Reading, Writing, and Bookstores during Covid-19

Old Capitol Books - Monterey

Photo above from website: proprietor Ali Elfaki (upper right) and associates, Old Capitol Books.

So, here we are in the midst of the pandemic; and in this period of “social distancing” (a phrase that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives), many of us are missing that special sense of community that only bookstores and libraries can provide.

You know what I mean: bookstores are not only places to buy books and check out the latest bestsellers. They are also venues for readings and workshops; they are spaces that celebrate new and old books, as well as writers and artists; they cultivate the enjoyment of reading and knowledge.

The same can be said of libraries, which do all that, and mostly for free. In recent years they have been diversifying into community gathering places, providing lectures (check out DIY Science Saturdays), teaching opportunities, storytelling events and readings, annual free tax preparation and information, and even sheltering the homeless during daytime open hours. With pandemic restrictions, libraries have had to adapt.

We know that some of these venues are now struggling, and it’s difficult to watch it from a “distance.” So this site’s blog will be focusing, for awhile, on local bookstores and libraries, as well as writers — what they’re doing to survive and thrive.

Older photo of Old Capitol Books. Photo by JVengua.

One of my favorites is Old Capitol Books in Monterey. Housed in a building that was originally an automotive repair shop in the 1930s, and later a dance and martial arts studio, it became Book Haven in 1999, and later Old Capitol books, which is now owned by former bookstore employees Ali Elfaki and Stephanie Spoto.

They and their staff have made the bookstore into a community space with its own special qualities. As well as the usual promotional book readings, they offer weekly writers’ workshops, theory and philosophy discussions, LGBTQ hangouts, political prisoner support events, a virtual open mic event, live music, and even speed dating nights!

Now they ask for your support by donating to their GoFundMe site to save Old Capitol Books. In the meantime, there are other things you can do to help out, and continue to keep books and bookstores in your life: you can order books, book certificates, and “book care packages.”

Patrice Vecchione, author of My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice.

I suggest that you check out their website regularly for updates, including events such as author and artist Patrice Vecchione‘s upcoming event, My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice: A Writing Workshop. From the $80 fee, 50% will go to Old Capitol Books, and 50% to a writer, who can also use some support!

–J. Vengua

Genre: The Label on the Bin

“In some ways, genre is a marketing tool.”

Mark Z. Danielewski

I think Mark was understating the case. The book industry uses genre in much the same way that your local record store—remember those?—used signs to tell you that over here was “pop” and over there was “heavy metal.” It was how you found the music you wanted to hear.

Or as author and editor Cathy Yardley put it in her post on Writer Unboxed, “You want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to narrow down her choices. Genre is the first broad stroke in that attempt.”

Broad stroke, indeed, although the number of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres can be eye-opening when you are asked to pick from a list. At least that’s how I found it when I was first asked to classify my novel The Found Diary of Avery Alexander Myer (the link goes to Amazon).

The story has strong elements of magical realism, but at least at the time that was not an official marketing option. It is also an ontological mystery. Good luck finding that on a commercial genre list! What I eventually settled on was “contemporary fantasy.” Does that tell you anything about my novel? Kind of. It says it is a fantasy set in the modern day. Does it tell enough to inform a potential reader? That is a whole other question.

The problem, and the point of this article, is that there are cracks large enough in the commercial genre classification system to walk your dog through. Yet publishing companies, book sellers, and even libraries insist on fitting your story into a particular hole. This means that even if you self-publish, if you want to sell through a major book distributor like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you must choose a genre. It is simply part of the process.

Should you write and sell for a mainstream readership, this will be a painless and valuable procedure. An author chooses a genre for their readers, not for themselves. Be sure to check out Yardley’s post, “Why Genre Matters,” to get some good commentary on that subject. But for those who write “across” genres, marketing your crypto-thriller-cooking-romance will be a struggle no matter how good your writing.

Some interesting compromises have arisen here and there: “Slipstream fiction,” first coined by author Bruce Sterling, is an attempt to place a tale that is just weird enough to make a reader question the story’s sense of reality. Steampunk is another example of cutting a genre as fine as a publishing house will tolerate. But if Netflix can categorize films as narrowly as “cerebral foreign crime dramas” or “crime late night comedies,” why can’t book publishers do the same?

—Michael Fink

Indie Presses and Nonprofits Open Bookstores

New trend? Indie presses and nonprofits are opening bookstores. Locally, in Salinas, the National Steinbeck Center’s museum store looks essentially like a bookstore. Writer John Sealy explains how various pressures and needs can impel an independent press in that direction:

In the case of Milkweed Editions, much of the decision for opening a bookstore had to do with space. In 2000, the press joined the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The three organizations were tired of rising rents and living office-to-office in downtown Minneapolis, so they raised several million dollars in grants and donations and bought a building on an under-developed stretch of land near the Mississippi River.

Read: “Why Indie Presses Are Opening Bookstores” in LitHub