Friday, October 14, 2016

Heartland Fall Forum 2016

It was a night full of possibility. Kenny Barron, perhaps the world's foremost lyric jazz pianist, was performing in the intimate confines of the Dakota Jazz Club. Renée Fleming, arguably the world's most stylish and well-loved opera diva, was giving a recital at the Ordway. And Wendell Berry, renowned poet, novelist, and Kentucky land steward, was scheduled to speak at the Heartland Fall Forum, a three-day event at which bookstore owners from Illinois to North Dakota gather to attend workshops and get a close look at the new books being offered by both regional and national publishers.

I opted for Renée, on the strength of free tickets and utter confidence that the show would be grand. It was. (If I'd known my old friend Jane St. Anthony was also going to speak at the Forum I might have reconsidered.)

I did attend the Forum the following morning to help set up the Nodin Press booth and say hi to old friends in the industry.

The day started off well. I ran into Mary Lofgren, manager of the MHS bookstore, in the lobby,  and she asked me, "Do you have a new book coming out this year?" I don't, but it's rare and also sort of pleasant to encounter someone who's aware that I've actually written a few. She was probably wondering why I was there.  

"No," I said, "but Nodin has five or six new titles this fall. Did you know that I design his books?"

"I had no idea," she said. "Then you must have designed my brother-in-law's book, Chester Creek Ravine."

"Yes, I did," I said. "That was a lot of fun. Locating the perfect ginkgo-leaf dingbat, arranging the haiku. Your brother-in-law found a very nice woodcut for the cover. I think he was happy with the final look. And he's a great promoter." My ebullience diminished slightly when I found I couldn't remember her brother-in-law's name.

Norton and I got the posters hung at the booth without difficulty, joking as usual about how precious the little metal hooks we use to mount them on the curtains have become. Only later did I notice that I'd hung our most popular fall title, a collection of gruesome mysteries called Cooked to Death, right next to a poster for our neighbor Llewellyn's book Joyful Living.

Our main task competed, we spent the afternoon chatting with passers-by and wandering the floor. A few visitors were bookstore owners, but more often they were old friends of Norton, including Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlen Collection, retired rep Alex Genis, and Stu Abraham, whose distribution empire occupied the four booths next to ours. Later Lisa's husband, Paul, wandered by with a rep from Penguin, and we got to talking about the German novelist Peter Handke, the heavy security required to have Salmon Rushdie on your frontlist, and the strong poetry culture in Minnesota.

The Penguin rep, who's name I didn't catch, told a story about a Robert Bly reading he went to in New York with a girlfriend once, long ago.

"Bly is really into the body, you know. And when we got back to the car, my girlfriend, who tended to be sort of reserved, started taking off all her clothes, right in the front seat!"

He asked if he could have a copy of the new Nodin Poetry Anthology, and I said sure." I'll swap you something," he said. Deal.

My old colleague Joe Riley from Forty Press ambled up with a grin, saying, "I'm glad I sent you that check before I ran into you."

"Me too." We laughed.

I've designed some covers and formatted quite a few books for Joe and his two colleagues at Forty Press—college buddies from St. John's University, perhaps. They all have day jobs and seem to run their publishing firm mostly via email. I've never met the other two, though Joe used to work with me at Bookmen years ago.

"I sometimes miss those times," Joe said.

"I get together with a few people from time to time," I said. Then I said,  "It's fun doing books with you, Joe. But there's just one thing. I've never actually seen a book by Forty Press."

"I'll send you a couple," he said.

Robert Martin scooted us all out of the exhibition space at 6:30 so they could lock up. Many of the attendees were headed for the dining room, where dinner would soon be served, and four authors were scheduled to speak. (My tastes run so far from the literary mainstream I'd never heard of any of them.) Meanwhile, the nearby hotel bar had already started to fill up.

I had accumulated a few drink tickets by chance but everything turned out to be free. I was standing in line with friends when a waitress came by to take our orders. We waited there for quite a while, unperturbed, discussing kitchen remodeling, as she and other waitresses moved past us several times with platters lined with drinks. 

I believe I saw Don Olson and his wife intercept our chardonnays at one point. Well, I guess that made sense. Don owns a small distribution company dedicated to radical labor literature, and he's probably very comfortable with "share and share alike." I got into the spirit, too, and when a waitress came by with a lonely glass of pinot noir, looking for a taker, I grabbed it.

