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September 4th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Publishing & Bookselling

Flashing Back to the Past–Me at Undercover Books in 1983

Undercover Books, the bookstore operated by my two siblings, Joel and Pamela, and our parents, Earl and Sylvia, opened for business on May 4, 1978. Five years later, we were enough of a fixture in the community that a local newspaper was arranging interviews with us, to talk about books, and the business. They did one on me, and one on Pam. When I visited her in Cleveland last month, I was surprised to see them preserved in a scrapbook she had. Here’s the one they did on me. To read the entire column, click on the image and pause the slideshow as it comes on-screen.

Sun Press profile

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July 8th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Publishing & Bookselling

Remembering Earl I. Turner, February 7, 1918-July 8, 1992

Earl I. Turner, Moraigne Lake, Canadian Rockies, July 1982My father Earl I. Turner, about whom I’ve previously written on this blog, died twenty-two years ago today. Recently, my sister Pamela Turner found a letter Earl gave to his three children when we as a family (Pamela; our brother Joel; Earl, mom, Sylvia; and myself) began operating Undercover Books, on May 4, 1978. His letter is kind of an ethical will, full of wisdom, and I invite you to read it for yourself.

Earl Turner letter, May 8, 1978

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January 19th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Celebrating Publishing Friend Jane Isay’s Success as An Author & Reflecting on My Own Career

Leaving Cleveland and Finding My First Job in New York City

Secrets & LiesWhen I moved to New York City in 1985–after working the seven years following Franconia College for the Turner family’s 3-store book chain Undercover Books–my first job in Gotham was not in publishing. The job that enabled me to pack up my life in Cleveland and exit a family business and a city which my siblings and parents didn’t want me to leave was Membership Coordinator of a Jewish educational organization, the National Havurah Committee (NHC). I wasn’t staying in books, I thought, but starting work in what at Franconia–an institution that was born and thrived in the educational ferment of the 1960s-70s–I’d hoped I would be doing: working against bigotry and anti-semitism, maybe in inter-faith dialogue, applying my double major in History of Religion and Philosophy of Education, trying to mend the broken world.

Right after graduating, people working in communal service and career counselors with whom I met told me I’d need an advanced degree, like an MSW, to get anywhere in the field. Yet as an alum of an alternative high school and an experimental college, I had no interest in grad school. I sometimes wonder, if my family hadn’t opened the first bookstore in 1978–affording me a place to park myself right after college–what I would have done in my life. It might not have been in books, as it’s turned out. When I enlisted in the family business, I didn’t know my work in the stores would last seven years, that’s for sure. At about the five year point I began seriously mulling what I would do next. When I turned thirty, in the fall of 1984, I was ready to leave Cleveland and move on from my hometown and the family business.

I might’ve tried moving in to publishing right away then, but for two reasons: First, I was still eager to work on mending the world and wondered if fostering dialogue among groups that too often regarded opponents as an alien “other” might be as important and fulfilling as bookselling. The second reason was more complex, and gets to the heart of secrets and truth, very much in the vein of Jane Isay’s new book, SECRETS AND LIES: Surviving the Truths that Change Our Lives, the occasion for this post covering my collegial friendship with her; the relationship books she’s written since leaving publishing, and ineluctably, my own family and personal history. The nub then was that my siblings and parents viewed me as indispensable to the stores, and felt betrayed or abandoned or hurt that I really was going to leave them. I viewed it that I had never signed on for more than temporary–if extended–duty in the family enterprise, and besides, who could be expected to stay in one’s birthplace, if you had the urge to pull up stakes and explore putting down roots elsewhere? We had some hard words when I told everyone my decision–it came right around my 30th birthday that September of ’84, when I was feeling impatient, sensing the acceleration of my own years, and not amenable to being hemmed in by an obligation to my birth family, no matter how much I respected them and cared about them. Resisting their appeals that I stay, and disregarding doubts they expressed about whether I could really find a job in another city, my resolve was solid as I began my quest for new work and a new home. Given the still-raw feelings, I felt some constraint about not looking for new work in publishing, which could’ve felt to my siblings almost like I was using the bookstore years purely as a personal springboard in to publishing, something they could’ve perhaps chosen to do, too.

