Friday, April 08, 2011

The Poetry Mines

Why doesn't anyone buy poetry? Geezamarooni! If I knew why, I'd fix it. Maybe it's because poets use words like "geezamarooni."

My husband and I turned our art gallery/poetry studio/theatre into an independent bookstore at the beginning of the year. (Now the money will really come rolling in!) We've published collections of poetry for the past seven years. Poetry titles don't exactly fly off the shelves. We've witnessed the trend, and continue to see it in the teensy checks we chase from distributors (sales there aren't all that brisk either and they like to keep the money for as long as they can), the few times a month we see a sale online, and the once or twice someone stops by to pick up a title. What sells poetry? When poets give readings from their books. I'm pretty sure the audience feels obligated to buy. The poet is right in front of them. Buying a book is their way to get out the door and on to a dirty martini.

The entire left wall of our store is dedicated to poetry. There is a series of four shelves mounted on the wall right when you walk in that feature poetry books, and in the middle of the left wall is a large, wooden shelving unit from a school library with a magazine rack below that holds all of the Paper Kite titles. We are loaded with poetry here. The visual, the lexical, the Ijustdon'tgetitacal. Bern Porter's Found Poems, Improvisations by Vernon Fraser, the tender collection of Kristin Prevallet that appears to be sold upon inspection, but I later find mis-shelved, of course. Kenneth Patchen. Denise Duhamel. I spend my days gazing at spines that stand as straight as capital I's. Maybe that's the problem. Poetry just feels too self-centered, too prone to introspection. Novels transport the reader.

We have a few regular customers in our store. There's a man who always asks about 19th century diaries. Another wants books about world religions. When prompted to check out some poetry, he said, "I don't know what it is about poetry. I just don't like having to read things more than once." He never finishes the hot chocolate he makes for himself either.

Books facing out sell first. Most people don't like to paw through books, squint to read the mouseprint titles of the spines, or disrupt the 64-crayons-in-the-box order of things. However, poetry books facing out don't sell. Their cover designs just plead.

I'm pretty sure you become stupider for not reading poetry. That's right, you become downright dumber if you don't at least pepper your gluttonous meal of autobiographies, fashion magazines, and novels with poems. I owe thanks to many poets not just for the garniture of their writing (I've been wanting to use that word!), but for the empathy that comes from their poems, the delicious word pairings, the sensory delights, the new ways of seeing. For me, long stretches of reading poetry feel like philosophical dumpster dives. I come up breathless, with hands full of treasures no one else wanted. Fools! Remember Hector the Collector by Shel Silverstein? I think Hector was a poet.

Mine, mine, mine!

I mean that as a verb. Read poetry.


Jodi said...

I love, love, love this, but I would love it even more if the poetry books were flying off of your shelves. With wings. Onto trees outside of the people's homes who would read them, but have to go out and pluck them off like ripe plums. When plucked, the money would appear in your cash register.


lyd said...

Put the poetry on the right as you enter and more people will look at it.

I can offer no guarantees about what happens after the looking.

Indigo Bunting said...

Someday I would love to visit this bookstore. Sigh.

Deloney said...

When I had a secondhand bookstore the only poetry that sold fairly well were the French symbolists/surrealists and the Beats. And only on Saturdays when the 20-something hipsters-in-training came in.

Deloney said...

I forgot: the rock 'n' roll poets sold too -- Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll.

Jenny Hill said...

Someone came in yesterday asking for a "skinny dictionary." She picked up a book of poems to illustrate the size she was after -- so at least the poetry section got a little action.

Jenny Hill said...

Don't forget Jewel! Where was your store?

Deloney said...

Toronto. Are you familiar with Toronto? It was on the Danforth, the street where I've lived for eons.

Jenny Hill said...

I've only been in Toronto a couple of times. The Danforth sounds familiar. I'd love to hear about your experiences as a bookseller.