The Life and Death and Life of the indie bookstore

Last week one of my favorite mystery writers made a few rare book signing appearances beginning in Phoenix, then on to Houston and other cities after that. I live in Austin and Mr Charles Finch wasn’t stopping in Austin, but his Houston signing was on a Monday and I love booksignings, so I decided to take a mini road trip. 
I coerced a book-loving friend to accompany my madness and off we drove down hwy 71 to hwy 10, speeding a little to get to the signing by 6:30. Charles Finch writes a great mystery series set in victorian London called “the Charles Lenox mysteries”, and has written 10 or 11 (or 12) books. He’s won awards and critical acclaim and can boast a large and significant fan base. You can even buy his books translated into German or Russian. 
So you might think his publishers would position his book signings in big book stores like Barnes and Noble in the River Oaks Shopping Center, but you would be wrong. To quote Mr. Finch, “I can’t imagine better starting spots than The Poisoned Pen Bookstore (in Phoenix) and Murder by the Book (in Houston) – two of the stores that every writer in the whisper network knows are truly special homes for readers and book lovers.” 
Charles Finch chose small, independent book stores for his book signings, and this can be seen as an important turning point for printed books. Not so long ago prophets were predicting the demise of the small, independent book store. 
First the big box stores opened with cheap books and coffee bars, then Amazon opened for business. The number of independent booksellers fell 40 percent in five years as people chose to shop online rather than visit a physical store. Then the Kindle arrived and many analysts were saying it was the end of the printed book. 

But something unexpected happened—from 2009 till today, we’ve  seen an almost 40 percent increase in small, independent book stores. The truth is, if you are a reader or a book lover, there is nothing more satisfying than wandering aimlessly through a cozy bookstore handling actual books, finding yourself drawn to a cover, or a first paragraph, or a fat leather arm chair in the corner of a shop, or standing in a the check out line talking about your newest find.
As Charles Finch reminds us, we readers are always on the look out for our special ‘homes‘, and there is nothing more gratifying than knowing the retail book industry is stronger than ever. 

Ambassador to the World

I was a precocious six year old. When my parents had a dinner party, they paraded me around, their eldest daughter, the daughter who could read at five and spell “Nebbucadnezzer” without a mistake while standing in front of you.

Like most parents, they loved to show me off. They would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would parrot back, “I’m an artist and I want to work in an embassy.Work in an embassy? I didn’t even know what that meant.

I knew what it meant to be an artist. I made a tiny sculpture of Rodins’ “The Thinker” out of plaster in my art class, and a painting of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in tempera paint, so I knew I was well on my way to a career as a professional artist.

But I truly had no idea what it meant to work in an embassy. I love practicing my Spanish, so I thought, maybe, ambassadors learned different languages and traveled to foreign countries and made friends with everyone, but how would one go about getting a job like that?

As I grew up I never really thought of that ambassador dream. It faded from my memory as surely as the face of my fourth grade art teacher. An achievable goal? No, just the silly rambling thoughts of an idealistic child. It wasn’t until this year, traveling with my husband, that I re-remembered my ancient dream of becoming an ambassador.

When I look back on each year with my guy, I can remember planning for Portugal, Italy, Russia, Quebec, London, New York, studying each language and set of customs, and growing more and more excited thinking about the new people I’d meet.

My husband recently answered a question, “Where is your wife’s favorite place for a vacation?” and he said, “Any place she hasn’t been.”  He knows me so well.

Seriously, I’ll engage in conversation with anyone in any country. I’m an American. I represent. I take my jobseriously.

My husband’s good friend and genius bass player told me, in all seriousness, “Musicians are the true ambassadors of the world”, and I felt a stirring inside, and a deep, secret voice whispered “Me too.” I am now realizing my long-buried childhood dream, without even being aware of it.  

Ring in the New Year. . . With a book!