Jane IsayAs Jane observed in her talk at Manhattan’s Corner Bookstore last week, given time, the breaches among family members often will heal. This was certainly true for the five of us, as the hurt did not persist. The rest of the family carried on in to some of Undercover’s best years, maintaing active store locations until around ’92, before going mail order and then online, utilizing the new Internet, beginning in 1993, before Amazon began selling books. My brother Joel and sister Pamela, and our parents Earl and Sylvia were quicker past the post than Jeff Bezos, confirmed by my recent reading of Brad Stone’s excellent book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

Looking past publishing as a possibility, I focused my search from Cleveland on Jewish communal service organizations in Chicago and New York, and got an offer from the NHC, which generously included help with my moving expenses. However, after nine months with them, the executive director who’d hired me announced his resignation. It looked like the NHC was going to enter a rocky period, and I hadn’t fallen in love with the field, anyway. I decided to re-chart my course and now try to work in publishing, closer than in retail to where the books begin. Undercover Books had been a prominent indie store with a good reputation, so I was hopeful I could effectively network my way in to some kind of a publishing job. As it turned out, I was able to seek advice and find encouragement from lots of helpful bookpeople, publishing veterans I already knew, and others I met for the first time. All were generous with their time and eager to share their experiences in the business, along with views of the job prospects at many different companies. Among this group of friends and well-meaning contacts, three women I met in New York for the first time were particularly helpful to me.

The Three Publishing Women Who Helped Me Find My Path

In 1986, Mildred Marmur, the first female chief executive of Scribner’s, would give me my first job in publishing, a part-time stint as the first reader and judge of the Maxwell Perkins First Novel Award. Milly had earlier worked in subsidiary rights at Simon & Schuster and Random House where she famously made lucrative mass market paperback deals for such big books as All the President’s Men and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Later,  I met Ruth Nathan, a literary agent who earlier in her career was a story editor for Paramount Studios, working in NY. Ruth’s husband was Paul Nathan, longtime Rights&Permissions columnist for Publishers Weekly. After my stint at Scribner’s ended, Ruth recommended me to Beth Walker for an open position at Walker & Company, demonstrably helping me land my first full-time job as a full-fledged editor.

But before I was even in a position to be helped by Marmur and Nathan, I had to first decide if I wanted to become an editor, or explore some other role in publishing, like working as a traveling sales representative. Also essential to this process was meeting Jane Isay, already a longtime editorial professional, who I recall having been at Basic Books before I knew her, and at S&S when we met. A great listener, Jane took me to lunch, and heard my tale of a bookseller recently arrived in NYC who was looking for a berth on the publishing side of the business. I told her I thought I wanted to become an editor, but wanted to be sure about what the role would entail.

Jane outlined the editorial enterprise to me–reading constantly, scanning newspapers and magazines for new book ideas, cultivating agents with talented author clients, taking work home on weekends, and line-editing, always line-editing. She explained the latter involved engaging authors in a focused effort on the page and in vigorous conversation to help them make their work as good as it could become, including of course taking pencil to their manuscripts and working through them line by line. I was a bit daunted by the prospect, but thrilled at the same time. Our lunch, and subsequent conversations we had, made me more hopeful that this was going to be the right field for me. We agreed that I was in an unusual spot, since the career path for most editors was to start in publishing soon after college as an editorial assistant, assistant editor; and associate editor, until finally being named editor. Such a path could take 5-6 years, or longer. Yet, I had already been out of college seven years and had learned the book business as a retail buyer, ordering most of the adult books for three stores, while recommending books to customers every day and observing how real readers responded to my suggestions. The bookstore had been like graduate school for me, and I wasn’t interested in a lengthy editorial apprenticeship. Jane understood my situation and advised me how I might conduct my job search. She, more than anyone I met during those early years in New York City, helped put me on the career path I pursued.

