Wednesday, 28 March 2012

'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' ... in bookshops!

Whilst the official release date for 'Weird Things...' is next Thursday, copies of the book are now in bookshops in the UK [& commonwealth]. Hurrah! I have yet to see one in a bookshop other than my own [damn, you, work!] but I have tweets and messages which inform me they are there, such as this one in a bookshop in Brussels [and, yes, I realise that is neither in the UK or the commonwealth], and this photo which was sent from Waterstone's in Huddersfield.

I never thought I'd be in such close proximity to Jeremy Clarkson in life [book-wise or otherwise].

So, yes! You may go forth and track down a copy and say something weird and wonderful to the bookseller at the till as you purchase it. Or perhaps you could give them a hug. Booksellers need hugs. If you're not sure where your local independent bookshop is, then this website should help you. You can also enter your postcode on Waterstone's here to see where copies are near you.

If you'd like a signed copy, you can find me at the events listed on the side of this blog <-----, or you can stop by Ripping Yarns, where we have the book casually sitting in the window.

If you're far away and would like to purchase a signed copy for me to send to you from our bookshop then just drop me an email.

I had the very bizarre experience of selling the book to people today. It was SURREAL. But very lovely indeed. I particularly enjoyed the moment when a browsing customer picked it up, turned to me and said "Have you read this? Is it any good?"


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Open Book on iplayer

I hid in another room when Open Book was on today. Far too weird listening to myself talk.

However, if you'd like to hear me talking about 'Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops' and hear some quotes from the book, then head over here [you want the 25/03/12 link]. It'll also be repeated on BBC Radio 4 at 3:30pm on Thursday 29th. x

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


I'm going to be on BBCR4's Open Book on Sunday 25th, talking about 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.' They'll also have some actors reading out quotes from the book [exciting!]. It's on at 4:00pm [GMT] and you'll be able to stream it live over here - that streaming should work worldwide. [It'll be available for UK residents on iplayer afterwards]

Monday, 19 March 2012

in which I am very excited

[As the title of this post indicates] I'm a very excited person!

I'm very chuffed to say that my first poetry collection, 'The Hungry Ghost Festival' has been accepted for publication, and will be released later in the year. Hurray!

The collection will be published by The Rialto, which is run by the wonderful Michael Mackmin. 'The Hungry Ghost Festival' will appear as part of their Bridge pamphlet series. Hurrah!

I'm going to dance on the kitchen table, now. You're welcome to join me if you so wish.

[NB: I'm not quite sure what this picture has to do with this... except that it was a happy time, and it was taken at Beamish, in the north east, where I grew up and where a lot of the poems in the collection are set. So, there we go. Let's dance!]

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

'Weird Things...' events

What am I up to at the moment? Well, I'm getting ready for the launch of 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' - which is just three weeks away, 5th April [eek!]. It all seemed so very far away, and now it's just around the corner. Zut alors and bloody hell.

I've got a couple of events lined up for the book:

Tuesday 10th April: I'll be talking about 'Weird Things...' and signing books at The Edinburgh Bookshop in Bruntsfield. 5:30-6:30pm.

Tuesday 17th April: I'm going to be doing a day as writer in residence at Blackwell's in Oxford. I'll be writing poetry inspired by each floor, doing podcasts, blogging, tweeting, listening out for more 'Weird Things...' followed by an event in the evening at 7pm where I'll talk about 'Weird Things...' read some poetry and sign some books.

Thursday 19th April: I'll be joining Scott Pack and Sarah Salway at the 'Firestation Bookswap' in Windsor. Tickets are £5, or free if you bring a homemade cake!

If you're near these places, it would be lovely to see you there - an encouraging smile or two, and all that jazz. I'll keep you all posted on any other events [& if you're reading this and you're a bookshop and you'd like me to stop by, drop me an email].

Around launch date I'll be doing a blog tour, and we'll be doing a couple of giveaways via Twitter and Facebook [so follow/like if you want to keep an eye out for those]. Also, I'll be doing a few radio things, which I'll post details about soon if you'd like to listen to me babble [in a very intellectual way, obviously].

