: Is for Handselling! Over ten years of being able to inflict my personal taste on as many people as possible! What a great job and my personal favorite part of being a bookseller, especially at Christmas when everyone needs some ideas!

I: Is for Fresh Ink! Our innovative young readers review program which has been a huge success. Hundreds and hundreds of reviews received and uploaded on our blog.

J: Is for the Janes! For founders Jane Dawson who retired last year and Jane Jacobs who did so very recently, I thank you for being such great colleagues, for picking such funny greeting cards to sell and for the amazing knitting and mystery sections!

K: Is for Kobos!  I love the Kobo app for my iPad which I load up with e-books when I travel through the Porter Square Books website. (And you can too!). In the next ten years I hope to see Kobo become The Last Word in e-readers for the Indie savvy book lover.

L: Is for libraries! For Cambridge Public library's Cambridge READS. For the holiday donations of books to the shelters. For all libraries for helping create readers and book buyers.

M: Is for moveable expandable shelves! I wish. Especially around the holidays.

N: Is for NPR! Just how many great books have we heard about on NPR? What a great "partner" they are for bookshops and authors, especially our friends at WBUR. I used to love driving in on a Saturday and hearing Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater laugh themselves silly over a new children's book that we would then sell out of promptly.

O: Is for Off-sites! One of our first projects, even before we opened, was selling books for the Lesley University Low-Residency MFA plan and sold or provide books all over the Cambridge area ever since.

P: Is for Prizewinners!  For the excitement of listening to the announcements on the radio to find out first who has won the Caldecott and Newbery Awards for each year. For the honor of being asked to vote for the New England Book awards.

Q: Is for Quilt! We held a competition a few years ago to win a beautiful handmade Halloween quilt made by staff member and crafter extraordinaire, Jane Jacobs.

R: Is for Reading! I suppose I should have kept a log over the years with which to impress but please just believe me when I say I've read an awful lot in the last decade. From Wolf Hall to Donna Leon, Publishers Weekly magazine to the London Times book review section and it's all been wonderful!

S: Is for Staff!  We're a varied lot with many different backgrounds and interests, with a common love for books. For those retired or just about to, those we have sadly lost, those who have gone on to other careers and those just joining us, we have all made PSB the unique place it is today.

T: Is for Teddy! A permanent fixture in our Children's Section, our big Ted has lots of little fans. And he's a really good listener if you feel like reading him a story.

U: Is for Ultra cool stuff! Our knickknacks, puzzles, games, stationery, mugs, t-shirts and things you didn't even know existed are unique and highly desirable. It's difficult actually getting out of here with a paycheck most weeks!

V: Is for the Vacuums we have lost over the years!  Most have had names (My personal bête noir was Windsor!) and have been loved and reviled in turn but whatever form they come in, its hard to run a shop without them!

W: Is for World Book Night. As a dedicated WBN book pick-up location, we have been hugely successful with over 600 books given away free by participants this year alone. We’re very sad it won’t be happening again next year.

X: Is for eXtraordinary!  Which we are in my opinion. Extraordinarily good booksellers selling eXtremely good books to eXtremely knowledgeable customers. Can I move on to Y now please, that was tricky?

Y: Is for New Years Day sale! For a fun tradition started soon after we opened in Porter Square.  Time to spend those gift cards, treat yourself for some reading for the long cold days of January.

Z: Is for Zing! For the coffee and treats that have fueled us all these years.


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.

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