Our Rabbi’s Friendship 

My friendship with Jane soon expanded beyond books and publishing to embrace our spiritual sides. We were fortunate to both become members of Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun, a Manhattan synagogue whose lead rabbi, until his untimely death in 1993, was Marshall T. Meyer. I met Marshall one summer day in 1985 while at work in the NHC office in a building on W. 89th Street. A tall man with a big but elegant frame and a booming voice came waltzing over from an adjacent office on the same floor where I’d heard hammering and someone new moving in. “May I borrow your stapler, and some tape, and do you have any paperclips?” I instantly liked this big man with a big personality. He was unflinchingly vulnerable, giving and receiving lots of hugs. One of the things to love about Marshall was the mix of influences that combined in him, including a manner of speech and elocution that made him sound like and seem to me a latter-day Emerson or Thoreau, a sturdy New Englander to his core, a Jewish Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Walter Huston could’ve played Marshall in a movie, a model of rectitude and upright bearing. He grew up in Norwich, CT, near the Connecticut River, went to Dartmouth farther north along the Connecticut, and after completing studies in NY moved with his wife and growing family to Argentina where he served a lengthy sojourn as a rabbi. In the latter years of his time there, a military junta took power leading to the imprisonment, torture, and ‘disappearing’ of thousands of people the regime deemed opponents in their ‘dirty war.’ Marshall became an outspoken critic of the generals, while continuing to serve his pastoral function as a counselor for families and individuals caught up in the crackdown. He told me that he endured death threats, adding that his best defense against them had been to remain a highly visible and public person, never retiring or hidden. The dedication of the searing 1981 prison memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, by Argentine activist Jacobo Timerman, which we had sold at Undercover Books reads,

To Marshall Meyer
A rabbi who brought comfort
to Jewish, Christian, and atheist prisoners in
Argentine jails.

Think about that–Marshall went behind high prison walls, visiting political prisoners in whom hope for justice was dimmed. It makes me think of Bob Dylan’s, “I Shall Be Released.” Marshall dealt with the jailers, pleading for the people. After the brutal regime fell, he was appointed to the national tribunal that investigated the junta’s crimes and violations of human rights, the only non-Argentine to so serve. He told me later that one of the reasons he felt he finally had to leave Argentina was because, in serving on that commission, he learned horrific details of torture and abuse inflicted on people, many who didn’t survive. Holding this knowledge–terribly weighty secrets and truths–he found he could no longer serve the pastoral role with, say, the parents of ‘disappeared’ children. They understood Marshal knew details about the end of their loved one’s life; it would be no kindness and bring no cessation of pain for him to tell them what he knew. Yet, how he could withhold this from them, if they insisted he tell them?

The brave work Marshall did in Argentina was prefigured by his time as a rabbinical student in the 1950s, when he studied with a spiritual giant of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a transcendent and activist rabbi who later marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and opposed the Vietnam War with MLK. Marshall worked as Heschel’s assistant and typed several of his manuscripts prior to publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In Hothouse, Boris Kachka’s recent history of FSG, he chronicles how Roger Straus, a very non-observant Jew, nonetheless greatly valued Rabbi Heschel’s place on their list. Marshall was very conscious of upholding Rabbi Heschel’s legacy and living by his example.

