My Indie Bookstore Experience

Growing up, I hated to read. It would never occur to me to go to a bookstore to hang out. Bookstores were, well, stores full of books and I had no use for books except those that were required for my classes. Getting books as a Christmas or birthday gift was almost as bad as getting clothes.

I honestly cannot say what changed for me in my first year of college. I took a small seminar class and our first text was Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Maybe it was the teacher who demanded more from me than was ever demanded before; or maybe it was my classmates who were so smart and interesting and engaged; or maybe it was the text itself with its stunningly beautiful prose. Because of that book, I went to the Dartmouth Bookstore (voluntarily!) and bought every other book authored by Isak Dinesen. For the first time in my life, I read books that were not assigned to me.

Long story, short, I became an English major and a lover of books – their look, feel, smell. My favorite place to study – whether I was reading literature, writing essays or studying for an art history test – was the Sanborn Library, surrounded by books, shelved floor to ceiling. My poor nieces and nephew got books as Christmas gifts year after year. Why I thought they would appreciate them any more than I did at their age, I’m not sure!

One of my first jobs out of college was as an admission counselor at Deerfield Academy. For several winters, I would be tasked with reading hundreds of admission files. My favorite place to read was at The Montague Bookmill, located in the tiny, obscure town of Montague. In fact, the location is so obscure, the tagline for this small bookstore is, “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” The Bookmill sells only used books, mostly academic, but they are confident that they can help you find whatever book you need. On their website, they state, “If we can’t find the book you’re looking for, we’ll find you a better one you didn’t know you wanted.”

The Bookmill is housed in a 1842 gristmill on the banks of the Sawmill River. Of course, it’s been renovated and restored over the years but it maintains its rustic charm: hardwood floors that creak with every step and many nooks and crannies, each with old, overstuffed chairs. As with many local bookstores, they have added a cafe and restaurant and they host poetry readings and music events. The river still rambles over the rocks right next to the store, lulling customer after customer to sleep in those big comfy chairs.

For years, I was a collector of Winnie the Pooh books and, of course, the older, the better. Every time I would go to the Bookmill to “work” I would lose myself among the shelves and shelves of used children’s books, looking for my next treasure. For years, any time I needed or wanted a book, I would go to The Bookmill first to see if they had it before heading to Barnes & Noble where I knew I could find it. I wanted to give the locals my business and the searching and finding process at The Bookmill was as much a part of the experience as the actual buying.

I was meeting with a student the other day from Montague. I asked her if The Bookmill was still there as I had not been to it in years. She said, “oh ya, it’s still there. It always will be.” She then volunteered that she never goes but it always seems to be busy. I was happy to hear that, especially in light of the struggles so many local booksellers have experienced it the last decade or so. It seems that many have broadened their “product” base to attract more and different patrons: cafes, evening entertainment, sale of gift items and toys. Given that the Bookmill has always dealt in used books, maybe they are in a niche that is protected somewhat; they are not necessarily competing with the retail giants in the ways that other local booksellers might be.

Whatever the reason The Bookmill has endured, I’m glad it has. I’ve not enjoyed the big, comfy chairs next to the rambling river in a few years. Seems it might be time to go back, not only to read, but now to write.

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The Heart of the (Design) Matter

I’m such a rookie when it comes to being a writer, thinking about publishing and understanding the literary world. This became even more evident to me when I was faced with the question about which professional within the publishing world at Beacon Press that I might want to interview. I had no idea what I wanted to do. In these circumstances, I tend to default to an examination of what I know I don’t want to do. Having read a few articles about the publishing industry, I was certain I didn’t want to learn anything about publicity or marketing. I have to know something about these things relative to the world of boarding school administration that I know quite well. And I hate it. I resent having to make decisions about how my school operates based on what might “sell” or “look better” in the market place. It’s the tail wagging the dog or the cart before the horse or whatever similar analogy works to describe how wrong I think that decision-making process is!

This left me with quite a lot of other possibilities. As a teacher of 9th grader writing, I often find myself in an editing role, and speaking with one of the many editors at Beacon Press felt like a comfortable option. Doing this MFA program, however, has not been about making comfortable choices; it’s been about stretching myself to take on challenges and opportunities that have as little to do with my day job as possible! In the end, I expressed my interest in speaking with the Creative Design Director.

When I was young, I fancied myself a decent artist, more inclined to the artistic than the logical. I liked art projects and, for a time, I sketched cartoons. I was so passionate about drawing when I was in late elementary and early middle school that my big ask for Christmas one year was a fancy easel. This burning hot flame turned out to be more like a tiny candle in the wind, snuffed out entirely by the time I hit high school. In fact, I have fallen completely out of touch with my creative muse in the last 30 years; pursuing a degree in creative non-fiction pushed my comfort zone in many ways.

I was also drawn to learning more about the Creative Design process because I teach students to pay close attention to the visual cues of a text and what they convey about a piece. We discuss titles, subtitles, cover graphics, font, use of dialogue, paragraph and chapter breaks (or lack thereof), pictures. We process the effect these cues have on the reader to be drawn into the text or turned off by it. As a teacher, I know enough to point out these design elements to my young charges but I have very little clue about what goes into making these decisions, particularly in the publishing process. With all this as my backdrop, I setup my interview with Bob Kosturko, the Creative Design Director at Beacon Press.