Happy New Year! Iceland boasts one of the coziest of New Years traditions—residents customarily gift a book and a box of chocolates, and everyone sits up all night reading into the new year.
I have my own New Years tradition, one I’ve somehow kept going for about 15 years. At the end of December I post a book recommendation I consider essential for each of the 12 astrological signs, to help you navigate the coming year. 
2018 was a year to test our strength of character, 2019 will encourage re-establishing a new, stable normal, emphasis on ‘new’. Areas of your life you thought were solid and reliable will change and you’ll see everything in a new light. 
If you don’t like change, this year may be a bit de-stabilizing, like trying to stand up in a canoe. Stay positive—the end of this cycle will result in a big reward.
This year’s a good time for clearing out anything old, anything that doesn’t serve your new life direction. Like renovating an old house without tearing the whole thing down, you can renovate your life. 
Invest in anything that’s durable, long-lasting, support industries like building and renovation, get interested in agriculture and growing things, especially traditionally used in healing. Trade with well-established businesses with clean, long range goals. 
Slow down, restructure and seriously assess the value of everything in your life. Pay attention to your health and your daily routine, change bad habits and replace them slowly and surely with a new regimen. 
But 2019 will also be fun. I’ve looked into the astrology for next year, and the critical factors necessary to increase your enjoyment. To make this year work more smoothly, look below to find my recommendation for your book. It’s not chocolate, but it may help sprinkle a bit of sparkly pink happiness on your year. 
CapricornThe world is currently inundated with Capricorn energy. Your life is important, your decisions are important, and your need for all this energy to have real meaning becomes crucial. That’s why the book “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters” by Harold Kushner is also crucial reading.
Sagittarius2019 is your year to fly. It’s time for you to shine, earn, and be the best of your best. Learn the 12 principles for developing a culture of excellence so your success is a permenant thing by reading “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol S. Dweck. It’s the perfect book to jumpstart your new you.
Scorpioit’s THE year to re-define, re-configure, and re-brand what you do for money. Read Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers — and Seize Success” by Dr. Dawn Graham and you’ll see it’s not as scary as it may seem.
LibraYou’re now urged to discover new ways of comprehending and communicating. You may say the quest to find different, bigger, better ways of communicating is like learning a new skill. So here’s a quick textbook, even available in audiobook: “It’s the Way You Say It (Second Edition) Becoming Articulate, Well-Spoken, and Clear” by Carol A Fleming PhD. This is much like putting your mouth where your money is.
Virgo2019 will feel like a puppet master is pulling your strings and making you dance. Creativity, publicity and fun will test whether you can indeed have too much of a good thing. To balance the demands of that side of your life, ground yourself in house, home, and family. This year’s favorite? “Homebody: A Guide to Creating Spaces You Never Want to Leave by Joanna Gaines”. Pay attention to your home this year and you won’t go wrong.
Leo: Yes, this is one of those years where you work. A lot. I’m not suggesting you slow down at all. I’m just saying you can find a way to enjoy yourself at work more. Read “Have More Fun: How to Be Remarkable, Stop Feeling Stuck, and Start Enjoying Life” by Mandy Arioto. Once you get started, it will become a life strategy for you.
CancerOrganizing the disparate elements of your life so that every day is a smoothly running machine may be a secret dream of yours but the process could make you stressed. “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World” by William H. McRaven. It the perfect antidote to ‘chore fatigue’.
Gemini2019 is all about the relationships you’ve built to this point in your personal timeline. The relationships you carry with you into next year just may be permenant. Study “Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts” by James O. Pawelski and Suzann Pileggi Pawelski. Or, a business partnership, or a band . . .
TaurusThe classic image of a big, comfy arm chair, slippers, a roaring fire in the fireplace and a good book could be describing your favorite evening, Taurus. Usually. But this year you travel all over the world, to places where you need your passport and maybe a little advice. So I suggest you read “Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2018” to soak up the tips. The book is a year’s worth of travel inspiration to take you into some unforgettable life experiences. Get ready.
Ariesyou charge into 2019 like a race horse at the starting gate. You’ve never been in this position before, where you just need to decide on your next career move and good ju ju rushes to make it happen. Your eagerness to experience new things makes it possible for open doors to open enabling you to study, teach and travel. So don’t second guess it—Read “ The Career Manifesto: Discover Your Calling and Create an Extraordinary life by Mike Steib. You dream of a meaningful, rewarding career so read this book right now.
Pisces You’ve acquired some serious power and influence, and it’s the real thing. People look to you for leadership now, and your words carry a lot of weight. To help you navigate this intense and unusual time I’m recommending the book ”The Elements of Power: Lessons on Leadership and Influence” by Terry R. Bacon. Bask in this special time period and make the most out of it.
AquariusThis year is more of a private rather than a public time for you, and your work behind the scenes will pay off big later. When groups or clubs, (especially humanitarian groups) appeal to you to join, go for it—they’ll benefit you later. In the mean time, stay on course with the help of this little book “You Are a Badass Every Day: How to Keep Your Motivation Strong, Your Vibe High, and Your Quest for Transformation Unstoppable” by Jen Sincero. You can get a lot done this year.