SO, at the moment I am a very excited/nervous person, looking forward to getting a copy of the book and seeing it on shelves in bookshops. I'm excited for you all to see it, too, obviously! Greg's illustrations are wonderful, and I hope the book makes you giggle over several cups of tea.

*wanders off to be nervous/excited somewhere else*

Monday, 12 March 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops is going to America!

I'm very excited to say that 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' is going to be published in the USA and Canada later this year by Overlook Press. Hurrah!

For the 'Weird Things Customers Say in Other Bookshops' section at the back of the book, Overlook would like to change it so that all of the quotes are from bookshops in US/Canada, SO I'm calling all booksellers there - please email me your best 'Weird Things Customers Say...' experiences to - subject heading 'Weird Things...' Please include your name and where you work. Set your 'Weird Thing[s]' out in script format. Here's an example:


Me: Ok, so with postage that brings your total to £13.05. One second and I'll get the card machine.
Customer: No. No, absolutely not. I demand that you charge me £12.99. I will not pay for anything that starts with thirteen. You're trying to give me bad luck. Now, change it or I will go to a bookshop who doesn't want me to fall down a hole and die. Ok?


Send me your best, funniest and weirdest customer moments for the chance to be published. Deadline: 7th June.  Go go go!

[If you submitted quotes from the US for the UK edition then you don't need to submit those again :)]

If you're reading this and you're not a bookseller, please do spread the word to as many booksellers as you can via Twitter, facebook etc. Thank you! x]

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Bookshop Spotlight #3: Storytellers, Inc.

Good afternoon! This is the third Bookshop Spotlight blog post. (#1 is over here, #2 here.) These posts are about showcasing bookshops all over the world and celebrating their wonderfulness. We love bookshops.

I'd like to welcome Katie from Storytellers, Inc. She's here to talk about bookselling, and the story of her bookshop in Lancashire. Make yourself a cup of tea, and have a read!

Storytellers, Inc.

"I finished my MA in poetic practice and promptly left my production editor job at a medical journal in London. Now that my studies were finished I wanted to make the most of the opportunity of trying something new. I had decided that I definitely didn’t want a desk job and that if I had was serious about writing I better get on with it. I rented a cottage on the Isle of Skye for as long as I could afford (3 months) and began writing a children’s book (this wasn’t a surprise to me, I’d done my undergrad dissertation on Roald Dahl). When I returned to my hometown in Lytham St. Annes with a half written novel I resumed copy-editing work with the journal by post and decided to stay by the sea. I wanted to continue to write but I wanted to find a way to work with children in reading and writing, without becoming a teacher – assessments and reading levels do not interest me. My mum, Carolyn, had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was looking for a new project and we decided that a base for any extra-curricular workshops and creative writing groups would do as well to be a bookshop. St. Annes is a very family-orientated traditional Victorian sea-side town. There are lots of primary schools surrounding in the area so it felt like the place that really needed a children’s bookshop. We opened Storytellers, Inc. a book place for children, in December 2010 after finding the perfect premises complete with a back room for the workshop and a child-sized playroom (originally a data storage cupboard where the previous tenants kept their servers). We’ve got about 2000 books in store. We don’t sell online, where our customer service and facilities can’t make up for the fact we sell at the RRP but our wholesales online service means people can order from a general catalogue through us.

"We run regular storytimes throughout the week, always in our underwater-themed den. I read pictures book and wrestle with a cuddly shark and a furry octopus. I do creative writing sessions in school holidays for juniors and teens and I’m in the process of setting up our first regular junior book clubs. I work with local schools on literacy projects and co-ordinate my own book scheme, Cool Books in School with several schools in St. Annes and Blackpool. We’ve had three author events, held in schools, so far and look forward to planning more in our second year of business.

"We’ve tried to make the shop as child-friendly as possible. We’ve got customer toilets with baby changing facilities, even nappies and baby wipes if you need them. Our drinks machine means we can offer coffees to tired parents and juice for the little ones. We keep the shelves pram-width apart for maximum accessibility and keep toys available for distraction while secret purchases are made. These came in very handy around Christmas. We designed our own shelves and had them built so we could display picture books the way we wanted – face on and at an easy height for children to get to. We’d rather risk a few bent pages than putting children off looking at them. We believe children should be an active part of book shopping and we’re always telling parents who come in alone to bring them with them next time, if they help pick it chances are they’ll be more inclined to read it! All of the logos and branding are our own design and our in-house artist is my partner, Jamie. He is often roped into helping with our homemade window displays and publicity material but they’re frequently commented on and we’re often asked if our shop is part of a chain or franchise. 

