Wednesday, February 16, 2011

[The 500 Project] Building better APIA bookstores

So, what we're looking at above is what I must uncharacteristically call bullshit. I'm not going to name the store but I AM going to say it's precisely the kind of display and setting that completely leaves Lao American writers undermotivated to create new work if it's going to end up on display like dead fish.

Seriously! Dead fish!
It's a good way to sell fish, but a terrible way to sell books.

I understand space is at a premium, but this sets up a dynamic where customers don't want to buy it thinking it's cheap, creating store owners who don't want to sell it because it doesn't move and just takes up space, while writers can't leverage cost-effective publication deals, or at least get into the hands of the people who will love their writing.
Now, as Catzie is demonstrating above, the Hmong ABC Bookstore in Minnesota bucked the trend for a long time since its founding in the mid-90s, creating a great independent bookstore based on Hmong and Southeast Asian (mostly Lao) offerings. 

Over time, Hmong Arts, Books and Crafts expanded to include traditional handmade crafts, videos, CDs, tape cassettes, statues, textiles, whatever would sell. Some were published by well-known publishers, some vanity or Print-on-Demand presses, others hand-made or micro-publishers. Many were rare books or hard-to-find work, including more than a few of the early Hmong Ph.D. dissertations and even an occasional declassified US document or two.
Since the Census 2010 shows there are approximately 230,000 Lao across the US, especially in California and Texas, I think our community could support a Lao American bookstore, but I haven't run into an establishment whose primary purpose is the sale and presentation of art and literature.

I've seen a few smaller independent Thai, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese bookstores across the country, but most of these tend to stock imported books and videos from abroad rather than reflecting the literature of those in the US. There are exceptions, but that's a whole different post to get into.

At the moment, I don't know how well a Pan-Asian American bookstore can thrive in the contemporary market. There are some admirable examples such as the awesome Eastwind Books of Berkley. Amazingly, Eastwind is approaching 30 years next year. Wow. But that's extremely rare anywhere else in the country. 

What I'm really leading up to is that a sea change has arrived for bookstores. 

In an era of digital downloads, diminishing returns, competing media (film, video games, etc.) this does not have to be the death knell for the bookstore but a moment for us to reconsider what a bookstore can be.

For Lao Americans, most of us aren't used to walking into a store where it's easy for us to find materials related to our experiences and interests.  But what features can we add to a Lao American bookstore that's culturally appropriate, features that would reflect and encourage a renaissance?

I think, for a start, having ample space for author readings, storytellers, traditional dance and music presentations would be viable and necessary for the Lao American bookstore of this century. 
A counter where you can grab traditional snacks and beverages would also be a winner. 

But a place where you can pick up a case of BeerLao or rice whiskey? I'd say no. The point isn't to create a grocery store or karaoke bar that just happens to sell books. 
It should be able to accommodate unique needs and cultural inclinations of the community. 

If someone needs to do a tahk baht ceremony or skype Lao expatriates in Paris or Australia, it would be nice to walk in and know the store has you covered.
In this generation, the staff of such a store will find themselves becoming something close to de facto librarians, so they need to be comfortable trying to explain what they can of community history and other topics or being able to find it within the store's holdings for customers. 

I know it's not how other bookstores do it, I know, but anyone who's going to establish a Lao American bookstore is just going to have to deal with it. It comes with the territory. 

The staff would face a few challenges because they have to build audiences on so many fronts. They will have to build an interest in Lao and Laomerican culture and a love of reading and a love of books, all very separate things. They'll have to learn how to deal with consignments and many other situations particular to our community.

They'll also have to learn how to keep informed about the reading tastes and needs of the local Lao community, not just what they want NOW, but what they could be interested in. They will have to encourage emerging and established writers to write in ways to stay abreast of trends but to allow for new types of literature without looking like the grab-all fleas-for-all emporium of detritus.

The store owners need to be prepared for the fact that they will be building writers resilience and confidence, and de facto midwives in bringing stories and poems to the reading publics so a healthy and informed readership can emerge. A readership as passionate about the next books coming out from new and famous Lao authors as they might be about sports. Not in most bookstore owners' job descriptions but we're in a sea change.
I can imagine a Lao American bookstore would need to be able to occasionally function as a micropress with the capability of bring e-books to the market, or author apps. They may have to be able to offer classes and marketing support for emerging writers as well, if they want to have a healthy body of future authors to stock in the future. 

It would be nice to see Lao American readers capable of supporting several small niche stores in their communities. 

Perhaps one can be a children's book store, one a Laomerican comic and gaming store, others a Laomerican cooking store or even a Laomerican Business Reading Room that stocks culturally informed books for starting home businesses,mainstream or Laostream businesses in America or abroad. 

But what do you think would be community-friendly essentials for an Asian American bookstore?

Oh, and be sure to participate in the 500 Project!

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