The Assumption of Happiness

It’s the holidays, and airports and hotels everywhere are overrun with travelers and booked solid. I love hotels, let’s just get that out of the way. My husband and I stay in hotels all over the world, and I have a few opinions about what makes a great hotel. My husband on the other hand,,  because  hotels are a huge part of his working life, has a list of requirements.  
For instance, he doesn’t understand why more hotel rooms aren’t equipped with hooks. A hook by the door for your overcoat, hooks in the bathroom for your hanging toiletry bag, etc. To him, the lack of hotel room hooks is one of life’s great mysteries. 
He needs a quiet hotel room but in a busy section of town so he can walk out the hotel front door and easily find food. He likes conveniently situated wall plugs, a good bed and blackout curtains. I like all that stuff too but this year I discovered another necessary ingredient for a great hotel—happiness. 
We had the unexpected privilege of spending several nights in London in one of the worlds great hotels—The Langham. At the Langham everyone is happy to see you. If you ask for a croissant to take away from breakfast at one of their many restaurants they give you three, in the loveliest pink, origami purse-like box. They hand it to you with a big smile. You accept it like a gift and smile back. 
If you ask any one of the myriad of employees a question they immediately pause to listen to you as if standing there in the foyer of the hotel chatting with you for five minutes makes them happy. If you stop one of the housekeeping staff for a towel,  they smile and share antecdotes. The front desk managers always know your name. 
At breakfast one morning I said to my husband’s boss, “Everyone here is so happy!” He answered,  “Or, it’s the assumption of happiness, isn’t it?”  And just like that, it hit me: Thats the secret sauce in successful hotels, or business or life in general—The assumption of happiness. 
What if every person on your team operated under the assumption of happiness, and every interaction they have transfers that assumption? I assume every employee at The Langham Hotel is happy.  If I lived in that hotel forever. I’d soak up all that saturated happiness, then take it with me and pass it on in my next interactions.
And that’s the magic of assuming happiness, you ‘act as if’ and before you know it, it becomes your reality, everyone around you is happy. In fact, I’m going to operate under the assumption of happiness for the rest of this year. 2019 I’ll re-asses.

Sleeping in other people’s beds

My husband’s mother has been ensconced in an upscale ‘retirement community’ in California since her stroke on my watch seven years ago. We frequently spend weekends in Southern California visiting her there, but my husband stays in hotels for his work so we began looking for another option. Air B and B. Duh.

Our first Air B and B experience was a house in ‘The Valley’, in what appeared to be a couples spare room. The hosts really took their hosting seriously and we had a coffee maker in our room and everything.

We got a tour when we checked in, but I couldn’t help but notice the scale of the furniture. Even the art seemed too big, as if it once resided in much larger, grander circumstances than the little white track house in the Los Angeles valley.

