The Art of the Sell

Mark, one of the owners of Mockingbird Books, is diligent at what I would call up-selling. When a person comes to the counter with a Stephen King paperback, he always remembers to point out the hardcovers on the 50% off cart. When someone buys a Jan Karon, he points out some specialty book in the series that we might have. He does not seem pushy or insincere when he does this. It’s clear that he wants to sell books; it’s also clear that he wants customers to get what they want.

I do not have this skill.

I was complaining to Brandy about that. She said it’s hard to do and she doesn’t have it either, although she feels comfortable making recommendations once a conversation has started. It is difficult to recommend books for people you don’t know.

Thursday, about three o’clock, a young man came in. I would guess he was twenty-four or twenty-five. He was shopping for Christmas gifts for his parents, and he wanted ideas. He thought maybe he wanted a coffee table book about planes for his dad, who is a pilot. I took him over to Transportation, where we had two coffee-table books, one about bi-planes and one dedicated to the Havilland Tiger Moth. He pulled both of them out and looked at them. He seemed to have some trouble deciding, but he was confident it would be one of them.

“What does your mom like?” I said.

He shrugged. “She likes a lot of stuff,” he said. “She likes books. She’s a librarian.”

An imaginary lightbulb compact-fluoresced over my head. “I know just the book,” I said, and hustled him over to Reference. There is was on the third shelf, my favorite funny grammar book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. I reached out, and as my fingers nearly brushed the surface he said, “Oh, yeah! She loves that book. She gave it to all of us for Christmas one year.”

Curses! A go-to gift, foiled. “Does she read novels?”

“I think so.”

“Do you know if she likes a writer named Margaret Atwood?”

“I’ve heard her talk about Margaret Atwood, but I don’t know which ones she’s already read.”

“Louise Penny?”

A shrug.

Strike Two.  I guided him into the fiction room and positioned us in front of the Poetry shelf. “Does she like poetry?”

“I guess so. She must, because I like poetry and she read it to me when I was a kid.”

I’m not too sure about the logic of that thesis, but I think he meant he learned to love it from her, but again, he didn’t really have any good ideas.

“Does she have hobbies?”

“She walks. She gardens.”

“What kind of garden?”

“You know, herbs, flowers, stuff.”

“Okay.” Back to the front of the store, to the Gardening section, we went. I pulled out a picture book on Japanese gardens. He really liked it. Going in another direction, I pulled out a beautifully photographed book on herb gardens. He really liked that too.

“I remember she likes the guy who write The Little Prince,” he said. “Did he write any other books?”

“Yes, he did,” I said, and Brandy helped me out, checking the database to find Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s memoir Wind, Sand and Stars. We had a rare edition, priced at $60, which we all agreed probably wasn’t what he was looking for. She checked the internet for him and found that it was reprinted in 2012. We suggested Copperfield’s could order it for her.

“Or you could get her a gift certificate,” I said.

“I could, but they live in Colorado.”

That was my third strike, but after he looked at our copy of Wind, Sand and Stars, he picked up the book next to it, a collection of Alan Ginsberg’s letters. When he left, he bought the bi-plane book and the Ginsberg book.

“That was a nice bit of hand-selling,” Brandy said.

I thought that sounded vaguely obscene. “I didn’t get him a book for his mother,” I said.

She shrugged. “No, but he knows where he can get one, and he walked out of here with two books,” she said.

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Creativity or Desperation

The first part of this post is going to be in code because I don’t want to name the writers. That is mainly because I want to talk about the practice and not get off-topic into a discussion about the quality of the writer(s) in question.

On a well-known writer’s blog, another established fantasy writer blogged recently that their next book would be an annotated manuscript of their first novel. Not their first published novel, the one that got loving attention from a writers group, an agent and possibly an editor. No, the writer’s first written novel.  The blog post goes on with great glee and great humor about how bad the novel is. (It has never been published previously.) The writer discusses comments they made, in the margins, about how bad the book is.

Frankly, this is kind of funny and if the book is mass market paperback, I might even spring for it. The more I thought about this idea, though, the less I began to appreciate it, and the grumpier I got about it.

Is this creativity or desperation? Is this humility or hubris? Is this a useful exercise for new writers everywhere, or the last gasp of a writer with a three-book contract and a deadline?

Think about it. It’s a bit patronizing, isn’t it? “Hey, newbies, don’t worry! Here’s a manuscript that proves I once wrote as badly as you do!” Um… thanks.