Before my call to Bob I did a little research. I visited the BP website and searched the staff directory to learn something about Bob. Administration is listed first, followed by all the editors, then marketing, then publicity, then production. Second to last is design and dead last is business. Curious. Even more curious was that as I scrolled down the page, the bios for each person got shorter and shorter. By the time I got to Bob’s name in design, there was only his name, followed by his title. That’s it. Not even a link to something more descriptive. I googled his name and the first listing is a link to the Unitarian Universalist Association. There, I got Bob’s vital stats:

Bob Kosturko is the Creative Director for Beacon Press. He began his publishing career in 1986 when he was hired by Michael Friedman, a New York-based book packager. By 1988 Bob was promoted to art director of Michael Friedman Publishing Group. In 1993 he joined Random House as a senior designer in the Juvenile and Merchandising Group and later became associate art director. In 1996 he moved to Boston to further his career in children’s books; first as art director for Little, Brown and Company and later as art director for Houghton Mifflin’s Children’s Trade division. In 2004 he changed course and began art directing and designing non-fiction, poetry, and novels for Beacon Press. Bob received a B.F.A. in studio art and art history from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey where he graduated with honors.

As happens when I start trolling websites, my curiosity about Bob shifted to a curiosity about the UUA and, of course, why they would bother to list Bob on their website. The UUA describes itself as Unitarian Universalists: “We are brave, curious and compassionate thinkers and doers. We are people from many backgrounds who have different beliefs, but shared values. Together, we create a guided path towards a better you and a better world.” And, I also came to discover that the Beacon Press is a department within the larger UUA organization. This explains the Beacon Press mission to produce and promote books that “change the way readers think about fundamental issues; they promote such values as freedom of speech and thought; diversity, religious pluralism, and anti-racism; and respect for diversity in all areas of life.”

All of this conveyed something to me about Bob that I didn’t quite get from reading his bio. I was intrigued as much about his work as I was about how he might have arrived at this place that has such a strong and unique set of values, much of which are aligned with my own.

Within the first few minutes of our conversation, I began to understand why Bob was drawn not only to his role as a designer within the publishing industry but why he landed at Beacon Press. His story includes a typically gendered adolescent narrative; as a young boy he was pushed toward the sciences despite his obvious inclination toward the arts. He said he has always been artistically inclined but no one seemed to notice or to care. He rode the wave of cultural expectations and landed in the College of Pharmacy at Rutgers. After two years, he found whatever courage was needed to follow his heart and into a BFA program in studio art and art history. Similarly, his first few jobs were not exactly where his heart was; they paid the bills and gave him some needed experience in graphic design. He worked with big budgets and big clients but ultimately asked himself, “do I really believe in this stuff?” He described the ethical dilemma he faced in being part of a process that promoted things he could not get behind.

So he left the world of print ads and found his way to Beacon Press where his values align with his profession and where he can access and put to good use his innate abilities and passions. Should we all be so lucky.

I learned a lot about the publishing process too! More on that later.

Are you a writer?

I am still sorting out whether or not I am a writer, let alone an accomplished or successful one.  I know that people who have shared the virtual classroom spaces with me so far will say that I am most definitely a writer but I am still not so sure.  It’s sort of like when I am asked if I am a skier.  I like to ski and I’m decent at it but I would not say I am a skier.  On the contrary, if someone were to ask if I am a basketball player, I would say that I am; I’ve played the sport for most of my life and much of my identity – even today – is wrapped up in being a basketball player.  Writing is like skiing for me.  Am I a writer?  No but I very much like to write and I’m decent at it.

Keeping with this analogy and getting to the questions at hand, I was an accomplished basketball player: lots of awards in high school, a Division 1 scholarship, inducted into my high school and college hall of fame.  l achieved the typical markers of success in this area; therefore, I am a basketball player.  Not so of skiing.  And not so with writing.  I do believe that being an accomplished writer means being a published one and I’m afraid – based on which identities are stronger for me – that I won’t embrace being a writer until I am more accomplished in the traditional sense.

All this said, being accomplished and being successful are quite different.  In the last year, I have dug up many journals from my adolescence; tucked into one of them was one of my all-time favorite quotes from basketball legend, John Wooden.  He said, “Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”  I have not achieved this peace of mind relative to my writing because I have not yet achieved the three qualities that Anne Lamott describes are necessary for good writing:  persistence, hard work and faith.  

I have worked hard and persisted in this program but I have not replaced fear with the kind of faith that I think is absolutely required to be a successful writer.  Natalie Goldberg writes about writers who lose themselves and worry about their fears later.  Julia Cameron writes that “writing is like breathing; it’s possible to learn to do it well but the point is to do it no matter what.”  I’m not there yet and I am not sure I have made much progress on that front.  I don’t write every day and when I do write, I labor over every word and sentence.  I have learned to build better scenes and use dialogue more effectively, but I’ve not felt the peace of mind as a writer that I feel would be the most definitive mark of my success.