A bookstore's slant on the state of the land

A bookseller casts his eye about for clues to our times, based on the year's taste in calendars and books and decades and Steve Jobs.


Steve Jobs at an Apple Developers conference

Steve Jobs at an Apple Developers conference acaben (Ben Stanfield)/Flickr

There is a particular view from a bookshop, a boots on the ground, who is in and who is out, unfolding. The titans go by, the dealers go by, the pony tails walk backward explaining to lost grown up newcomers where they might be. The bums have a season and the waiters have a season and the brokers wave their arms for people who do not yet know what season they have. Your garbage man, as they say, knows not only about you but how you are doing.

Some things come clear in the shop. Calendars, for example, give very clear signals. For the most part, I buy the same calendars in roughly the same quantity for each year. And sometimes it snows and one December it was even too warm, like a glass of milk left on the counter, too warm for Christmas.

But curiously, some years, people did not want to know the date, they did not want it out front of them. They resisted the year to come, out of fear, or doubt or hesitancy. Two years ago, it was like that. Sure, they bought calendars but less, and with less pleasure and less animation. They did not want the dates.

This year, they want the dates. It is clear as the metal sound of a bell, they want to know, they are looking forward to it. They want to know how the month looks, as a whole and they want the week on the two pages. They are more electronic than ever in the history of humans yet they want to carry a datebook, they want to see a calendar on the wall at home and have one near the phone. They want to know what is coming, not digitally but on paper, a human instinct of wanting it in writing.

And they are specific and physical about it. Calendars are like underwear, you are with them every day and some suit you, for very particular reasons and you remember the ones that work and the ones that irritated.

There is a fine Italian calendar maker in Milan that has understood the intimacy of calendars and supplied them for 50 years. Everyone can tell you the very week that their calendars arrive in the shops. Last year, for some reason, they altered one of their calendars, adding lines and time to each day. It is not a calendar I use so I did not notice but the fury was immediate. Many were left homeless and some were purchased with the promise, "this will make me angry every day!"

I emailed the problem to Bernard in Italy and he admitted, "it is a disaster, a disaster in Italy as well. " This year, the lines were gone, sales resumed, it was okay again. The makers, in a tough economic year, were cautious, no one wants to be looking at their own dated product once the year has begun. And no one is sure — if they knew, yes, this year, they will want the date, they will want to know, then they could adjust production volume.

Once it is your calendar, once you have filled a wall each year with the 36" x 48" Stendig monthly, alternate black and white pages, big enough to gift wrap a new boxed Miele vacuum, then that is the wall and when they come for their new one, they expect it to be there. We have shipped one to Dublin every December, at considerable cost and delay and doubt and if it arrived too wounded from travel, they insisted we try again, they would gladly invest in a second try.

Thirty or so years ago in the bookshop, Palladio, the classic Italian architect of Villa Rotondi, Katsura, the classic Japanese template of craft and architecture, and Greene and Greene, the Pasadena architects of the classic American Arts and Crafts — these were our most ennobled titles. They were all new books, produced with great care, and they lead the way, you could not be without them. You needed, as well, the books of Eric Sloane, the New England woodworker, and the Atlas of Washington, a spiral bound overlook of the state in geographic and historic scale.

Now, 30 years later, the very same themes are being published again — two new books on Katsura, three on Palladio, Richard Sennett's essay The Craftsman, Derek Taylor's Historical Atlas of Oregon and Washington. It is the call of the core, a kind of liberal Tea Party of what is still what.

The difficulties of 2010 were myriad but none more insipid than the fear that there would be no more tide, that it had, perhaps in disgust, flatlined and we would be abandoned to single-named movies like Rage and Contagion, a entire public bent over their phones, and lettuce from somewhere delivered by Amazon.

But in 2011, the tide started again to come in. No one hired, no one hired, through even the lure of Spring, no one hired. Then, slowly, by Fall, slowly, person by person, they have started to hire, with heads down yet but at least starting. And we put away most of the ugly marketing books and cleared room for brand new titles, brilliant new books on information design and material design. How now obvious that the task will be to make sense of this new tide, to make sense, to present sense and to use the new senses.

For the Chinese, it was the Year of the Rabbit and now the Dragon. For this land, it was the Year of the Madmen, both in television shows and in fact. A year waged in Corporation, waged stunningly by mostly men, in the fashion of Madmen. Two new books came as catalogs of Mid Century Modernism, the first essential salute to the Midwest and to California of the '50s. George Nelson opened at the Bellevue Art Museum. Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, Nelson — they have been published before of course, but near always from Europe. Now the honor has come to the home States.

It was a year of Madmen. And who more so than Steve Jobs, perhaps the final Madman, who set such a pace and brilliance and breadth that Madmen seemed the only sense. Jobs, like Thomas Keller the French Laundry chef, or even Stanley McChrystal, the Four Star general former head in Afghanistan — each an ascetic, each a loner, each a feared direct stare — they were the priests. Hollow cheeked white men with near-death determination, of such sacrifice that it is near selfish, walking alone in black turtlenecks. The clipped Madmen.

But now the head of Apple is roundfaced and Afghanistan is a different mess and the Corporations are long from admiration and Jobs did fire 63 nurses and his factories are a hell hole and the Madmen are a bit narrow for the task.


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