Kathy Borkowski was of similar mind. She had occupied a "reserved" table—not reserved for us—and while we waited for others to join us she told me about her recent trip to Cuba, where she and a friend stayed in an Air B&B. Capitalism has arrived in a hurry. A good deal of her trip was unexpectedly, but pleasantly, devoted to spontaneous conversations with her neighbors, a gay couple who had silently endured Castro's regime for decades.
Traffic on the floor had been light the previous afternoon, probably because many shop owners had been attending workshops devoted to topics such as "How to Write a Blurb," "Introduction to Edelweiss++," and "Romancing Your Sales."

The next morning things heated up a bit ... but not that much. I was pleased to chat briefly with Ann Lewis, author of Ship Captain's Daughter: Growing Up on the Great Lakes, with whom I worked for a while a few years ago. We're both big fans of Duluth (she's a native) and she told me all about her recent stay at newly-opened Pier B Resort, which is located in the harbor rather than facing the lake. This would be especially appealing to Ann, who used to accompany her dad as he piloted his ore boat out of the harbor, past the lift bridge, and along the south shore of the lake to Sault Ste. Marie and beyond. Occasionally, she helped!

While Ann signed books and chatted with the ore boat aficionados who'd come to get a copy, I spent some time with Kate Thompson, who befriended me years ago when these conventions were held at the Minneapolis Auditorium. 

That friendship took on added dimension this year when Kate introduced me to her poised and articulate daughter, Mia. The three of us engaged in an interesting cross-generational discussion of how English, a subject I studied in high school, has now become Literacy. Before we were through I think we came up with a few good ideas for improving the study of literature and language even further!

I asked Mia if she was enjoying the convention. "I am," she replied. Then she twisted her lip and added, "But I had to bring an awful lot of homework with me. Math!" 

By that time Michael Perry had showed up to sign copies of his new book of essays, Roughneck Grace. During a break in the line I wandered over to his table and we got to talking about Bayfield and especially Washburn—a town we're both fond of. "It has a great used bookstore," I said. "And also that theater-bar."

"Ah, the theater's struggling," he said. "I've done some stand-up shows there. I'm not sure they made the theater space big enough to turn a profit."

"I saw a great film there once," I said. "A one-hour documentary called Fifty Lakes—One Island by a guy named George Desort who kayaked every lake on Isle Royale."

"I know that film," Perry said. "The director used some of my music in it. He sent me a copy."

"What did you think of it?"

"To tell you the truth, I never watched it. People send me stuff all the time, which is nice, I intend to look at them ... I have huge stacks of all kinds of things sitting around."

"Well, you might like that one," I said. Then I told him about the scene where George talks into the camera while he's trying to light his Whisperlight camp stove. As anyone who's owned that stove can attest, it's very easy to let in too much fuel while priming the thing, and that's what George did. When he lit it, the flames leapt about three feet into the air. He continued to talk cheerfully into the camera while a minor conflagration burned itself out in the background.

"That sounds pretty good," he said politely. "I'll have to dig it out of the pile."

Only later did I learn that Perry is writing a book about one of my favorite authors—Montaigne.

Across the way I stopped in at Brett and Sheila Waldman's booth, trimmed down this year but as stylish as ever. I knew they'd been sailing recently on Leech Lake, but we never got around to that subject. Somehow, Sheila and I found ourselves discussing back pain. I'd been nursing a bad back all weekend, having jarred it awkwardly playing tennis, and I was thoroughly hopped up on ibuprophen. But Sheila is far too young (or so it seems to me) to be concerned about such things.

At one point during my rounds Eric Lorberer, the madcap impresario of Rain Taxi magazine, whizzed by.

"Thanks for the books," I said.

"Yeah, a two-for-one deal," he replied with a laugh. I had offered to review The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla, for his magazine, and he'd also sent along Lilla's more recent book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction—the one that really needed to be reviewed.

"I'm still trying to scare up that tree book you requested," he said before he disappeared into the crowd. He was referring to The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The book was actually sitting on the table over at Perseus Group, but for some reason they wouldn't give it to him.

Many of the interesting small presses are tucked away at simple tables on the east end of the brightly-lit floor, and it was there that I ran into David Godine—both the publisher and the man. Godine got started as a cold type letterpress publisher in the 1970s, I believe, and though the firm has expanded many fold since then, it's still known for its fine typography and high quality printing.

