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A Teacher in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

Our pandemic blog series continues this week with an interview with Jeremy B. Jones, a professor at Western Carolina University and author of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland (Blair, 2014), which won the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction and was awarded gold in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book (IPPY) Awards in memoir. Gretchen Thomas (GT) caught up with Jeremy (JJ) recently over e-mail.

Jeremy B. Jones

GT: How long have you worked for Western Carolina University and what is your official title?
JJ: Associate Professor, seven years.

GT: What was your schooling like to get to your position today?
JJ: I earned my MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa.

GT: Western Carolina University moved classes online in March of 2020. If you were teaching at that time, please explain how you dealt with the sudden move to teaching in an online setting.
JJ:We survived! My courses last spring moved to a self-paced, online model when the pandemic hit: students completed their work and watched short video lectures from me as they were able. I realized pretty quickly everyone—including me—needed a little grace to try to manage all of the stress and uncertainty. In the fall, I was on scholarly development leave, in theory to finish a book, so I wasn’t teaching. (In practice, I spent most of my time homeschooling my kids and trying to find funding sources for the Spring Literary Festival.) In spring 2021, I taught online only, and by that point everyone had become a pro at navigating the Zoom classroom. I missed seeing students in real life—having them drop by my office to fill me in on their writing and lives—but the classes moved smoothly enough. I learned, in fact, that a writing workshop works surprisingly well online.

GT: How has the pandemic changed the way you teach, if at all?
JJ: I haven’t taught face-to-face since the pandemic began, so I don’t know yet how the experience of teaching online might change my in-person teaching. One lesson that I’m always learning as a teacher is that I never know what’s happening in any one student’s life. So many students are juggling responsibilities—working multiple jobs, caring for children or parents or siblings, navigating mental health issues—and the pandemic made this truth all the more evident. I have always tried to give students the benefit of the doubt, but I believe in this approach even more after the last year.

GT: As the director of WCU’s Literary Festival, how was the event changed to fit COVID-19 restrictions? What struggles had you faced with trying to host events during the pandemic?
JJ: It wasn’t an easy festival to pull of this year, but we did—and had fun doing it. Of course most of the festival took place virtually this year. Rather than simply replicate an in-person festival online, we tried to create something new. In the livestream events, we asked writers to play silly literary games with surprise guests, we asked students—students like the very talented interviewer Gretchen Thomas!—to interview writers during the livestream. We asked, for example, the graphic writer Kristen Radtke to play literary Pictionary with the writer Rachel Yoder. West Virginia novelist Mesha Maren played a West Virginia trivia game with Jessie van Eerden. In short, we tried to make the events dynamic and engaging. We wanted to highlight each writer’s distinctive voice, so we individualized each event instead of asking the writers to read to a screen for 30 minutes. (These videos are all archived and accessible, here.)

The other struggle this year was finding funding. Many of the grants we rely on weren’t awarded amid the pandemic, so I spent a lot of time searching for funding sources to keep the festival alive. And it is alive.

GT: As an educator, what was your biggest challenge teaching in an online setting?
JJ: Keeping my kids off camera. Well, and also, figuring out how to meet students where they are. In a classroom, I have many built-in assessments throughout a class period. I’m putting students in groups or throwing out writing prompts. Students don’t often know these informal assessments are there, but I’m checking in throughout the period to make sure they’re getting the material. It was more difficult to do this online, and I couldn’t naturally chat with students after class or during group work, so I worried about students keeping up.

GT: Western Carolina University has announced the return of in-person classes, do you believe that being in-person will aid students’ education? Why or why not?
JJ: I think for most students it will. One takeaway from this past year, however, is that some students perform better outside of the pressure of the traditional classroom, so I hope those students will continue to find formats that aid their learning. For most students, though, being in a classroom again will make learning easier and more engaging. There’s something about physically entering a classroom space that alerts the brain that something different is happening. And, not to get to woo-woo, but there’s also an energy there, and I think if an instructor is using (or fueling) it well, learning in a classroom can be catalytic.

