*Because this post concerns the millennium, references to Prince’s 1999 are obligatory

Just go ahead and try to have a conversation about Concurrent DOS with someone on the street. This random so and so will, in all likelihood, think you’re talking about fishing lures, or a 12-step addiction recovery program, or window treatments. However, if this random so and so is old enough, they might remember an old DOS based computer they used to have: an old beige plastic chunker that for years used to occupy an otherwise unused and forgotten coat closet, and that was purchased (perhaps) the very same day Ronald Reagan won his second term, back in 1984. This person might smile nostalgically, remembering the black screen, the green flashing pixilated rectangle, the keyboard commands. Simpler times and all.

Park Road Books for several decades now has used a point of sale program (IBID) that runs on a Concurrent DOS operating system. It has not updated; it has not changed. This is the same computer, with the same Concurrent DOS operating system that has been running in the store since the computer was purchased (and it was state of the art then) in the mid 80s. Transactions are completed with key commands, orders for new books are placed via a phone line, and at the end of each day, after the registers have been closed, a PRB employee goes back into the back office and backs up all the day’s sales and database information on a tape drive. Not a CD-rom, or an external hard drive, or The Cloud, but a magnetic tape about the size of a stack of business cards. These tapes are labeled with a day of the week and stored in a fireproof safe. As the Park Road Books employee leaves the back office, he or she is greeted with a prompt that says “It has been ______ days since the millennium.”

September 8th will bring the 5,000th day since the millennium, i.e. Y2K and all the pandemonium and fear about computer crashes and crazy robot technologies, which seems, with everything that has happened since then (including a couple wars, 4 Presidential elections, and a dozen generations of iPods and iPhones) to have been eons ago. Now, think how long it’s felt like since the year 1999 became the year 2000 and keep it mind that 1984’s simpler times mentioned earlier (when these computers were new) were another 16 years before that.

For a bit of perspective take Beloved, by Toni Morrison which is required reading for many high school kids this year (many of whom weren’t even born until the mid-90s) and which was published in 1987. Every single copy of Beloved purchased at Park Road Books since its publication has been rung up using the same series of key commands, on the same point of sale program, on the same DOS computer. The same is true for the entire Harry Potter series, every single work by David Foster Wallace, and the “scandalous” Primary Colors. Ditto: The Da Vinci Code and all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. While the Iranian government was issuing a fatwa on Salman Rushdie, Park Road Books was selling The Satanic Verses, each purchase being rung up on the same computer that the store would use a quarter of a century later to ring up Fifty Shades of Grey.

In a week or so, Park Road Books will be changing over to a new computer system. It is sticking its nose, one could say, into the 21st century. Sleek, flat-screen, Hi-def (-ish) color monitors and graphical interfaces replace clunky black screens and stark green pixels. Transactions will now be completed via mouse clicks; databases will be accessed and orders will be placed over a broadband internet connection. For some, this is a transition has been fraught with peril. Beyond the basic discomfort with replacing an old routine, there are concerns about computer crashes, viruses, and hacker attacks. However, the staff is diligent about training themselves. Practices breeds familiarity which then breeds confidence; as confidence grows, concerns about being able to handle trouble abate. It may be another 20 years, though, before PRB begins to contemplate updating to whatever insanely advanced technology is available.

***(All of this is to say that Park Road Books is happy about the transition to the new computer system and would like to share that excitement with its customers, many of whom have been there from the very beginning. But we are really happy about it being 5,000 days since the millennium. If we waited another 5,000 days, it would be almost the year 2030. So, on the 5,000th day since the millennium, which is Sunday, September 8th (according to our computer), Park Road Books will be offering a 5% discount on everything except newspapers and already discounted items).

You’ll never believe who isn’t coming to Park Road Books

Dear Reader/Park Road Books customer,

By now, after reading our events page you’ve probably figured out that 1) Jim Gaffigan has a new book, called Dad is Fat, 2) It’s probably really funny, and 3) Jim Gaffigan is not going to be doing an event at our store. This is sad for us too. We’re pretty much like you guys: there’s nothing more that we wanted than to hear a bunch of jokes, and then sell hundreds (thousands, probably) of copies of the book. Please don’t take your anger out on Jim. Jim is an all around nice guy, but a pawn. We’re sure it’s just an oversight on the part of his publicity gurus, who are no doubt Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind level geniuses, but also very very stressed out. They didn’t know that we Charlotteans have built no fewer than 15 shrines to Jim Gaffigan around the city (over 20 if you count the really creepy ones).

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(above: Rachel, our events coordinator is less than pleased that she’s not going to get to see Jim Gaffigan in person).

