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Gas is cheap again

December 22, 2014

Waterstones, a large bookseller in Britain, is experiencing a revival. All is not lost.

Then again, cheap fuel comes at a cost to be borne later, and bookstores survive by being “bookstores plus.”Waterstones revamped their spaces, making them bright, inviting places, and they sell a lot of non-book merchandise.

However, they still sell a lot of books. Ebooks seem to have peaked around a 30% share of the total book market. A lot of printed books still get sold. So things are different, just not as different as we might have thought.

The Waterstones CEO reflected in an interview on their turnaround. Selling good books does matter, and their careful market judgment pays off in repeat customers.

Interesting was his shrugging smile about why certain books were successful. Who knows? Instincts of booksellers and word-of-mouth are part of the mystery. He noted the success of the first novel “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton and “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande as, perhaps, unexpected.

And then there’s “The Guest Cat,” a novel by Japanese poet Takashi Hiraide. It’s ranked #21,490 on Amazon, but it’s been remarkably popular in Britain and a bestseller in France. Who knows?

This was the pleasure receiving notes about books that have been significant to readers here. There are many interesting, well-written books out there, somewhere. One of them was quite scarce, so I borrowed another title, “The Way We Are,” by the same author, Allen Wheelis, who is a psychoanalyst.

I was warned that he remained on the dark side about the human condition, and indeed this slim book was often grim. I was taken with the final chapter’s reflections and vignettes on love, mostly on its failings, disappointments, and diminishment in the course of our lives. But it becomes clear he’s talking about certain kinds of attachments, the kind of clinging that always leads to discomfort.

Then at the very end, Wheelis tells a story: His daughter has given him a beautiful and rare fountain pen. She knows he loves fine writing instruments. He feels blessed; it feels like a good omen; maybe he can still write something beautiful.

They check into an inn in Princeton for several days of psychoanalysis meetings his wife will attend; he will write with his pen. The first day they stay in a dark and gloomy room until they can be moved the next day to another that is full of light and spacious, with trees in bloom outside. The staff has carefully moved all their things to the new room.

He settles down to write … but where is his pen? It is nowhere to be found. He quizzes the staff, most of whom don’t speak English but recognize his plight. Everyone tries; the pen is gone. He sits in his beautiful room, desolate and bereft, into the afternoon.

Eventually, a knock, and a tiny Oriental woman stands there, wrinkled and speaking a torrent of incomprehensible words. He doesn’t understand; she perseveres, beckoning, will not give up, races down the corridor waving, eventually infecting him with enough energy to follow to a closet where she, voila!, produces a pen.

It is his! She is grinning with happiness, and he realizes her tugging at his sleeve, not giving up, running down the corridor with him—“that, too, is love.”

In such ways we often come back to what we knew as children about the nature of love and our connection to others. Merry Christmas!


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