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 are 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.

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. Click here to see photos.

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!

Wendy Weil, Book Agent Extraordinaire, RIP

Very sad to read about the passing of longtime book business friend, literary agent Wendy Weil. During my days as a bookseller with Undercover Books in Cleveland, from 1978-85, we had hosted a couple of big launch parties that were very successful for one of her author clients. Then, when I moved to NYC in 1985 to work in publishing she was very kind to me and I got to know her even better. Just saw Wendy recently when she told me of her delight at placing a new novel by this same client, who had left her agency for several years, but then had returned to her fold. She told me how good this had made her feel. She was very happy that day and seemed very well. I was startled to read this death notice in today’s NY Times. Wendy Weil was 72. She died last Saturday, on what happens to have been my birthday. My heartfelt condolences to her family and many friends in the book world. She was a tall, willowy woman, a dear person with a warm sense of humor. I will miss her, as will many others, I’m sure.

Herman Graf–51 Years in the Book Biz

Last night Kyle and I were delighted to join a group of several dozen well-wishers who sprung a surprise party in honor of Herman Graf and his 51 years in publishing. Herman walked in on the hushed throng which had assembled in the living room of Tony Lyons, founder of Skyhorse Publishing, expecting to join Tony for dinner, when in unison we let out with our “Surprise.” More than a bit stunned, Herman said, “It’s not my birthday.” It’s not even my Bar Mitzvah.” We took the photos accompanying this post in the first few minutes after he walked in to find a party had been laid for him.

Herman began his publishing career in 1961, doing stints with McGraw-Hill, Doubleday, Arco Books, and then Grove Press, where he worked in sales and marketing during the indie press’s 60s and 70s heyday. This was the time when Grove was bringing writers like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Mikhail Bulgakov to American readers, even while founder Barney Rosset was frequently in court, accused of distributing “obscene” literature, like D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Herman rode that tiger with Barney, and other key Grove executives, such as Kent Carroll, Fred Jordan and Richard Seaver. That era is covered well in the 2007 documentary “Obscene,” made by Dan O’Connor  and Neil Ortenberg, also old colleagues of Herman’s, and mine.

The ride was so rollicking that in later years Herman liked to say, “I was the Billy Martin of publishing; Barney fired me three times, and rehired me twice.” There was something to this George Steinbrenner-Billy Martin analogy, as Herman, like the brawling, ill-fated Yankee manager, could handle himself in a tight sport, having been a fair boxer when he grew up in the Bronx. Once, at a Las Vegas ABA in the early 80s–the annual convention of the book industry–Herman found himself defending a bookseller friend who’d somehow gotten on the wrong side of some ornery Vegas low-life types. Herman and the fellow he rescued bulled, brazened, and fought there way out of the club. I know this story is true–I heard about it not only from Herman, but from my late brother Joel, who happened to also be at the venue that night.

By 1978, I was operating my Cleveland bookstore, Undercover Books, and like many stores of the time, we were glad to have a obscure bestseller land in our laps, A Confederacy of Dunces, the posthumous novel of John Kennedy Toole. The book came with a star-crossed and tragic pedigree–the author had killed himself after failing to get it published, whereupon his grieving mother managed to get it into the hands of Walker Percy. The great southern novelist championed it and convinced editors at the University of Louisiana Press to publish it in hardcover. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. Meantime,Grove Press had acquired rights to publish a paperback edition, but the university press edition, though attracting much critical attention and press, had not really sold a lot of copies in hardcover. Herman, though working for Grove, took it upon himself to sell many thousands of copies of the LSU press edition to national wholesalers, such as Ingram where Cathy Hemming ordered copies. The market was seeded for the paperback edition. When Grove published it some months later it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and millions since, in part owing to Herman’s work for the hardcover of another publishing house.

Herman told me that story sometime after 2000, the year he hired me to work with him at Carroll & Graf, the company he started in the mid-70s. Last night it was great seeing old C&G colleagues, Peter Skutches, Failey Patrick, Tina Pohlman, Bea Goldberg, and Claiborne Hancock. One of our authors, Stan Cohen was there, and his agent, Peter Sawyer. Agent, Laura Langlie, a friend to C&Gers, was also there. Norton execs Bill Rusin and Dozier Hammond also gave their best wishes in person, as did Bob Wietrak.

