Saturday, January 26, 2013

Writers Wax on About Savored Reads in Web Series

The other night, I came across a short program on TV. In it, Michael Showalter, comedian, actor and author of the memoir Mr. Funny Pants, sat in what appeared to be his apartment discussing his favorite books. Being a fan of Showalter, I sat amused as he, with his dry wit, highlighted the merits of works by Stephen King.

Michael Showalter praises Stephen King on Stacked Up. 
Image via
The program was Stacked Up, a web-based video series in which authors are asked about what's on their bookshelves. Its creator is Jill Bauerle, a multimedia journalist and self-described "bookophile" who resides in Brooklyn. In an interview with WNYC, Bauerle said that while conversing with friends over cocktails, "the idea spun off to how much you can learn about a person from his or her book collection, and how much fun it would be to talk to authors about books." She and her friends, Jennifer Katz and Maya Rossi, liked "the idea of treating writers like rock stars, and going into their homes to interview them also appealed to us." So, in the fall of 2009, the series Stacked Up made its debut on the Internet.

Since the premier episode, Bauerle and Co. - and us, the viewers - have seen the bookshelves of writers ranging from Susan Orlean to Amanda Stern to Michael Showalter. In each episode, the writers, situated in the familiarity of their home turf, comfortably talk about their choice reads. In a recent installment, Stacked Up stops by the apartment of Robin Shulman, whose 2012 book, Eat the City, I just read. After posing with Eat the City, which traces the history of food production in New York, Shulman reveals her love of memoirs and then points out some of her favorite books, including Low Life by Luc Sante, Harvey Wang's New York by Harvey Wang, and Gotham by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.

Last January, Stacked Up made the leap from the Internet to television, airing in New York City on Channel 25. Although it tends to come on late, usually 10 PM or later, it's totally worth staying up for. Brightly filmed and upbeat in tone, each episode of Stacked Up is entertaining and insightful, and the writers who are interviewed are at their warmest and most clever as they, with passion and humor, prattle on about the books on their shelves. 

To find showtimes for Stacked Up, or to watch the series online, go to THIS LINK.

Above (middle) image via

Monday, January 21, 2013

Meet Ben McFall, Fiction Manager at The Strand

The Strand may or may not be "home to 18 miles of books," but it can sure feel that way. Entering the world-famous bookstore, at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, you're immediately struck by how massive it is. Its sheer size can make finding a particular book an overwhelming task. So out of necessity - or perhaps sheer exasperation - you seek out a store employee. And if you're trying to find a work of fiction, the store employee to seek out is Ben McFall.

Be sure to ask Ben! Ben McFall, fiction manager at Strand Bookstore.
Photo credit: Julie Glassberg for the New York Times

Ben McFall is the fiction manager at The Strand. For 35 years, he has sorted, priced, shelved, retrieved, and set aside for customers countless works of fiction and poetry. Even though the inventory in his section runs in the thousands, McFall is able to mentally keep track of everything. Modestly explaining this miraculous ability, McFall told the New York Times in an interview, "It seems like a feat, but if it were your house, you'd know where things are, too."

His vast knowledge has made McFall a much sought-after expert. So, walking around the bookstore, he suitably wears a name tag that says: "Benjamin. Ask Me." And ask him, people do. All kinds of people - from students to professors, to published authors and journalists, to book collectors and fellow store clerks - find McFall to get his input on matters related to fiction and poetry and The Strand's selection of these popular genres. "If you really need to know," said book collector Llew Almeida to the New York Times, "you go to The Strand and ask for Ben."

The 64-year-old McFall has been at The Strand since 1978. (Before then, he was at a bookstore in Connecticut.) Over the years, he's encountered many big names in arts and literature. Some worked alongside him at the bookstore, such as writer and critic Luc Sante ("He did paperbacks all by himself," McFall told the Times). Others were routine customers, such as author and filmmaker Susan Sontag and novelist David Markson. And some stopped in and got McFall's help specifically, like actress Cicely Tyson, entertainer Lena Horne, and newsman Tom Brokaw.

Mr. Ben McFall is undoubtedly "the dean of the clerks and the institutional memory of the fiction section" at The Strand. To read more about him, check out the New York Times' profile of him HERE.

Only This Poe Cake, and Nothing More


Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Books Are on John Waters' Bookshelf?

Baltimore's native son John Waters is known for his outré tastes. The filmmaker is also famous for being a big lover of books. So one can only imagine what bizarro selections make up Waters' personal library. might be surprised.