GT: After surviving a hectic year and a half of teaching online, what is one piece of advice that you would give yourself to survive teaching during a pandemic?
JJ: I know I said it once already, but it’s important enough to say again: everyone—including yourself—needs some grace.

GT: What advice would you give to those interested in teaching at the collegiate level?
JJ: Find opportunities to teach wherever you can: writing workshops at the local library, leading book clubs at a youth center, coaching little league, etc. Don’t limit yourself to a traditional classroom. You can learn about teaching and about learning in any environment, and the more you’re thinking about how to best motivate and educate the people around you, the more you’re growing as a teacher.

GT: This fall, we are asking literary professionals of all kinds to give us one good piece of advice. What is the best advice you ever heard, or what advice would you give your younger self?
JJ: Donald Murray wrote that he wished he’d known this when he was 21 (as a new writer): “all acceptances are as irrational as all rejections.” I carry this advice with me a lot because the literary world is one of near-constant rejection. But these rejections aren’t personal, and they’re often more about that publication’s context (what they’ve recently published, how much space they have in an issue, what that editor ate for breakfast) than they are about the writer’s work. BUT! It’s equally important to remember that the acceptances are as subjective as those rejections. As artists, it’s tempting to equate our worth—both personal and artistic—with acceptance or rejection. But that’s a fool’s errand. Instead, we have to do the work that compels us, and keep moving.

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A Publisher in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

Emily Louise Smith

The North Carolina Writers’ Network has been conducting interviews with people working in different spaces within the literary world to understand how the pandemic has affected our community. Today, we speeak with Emily Louise Smith, publisher of sister imprints Lookout Books and Ecotone magazine, both housed within the Department of Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington.

Gretchen Thomas (GT) caught up with Emily (ELS) recently over email.

GT: Describe your role at Lookout Books.

ELS: I co-founded Lookout in 2009 and currently serve as its publisher, meaning that I’m ultimately responsible the imprint’s daily operations—from planning sales and distribution strategies to negotiating contracts, from executing marketing and publicity campaigns to writing and managing grants, from art directing and designing books to collaborating closely with Lookout’s editor, KaToya Ellis Fleming, on acquisitions and editorial notes toward bringing out complex, engaging titles that both fit and expand Lookout’s mission. Lookout is also a teaching press; in addition to introductory and special-topics courses in publishing, I teach the graduate practicum that supports our work.

GT: What was your schooling like to get to the position you have today? Did you have a focus in publishing?

ELS: After graduating from Davidson College with a BA in English and concentration in gender studies, I worked in advertising and development for several years before returning to grad school to study poetry. As part of my acceptance into UNCW’s MFA program, I was offered a teaching assistantship in the very Publishing Laboratory I now direct, where I worked for twenty hours a week as an editor, designer, copywriter, marketer, book binder, and grant writer; I wore pretty much every hat needed to keep our fledgling in-house imprint humming. I also supported founder Stanley Colbert and then director Barbara Brannon in teaching their publishing courses, helping them with research, lesson planning, grading, and hosting students for open hours in the Pub Lab. The entrepreneurial spirit of the lab in those days—housed in an actual former science lab, complete with a fume hood!—was one of such innovation and creativity. It offered me not only a three-year crash course in publishing but a design playground. Among other projects, I helped publish our department text book, Show & Tell: Writers on Writing, as well as curated and designed the inaugural issues of Ecotone under the leadership of founding editor David Gessner and student editors Kimi Faxon Hemingway and Heather Wilson. Upon graduation, I accepted a fellowship at the Hub City Writers Project in South Carolina, where again I had the opportunity to edit and design, learn and experiment, this time under the incredible mentorship of Hub City Press founder Betsy Teter. So my publishing education was—as it is for so many of us who work in small presses and magazines—a glorious, extended apprenticeship.

GT: Why did you co-found Lookout Books?

