Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 9.2

Poet Kris Collins reads at Awesome Books, Pittsburgh.
September 2011.

More small press recommendations today come from Kris Collins, one of Pittsburgh's small press movers and shakers. I think of Kris as "the bard of Pittsburgh" because I love the tavern's-eye view of the city found in his poems about his artist and writer friends gathered around beer, hope, smoke, frustration, and transition. Not only does he write richly moody scenes evoking the ghosts of Pittsburgh's past peeking through as the former "Steel City" aggressively remakes it present, but he chronicles the last few decades of the city's bohemians as well as anyone I've heard or read. His most serious competition may be the authors he's started publishing on his small press of limited edition poetry books: Low Ghost Press features two of Pittsburgh's most keen-eyed poets, John Grochalski (now a 'Burgh ex-pat living in New York) and Bob Pajich. Kris doesn't care about competition. He'll even read poems by other people at his own readings.

Kris manages one of my favorite bookstores in town, Caliban Books, and runs Desolation Row Records out of that store. He has been an active member of The New Yinzer litmag for several years and co-hosted their reading series with writer Savannah Schroll Guz for its first few seasons.


1. Past All Traps, Don Wentworth (Six Gallery Press)

2. Spared, Angele Ellis (Main Street Rag)

3. Six Stories, David Lewis (The National Folk Art Foundation)

Kris Collins
Editor of Low Ghost Press

Recommended reading: John Grochalski on Low Ghost Press.

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 9.1

Today's small press recommendations come from J.C. Hallman, author of fiction and non-fiction. He came to Pittsburgh in September to read his riveting prose piece, "Spate and Spite," as the runner-up winner of a contest to write about The Night. His story looked back on his time as a casino employee in Atlantic City, while he recalled a run of suicides in that gambling town. The writing was excellent. It was not like what I think of as memoir; it was more like he used his casino-worker (former) self as a character in a meditative novel, a dark lens through which to attempt to comprehend who jumps from hotel roofs in Atlantic City and why. Or who works too long in a windowless casino and why. The piece also employed journalism, weaving seamlessly in and out of stories about the deceased and stories of the casino.

The event was hosted by Creative Nonfiction, the first literary journal to devote itself exclusively to this genre, almost 20 years ago. Founded by Lee Gutkind (who also started the first MFA program for Creative Nonfiction), CNF is a great resource for writers and readers of this evolving genre, and the most well-known journal based in Pittsburgh. At the reading (which was also a release party for issue #42), the editors announced a worldwide circulation of 6,000.


1. To Assume a Pleasing Shape, Joseph Salvatore (BOA Editions)
2. Married But Looking, Daniel Libman (Livingston Press)

Recommended by J.C. Hallman
Author of The Hospital for Bad Poets (Milkweed Editions) and In Utopia (St. Martin's Press)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 8.2

More small press recommendations today come from Steve Himmer. Steve's own allegorical novel about the limits of solitude in a networked world, The Bee-Loud Glade (Atticus Books) has landed on numerous Best of 2011 lists: Namely on Jen Michalski's list earlier on this blog, as well as lists by Mel Bosworth, Sal Pane, Books on the Night Stand, NPR's On Point, Three Guys One Book, Book Page, and on the longlist for 3 AM Novel of the Year. See more here:

Steve, who is based outside of Boston, came to Pittsburgh this year to read at The New Yinzer Presents series, along with a formidable small press lineup: Noah Gershman (Snail Press), Derek Pollard (BlazeVOX), and Traci O Connor (Tarpaulin Sky Press).


1. TomorrowLand, Grant Bailie (Red Giant Books)
2. Tongue Party, Sara Rose Etter (Caketrain Press)
3. How The Days of Love & Diphtheria, Robert Kloss (Mud Luscious Press)

Recommended by Steve Himmer
Author of The Bee-Loud Glade and editor of Necessary Fiction

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 8.1

Tour poster for Anders Nilsen and his graphic novel Big Questions (Drawn & Quarterly).

In July, Chicago-based cartoonist and illustrator Anders Nilsen embarked on a lengthy book tour, hitting four countries in three months. His 600-page magnum opus, Big Questions, is the culmination of ten years of his drawings, and much-anticipated by the fans of this celebrated artist. In September he stopped in Pittsburgh (with Marc Bell) for a standing-room-only event at Copacetic Comics and (its downstairs neighbor) Lili Coffee Shop. Copacetic is one of Pittsburgh's great bookstores for a number of reasons, not least because owner Bill Boichel is a tireless champion of indie comics.

Today. Anders makes his 2011 small press recommendations, based on three months of browsing many of the world's best comic bookstores.


1. Viande de Chevet, Various artists; Stephane Blanquet, Editor (UDA Press)
2. Going Back, Cathy G. Johnson (Self-published)
3. Quodlibet, Katja Spitzer (Nobrow)

Recommended by Anders Nilsen
Author of Big Questions (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)

Marc Bell, Bill Boichel, and Anders Nilsen outside of Lili Coffee Shop and Copacetic Comics. September 13, 2011. Photo by Larry Rippel.

Browsing at Copacetic Comics, Pittsburgh.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 7.2

Thirteen Designer Vaginas: Poems by Juliet Cook on
Hyacinth Girl Press.

Juliet Cook is relentless, and readers like me are thankful for it. This Columbus, Ohio-based poet keeps finding new ways to write about the body, the feminine, and the macabre, as she explores and fine-tunes her unique voice. She's also the master of the chapbook, as the editor of Blood Pudding Press, where she's been known to publish both herself and others. The latest chapbook of her own poems is Thirteen Designer Vaginas, which appeared this year on a new Pittsburgh chapbook press, Hyacinth Girl Press. Pittsburgh poet Margaret Bashaar (co-founder of The TypewriterGirls Poetry Cabaret) is the editor of this new undertaking. Margaret has also started a new Pittsburgh reading series. Titled the 2 by 4 Reading Series, these literary evenings are designed to promote and present collaborative writings: four reading sets by two writers each. The first 2 x 4 Reading happened in October 2011 and included Juliet Cook teamed up with Margaret herself.


1. many lost cause creatures could form a very sad list, Krystal Languell (Dusie Kollektiv 5)

2. the last will be stone, too (excerpts), Deborah Poe (Dusie Kollektiv 5)

3. BARCELONA POEMS, Mark Lamoureux (Dusie Kollektiv 5)

Recommended by Juliet Cook
Author of POST–STROKE (Dusie Kollektiv 5) & Thirteen Designer Vaginas (Hyacinth Girl Press) and more at

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 7.1

Writer Josh Barkan in front of the Edgar Thompson Works, U.S. Steel,
Braddock, Pennsylvania. This mill has been in operation since 1872.