And there, propped upright in the middle of the table, was a book called Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface by Robert Bringhurst, author of the classic Elements of Typographic Style. I picked it up. 

"That's a good book; best on the table," Godine said.

"And a good font,"  I replied. "Back in the days when a computer came with twelve fonts, Palatino was practically the only one you could use."

"And here's a book about Centaur," he said, pointing to another hardcover sitting on a stand in the second row.

"We recently bought Centaur," I said, considering myself fortunate to have anything to say at all. "Beautiful font. Lots of character."

"It is," he agreed. "Nice ligatures and ornaments, too."

"But," I said, daring to interject a personal observation, "It starts to look a little crinkly in smaller sizes."

"Never use Centaur under 14 points," he advised me in a booming voice.

OK then. (Godine knows his fonts.)

I'm interested in fonts. In fact, I'm currently reading a book called The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography, by Beatrice Warde. That book came out in 1956, decades before the digital age, so I'm not sure how much good it will do me.  Reading about fonts is largely an exercise in futility in any case. A typical passage might run as follows:
The roman and italic are reserved, elegant and well matched. The axis is humanist, the aperture large, and the serifs simultaneously sharp and flat (a feature neither unwelcome nor contradictory in typography). Small caps and the distinctive text figures, with their short extenders, are essential to the design.
Even looking at a font is problematic at best. Most letters look beautiful when viewed at a large size, in isolation.

Only occasionally do font descriptions make reference to the wider world, as in this passage  from Elements of Typographic Style:
It was widely used at Boston and Philadelphia in the 1790s, and remains useful for period design work, as an alternative to Baskerville. Monotype cut a facsimile in 1931, and this version has been digitized. Bell is somewhat narrower and darker than Baskerville, but it too is an English Neoclassical face. The serifs are very sharp, but the overall spirit is nevertheless closer to brick than to granite, evoking Lincoln’s Inn more than St Paul’s, and Harvard Yard more than Pennsylvania Avenue."
Designers who hang out with other designers no doubt talk about such things all the time. They not only know their fonts, but also know the differences between various iterations of the same font by different foundries. They learn from one another. To a journeyman typesetter like me, the only real questions are, Do I have it? and How does it look on the page? I'm ever-eager to try new fonts but usually find myself returning to a few classics—Garamond, Sabon, Caslon, Galliard.

I thought I might tease some advice out of Godine—a shortcut to typographic wisdom, as it were—so I mumbled something about Apollo and Joanna and then asked him what unusual fonts he might recommend. 

"We stick to a few classic fonts," he said peremptorily. "Occasionally Caslon. Minion. And I like Bell."

The floor show was drawing to a close. It's a time at which many exhibitors become more eager to part with books that are on display to avoid the hassle and expense of shipping them back home to Michigan or New York. I had neither the desire nor the intention to collect a pile of books ... but I'm always looking for ways to help out. As a result, I found myself, as the booths came down, in the possession of several interesting books, including For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World's Most Ancient Wine Culture by Alice Feiring. I presumed that the book was about ancient Greece, where an acre of grapes (so I informed the rep from the University of Nebraska) would be worth fifty times more than an acre of wheat.

"Well," she replied diplomatically, "this book is about the ancient Georgian practice of vinifying grapes in subterranean clay pots, and how that practice relates to the current interest in organic products. It's part travelogue, part wine study."

Sounds good to me. 

At Graywolf I mentioned to the winsome reps that I had been studying the design of one of their books, some poetry by an Irish guy...

"Eamon Grennan? We have his latest right here." The man gestured for me to take one.

"What else are you particularly excited about?" I said.

"What about that one?" the woman said, pointed to a small stack of books bearing the title Cabo de Gata. A novel, translated from the German.

"Well, for one thing, I've been there," I said. "Southern Spain, Almeria province. Have either of you...?"

They both shook their heads. I proceeded to tell them about the wonderful rock formations overlooking the Mediterranean, the salt farms, the deserted beaches, and the twenty-mile dirt footpath leading east along the cornice to San Juan.

It was five minutes to closing. Trapped behind their exhibit table, there was nothing they could do but smile.

In the end, it was a weekend full of riches: the people, the books, the conversations. For publishers and proprietors alike, an element of commerce can't help but enter the mix of considerations, but it's obvious to me that a simple yet deep-seated love of books, both in themselves and as vessels of expression, communication, and life itself, is generating much of the heat in the room. Long may it burn.

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