ELS: Lookout’s original and enduring mission is twofold: 1) to support the work of debut authors and others whose voices have been misrepresented, erased, or overlooked in publishing, and, with creativity and care, to bring their stories to broad readership. And 2) to offer students in UNCW’s writing programs engaging, hands-on opportunities to learn the art and craft of publishing by working on our critically acclaimed titles.

GT: How has the pandemic disrupted your daily work routine, if at all?

ELS: In almost every way. In March of 2020, my immediate challenge was to reimagine my hands-on publishing practicum within a new virtual environment. Needless to say: the learning curve was steep to transition what was previously a weekly three-hour collaborative meeting and work session into meaningful stand-alone projects that students could do independently at home—but with ongoing virtual support from me and other staff members. I refined my approach again and again over two additional semesters of virtual learning.

Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic, the book industry had to devise new strategies for getting books into the hands of readers. COVID caused delays across the supply chain—from book manufacturing to warehousing to shipping. Reviewers and other members of the media weren’t going into offices to intercept physical galleys. Booksellers closed their doors and became shipping centers while also hosting virtual events. Bookshop.org sales soared. National and regional bookseller trade shows, sales meetings, and conferences all moved online, which meant relearning, in many ways, how to promote and talk about books. I had to rethink pitching in virtual spaces, for example, and find new methods for connecting authors with readers and booksellers via online readings and discussions.

GT: Have you seen an increased or decreased number of submissions since the pandemic began?

ELS: For Lookout at least, queries are fairly consistent with what we received before the pandemic. We continue to acquire a single book a year, though, and it has to be a perfect fit for both us and for the author, so we always seem to have a little reading backlog. Also, the pandemic delayed our search for a new lead editor, which in turn led to a temporary pause in our annual publication schedule. Our last book, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s This Is My Body, came out just before the pandemic, in fall 2019. So we’re very excited to have KaToya Ellis Fleming on board and our next book scheduled for release in April 2022.

GT: What has been one major problem you have faced while working during the pandemic, and how did you fix it?

ELS: More than a year before the pandemic, I agreed to direct the creative writing department’s 2020 Writers’ Week under the assumption that it would be a celebration of Lookout’s tenth anniversary. We’d bring back Lookout authors and alumni, and host robust publishing classes and panels; by summer 2020, it was pretty clear that the entire roster of events, nearly twenty separate craft talks, readings, and panels, would need to be held virtually. So with support from the accompanying seminar class, we reinvented Writers’ Week. We researched best practices in hosting online events, participated in Zoom workshops, read articles and books, using Priya Parker’s wonderful The Art of Gathering as our guide, redefined our purpose, and ultimately reimagined the week as “Writing to Transform,” an online festival that better met our community’s needs during the pandemic. We added morning writing sessions, updated our website with titles and descriptions, created a daily newsletter, held run-throughs to orient visiting speakers, thought anew about audience accessibility and safety, crafted participant guidelines, and worked closely with captioners. A symposium that traditionally welcomes about three hundred students and members of the Wilmington community swelled to include more than six hundred guests from around the world.

Meanwhile, Lookout ramped up our social media campaigns and developed a newsletter. We celebrated our tenth anniversary by debuting Lookout Labs, a series of virtual conversations between authors and publishing professionals, designed to demystify the process and prepare participants for their first publication, as well as to support the next generation in learning the art and craft of publishing. It wasn’t what we’d planned, but we harnessed audience familiarity with Zoom and had such a great time talking with two of Lookout’s debut authors, Clare Beams and Cameron Dezen Hammon, about their path to publication, the challenges and magic of bringing their books into the world, as well as to catching up with alumni who now lead Orion magazine, Hub City Press, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. We’ve since produced the first two episodes of the series, which are free to watch on our website.

GT: Will anything about how Lookout Books has gone about publishing in the last year change as we reemerge into “normalcy?”