Okay, that was our first novice experience. We kept trying. I really wanted to fine-tune my instincts and possibly find the perfect place, so I downloaded the app, signed in, and started scrolling. I found a lovely house in Woodland Hills for our last trip to see my mother-in-law. We were ushered into our new, temporary quarters by our host and apparently his daughter was away at college because we got her room.

Now that was an odd experience. I could see probably every book the girl ever read in her life from my side of her bed, because they were all still in her bookcases, lined up like little soldiers. They were organized in alphabetical order from kindergarten (the bottom shelf of the bookcase) to her high school years (the top shelf and on a shelf over the desk). As I read the titles on their spines I’ll admit I was tempted. I love young adult fiction.

This Air BNB thing is odd, if you really look at it. You’re traveling, you don’t want a hotel but you don’t have any friends you can stay with. You download an app on your phone or look up a website on your computer and presto. Like magic you have dozens of folk perfectly willing to step in and let you stay in their house—for a price.

It’s kind of an odd combination of gambling and nosey-parker-ing, because you never really know what you’re going to get (no matter what the posted photos look like) and you acquire a brief glimpse into other lives. For the most part you aren’t connected to these other lives in any way except they have a spare bed and you need a place to sleep.

It becomes a weird, voyeuristic experience, intimacy without actual intimacy, like staying with friends who aren’t you really friends.

Quite often the hosts encourage you to use their kitchen, their pool, their hot tubs. I’ve never felt comfortable rooting around in a strangers kitchen, and there’s hardly ever time to use the pool. If our particular room didn’t have a separate entrance we would need to walk in through your hosts front door, with their key.

That’s the odd thing, when you think about it. It used to be a standard parental warning, “don’t get into cars with strangers” but now with Uber and Lyft, we do it all the time. And, pay some stranger person to sleep in their bed without ever meeting them first? Yes, we do this–we do this willingly.

Losing your luggage (can be a good thing)

It was my husbands birthday on the tenth of September. Since he travels so much we always try to plan to be together for our birthdays, wherever he happens to be, and this year it was Bolivia.

I left for the airport on the 9th and took my shoulder bag, small carry-on and one medium sized checked bag. Most ladies I know would consider this ‘traveling light’.

That day it poured. Weather delayed my flight into Houston. And delayed. And delayed. I landed in Houston ten minutes after my connection to Peru took off, and there was no flight into Peru from Houston until the next day.i would have to spend the night in Houston or search for an alternative.

A very sweet and helpful agent rerouted me, so four planes (Austin to Houston Texas, Houston to Santiago Chile, Santiago to Lima Peru, Lima to La Paz Bolivia) and 36 hours later I’m finally in La Paz. Unfortunately my checked bag was not.

Of course my husband’s birthday gifts were in that bag and that was that. So, the jeans and boots I had on, one light shirt, one long turtleneck sweater and the little leather jacket I bought in Rome were all I had to wear. But I was in La Paz, an incredible city. The airport was built on top of a mountain at the highest peak so driving down the mountain zig-zagging through those narrow streets was the beginning of a true adventure.

Everywhere were faces resembling ancient Incan sculptures. La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world and you felt it. The hotel provided bowls of coca leaves and hot water for tea, supposed to relieve the altitude issues.

We went sightseeing in their new air tram system to the top of the mountains, astounded by the views of terra cotta buildings climbing up every square foot of mountainside as far as the eye could see.

After his show, Pat signed autographs for a young musician who promptly burst into tears—that night was his birthday, and he’d been a Pat Mastelotto fan since he was nine. Meeting Pat was a dream for him.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world, musical events aren’t cheap, even there, and I was reminded once again how often we make an impact on people’s lives without even knowing it—and put my lost bag into perspective.

On day four my bag magically arrived intact (minus a wheel). I opened it and stared at the contents in wonder. What made me think I needed all of that stuff?

I had an ‘a-ha’ moment of crystal clarity, comparing my first-world view of traveling with the truth: I had the clothes on my back and my husband. Everything else was just dust in the wind. Then I gave Pat his birthday presents.