Writer Sherrie Flick is best known in Pittsburgh as a master of flash fiction, the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books, 2009), and the co-director of the beloved Gist Street Reading Series. Though the curtain went down on Gist Street last year (after a triumphant decade), Sherrie has followed that act by co-founding a writer's residency in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a borough just 10 minutes drive from Pittsburgh city limits. Braddock is one of the hardest-hit steel towns of the rust belt, having lost over 90% of its population. Ironically, it is also home of one of the last two working steel mills in Allegheny County. But in recent years, the town has been getting the most attention for its young mayor, who is trying to revive the place by luring artists to fill empty houses and by offering free and cheap industrial spaces to arts organizations.

Today's small press recommendations come from Josh Barkan, the first writer-in-residence hosted by INTO THE FURNACE, Sherrie's new venture. Author of the satirical novel, Blind Speed (Northwestern University Press, 2008), Josh is also a world traveler who calls both New York City and Mexico City home. I haven't yet seen him read, but I did get to meet him briefly when he was marching with a mutual friend in the Occupy Pittsburgh demonstration on October 15.


1. Trophy: A Novel, Michael Griffith (Northwestern University Press)
2. God Bless America: Stories, Steve Almond (Lookout Books)
3. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Deborah Baker (Graywolf Press)

Recommended by Josh Barkan
Author of Blind Speed: A Novel and Before Hiroshima: The Confession of Murayama Kazuo and Other Stories, current writer-in-residence of Into the Furnace in Braddock, PA.


The name of the writers residency, INTO THE FURNACE, is a reference to a 1941 novel set in Braddock called Out of This Furnace. The novel was written by Thomas Bell. For more info on the residency, see:

View of the steel mill from the front porch of the residency, Braddock, Pennsylvania. Photo by Josh Barkan.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Remembering a Great Storyteller

Richard Leck (February 17, 1933 – December 19, 2008)

Today we remember Richard Leck, who died peacefully on this date three years ago. Richard was a poet and a storyteller, an Army veteran from between wars, a Hudson County native (where he lived for over four decades), a resident of the East Village, and a veteran of the Greenwich Village café scene of the 1960s.

I met Richard when I was working at St Mark’s Bookshop and we quickly became friends due to his being such an entertaining customer. For the last two years of his life, we were collaborating on his memoirs (JUMPED, FELL, OR WAS PUSHED, still in progress), which he described as “comedy sociology.” Our writing project was a happy accident for each of us. Richard was waiting for someone to listen to all his stories and I was waiting for someone to tell me what had gone down in Jersey City (the city of my grandfather’s childhood) in the early part of the 20th Century. Whenever Richard talked, I took notes, and soon we decided to stop calling it “having coffee” and start calling it “writing a book.” I am hugely grateful for all that Richard and his stories taught me: How to listen, how to appreciate what you have, how to stay young and grow old gracefully, how to survive the rough patches with humor, how to figure out what's important and ignore the rest, how to forgive your own past, and especially how to tell stories. I learned more from absorbing his storytelling rhythm for two years that I ever would in any MFA writing program. Hell, maybe Richard Leck WAS my MFA program.

Richard was a very funny man. His literary memorial service had us all laughing like the best Irish wakes always do. Some small press superstars joined Words Like Kudzu Press to read from Richard’s stories and poems for the memorial, held at the Bowery Poetry Club in May 2009. Participants included Margarita Shalina (small press buyer at St Mark’s Bookshop and translator of Chekov’s The Duel, Melville House Press); writer Brian Cogan (Encyclopedia of Punk); novelist Arthur Nersesian (Akashic Books); poet Bob Holman (founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, poetry activist); poet Jackie Sheeler (Earthquake Came to Harlem, NYQ Books); poet Steve Dalachinsky (The Final Nite & Other Poems, Ugly Duckling Presse); writer Mike Faloon (The Hanging Gardens of Split Rock on Gorsky Press and editor of Go Metric Zine); and storyteller Tom Hendrickson (Whack & Blight Press).

Follow this link to listen to the readings from Richard’s memoirs and his poems:

Follow this link to read an excerpt from Richard’s memoirs:
"You Could Make a Bet on a Street Corner as Easy as Buying a Newspaper"
Go Metric Zine

Read the Village Voice appreciation of Richard Leck here:

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 6

Today's small press picks are from me. These are the Top Three 2011 Small Press Novels I Can't Wait To Read.

My favorite sub-genre of fiction is the female novella, or short novels (by women writers) which read like novellas. The ones I'm most interested in are from the point of view of one female character and are often written in first person. I'm especially fond of books where a strong and original voice propels the story from beginning to end. This year I read numerous books that fit this category: I loved the bitter and paranoid voice of the narrator in The Appointment by Herta Muller (Metropolitan Books, 2001) and the obsession of Breathe by Anne-Sophie Brasme (St Martin's Griffin, 2001). Lucker and Tiffany Peel Out by Eroica Mildmay (Serpent's Tail, 1993) used a biting, sardonic voice to skillfully combine an uneasy domestic fiction and wide-eyed road trip novel in one, while It Was Gonna Be Like Paris by Emily Listfield (Dial Press, 1984) uses a young artist narrator to create an edgy domestic fiction set in the bohemian New York '80s. I also fell in love with short novels by Anne Roiphe and Dawn Powell and revisited some of my favorites by Jean Rhys.

The books I can't wait to read from 2011 are these three:

1. Zipper Mouth, Laurie Weeks (Feminist Press, 2011)
I saw Laurie Weeks read in 2000 with Michelle Tea's Sister Spit and adored her writing. She had a compelling, nervous energy onstage and her story (about Vivien Leigh, among other subjects) went unexpected places. I've been waiting 11 years for this debut novel to come out; so have many others, and they say it's worth every minute of the wait. More at Feminist Press:

2. Green Girl, Kate Zambreno (Emergency Press, 2011)
Everything I've read about Green Girl makes me want to read it. For starters, Kate Durbin has described the protagonist as "literature's lost girl," comparing her to a Jean Rhys character, a Sylvia Plath character, and a Clarice LiSpector character. Sign me up. More (including links to reviews) at Emergency Press:

3. Zazen, Vanessa Veselka (Red Lemonade, 2011)
I just started reading this novel and already I'm in love with the smart and jaded tone of the narrator. As with Kathy Acker novels, I keep throwing the book across the room every few paragraphs because the sentences are so good I'm jealous. In case that sounds like a statement on the "craft" of writing, I don't mean it as such; the subtle power of the narrator's thoughts and voice are what blow me away. In other words, I like what she dares to say, and I like how directly she dares to say it. More at Red Lemonade:

Recommended by Karen Lillis
Author of The Second Elizabeth (Six Gallery Press) and i, scorpion (Words Like Kudzu Press)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 5

Jenna Freedman reads from one of her zines at Lili Coffee Shop.
July 1, 2011, Pittsburgh. Photo by

Zine librarian Jenna Freedman came to Pittsburgh this July on The Orderly Disorder: Zinester Librarians in Circulation Tour with a small troupe of librarians who were on the road in between the ALA conference in New Orleans and the Zine Librarians (Un)Conference in Milwaukee. Jenna is a zine librarian at Barnard College, and a very active member of the Radical Reference Librarians; she has helped catalog the Occupy Wall Street Library. I got to see Jenna speak in my first semester of library school, and she was a large part of my inspiration to focus my studies on small press cataloging and collections. Jenna blogs at the Lower East Side Librarian, and she often reviews zines and small press books. This year she is recommending three zines and three books and she's included links to her reviews of each title.