ELS: In her proposal for Lookout’s next book, Bigger Than Bravery, Black Writers on the Year That Changed the World, editor Valerie Boyd wrote that the collection gives contributors space to “explore the small moments of comfort and joy, of challenge and compromise, that we’ve found, together and alone, during this Great Pause—which, as a result of the national reckoning on race, also has become the Great Call.” Our abiding commitment at Lookout, and in publishing this title as our first after a two-year hiatus and KaToya’s first as editor, is to heed that call as a both a book publisher and as a teaching press, to support authors and books that reflect the diversity of our country and, as KaToya put it, “to be a lighthouse for writers of color, and LGBTQ+ writers, and writers from myriad other groups who have been erased, unheard, or otherwise denied access to publishing.” By making those books centerpieces in our publishing classrooms, we better prepare and empower the next generation of publishers, editors, designers, publicists, and community leaders.

Publishing Bigger Than Bravery well also means reevaluating our post-pandemic approach to reviewers, media, bookstagrammers, and booksellers. Many outlets requested e-galleys throughout the pandemic, and while I can appreciate the convenience and cost savings, not to mention the environmental reprieve, I’ve always loved working with authors, colleagues, and students to tailor our media list and develop physical galley kits that tell the story of a book, contextualize, and bring out the conversation around it. So I’m eager to collaborate with Valerie, KaToya, and our students, when they return this fall, to imagine a digital equivalent of Lookout’s galley kit, or a hybrid approach that allows us to continue doing our best matchmaking and connecting titles with their readers.

GT: What advice would you give to others who are interested in working in publishing?

ELS: While recording our Lookout Labs in April, my brilliant friend and former Pub Lab co-conspirator, Sumanth Prabkaher, who now edits Orion magazine, said something that has stayed with me. “The best thing that I did and continue to do for myself,” he said when asked his advice for aspiring publishers, “is to just surround myself with intelligent people at every possible opportunity. There’s nothing better than being the dumbest person in the room.”

Maybe more than ever, within our increasingly professionalized writing program, my students seem afraid to show up as anything short of proficient, certain, fully formed. But I think we do our best thinking and learning when we’re open, listening, and receiving. My students flourish when I afford them space to make mistakes, and when they grant themselves permission to learn from those mistakes. I remember hanging on Betsy Teter’s every word the year I worked for her at Hub City, not only when she was actively mentoring me, but when she was on the phone, negotiating with a vendor or potential community partner, when someone dropped by to see her new office space, and she set about casually, almost innocuously, illuminating for that person the organization and its mission, until the next thing I knew, he was making a donation to Hub City or buying an armload of books.

Sumanth’s advice also came as a good reminder to me, now in my eighteenth year of publishing, to continue surrounding myself with teachers—colleagues, editors, authors, students—from whom I am always learning.

GT: This fall, we’re asking literary professionals of all kinds to give us one good piece of advice. What advice would you give your younger self?

ELS: This is personal—and it’s something I struggle with still—but if I could go back and say one thing to my younger self, that version of me so anxious to gain a toehold in the male-dominated fields of academia and publishing, it would be that I was already enough. Long before I knew as much as I do now, before I’d published a catalog of award-winning books or had a list of articles and panels to list on my CV. I would say to her, You are smart and capable already. You deserve to be here. Don’t you dare shrink yourself to make others comfortable. I’ll never get back those long hours that turned into years hustling to prove my value to the department and university, years that I sought self-worth in others. If I could rest a hand on her shoulder now, I’d tell her to take a day off, to go for a run, to write her own book, even if it never sees the light of day. I’d whisper to her exactly what I say to my students: Trust your instincts and your courage. Bet on yourself first.

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Call to Action for the NC General Assembly

From our friends at Arts NC:

The NC Senate’s budget proposal, released on June 22nd, not only offered an inadequate funding increase for NC Arts Council grants (Year One Increase: $0, Year Two: $500k), but the Senate also allocated almost all $5.5 billion of the State’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) Fiscal Recovery Fund and included ABSOLUTELY NO RECOVERY FUNDING FOR THE ARTS.

The arts industry has never struggled more, and even though venues are now reopening, studies show it will take the arts three to five years to fully recover. That is why the Arts need a minimum $20 MILLION allocation to nonprofit arts organizations in all 100 counties through the NC Arts Council to fortify existing grant programs and to provide reopening/recovery funds to RESTART THE ARTS from the State’s General Fund and/or ARP Fiscal Recovery Funds to ensure that our creative economy can recover and thrive.

