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Are Independent Booksellers Replacing Big-Box Retailers?

By Deborah M. Todd, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

PITTSBURGH — At the time Dan Iddings opened the doors of Classic Lines Bookstore in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood last year, his greatest fear was that the technologies that ate up some of his largest competitors would swallow his business whole.

“I had this fear that I would be the Amazon showroom — that people would look at our selection of products, then go buy them on Amazon,” he said.

Six months in, Iddings said he has seen his share of comparison shoppers, but they’re far outnumbered by customers seeking literary refuge following the 2009 loss of the neighborhood Barnes & Noble bookstore.

“People understand that there’s only one way to keep a bookstore in the neighborhood — that’s to buy the books,” he said.

The digitization of literature and Amazon-ification of book sales that rattled the publishing industry in the mid-2000s has settled into a moment of stability for independent bookstores primed and ready to fill voids left by the 2011 bankruptcy of Borders books and the closings of several Barnes & Noble locations in the area.

Borders — the second largest bookseller in the nation at the time of its demise — pointed to Web-based retail and a shift toward digital downloads as primary causes for its bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation of more than 400 stores. The Michigan company, which outsourced its online sales to Amazon.com in 2001 before suspending that deal in favor of its own website in 2008, also cited a failure to respond quickly to market changes. In October 2011, Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest bookseller, took over Borders’ brand name and website in a $13.9 million deal.

In Pittsburgh — where the loss of Borders stores came painfully close to Barnes & Noble closures — independent bookstores that had survived years in the shadows of the giants became bastions of familiarity for bookworms seeking new haunts to call their own.

They also became windows of opportunity for bibliophiles with lifelong dreams of opening their own stores.

Iddings noted that three community bookstores had closed around the time that Barnes & Noble entered Squirrel Hill, but he pointed out that his store and used bookseller Amazing Books have popped up in the neighborhood in the last two years.

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Squirrel Hill isn’t alone.

The suburb of Sewickley’s Penguin Bookshop, which has been a community institution since 1929, was sold to community resident Susan Hans O’Conner last year, and Mystery Lover’s Bookshop in the suburb of Oakmont was recently purchased by hometown native Natalie Sacco and her husband, Trevor Thomas.

Sacco, who grew up blocks away from the store, said she heard it was up for sale around Christmas and immediately devised a plan to transplant her family from Cleveland to get into the business of books.

After connecting with owner Laurie Stephens, a deal for an undisclosed figure (“Much less than what it’s worth!” interjected Stephens with a chuckle) was struck.

Sacco said not much at the Mystery Lover’s Bookshop will change physically.

The checkerboard linoleum floors and the red table and chair set will stay. The emphasis on mystery, live readings by authors and the section carved out for Pittsburgh authors have been grandfathered in.

The biggest changes will come in the form of new graphic novels and titles by small independent publishers, a revamped website, an extended social media presence and possibly a section selling vinyl albums.

And the couple is hoping to double down on offerings such as community events, book clubs and other opportunities to team up with other local small business owners.

Pablo Fierro and Amanda Johnson, members of the group that owns the Big Idea Cooperative Bookstore and Cafe in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Bloomfield, said capitalizing off of independent bookstores’ reputations as community meeting spaces has been one of their store’s greatest advantages.

Billed as a space for “multicultural, women-positive, queer-positive, class-conscious, anti-militaristic” literature among other things, Johnson said the space regularly hosts events for groups tied to alternative political movements or fringe causes.

It’s that sense of community — the idea that an individual can find his or her people among aisles of mysteries and biographies — that would have been the greatest loss if predictions of the printed book’s demise had unfolded the way some predicted, said Thomas.

“You don’t really understand until it’s gone,” he said. “Just like independent record stores, you’re not just buying records. You’re there to exchange ideas with other people, have conversations. It’s those ideas that spark an interest in certain other things and if you don’t have a place to exchange those ideas who knows what you’ve lost.”

If a digital takeover of books and the independent bookstore is coming, Iddings said it’s far from imminent.

“I don’t have to worry about that because I won’t be here that long. And I plan to be here a long time,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Photo: Robin Rombach via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

Much Ado About Shakespeare: Study Finds Disputed Play Bears The Master’s Mark

By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Chalk up another one for The Bard.

Double Falsehood, a play said to have been written by William Shakespeare but whose authorship has been disputed for close to three centuries, is almost certainly the work of the 16th-century poet and playwright, new research finds.

Shakespeare appears to have had some assistance in the project from John Fletcher, a contemporary who is thought to have co-written three plays with the Bard — including one on a theme similar to that of Double Falsehood — near the end of Shakespeare’s life.

Nevertheless, “the entire play was consistently linked to Shakespeare with a high probability,” the authors of the new study wrote.

Those findings came after two researchers subjected the play’s language to psychological scrutiny and computer analysis so exhaustive that not a single pun, put-down, preposition, or “prithee” went uncounted. The researchers’ method supercharges the practice of “styleometry” long used by scholars of literature by recruiting computers to churn through millions of sentences of text.