Or maybe the message is, “I don’t have to bother to develop and write a good story, because you guys really aren’t worth it and I know you’ll buy whatever I put out there.” (See paragraph three, sentence one, above.)

Or is it just, “I can’t think of the way to end my trilogy and everyone’s staring at me, so… um! Hey, look! Charades, everyone!”

So, as I said, the more I think about this, the less I like it. Part of this is situational, since I am struggling with a short story that won’t gel. While I’m rewriting, making notes, deleting, walking around muttering, and generally fighting with my process, this published yahoo can drag a piece of dreck off the hard drive and shoot it out there to millions of people. Okay, yes, I am envious, but I have a right to be.

And, all that said, I might even still buy it, because I know it will be funny.

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2014: 13 Things I’m Thankful For

1) I’m thankful for rain. California has been in a water shortage mode for the past three years. We have had two small storms so far in November, one more predicted, and I am grateful.

2) I’m grateful for Spouse. Just ‘cause.

3) I’m grateful for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m one of the fearless few who will admit she liked the first season, and liked Skye the first season, but this season is a pulsing white-hot conflagration of secrets, plots twists, betrayals and surprises. Keep it coming!

4) I’m grateful for my car. It’s a good car and it gets about 40 mpg, which keeps me happy regardless of the cost of gasoline at any particular time.

5) I’m grateful for KDFC, a member-supported SF Bay Area based classical radio station. I started listening to them earlier this year, when I got mad at the so-called “alternative” station. I’ve learned so much through KDFC, but mostly I just love the music! Thanks, guys!

6) I’m grateful that through a strange series of unrelated incidents, our guest room now has a TV. It means I’m not trapped watching football when Gotham is on, and I can go watching something intelligent while Spouse is glancing at Sean Hannity’s show on Fox, or something.

7) It has been a rough year for me in many ways, and for many of my friends. Illness and death seemed like closer companions than usual. I am so very grateful for friends and loved ones who lent me their strength during difficult times.

8) I’m grateful for “the dinner session,” a group of people from my old job who meet for dinner about every other month. They are busy people, and I was sure that would move on and leave me behind after I retired. They didn’t. I really appreciate that. Plus, the work stories are even funnier when you don’t have a stake in the outcome.

9) I’m grateful, still, that I live in a county that has more than 40 regional parks. Any day of the week I can go to the redwoods, a river, a lake, an oak forest, a meadow or the ocean and walk a safe, well-marked trail. I can take pictures, I can have picnics, I can meet friends or just absorb the beauty of nature.

10) I’m grateful that after thirty-five years of work, I have a decent pension which not only allows me the basics of life without having to worry about how to meet expenses, it gives me enough leeway to go on trips. I earned the pension, but many people who worked long and hard and earned their pensions have had them stolen or looted by corporate raiders. I am grateful that the public sector won’t let people do that yet.

11) I’m grateful for a group of young people at VOICES drop-in center, who amaze me constantly with their imagination and openness.

12) I’m grateful that I get to work in a bookstore.

13) I am always grateful for the sheer exuberance and joy of domestic canines – yes, once again, I’m grateful for dogs.

 

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Harmony, Population 18

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I know it sounds like the name of a show on the Syfy Channel, but Harmony, California, is a real town. Well, perhaps “town” is a misnomer… a real village. A hamlet? A settlement? It is a real place with people (as many as 18!) who will sell you stuff and take your money. It’s right off Highway 1, about six miles south of the town of Cambria, on the California coast.

All my life, by the way, I thought Cambria was “Came-bria.” It is actually pronounced so that the first syllable rhymes with “ham.” Cambria itself is about six miles south of the Heart Castle state park. 

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Harmony (population 18) has an historical connection with the castle because it used to have a creamery. William Randolph Hearst’s chef and kitchen staff ordered their milk, cream, butter and cheese from Harmony. The creamery, alas, is no longer there, although the building is. So what will they sell you in Harmony? There is a café, so they will sell you food. I wasn’t hungry when I was there, but I can you the food looked good, especially the salads. The café serves tea, coffee, coffee drinks, some natural sodas and bottled water. There is a pottery place and best of all, a blown-glass place where at various times of the year, you can come and watch the glass blowers.

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They have a connection to some Hawaiian glass blowers, although I didn’t recognize any names and I don’t remember them now. The Hawaiian artisans come there a couple of times a year to work.

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Hey, it’s Cthulhu!