NOW IS THE TIME TO:

  • Ask your NC House Rep to support $20 million in grants for the arts.
  • Ask Governor Cooper to work for his proposed $20 million in grants for the arts.
  • Tell you NC Senator the current proposal fell short and to support $20 million for the arts.

THIS MEANS YOU- THIS MEANS NOW- TAKE 2 MINUTES- SERIOUSLY!

Take 2 minutes to email your NC House Representative, NC Senator, and Governor Cooper to tell them that the ARTS DESPERATELY NEED $20M IN RECOVERY FUNDS. You can add your personal story, information, and comments to the email, but you need to write today. The NC Senate has put both the State Budget and ARP Fiscal Recovery Funds in play at the same time. WE NEED TO ACT NOW, OR THE ARTS WILL GET NOTHING!

TAKE ACTION NOW!

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New Digs for Letters Bookshop

A new storefront location for Letters Bookshop in Durham

It’s been an exciting couple of months for booksellers around North Carolina as many stores have expanded their in-store browsing hours and others, like The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, opened their doors for the first time since March of 2020.

On the other side of the Bull City, Letters Bookshop reopened on July 6 in an entirely new space downtown. The new shop at 116 W. Main St. offers “More space, more used books, more new books, expanded area for kids…and beer, wine, drip coffee, and events coming soon.”

Letters will continue to offer order pickup, local delivery, and mail-order services.

Founded by Land Arnold in December, 2013, this indie bookstore specializes in carefully selected used books, tables featuring new paperbacks and hardcovers, as well as a children’s book section stocked with mostly new books.

Letters sells gift cards and audiobooks through Libro.fm as well. And just as a heads up, they are closed Sunday and Monday (for now).

Visit them on the web at www.lettersbookshop.com and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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NCWN Members On Crook’s Corner Longlist

The Crook’s Corner Book Prize just announced its longlist for 2022 and two NCWN members are on it: Leah Hampton, whose debut collection F*ckface and other Stories (Henry Holt and Co., 2020) was named a Best Book of 2020 by Slate, Electric Literature, and PopMatters, and Kelly Mustian, whose debut novel The Girls in the Stilt House (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2021) received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.

Another longlisted author, Kasey Thornton, whose debut collection Lord the One You Love Is Sick (IG Publishing, 2020), received her MFA in Fiction from NC State and UNCG and lives in Durham.

The mission of the Crook’s Corner Book Prize, now in its ninth year, is to highlight emerging fiction writers, who typically face some of the toughest obstacles in publishing. Although eligible books must be set in the South, authors may live anywhere, and all genres of fiction except for Young Adult are eligible.

This year’s Crook’s Corner Book Prize judge is Ron Rash. Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner finalist and New York Times bestseller Serena and Above the Waterfall, in addition to four prizewinning novels, four collections of poems, and six collections of stories.

Inspired by the literary prizes awarded by famous Parisian cafés such as the Deux Magots and the Café de Flore, the Crook’s Corner Book Prize honors the iconic Crook’s Corner, which for 40 years was a culinary, literary, and artistic beacon in Chapel Hill. Sadly, Crook’s Corner closed in 2021. However, the Crook’s Corner Book Prize will continue its annual award, a fitting homage to the unforgettable restaurant.

The Shortlist will be announced in September.

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An Author in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

Heather Bell Adams

After a terribly hectic year, the North Carolina Writers’ Network has decided to conduct interviews with various members from different aspects of the literary world to understand how the pandemic has affected our community. In today’s interview, we talk with Raleigh author Heather Bell Adams, whose most recent novel, The Good Luck Stone, was published in June, 2020 during the pandemic. Gretchen Thomas (GT) caught up with Heather (HBA) recently over email.