"The staff is simply me and my mum! After many years of corporate management Carolyn is used to working with all the numbers and accounts and I run the creative side of the business (not to be confused with messing about with glitter glue, though I am quite often covered in the stuff). I think we actually make a great team, if one person makes a pot of tea, the other is happy to drink it. We both enjoy reading at the story times and making props for our window displays, which must be really good because on several occasions people have asked to buy them. We also like any opportunity to bake event-related cakes for our shop which always goes down well with our tinier customers, gingerbread bats at Halloween, lovey-dovey cupcakes at Valentines. Neither of us have any experience in retail or business so we’re making it up as we go along but it seems to be working so far.

"We make a lot of our sales on recommendations so many of my favourites have become good sellers for us. We’ve got family in Cheshire near Alderley Edge so Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a book that I read when I was 10 just as my Mum and Dad had done when they were younger. We have sold that title over and over again because we don’t shut up about it. Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops and Terry Jones’ Fantastic Stories are two more books I am particularly enthusiastic about stocking because they meant so much to me when I was younger. I make time to read as much stock as I can and I review for our website and the BA magazine We Love This Book to keep up on what’s new. I’m only just getting around to reading the giant franchises like The Hunger Games now, and I’ll admit I’ve never read Twilight or Harry Potter but I am always getting side-tracked by new discoveries. Stocking the shop is like buying my personal wish list and sometimes I feel quite attached to the books I buy in, even a little miffed when they leave to live at someone else’s house if it’s something I had my eye on for myself. Which is nearly everything.

"I love fiction from the David Fickling List – to me it always stands out on the shelf, as do picture books from Andersen. I will read anything Meg Rosoff writes and frequently recommend her books to customers. I think Moon Pie by Simon Mason was my favourite book last year and Unhooking The Moon by Gregory Hughes in 2010. I put ‘Katie’s Seal of Approval’ bookmarks in these books.

"I love poetry and have a copy of Gertrude Stein’s only book for children, A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, in our small but special poetry shelf which also features the brilliant Children’s Poetry Series from Salt, waiting for a child who wants to talk about words. I order as many titles from the brilliant Gecko Press as I can; I love their multi-cultural picture books which can surprise teachers who thought they knew what they came in for, particularly the wordless The Chicken Thief! The re-issues of William Stieg’s amazing picture books are another shelf delight (my favourite is Amos and Boris) and we always make sure we have a Robert Sabuda pop-up to show people looking for something really special. Orlando the Marmalade Cat picture books from the 30s (reprints) always get attention and we keep some Edward Gorey books in stock for something a little darker. There are certainly books we order that we know won’t be bought for children but as the majority of the shop is children’s stock we make some allowances for grown-up gifts – so as we were able to stock the amazing Ammo board books that feature artwork by one of my favourite artists, Charley Harper. We sold a copy of gorgeous coffee table book, The Art of Charley Harper and Birds and Words to display alongside the alphabet cards and stationary. I don’t think we’ve ever sold a Moomin book (or a Moomin toy!) that was actually for a child and Mr Benn birthday cards are sold over and over again for adults. We love it when someone sees something they had when they were little – everyone has fond memories of their childhood books and the characters in them.

"We are always on hand to offer advice but quite a few of our customers are looking for a mind-reading service too. We often get approached with queries along the lines of I’m looking for a book, I don’t know the name or author, I had it when I was 6, it was blue…’ We’re both Google savvy so throw a bit more information at us and we’ll do our best to dig up your beloved books.

"Like a small business, a lot changes to a child in just one year so customers who got pushed through the door in a pram to our opening party are now walking over the step on their own two feet. We’re getting to know more and more about our customers and making friends as we go. We can remember names and past purchases, we even think about some of our loyal customers when preparing the order for the next month, knowing what they’ll be looking for next.

