Friday, April 06, 2007

Shaman Drum & Reading The World

A little over a week ago, I went with Kitty Lewis to Ann Arbor for the day to scout out US bookstores as a way to investigate how we could learn, as small Canadian literary presses, about the US market. We arranged to meet for lunch with Karl Pohrt, the owner of Shaman Drum Books.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Windsor, I used to go to Ann Arbor frequently. It is the home of the University of Michigan, and is among the prettiest towns in Michigan. It's also one of the best book towns in the United States. Within 3 or 4 blocks, there used to be about two dozen bookstores, including the original, flagship Borders (which makes Chapters and Indigo appear as piss-poor as they actually are), Shaman Drum, several other special interest bookshops, and at least 6 wonderful antiquarian stores (of which Jay Platt's West Side Bookshop (with its fabulous gallery of original Curtis photographs) and Dawn Treader's remain the best). We would spend a day in Ann Arbor, hit the indie record shops (where I first chanced upon Tom Waits), and the used bookstores. We'd stop for a pastrami sandwich and a few pints at the neighbourhood deli. Somehow, we completely missed Shaman Drum. Perhaps it was because it was a new bookstore; perhaps, given the name, we assumed it would be of largely native significance. Yet it was truly the gem of the bunch.

Before Lunch, Karl gave us the tour of the place. He's been a bookseller for nearly 30 years now, and is still very passionate about it. He specializes in scholarly books, with a large selection of general history, literature, philosophy, art and other titles. His poetry section must have, conservatively, 3500 titles. Canadian writers in a variety of editions -- American, Canadian, British -- are well represented on his shelves. He stocks hundreds of books in translation, many of which you never see on regular store bookshelves. I found a the centennial edition of the Collected Beckett -- 4 volumes, Grove Press -- and a fairly obscure McCarthy novel, Sunset Limited. I came close to walking out with much more.

Karl knows a bit about publishing: in the 70's and 80's he ran Bear Claw press, publishing two early books by Howard Norman, among others. Over lunch he talked about the US independent bookselling market, and what we as Canadian publishers would need to do to get their attention. The independent market, much like in Canada, has been decimated by big box stores: Karl estimated that there would be 50 key stores in the entire country we might count on as accounts, and perhaps 200 we might be able to deal with in any fashion at all.

These numbers are fairly dismal, certainly. I mean, we're talking about a country of over 230 million people. So, what Karl is saying, is that he figures there's about one excellent independent bookseller for every million people in the U.S. (or, at least, one for every million who might be interested in dealing with us as foreign publishers). But the situation is not so very different here: there are some publishers I know who figure there are only 40 to 50 key independent accounts seriously interested in Canadian literary titles, in Canada! My own admittedly quite limited experience does seem to bear this out.

But not all was doom and gloom at lunch, either. He was eloquent on the continuing importance of the bookseller to a community, and was himself a very good example that even a single committed and passionate bookseller can make a difference. In response to the Iraq War, Karl got together with a group of booksellers and started a project they came to call Reading the World ( It was Karl's hope that by making translated literatures more widely available to Americans, they would come to have a better understanding of other peoples and cultures, and that, over time, this improved understanding might come to have some positive impact on American foreign policy. Though it is too early to tell what impact this program might have on policy, it is certainly already a success: in its 3rd year, 200 bookstores take part in the program, handselling selected translated titles.

I found this particularly exciting. Biblioasis is devoted to translation: our 2nd and 3rd trade books were translations from the Serbo-Croatian of Goran Simic; we have a translation of Ryszard Kapuscinski's coming this fall; the first publication in english by the Angolan lusophone writer Ondjaki (Good Morning Comrades!, in a translation by Stephen Henighan -- more on this anon) and another title by Goran Simic coming in the Spring of 08. Karl seemed genuinely interested in these titles, and our future translation programme, and I hope to get at least one of them in the Reading the World lineup for next year.

The Reading the World line-up is an interesting one, running from the familiar (Cesare Pavese) to the completely unknown (or at least to me), and from countries from all over the world. It occurs to me that it would be nice if we could interest Canadian booksellers in a similar program. We would not even have to stray too far from home: there are many Canadian writers writing in languages other than English or French, well regarded in their homelands, yet unknown here. Ha Jin told John Metcalf a year or so ago at the Humber School that some of the most celebrated Chinese writers live now in Canada, though they cannot get the funding to get their work translated into English or French. Alas, a fate common to many of the exiled writers who now call Canada home, though that is a subject for another post.

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