I asked the young man who waited on me if he was one of the town’s eighteen. He said no, he made the six mile commute. He pointed out that the glass-blowers have a store in Cambria, in the east Village.

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The glass was stunning. Much of it, particularly their glorious octopuses and squid, were out of my price range, but I found some nice souvenirs for friends.

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The town is working to rehab a couple of the old building and expand into more art and craft goods. It reminded me in some ways of the refurbished mill in the town on Yountville, in Napa County, that offers crafts and galleries, high-end clothing and furniture. Harmony felt a little more friendly and homelike.

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Hearst Castle; the Pools

From the Hearst Castle State Park Visitor Center, which can’t be more than 50 feet above sea level, the bus ride to the castle climbs to 1600 feet in four-and-a-half miles. WR Hearst wanted the road to follow the tiny donkey trail he and his family used to follow to the top of the hill to go camping, and Julia Morgan designed it so that, at various points, the castle appears on the hill above you, then vanishes from view as our vehicle makes a turn. Alex Trebeck of Jeopardy fame shares recorded points of interest about the castle on the journey up and back.

One feature that’s discussed but not well-seen from the bus is the mile-long pergola, a row of matched columns with various fruit trees planted in between the columns, the top covered with grapes. WR wanted a place his guests could ride horses or walk. After a few of the sumptuous meals from the Hearst kitchen, a nice two-mile round trip walk sounds like just the thing. Hearst wanted a pergola tall enough for “a tall man on a tall horse with a tall hat” to ride through.

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The swimming pools get mentioned early in anyone’s discussion of a visit to the castle. Hearst had two pools; the Neptune pool, an outside pool named for the marble façade of the sea-god Neptune, which came from an actual Roman temple. While I was visiting, the pool was drained and they were working on it. This was a rare enough occurrence that two of the tour guides commented on it. The pool loses lots of water to evaporation; 7,000 gallons a week, one said. Another guide said that the filtration system was being improved. The pool will be refilled, because it will become a back-up water system for the working Hearst Ranch.

Even drained, the outdoor pool is gorgeous and imposing. It’s the indoor pool, though, that most people remember; the one with one million one-inch Murano tiles, blue and gold, with the gold being real gold leaf. The one with the intricately mosaicked diving platform. The one with the “wading pool” or grotto area, where, according to story, Errol Flynn boasted “he made many new friends.” The one with the floor-to-ceiling windows and the statues. That pool.

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I ran into Bev, our guide for the Grand Rooms tour, the second day I was there, at the pool. She was on a break, and I didn’t want to interrupt her, but I did thank her for her tour. It turned out she was willing to talk. She said that the indoor pool, as gorgeous as it was, was something of a failure at first for the castle, because many of Hearst’s friends didn’t like to swim. Errol Flynn and others did use the pool for their clandestine liaisons, but the place didn’t catch on until Johnny Weismuller came and stayed a few times. The tennis courts above it were more popular at first.

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A court-side table at the tennis courts.

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In their contract with the State of California over the castle, the current Hearst family has retained the right to use either pool whenever they want. The second day I was there, a diving board was in place (it hadn’t been there previously) and Bev said someone from the family had probably been in. I’m not a strong swimmer and it isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I’d force myself if I had an opportunity to float in the cobalt blue water, watching the reflections from the alabaster lamps.

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The Enchanted Hill

IMG_7059 Continue reading

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The Good Life

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An elephant seal cow spends most of her adult life (they live about twenty years) pregnant or nursing. When a cow gives birth, the newborn weights about 65 pounds. She nurses it until it reaches about 300 pounds.  During this time, she loses about one-third of her body weight. When the “weanling” pup reaches 300-ish, she mates with the dominant male and then goes back into the water to start her 2500 mile migration south. Along the way, all the beta males who didn’t get a look-in during mating season are going, “Hey, baby! You lookin’ fine!” and “You want summa this?” And “Did it hurt? When you fell from heaven?”

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This, along with unconscious bias, is probably why very few of the famous a capella-grunting elephant seal tone poems are composed by cows.

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It’s cool to be an alpha male. Yessiree. At about five years old, you turn on all the guys you hung out with as a kid, and fight until one or the other of you loses. You win. Dripping blood from the numerous bites and tears, you have sex with somewhere between ten to forty females. From then on, all those loser males you beat up come slithering up the beach with bottles of wine, going “Hellloooo, Laydeez,” every time you go into the water for five minutes to grab a snack. You lose half your body weight by the time migration rolls around. Of course, you’re sixteen feet long and weigh 1200 pounds, but still. So you beat up the neighborhood and had high-volume sex (I was going to write, “had great sex,” but how do we know that?). You get horribly run down, try to swim 2500 miles, and probably you die.

