Archive for May, 2013

Know Your Bookstore: The Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle)

In this new interview series, Monkeybicycle intern David Cotrone will be introducing you to a variety of independent booksellers and store owners.

The Elliott Bay Book Company is located in Seattle, WA. This interview was conducted with Casey O’Neil of the Elliott Bay staff.

 


 

Monkeybicycle: When was your bookstore founded? What prompted you to want to sell books?

Casey O’Neil: Elliott Bay was founded in 1973, so we are honored and grateful to be celebrating our 40th anniversary this June. Starting as a single room shop in Pioneer Square with just one employee, it expanded to over 20,000 sq. ft and over thirty employees. In April 2010 we moved up to the Capitol Hill neighborhood, to a great old timber-framed building with roughly the same square footage. It immediately felt like home, and our customers—old and new—have made the move a huge success.

When I was hired in 2008, I had been working construction for three years, and though I had become fairly adept at installing glass in buildings while being called a wide variety of derogatory names, I longed to be engaged in a very different kind of labor. I moved up to Seattle from California with the hope of getting a job at Elliott Bay. I knew I wanted to spend my days with books, and I was also hungry for more caring interaction with people. When I got the call that I didn’t get the job after my first interview, I threw my cellphone in a tree. But another position opened up a few weeks later, and when they offered it to me, I was ecstatic. Being a part of Elliott Bay has been an honor, an education, and a greater pleasure than I ever could have imagined.

Mb: What about your bookstore are you most proud of?

CON: Personally, I’m most proud of our customers. We get to stock the very best, under-appreciated, most intelligent books being published today, and people come in every day and buy them. Nothing better.

Mb: Does your location influence your store? If so, how?

CO: Seattle is a city that greatly values books, with one of the best public library systems in the country and several great independent bookstores. Our store is a reflection of the literary-minded community we live in, and our new neighborhood has been great for business—one of the best places in the world to see how many people still crave a physical place in their community where they can find the books they’re looking for, as well as the books they didn’t know they were looking for.

Mb: What’s your favorite part of your job?

CO: My favorite part of the job is being able to highlight those absolutely essential and remarkable books that can too easily be overlooked.

Mb: Personally, why do you read?

CO: Reading is the best way to travel into someone else’s mind, and also to let someone else into mine.

Mb: Do you host readings at your bookstore? If so, who’s given your most memorable one?

CO: We’ve hosted authors since the 1980’s, when Rick Simonson started our readings series. We average over ten readings a week, ranging from smaller, more intimate gatherings where amazing new voices are found, to events with world renown authors packing the house with hundreds of people.

The most remarkable recent event that comes to mind is the midnight release party for Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy, complete with stories from Sherman, fry bread, balloon spirit animals, and music, including the One Gun Singers from the Colville reservation singing Sherman’s original song John Wayne’s Teeth—a memorable night and a mesmerizing song to have stuck in your head for a few weeks.

Another reading I will always remember was given a few years ago by Joseph McElroy. He’s written nine incredible novels over the last forty years (with one older novel Ancient History and his new novel Cannonball both forthcoming from Dzanc Books in June), and his work combines inexhaustible intelligence with immediate human warmth. His profound presence is inseparable from his work, and the evening was the perfect example of how a live reading encourages deep and meaningful connections between authors and their readers.

Mb: What and who are some of your favorite titles and authors?

CO: The book I can’t stop talking about is The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal (Melville House), an exceptional novel that sprawls over and through the contours and depths of modern India as it follows the five men implicated in a plot to assassinate a journalist in Delhi.

Mb: Another recent favorite is a collection of stories by the Irish writer Kevin Barry called There Are Little Kingdoms (Stinging Fly Press) Very funny, not afraid to get a little rough, but with this very beautiful and generous undercurrent that just makes you fall in love with every single one of his characters.

CO: And I can’t leave out one of my all-time favorites, Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (Graywolf), quite simply the most perfect collection of essays I have ever read.

