Bookseller Kiran Dass gets ready to sharpen her skills in Denver, CO

Kiran Dass is one of two booksellers from New Zealand currently en route to Denver Colorado for the 11th Winter Institute conference, where she will be hobnobbing with booksellers from all over the USA and the world. The Winter Institute is run by our American cousins, the American Booksellers Assocation, and Booksellers NZ is very grateful to have our scholarships sponsored by Canadian eReader company, Kobo. 

We asked Kiran a few questions including why she does what she does for a living, what she is most looking forward to about the experience, and what she’ll be reading on the way there.

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What made you want a career in bookselling?
If you’re doing it properly, bookselling can be quite mentally, physically and emotionally invigorating work! I find it stimulating and rewarding from so many different angles.

Every day on the shop floor brings the satisfying pleasure of being able to effectively engage in a dialogue about books with our customers. It’s quite a special relationship, and it’s built on trust, you know. Because when you learn about what sorts of books a customer likes, you are actually gaining quite a personal, intimate insight into who they are and what makes them tick. It sounds like such a cliché, but it’s true, there really is nothing quite as satisfying as being able to instinctively put the right book into a customer’s hands and introducing them to the book they didn’t even realise they were searching for. And they always come back. To be able to open those doors for readers is such a privilege.

Of course, Unity Books transcends being merely a bricks-and-mortar retail space. Bookshops are at the heart of any community. They’re where ideas are formed and shared and that’s the kind of place I want to be. Put simply, it’s the books and the people that make it for me.
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Tell us the three main things you hope to get out of your attendance at the Winter Institute?

I think the conference will be a brilliant opportunity to connect with booksellers from around the world – there will be around 500 attendees. Over ten years I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working for two of the best independent bookshops in New Zealand, and so I’m looking forward to meeting and engaging with people from all different facets of the book trade in an international context. The conference this year seems geared towards best practices for booksellers, which of course is of interest – as a bookseller, I am always keen to refine and sharpen my bookselling skills and knowledge.

What sessions during the conference are you looking forward to the most, and why?
The Education for International Booksellers session will no doubt be fascinating and useful in terms of exploring trends in U.S. bookselling. I think it will be an interesting discussion led by a panel of experienced American booksellers who embrace adapting the fast changing challenges of bookselling. Americans are world-class at marketing any product, and at Unity we keep a keen eye on American literary trends so I think it will be an informative and valuable session.

Because I am interested in the wider arena of the book trade and the different relationships within it, the Economics of Publishing session will provide an insight into the financial and logistical realities of publishing and how this relates to bookselling.

The retail bookselling session looks like a practical crash-course on the essentials of opening a new bookshop or buying an existing shop. Let’s find out the nitty gritty of what this takes!

Backlist titles are one of my passions – those enduring personal favourites that you can really get behind, so I’m really intrigued by the Backlist Bookswap Party, too. To be honest, I just want to get to as much as I can during the conference, and to talk to as many different people as possible!

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What do you know about the bookstore you will be working with while over there? What will be your focus as a take-away?
Book Soup! When I found out I was being placed in a bookshop in Los Angeles, I secretly (well, actually not so secretly!) crossed my fingers and hoped that I would end up at Book Soup because I have heard that it is similar in spirit to Unity Books and their stock looks absolutely amazing – my manager Jo is a big fan of Book Soup and described it as “Unity Books x 3!” And many of our customers who have been there come back raving about it. I think I did an excited little dance on the spot when I found out my Book Soup wish came true!

Of course, I am a huge music nut and Book Soup proudly proclaims that “Book Soup has been serving readers, writers, artists, rock & rollers, and celebrities since it was founded by Glenn Goldman in 1975!” To me, that sounds like just the ticket. They also hold a dizzying array of in-store author events which I am looking forward to observing – and amazing authors, too. They recently hosted a book signing for Grace Jones when her memoir was published. The idea of a week at Book Soup immersing myself in the culture and dynamic of the shop is absolutely thrilling. I’m really keen to observe and learn more about their bookselling practices and the nuts and bolts of the running of an independent bookshop in the States.

