Independent bookseller and local-business advocate Andrew Laties believes we should pay to live in the kind of world we want. In Rebel Bookseller, he draws on experiences from his 30 years in the industry to illustrate the need for consumer activism and awareness.
Laties, who speaks here on Monday, dismisses the excuse of generous savings from chain stores as an alternative to investing in one's community.
"If you can pay $10 to see a movie for two hours, you can go to your local bookstore and consider the hour you spend browsing as part of the cost," says Laties, by phone, from New York. "Let's stop judging purchases based on how much money we save, and instead, let's judge based on the quality of life that is represented by these local businesses."
Laties currently manages the Eric Carle Museum Bookshop in Amherst, Mass. He insists that the "sadomasochistic" relationship between chain booksellers and publishers creates higher prices for consumers, based primarily on the amount of product these stores demand to keep their shelves full.
The result: Chains place exorbitant orders, on credit, that yield massive returns of unsold books. That costs the publishers revenue, a loss they pass on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
Now, big-box stores are declining; witness the recent collapse of Borders. That makes Laties optimistic about the possibility for independent bookstores to rebound -- even in the shadow of online mega-retailers, like Amazon.
"If it's true that Borders has closed down, Walden[books] and Dalton are out of business, and all that's left standing is Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, then it should be easier for publishers to stand up to companies and make room for the indie seller again," he says.
If big boxes aren't overordering stock, Laties says, publishers should be able to reduce their prices. If that happens, the discounts offered by online retailers won't warrant a week's wait to read a book. He suggests consumers make small efforts to put their money back into the community, however unaffordable it may seem.
"If, for the time being, you want to be a freeloader and buy what's cheap, that's fine," he says. "But plan to contribute to a world where independent businesses can survive, and hopefully thrive."
Laties signs books and lends his voice to a free panel discussion on buying local, at 6-8 p.m. Mon., Oct. 3, at Copacetic Comics.
Other panelists include Jovon Higgins, from 720 Music, Clothing & Café; Frank Otero, from Eljay's Used Books; and Copacetic's Bill Boichel.
Copacetic Comics (412-251-5451) is located at 3138 Dobson St., Polish Hill.
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman has been nationally recognized for efforts to revive his adopted hard-luck mill town, not least with art. The project has already birthed a gallery, UnSmoke Art Space, where artists also inhabit studios upstairs in the former St. Michael’s Catholic School.
The building houses studios for a few writers, too. And so Fetterman says he had another idea, one he expresses in a way you won’t hear too many mayors utter: “I just figured, ‘Hey, let’s do a residency.’” An annual one, for writers, that is.
He got help from Marc Nieson — a writer with studio space at UnSmoke — along with local fiction writer Sherrie Flick, of the Gist Street Reading Series, and UnSmoke director Jeb Feldman. And they picked a building: the renovated former convent next door to UnSmoke, both right across Braddock Avenue from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant. The residency is called Into the Furnace.
And on Sept. 10, novelist, short-story writer and educator Josh Barkan (pictured) moved in to two furnished rooms and got to work. You can meet him, and hear him read, at Gist Street’s annual Wood-Fired Words event, this Sat., Oct. 1.
“I like a kind of urban, gritty environment,” says Barkan, 42. He was recruited by Nieson, who knew him from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While Barkan had never been to Pittsburgh, he has lived all over: as a kid, thank partly to parents who were globe-trotting academics, he called Califronia, Tanzania, Kenya, Paris and India home. As an adult, he’s taught in Japan, and he came to Braddock straight from two years in Mexico City.
Interviewed by phone less than three weeks into the nine-month residency, Barkan sounded like he’s enjoying his stay.
The old convent (owned by Fetterman’s nonprofit group) is nicely refurbished. (Visiting artists often stay there.) Barkan is sharing it with a few other tenants, including three young AmeriCorps volunteers.
While most writer residencies last no more than six weeks, Flick says, Into the Furnace is nine months long, so the resident will “actually have time to be part of the community.” Nearby are Braddock’s urban farm, an apiary and the town’s revived Carnegie Library.
Barkan has dived right in, and not just by writing. He likes the fact that he’s actually meeting local folks, not just residency staffers. “It’s much more personal than what I see in other places.”
