Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Porter Square Books: A fiercely independent bookstore serves Somerville.

Porter Square Books is a survivor. They not only survived but flourished during their first year in the highly competitive and demanding book business. Dale Szczeblowski, the general manager, Jane Dawson, the operational manager, and Carol Stoltz, the Children’s Books Manager, talked about the success of this small, fiercely independent bookstore located smack dab in the Porter Square Mall, right next to the Shaw’s Market.

These refugees for the Concord Bookstore, in the upscale suburb of Concord, Mass., all agreed that their expectations for the store, and then some, were met in this seminal year. Szczeblowski, the energetic general manager, said they have 13,000 customers on their data- base, and a heap of positive feedback from the bibliophile denizens of the surrounding area.
People in the Somerville and Cambridge neighborhoods that the store borders are pleased that they can get the personal touch here, and not have to deal with the impersonality of a large chain. Jane Dawson stressed that the store will remain “fiercely independent,” and it will continue to listen intently to what customers have to say. All three seem to know that customers appreciate that.

These booksellers find that the many of their customers are in the 25 to 35 age range; recent college graduates, and often in their first job. They say the popular titles among this group are: Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty,” ( Fiction), “ Mountains Beyond Mountains,” Tracey Kidder (Non-Fiction), and they expect Bob Dylan’s memoir “Chronicles,” to experience a resurgence due to the PBS documentary and DVD release.

Szczeblowski said that a bookstore’s success depends on it being part of the community. This involves carrying books by local authors and independent presses. The store carries small literary magazines such as the ‘Heat City Review,” and the “Ibbetson Street Press.” They also carry titles from “Ebb Tide,” a small press in Cambridge. They have nurtured relationships with Steven Cramer the director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Lesley University, Somerville’s “Kennedy Elementary School,” “Tufts University,” the
“Kennedy School of Government” at Harvard University, the “Blacksmith Poetry Reading Series,” and “New England PEN,” to name a few. They are also a sponsor of “The Somerville News Writers Festival,” to be held Nov. 13 at 7PM at the “Somerville Theatre,” in Davis Square.

Carol Stoltz, (originally from my own stomping grounds of Bronx, NY), said that the Children’s Book Department is very popular. She has nurtured relationships with the Cambridge and Somerville public schools, as well as local public libraries.

When asked about the staff at Porter Square Books Dawson said that all are well-read and have eclectic backgrounds. One bookseller was a former marketing manager at Polaroid, another was in the Antiquarian book business, one is a veteran mountain climber, and a “young fellow,” in receiving is a budding poet.

All three managers were excited about the opening of a café in the front of the store in the coming weeks. This will just add to that down-home, comfy, and decidedly bookish atmosphere Porter Square Books has created, and will most assuredly sustain.

Doug Holder
* Porter Square Books is located in Porter Square at the Mall 25 White St. 617-491-2220
* Bring your toddler to a special party Oct. 5 at 11 AM. 10% discount on all books -- Cake, Prizes, etc...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Jim Kates and the Zephyr Press

Probably the most significant of small presses birthed in Somerville, Mass. is the “Zephyr Press,” (now based in Brookline, Mass.) that was founded by the late Somerville publisher Ed Hogan. Hogan, started the much-heralded “Aspect,” magazine in the 1970’s. In 1980 he and a group of his editors formed “Zephyr,” and for seven years the press published a small but significant list of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. In 1990, Zephyr published its hallmark collection of Russian poetry: “The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova” translated by Judith Hemschemeyer. After this collection of work by this groundbreaking early 20th Century maverick female writer, other titles from Russia followed, as well as the first anthology of Ukrainian writing in English, “From Three Worlds.” With the untimely death of Hogan, Kates, an old friend of Hogan’s, assumed responsibility for the press and relaunched it in 2000. Since then Zephyr has published numerous books of translations, including the work of Nobel-nominated Chinese poet Bei Dao. Zephyr also has an imprint, “Adventures in Poetry,” that publishes fiction and poetry, and they cooperatively publish a British-based journal “Modern Poetry in Translation.

To interview publisher Jim Kates is no problem because he is an affable man, who seems to have an endless supply of information about the “Zephyr Press,” and the literary world at-large. Kates describes “Zephyr,” as an “alternative” press, an alternative to the commercial presses, who Kates feels has all but abandoned serious literature. Kates realizes that running a “small” independent press is usually a money-losing and often all consuming undertaking. He doesn’t make a living running Zephyr, and the press lives “hand to mouth,” from grants, be it state, federal or private. Zephyr only has one paid employee on staff, and now its office is based in Brookline, Mass.; although it makes no secret of its Somerville roots. The late Ed Hogan, the Somerville publisher was according to Kates “...a child of Somerville, and Somerville was an essential part of his vision.” Unfortunately when Hogan died in a freak canoe accident Zephyr was forced to move to Brookline.
Asked to remember what the Somerville literary scene in the 1970’s was like, Kates’ memory was somewhat cloudy. However he did mention his memory of the “100 Flower Bookstore,” and Hogan’s wife June Gross’ lit mag. “Dark Horse.” Somerville in the 70’s and 80’s was not like the gentrified city it is today, Kates said. He remembers one poet who got a Cambridge PO BOX, so it wouldn’t be known that she lived in Somerville. “It just looked better to be in Cambridge,” Kates said.
Since Zephyr published the Akhmatova anthology many subsequent books on the great poet have hit the market. This anthology according to Kates, “opened up the gates,” for the others. Later, June Gross, inspired Kates to publish an anthology of contemporary Russian poets, and more recently Zephyr published the acclaimed Chinese poet Bei Dao. Dao, was a member of the dissident “Misty” poets group in China and has been a champion of Chinese writers. Dao often sends promising Chinese writers ‘Zephyr’s” way. Zephyr published a collection of Dao’s essays concerning his dislocation from his motherland: “Blue House.”
Surprisingly, American readers are buying Chinese poetry. Another popular title of the press is: “Iraqi Poetry Today,” that gives Americans a much needed window into Iraqi culture.
Kates and I could have talked much longer. He had a plethora stories about the fiction titles the press has released, and the translation group he is part of. Kates’ enthusiasm is contagious, and after speaking with him I found myself brainstorming for my own small press. Kates brings me back to my belief that a man or a woman who has a true passion for something, is a very lucky person indeed.

Doug Holder