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On the other hand, by the standards set by elephant seals (mate or get out) ninety percent of seal bulls are just big old losers.

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Is there anything good for anyone in this existence? Well, you do get to lie on the warm sand, in the sun, for hours and days at a time. That’s got to count for something.

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Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland is another mashup by super-author Stephen King; it’s part murder mystery, part ghost tale, part coming of age story. There is more than the usual share of King-isms, the gorgeous girl, the cute but tragic child, and a heaped spoonful of Summer of 42, but King’s ability to bring to life a region that he loves, plus the basic decency of the main character, Devin Jones, carried this one for me. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The story is set in the early 1970s. Devin is a college student, in love with a girl who does not love him back, and is about to betray him. He accepts a job at an independent amusement park called Joyland. Devin is tall, lanky and naïve, and all of those traits have an impact on his success at the park.  King does a splendid job of creating the people who live in the neighboring town, like Devin’s landlady. I spent a few weeks in a seaside resort town in Oregon once, and I would swear that same woman was my landlady. There is a “carny” aspect to the park, and some of the regulars are carnies, but every summer they hire a bunch of college kids.

 

There’s the ghost/mystery; a girl who was found dead years earlier in the park’s only “dark ride,” who some people think they see, reaching out for help, on the last leg of the ride. Devin and his friends Tom and Erin grow curious, but after Tom rides the dark ride, he gets quiet and edgy and doesn’t want to discuss the mystery. It turns out he has seen the ghost and it has freaked him out. Erin, Tom’s girlfriend, has a different attitude, and when Tom and Erin go back to school in the fall (Devin stays to work for a year) she starts to investigate and discovers that there may be more murders than just the ghost girl in the dark ride.

Then there is Mike and his over-protective mother. Mike is dying of a rare disease; he is a strange boy and he and Devin develop a friendship. Then there is the park. Devin has a talent for “wearing the fur,” the name for dressing up in a head-to-toe animal costume. Devin becomes a local sensation when he saves the life of a child choking on a hotdog, and garners the park some good publicity. Where the writing shines, though, is when Devin is in costume and the children respond to his enthusiasm. The homespun wisdom of amusement park life – already being challenged in the southeast by Disney – and carny wisdom is touching.

Needless to say, all the plot elements converge at the end. Mike is more than a sick little boy; he’s a gifted one, and there is, perhaps, more than one ghost. The mystery is solved and Devin comes to several realizations about life. Devin gets some nice fantasy-wish-fulfillment sex, but it’s balanced by the brutal accuracy of the break-up (or drift-away) by his deceitful college girlfriend. The story ends on a bittersweet note.

Less a murder mystery or a scary story than kind of a love letter to a place and time, written by one of the best American storytellers, this was a superb read.

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We’re All All Right

Chris Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics, spoke as he does every year at the annual Sonoma County State of the County breakfast, hosted by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. After the obligatory patting-self-on-back remarks by a couple of elected officials, Chris took to the podium to tell us, “We’re all all right.”

California is steadily recovering from the great recession, Thornberg says, and Sonoma County is actually better than the state overall. He predicts the following:

  • Even with the end of Quantitative Easing, interest rates will stay low
  • Housing prices are increasing
  • Wine production is good.
  • California is a strong economy; Sonoma’s is stronger than the state’s.
  • The labor market is heating up.
  • The stock market is not a “bubble.”

 

Sonoma County added 4,000 new jobs last year and our current unemployment rate is around 5%; the state’s is 7%.

Housing has not rebounded the way we all would have liked, Thornberg says, in part because there is still a surplus of single family dwellings. The flurry in home-buying a couple of years ago was investor buying, not family buying, and did not lead to a need for new home construction. Construction used to be 6% of the national GDP and it still hasn’t reached 5%. There is a lot of construction work, though; a lot of it is remodeling.

Even with the dry cycle and water shortage, agricultural jobs grew by 8% in the county and we added 29 new wineries. (I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.)

Thornberg says consumer confidence shows in increases in consumer credit, a 5% increase year-to-year from last year. This shows that people aren’t afraid to borrow. They think they’ll still have a job in a year.

County payroll gains are up $250 thousand per month year-to-year from last year, and the job opening rate is 3.5%. Incomes show an annual rise of 4%.

