“If everyone in Hoboken buys one book a year, we’ll be fine.”One of the founders of Little City Books, Kate Jacobs, wrote a delightful post about the day Little City Books opened. The gist of her post is, “People walk in beaming. ‘A bookstore’ they say. ‘Thank you!’” Hoboken, you see, did not have a bookstore. It is a city of about 50,000 bounded on its four sides by cliffs, the Hudson River, the Lincoln Tunnel, and water between between it and Jersey City. You can’t just pop up to the next town to buy a book. So we are indeed beaming and grateful that Little City Books has arrived. Other bookstores were blown out of business when Barnes & Noble moved in a couple of decades ago. We went there – where else was there to go? But we didn’t like it. Then Barnes & Noble left, and there was more than just no book store; there was disgust at the irresponsibility of putting others out of business and then leaving town yourself—a familiar cycle of dysfunction in our towns and cities. When everybody who was anybody said that, duh, e-books would displace hard-copy books, it seemed inevitable. But it turns out that the People prefer books they can hold in their hands; only 25-30% of books sold are e-books. As an author, I often send books to people to read, and by a large margin, they want something which has been signed by the author on their bookshelf, and my sales figures show a similar distribution of e-book sales. The general assumptions (that box stores and e-books would dominate) did not work as prophesied. What would be the next business plan? Kate Jacobs, Donna Garban, and Emmanuelle Morgen thought about that as they strategized over the creation of Little City Books. They began their public presence with an Indiegogo campaign. A snarky blogger wrote, “starting an Indiegogo campaign to help them pay for this sounds shitty. Who commits to starting a business unless they can afford it on their own?” Here’s who and here’s why. The whole community suffered by not having a bookstore. Local authors had no place to build up their audience, people turned to the less popular e-books but not because they wanted to, students and teachers in city schools were hampered, parents needed a storytime place on Saturday morning (the library and the used book store were not enough for the many families with young children in Hoboken), and a city which prides itself on its sophistication HAS TO HAVE A BOOKSTORE! The sense of participation among those who contributed to the Indiegogo campaign deepened their pleasure when Little City Books opened in May. The burden of opening the store was not only on the owners, but on the rest of the community as well, for their mutual benefit. In one early announcement, Little City Books quoted urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg to explain their vision. Places like bookstores “are social hubs that support civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and a sense of place." In order to do this, Kate, Donna, and Emmanuelle hope “to have strong partnerships with all the local schools -- bringing authors, hosting book fairs, and maintaining teacher wish lists… We want to develop literacy support programs, and collaborate with other local businesses on events." Plans for permanence also include a presence at the nearby train station. This bookstore has the city of Hoboken behind them, starting with our rockstar mayor, Dawn Zimmer. They have a chosen a strategic location, superbly curated their selection of books, easily make friends with their customers, and are riding on a new tide. If everyone in Hoboken buys just one book a year, LCB will be a success. People walk in beaming. “A bookstore!” they say. ‘Thank you!’” Tell the snarks to go to hell. Little City Books, 100 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, NJ 201 626-READ (7323)
Nancy Burke read from her book, If I Could Paint the Moon Black (Lakeshore Press, 2014) at Watchung Booksellers recently. Her book is the story of an Estonian woman, Imbi Peebo, and there were quite a few Estonians there, including Imbi. They were gratified that their story had been told, and had some more information for us. We also were treated to an Estonian Apple Cake. When I got home, I read the book, and here is my review. At the heart of If I Could Paint the Moon Black is the winsome voice of Imbi Peebo. The author, Nancy Burke, casts herself more as a scribe than a storyteller, allowing Imbi’s voice to speak freely, uncensored and uncrafted. The reader learns Imbi’s story from three points of view: 9-year-old Imbi, 77-year-old Imbi, and Burke. The ride gets a little bumpy from time to time as the points of view shift. In wartime Estonia, Imbi and her family are grateful when the Germans replace the Russians as occupiers. The Germans are good to Imbi and her family, and she sticks to those guns, even after learning about the atrocities of the SS. That is understandable, since without the kindness of German soldiers and citizens, she and her mother might not have survived. The German army is depicted as