Mb: Do you have hope for the future of books?

CO: Yes, I do…and you should too. With changes in the publishing industry, it’s easy to see how the bottom line can exert extraordinary pressure on the people who devote their labor to writing, publishing, and selling great books. I will always remember attending a panel on the future of publishing in which no one said anything about any actual books, but had plenty to say about “content consumption” and “digestion.” My favorite quote of the event was something to the effect of, “Books are products, just like shoes or toothpaste…except books are more content driven.” It would make a great t-shirt, “BOOKS: MORE CONTENT DRIVEN THAN TOOTHPASTE!”

My hope for the future of books comes from looking in a very different direction. On the same evening after that panel, I was given some much needed perspective by Mikhail Shishkin (author of Maidenhair, a sublime novel published by Open Letter) at his reading at McNally Jackson. In answering a similar question to the one I am answering now, he referred to a scene in which a prisoner chalks a picture of a boat on his cell wall. Every day the guard brings him his meal, and every day he finds the prisoner sitting there, patiently watching this boat. After many weeks of this, the guard opens the door again, but this time he finds that the boat is no longer on the wall, and the prisoner is gone as well. “This is what books can do,” Shishkin said.

It is in this vein that I continue to have immense hope that books will continue to do what they have always done…the impossible.

 
 
 


David Cotrone is from Plymouth, MA. His writing appears in Fifty-Two Stories, The Rumpus, PANK, Paper Darts, Necessary Fiction, Thought Catalog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. You can find him at www.davidcotrone.com.

 

Small Press Interview: Black Ocean Press

In this interview series, Monkeybicycle intern David Cotrone will introduce you to a variety of small press editors and publishers.

 

This interview was conducted with Carrie Olivia Adams of Black Ocean Press.

 


 

Monkeybicycle: When was Black Ocean founded? What prompted you to want to start it?

Carrie Olivia Adams: Black Oceayn published its first books in 2006. Founder Janaka Stucky and I met while in the low-residency MFA Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was something we would half-seriously chat about during residencies in that wouldn’t it be awesome if sort of way. I’d already been working in publishing for several years (as I still am today outside of Black Ocean) and had professional knowledge of the publishing industry. And Janaka had the charisma and the courageous sense to say—let’s just do this—and then find a real way to make it work. The population bloom of indie presses was only just beginning at the time, and I feel like we were at the cusp of that movement.

Mb: At the time, why was Black Ocean–and why is it still–necessary?

COA: We truly believed—and still believe—that there is an audience for poetry even bigger than the insular world of other poets—and it was simply a matter of finding poetry to deliver and poets who were willing to deliver it to that audience. From the very beginning, we have stressed the importance of author tours (which is actually something we contractually require). And we have been eager to find ways to engage with other artistic genres and audiences through poetry. For example, Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords Volume 1 was turned into a touring shadow puppet play with a live string quartet, which was performed to sold out audiences in bars around the country and even the Poetry Foundation itself last year.

Mb: What about Black Ocean are you most proud of?

COA: I know that I’m often humbled and amazed by how quickly we’ve achieved this level of success. When we first launched books at AWP in 2006, we had less than ten attendees at our reading. Now, we can pack a bar in Chicago with a line out the door. What was just a dream of some graduate students has become a real and viable publisher, making books that outsell many of the mainstream academic presses. And we’ve been able to achieve that while staying true to the poems and authors that excite and inspire us. Black Ocean is completely run as a volunteer effort—we all have day jobs—and thus to achieve this level of success, it has required an essential amount of devotion. I am proud that day after day we are making something we believe in; otherwise, there is absolutely no reason for us to make it.

Mb: What do you look for when you’re open for submissions? What makes a project or manuscript worth taking on?

