What started as a list of good reads turned into one of the season's hottest titles.
Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber’s Bookstore in St. Paul, has edited a book called “Read This!,” a collection of suggestions by bookstore owners nationwide. It is being published this month by Coffee House Press in Minneapolis and has garnered lots of pre-press praise.
Last fall, Chris Fischbach suggested to Hans Weyandt that his blog might make a good book. Weyandt only laughed.
Fischbach was on his way to Germany to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, and Weyandt joked, "If you bring me back some gummy bears, we'll call it a deal."
A week or two later, Fischbach showed up again, jet-lagged, perhaps, but persistent, and holding a sticky bag of gummy bears.
That is the short version of how Weyandt's blog, "Mr. Micawber Enters the Internets," turned into "Read This! Handpicked Favorites From America's Indie Bookstores," which has quickly become one of Coffee House Press' hottest books of the season.
The art of hand-selling
Weyandt has been co-owner of Micawber's Bookstore in St. Paul for nine years, but he's been in the book business much longer, dating back to the old Hungry Mind on Grand Avenue. He understands the importance of hand-selling books -- that is, booksellers suggesting beloved or obscure books to customers. It's one of the things that indie bookstores are most known and loved for. So last year, when a customer asked Weyandt for his top 100 recommendations, he started thinking.
This would be a good blog entry, he figured. (The bookstore's blog is at www.micawbers.blogspot.com.) And he picked up a pen.
"I went with 50 because I knew 100 was going to be a challenge," he said. "I wrote mine down by hand in 20 minutes. It was just sort of off-the-cuff -- stuff I really loved and like to hand-sell."
His is a wide, wide-ranging list, with E.B. White and T.J. Stiles, Tim O'Brien and Amy Hempel; fairly obscure titles such as "The Book of Fathers," by Miklos Vamos, and beloved old favorites such as "My Ántonia," by Willa Cather.
Other booksellers must have lists, too, Weyandt thought. Wouldn't it be interesting to know what they are?
So he picked up the phone.
Hans is an Internet sensation
Weyandt called up booksellers he knew and invited them to contribute lists to his blog. Then he started calling booksellers he didn't know. He sent a few e-mails, too. "My original thing was, I'll do 20 lists of 50, and that will be 1,000 books," he said. "It was a number I thought was reasonable, and it wouldn't take that much time. The plan was to put one up every weekday, so it'd be four weeks. One month, 1,000 books, seemed clean and easy to me.
"And then it got a little out of control."
The first blog post went up on Aug. 31, 2011. A writer for Shelf Awareness, an Internet newsletter about the book business, wrote about it three days later, "and the e-mail inbox just exploded" with messages from people all over the country who wanted to take part.
"I think it was just a fun thing for people," Weyandt said. "They could do it however they wanted -- the 50 books I would take out of my house if it was on fire, or the 50 books I'd want to have on a desert island if I was stuck there, or the 50 books they love to hand-sell. In-print books, out-of-print books, I really wanted it to be a mishmash."
There wasn't a lot of overlap. Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" was on six lists (including Weyandt's), and William Faulkner showed up 12 times, but other than those, "There weren't that many that showed up on even four or five lists," Weyandt said.
"The cool part of looking at the lists is that you see books that fit in a pattern, and then one or two that seem out of left field. On every list there were books that were unexpected."
Paul Yamazaki of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, for instance, has a lot of beat poetry on his list, "But then there's 'The Wind in the Willows,'" Weyandt said. "I would never, ever have guessed that one."
Enter the gummy bears
The blog posts were still rolling out when it occurred to Fischbach that all of this could make a good book. Fischbach is the publisher of Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, and he had been keeping an eye out for just this sort of thing.
"Part of my goal is to have Coffee House be much more involved with public engagement and to promote the idea of books to be used as tools in the community for the common good," he said. "And this was a perfect example of that general idea, in book form."
He and Weyandt talked about how the blog might become a book. They decided it should be interactive, portable, "Something you can write in and carry in your pocket," Fischbach said.
The result is an appealing volume, a little bigger than palm-sized, with a bright orangey-red cover. Inside, in addition to the lists, are Q&As with booksellers, and little boxes so readers can check off the books they've read, and space in the back for lists of their own, and information about all the bookstores, and a nice preface by Weyandt, and a very nice introduction by superstar bookstore owner and best-selling novelist Ann Patchett.
"The desire to share books is the natural outcome of loving them," Patchett writes. "People love to talk about how books are dead, and bookstores are dead. They say we are careening toward a world of electronic downloads and faceless Internet ordering, to which I say, Get thee to an independent bookstore. We are alive and well."
"Read This!" has had great pre-publication buzz, praised in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly and elsewhere, and, of course, with a cadre of indie booksellers across the country all ready to hand-sell it.
All of the contributors, and Weyandt, agreed that the royalties will be donated to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, an organization that fights censorship and the banning of books.
"No matter the region or kind of store, for all of us," Weyandt said, "the opportunity for freedom of information is a really important part of what we do."
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 Twitter: @stribbooks