Pittsburgh's own master of zines, Artnoose, organized the Pittsburgh reading for Jenna & friends, which was held in Polish Hill at Lili Coffee Shop. (See Day 3 for my ode to Lili). Artnoose (who was based in the Bay Area for many years) writes, typesets, and prints the zine Ker-Bloom!; I'm a big fan of her storytelling, and her letterpressed zines have a great visual aesthetic, too. She relocated to Pittsburgh a few years ago and is now a resident at the Cyberpunk Apocalypse Writers House, a space dedicated to supporting writing-in-progress, with an emphasis on zine writers.


Jenna recommends three zines:

1. White Elephants #4, Katie Haegele (Self-published zine)

2. Big Zine, Little Zine, Milo Miller (Self-published zine)

3. The Shortest Day, Celia C. Perez (Self-published zine)

And three books:

1. Dragon Chica, May-lee Chai (GemmaMedia)

2. Repeat After Me, Rachel DeWoskin (Overlook Press)

3. Grrrl, Jennifer Whiteford (Gorsky Press)

Recommended by Jenna Freedman
Zine librarian, Radical Reference librarian, and zinester

Thursday, December 15, 2011

RIP George Whitman and Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 4

Writer in Residence is Mark Spitzer's memoir of living at
Shakespeare and Company (Paris) in the late '90s.

I was sad to hear this morning about the death of George Whitman, legendary expat bookseller of Paris for almost 60 years. I was lucky enough to spend some time with George (surely one of the great characters of the 20th Century) in his incarnation of Shakespeare & Company in 2000 and 2001. George made me pancakes, gave me a reading, put my novel in the window, and vacated his bed for me, as he did for so many writers and other artists who came through his bookstore over the years. I remember him snarling at customers, getting warm hugs from the young ballerina who was sleeping in the bookstore in those days, and giving himself a "haircut" with a candle. (He'd burn his hair and then pat out the flames.)

Today’s small press recommendations come from Mark Spitzer, who (in a sense) got me to the unique English-language bookstore. This renegade editor (Exquisite Corpse, Toad Suck Review), translator (Bataille, Genet, Celine), and author of novels, nonfiction, and poems wrote a letter of introduction to George Whitman for my poet friend Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle to stay at Shakespeare; when I first met Geoffrey a few months later, his stories of Paris and George Whitman inspired me to travel to the city of the Surrealists and to sleep at Shakespeare & Co.

I finally met Mark Spitzer in 2011 when he came to Pittsburgh for a July reading organized by local publishers Six Gallery Press and Low Ghost Press. Six Gallery was featuring his new book, Proze Attack, the second book of Spitzer's collected works to be published on this rebel press. Sharing the stage that night were Pittsburgh poets Kris Collins, Margaret Bashaar, Don Wentworth, Jason Baldinger, Lucy Goubert, and Bob Pajich. At the reading, I picked up a copy of Spitzer's tribute to Shakespeare & Company, Writer in Residence: Memoir of a Literary Translator (University of New Orleans Press, 2010), and quickly devoured his compelling story of translating exciting texts by French avant garde authors, dealing with cranky small press editors, staking out his territory at Shakespeare & Co and then literally repairing it as it crumbled, and falling in love and lust with other bookstore habitués. But throughout this memoir also runs the touching, well-drawn, and hilarious story of his friendship with George Whitman. His chapters perfectly capture the contradictions of the man who was one of the most grumpy bookmen of them all, but who was also one of the most generous softies. George was a longtime friend to the avant garde, with emphasis on “friend”: He seemed to value friendship at least as much as he cared about books, revolution, or literature. I am grateful for Mark Spitzer's written memories of George and for his small press picks below.


1. Emergency Room Wrestling, The Dirty Poet (Words Like Kudzu Press)
2. House Organ, no. 76, Kenneth Warren, ed. (House Organ)
3. Blank, Davis Schneiderman (Jaded Ibis Press)

Recommended by Mark Spitzer
Author of Proze Attack (Six Gallery Press)

Check out:

Writer in Residence: Memoir of a Literary Translator
By Mark Spitzer

A memory of George Whitman by expat poet Eddie Woods:
“A Place to Change Trains”

My own memoir chapter of Shakespeare & Company:
“A Bookman’s Holiday in Paris”

New York Times obituary of George Whitman

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Best of the Small Press 2011: Day 3

Sueyeun Juliette Lee reads at Lili Coffee Shop to a packed house. Pittsburgh, September 2011.

In September, I was happy to be introduced to the work of three poets I didn't know when Dawn Lundy Martin organized a poetry reading with herself and visiting writers, Nick Demske and Sueyeun Juliette Lee. Today's small press recommendations come from Sueyeun Juliette Lee, whose poems tell us, "Resistance can be subtle and vicious." Juliette also edits chapbooks at Corollary Press.

A dense amount of literary energy was packed into the cozy space of Lili Coffee Shop that night. Lili is one of my favorite places in Pittsburgh--whenever I go there, I run into artists and writers I know, or meet new ones. It's a true cafe in that 1960s sense--you'll see a few people pecking away at laptops, but mostly it's full of conversation. It doesn't hurt that it shares an old brick building with a record shop and a bookstore. Lili regularly generates its own events (music and readings), and often pairs up with the 3rd floor bookstore (Copacetic Comics) for book parties with writers or comic artists.

Sueyeun Juliette Lee writes:

"I'd like to take the opportunity to recommend three Asian American authors who are doing incredible work, work that really pushes against the expectations of what "Asian American" literature ought to look like. The first two in particular take on "traditional" Asian American themes, such as displacement, family, and language, but in completely radical ways that I think regenerate the field."

1. Insomnia and the Aunt, by Tan Lin (Kenning Editions)
"I wrote a review of Tan Lin's book over at Constant Critic, where I'm a contributor."

2. Entwine, by Jai Arun Ravine (TinFish Press)
"I'm a big fan of Jai's, having published Jai's chapbook with Corollary a few years ago. Jai is a multi-faceted artist, writer, and performer whose work I always find challenging and stimulating."