Soon after returning to the States, just before we met, Marshall was named rabbi of B’Nai Jeshurun, until then a rather moribund congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and within a brief span made it one of the most vital synagogues in the city. Marshall taught an evening class devoted to the writings of Rabbi Heschel. Jane and I were among the students who regularly attended these one night per week sessions. Each class began with Marshall reading from Heschel’s The Prophets, one of the books he had prepared for publication. With Marshall reading verbatim passages, we wrestled with Heschel’s text and the biblical sources, also discussing social justice, metaphysics, the homeless on NY streets, and our personal life missions. During Marshall’s tenure at BJ he recruited two younger rabbis to serve alongside him, Roly Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein–from Argentina and Chile, respectively–who fully took the helm after his wrenching death, at age 63. Though I’m not much involved with B’Nai Jeshurun these days, I still consider myself a kind of lay disciple of Marshall’s, and a friend to the congregation. I supported Roly and Marcelo when in December 2012 they came out in favor of Palestinian statehood in a letter that was discussed in the New York Times. Marshall-Meyer-obit-

Jane Isay–Making her Mark as an Author

In the 2000s Jane and I saw less of each other, though I kept an eye out for word of her in the business, and the superb books she was publishing, like Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock, a heroic and true civil rights story. As has happened for many senior people in the business over the past decade, Jane left corporate publishing. In 2004 I saw that she had edited a volume of Marshall Meyer’s writings and sermons, called You Are My Witness. I was delighted to see her name on the cover, under Marshall’s name.You Are My Witness

In 2007, I saw that she published a book of her own, Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents. I was glad to see Jane had successfully turned the tables on her old career, coming out from behind the editorial desk to be an author in her own right. Like I discovered for myself a few years later–prior to leaving big-house publishing in 2009, I did little writing of my own, and then found I suddenly had the psychic elbow room to write and maintain this blog–Jane has continued to write and publish, with Mom Still Likes You Best: Overcoming the Past and Reconnecting With Your Siblings in 2011, and now her new book on living with the secrets we keep from each other and navigating the tough terrain of truth.

In her spirited and upbeat presentation at Corner Bookstore, Jane began by discussing the human capacity for shame, our ability to keep secrets hidden from the people to whom we’re closest, and our propensity to rationalize all our behaviors. She suggested that in a real way, we are the being that rationalizes, almost like a cartesian proof of existence: “We rationalize, therefore we are.” She pointed out that while the disclosure or discovery of some secrets can rupture a relationship permanently, in other instances, once anger has receded, there can be a resulting diminishment of anxiety, a new breath taken, so great that mutual forgiveness and reconciliation can follow, in time. After Jane’s talk and a few questions from the full house at the bookstore, there was a reception and I had a chance to give Jane a hug and congratulate her. If you are still pondering the mysteries of your family and other longterm relationships, I urge you to look at her books–she’s such a good listener that people she interviews really trust her. She’s really able to glean from them important examples and valuable truths that–with her own hard-won wisdom in life–make her books so wise, helpful, and healing. You’ll find more information on Jane’s books at her website.

 

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October 23rd, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Publishing & Bookselling

Ernest Hebert, for Many Years Among my Favorite Novelists

Ernest Hebert blogLast summer I wrote a #FridayReads essay that recalled a 1979 visit to my bookstore Undercover Books by a young novelist named Stephen King–then only in the early years of what would become his decades-long career as a bestselling novelist. While discussing his new book Dead Zone he excitedly recommended to me a novel from his publisher, The Dogs of March by Ernest Hebert. I eagerly told King that I had already read Hebert’s book and that I would from then on tell my customers about his endorsement of it, and recommend it even more energetically. Soon after King’s visit to my bookstore, I wrote a letter to Hebert c/o his editor, the late and much-missed Alan Williams at the Viking Press (who was also King’s editor then). I let Hebert know that I’d enjoyed The Dogs of March, and that he and his novel had boosters in Stephen King and at my bookstore. After, that Ernie, as I came to know him, and I carried on a correspondence that continued for several years. I also visited him and his family on trips I made from Cleveland back to New Hampshire, where I had attended Franconia College earlier in the ’70s. One of the things that Ernie did with great skill in The Dogs of March was to juxtapose longtime residents in New England towns with incomers, or as he puts it, “natives vs. newcomers.” He wrote compelling fiction about all kinds of characters, and did it with a sharp edge of social observation.