Aided by machine-learning programs, computers quickly discern linguistic regularities that become an author’s “signature.” When the authorship of a book or play is contested, computer-enhanced stylometry can compare suspected authors’ “signatures” to that of the disputed work, yielding a scientific basis for assigning authorship.

In the end, two psychology professors from the University of Texas in Austin declared that the author of Double Falsehood — a tale of fathers, sons, duty, and love set in Andalusia — was Shakespeare, and not his acolyte Lewis Theobold.

Theobold, a Shakespeare scholar and avid collector of manuscripts, published the play in 1728, claiming it came from three original manuscripts written by the Bard. Those manuscripts, however, were said to have burned in a library fire. In the absence of physical proof, scholars’ suspicions fell upon Theobold as a literary imposter.

Under the supervision of University of Texas psychology professors Ryan L. Boyd and James W. Pennebaker, machines churned through 54 plays — 33 by Shakespeare, nine by Fletcher and 12 by Theobold — and tirelessly computed each play’s average sentence-length, quantified the complexity and psychological valence of its language, and sussed out the frequent use of unusual words.

“Our results offer consistent evidence against the notion that Double Falsehood is Theobold’s whole-cloth forgery,” wrote Boyd and Pennebaker. While Theobold’s “psychological signature” was not evident, it did make “passing statistical appearances” — probably the result of Theobold’s penchant for heavy editing, they added.

The notion — and method — of creating a writer’s psychological signature opens up new avenues to authenticating disputed works, wrote Boyd and Pennebaker. But they underscored that it can also be used to provide a “better understanding of individuals’ composite mental lives.”

The researchers cite longstanding research that shows that the way writers use language, the words they choose, and even the length of their sentences bespeaks their cognitive style and temperament. A deep analysis of a writer’s verbal output can “paint a very rich picture of who that person is, how he or she thinks, and what he or she thinks about,” they write.

For Shakespeare, much of whose life remains a mystery, the analysis offers a bit of insight: his frequent use of prepositions suggests he was rigorously educated in grammar. His heavy use of “social content words” (vs. words related to thought processes or emotion) suggests he was more attuned to social niceties and advancement than he was either cerebral or preoccupied by his own or others’ feelings, the authors write.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Newspaper Where Mark Twain Made His Name Is Back In Business

By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. — One wonders what Mark Twain himself would make of the news: The Gold Rush-era newspaper for which he once penned stories and witticisms on frontier life as a fledgling journalist is once again in print after a decadeslong hiatus.

Following numerous attempts at solvency, the Territorial Enterprise, once the region’s premier recorder of gossip, scandal, satire, and irreverent tall tales — before Nevada was even a state — is back, this time as a traditional glossy monthly magazine and online edition, territorialenterprise.com.

Would Twain use Twitter to bemoan the deplorable state of the press, as he once did by pen? “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.”

Or gnash his teeth at media leadership? “I am not the editor of a newspaper and shall always try to do the right thing and be good so that God will not make me one.”

Even the Enterprise‘s new editor, Elizabeth Thompson, guesses that Samuel Clemens would have a field day.

“I don’t think he could resist with some witticism about the many attempts to resurrect the paper over the years,” she said. “He’d have something to say. He’d get a kick out of it.”

With a daily circulation of 15,000 at its peak in the 1860s, the Enterprise was Nevada’s first newspaper and the largest west of the Mississippi, as it chronicled the frenzy and financial fallout of the Comstock Lode of silver ore discovered on the eastern slope of Mount Davidson.

After the mining boom died, the paper continued to tell the story of a rough town where unwashed men settled scores with six-shooters. The original Enterprise ceased publication in 1893, along with an economy of words in its epitaph: “For sufficient reasons we stop.”

Since then, the paper has been revived numerous times, mostly notably by railroad historian Lucius Beebe, who sold it in 1961. Behind the present incarnation is Scott Faughn, also publisher of the Missouri Times, which focuses on politics and policy.

In its heyday, the Enterprise not only covered the news, it made news.

As editors recently wrote, “Reporters William ‘Dan De Quille’ Wright, James ‘Lying James’ Townsend, and Samuel ‘Mark Twain’ Clemens perfected the art of the Western tall tale with articles that became legendary for their wit.”

Thompson said the paper aims to carry on that legacy.

The maiden edition, published in March, includes, along with sundry news and an interview with Gov. Brian Sandoval, a modern reprise of the so-called “sagebrush humor” Twain helped make famous before he became America’s favorite man of letters.

The piece is a tall tale of the Comstock Mine and references famed mining engineer Philipp Deidesheimer. It begins:

“I have returned from an expedition into the most hidden and harrowing nooks and crannies of Mount Davidson with sore feet, bruised knees, ragged clothes, and a tale about our storied past that will surely rattle Mr. Deidesheimer’s old timbers — and yours, if you have them — to their very foundations.”