The seven years I spent with C&G were among the most productive, fun, and successful years of my publishing career. I learned so much working with Herman and got to hear some of the best–and often the funniest–stories about the business. Together we acquired many terrific books and published them creatively and energetically, including Susan MacDougal’s The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Wouldn’t Testify against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail and Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity, both of which became NY Times bestsellers. The years there finally confirmed me on an editorial path I had begun to hew to by 2000, but had not yet fully embarked on–of publishing truthellers, whistleblowers, muckrakers, authors of such singular witness that only they could write the book in question.

Herman now works with Skyhorse Publishing, for whom a book he acquired, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathan Fenby, got a great review in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. He is not stepping back or slowing down.

Thanks to Tony Lyons and Jennifer McCartney of Skyhorse Publishing, and Claiborne Hancock, who after leaving Carroll&Graf started his own company, Pegasus Books. They did a great job of hosting and organizing the surprise party for our friend and colleague, Herman Graf. Click here to see all photos.

To Share or Not to Share

Interesting piece by book publicist Brian Feinblum* of public relations firm Media Connect, on what makes people want to share content online, and what makes them decline to do so. The riddle he’s trying to solve is a key one in the Internet age, and one that strikes me as analogous to a question I often pondered when I ran my bookstore, Undercover Books: what makes browsers apt to pick up a book and put it back down again, or what makes a customer walk to the cash register with a firm resolve to buy the book. I haven’t worked in retail since 1985, but I still think about consumer behavior, and nowadays, online behavior. The analogy isn’t an equivalent one, because sharing online doesn’t cost money, but clicking the share button does represent an investment of one’s prestige or reputation. Feinblum must be doing something right, because I decided to share his link and word of his article.

* Full disclosure: I’m on Feinblum’s email list and received a message from him where he asked his subscribers to consider sharing the above article. After reading it, I decided I would because I could stand behind its content as offering something valuable to my readers too.

If It Must Be Done–A Model for Laying Off People Decently

As a longtime publishing staffer who was let go in a major layoff at Sterling Publishing more than three years ago, when downsizing at publishing houses is announced, I read the notices with a combination of concern and regret for the folks losing their jobs, now colleagues of mine in the forced evacuation from the ranks of corporate publishing. It’s analogous to reading the New York Times obituaries to learn who’s recently died, before looking at any other section of the paper. This is not schadenfreude*, pleasure derived from the suffering of others, but something more its opposite–there ought to be a word for the vicarious experience of misery alloyed with empathy upon learning that still more people will soon be joining the ranks of the unemployed, the disemployed, and for how long it cannot be known.

Readers of this blog may recall that in an essay entitled Three Years Ago Today I’ve written about the day in 2009 when I was laid off as Editorial Director of Sterling’s Union Square Press. Covertly summoned to the office of the HR director Denise Allen, she and my supervisor Jason Prince were waiting for me with grim faces. After they lowered the boom, they “asked” me to leave the office later that day for the last time. “Asked” was really a euphemism for “demanded.” Any personal items I could not grab that day–and I had a substantial work and reference library in my office–would be boxed up and shipped to me, they said. I returned to my office in shock to find that I had already been denied access to my work email.

I do know why HR professionals claim that this is the safest way to let people go, lest a dismissed employee make the survivors uncomfortable in the now-shadowy presence of a person who an hour earlier was a colleague; deride the company in the presence of remaining staff or make off with company secrets; or go ‘postal’ and harm higher-ups and co-workers. What’s more, Sterling is owned by Barnes & Noble, a publicly traded company, and during my Sterling tenure B&N was hyper-averse to news and publicity they couldn’t control–even denying book editors the ability to trumpet their latest acquisitions in industry newsletters like Publishers Lunch without first having the announcements vetted by corporate PR. During my Sterling tenure, this aversion to unwanted publicity even extended to the fact that B&N declined to name people who lost their jobs in layoffs, nor was the number of people let go ever confirmed. However, much as negative consequences from treating people decently may be feared, I believe that what this behavior does instead is subtract at least a bit of humanity from everyone in the equation. I note ruefully, but again without any satisfaction, that Jason Prince was himself laid off from Sterling earlier this year. I take no pleasure in this turnabout, and wonder if he was himself on the receiving end of such lousy treatment the day he learned of his dismissal.

