Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Where All My Boys At?

As a veteran of the bookselling world, I keep up with industry news on a daily basis. I visit several worthy websites on my jaunt around the web, catching up on new books and old friends. Indie bookstores will often post photos of their staff arrayed around this or that visiting author. I'm consistently given pause by the rarity of men in these photos (unless, of course, it's a male author). Where have all my fellow male booksellers gone?

My father was a nurse when I was growing up. My mother dressed me as a nurse for my first three Halloweens. When queried by friends, I would insist on a qualifier: "My dad is a male nurse ..." He later became an anesthetist, at which time I would tell puzzled friends, "He puts people to sleep." Do my own children feel a similar reluctance to divulge that, "My dad is a male bookseller"?

We're grateful to the wonderfully capable women who fuel our indie bookstores across the country. I hold no grudge against them, nor against the traditionally female readers who buy most of the books from our stores. Without them, our industry would be in even more dire straits. It is reported that men don't read as much as women, although god knows I'm attempting to raise my own sons to buck that trend. During the fifteen years I worked at Grass Roots Books & Music in Corvallis, Oregon, there were only two other men who held positions there aside from the owner. One of them was a barrista for our sad little coffee shop. A male barrista, I suppose ... When I come across a fellow male bookseller at conventions or gatherings, I feel like we belong to a secret club, exchanging a covert nod of the head.

While at Grass Roots, I facilitated our official store reading group for several years. My lady friends and I would meet monthly to discuss our most recent selections. One of our recurring topics was whether a male author could effectively render the female voice and psyche. What did I know? I recently began half-jokingly telling friends of a plan to assemble an all-male reading group. We would call ourselves The Li-Bros ... It's not that we would read only male authors, not an Iron John thing, but we could discuss whether female writers could get us guys in all our complexity.

Possibly motivated by this idea, my reading of late has skewed decidedly dude. Think Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin, Barry Hannah. Writers who allow few women into their stories, and who even I would argue don't really represent them too accurately. Harry Crews, Larry Brown. I recently finished a stellar read by an author named Charles Willeford, Cockfighter. Note to self: A prime candidate for the next Li-Bros meeting.

As Floor Manager of Boulder Book Store, I've taken care to achieve some balance among our bookselling staff. Younger vs. older, student vs. graduate, female vs male. I feel good about this, perhaps making up for the time I spent with the fine ladies of Grass Roots. While the boys of BBS are not an especially gruff bunch, I feel we represent the male species well enough. My secret plan is to one day send the industry a photo of several of us gathered around a visiting author. Until then, I extend a hearty invitation to my fellow fellows in the greater Boulder area. Follow your wife or a female friend into Boulder Book Store and help realign the literary universe. No need to launch a takeover, just celebrate the manly art of reading.

An all male staff photo (though, not of all our male staff members). Pictured from Left to Right and Top to Bottom: Warren, Larry, Arsen, Patrick, Digs, and Scott.