Image of John Waters via

Waters, along with other celebrated artists and authors, have collaborated with New York's Strand Bookstore to curate literary collections that are collectively known as "The Author's Bookshelf." John Waters, comics artist Art Spiegelman, and authors Junot Diaz, Chuck Klosterman, Gary Shteyngart and many more have put together a selection of must-read books that can be seen (and purchased) in person at The Strand or online at the bookstore's website.

Looking online at John Waters' picks, I can that say some are hardly shocking: there's Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film, by Jimmy McDonough; The Sluts, by Dennis Cooper; And I Don't Want to Live This Life: A Mother's Story of Her Daughter's Murder, by Deborah Spungen; and Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious, by Emily Toth. 

Yet there are other books from John Waters' bookshelf that, going by his often campy public image, I didn't think that he would be into, including: Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short; The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Douglas Brinkley; and Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, by Mel Watkins.

Introducing his picks, Waters says, "Here are books that will help you become a well-rounded, happy neurotic who can finally reject your own guilt and shame and embrace the outer limits of human behavior." I don't know about eradicating guilt and shame, but the books he chose will definitely enlighten you about the lives of outsiders, whether they're poor African Americans, ostracized authors, punk rock groupies, or makers of soft-core porn.

To see all of the choice selections on John Waters' "Author's Bookshelf," go HERE.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Help Red Emma's Build a Bigger, Better Bookstore

Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse is a collectively owned and operated radical bookstore and cafe that is located in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Photo via

Since its founding in 2004, Red Emma's has hosted over 1,000 events, including book and zine presentations, theater company productions, benefit dinners, film screenings, and an annual Radical Bookfair. Plus, it started the Baltimore Free School, a volunteer-run effort that offers lessons in foreign languages, philosophy, and more at zero cost to people of all ages and backgrounds in the community. With so much going on, Red Emma's has outgrown its original space, at 800 St. Paul Street at the corner of East Madison.

So, for the first time in its more than 8-year history, Red Emma's is relocating - this time, to a much bigger space at 30 West North Avenue. Over five times the size of Red Emma's original location, the new space will allow it to greatly increase its selection of books and other merchandise. It will also allow it to expand its on-site food operation, which will continue to offer locally sourced food items and fair trade coffee. In addition, the larger space will permit the members of Red Emma's to continue to host their incredible number of events but with much more seating and in a building that is fully accessible.

The workers at Red Emma's have already signed the lease for the new, larger space. Now, they need YOUR help to pay for necessary renovations, equipment, licensing, and other fees. Through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, Red Emma's is hoping to raise at least $50,000. So far, it's raised $8,915. Show your support for Red Emma's and for what it's doing by chipping in to help it reach its goal. If you love independent bookstores, if you love small businesses, if you love volunteer efforts that benefit the entire community, then contribute to Red Emma's fund-raiser today! You can do so HERE.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Is There Anything Better Than a Bookstore Cat?

 Photo via P.m. Marais' Facebook page.

The Best of Bad Book Covers

I'm all for DIY: do-it-yourself. The act of self-publishing definitely falls under that category. But writers, like everyone else, have their limitations. For some writers, a limitation is the complete inability to draw...or capably use a graphic design program. Yet, in the true spirit of DIY, they forge ahead anyway. The results are what I shall diplomatically call "questionable" book covers. 

Not so diplomatically, Nathan Shumante calls them "Lousy Book Covers," and he displays some of the best of them on his Tumblr. Shumante, who earns his living as a book designer, knows good cover art and he's not ashamed to say that this ain't it. "Just because you CAN design your own book," he says on his Tumblr, "doesn't mean you SHOULD." Quite right.

There are quite of few gems to behold, all of them from seemingly self-published masterpieces. Blurry artwork, dubious clip art, childlike illustrations, garish color schemes, and bad Photoshop abound. This is what happens when "creativity takes a wrong turn," Joe Berkowitz keenly observed when writing about Shumante's tongue-in-cheek Tumblr for Co.Create. 

Initially, Shumante charitably offered "a free cover redesign to any author whose book was featured" on his Tumblr. "But because a couple of hyperventilating 'sweet snowflakes' accused me of posting these covers as nothing more than a cynical 'negative business model' to driver readers to my cover design sight," he had to rescind that offer, he said. At least he extended that olive branch.

To see many more "Lousy Book Covers," check out Shumante's Tumblr site HERE.

* All of the above images are from Lousy Book Covers Tumblr.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Psychedelic School Library Flyer from 1968

The Samuel Gompers High School Library must have been a far-out place!

Image via

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Librarian Among the Least Stressful Jobs?

Librarian, with a median salary of $54,500, is one of "The 10 Least Stressful Jobs for 2013," reported last week. How did the news site come to this conclusion? Based on information provided by CareerCast, which just released its annual list of the "Least Stressful Jobs of 2013."