With the above as personal prologue, I note with regret that HarperCollins yesterday announced a reorganization of their Sales Department that will lead to the elimination of the positions of at least five senior employees. But there was something novel about the press release put out by Harper’s President of Sales Josh Marwell**–the degree to which he names, acknowledges, and even thanks the people who are losing their jobs. The entire text ran in The mensch-like passage reads:

After 18 years at HarperCollins, Jeff Rogart, VP, Director of Distributor Sales will retire at the end of August. Jeff’s unique combination of deep industry knowledge, direct style and kind charm has earned him the respect and love from colleagues both inside and outside the company. He will be truly missed. I regret to announce as a result of these changes that Ken Berger, Mike Brennan, Mark Hillesheim, Kathy Smith and Jeanette Zwart, our respected and beloved colleagues will be leaving the company on July 20th. Please join me in thanking them for their hard work, true dedication and warm collegiality in the countless contributions they have made to our company. We wish them only the best in the future.

When you get laid off you invariably, unavoidably, experience a kind of professional death. The process of being shown the door is sort of like getting ferried to the other side, but the process that put me on the boat across my personal River Styx was not as kind or forgiving as the ferryman Charon was with his passengers. And yet, you might say that over the past three and a half years rather than going where the souls of the departed reside, I’ve pretty much managed to be reborn professionally, not buried. That though would be a story for another post. For now, I just want to say I wish Jeff Rogart well in his retirement, and that I feel really bad for Ken Berger, Mike Brennan, Mark Hillesheim, Kathy Smith and Jeanette Zwart, the latter whom I have known personally over the years. I wish them well on their journey into post-corporate life, no matter how brief or long-lived, and assure them that if they ever want to consult with me about my experience of it, I will be glad to share whatever practical advice and insight I can muster. I’m relieved that Josh Marwell and HarperCollins named them, that they were praised and given the professional courtesy they are due, and that under lousy circumstances their dignity was preserved and that their departure will not be so rushed or precipitous as mine. I cannot comment of course on the terms of severance under which they’re leaving the company–I hope they were generous–but as for announcing layoffs, this is a model for how to do it right.

*For an insightful discussion of schadenfreude and related words, I refer you to this excellent blog post by musician and songwriter Zak Claxton.

**Full disclosure: I have known Josh Marwell for more than thirty years, since he was a sales rep to my Cleveland bookstore, Undercover Books, representing St. Martin’s Press. We have not discussed the current matter.


Ebook as Gifts?

When I began my career in the book biz as a retail bookseller, among our busiest months were May and June–graduation season–when young people were often gifted with dictionaries, atlases, books of quotations, and other works of popular reference. The gift book buyers at this time of year seemed to want to say by their selections, “I want you to have a useful book, a pragmatic book of practical instruction that will aid you as you embark on your life’s journey.” To me, this was one of the most ennobling duties of being a bookseller–helping a gift purchaser pay an implicit compliment to their recipient, investing them with an expectation that they would soon be going places in their still-young lives. At Undercover Books, when we gift-wrapped and shipped out or hand-delivered a book selected as a result of this process, I felt it was forcefully communicated to the recipient that their benefactor really cared about them, and believed they would amount to something. Here on the first day of June in 2012, thirty-four years after opening that bookstore–and twenty-six after I became an editor and publisher–I find that while my new vocation yielded many new and unexpected satisfactions, the sacred exchange of helping customers choose gift books like this was one of the things I still miss most.

As e-reading has taken hold, with new models of digital publishing emerging every month, I have often wondered how, and whether, booksellers can find some way to lend the presentation of a free download some of the nobility of the process I always relished. Music doesn’t offer much of a model, where say the presentation of an ITunes gift card lacks appeal. It may well be that giving something insubstantial like a download is just not the same as a gift that has some heft.

I thought of all this today after reading an article at which reports as in so many things related to e-commerce, has already spent some time and corporate brainpower thinking about the gift-buying process, even going to the extent of filing for and now receiving “a patent on what has become a common method of giving presents—a system for selecting digital gifts such as movies, music or e-books, sending an electronic notification to a recipient, and allowing them to download the gift.”

Well, Amazon has the patent they sought, but there’s no sign in the article that they’ve discovered any way of imbuing the purchase and presentation of a download with any special significance. For that, we’ll have to wait for another day, if indeed it ever arrives at all.