"Our first customer was an 80-something old ex-teacher called Horace, who bought Elmer the Elephant as present to take back to his old school. His friend filmed the purchase because apparently he videoed everything that Horace did on his trips; it certainly made our first sale memorable. Our youngest customer (not including bumps) was 3 days old – it’s lovely to think that something we sell could go on to be a child’s first or favourite book. We’ve wrapped birthday presents en route to the party and helped multiple guests avoid buying the same presents for the christening. Owning a business really makes you feel part of the community and in a small town like St. Annes that makes a big difference. I’m a funny sort of local celebrity to a large portion of the under-12s in this town; chances are they’ve seen me in the shop, at their school, reading at a library event or judging at the town’s charity carnival. They shout ‘HI KATIE’ across the supermarket, or whisper it in the queue at the coffee shop much to the mystification of their parents. It’s brilliant.

"The future for Storytellers, Inc. I hope is big and bright. Of course I’d like to imagine we open another branch in another town and another town and another town and each shop would have its own feature area like the den that was strictly for stories and children’s laughter. But we don’t make a great deal on day to day sales, whilst our first year has shown a good development, our customer loyalty scheme is proving popular and our workshops are well attended-even sold out- it’s clear that the business won’t make our fortune. We will continue to work hard on building links with schools and nurseries that might translate to supplying orders but it will be a constant challenge to find new ways of drumming up sales and support. It’s a challenge I’m willing to accept! At 26, I count myself very lucky to have my own business and spend one day cutting out penguins and reading rhymes in silly voices the next."

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Author Visit: Cassandra Parkin

I mentioned Cassandra's book, 'New World Fairy Tales' [winner of The Scott Prize], in the 'Things What I've Read Recently and Rather Liked' blog post the other day, and now she's hear to have a chat about it. Hurray!

Everyone who replies to this interview by 15th March will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Cassandra's book! It doesn't matter where abouts in the world you live, just make sure that I'm able to contact you from your comment [either via your blog, or leave your Twitter name or email address in your comment :)]

Hi Cassandra, thanks so much for stopping by to have a chat with us.

Thank you for having me! I love your blog, and I can’t wait for “Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops” to come out. [Jen: Yey! Thank you.

Tell us about yourself. 

I’m married with two children, and I’m from Hull (I know a lot of people tend to hear this as “I was raised by wolves”, but actually it was fine), then went to York University to read English Literature. After graduation I somehow managed to parlay my MA in eighteenth-century women’s writing into a marketing position with a huge, giant company that made everything. I then spent about fifteen years stealthily trying to convert my day-job into a copywriting position, at which point I finally gave in and admitted that what I really wanted was to make a living from words. So I’m now a freelance copywriter, and I also do some brand consultancy work.

How did you get into writing?

I’ve written fiction on the sly for as long as I can remember - mostly when I was supposed to be doing something else. I have the bad habit of writing in both ends of my notebooks, which meant I could get away with secret fiction-writing in classrooms, lecture theatres, meetings...however, it never really occurred to me people might be willing to pay money for something I’d written. So for a long time, everything I wrote (including the short stories that made up “New World Fairy Tales”) was written either just for myself, or as presents for friends and family.

The thing is, my friends and family were always very nice about the things I wrote for them, but then, they were sort of contractually obliged to be. So I never really took them seriously when they said, “You really need to try and get your work published. No, really, you should.” They said it and said it and said it, very patiently and without ever getting cross, for about ten years. And in response I just kind of stuffed my fingers down my ears and went, “La la la, can’t hear you, not listening, world already self-sufficient in struggling authors, too old, not good enough, let’s move on…” Looking back on it, I can see how this must have been quite annoying.

What were your favourite fairy tales when you were younger?

That’s a very hard question, actually! But “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” had a huge fascination for me, because I always felt there was a whole other story there that we just weren’t getting.

I mean, truly - why dwarfs? And why seven of them? Neither of these points seem even faintly important to the plot – “Snow White and the Nice Old Cat-lady” would work equally well – so what, exactly, are they doing in the story? “Snow White” was the first interview I wrote, and it was inspired by a nagging desire to know why seven adult men, all with dwarfism, would choose to set up house together in the middle of the forest. I loved “Rumplestiltzkin” for the same reason. Can you imagine having to marry a man who was perfectly happy to execute you three mornings ago?