3. Daughter; a Novel, by Janice Lee (Jaded Ibis Press)
"A confession. I haven't read Daughter by Janice Lee yet, but am recommending it solely on the basis of my impression of her as a thinker and critic. I'm still waiting to receive my copy (it's a limited edition release--so folks should hurry before it disappears!) but am a HUGE supporter of folks coming out of the CalArts system."

Recommended by Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Author of That Gorgeous Feeling (Coconut Books) and Underground National (Factory School)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Small Press Holiday Recommendations: Day 2 (2011)

I first met Baltimore writer/editor Jen Michalski when she came to Pittsburgh to read at The New Yinzer Presents series around 2008. I loved her stories then, and I listened even closer when she came back to the series in April of this year: She read a haunting fiction excerpt of a father and daughter, of tenuous reconnections, fragile hopes, and broken hearts. I can't wait until this novel sees print. Until then, you'll have to enjoy her story collection, Close Encounters (So New Media) and her winning novella, May-September in The 2010 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology.

The New Yinzer is a Pittsburgh literary magazine that's been around for a decade as an online publication with occasional print anthologies in beautiful editions. The reading series they host (in an art gallery that doubles as an indie music venue) features 3 or 4 readers each month and does a great job of bringing together Pittsburgh's favorite local poets and storytellers, new and unknown writers, small press writers passing through Pittsburgh, and enthusiastic audiences.


1. Death Wishing, Laura Ellen Scott (Ig Publishing)
2. Kiss Me Stranger, Ron Tanner (Ig Publishing)
3. The Bee-Loud Glade, Steve Himmer (Atticus Books)

Recommended by Jen Michalski, author of Close Encounters and From Here, editor of jmww

Monday, December 12, 2011

Small Press Holiday Recommendations for 2011

Writer Lori Jakiela and poet Jimmy Cvetic confer at the bar (L) while Erin Valerio (R) sells tickets to Literary Death Match.
November 9, 2011, Brillobox Bar, Pittsburgh.

It's that time of year again! Best-of-the-small-press lists for 2011 will be appearing on this blog for the rest of the month. This year I'm asking for recommendations from writers and small press gurus who came to visit Pittsburgh (my current city) in 2011. The lovely Erin Valerio was my First Responder this year; I had the pleasure of meeting this Pittsburgh native when she brought Literary Death Match to Pittsburgh last month. If Literary Death Match comes to a city near you (and at 38 cities and growing, it very well might), you shouldn't miss the chance to attend. The format of this unique reading series combines comedy, hijinks, and seriously good readings to create an entertaining evening that is greater than the sum of its parts. Erin was thrilled to finally get the series to her hometown, and I think I heard her say that it all went even better than her wildest hopes. I, for one, was impressed and entertained. The excellent reading lineup consisted of Lori Jakiela (winner), Jimmy Cvetic, Lissa Brennan, and Adam Matcho. You can see photos and read a recap here.


1. God Bless America: Stories, Steve Almond (Lookout Books, 2011)
Steve Almond's latest is almost frighteningly perceptive. Equal parts wickedly funny and hugely, desperately sad, God Bless America is a true portrait of a nation -- not always pretty, but stunningly honest and self-aware.

2. Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam (Other Press, 2011)
Lamb is dark, unnerving, and quite frankly, a bit icky -- which is precisely why I love it. It's about a middle-aged man and a preteen girl on a road trip, but try to read it without thinking of Lolita.

3. Other People We Married, Emma Straub (FiveChapters Books, 2011)
Emma Straub works at one of Brooklyn's best indie bookstores, and when this book was released, there was a post-it note beneath it on the shelf which read "I wrote this book. Please buy it. I love you." This collection is as stellar as you'd expect from a prominent figure on the indie scene, so take her advice: buy it.

Recommended by Erin Valerio
Literary Death Match producer

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Cataloged: Introducing OccupyWiki

Yesterday I spent a good chunk of the day adding pages to the new wiki site, OccupyWiki. This site, created by Sarah Keefe, has an enormous potential. Specifically, its current structure asks for one page to be added for every city and town whose citizens have joined in the Occupy movement for solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. If these pages are added and then filled in with accurate information provided by citizen journalists, librarians, and/or participating demonstrators, it will become an invaluable information service and document of witness.

I stand in support of the Occupy Together movement. I believe that it is, at its core, not primarily a movement of the angry or the radical, but rather of many, many fed up citizens standing up to be counted. Citizens are being cut out of the civic conversation, civic and human values are being cut out of the national conversation, narrow interests have hijacked the phrases and vocabulary of the national rhetoric, and citizens are finally, at long last, stepping out of their houses to participate in a conversation in the street. To me, this is participatory democracy at its simplest. First, we step out of our isolation. Next, we stand together and have a conversation. And see where it goes.

I'd like to draw a distinction here about the internet's role in this movement. The Occupy movement is not something that is happening on Facebook, on the web, on petitions, or on Youtube. It is something that is happening in people's hearts and in the streets and in encampments. But the internet can sometimes help get the word out widely and quickly, and other times be an important witness, and still other times set the record straight against misinformation or under-reporting. I mean to stress that it is not enough to sign a petition, or follow the New York news stories, or enjoy the Flickr pages. I believe that the citizens everywhere need now to stand in the streets and be counted in person if they wish to make a show of strength against corporate rule. But I believe that OccupyWiki can help by bearing witness (in one place) and offering an accurate and easy-to-read document of how many people are marching, how many people are camping out, and how very many cities are "Occupying."

This past Saturday evening, when I was searching for news of which U.S. cities had held "Occupy" rallies and marches on October 15th (in a worldwide show of support for Occupy Wall Street), I was surprised. I was surprised at how little coverage there was of the U.S. protests, how hard it was to find clear and authoritative information, and how inaccurate, downplayed, and/or erratic was the information coming out of my own city's news sources (Pittsburgh). I'm happy to say we had about 2,000 marchers here, but the estimates given to the press were anywhere from "500" (one frequently-cited police estimate) to "3,000" (an organizer estimate) to "4,000" (a different police estimate). (It may be true that up to 3,000 participated throughout the day but that only about 2,000 were ever gathered at once.)

When I started working on OccupyWiki on Sunday, I was adding skeleton pages for American cities that have started Occupy movements. The first thing I would seek was an official webpage made by City X's organizers. Many cities' Occupiers have websites full of interesting information, event calendars, calls for donations for overnight demonstrators, and pages for photos and videos. On the one hand there are some impressive websites that have gone up very quickly. But on the other hand, the most time-consuming part of my wiki process was finding specific information on each website. Sometimes I couldn't tell from an elaborate website where the encampment was located, and sometimes I couldn't tell if the encampment was still intact. Many times the hardest thing to find on the site was direct contact information. This is another vote for a site like OccupyWiki. I find the format of a wiki a democratizing way of looking at information. Imagine if in one place you could see a list of all cities "Occupying," and then on each city's page, you knew you could find reliable categories of up-to-date information. How many people are spending the night to show their support. How much flack they've gotten from the police. Have they had local media problems like consistent under-reporting, low numbers reported, media blackouts (San Francisco), or hacked websites or Facebook pages (Philadelphia)? Or have they, like Cleveland or Los Angeles, had vocal support from the city itself? One librarian I corresponded with wants to know which occupations have libraries.