“He’s a great cook, too,” adds Fetterman. “He cooked dinner for about 20 of us. He started a tradition where Monday is family dinner night.”
Barkan’s credentials include a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and teaching stints at Harvard, NYU and Boston University. He’s known for his short-story collection Before Hiroshima (The Toby Press) and the novel Blind Speed (Northwestern University Press).
Barkan says living in Braddock reminds him of the eight years he spent in Boston, another city with a lot invested in its history. “That’s one thing that’s really striking me here, that sense of historic rootedness,” he says.
Admittedly, history is hard to escape living in an old convent in the shadow of Andy Carnegie’s first steel mill.
Barkan also likes how art projects like murals and mosaics combine with things like a new playground to create positive energy in Braddock. “You can see the difference.”
But Barkan says Braddock hasn’t crept into his writing yet: He usually doesn’t start writing about a place until he leaves it. In fact, he’s now working on stories about Mexico City.
Saturday, Barkan will read from Blind Speed. The 2008 novel’s protagonist is a former member of a formerly almost-famous rock band who now teaches American studies at a Boston community college; the book begins with his fiance getting shot (not fatally) by a Revolutionary War historical re-enactor.
In good communitarian fashion, Wood-Fired Words also has food (pizza from the outdoor community brick oven next to UnSmoke) and a BYOB policy; art, with painter John Fleenor’s exhibit Meet the News Team; music, by The Emily Pinkerton Trio; and more, including a pop-up used-book store by Lesley Rains.
Admission is just $5. The feeding begins at 7 p.m., the reading at 8 p.m.
UnSmoke (unsmokeartspace.com) is located at 1137 Braddock Ave., Braddock.
The troupe's Midnight Radio series is a good chance to see local stage talent let their hair down. That might seem a funny thing to say about old-school-radio-style plays where sound takes precedence over image. But watching/hearing folks you've seen do Shakespeare or Stoppard break out their cartoon voices and bat around potty humor (in spoof commercials) is its own good time.
This month's edition is especially notable for the return to the stage of Jack Erdie. I first met Erdie back in the '90s, when he was co-founder of edgy little New Teeth Productions; highlights, if memory servies, included a production of American Buffalo at the Brew House.
Erdie, who grew up in West Virginia, later left Pittsburgh for what he calls (in the Bricolage program notes) "a ship-wrecked three-year attempt to launch a career in movies." He's been back here for several years now, and in fact he still acts in movies, including a role in the Pittsburgh-shot Abduction, which stars Taylor Lautner and opens today. (He's among a number of local stage actors with a sidelight in bit parts in locally shot films.) Erdie is also an estimable singer-songwriter who's just completed his third CD of original music.
Midnight Radio shows typically feature a cast of a half-dozen or so voicing maybe three times that many roles (with others helping out on sound effects and live music). Bootleggin', written by Matthew Adams and Bricolage artistic director Jeffrey Carpenter, is loosely based on the true-crime story of a gangland slaying in Prohibition-era Pittsburgh, and it gives Erdie a chance to do several roles -- at least two of them, not surprisingly, heavies.
On film, Erdie's wiry build, angular features and penetrating stare often gets him cast as a bad guy. His Midnight Radio roles include one of the Volpe brothers gunned down in the Hill District. Given the series' unstaged quality -- the actors just stand at mikes to read their lines -- it's a treat to focus on how Erdie and the other actors use their voices, rather than their faces or bodies, to evoke rage, guile, glee and fear.
Or even just how they use a miked manual typewriter to evoke machine-gun fire.
Bootleggin' continues with performances tonight and tomorrow (www.webbricolage.org).
The Jazz Poetry Concert's seventh iteration was among the better installments of the free series -- and that's not even counting the surprise appearance by the world's most famous tightrope walkers.
Yes, those were three members of The Flying Wallendas (Tino, Alex and Aurelia) doing an unannounced 20-minute tightrope routine 15 feet above the stage of the New Hazlett Theater and before the eyes of some 500 delighted audience members.