And it’s not like Jim could have known either. If you’ve read the book, you know he’s been busy with his 5 children, who are biologically programmed to be nearly impossibly time consuming.

So the important thing is not to blame Jim or his publicity folks here. I mean sure, they could have given us a call, or left a nice handwritten note for us — they scheduled Kansas City for crying out loud, I mean, really? — but like I said, we’re not bitter. The best thing to do is to just come into the store and get the book. That’s really the best thing to do. The next best thing to do is write to Jim Gaffigan and ask him to please consider the Queen City for his next tour. The next best thing to do after that would be to write to President Obama, and see if he can use his executive orders to mandate a tour stop in Charlotte.

Best,

Brian and the rest of the Park Road Books Crew

A Guide To Shopping at a Bookstore Like a Bookseller (which is, sadly, the only way that we know anymore)

We were inspired by Ploughshares piece about how to shop at a bookstore as an author. And by inspired we mean we were rolling around on the floor laughing even though we are not authors nor will we ever be authors. So, anyway, we decided to come up with a guide for how to shop at a bookstore as a bookseller. 

It’s a difficult thing for us, going into bookstores. We love books, yes, but we also spend way too much time in our own bookstore, so that when we do have time off we try to do something other than going to bookstores. You know, to broaden our horizons or something like that. But inevitably, we end up going to bookstores anyway. 

Step 1: Walk in. 

This should be a straightforward step. Just open the door, walk in…but it’s so much more involved than this. You’ll have to check the event board outside the front door. Maybe there was an author that you had in your store, in which case you’ll have to remind yourself to talk to the staff about said author when you go in. But maybe the author coming on Saturday didn’t come to your store, in which case you remind yourself to find that authors books and hide them in a section of the store where nobody (including the store staff) will be able to find them.

Oh, and maybe there’s bargain books outside. You don’t want to look, because you know the kind of dreck that goes out on the bargain carts. 100 year old gardening books, books about “Mastering Your Microwave Oven Along With 75 Ultra Modern Recipes”, in general, nothing you would ever want to read or buy. But you look anyway. 

So, now you’ve got all the outside stuff out of your system and it’s time to go in. You walk in, see the staff joking about something, and you want to, as a fellow bookseller, join in. But no, probably best to not let it be known that you’re a bookseller. You feel the need to be incognito, like the way Hollywood stars are when they go out to lunch in LA. You regret not bringing sunglasses and a big floppy hat. 

Step 2: actually walk into the store. It feels weird, yes. You notice all the holes where books should be. There’s dust on everything. And, and, you walk past the counter, and you’re not greeted. This offends you, because you, as a bookseller, try to greet everyone as they come in. But you quickly recognize that dreary 2-hours-til-the-end-of-shift look on their faces, you sympathize, and you move on trying, as you pass, to give the girl with the big frame glasses a knowing. I-feel-your-pain look, which comes off creepy (so so so creepy). She says “Hello, there!” and your spine is gripped in fear. She’s recognized you as a bookseller. Should you say something? She may have even been in your store and you don’t recognize her. She’s going to be offended, maybe.  You give a wave, say “Hey,” and retreat to the stacks.

Oh, yeah, but they have a Staff Recommendation section, so you can’t retreat just yet. 

Step 3: judge staff recommendations. It appears Duane is recommending A Confederacy of Dunces and Infinite Jest. You scoff at Duane for being so obvious. Obviously, the obscure books on you shelf are superior. You start to wonder which one is Duane. Does he look like a troglodyte? Maybe you should talk to the owner and see if he or she will let you on full time, so that you can up the quality of the staff recommendations. But then again, Harriet has some books that look really cool, so you just let it pass. You move on. 

Step 4: straighten the books. You don’t mean to do this. It’s what you do every day at work, and it’s the least rewarding part of the job. But you do it without noticing. It starts with one James Patterson being out of order, and then by the end you’re seated on the floor reorganizing the entire fiction section. By this point, of course, you realize that you’re reorganizing someone else’s store (this is a task they’re saving for later maybe, and if they come back and find it already straightened, they’ll have nothing to do for the last hour of their shift. But so what). As you sit there you start to hope that people will come up and ask you what you’re doing, so that you can say, “oh, I work in another bookstore, I’m just straightening. Force of habit, etc.” But nobody notices. At best, they’ll just step over you, and more likely, will just avoid the aisle your in altogether. 