Meanwhile, users of Flickr and Youtube are contributing important visual documents of how many people are out on the streets, how creative their protests are, how energized are their marches. I'd love to see a Flickr pool for each city and a link to that pool on each OccupyWiki page. And Twitter continues to be recommended as the best way to get up-to-the-minute information from numerous citizens who are on the ground in each locale (more reliable as a whole than just following one Twitter account). I've been researching the hashtags for each city, which are sometimes just the obvious like #OccupySyracuse or #OccupyMadison, but other times a regional abbreviation like #OccupyNOLA, #OccupyPGH, or #OccupyCincy.

I was heartened, of course, to hear how many cities worldwide protested on October 15th, and the massive numbers in certain cities like Brussels and Madrid. But I'll admit I'm particularly heartened by the American protests, because Americans don't generally protest. And I'm afraid that the numerous American protests are being under-reported and mis-reported by the national media, and often enough by local news.

Which brings me to another thing I find democratic and necessary about the wiki format. If traditional journalism (a crucial branch of any healthy democracy) is failing us via both budget cuts (resulting in under reporting) and corporate ownership of news outlets (resulting in inaccurate reporting, slanted reporting, or media blackouts), then citizen journalism must save the day. I am not trying here to malign or dismiss journalists on the whole, but to stress that this Occupy movement will be perceived through not only editorials, blogs, and daily news reports, but through information itself. The citizens both inside and outside the movement deserve to see a clear and accurate picture of the Occupy protests, camps, numbers, and activities.

Sarah Keefe, who identifies with Occupy Boston, started the OccupyWiki (see with free, open-source software from MediaWiki on October 5, 2011 because she didn't find any other site like it on the web at the time. Inspired by a fellow Boston protester's crowdsourced document online, she originally created the wiki thinking it would be used by protesters who could amass and share "relevant reading, useful videos, news coverage, protesting and camping tips, and local information about their own protests." Now Keefe says she sees has cropped up since she last looked. In a web 2.0 world, it's hard to say if both will flourish, or if one will stress a different aspect than the other. But I am heartened by the Occupy movement itself and want to help show its true and accurate side through clearly-presented facts to citizens seeking to inform themselves.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Guest Review: LIFE AFTER SLEEP Reviewed by Joel Thomas

Mark R. Brand. Life After Sleep. Chicago: CCLaP Publishing, 2011. Fiction (novella). Available as an e-book or in handbound edition.

Mark R. Brand’s sci-fi novella centers around the premise that through the wonders of science, humans can get by on significantly less sleep. A device referred to as a “Bed” allows for full rest in only two hours. Will we use the extra hours in our day for education, cultural enrichment, and making the world a better place? Will we finally get around to donating blood and going to the gym regularly? Or will we simply possess a few more hours each night to help us keep up with our favorite reality shows? Surely we can find more “Real Housewives” adventures to follow, and their own reduced need for sleep will provide even more snippy banter and social catastrophes.

Fortunately, Brand takes readers down a more interesting road. His own background in science and medicine informs the novella throughout, allowing him to provide detailed exposition and explanations of the technology itself and its effects on each protagonist. As we all know, the literary world of tomorrow’s technology often turns out to be a curse more than a blessing, and this novel displays the personal dystopia that is Life After Sleep. Capitalism always wins, of course, and readers soon learn that corporations expect humans to work many more hours, often for less pay. The most glaring example: a war veteran with PTSD working an inhumane number of hours at a futuristic version of Walmart. His Sleep (Brand refers to the shortened version of sleep with a capital letter: “Sleep”) struggles prove nearly devastating, as do the hallucinations of a rest-deprived surgeon who blacks out during operations.

Even with an overarching social theme, the narrative stays focused on individual lives rather than sweeping political statements. This move keeps the novella lean and intimate. Readers meet characters who stay vulnerable and believable, beset by problems and conflict but never forced into saving the world. One major narrative branch, for example, portrays the difficulties of a couple trying to adapt back to more traditional sleep patterns after having a baby. As it turns out, Beds aren’t safe to operate near infants. The young father/husband works too many hours without the benefits of a Bed and its technology-enhanced Sleep, and the young parents both struggle to adapt to their physical needs for rest. In another vein, a successful band promoter pushes the legal and physical limits of Sleep while dabbling in other intriguing technologies (which this reviewer will leave unspoiled so the reader can take pleasure in discovery). Her own desperate lifestyle brings a hedonism and danger-driven appeal to the book.

With Life After Sleep, Brand doesn’t push extremes, keeping a sense of relative believability. Some readers may prefer fantasies so unbelievable that the enjoyment comes from reveling in the seemingly impossible, but this novella’s appeal comes in its chilling likelihood.

Recommended for collections of contemporary fiction, science fiction, medical fiction, and Chicago authors.

Available from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, or from Amazon.

Reviewed by Joel Thomas
Midwestern adjunct writing instructor

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Important Week for an Important Bookstore

Image from Marty After Dark

By now, you've probably heard about the Cooper Square Committee petition to save St. Mark's Bookshop by asking Cooper Union (the bookstore's landlord) for lower rent. The petition response has been amazing, with over 23,000 signatures gathered in less than a week; every time I look at the petition, there are 1,000 more signatures. Many of those signing have left enthusiastic comments about the bookstore and what it means to them, or strong words addressing the irony of an academic landlord who might boot such an intellectual institution out of the neighborhood:

"Please don't let this bookstore close! It would be a disaster. It's one of my favorite bookstores in the world."

"St. Marks is NECESSARY!!! Cooper Union shouldn't be behaving like a commercial landlord -- there's an intellectual heritage at stake."

"Find the pride to claim the St. Mark's Bookstore, a cultural and historical icon, as part of the Cooper Union community."

"Please help this great literary institution to survive. There is no other bookstore with their taste and selection. In a time when we are almost out of places in NYC to find books of the calibre St. Mark's Bookshop selects, it is an essential cultural and historical part of our city."

"one of the most important independent bookstores left in the country."

"Please, the city is slowly losing its soul.... "

If a fraction of those who signed the petition spent $25 at the bookstore this week, it would make an enormous difference to an uniquely wonderful bookstore. It is my humble observation that St. Mark's Bookshop, having been a player in the center of a thriving multi-disciplinary art scene for three decades, has fostered the creation and growth of many small presses and literary journals, and facilitated conversations and connections between many influential artists, writers, and intellectuals. Meanwhile, e-books (and their intersection with Amazon and iPad) seem to be reaching a savvy demographic of readers (many of whom have loathed the chain stores), dealing heavy blows to longtime brick and mortars just as Barnes & Noble's deep-discounts did to local indie bookstores in the 1990s.