COA: As the poetry editor, I encounter and read each and every submission that arrives. It is a daunting and inspiring task each year. And as an actively publishing poet myself, I have such an enormous sympathy for everyone who sends work our way. And yet, I will admit that I am a very ruthless editor when it gets down to it. Janaka and I have similar, but unique aesthetics, so the work that is published must fall in the overlap between our tastes. As such, it is in keeping with the overall Black Ocean aesthetic—but never too similar to books we’ve already published—there has to be something new about the voice, it really has to engage me with something familiar but overlooked or completely strange with an underlying current of something known and unnamed. Black Ocean is respected for its careful editing of the text—we rarely publish something as is, but work with each author to bring out the strengths of his/her work and style. So we have taken manuscripts that are full of promise, but not yet “perfect,” if the author is willing to work with us in a dialogue about the poems.

Mb: What does “indie” or “small press” mean to you? What do you think of such classifications and distinctions?

COA: This is a hard one for me, since my monthly paycheck comes from a distinguished university press, which to me seems to occupy a middle ground. It’s not a trade publisher like Random House, but it still has a cache and intellectually mainstream acceptance and esteem. Where as with Black Ocean, I think we still like to fancy ourselves as a bit more rebellious. It’s a business, and it’s a huge time commitment, but it’s a press run for the poems and poets alone. I think that’s’ what indie about, we are independent of anything but the poems. And we are definitely slaves to the poems.

Mb: What sets your books apart from the rest?

COA: Besides expanding the readership of poetry, one of the other driving desires when we founded the press was to make beautiful objects. We started the press just as the e-book was becoming a common idea, and I think we have been committed all along to making beautiful objects—we want you to want to not just read our books but behold and hold them. And I think, as a result, people look to us as much for the physical aesthetics of our books as the poems contained within.

Mb: What’s your favorite part of your job?

COA: Because I often spend so much time closely editing the books, I think I feel most rewarded when the poet feels like we have come to the place where the poems are at their best. I don’t ever want to infect someone else’s poems with my own voice or approach, but I try to attune myself with what a poet’s works are trying to do on their own and help make this consistent and clear. I want help the poet guide the reader in how to read the poems. Reading poetry is always an intuitive process for me—I don’t believe they are riddles to be solved or composed of evasive wording that has to be paraphrased (and I disdain the attitudes of the very people who teach these things)—but poems are much more akin to a fascinating stranger that you are curious to get to know. That entire process of getting to know the poems and what makes them work, what obsesses them, and how they want to be built, is my true favorite.

Mb: For you, why are books so important?

COA: I am a shy, solipsistic only child and books have always been the building blocks of my world. And I’ve always been entranced by the ability of books to actually speak, to be more than just read. How many of us have fantasized that Emily Dickinson is our best friend, sending these precise telegrams to us? I reread Proust every August before my birthday because I love aging together with Marcel. Language has never ceased to be an object of infinite curiosity for me—how is that there is a word for this—but I must use many words to describe that to you? How is it that you have any sense of what I feel? Or maybe you don’t, and these words invoke an entirely intense feeling in you that is something else nonetheless. In the beginning there was the word—and there has never been anything quite that amazing. Yes, there has been love, desire, and violent hate, but how else could I truly tell you about them?

Mb: What other small presses do you admire? Why?

COA: Goodness, I feel like there are new small presses every month. And the burgeoning and bursting AWP bookfair is a testament to their unstoppable reproduction. Janaka and I both have work on Ahsahta’s list and our authors are behind Octopus, Action Books, Letter Machine, and more. The small press scene is alive and thriving without a doubt.

Mb: Do you have hope for the future of books?

COA: Dear god, if I didn’t I’d be screwed. I have no hope for us (all of us) if there’s no hope for books.

 
 
 


David Cotrone is from Plymouth, MA. His writing appears in Fifty-Two Stories, The Rumpus, PANK, Paper Darts, Necessary Fiction, Thought Catalog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. You can find him at www.davidcotrone.com.