GT: How long have you been writing?
HBA: I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, beginning with my childhood in Western North Carolina. Later on, when I was starting out as a lawyer and my son was young, I put writing aside for a bit. Once my son got older and my legal career was more established, I picked it back up again.

GT: Did you go to school specifically for writing? How did your writing career take shape?
HBA: I haven’t (yet) gone to school specifically for writing. In undergrad at Duke, I majored in English and loved that my homework consisted of reading books and writing about them. Although I didn’t get into the creative writing class for which I applied, I was a guest columnist for The Chronicle and occasionally wrote short stories. Shortly after graduating from Duke Law, Our State magazine (at the time, The State) published one of my essays—my first non-school publication.

GT: Were you working on new projects/multiple projects when the pandemic became known?
HBA: When the pandemic began, Haywire Books was gearing up for the July publication of my second novel, The Good Luck Stone, and I was experimenting with different stories, trying to decide what form my third novel would take.

GT: Did COVID-19 push back any of your projects?
HBA: Thanks to the dedication of my publisher, Haywire Books, the publication date of The Good Luck Stone didn’t change.

I took a little while to settle upon the idea for my third novel, in part due to anxiety about COVID-19 and the many questions swirling during this challenging time.

GT: Your most recent novel, The Good Luck Stone, was published in July of 2020, early in the pandemic. What was the biggest struggle you faced, publishing a new book at that time?
HBA: Well, we definitely (and with good reason) didn’t have any in-person events. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, though, at how much fun online events can be. Page 158 Books was kind enough to host a virtual launch party for The Good Luck Stone. Since it was online, some of the attendees included one of my childhood teachers, who lives in Massachusetts, and my college roommate, who lives in California. Although I’ve missed getting to visit bookstores and book clubs in person, it turns out that online events can feel remarkably intimate.

GT: Were there any positives that came from publishing your novel when you did?
HBA: I like how so many of us have broadened our perspectives with regard to online events. Even as a non-expert when it comes to technology, I’m now entirely comfortable—even eager—to attend them, both as an author and reader.

GT: Have you been able to participate in a book tour or other events?
HBA: In addition to the virtual launch, I’ve had the privilege of participating in online events with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, North Carolina Writers’ Network, Quail Ridge Books, Page 158 Books, Bookmarks, the James River Writers’ Conference, and various book clubs. I’ve been really impressed with how organizations have pivoted to hosting online events.

GT: As restrictions continue to relax, do you plan on participating in more book events?
HBA: Yes, if people want to invite me, I’ll happily join them!

GT: Were you forced to change your writing schedule during the pandemic?
HBA: Although the pandemic changed my legal work from in-office to remote, it didn’t change my writing schedule all that much, except for canceling a writing retreat I’d been looking forward to. As critique partners, Pam Van Dyk [NCWN member and managing editor of Regal House Publishing – ed.] and I continued to exchange pages while we were stuck at home, which was immensely valuable.

GT: If your writing style has changed during the pandemic, how would you describe the difference?
HBA: The pandemic has made me more grateful for creative souls everywhere and for the outlet that writing offers. While this doesn’t necessarily signal a shift in my writing style, what it’s done is made me more intentional about supporting writers. In addition to continuing to purchase from independent bookstores, I’ve been seeking out more chapbooks and small press books that don’t get quite as much attention.

GT: Have you gained any new skills or tried new things during the pandemic in relation to your writing career? Ex: enhanced work ethic, dabbling in new genres, etc.
HBA: Unrelated to the pandemic, during 2020 I lost my aunt, grandmother, and, most unexpectedly, my father. To process my grief, I turned briefly to writing personal essays instead of fiction. Imagine my surprise when one of those essays, “Show Me,” won the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition. Another, “Here, Settle Down Here,” is forthcoming from Still: The Journal. On a personal note, writing these essays helped me sort through my feelings when I wasn’t sure how to do that. Otherwise I’ve mostly charted the same course as before, focusing on book club and literary fiction. When it comes to short stories and novels, I’m most interested in exploring how characters’ lives might change, even in infinitesimal ways.