Step 5: selling books to people. You see someone leafing through a book you love and you shout out (probably too loud), “Oh man I love that book!” The person looks startled, afraid for their life, but you stand there grinning anyway. Then you run off and grab half a dozen books that are just like it, but by the time you get back the person is gone. You go and put the books back on the shelf, your head hanging and your spirits dampened. You find another section to straighten, just to make yourself feel less dejected. The fiction section you straightened earlier looks like it’s been looked through. So you give it another once over. 

Step 6: Then it happens. When you least expect it, someone will come up to you and ask for help with a book. You can’t really explain it. You must exude this aura (or maybe you left the house with your nametag on). But anyway, at this point, you don’t really want to recommend a book to anyone. You just want to peruse on your own. You look around for staff, but they’re busy — which, you know, as an independent bookseller that this is awesome. You swell with a sense of duty. You become a vigilante bookseller. And you help this customer find their book, probably with the chorus from “Eye of the Tiger” playing on a loop in your head (why would you know the lyrics to Eye of the Tiger, you work in a bookstore, you can quote Shakespeare — you try to quote Shakespeare instead, but it doesn’t sound as cool as “Eye of the Tiger” so you switch back). 

As you’re helping this customer out. She’s a nice lady, like the nice ladies that come into your store, so you really start to feel at home, except: the sections of the store are not the same as in your store.

Step 7: What is wrong with the way this store is laid out anyway? I mean really, who lumps sociology with political science? Why is there no military history section? For that matter why is the history section abutting the gardening section. It makes no sense. You fume internally hoping the manager will come by so you can tell them that they have no business owning a store like this. They’re a disgrace, you decide. Then you start to see the logic, and you apologize to the absentee manager (whom you have never met: he or she is probably the nicest person in the world and a pleasure to work for. Once again you think about finding this manager an offering up your services, part time, maybe, on the weekends). 

Step 8: Time to pay for your books. You picked out some extra special obscure books, hoping that the girl at the register will notice how well-read you are. You have no interest in reading these particular books. For some reason you feel like if you walk up to the counter with a book that has sold 8 bajillion copies at your store, a best seller, that the girl at the counter will look at you with absolute scorn. Then at the last second, you realize you don’t want to be pretentious. So you run back to return the books to their shelves.

Fiction needs work again. It’s like a small child has been there since you left it. James Patterson is not only mixed in with the B’s but is next to Richard Brautigan. You face-out a different Richard Brautigan book this time, because you still don’t want to look pretentious, even though nobody will know that you were the one who faced them out.  

Finally you make it up to the register. You can’t help it. No matter how much you didn’t want to say it, you have to say it: “Hey, I work at a bookstore.” To which the staff says, “Great.” And then there’s an awkward silence. It’s tense, this silence, like maybe a rivalry is building between your store and this one. But maybe the silence will end and you and this clerk will be best friends. Maybe you’re store and theirs can have an annual softball game (Provided, of course that the two stores are in the same geographical area). But it stays silent. There are twelve people in line behind you, tapping their collective feet impatiently, until you say, “Yeah, if you’re in my neck of the woods check out Park Road Books.” They say, “Sure. Will Do. Bye now.”

And that’s it. You’re done. That wasn’t so bad. You might like to go back there. It was a good bookstore, and you’re glad to see they’re doing well. Bookstore people need to stick together. 

In which, so that we may better serve you, the customers, we move things around in the store

I’m sure this has happened to you: you’ve wandered into our store and walked to our history section looking for a book about, say, World War Two (in fact, let’s say you were looking specifically for Ian W Toll’s Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942) and in your search you had to scan through books about the history of Venice, or the Civil Rights movement. Not that these are not wonderful books. They are wonderful books.

But now, we’ve made things easier for those searching for Military History books: we’ve made a whole military history section. Yes, a whole section. If it’s about a military operation, or a battle, or a daunting rescue of prisoners of war, you can now find it in Military History. 

See:

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Part 2

Also, for those of you who may have missed it, we did a similar reshuffle a few weeks ago with our young adult novels: we created a category or fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian and a category for not those (novels about high school that don’t involve fantasy, sci-fi or dystopian elements).

Why did we change these sections around? Well it isn’t because we love moving large quantities of books around (despite what you see in this picture below)

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No, no, we don’t enjoy schlepping books around. We do all of this because we love you, the customers, and we want you to have the best possible experience when you peruse our shelves. And if that means risking back spasms, hernias, paper cuts, hurt feelings, etc….then that’s what that means.  

 

 

 

 

Literary Recipe #1 — Joyce Carol Oatmeal

The beauty of oatmeal is its simplicity, and its deliciousness. Oatmeal is a breakfast staple. Easy to cook, tastes good, far more filling than cereal or toast or a bagel. Some people put brown sugar, others put apples, others still: raisins, maple syrup, etc.