Everybody likes the circus, but the staging made this a different kind of performance art: The Wallendas enacted their feats accompanied by an audio recording of Salman Rushdie reading from his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
That made the interlude work on a couple levels. First, Rushdie is a founder of City of Asylum, a decentralized, international effort to shelter and support writers persecuted in their home countries. (Pittsburgh's incarnation, co-founded by Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, is independently run.) Second, Rushdie's reading made frequent reference to concepts like "orientation" and "stability." He was talking in cultural terms (among other metaphorical references that the night's international line-up of literary readers often echoed). But the corporeal balancing act fleshed the reading out nicely, and vice versa.
The very oddness of the Wallendas' appearance, no less than its entertainment value, might have upstaged a lesser show. That that didn't happen Saturday is due largely to the fact of Jazz Poetry stalwart and de facto music director Oliver Lake's pairing with New York-based band Tarbaby.
Simply put, the avant-jazz trio, joined by Lake on sax, tore the joint up with its three-tune first set, its closing number, and its partly improvised backing for the evening's poets.
Readers included the two current City of Asylum writers, Khet Mar (of Myanmar) and Israel Centeno, a Venezuelan who moved here in July. Khet read an essay (with a heavy political subtext), Centeno a fiction excerpt; both were accompanied by emcee Heather Pinson on violin.
But the evening really got into gear with Tarbaby's first set. Their music's dark undertow was expressed with joy. With Eric Revis' muscular articulations on stand-up bass underpinning it all, Nasheet Waits rode his drum kit like a runaway pony, Orrin Evans laced the beat with his in-control/out-of-control runs, and Lake was free to do everything from trilling to sounding a smoky riff followed by a pained squeal, muting his horn with his left knee, or thwacking his sax's valves like a percussion instrument.
Then came the Wallendas. But that didn't stop the momentum of the musicians, or of the guest poets who came next. The latter included Alexandra Petrova (who read in Russian, with translations projected on the giant screen upstage) and Hind Shoufani (Palestine).
Still, the evening hit another high with the final two poets. Tarbaby's sound, for instance, seemed especially well-suited to the somber, wintry tones of Finland's Tommi Parkko, whose translated verse included lines described phenemenon like "the severed nerve ending, the house whose walls have fallen." His poem about ice was backed by the growl of Revis' bowed bass, sounding like an iceberg's groan.
Finally came legendary poet, educator and activist Sonia Sanchez (who was celebrating her 77th birthday). Sanchez's performance style, already full of jazz influences, dovetailed powerfully with Lake and Tarbaby's, from her scat-driven poem "Peace" to the brutal "Poem for Some Women." Highlight: Lake's horn mimicking Sanchez's lunatic stage laughter as she read "Middle Passage," a poem she said was about the madness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
It was almost enough to make you forget the Flying Wallendas.
The East Liberty hangout's interweb talk show gets a visit tomorrow night from two writers who approach Pittsburgh as tourists might. And they've got interesting guests.
Dan Eldridge just released the new edition of Moon Pittsburgh, that hip publisher's guide to the city. And Anna Dubrovsky, a Pittsburgh resident, is the author of the brand-new Moon Pennsylvania. (Here's CP's recent chat with Dubrovsky)
Eldridge, a former CP music editor now living in Philadelphia, published his first take on Moon Pittsburgh four years ago. (Here's my 2007 interview with Dan on that book)
In an email promoting the Sept. 3 event, Eldridge writes that he and Dubrovsky will talk about how the city's cultural scene has changed in the four years since.
The show's guests Sept. 3 are well-positioned to help answer that question.
One is Kevin Sousa, the celebrity chef whose most recent venture, Salt of the Earth, exemplifies Pittsburgh's recent boom in innovative restaurants.
The other is Jon Rubin, the Carnegie Mellon University art professor behind the Waffle Shop (an actual East Liberty waffles-and-coffee diner with a performance-art twist). Rubin and his students also helped create the adjacent Conflict Kitchen and numerous other storefront ventures that blur the lines between art, commerce and community-building.
The Waffle Shop is located at 124 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty (www.waffleshop.org). The live-streaming webisode featuring Eldridge and Dubrovsky will be shot starting at 11 p.m. Sat., Sept. 3.