🎶 “When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?” 🎶

From the moment our sleeper train pulled into the Vienna station, that old Billy Joel song began buzzing through my head and didn’t stop until our plane touched down 3 days later in Chicago. I found myself humming it through my tour of the magnificent Klimt paintings and statues of great men who died long before America was born.

I stood people watching by the staircase in The Belvedere Museum and had a moment of realization—I was probably surrounded by representatives of the whole world. All around me swarmed young families, little old ladies traveling together, groups of students, romantic couples, all chattering in languages I strained to identify. It would seem we had the same agenda that day: We would immerse ourselves in the power of art. And just by looking at us, you couldn’t separate us into countries or religious beliefs or political affiliation.

It was hot in Vienna, as hot as it was in Los Angeles, so it wasn’t only California burning up—Vienna was too.. And so was Sweden. Russian parents are worried about terrorism and a brutal government, just like us. Norway is so concerned about alcoholism they hit alcohols with a high tax. England fights pollution in London by attempting to limit the number of cars entering the city limits. If you buy a pack of cigarettes in Europe expect to see a giant black warning emblazoned on the front of each pack, bigger than the brand logo.

You’ve probably heard the statistic “Less than 10% of Americans own passports” so I googled it. While that may have been true in 1998, it’s not true today. Far from it—Americans are at 48% and rising. So, though over half our country still never leaves the comfort of their own borders, the rest of us travel like mad. And for those of us who travel, the world is a much smaller, friendlier place than some would have us believe.

It’s not “Us” versus “Them” anymore. We’re all one big, homogenized Earth family no matter how much that concept scares some people. Please don’t buy into the fear mongers who’s intent is to frighten us. Frightened anxious people are easier to control. The reality of our world is, we’re all in this together. If you need proof, just come to Vienna—it’s waiting for you.

Accepting what we are—the right way

A Facebook post I saw recently posed this question: Which astrological Sun sign would you choose to be instead of the one you are? Well, I was born when the Sun was in Scorpio. Black and white. Wrong. Right. All or nothing. Tell anyone you are a Scorpio and you get this raising of the eyebrow thing and an ”ohhhh”, like they really know. When I was a teenager (and back then everyone asked), I actually said I was a Sagittarius—it seemed to take the edge off.

Once I began to truly study astrology I learned I there were four planets in Scorpio and no planets in Sagittarius at the time I was born, so that whole, “I am really a Sagittarius” thing went right out the window. I was obviously very Scorpio.

Then I spent much of my adult life allowing the ‘all or nothing’ intense, passionate, ridiculous Scorpionic thing to determine my actions. Enough already.

Now I know. When you are born with the sun in a certain sign, it’s because you are in this life to master the aspects of that Sun sign, positive and negative. As astrologist Steven Forrest would say, I am not ‘a Scorpio’—I’m ‘Scorpio-ing’. We aren’t supposed to wallow in our stuff, or allow ourselves to be buffeted about by it, or use our Sun sign as an excuse.

We have the task to show the rest of the world how to do ‘this’ the right way, and it may take all of this lifetime to do it. Allowing a passionate nature or any other aspect of our personalities to control us can cause lots of problems for us and those around us.

Now, I try to take the middle road, the peaceful way. I find, like Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled has made all the difference. Moderation is the hardest road, but it’s the most rewarding. Strange coming from a Scorpio. But I believe in the wave pattern as a physics and life principal.

Now I would rather float on the small, luscious, sweetly lapping waves off the beach in Playa Del Carmen than try to surf those intense, crashing, impossible-to-swim-in-and-freezing-waves (where someone was eaten by a great white, by the way) off the rocky beach in La Jolla, thank you. Every time.