Legend has it that Twain’s first-ever piece for the newspaper began: “A thunderstorm made Beranger a poet, a mother’s kiss made Benjamin West a painter and a salary of $15 a week makes us a journalist.”

Clemens had traveled west from Missouri with his brother, Orion Clemens, who became secretary of the Nevada Territory before the area achieved statehood in 1864. Historians say Clemens first used the pen name “Mark Twain” while at the Enterprise.

In three years, he went on to write stories about territory politicians, shoot-’em-ups, and the stock market — some of which were reprinted in his 1872 book “Roughing It.”

A story on the Pony Express included this description: “No matter whether it was winter or summer, raining, snowing, hailing, or sleeting, or whether his ‘beat’ was a level straight road or a crazy trail over mountain crags and precipices, or whether it led through peaceful regions or regions that swarmed with hostile Indians, he must be always ready to leap into the saddle and be off like the wind!”

Of an Enterprise business reporter who filed a report drunk, he wrote:

“Owing to the fact that our stock reporter attended a wedding last evening, our report of transactions in that branch of robbery and speculation is not quite as complete and satisfactory as usual this morning. About 11 o’clock last night the aforesaid remarker pulled himself up stairs by the banisters, and stumbling over the stove, deposited the following notes on our table, with the remark, ‘S(hic)am, just ‘laberate this, w(hic)ill, yer?’ We said we would, but we couldn’t. If any of our readers think they can, we shall be pleased to see the translation.”

When Twain fabricated a murder, competitors responded with outrage. “The man who could pen such a story, with all its horrors depicted in such infernal detail, and which to our knowledge sent a pang of terror to the hearts of many persons, as a joke, in fun, can have but a very indefinite idea of the elements of a joke,” wrote the Virginia Evening Bulletin, a competitor.

The Enterprise printed a retraction: “I take it all back. Mark Twain.”

In Virginia City, reaction to the rebirth of the Enterprise has been positive.

“I’m excited about it; it tickles me,” said Sandi Sweetwater, who manages a gift shop and offers impromptu tours of the newspaper’s original offices a floor below.

She pointed to Twain’s original desk, an in-office toilet, a spittoon — even an original bottle of Perry Davis’ Pain Killer, from which Twain supposedly took occasional nips.

Across the street at the Mark Twain Saloon, owner John Schafer said that even the pen name Mark Twain might have Nevada roots. While historians believe the name comes from Clemens’ Mississippi riverboat days — a river man’s phrase for water two fathoms deep — the bar owner says there’s another theory.

“There’s talk Clemens got the name Mark Twain in Virginia City saloons,” he said. “The phrase comes from ordering two drinks at once and asking that they be served on credit.”

Thompson has high hopes for the paper, which began with a 2,500 circulation. She has spent recent months researching Twain and the period and is ready to try and match, if not precisely the wit, then at least the spirit.

“I think he’d be pleased at our effort to rejuvenate this paper yet again,” she said. “We hope he’s smiling upon this venture from either above or below.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: The Territorial Enterprise newspaper, that published Mark Twain as a young journalist in the 1860’s, is being published again after a 30-year absence. A colorful statue looks out over desk at the newspaper’s museum in downtown Virginia City, Nev., where Twain once labored. (John Glionna/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Patrick Modiano Of France Wins Nobel Prize In Literature

By Dpa Correspondents

STOCKHOLM — Patrick Modiano of France won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday.

The 69-year-old author was awarded “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation,” the academy citation read.

Themes such as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt are central to his works, in which Paris “can almost be considered a creative participant,” according to the academy. His writing shuttles back and forth in time between past and present.

The media-shy author has written more than 30 books, for which he has won multiple awards, including France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.

Modiano has also written children’s books and film scripts. His latest novel is Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier, which was published this year.

Modiano — who was born on July 30, 1945, in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris, to a Jewish merchant father and a Flemish actress mother — is known to draw his material from newspaper articles and interviews and many of his stories are based on autobiographical accounts or events related to the German occupation in World War II.

Modiano, “is not difficult to read,” said the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund.

“The language is not complicated as such, but the composition of the novel is quite refined,” he said.

Since Modiano does not write very long books, usually about 130 pages, it is possible to “read one of his books in the afternoon, have dinner and read another one,” Englund said.

Unlike other prestigious literary awards, the academy does not publish a short list ahead of the announcement of the winner, making predictions a challenge. Some of the favourites this year were Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, Haruki Murakami of Japan, Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, and Syrian-born poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar).

Last year, Alice Munro of Canada won the award.

The week-long announcements of the Nobel winners began Monday with the medicine award, followed by physics and chemistry. On Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize will be handed out, followed by economics Monday.

With the exception of economics, the prizes were endowed by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833-96), the inventor of dynamite.

The prize is worth 8 million kronor (1.1 million dollars).

Photo via Wikimedia Commons