GT: What advice would you give yourself looking at the challenges you faces, publishing and continuing to write during the pandemic?
HBA: With this, as in life in general, it’s perhaps best if we give ourselves the grace to acknowledge when we’ve tried our best, no matter the ultimate outcome.

GT: Do you ever see yourself writing about your experience of the pandemic?
HBA: Honestly, writing about the pandemic doesn’t appeal to me at the moment. I guess never say never though.

GT: What advice do you have for those publishing now, still immersed in a pandemic, albeit one that seems to be improving?
HBA: First, I would say congratulations for your dedication, hard work, and resilience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The writing community is immensely supportive, and I feel confident that I speak for writers, booksellers, writers’ organizations, and readers in saying we are here for you.

 

Heather Bell Adams is the author of two novels, Maranatha Road (West Virginia University Press, 2017) and The Good Luck Stone (Haywire Books 2020). Maranatha Road won the gold medal for the Southeast region in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and was selected for Deep South Magazine’s Fall/Winter Reading List. The Good Luck Stone appeared on Summer Reading Lists for Deep South Magazine, Writer’s Bone, The Big Other and Buzz Feed and won Best Historical Novel post-1900 in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Heather has won the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Award, James Still Fiction Prize, and Carrie McCray Literary Award. Her short stories appear in The Thomas Wolfe ReviewAtticus ReviewPembroke MagazineBroad River ReviewThe Petigru ReviewPisgah Review, and elsewhere.

Originally from Hendersonville, NC, Heather lives in Raleigh with her husband and son. She works as a lawyer, focusing on financial services litigation.

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A Bookstore in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

City Lights, Sylva

With numbers trending in the right direction, we thought this was a good time to check in with our friends in the literary ecosystem to hear how they’ve weathered the pandemic so far.

To help us understand the hectic year for bookstore owners, Chris Wilcox, current owner of City Lights Bookstore, agreed to answer some questions. Chris has worked for City Lights since 1997 as a bookseller, becoming the owner in 2010. Before he started his career at City Lights, he was an avid customer since its opening in 1985.

City Lights Bookstore has been a comforting home to bookworms in Jackson County for decades. The store was originally set on Main St. and changed location to E. Jackson St. in 1994.

I (GT) caught up with Chris (CW) recently over e-mail.

GT: Once the pandemic became known, what precautionary measures did you take to keep your store running? Eg: sales to encourage business, cutting staffing, etc.

CW: We canceled all our in-person events beginning in late February, 2020. One of our more medically vulnerable staff members elected to stay home beginning in early March and, by March 20, I made the painful decision to lay off the remainder of the crew.

GT: Once COVID restrictions were enforced, what did it look like to come into City Lights? Eg: facemasks, only ordering online, temporarily closed?

CW: Although the governor’s order exempted bookstores from closure (along with gun dealers and liquor stores!), I opted to lock our doors and moved to curb service and remote ordering only as of March 20.

GT: How long was your store closed?

CW: We remained closed for in-store shopping until May 12, when we reopened with reduced hours and staffing.

GT: Once you reopened, what restrictions did you have for returning customers?

CW: Once we reopened, we strictly enforced proper masking and capped our occupancy at nine shoppers at a time.

GT: If customers were not allowed inside, did you mail out orders/have pickup orders?

CW: During the time, we were closed to in-store browsing. We shipped and delivered books as well as transacting quite a bit of business curbside.

GT: With relaxed restrictions now, do you have the store open to all?

CW: We do. With the CDC’s mid-May announcement, we decided we could not enforce vaccine compliance as well as masking. At that point our frontline crew was fully vaccinated and mentally exhausted after 12 months of policing visitors to our shop.

GT: What other precautions are you taking with the new CDC guidelines?

CW: Our plexiglass barriers and cleaning procedures remain in place. Also, curb service will always be available for folks with mobility issues, etc.

GT: During the pandemic, were you still seeing sales in about the same range as before?

CW: Yes, once we reopened 5/12/20. Despite the cancelation of our biggest annual off-site event (the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference), sales were actually up thanks to a strong slate of regional and political book releases. Other factors included an overall increase in reading plus a renewed commitment to supporting local establishments.