While Ernie and I later fell out of touch, I kept an eye out for his work, noting that he had moved on from working as a newspaper reporter when I first met him, to teaching writing at Dartmouth College, all while he continued to write and publish novels. In fact, The Dogs of March was followed by a string of related books, collectively known as the Darby Chronicles, named after the town where he had set them, as well as a historical novel and a piece of speculative fiction. After I wrote about Stephen King and The Dogs of March last July, Ernie and I got back in touch, a happy reunion. He writes a superb blog of his own filled with writerly craft, which I subscribe to and visit regularly. This week Ernie published a new post informing readers that in Fall 2014 the University Press of New England will publish Howard Elman’s Farewell, the seventh book in the Darby series.* I recommend that new post, where he also writes about a guide to the Darby Chronicles he’ll be publishing online. His blog is filled with keen reflections showing how a career novelist thinks about his books–before they’re written, while they’re being composed, and once they are completed and out in the world. I also recommend his books of course, and suggest if you’re just starting on them you begin with The Dogs of March. Here’s a picture gallery of all my editions of Ernest Hebert’s books, with author photos, many of them taken by his wife Medora Hebert:

* The seven books in the Darby Chronicles are The Dogs of March; A Little More Than Kin; Whisper My Name; The Passion of Estelle Jordan; Live Free or Die; Spoonwood; and (forthcoming) Howard Elman’s Farewell.

 

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September 6th, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Canada; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, Sept 6–Celebrating Robertson Davies’ 100th

#FridayReads, Sept. 6–The many books of Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, which I have had the pleasure of reading and enjoying over the past 30 years.

August 28, 2013, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist and all around man of letters. The Canadian postal service is marking the anniversary by issuing the stamp below. When I ran Undercover Books in Cleveland, Ohio, which opened in 1978, we introduced thousands of U.S. readers to books by Canadian authors, particularly including Davies.* We were doing so much business in his books at one point in the early ’80s that I wrote Davies a letter c/o of his publisher Viking Penguin to let him know. He responded from ivied Massey College in Toronto, where he was a Don of Letters, and a pleasant correspondence between us ensued over a couple of years. Later, organizers of a writing conference at Case Western Reserve University asked me to invite Davies to a big meeting of theirs, but he declined, explaining he was averse to travel. The organizers asked me if I would instead speak on the combined experience of reading and selling Davies’ books, an invitation I accepted. In my files somewhere is a transcript of the talk I gave and the letters I exchanged with Davies. I will dig them out someday soon and scan them for this site and my newly renamed tumblr, Hono(u)rary Canadian, where I’ve also covered the new Davies stamp.

If you haven’t yet read Davies’ work, I still recommend his books highly. Most readers start with his Deptford Trilogy, and its opening book, Fifth Business, which was first published in 1970, followed in the trilogy by The Manticore and World of Wonders. Their motifs are indelible painted in my mind, though I haven’t re-read the books in more than 20 years: saints, snowballs, magicians, and freakish beauty. His earlier books–Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties–collectively known as the Salterton Trilogy, are also very enjoyable. His first break-out book, as a hardcover bestseller, was Rebel Angels, thanks in good part to the enlarged audience that my store, and other indie booksellers, brought to his books.

I’m really glad Robertson Davies is being remembered with this special stamp, which was announced at the Canada Post website and covered at Quill & Quire magazine. Below the stamp are photos of my copies of Davies’ books.  Please click here to see all photos.Robertson Davies stamp