But we’re not after plain old oatmeal. We’re a bookstore. So here’s a recipe for oatmeal inspired by Joyce Carol Oates. (hence, Joyce Carol Oatmeal).

First, we start by making enough oatmeal for 50 or 60 good-sized bowls (say, 10 pounds of oats), because Joyce Carol, as we know, is maybe one of the most prolific writers around. And then, to parallel her versatility, each bowl is made with different ingredients (some of the bowls might not actually even be oatmeal, but cream of wheat, or grits), although, each different set of ingredients are fairly dense, rich, and complex (perhaps, too, with a bit of gothic brooding).

So, anyway. Here’s a recipe for a bowl of Oates-meal.

1/2 cup uncooked steel cut oats

1/4 stick of butter

2 T dark brown sugar

1 t Blackstrap molasses

1/4 cup of pomegranate seeds

Small handful of crushed pecans

– Bring water to a boil, pour in dry oats. Reduce heat, cover and cook for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally (cooking time may vary, obviously). When the oats have thickened most of the way(after about 25 minutes) add butter, molasses, sugar, and pomegranate. Garnish with crushed pecans.

Serve with a cup of unsweetened black tea, steeped for about 10 minutes longer than normal. And eat by candlelight.

Charlie LeDuff on Colbert

If you’re a regular in the store, you’ve no doubt heard my spiel about Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. (I’m sure my coworkers are tired of hearing it, but too bad). Maybe you’ve bought a copy, in which case, kudos to you for reading one of the best books published this year. If you haven’t bought a copy, I’d recommend doing so immediately. In fact, I’ll give you permission to drop whatever you’re reading and pick up a copy of Detroit today (if your book club leaders get peeved, just send them to me, and I’ll be happy to provide, in essence, a doctor’s note). At any rate, if you haven’t bought a copy, but are considering it, here’s a link to Charlie LeDuff on The Colbert Report.

Short, but Sweet: Rethinking the Short Story Collection

Short story collections are pretty big right now. George Saunders book of short stories, Tenth of December, you may recall, was talked about in the New York Times magazine under the headline, “The Best Book You’ll Read All Year.” And of course, there’s everyone’s favorite WNC writer Ron Rash’s collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay. Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz has a short story collection out. Even Jess Walter, who until this point had written mostly novels, came out with a collection.

What’s the deal? As our pal Ron Rash said, the short story is America’s big contribution to literature. We pretty much invented it (Go ahead and check out William Boyd’s take on the genesis of the short story). But at the same time, many readers struggle with short story collections. When you read  a novel, you have the same group of characters all the way through. When you read short story collections, you get a new set of characters, a new set of circumstances, and often a new setting every twenty pages or so. It’s tiring. Plus, a novel can take anywhere from a day to a couple weeks, and so generally by the time you’ve finished reading you’ve invested so much time that the novel becomes part of you. If it’s a particularly good novel it seeps into your skin and bones and changes how you see the world (at least for a while, until you read the next great novel).

You could make the case that, in a way, novels are like our friends. We spend more time with them, get to know their ins and their outs. We think about them when they’re not around. And conversely, short stories are like people we see on the way to work, or when we’re traveling. Occasionally one or two will stand out, you may have a fun conversation with one of them, but mostly they get lost in the fray. The next day’s commute or the next connecting flight brings an entirely new crop of commuters and travelers.

So then why bother with short stories at all, you say? The simple answer is: because short story collections can be great. Really, they can. Think about this. If you don’t like a short story in a collection, you can skip it and move on to the next one no problem. If you skip a chapter in a murder mystery, say, you might lose vital plot information. Plus, you can read the stories in order, out of order, in any order you choose. You can read some stories twice and others not at all. If you’re crunched for time, you can choose to read the shortest story in the collection.

Perhaps the best way to think about short stories, I’ve found, is to think about a collection as an album. Each story in the collection is like a song. Sometimes the songs on the album are thematically related and feel like one big movement (say, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), sometimes they aren’t and don’t. Sometimes one song can be good enough for you to buy the entire album. And its the same with short stories. Occasionally, there will be a story that stands out among all the others and makes an entire collection worthwhile.

So with that, here are a few of my favorite short story collections, old and new.

The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzales

The first story in this collection is about a hijacked plane that’s been circling Dallas, Texas for 20 years. Yes, years. In another story a man shrinks his wife (accidentally) and can’t figure out how to unshrink her. In the meantime, he makes her a dollhouse to live in. The wife gets angry and starts a kind of guerrilla campaign: cutting the buttons off of his shirts, burning down the dollhouse, etc. The stories are hilarious and inventive. The whole collection is pure fun.