All of this shows that we are finding our way out of the dark woods of 2007 – 2010, but Thornberg warns that Sonoma County’s problem is “lack of growth.” He thinks the county should be an economic powerhouse, getting the benefits of the Bay Area’s growth, and that our problem (said humorously) “is Marin County.” He believes the SMART project, a commuter train from Sonoma County to the Larkspur terminal and BART, will make a huge positive difference. Housing costs are cheaper in Sonoma, but with gridlock on Highway 101, it is not easy to get to the city. SMART will definitely help; the continued widening of the highway will help some.

This time I really did get up at an outrageous hour; 5:30. It was just like the old days; stumbling about in the dark so I don’t wake Spouse, putting on uncomfortable shoes, etc. Ah, good times. I ran into several friends from the office, and learned a few more things that are going on in the county:

Art Wrangler:

The county has hired a half-time manager to work with Sonoma County’s “creative community” to put our arts on the map in as big a way as our wine and food is. Her name is Nancy Glaze (sp?) and they would never call her anything as disrespectful as an “art wrangler;” that’s all me. One of her first tasks is he “Creative Sonoma Forum” November 12 at 5:00 pm at the Wells Fargo Center. I might even go.

Microbusiness Help:

The Access to Capital project and its micro-loan component are up and running. Call (707)565-6428 to see how your microbusiness (five employees or fewer) or small business might benefit from this, or from other tools the EDB offers.

Roads:

The county has spent $91.1 million on road repair. This is good if you live near one of the 100 miles of road prioritized for repair. Most of these are in Santa Rosa or on the 101 corridor. Since those are the population centers, this only makes sense. The ongoing Highway 101 project, funded largely by federal dollars, will top $2 billion by the time it’s done.

Trains:

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is on target for 2016. It will run from Windsor to the Larkspur Landing ferry terminal.

 

 

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Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway; Tasty but Fails to Satisfy

A while ago I read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. It was a new experience for me; far from a standard detective story. Although it is set completely in this world, it felt a little like reading New Weird. Sara Gran, the author, sets up a detective story that takes place in the eddies and air pockets at the edge of the mainstream. Claire DeWitt, for example, is an actual detective, but she became one when a strange book called Detection, written by a French detective named Silette, comes into her hands. Detection can’t be found online or in a regular bookstore, apparently; people stumble across a copy of it; in some cases it falls off a shelf at their feet. If you find the book, and read the book, you have been initiated into a strange fraternity of detectives, who treat the work almost as if it has a… well, not exactly spiritual, but at least metaphysical component. There are, maybe, a double-handful of Silette detectives, and Claire DeWitt is the best one in the world. We know this because she tells us so.

City of the Dead was set in New Orleans, a few years after Katrina, and is a story of love, loyalty, corruption and neglect. Claire got clues from dreams and random occurrences. She also did a lot of drugs. It was New Orleans, and that didn’t seem so weird.

But I’m writing about the second Claire DeWitt mystery; Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. In this installment, Claire is back in the San Francisco Bay area, investigating the murder of an old friend and lover. Paul Casablancas was a gifted musician. It looks like he surprised a robber and was shot, but Claire doesn’t think so. This is the primary mystery, but the story also follows a mystery Claire and her friend Tracey (herself the subject of a mystery) solved when they were teenagers in Brooklyn.  Paul’s murder is not a who-done-it. Claire knows early on who pulled the trigger (and so, really, do we) but the story is about the how and the why. The backstory assumes much greater importance in this book.

And this book, really, is about Claire having another break with reality, as her mourning for her lost love takes her totally off the rails. Along the way the book is filled with interesting characters and strange after-hours clubs and “back rooms;” vintage clothing shops (all the women in the book wear vintage; we don’t know why). For, not comic relief exactly, but a lighter note, there is another mystery Claire is working on in Marin County, where a man who raises miniature horses is having them die. The horses are cute.

There was nothing really wrong with Bohemian Highway until the end. As she did in City of the Dead, Gran balances the backstory with the current mystery very nicely. Claire’s headfirst plunge into self-destruction is done very well, but I became bored with it after a while. And ultimately, because there was no real mystery about the killing, this book failed to satisfy on some level. Perhaps it was the final few chapters, which end on a cliffhanger and carried a miasma of desperation. “I know these aren’t selling well, but look! People will want to know what happens! Please, publisher, but the third one.”

I  recommend Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead easily. I say don’t be in a rush to pick up the second one. And we’ll see if there is a third.

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