What’s your favourite adaptation of a fairy tale [other than your own]?

I’m going to cheat a bit here, because my huge desire to reclaim the term “fairy tale” from the Disney Corporation is probably one of the more arrogant reasons I wrote “New World Fairy Tales”.

We all know that Fairy Tales were passed down orally, presumably evolving along with their audiences. But when the Grimm brothers wrote them down a couple of hundred years ago – right in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, when feudal society, forests stuffed with wolves and village wise-women were still a recent memory – they got fossilised. We all became convinced that the important part of them was the external stuff – the castles, the kingdoms, the princes and princesses, the witches and wizards and magical spells. And so, most “modern” retellings are set in a strange, cod-medieval nowhere-world, where everyone’s poking cowpats with sticks for a living and only the heroine gets to wash her face.

And that’s a shame, because I don’t think Fairy Tales are about landscapes or settings at all. They’re about people and situations that transcend time and place; they’re about the moral and immoral choices we all make, and the strangeness of Chance and Fate. We talk about “living in a fairy-tale”, about “fairy-tale romances” and “fairy-tale weddings”. But how many of us have been to a wedding where the bride’s stepmother was forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance until she died?

So with that in mind, I’m claiming Roald Dahl’s “Kiss, Kiss” and Saki’s “Beasts and Super-Beasts” as fairy-tales. They absolutely rocked my world when I first read them, and they’re the short story collections I re-read more often than any others. Slightly more conventionally, I also vividly remember being blown away by Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”, which I read when I was about fifteen. Finally, the music of Tom Waits contains some of the very best fairy-tales ever written, nestled in the walnut-shell of the song-lyric.

Did you plan out any other alternative fairy tales? Did you even write some out in full? Do you see yourself revisiting this project in the future?

Oh my goodness, yes! As well as the six stories in the book, I wrote interviews based on Red Riding Hood, Godfather Death and Chicken Licken, and I have outlines for Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince and Hansel and Gretel. Given the chance (or possibly just if a stranger throws me an encouraging look across a car-park), I’d love to write a second collection. Grimm’s Fairy Tales is like a gigantic treasure-trove for writers everywhere to plunder.

What made you decide to set the stories in America?

The simplest reason is that most of the friends I wrote the Tales for are American, and because the collection grew out of that friendship, it seemed natural to set them there. But the more important reason was that America is like Fairyland.

I don’t mean this in a starry-eyed OMG-guys-your-country-is-like-so-totally-amazing way (although it is). I just mean that, if you happen to be British, when you compare America to the landscape where fairy-tales are set, they’re eerily similar. Like Fairyland, America contains all possible spaces and landscapes - mountains and deserts and plains and oceans, great cities and curtain-twitching suburbs and tiny, isolated rural hamlets. It contains many kingdoms, loosely federated, each with their own distinctive culture and autonomous power of legislation. Getting there requires a long journey, and when you arrive at the border, it’s weirdly difficult to actually get in. Its population is at once more devout and more violent than we are; when we visit, we tread softly, aware of how easily we might offend. Even if we’ve never been before, it looks strangely familiar – after all, we’ve been there so often in our dreams. Its citizens speak our language, but also…don’t.

Oh, the language, my goodness, the language. Of course, we’re all peripherally aware of the differences, but it wasn’t until I tried to seriously write in American that I realised what I’d actually committed to – writing a series of short stories in a language I didn’t speak, set in a country I’d never lived in. Genius! Almost every night I’d be emailing off another SOS to my incredibly kind and patient American friends – “I’m trying to understand the difference a Highway, a Freeway and a Turnpike, can anyone help?” or “What’s a really boring handgun?” They helped me out more often than I’ll ever be able to repay, and all remaining mistakes are entirely my own.

Do you have a writing routine?