Trying to live my life like A Boss

How can I be the boss of anyone, when I am just barely the boss of my own life? I’m asking this as I check my bank balance because this week I deposited a check into my savings account instead of my checking account and now I’m overdrawn. I would love to blame the smiling tellers crammed into the Wells Fargo drive-through box like veal, but no. It’s me. Like the small sign on Teddy Roosevelt’s desk, ‘The Buck Stops Here’. The buck stops at me, or rather at my desk if I had one. This is the flip-side of small business entrepreneurship—It doesn’t matter who did or didn’t do what, at the end of the day it’s all your fault, all of it. As A Boss you give credit for the good stuff to your team, but if something isn’t working it’s up to you to fix it. And that’s a scary thought. I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses and the skills necessary for running a successful business, more often than not, fall on the side of ‘Stuff I Don’t Do Well’. For instance, I’m trying to sign up for an on-line Illustrator class. It’s taken me three weeks—three friggin weeks—to figure out how to even sign up on-line for that class. And they want to know I’ve taken photoshop first (which I haven’t). So of course this leaves the big, elephant-in-the room question: If I’m having trouble signing up, how am I going to manage the class work? Yeah. Now, imagine if I were your boss. It scares even me. I didn’t start out in life to be A Boss, but I’m naturally Boss-y. It’s a character flaw. So now, here I am. I actually have ten or eleven, maybe twelve, could be thirteen now, employees. They aren’t all full time, but I am in charge of their job. They all depend on me for rent and mortgages and groceries, and child care and car payments. They arrive to work every morning and leave every night and come to me when they have “issues” and get upset with me when I don’t solve their problems immediately, and never doubt that I can. Solve their problems, that is. Unlike me.

14 Life Lessons from The Great British Baking Show

If you know me you tolerate my obsession with the original Great British Baking Show. Each season begins with about 12 amature bakers and progressively tortures them with difficult and obscure baking challenges designed to eliminate them one by one. It’s much like the TV show ‘Survivor” but very British. And very sweet. Nobody’s hair is perfect, no one is trash-talking anyone behind their backs. When one of them is asked to go, big group hug. We can learn a lot from this.

Here are some life lessons gleaned from The Great British Baking Show:

1. You can be really, really good at something and still meet someone better than you.

2. Mistakes happen. How you handle them is what’s important.

3. You don’t have to create drama or villify people when they (or you) have to, or choose to, leave. Hug, smile, and move forward.

4. More often than not, being consistent is more important than showing off.

5. If someone tells you they want you to do something, and you don’t do it but you give them something else, don’t be surprised if they aren’t happy.

6. You use math and chemistry more often than you think.

7. No matter how pretty a pastry is, it still has to taste good.

8. Meltdowns are never pleasant to witness. Nor are they productive.

9. Do your homework.

10. When you bravely stretch outside your comfort zone, what you can accomplish will astound even you.

11. There’s nothing wrong with learning as you go.

12. Really know your basics. This alone may keep you out of trouble.

13. You don’t have to be the star of the show to make a big difference.

14. The pursuit of your goal can be more important than what you actually win, ie: Spending ten weekends baking in a tent with a bunch of strangers to win an engraved cake plate and an armful of flowers.

But. Afterwards . . . contestant Richard Burr wrote a book on baking, ‘BIY: Bake it Yourself’, Luis Troyano wrote ‘Bake It Great’, Chetna Makan wrote ‘The Cardamom Trail’ and ‘Chai, Chaat & Chutney: A Street Food Journey Through India’. Martha Collison wrote two baking books, ‘Twist’ and ‘Crave’ and she also has a weekly column with Waitrose. Jane Beedle has appeared on tv, including a spot making muffins on TV’s ‘Lorraine’.

Ian Cummings developed recipes for food brands, created a classic Thai green curry for Cambridge News, and wrote about baking bread in an Icelandic volcano for the Telegraph.

Ruby Tandoh wrote ‘Crumb: The Baking Book’ and ‘Flavour: Eat What You Love’. Ruby writes for The Guardian, co-founded “Do What You Want” and wrote a new book about body image and feminism “Eat Up: Appetite and Eating what you want.

And by the way, NONE of these personalities and successful cookbook authors actually WON The Great British Baking Show—they just participated their hearts out.