Lost in the City by Edward P Jones

Edward Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World. But before that, he wrote Lost in the City, which may be one of my favorite books ever, short story or otherwise. The stories in Lost in the City, which are about the lives of African Americans in Washington DC, are pretty much perfect. If you’ve ever spent time in DC, you may hear people talk about the two different cities: the one with all the monuments and politicians and money, and the one with the poor, working class (mostly black) residents. Edward P Jones writes about the second one, and does it so well, that it will change the way you think about our nation’s capitol.

Airships by Barry Hannah

Barry Hannah may be the finest Southern writer you’ve never heard of, and Airships is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Whether he’s writing about Korean War veterans, or old men fishing on a pier, or teenagers in the middle of a fistfight, he is always compelling and original. I’ve never read anyone that sounds quite like Barry Hannah. Like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah was a disciple of the great editor Gordon Lish. Also worth noting, Hannah was primarily a short story writer, saying once that he didn’t like people that wrote novels just to write novels. He believed that novels should only be written if they had to be, if there was no other way to tell the story, and that most novels didn’t fit that criteria.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

This isn’t technically a collection in the way that I’ve used the term. It’s more of an omnibus, but no library of Southern fiction (or any library for that matter) would be complete without Flannery O’Connor. Wonderful quirky characters drawn with rich detail.

 

 

World Focus

Let’s face it, we all tend to live in our own little bubbles. We settle into routines, comfort zones. We talk to our one group of friends and family, drive the same way to work every day, and after a while, we stick to the same little wedge of town where we’ve lived for years, never venturing out of that wedge unless we absolutely have to. And with books it’s no different. We tend when we buy books to make our selections based on self-identification, choosing books with subject matter that is one, familiar to us, and two, that fits neatly within the boundaries our own personal comfort zones. So, in the interest of expanding literary horizons I’d like to use this as an opportunity to introduce you to some great books about subjects and geographies you may not be as familiar with. Beyond the horizon expansion, you might just find they’re really great reads.

All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell

Between 1776 and 1802 there were three major revolutions in the world: the revolution that formed the United States, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution, which was the first and only slave-led revolution that resulted in the formation of a sovereign nation. All Souls Rising is the first book in a trilogy of novels by Madison Smartt Bell that tells the story of the Haitian Revolution. Shifting perspectives from slave owners to runaway slaves to innocent (or perhaps not so innocent) bystanders, Bell paints a vivid portrait of Haiti at the turn of the end of the 18th century. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I think I would if there were more like this one.

For more Madison Smartt Bell, check out the other two in the Haitian trilogy, and also Devil’s Dream, his novel about Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In the House of the Interpreter by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Yes, his name is fun (and/or tough) to say, but that does not detract from his writing ability. Ngugi is a Kenyan writer who came of age during the Mau Mau revolution in the 50s. As one might expect, his writing tends to have a political slant to it (in fact, he was arrested by Kenyan authorities in the late 70s because of one of his plays). At any rate, In the House of the Interpreter is a good place to start if you’ve never read Ngugi before. It’s a memoir about his experiences in a boarding school during the Mau Mau revolution. It’s a short book (230 pages) and is written in simple prose, but the issues it covers are anything but short and simple. It delves into the complexity of what it is like to grow up under colonial rule. That is, the colonials (in this case England) is providing him, Ngugi, with an education, yet at the same time the country is in a State of Emergency, Ngugi’s brother is fighting with the Mau Mau rebels against the British, and his family’s entire village is placed in a kind of concentration camp.

Because of all of this (the length of the book, the issues discussed) In the House of the Interpreter would  make a fantastic book club selection.

For more Ngugi Wa Thiong’o check out Wizard of the Crow.

What is the What by Dave Eggers

We’re staying in East Africa for this one. What is the What is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee. It is the story of how Valentino’s village was burned down by rebels, forcing Valentino to flee, by foot, hundreds of miles into Kenya. Many of the refugees starve or are eaten by lions. It’s a heart-wrenching story, but the book still maintains a great sense of humor.

For legal purposes What is the What had to be marketed as a novel (For more on this go here http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org/preface.php), but it is pretty much all true. But whichever way you read it, either as fiction or biography, you’ll love the humor, the suspense, and the emotion that this story brings to the table.

For more Dave Eggers, check out Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Also, check out the work he does for 826, a nationwide non-profit after-school tutoring program.

And when you’re done with those, you can check out these other books:

Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch
Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart

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