I mostly work at our dining-room table. This is because everyone walking past the window can see in, which stops me from spending all day in my pyjamas (on the downside, it’s quite hard to hide convincingly when the nice young men bringing salvation and copies of the “Watchtower” come to call). In theory, I write in the mornings and edit in the afternoons. In practice, I sandwich in my creative writing between work for clients, so how much I can get done depends on how busy I am for them. We’ve also just adopted two cats, so sometimes (like right now, for example) I have to delete spurious rows of “kkkkkkkkkk”, and explain why the cursor is never going to come off the screen no matter how hard they bat it with their paws.

Then at 3:30, Becky and Ben plus various friends come home, and I have to switch between the careful construction of elegant yet naturalistic sentences, and settling disputes about whose turn it is on the Wii. The most productive hour of the week is usually their riding lesson– it’s cold, which encourages me to keep writing, and because it’s outside of my working hours, I don’t feel bad about focusing on fiction rather than website copy.

Hmm. I just re-read that. “Routine” is probably a bit too dignified, isn’t it? [Jen: Sounds about right to me ;)]

How long did it take you to write the book? Did you always intend to enter it into the Scott Prize?

The project began as a late-night Facebook conversation with a group of much-beloved American friends. We were talking about the cultural significance of fairy-tales, and how the stories we love as adults are informed by the stories we love as children. (We’re not normally this high-falutin’, by the way. Mostly we talk about zombie plans and what we’re all having for dinner.) I was looking for a new project, so I offered to write everyone their own short story, set in contemporary America, but based on their favourite fairy-tale.

Altogether it took about eighteen months. It wasn’t until I got to the end that I realised I’d actually written an entire collection, which might be suitable for the Scott Prize. At the last minute I had a huge attack of nerves and almost didn’t enter, and I never really expected to even make the shortlist. Actually winning was amazing.

Where were you when you found out you’d won the Scott Prize? How did you celebrate?

I spent the day of the announcement glued to my laptop, repeatedly pressing F5 to refresh the Salt blog and slowly losing my mind. F5. F5. F5. No announcement. Diet Coke. F5. F5. Biscuit. F5. F5. No announcement. F5. F5. F5. F5. More biscuits.

After about six hours of No Announcement, I decided I couldn’t stand the tension any more (also, no more biscuits), so I went to the supermarket and did the shopping. I was in the kitchen unpacking Muller Corner yoghurts when my husband called me to tell me I’d won. He’d been keeping an eye on the Salt website in a meeting and had rushed out to tell me. In hindsight this was the only possible way it could have happened, because one of the unwritten rules of our marriage is that he will somehow know everything of importance about five minutes before I do (the other one is that he puts the bins out). When he told me, I burst into tears, then phoned my mother.

Are you working on something new, now? What are your plans for the future?

I’m working on a second short story collection, “Bestiary” - two of which have already been published by “The View From Here” and Beat Magazine. I’m also editing the first draft of a novel, about a group of strangers who find themselves living in a deserted, half-renovated mansion in the West Country. Oh, and a Young Adult book I’ve been trying to write for about three years – a sort of realistic Superhero story set in Mid-West America.

However, right now right now, my main goal is to train the cats not to walk on the keyboard. [Jen: Good plan ;)]

Thanks so much, Cassandra!

In this book, in contemporary America, an un-named college student sets out on an obsessive journey of discovery to collect and record the life-stories of total strangers. The interviews that follow have echoes of another, far more famous literary journey, undertaken long ago and in another world.

Drawing on the original, unexpurgated tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, six of their most famous works are re-imagined in the rich and endlessly varied landscapes of contemporary America. From the glass towers of Manhattan to the remoteness of the Blue Ridge mountains; from the swamps of Louisiana to the jaded glamour of Hollywood, New World Fairy Tales reclaims the fairy tale for the modern adult audience. A haunting blend of romance and realism, these stripped-back narratives of human experience are the perfect read for anyone who has read their child a bedtime fairy story, and wondered who ever said these were stories meant for children.

 [New World Fairy Tales - click to view] [Cassandra's blog]

Friday, 2 March 2012

Bookshop Spotlight #2 Constellation Books

This is the second Bookshop Spotlight blog post. (#1 is over here.) These posts are about showcasing bookshops all over the world and celebrating their wonderfulness.