so benign that Burke feels she has to interject a sterile page of historical fact – there was a concentration camp in tiny Estonia, and Estonian young men were forcibly recruited into the German army. But little Imbi didn’t know that. Compared to other Estonians, Imbi is well off, given the nightly bombings, the sudden disappearances, and the starvation rations. Her family spends summers on a farm where they bathe in the river and eat well, especially enjoying meat, which is unavailable in the city. Imbi’s schooling continues even when schools are shut down because her mother is a teacher. At their city home, she is blessed with 142 gooseberry bushes, giving her family access to fresh fruit. This reader will remember the gooseberry bushes. After spending the night in a bomb shelter expecting death by explosion at any moment, then emerging to find a city half destroyed, what does the girl notice? Not the dead bodies, but the gooseberry bushes; they are still standing. Imbi always clings to salvation. Imbi and her cousins find dead airmen in the cockpits of military planes which crash near her family’s farm. They drag the bodies from the plane and bury them. In reflection, the 77-year-old Imbi doesn’t seem to have suffered any deforming trauma from these experiences, and enjoys telling about the naughtiness of having traded food for the services of a seamstress who turns the airmen’s nylon parachutes into blouses. Her buoyant and unrepentant voice is refreshing. I read If I Could Paint the Moon Black as I would look at a Grandma Moses painting. The palette is simple and the author has not struggled over transitions and the other stuff of high-fallutin’ writing. Burke lets the rough edges of the story show – the characters which spring out of nowhere and then recede, the “I” which shifts within the same paragraph, the semantic simplicity and lack of context. As a professor of writing, she knows what the rules are, and ignores or defies many of them, giving the story its simple quirkiness. Whatever the author’s intent, I learned about an ignored corner of recent history, and felt reassured. In the midst of uncertainty and terror, some people slide through on wit, courage, and good will. Such a person was Imbi Peebo. As we read of similar uncertainty and terror today, it is encouraging to know that I might possibly be able to do the same.
Watchung Booksellers has good genes. It is located close to parking, its building is charmingly reminiscent of the Good Old Days, its reading areas sunny, and it has twenty-three years of history behind it. But WB’s success is the result of nurture, not nature. Owner Margot Sage-EL says their secret is “hard work.” WB has supported and enhanced the scaffold of cultural institutions that make Montclair a cultural gem. That’s a good business move, but also reflects their passion for their work. Part of the reason why you’ll always be met with a smile is that they love what they do. WB has flexed with the times. You can order ebooks there, or order online and pick up the book. A good move at that point would be to take your new book and start reading it in their cafe, Tiny Elephant. You might meet someone there who had also read that book, or maybe they had a recommendation for your next good read. Think of WB as your reading spa.They have developed the technical savvy to put out a lively newsletter reminding their readers of upcoming events, staff picks, and best sellers – not in the whole world, but at WB. So what does WB’s local market want? They don’t want “fluff” books, but ones reflecting the deeply held joys and concerns of Montclair; and, among other things, Montclairites care about their children. The back room is where kids sit on knees and get read to, or where grandparents peruse shelves for the perfect birthday present for a beloved young person– a book about baseball, trains, drawing, fairies, or YA detectives. WB has 500 events a year, including the Saturday readings for children. Their collaboration with local editors and agents introduces them regularly to new authors, and new authors get the same warm welcome and promotional support as, say, Montclair's NYT bestselling authors Pam Satran and Christina Baker Kline. This year, WB knocked out a wall to connect with the Tiny Elephant café next door. One night they moved all the tables and fixtures and 50 diners celebrated the Feast Worldwide – an event which happens on designated nights in many places throughout the world. People gather, eat interesting food (in this case, prepared by Tiny Elephant), and discuss important things. WB hosts several book groups. If you have an idea for a book group, you can suggest it and they will work with you. Now that you have done the hard work of reading all the facts about Watchung Booksellers, you get a treat; the photograph of their reading room, where you are welcome to leave your troubles behind (maybe with your granddaughter) and sink into the pleasure of dark books, funny books, graphic books, new books, old ones. You’ll be welcomed, as always, with a smile.