During the Los Angeles Festival of Books in April I was fortunate enough to have brunch with author Jeff VanderMeer and then wander old downtown in his company for a while. This blog entry is a bit of a travelogue, so here we go. Jeff was the development editor on my first two Romulus Buckle books (and the upcoming third installment) and he is a blast to hang around with. The first two books in Jeff’s new Southern Reach series, Annihilation and Authority, are blowing the lid off of the world, by the way (the third book, Acceptance, releases on 2nd September of this year). The books are intense and superb. But don’t take my word for it: look at mega-author Stephen King’s recent tweet below.
Wow. Jeff was in town for LATFOB and we met at the old Alexandria Hotel for brunch. The hotel’s regular restaurant, The Gorbals, hosts a weekend outfit called KTCHN DTLA and both Jeff and I agreed that the food was fantastic. I had the Habanero Scramble and I can’t remember what Jeff had, but yes, sir/madame, it all was great. After brunch we walked across the street (through a street fair) and wandered into the famous Last Bookstore, which is an interesting place to putter and hang out in. We chatted about a lot of things, about the state of publishing, steampunk, comic books and his injured knee (it was healing, I think), among countless other things. I brought along my copy of Annihilation for Jeff to sign and he even drew a picture (of what I’m not telling) in it.
Wandering a massive bookstore with Jeff, the man whose brain generated both Ambergris and Area X, is as entertaining as it might sound. Jeff has a silly, funky sense of humor which I suspect brings a wonderful undercurrent of lightness (an unbearable lightness of being/) to the often dark and twisted tales he so brilliantly weaves. He is fascinating to watch: he is always looking, digging, seeking, supplying ideas for the storygrinder that lives in his skull. We haunted the Last Bookstore for an hour or so–it is refreshing to be in a store like this, one full of well-invested employees, a sense of fun and mountains of books (plus a few book sculptures), plus that comforting, slightly burnt old book smell.
It is unfortunate that many of our neighborhood used bookstores are dying off, but hopefully it’s simply because it’s time for the little guys, battered as they are, to invent a new business model. Yes, the online stores can offer more and offer it cheaper. I purchase books on Amazon all of the time. But I–and I am one of many–I am also capable of loving a brick and mortar bookstore. I’m not talking about a big chain, mind you, the massive cookie-cutter outfits with the neat racks and pre-made, new bargain books, cookie-cutter cafes and cd and dvd sections that overwhelm the books in many ways. I think that local bookstores, if they avoid peddling endless junk like toy collectibles, can win their customers back if they offer a unique experience, knowledgeable staff and lots of BOOKS.
Book People, at least almost all that I know, love physical books. Sure, one can love a Nook or Kindle, but I get a lesser experience from the digital screen than I do from real pages, the spring of the binding, the ability to navigate half-blindly by flipping paper around. Book People love stores with nooks and crannies stuffed with old hardcovers. Book People love roughly-defined subject sections and they want to dig around mountains of dogeared paperbacks stacked on the edge of categorical nonsense, hell-bent on the thrill of the hunt and of the finger-clutched discovery.Creativity is chaos. A bookstore should be a a triumph of navigable chaos, not organization. Instead of being led by the nose through well-marked racks, Book People want to dig through a hundred tomes that they would never had seen otherwise, sneezing from the dust, crouched, lost and loving it.
Book People love the condescending, pimple-faced bookstore employee, the way-too-young guy or girl wearing the holed Radiohead tie-dye t-shirt with the ragged copy of Camus in their pocket, who knows exactly where each copy of everything the store has is located, tucked or half-crushed.
Sure, if your bookstore is cool and unique enough, sell a few bookmarks and t-shirts. But give us the goods, the straight-up, unadulterated, come-as-you-are, messy cornucopia of books, and I think your store will survive, even prosper. I don’t know. I’m not a businessman. Perhaps I am all wrong. I can only tell you what would bring me in, keep me coming back and paying more to get my books from you than from an online mega-giant. The Last Bookstore fits much of the above bill, though it’s size and fame do demand some concessions. I like The Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in Long Beach. When I lived in North Hollywood I was a big fan of The Iliad, though they did have to downsize and move.
As our afternoon ended, Jeff bought me coffee at a nearby Cuban cafe and we sat outside, our table mere feet from the rumbling traffic and lines of Los Angeles homeless, and Jeff assailed me with stories of the writing and convention life so funny that my face hurt from laughing. He will write a book about his experiences one day, maybe when he is ancient and all of the goofballs involved are dead (surely such a man shall easily outlive all of us), and I’ll make him do it. You can’t take stuff that good to the grave with you–its not allowed, nor is it fair to the rest of us.
So, full of far more coffee than I was accustomed to (I didn’t sleep well that night), I did bid farewell to Jeff as he headed back to LATFOB, back to the readers who love his stories, back into the arms of the Book People.