I'd like to welcome Lauretta, owner of Constellation Books in Maryland, USA. She's going to tell us about her bookshop. WARNING: Reading this blog post will make you want to go and steal/live in/work at her bookshop.


Constellation Books: the starbirth.

"I moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1989 to work on the Hubble Space Telescope (Jen: Can we just pause and take in the amazingness of that sentence? I don't think many bookshops begin that way. Ah.). By the early 2000s, I had survived  5 layoffs and watched the U.S. space research budget reduce and reduce - and I thought: 'You should Make Plans. What else have you got besides Astronomy, music and computer skills? Well, you can recommend books to people.You have read everything since forever and people are pretty happy with your book suggestions.' So I did my research and buffed up on business in general and book business in particular. I looked at neighborhoods - Baltimore has great, funky, historic neighborhoods. I looked at banks and real estate costs. I saved roughly half my salary for about 4 years. I bought shelves and stock from a bookstore going under and stored it in a storage unit (promising myself it would not be for more than a year.) I wanted to BE PREPARED when I got my pink slip.

"Then it happened - a great old farmhouse-style building dating back to the late-1700s became available at a sweet deal on rent. I thought, "I can survive that! I guess I'm quitting my job." It was in a lovely historic district just northwest of Baltimore, set amongst antique shops and funky boutiques and a great indie coffee shop. Renovations, unpacking the initial book order and finding comfortable spacing on the shelves took about a month and we opened in May 2007.


"2007 was the Year of Harry Potter - at least the last book - and we had a blast with the midnight release party. I had customers working alongside staff: a physics professor was helping kids dip cups of lemonade into liquid nitrogen for Potions Class, plus one of my friends setup a telescope on the front sidewalk for moon and star viewing. (Jen: See, I told you. You want to be there, don't you?)

"Over the years, we have had great success with monthly wine or beer tastings - complete with pizza from the local pizza place. We also support local authors with writing groups and signings and book release parties. We have supported local private schools with in-store Book Fairs. I want to do the same with the Home Schooling Moms but picking a good month/date is hard. Last weekend, my author brought her fiddle (it was a children's book about a youth orchestra musician) and jammed with one of the customers - to the delight of the other customers. I am selling/educating about eBook sales at the Random House Book Fair this coming weekend and we have both a local author AND a folk musician St. Patrick's Day weekend. Of course, we provide tea/coffee and cookies at these!

"Over the years, my staff have gone on to other jobs or moved home to Australia and I have waited for the economy to bounce back before I hire anyone more. They still will drop by or email me a book suggestion - and I get lots of suggestions from the regular customers too. A special order will sometimes highlight a need in the community and I am happy to order the books they need.  Because the shop is only 900 sq. ft. and about 6,000 books, I do special order early and often.

"I adore it when someone comes in and says, "I am out of reading material and need a suggestion" (aka Last Hurricane's Power Outage) or "I want to buy a book for my grandson/niece/teacher/student." I ask some questions about what the reader likes and what they're into and soon the customer is clutching about 5 books. Then I back off and let them think about it, and say, "Let me know if you need more..."

"Our perennial bestseller is a book about Reisterstown published by Arcadia Publishing in their Images of America series. I have had folks buy copies because their great-aunt or their old home or the volunteer-firefighter-that-great-granddad-worked-with were in the photos. This book was highly anticipated - I had folks calling about A book, ANY book, on Reisterstown each Christmas until it came through. Fortunately, knowing the author, I could tell the customers it was on its way and when the pub. date was predicted.

"People often ask me my favorite books or sections and it's really hard to answer because I like all sorts. Right now, I'm raving about KING PEGGY because she was such a trip on her radio interviews. There are a lot of new cozy mysteries out too that my customers and I are drooling over. I just got back from selling books at a Star Trek convention, where Eastern Shore author Kelly Meding's urban fantasy stories were justifiably gobbled up. [Oh - that's the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.] Classics are always great generation-bridgers - getting a conversation going with the Twilight fans about Heathcliff v. Edward is always fun.