But e-books can't be the whole demise of great bookstores, since St. Mark's is one of the many stores that sells Google e-books. Perhaps more to blame is the skyrocketing Manhattan rent that threatens to strangle all but the chain stores. When I lived in New York in the Giuliani years, rumor had it that many of the chain stores (which Mayor Rudy had courted with tax breaks), including Barnes and Noble and Nike, didn't actually make a profit on their New York stores. But they paid exorbitant prices just to maintain a high-profile, big-city "flagship" store. So if no one can actually afford their New York rent, what does that mean for the continuing culture of a great city? To paraphrase a Jim Jarmusch quote from the 2010 documentary "Blank City," New York was always a trading post, but now the main trade is real estate itself.

I do think that this week in particular is an important time for indie bookstore lovers to give more than just their signature. The Village Voice reported on Monday, September 12th, that St Mark's owners are due to meet this week (Wednesday, September 14) with Cooper Union's Vice President of Finance, Adminstration, and Treasury, in order to negotiate a rent reduction--but that "the new administration has not been 'particularly sympathetic.' "

Won't you please show your support in the form of buying a book from St. Mark's Bookshop THIS WEEK? You can browse their selection online via title, author, new arrivals, store bestsellers, autographed copies, remainders, or Google e-books:


Update: Since I posted this late yesterday afternoon, the petition signatures are up to 24,500.

New comments on the petition:

[Dr. ____ from Berlin] "St. Mark's is the only top quality bookstore in NYC. The staggering selection, extensive and discriminatingly selected, is unparalleled - none of the big chains and none of the smaller ones (with their necessarily narrower focus) come close to this unique institution. I send all my students, colleagues, friends heading for NY to St. Mark's. Don't liquidate New York's most respectable Bookstore!"

"How is New York City going to continue to be a literary and cultural center if we lose all of our independent bookstores?"


Note: It is true that I am not only a disinterested bookstore blogger in this case; I am not unbiased. I am a former employee of St. Mark's Bookshop, with years of memories and friendships there. I am also currently writing a book about my years at the store. I should add, however, that I am not writing about my time there just to write a fun memoir about my own life; the bookstore itself was largely the inspiration. St. Mark's Bookshop is such an unique gathering place in the heart of the city of art, the city of publishing, I want to help give it its legend in print; it is certainly long overdue.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 10th Book Party: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography Celebrates Four Years

Jason Pettus is a writer, photographer, and founder of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. CCLaP has been an unique kind of cyber-center for the small press since 2007, offering a number of amenities to the literary community of Chicago and beyond. CCLaP is a publisher of e-books by emerging authors; a blogger of book reviews, movie reviews, and essays; a creator of podcasts with authors a few times each month; and a host of Chicago reading events. They have published four e-books thus far: Life After Sleep by Mark Brand, Salt Creek Anthology by Jason Fisk, 99 Problems by Ben Tanzer, and Too Young to Fall Asleep by Sally Weigel. In honor of the upcoming fourth anniversary book party (August 10th at Chicago's Beauty Bar), the books are now available as hand-bound editions as well, something Jason calls "Hypermodern Editions."

As the Center's anniversary approached, Jason answered some questions for me on building a readership, the state of the book review, and the Chicago lit scene.

What led you to start CCLaP?

I was a working author myself for about ten years in Chicago, then back in Missouri was a working photographer for around five years previous to that; and coming from the punk/zine community of the 1980s when I was a teen, I've been doing fun little DIY creative projects for a long before either of those. So when I first entered middle age in the mid-2000s, and started becoming more and more dissatisfied with trying to continue pursuing a career as a creative writer, something like CCLaP was just naturally one of the first things that popped into my mind as something to do next with my life. Although truthfully, I came very close to opening an internet startup company instead (that's what a lot of my day jobs in Chicago have involved), in which case CCLaP wouldn't actually exist right now.

How has the reception been for the e-books you’ve published so far? I’m not trying to single out your authors, but more to ask how you reached out and found an audience, and what you learned about how to find your readers in between Book #1 and Book #4.

When I talk to my friends who run more traditional basement presses about this subject, it looks pretty certain that in general terms, CCLaP is generating the same amount of paying customers from the ebooks as they are from their paper books, which as most people know is nothing to sneeze at but no great shakes either. The nice thing, though, is that since the ebooks are released under a "pay what you want" scheme, it means that our paying customers only make up around 25 percent of the book's total readership; and so if you're talking just about how many eyeballs the center's books are getting in front of, you can think of it in general terms of about three to four times the amount of a typical basement press. The biggest lesson I've learned so far about gathering an audience is that this stuff really does fall along traditional age lines to a great extent; so that is, whenever I publish a middle-aged author with a middle-aged audience, downloads of the electronic version are always smaller than a title by a twentysomething with a college-aged audience, even when that book will often generate the same amount of press and interest away from the internet. The adoption of ebooks is truly a generational issue, I'm slowly learning.

What do you look for in a writer you’re deciding to publish?

Oh, it's a whole complicated host of factors, actually. Obviously the first and main issue is simply the quality of the actual manuscript; but then whether or not they're in Chicago comes into play as well, since that's so much more a convenient option for things like getting them to sign books, etc. And since part of CCLaP's mission as a more general overall arts organization is to help nurture artists over the course of their careers, part of what I look at when examining submissions is where that author is in their career, and how much a CCLaP book would be able to help with the long-term picture; so if someone like Ben Tanzer comes to me, for example, who now has a number of successful commercial novels under his belt, but is sitting on something more experimental or personal that will make his audience think of him in a new way if someone were to publish it, that counts for extra in my mind when making decisions about what to put out.

I think it’s great that you’re making handmade books out of CCLaP e-book releases. Will you continue to do this, or do you think it’s more of a special event for the 4-year anniversary?

The paper versions of CCLaP's books have actually always been a part of the plan, since starting up the publishing program in 2008; it's just that it's only now that I've actually been able to afford it. In general I'm trying to take my cues off how many musicians now do things, which is to entirely skip the middle step of distribution altogether; so in my case, the plan has always been to release an electronic version that people can download for free if they want, and a handmade, hardback paper version that costs a little more than a paper version normally would, and that can be directly purchased at the website much like how an Etsy store works, and then just skip the trade paperback version and the bookstores and Amazon and the traditional distributors altogether. It's my opinion that this is where most small presses are bleeding the most money these days, so my hope is to keep costs under control by simply eliminating this option entirely.

I’m so glad you’re running frequent book reviews on your blog. In a time when newspapers are downsizing their book review sections and laying off reviewers, can you speak to the importance of book reviews in our culture?