* In a page on this website devoted to my career, Philip Turner–Professional Background, under the heading “Hono(u)rary Canadian” I present more info on Canadian authors I’ve worked with:
As a native of the Great Lakes region, I have a keen affinity for Canadian books and authors, seeing the book world of the U.S.’s upper Midwest and Canada’s southern tier (and one might argue, the whole of the Pacific Northwest) as contiguous literary cultures. As an Ohio bookseller, I introduced thousands of U.S. readers to such Canadian authors as Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley Farley Mowat, and Pierre Berton. As an editor and publisher, I broadened that effort, publishing U.S. editions of books by Atwood, Richler, Mowat, Berton, and Dallaire, as well as Paul Quarrington, Antonine Maillet, Ken McGoogan, Julian Sher, William Marsden, Elaine Dewar, Bonnie Buxton, Howard Engel, Joan Barfoot, George Eliot Clarke, Steven Galloway, Stephen Strauss, Joel Hynes, Paul Anderson, Sheila Munro, and Jan Lars Jensen, among others.

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May 3rd, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Media, Blogging, Internet; Music, Bands & Radio; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

May 4th, a Key Date in My Life at 3 Critical Junctures

I published a version of this post on May 4, 2012, and have now updated it for 2013-14 with additional material, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” as you’ll see below. The comments below are from the 2012-13 posting–you’re welcome to add your own.

May 4, a big date on my personal calendar

On this date in 1970 I was fifteen. That afternoon, around 4:30, I was standing on a sidewalk in downtown Cleveland, waiting for my sister Pamela to get off her job at Halle Bros., a local department store. Nearby, a delivery van pulled up, with the name of the evening paper, Cleveland Press, emblazoned across its side. The back door of the van rolled up and a worker began tossing bundles of that afternoon’s edition off the truck. It was a real “Front Page” moment, as in old movies when a swirl of numbered calendar pages and newspaper print resolves in to a splashy headline of bold, readable type and a brash reporter rushes off to get the rest of the story. Only this time, it was not a funny, Capraesque moment. In weirdly unfolding slow-motion I watched a particular bundle roll toward me until it landed above the fold, headline up. Like seeing a license plate in front of one’s eyes during a car accident—and remembering the combo of digits and letters forever—I read the inches-high black type: Four Students Shot Dead On Kent Campus. For several days prior, I had been following the antiwar demonstrations at Kent State, about thirty miles from Cleveland, and I knew that Ohio Governor James Rhodes had deployed armed troops to the campus. Pam soon joined me on the sidewalk and I told her the disturbing news. We shared our shock and dismay and probably dropped whatever we had been planning to do, though I have no memory after telling her about the newspaper headline. I recall that little more than a week later I heard on local radio Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s recording of “Ohio.” It was as if Neil had written a musical version of an instant book, as is still done in the book world after a terrible catastrophe. In fact, in Neil’s recent memoir Heavy Peace he recalls quickly writing the song and the alacrity with which they recorded it, pushing the acetate copies of the song out to radio stations, before the vinyl 45s had even been pressed. Here’s a youtube version of the song with many photos taken that week on the Kent State campus. Thanks to Hard Rain Productions for assembling the photo montage with the song.

Eight years later, May 4, 1978

Pamela, our brother Joel, our parents Earl and Sylvia, and I all opened Undercover Books, the bookstore that would define our lives for many years. When I was graduated from Franconia College a year earlier, with a BA in Philosophy of Education and History of Religion, I had imagined I might work for the Anti-Defamation League or some similar organization. I certainly hadn’t thought of working in a bookstore, but my siblings—with Pam having worked in department stores, and Joel at Kay’s Bookstore in downtown Cleveland–had the idea of opening a bookstore in our home suburb of Shaker Heights, where despite it being an affluent and well-educated community, no bookstore had ever been located. We were fortunate in our timing, for in Cleveland, as in several other midwestern cities, book retailing was migrating from the downtown core to the suburbs. Undercover Books caught on right away, and I got what amounted to a graduate education, provided by bookselling. As buyer for adult books for what would become our three-store indie chain, I met every day with bookbuying customers and browsers. We were regularly called upon by publishers’ sales reps, and became a go-to store for houses eager to break out books on the national scene. Notable authors who launched books at the store included Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale), Richard North Patterson (The Lasko Tangent), and Walter Tevis (Queen’s Gambit). I was with the bookstores for seven years before moving to New York City, and have written more about the transition here on this site. The bookstore proved to be a gateway to my career in the book business and it all began on this date thirty-six years ago today.