What are you planning to read in the plane on the way there?
Oh, I’m really excited about this one. I’ve been saving this book for months. Fortuitously and in a rare instance, I don’t have to read for reviewing purposes while I’m on this scholarship, which means I can read a book for my own pleasure and immerse myself without having to have all my critical faculties blazing from all angles and having to stop every paragraph to scribble down notes.
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So I am taking Lucia Berlin’s extraordinarily singular and wonderful A Manual For Cleaning Women which I started over the Christmas break. To be honest, while I’m a huge fan of classic short stories by Richard Yates and John Cheever, I don’t tend to gravitate to short stories. But as soon as I read about Lucia Berlin and her backstory, I knew I’d love her before I even began. And two stories into this collection, I wasn’t wrong.

And of course, I’m looking forward to firing up my Kobo eReader!

Helen Wadsworth, from the Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Ponsonby, is the other recipient of Booksellers Kobo Scholarship to Denver. We will feature her answers to similar questions back on this blog tomorrow.

If you are just now wondering how on earth you get chosen to receive a Kobo Scholarship, let Cherie Donovan know you may be interested in applying for 2017 – she will make sure you get the form once applications are open in the next couple of months.

Book review: The Golden Door: Letters to America by A.A. Gill

This book is in bookstores now.

“‘Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.’” This comment was overheard by author A.A. Gill at a dinner party, and The Golden Door: Letters to America is clearly Gill’s indignant retort to the contrary.

In this sequence of loosely interlinked essays, Gill addresses and scrutinises those all too familiar clichés surrounding America—not merely those concerning its apparent idiocy, but also its conservatism, its language, its technological innovations and, of course, its greatest myth, the American dream.

Each essay gravitates around a single theme, heralded by a punchy chapter title (‘Speeches’, ‘Evolution’, ‘Movies’), such that reading The Golden Door is like sampling every dish at an Americana buffet. But the essays are also held together by the common narrative of the immigrant story, particularly as it pertains to Gill’s family, who, five generations before, split into two branches—the branch that struck out for the New World, and the England-bound branch that stayed behind.

Gill’s interweaving of this family history and his own personal experiences with the stories of historical figures like Thomas Edison and the larger American historical picture ensure that The Golden Door remains largely particular, specific and relevant.

This is not to say that Gill doesn’t like the odd sweeping generalisation. Gill is a man with opinions, and ideas, and he is not afraid to show them. Some of his arguments are put across convincingly (for example, that America owes much of its national character not to the British or the French, but to the Germans). Sometimes, however, his admittedly formidable gift for erudite writing drowns out and confuses his argument. It also doesn’t help that, though born in Edinburgh and resident in London, Gill is obviously a card-carrying, Declaration-of-Independence-thumping convert to the Church of America, and (to me) he sometimes lets his fervour engorge his already rather baroque prose.

But when Gill is at his best, as he is in the essay ‘Guns’, his distinctive writing is married to a compelling argument and describes a fascinating pocket of American history. My favourite essay, however, was the irreverent chapter on American sex, every page of which was hilarious, linguistically inventive, and contained another new favourite quote (none of which, of course, are printable in a public forum. More’s the pity.)

The Golden Door is not only well written, well put together and generally well considered. It is also a peek behind the door of American history, a door which seems all too often closed in New Zealand, since we don’t learn much of it in school or university and our prevailing wisdoms concerning America are received through the TV or movie screen. But this collection of essays proves to be an intriguing taster of American culture in all its multifaceted, contradictory glory.

Am I now, like Gill, a convert to the Church of the New World? Not quite. But goshdarnit, I’d sure like to go to a service.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

The Golden Door: Letters to America
by A.A. Gill
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN 9780297868521