Well, I'm just amazed that more people don't do the same thing! I think that blogs got saddled at the beginning of their existence with this bad reputation, as if they were some form of literary genre unto themselves and with their own artistic pluses and minuses; but really, a blog is actually just more a type of technology, a specific kind of medium for delivering whatever you want, good or bad, just like it would be ridiculous to say that a piece of content is somehow artistically better when read on a piece of ivory-colored paper versus cream-colored paper. In this sense, then, a blog is nothing more than a giant unending sheet of paper that's given to you completely for free, and so makes it the best medium in human history for long-form, thoughtful essays. I think once we get to the next generation of online users, the ones who don't automatically equate blogs with unthinking idiocy, we're going to see a flowering again of long-form critical thought that could scarcely be imagined by previous generations.

Do book reviews become even more important in a moment of so many publishers, underground publishers, self-publishers, and varied formats? Do book reviewers help hold The Book together as hyperlinks and e-readers try to morph it?

That's a good question, and I confess one I've never really contemplated before. Certainly you paint a vivid mental picture of "artistic thought" being some kind of runny goo, and that different conventions like "novels" and "feature films" are differently shaped boxes that we put around this goo to try to contain and shape it, so that we can then put two of them side-by-side and compare them. Does our society need this in order to even understand the arts, and for it to be of any practical help in our day-to-day lives? And is it important for critics to continue holding up the "novel-shaped" box, when things like narrative videogames and hyperlinked stories create little holes in the corners for that goo to ooze out? I think those are more philosophical questions than practical ones, and probably better debated at dinner parties after a few drinks than a declarative answer given here.

If the big newspapers were considered reliable sources who often had the last or loudest word on book reviews, what should a reader look for in seeking trustworthy reviews in the blogosphere? Is the dismantling of the newspaper reviews a good thing or a bad thing for the small press?

Deciding which critics to trust has always boiled down to some simple criteria in my opinion, and I'm always surprised that so many people have a hard time with this, which is merely trust plus time. Too many people, I think, have this attitude towards critical thought that's similar to God speaking to His minions, that it's this booming random opinion coming in out of nowhere that we should blindly trust merely because someone in a position of authority is telling us to; but finding a good critic is actually much more similar to paying attention to the opinions to a good friend, in that the entire reason we even trust what they're saying is because they've proven over and over again that they CAN be trusted, precisely because they have very similar opinions to our own. That's always the best way to get good recommendations, I've found, is simply to find people whose tastes closely match your own, then pay attention anytime they rave about something you've never heard about, or argue for a project that you may have not cared for at first.

I think a big part of the problem occurred during the big Hollywood boom of the 1980s, when newspapers suddenly found themselves with an opportunity to sell many more pages of movie ads if they simply had an excuse to actually print those pages; that forced every newspaper in the country to hire their own staff of reviewers, who were basically no more than an excuse to even have a pullout movie section every Friday and sell a thousand percent more ads than they were before. That's when you really saw the first big proliferation of this "From God's Mouth" attitude about criticism, where critics became an endless series of faceless anonymous shills, and the only reason you would put stock in any of their opinions is because this big expensive newspaper was telling you to; and then when this became a successful paradigm, it of course bled over into things like book reviews as well. So in that sense, the dismantling of the newspaper review system is the best thing that could've happened to both readers and small presses; because what's rising in its wake is both the much more reliable crowd-sourcing process at places like Amazon (which, let's face it, is a HIGHLY trustworthy way of learning simply about any particular book's general strengths and weaknesses), combined with long-form critics like myself who take our cues off the old masters like Pauline Kael, who people trust in the same way they trust their friends, and who can recommend unknown things in a way that Amazon crowd-sourcing never could, no matter how sophisticated their algorithms get.

What have you learned about small press publishing since setting up shop in 2007?

Oh, dear, we could be here all day if I started to answer this, so perhaps I'll just skip this question altogether. The short answer is that I've learned hundreds of things, and that the very best advice I can give a person who's interested in the subject is to simply go out and start a small press themselves, to learn all the hard lessons they never will simply by reading about other people's experiences.

Chicago has a thriving small press scene: From afar, I know about Quimby’s, the Orange Alert Reading Series, the Chicago Underground Library, Another Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Zine Fest, the “Quickies” Reading Series, MAKE, Featherproof Books. Have you paired up with any of these folks in your events or in other ways?

I have yet to formally partner with any of these groups, but you could absolutely say that an informal network of support exists here in Chicago within this community: we all tend to go to each other's events, buy each other's books, provide publicity for each other's big things, recommend artists to each other, send submitting authors each other's ways, etc. In fact, back when I quit writing myself in 2004 and was first coming up with the idea for CCLaP, this is one of the main reasons I decided to follow through with the particular plan I did, was knowing what a strong and longstanding literary community there actually is here in Chicago, which now that I've traveled a bit I can confidently state as one of the largest and most tight-knit ones in the world.

What’s on the horizon for CCLaP?

Well, more books for a start -- another three before this year is through, then another five in 2012. And more live events, more podcast episodes, and the same 150 book reviews at the blog next year as I publish every year. Plus it's looking likely that we'll finally be offering our first classes and workshops next year as well; because I have to say, the requests never stop coming in from people wanting to learn how to make the kind of handmade books I do for CCLaP, so I'm thinking strongly of just charging a fee and teaching the people who really do want to sit down and learn. Then of course the center has a long-term vision as well, for those who don't know; everything being done right now, for example, is in service of hopefully one day finally opening a permanent physical space somewhere here in the city, at which point CCLaP will morph more into the traditional community center that I've always envisioned it as.


Find the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography online here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Under the Volcano Books Opens October 15th, Mexico City

Grant Cogswell hanging shelves at Under the Volcano Books, July 2011.

The last time I saw Grant Cogswell, he was making me laugh hysterically in Austin, Texas. Seventeen years and a few cities later, this filmwriter/ activist/ longtime Seattle resident is gearing up to open an expat English-language bookstore and gathering place in the Roma District of Mexico City (D.F.). The store will be named Under the Volcano Books after the Mexico-set novel by expat writer Malcolm Lowry. The grand opening is set for Saturday October 15th, 2011.

Yesterday Grant was kind enough to answer some interview questions in between constructing a bookstore interior at Cerrada Chiapas 40-C, Colonia Roma Norte.

What led you to want to open a bookstore? Was this a life-long dream, or did it have more to do with timing and opportunity?

Not a lifelong dream. I'd worked in bookstores stateside, and it never really occurred to me until I came to D.F. and saw there wasn't really anything for readers of English - and began to imagine what was also missing, which was the kind of semi-public community that might grow around such an institution. After I decided to move here in 2006, my imagination of what kind of life I wanted here just kind of grew the store within itself, like a pearl, becoming the center of the impulse. By the time I was here full-time in late 2009 it was what I was doing.

