Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Praise of Independent Bookstores

This fall, I’ve been doing a New England “mini-tour” on behalf of the paperback release of Day After Night, my latest novel.

I’m not sure why, but the publicist booked me into independent bookstores only: Gibson’s in Concord, New Hampshire, Northshire in Manchester, Vermont, RJ Julia in Madison, Connecticut, Newtonville Books in Newtonville, Massachusetts, and Tatnucks in Westborough, Mass.

I couldn’t be happier about this.

Every independent bookstore is unique and in New England that often means ramshackle, which is the opposite of corporate. I love the wood plank floors and the kind lighting. You can actually smell the books in these stores. Best of all, the staffs are almost always helpful, smiling, and happy to be working there. (In all fairness, I’ve met delightful salespeople at big box stores, too, but that isn’t the norm.) The customers, too, are usually in a good moods. Sure, someone might run in to “pick something up.” But without bookstores, the verb “to browse” might well fall out of use entirely. Such a nice, slow word, “browse.”

A common question asked at readings these days is, “What do you think about the future of the book?” High-tech readers are growing in popularity; I see more and more of them on the beach, on buses and airplanes, in coffee shops.

I have no good answer to the question about the future of print – I have plenty of anxiety but no answers. But I do know that for all its ease and speed and portability, the e-book doesn’t smile back. For that you need a bookstore.

The people who turn out at indie readings love their stores and also their booksellers. It seems to me that a substantial part of the crowd is on a first-name basis with the person behind the cash register. Strangers chat with each other about books, secure in the knowledge they are among friends. It feels homey. It’s as close to "community" as a commercial enterprise gets.

Whenever I visit an independent bookstore, I ask my hosts how the store is doing. I ask with trepidation, the way you inquire after someone whose health is known to be frail. Bookselling is not a growth industry.

What I'm hearing is that business is okay, and better than last year for sure. The regulars are loyal. New people turn out for readings and buy books. I breathe a sigh of relief, say a little prayer, and say yes, I’d be glad to come back for my next book. My pleasure.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy New Year, Jewish People!

It’s awfully hard to start over. It must be. How else to explain the annual orgy of Jewish “ready-set-go” holidays?

Rosh Hashanah, the “head” of the year, is merely the starting bell. (And I’m leaving out the whole month of Elul with those shofar blasts telling you to get ready, and Slichot services to loosen up the liturgical arm in preparation for pitching the Big One.)

The erev (evening) service on Rosh Hashanah is one of my favorites. Everyone will look tanned and rested in 5771 even more than most years, what with Labor Day still visible in the rear view mirror. And no one is tired of being in shul, yet. This is a festival of meeting and greeting, “Here we go again!”

And then Yom Kippur. Not my favorite; self-denial is not my bag. Still and all, the language of the closing book does work for me. I imagine it rings true to the accountants as well as the writers in the house. Reconcile past debts. Buy a new ledger.

YK is the grand rehearsal for death, what with the prohibitions on food, sex, bathing, leather. (Shoes and belts were ancient symbols of luxury; maybe we should forego Prada and Kate Spade instead?) If those aren’t enough clues, you can wear white, the color of Jewish shrouds. But Yom Kippur is a grim wake-up call, too. By the time you file out of the stuffy sanctuary and head for that bagel, you’ve heard that little voice saying, “This might be your last year. Time to shape the hell up!”

The end of Yom Kippur leaves you empty, hungry, thirsty, and eager for life, and maybe even sporting a little forgiveness from the people you’ve been mean to all year – mostly your family but also that poor lady working the register at CVS at a snail’s pace. (You wouldn’t want your own 70 year old mother standing on her feet like that all day, would you?)

But wait, we’re not done yet. There’s Sukkot, the start of the harvest, the arrival of autumn with the snap, crackle, pop of the school year. New sweaters, apple pie, pumpkin pie, so much to do. Roll up your sleeves!

Finally, and at long last, Simchat Torah, where we start reading the Torah from the beginning. This time with feeling and a little patience for the bloody sacrifices coming in Leviticus. But in the meantime, it’s Genesis time, so generative and juicy, so full of begetting and beginnings. Gardens, families, journeys, mysteries and wonders but contradictions, too. Good for starting the discussion.

But this whole long, long pageant of beginning is exhausting. And very public. And not always so spiritually satisfying.

For that, I take the waters. I get me to the mikveh, to get naked, exhale, and sink; to float and study the leaves visible through high clerestory windows; to empty my head and sidestep my ego.

Water is where everything starts, from our single-celled ancestors to our great-great-grandkids. Genesis itself mysteriously places water in the opening scene; God hovers over it, inspired by the ocean view to make something new. Me too.

I believe in the ocean, the river, the pond and the lake. My days do not begin well without stepping into the waterfall of my shower, or without my cup of coffee, or my walk beside the flowing Charles.

Mikveh is the essential ritual of beginning. Immersion marks the start of married life, and life as a choosing Jew, as well as a renewed return to sex after a menstrual pause. New rabbis, doctors, and college graduates sometimes begin their careers with a mindful walk down seven steps into the water. Cancer survivors and recovering addicts on the precipice of a new month or a new year can make a fresh start in the mikveh, too.

Are you laughing? I start by kvetching about this New Year marathon and end up with another item for the Jewish to-do list. I’m laughing at me, but ….

In a beginning there was the deep, in Hebrew t’hom. Sounds like home. The mikveh feels a little like the womb. But you can’t stay under long, no matter how lovely the sound and sensation of your splashing heart. You have to get out of the water, where the rest of this life is waiting to begin.

May all of our beginnings lead to sweetness.

Full disclosure: I serve as president of the board of directors for the profoundly groovy Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton Massachusetts  where you’ll find download-able ceremonies for immersing in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Friday, September 3, 2010


So this really pretty, interesting-looking woman comes into the car rental office, which is tiny so there's no way I can avoid overhearing her phone conversation. And then she identifies herself to the less-than-helpful service rep on the other end.  "Jonatha Brooke."

Jim and I turned around to face her. "THE Jonatha Brooke? we gush. (She asked who I was and gushed back. We were mutually adoring and probably adorable, too.)

If you don't know Jonatha's work, allow me to introduce you to this singer-songwriter of enormous wit and talent. My family's connection to her is long and deep. She's a Newton native for one thing, so the local-hero thing is strong. We own four or five of her albums (and will be ordering the other three in the next few hours.)

And she wrote one of my top ten songs of all time: one of those epochal, era-defining, life-changing songs that still grabs me by the heart. "So Much Mine." I wore out the CD listening to that track. Seriously, I had to replace the album.

The lyric is about being a mother and watching your girl grow up into a woman you don't know anymore -- at least not the way you did when she was "so much mine." I wept to that thing when Emilia was a baby! A BABY. Because I knew what was coming even then, when she was so totally mine. When she was seven or eight, ans we spun around the living room to that song. She sang along, too.

"Where'd you get that dress? Where'd you learn to walk like that?"

And it's not at all sentimental/goopy. Not at all. It's got a lovely melody, a beautiful arrangement, a great hook, and it makes you want to dance. It is, in other words, a Jonatha Brooke song.

I have listened, memorized, wept to, and danced to many other songs by JB. But every time I hear that one, it knocks me out. Still. Always.

And I can't wait to get the new album and hear the latest.