"I am having so, so much fun I hope I can stay here forever or at least until the economy recovers! Selling eBooks will help bridge into the new century, though I do not believe 'dead tree editions' will ever go away. Humanity is One Good Power Outage away from COMPLETE reliance on eReaders. Of course, those of us who read in the tub will always want the 'dead tree edition' books!"

Constellation Books 303 Main Street, Reisterstown, MD 21136 USA


(if you are a bookseller and you'd like your bookshop to be part of the Bookshop Spotlights, then drop me an email)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Things What I've Read Recently & Rather Liked #3

The Bunny Poems
by David Caddy

The kind of collection that wraps you up in a whole other world, and not gently, like you're a kid, but like the sea lulling you into a false sense of security before roughly tugging you the other way to show you something entirely different.

These honest, rural, get-under-the-skin poems are fantastic.

from 'From the Farm'

... He carries an animals face on him.
Light emanates from its enormous
eyes and nose. He cannot let go.

He is rom the farm and the farm
has not let him go. Wrapped within,
he sneezes, missing more than woman...

 from 'Yes'

Mother turned the mangle's stuff handle,
wringing out the last drops into a bowl
her damp hands as white as cat gut...

from 'Arrowhead'

I will my snake belt today
its interlocking boar buckle
as a gesture before Domesday
until the cows leave the parlour
the last thinning of birdsong...

The Bunny Poems give us a 'localised sensation' of twentieth-century rural existence. They re-connect us with the land as a deep, mirroring presence; the double-edged properties of plants; creature-sense; and the animal face each human carries. At the same time, the poems are an acute acknowledgement of absence; in speech, understanding and relationship. David Caddy's edge of anger works to show real events having real consequences that can be subtle yet devastating.

Highly recommend - go check it out


The Stranger Next Door
by Amelie Nothomb

A beautifully written, subtle, psycholoical novel, exploring our idea of the grotesque.

I'm a massive Amelie Nothomb fan. This is not one of her autobiographical novellas. Like 'Sulphuric Acid' it falls completely into fiction but, unlike 'Sulphuric Acid' (which I wasn't a massive fan of), this book is amazing. If you're in the UK it's rather difficult to get hold of, as it hasn't been printed over here, but there are copies available over on ABE. I highly recommend other books of hers, particuarly The Character of Rain: The Japanese believe that until the age of three, children are gods, each one an okosama, or 'Lord Child'. On their third birthday they fall from grace and join the rest of mankind. Narrated by a child - from the age of two and a half up until her third birthday - this novel reveals how this fall from grace can be a very difficult thing indeed from which to recover. 


The Elephant Vanishes
by Haruki Murakami

I feel rather bereft at having read all of Murakami's short story collections now. This one is undoubtedly the best (but all three are brilliant). 'Sleep' is one of the best short stories I've ever read (you can read one translation of that story over here). In this collection you've got a man who works in an 'Elephant Factory' - each real elephant is split into five, from which five new elephants are made with only one part of the animal genuine. A couple's midnight hunger pangs drive them to hold up a McDonald's. A woman finds she is irresistible to a small green monster that burrows through her front garden. An insomniac wife wakes up in a twilight world of semi-consciousness in which anything seems possible - even death.

Buy it, read it. It's wonderful. 

New World Fairy Tales
by Cassandra Parkin

Cassandra's going to stop by the blog to talk about this book soon, hurrah! [ETA: That interview is now posted over here.] I read it at the weekend and just adored it. I have a big soft spot for fairy tales and myths. In this book, in contemporary America, an un-named college student sets out on an obsessive journey of discovery to collect and record the life-stories of total strangers. The interviews that follow have echoes of another, far more famous literary journey, undertaken long ago and in another world.

Drawing on the original, unexpurgated tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, six of their most famous works are re-imagined in the rich and endlessly varied landscapes of contemporary America. From the glass towers of Manhattan to the remoteness of the Blue Ridge mountains; from the swamps of Louisiana to the jaded glamour of Hollywood, New World Fairy Tales reclaims the fairy tale for the modern adult audience. A haunting blend of romance and realism, these stripped-back narratives of human experience are the perfect read for anyone who has read their child a bedtime fairy story, and wondered who ever said these were stories meant for children. [New World Fairy Tales - click to view]