I understand that you have a particular vision for this English-language bookstore in a world-class city, in a neighborhood with a long history of artists and expats. Knowing you, it will be much more than just a store. Tell us what you hope for the bookstore to be, and what steps you will take to see that vision through?

Well, I think it will be a place of a very particular kind. I'm very insistent that there won't be wi-fi available, even when we have coffee and tables and who knows maybe even some kind of food. There's a kind of psychic silence that to me is very much associated with reading - I think a lot of people go camping to find it, or hell, I don't know, have sex with strangers-- so that's the first thing: analog. I'll often be playing Coltrane, or The Band, or KEXP (ironically) online - there's also an amazing station here at 105.7 that has its finger on the pulse of whateveryouwanttocallit Indie rock from the US just as firmly as anything on the internet. Our location is at the end of an alley in a hundred-year-old working neighborhood, but we have this lovely little tiled back garden. I'd like it to be a place that a large assemblage of travellers and residents and even people in the English-speaking world who'll never go to Mexico recognize as an outpost of, I don't know, the examined life? That sounds so hard. The life of books, thought, self-education, art. Once my Spanish is good enough to read at a decent enough speed for literature (I can get through the newspaper fairly quick, but am constantly resorting to a dictionary) I just have to make sure I don't end up spending my off hours hanging out at El Pendulo or Conejo Blanco. I love those places. We could do a lot worse than just be an English version of them. There will at some point be a literary journal based in the store called Mexico Review focusing on translations from contemporary Mexican writers and Americans writing about Mexico, in the very most expansive sense. We'll be open every day, because a 24-hour-layover on a NY-Buenos Aires flight happens at its own convenience, and I am counting on those people coming to the store.

What kind of books will you feature?

Used contemporary and classic fiction and poetry, translations from the Spanish, politics, history, philosophy, urban planning and architecture, lit crit, interesting nonfiction, art books, punk culture, comics, travel books, language aids, 'expat lit'.

Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio recently read in the space that will be Under the Volcano Books. Do you plan to hold readings frequently? What types of writers will you court? From how far away?

I'll have visiting writers, obviously drawing for reasons of airfare and my personal connections far heavier from the West Coast of the US than the East. But a lot of people come through here. Not too often - I want to maintain the sense of them as an event, and the bar will be high, nobody without a published book at the very least. I can't see flying anyone over from Australia, but otherwise the sky's the limit.

What has been the most challenging aspect of opening the bookstore so far? What has been the most unexpected challenge?

Finding a space; finding a space. By custom here you need to have a property-owner guarantee your lease when you rent, and that goes for residential as well as commercial property. Arriving here as an immigrant without particularly deep local roots this was looking almost impossible - years off. Then my good friend and roommate bought a house in Roma Norte for his recording business and it was kind of the Hand of God.

You’re opening a brick and mortar bookstore in 2011. You’ve been blogging about the store, keeping far-flung friends updated on Facebook, and you’ve created a catalog of your store’s inventory on LibraryThing. How do you see the relationship between your bookstore and the digital world? Are you interested in selling books online, or just getting people into your space?

I'm going to do what I enjoy: I think going outside of that would be to the detriment of my pleasure in the store and thereby bring it down. There are people who want to see this become an emporium for the materials they use in their English classes here: that's not going to happen, nor am I going to become an online dealer. My skills are choosing the inventory very carefully based on a knowledge of the literature of the English language and contemporary culture, and curating a place for people to come to in a splendidly comfortable and affordable neighborhood. I will also make coffee.

One plan you had was to sell books on the street while waiting to find the right space for the store. Have you done much of that? How have sales been? Have you liked the feeling of selling literature on the streets of Mexico City?

I haven't sold anything on the streets. I soon found out those street markets are a web of old relationships and there's a reason you don't see foreigners working in them. I was about to get a permit from the Delegacion to sell in Coyoacan when Sylvain bought the house where the store will go and it just wasn't worth doing at that point.

I’ve been noticing a new business model among bookstores being opened by working artists and writers: The kind of bookstore that is not required to sustain itself. The owners’ income/s from art and writing jobs help to supplement the bookstore, which they choose to open because they passionately want a bookstore in their city. Will Under the Volcano Books be required to sustain itself?

Yes, but there are lots of ways we can make that happen if things get tight. I see the store over time becoming a magnet for people who want to practice their English. If there's a store full of people four nights a week at 50 pesos a head chatting away because that's what's needed to keep us afloat, that's perfectly fine with me. I think our overhead is a fraction of what it would be in the US. You see a lot of places here you wonder, how the hell does that store stay open? Things are just a lot cheaper in general here is how, and I am counting on them staying that way. I can't imagine the brass it would take to do this in the States, and don't want to.

On a Youtube video that seems to have vanished since I saw it, you made a very provocative statement that you hoped the bookstore would introduce both Mexicans and Americans the better sides of themselves to each other. That [currently] Mexicans know too much American scorn and Americans hear too much about Mexican crime. Tell us more about your hope and how literature sheds light on our better angels.

Well, most Americans simply have hardly the faintest idea about this country: what it contains, what its 'normal setting' is, the daily life of the majority of people. Now that the drug killings have reached around 50,000, people throw around the statistic that the narco wars have killed as many people as Americans died in Vietnam, so people think there is a war going on here. (There is in some places near the US border, specifically Ciudad Juarez, and in some of rural Tamaulipas where it could be classified at that level.) Well, that's true. But two million Vietnamese died in that war. Nothing like the same scale. Don't get me wrong, the situation is an enormous and terrible tragedy and I think most people here believe we have further to go with it than we have come yet, and who knows what it will lead to. But this is a nation of 100 million people most of whom have no connection with or direct experience of any of that world. And their lives go on, day to day. Americans sense not the least texture of that reality for the most part, or the nature of life here in DF, which is now one of the safest places in the country and a magnet again for that reason. Nor the particular and complex past and the nature of the national identity it produced, which I think may be a healthier approach to being of the New World than I have seen come to fruition in the U.S.

On the other side, American mass-culture floods the airwaves and the video stalls here, and it is usually the movies and music with the most money behind them, which are not always the worst, but very often. I've run into smart, worldly people here who were totally unaware the US has a culture of art cinema, for example. Mexicans in general are not big readers - which is okay for me, because Mexicans in general are not my target audience. But I'd like to at least get the very privileged cultural class here to be aware of Whitman, of Keats, or Cormac McCarthy and Virginia Woolf. I think there's room to create that awareness, and a hunger for it, because contact with American culture is seen from the very least on an economic plane as sophistication, as self-development. And I'm sitting here with the literary aspect being almost entirely absent from that conversation wanting to lean over and say "There's something pretty wide here you missed..."

Visit the Under the Volcano Books website here.