Giles wouldn't necessarily agree that librarian is a low-stress job. 
Image via

According to CareerCast, what makes a job "least stressful"? Tony Lee, publisher of, told, "These are jobs where people are in control of their day. You don't have somebody kind of breathing over your shoulder. There's no physical risk at all, and no one is depending on you in your job to make their life expectancy longer!" He added, "These are the jobs that keep your blood pressure nice and low."

Speaking about the job of librarian, which came in at #9 on the list, Lee said, "You're working in a comfortable environment. Your job is to help people use services as best as possible. Given the environment, stress levels are low." He asked, "What's the most stressful thing a librarian faces? Teenagers with a paper due and you don't have the books." further noted "there are mandatory 'quiet' rules in libraries and you're surrounded by books."

I'm guessing that neither nor Tony Lee visited a big-city public library before they made their assessment. Despite "quiet rules," it's tough to find a truly quiet spot in your typical public library situated in an urban (or even large suburban) neighborhood. The librarians on duty are often too exasperated or overstretched to enforce these "quiet rules," instead dealing with other issues, such as homeless people and child molesters wandering among the stacks. Or they're diffusing increasingly volatile situations involving mentally ill or violent patrons. And they're doing all this (and more) on a salary that barely allows them to pay their rent. This doesn't sound like a "least stressful" job to me.

Rita Meade agrees with me. She responded to the article in a post published on In her post, titled "5 Reasons Being a Librarian Is Stressful," subtitled "Librarians and Stress: An Anecdotal Study (a.k.a. Not cool, CNBC. Not cool.)," Meade explains why librarians aren't "all just floating on clouds made of sugar, leisurely reading books while basking in the glow of constant patron compliments." Listing reasons ranging from lack of job security to lack of respect, she subverts Lee's assertion that librarian is a low-stress job.

"You're wrong," she tells Tony Lee. "Just plain wrong. I don't want a ticker tape parade for librarians. I don't want accolades. I'm not even asking for higher pay (although that WOULD be nice because I am not making anywhere near the 'median salary' CNBC reported). I just want the media to stop feeding the erroneous assumptions."

To read Rita Meade's entire rebuttal to the piece, go HERE.

PS. I just want to say that public librarians aren't the only kind of librarians. Perhaps those who work in museum libraries or who are employed at radio stations, like NPR, do have lower-stress jobs.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Every Building Has a Story: Muhlenberg Library

Whenever I come across a stately building that looks to be a century old or older, I wonder about its past life: who lived there? What was the surrounding area like when it was built? What was its former use? What is it used for now? I imagine there to be countless stories contained within the walls of these old buildings, but only guessing - often futilely - as to what they could be, I continue on my way.

And what could this building be? Photo taken in 1917 by Irving Underhill, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Identifying the majestic old buildings that still loom over some city streets has become a bit of a game, thanks to Cornerspotter. This regular feature of the real-estate website Curbed asks readers "to identify the location and/or identity of a particular building in a historic photograph." Whoever guesses correctly doesn't win a prize, but they do get bragging rights for being well-versed in their city's history (or at least for being highly observant of their surroundings).

A recent Cornerspotter asked readers to identify the above building, which it said "was built in the early 1900s, and it's still used for the same purpose today." More than a few Curbed readers correctly identified the building as the Muhlenberg branch of the New York Public Library, located at 209 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. It's a Carnegie library, and it first opened its doors in 1906.

The Muhlenberg branch of New York Public Library today. Photo via

Between 1883 and 1929, steel industry tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of nearly 1,700 libraries in the United States. Carnegie, who was quoted as saying that "No man can become rich without himself enriching others" and "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced," truly believed in sharing the wealth. He spent billions of his money so that communities, large and small, across the country and around the world could have their own library or libraries. In New York City alone, over $6 million of Carnegie funds went toward 106 public libraries and 3 academic libraries.

The Muhlenberg branch, designed by architects Carrere and Hastings, is three stories high and was built from brick and limestone. According to the New York Public Library website, the branch was "named for William Augustus Muhlenberg, the first rector of Chelsea's Church of the Holy Communion. As rector, he donated many books to the Free Circulating Library, which later became part of the New York Public Library." Today, the library is fully wheelchair-accessible, and it has an audio induction loop and FM assistive listening devices for the hearing impaired in its third-floor community room.

This branch of the New York Public Library was granted landmark status in 2001.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year Tidings from Neil Gaiman

"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art - write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself." ~ Neil Gaiman

Photo of Neil Gaiman via