Another nine years, May 4, 1987

Now working as an editor at Walker & Company, my first full-time position with a publishing house, I was in the happy position of telling my author Ellen Hunnicutt that her novel, Suite For Calliope: A Music and the Circus—the first book I signed up on arriving at the company, and which was to be published that summer—had just received a starred review in Kirkus. Ellen was very excited as I read her the whole review with lines like these, “An extraordinary first novel that, in its remarkable inventiveness, intelligence, and charm-struck humanity, should draw—and more than richly reward—readers of almost every inclination. . . . A prodigiously masterful novel of profundity, breadth, and continual delight: waiting now only for what ought to be its very, very many readers.” Note I read it to her, and didn’t fax it, probably because neither one of us had one. What added to the special quality of the occasion however was that this day, May 4, was also Ellen’s birthday. You can read more about how I came to discover Suite for Calliope in this essay elsewhere on this blog.

Nowadays, when May 4 rolls around again, even if nothing so deeply tragic or personally historic is occurring in that given year, I marvel at it all. For now, I’m just really glad I created this site over the past couple years, so that this year, I have a proper venue to share my memories of May 4, from 44 years ago, from 36 years ago, and from 27 years ago.

The pictures seen here were taken in what we called “the middle room” at Undercover Books, where we placed a comfortable rattan couch. The black Labrador is our dog Noah, whose ear Joel is massaging. I am wearing the same style of pink eyeglass frames as I wear nowadays. I’ve told the story of how Joel and I came to get Noah at a dog pound in Deadwood, South Dakota, on a cross-country road trip in the summer of 1970, on a biographical blog post I tweeted out it a few months ago, with a picture of Noah and me that I cherish. I miss them both, Noah who passed in 1982, and Joel in 2009.

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February 8th, 2013

By Philip Turner in: Philip Turner Book Productions; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Excited with a New Assignment–Helping Protect the Freedom to Read

ABFFE logoI’m pleased to have a new consulting client, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), a non-profit organization that acts as the voice that independent booksellers and the book community raise in opposition to censorship and book banning. I’ll be working with them on fundraising and marketing, and over time, I hope their social networking. The funds ABFFE raises support programs promoting free expression, like their signature initiative, Banned Books Week. ABFFE also advocates for bookstore customer privacy. This has become a flashpoint several times over the past couple decades.

In the 1990s, Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaed the bookstore purchase records of Monica Lewinsky. Kramer Books & Afterwords in Washington D.C., was the target of Starr’s efforts. At a Book Expo America during the 1990s I recall picking up a t-shirt emblazoned with the message “Subpoenaed for Bookselling” that I wore for several years afterward.  Then, after 9/11 the Bush administration, in enforcing the Patriot Act, demanded that Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore and several public libraries hand over the purchase records and circulation history of some of their customers and patrons. ABFFE was in the trenches throughout these instances, helping booksellers and librarians resist the demands.

The first assignment I’m working on with ABFFE is the expansion of their affiliate program. Under this banner, companies that sell sidelines to bookstores, such as their  newest partner Filofax, contribute to ABFFE a percentage of the sales they make to American Booksellers Association (ABA) member bookstores. Sidelines from Filofax include journals,  and planners, as well as Lamy pens and pencils and diaries from Letts of London. Other affiliate partners supply bookstores with such items as reading glasses and bookmarks. I’ve drafted a press release announcing ABFFE’s new partnership with Filofax, which also mentions my new work with the foundation. The release, posted on the news portion of ABFFE’s website, is being circulated to book industry news outlets and bookstores around the country. I will be reaching out to sideline companies to recruit them for the program, and to booksellers, asking them who their best sideline suppliers are. If you’re interested in ABFFE’s work, I encourage you to follow them on Twitter where their handle is @freadom, or to like their Facebook page.

This is a particularly welcome assignment for me, having started out in the book business as a retail bookseller. Undercover Books, which I ran with my sibling and our parents, was an active member store in the ABA. My late brother Joel served as an ABA board member. We were activist booksellers, and Joel especially relished working on issues like those that ABFFE often confronts. In 2000 he ran for Congress as a Libertarian party candidate, placing reader privacy high on the list of issues he campaigned on. When Joel died in 2009, my sister Pamela and I made ABFFE one of the organizations that friends of the family and longtime Undercover customers were encouraged to donate to in his memory.

Happily, yet another personal connection pertains here. Readers of this blog may recall my longtime association with author and notable diarist Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), who stands still as the writer remembered for having kept a diary longer than anyone else in American history, from 1927 until the year of his death. Between 1995-98, I edited and published four of Ellis’s books, including  A Diary of the Century: Tales From America’s Greatest Diarist, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, and The Epic of New York City, both of which are still in print today.

Eddie, as all his friends called him, was a passionate advocate and ambassador of diary-keeping, so much so that after the Guinness Book of World Records recognized him and his diary in their 1981 edition for his achievement in American letters, the aforementioned Letts of London, in the business of making diaries since 1796, arranged with Eddie to publish “The Ellis Diary,” a handsome red leatherette bound, gold-ribbon bookmarked blank diary. You can imagine then how tickled I was when as part of this new assignment I scanned the catalogs and materials ABFFE director Chris Finan gave me to read up on Filofax’s business, happily discovering their association with the venerable Letts of London. Moreover, when I called and introduced myself to Filofax USA’s Paul Brusser, I learned that Letts of London is actually now Filofax’s parent company–it’s clear this long-living British company is still going strong. I wonder if anyone with Letts of London today remembers Eddie Ellis and “The Ellis Diary.” One of the nice things about this new gig is it may offer me the chance to find out! Below you’ll find some artifacts illustrating my work with Eddie Ellis, and his relationship with Letts of London.

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October 5th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Reading Great Books with Will Schwalbe

Great to see that friend and author Will Schwalbe‘s new book The End of Your Life Book Club is having a great roll-out. Last May, Will published a Mother’s Day Op-Ed in the NY Times, after which I wrote a post called Savoring Great Books with a Dying Parent. In part it reads,

“It opens with Will and his ailing mother in a medical office awaiting a chemotherapy appointment. He asks her what she’s reading–it’s Wallace Stegner’s aptly titled Crossing To Safety. “It was a book that I’d always pretended to have read, but never actually had. That day, I promised her I’d read it.” Soon, over the months of treatment and convalescence until her passing, they find mutual comfort in discussing the books they are reading in a kind personal book club all their own.

It’s touching story, and as I read the column I found myself in Will’s place, glad for the solace provided by these books and the opportunity for closeness shared reading offered them.

Having operated a family-owned bookstore–Undercover Books in Cleveland, Ohio–and later losing both my parents, Earl and Sylvia, and my brother Joel, I look back on all the books we shared and enjoyed over the years. I just have to look at my home library and dozens of memories and conversations come cascading forth, from the novels alone: Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale; Peter Rushforth’s, Kindergarten; Jack Finney’s Time and Again; Mary Tirone-Smith’s The Book of Phoebe; James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss; Howard Frank Mosher’s Disappearances; Philip Kerr’s March Violets; Ernest Hebert’s Dogs of March. This list could go on indefinitely.
Will’s new book will be out in the fall. I’m eager to read it.”

At the BN Review today, Will’s offering his top three reads of the moment, including J.R. Moehringer’s new novel Sutton, which I am really eager to read. I am also really eager to read The End of Your Life Book Club. Congratulations to Will!