Not only does City Lights sell books, but also journals like these….

GT: What was the biggest struggle for City Lights once COVID hit? How did you overcome that obstacle, if you were able to?

CW: Not being able to allow shoppers to browse our shelves hurt, but that was a transient issue limited to about seven weeks. Having to forego nearly all book events for a year has been a big negative change for our business. We managed to host a very few socially-distanced outdoor author signings, but we were way off our usual pace. We got some traction with Zoom-based book discussions, but never figured out how to make online author events generate sales.

GT: What has been your biggest success during the pandemic?

CW: We were lucky to have some “big books” released last summer. I’m grateful too that our website had long been set up for e-commerce and was ready to shift into high gear when the pandemic hit. Also, we have the best customers!

GT: Do you believe that by operating your store during the pandemic has made you a better business person? Why or why not?

CW: Thanks, Covid, for the crash course in crisis management! I believe I learned a thing or two about quickly making tough decisions, but I don’t think the pandemic made me any better as a manager of people. The smaller size of our current crew has possibly exacerbated my weakness as a trainer and delegator.

GT: What is something that you have learned about your community during the pandemic?

CW: Did I mention? We have the best customers and neighbors! Starting on day-one of the lockdown, folks were in touch by phone, web, DM, etc., asking what they could do to help us survive. It was humbling and gratifying. On the other hand, we discovered that a few of our neighbors take any perceived infringement of their personal liberty as an intolerable afront.

GT: Finally, what is something that you personally have taken away from being a business owner that you believe others should know? Either before, during, or after the pandemic (or not related to the pandemic).

CW: It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to be reminded of a few fundamentals: be kind to one another AND read more books!

For more about City Lights Bookstore, visit https://www.citylightsnc.com and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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New Documentary Includes Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books

Miriam Herin reads at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro

Our reasons for encouraging members to shop at independent bookstores are well-documented: there’s a reason we link to a book’s purchase page on Indiebound.org, whenever possible. Now, a new documentary features one man’s journey from Amazon shopper to indie boosktore patron—and includes a twelve-minute interview with Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books!

With his new documentary, “The Bookstour,” filmmaker Mason Engel, an author himself, set out to answer one question: Why should people shop at an independent bookstore?

As the number of independent bookstores continues to increase across the country, Engel seems to have discovered the reason behind the demand. For, while you can get something you want online quickly and cheaply, sometimes it’s the story—of how you found your favorite stories—that lasts.

The documentary is available for purchase through July 7. All the money raised during that time will benefit the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, or Binc, which helps bookstore owners and booksellers with unforeseen emergency financial needs.

Scuppernong Books opened on December 21, 2013 and has been an essential part of the rebirth of downtown Greensboro. They are a general interest/literary bookstore featuring fiction and poetry along with a remarkable children’s section and a broad range of general interest titles. There’s also a coffee bar that serves snacks, beer, wine, and caffeinated products.

Scuppernong Books current hours are Monday-Thursday, 10-5; Friday and Saturday 10-9; Sunday 12-6. You can always order online or by phone. They offer shipping and curbside pickup. Their cafe is open for to-go beverages only. There is no indoor seating at this time. All events take place online.

For more information on Scuppernong, visit www.scuppernongbooks.com and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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NVNR Presents: The VIndies!

From our friends at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance:

A Celebration of Indie Bookstore Videos

(From A Bookstore Not Very Far Away) — Lights, Camera, Fiction! New Voices New Rooms, the collaborative partnership between NAIBA and SIBA, is launching The VIndies to recognize the spirit and creativity of independent bookstore videos.

NVNR and an academy of judges drawn from the bookselling community will award prizes to videos created by independent bookstores in the SIBA and NAIBA territories from January 1, 2020 through June 1, 2021.

“We are constantly amazed at the creative talent shown by bookstore videos,” said SIBA Executive Director Linda-Marie Barrett. “They have moved us to tears, or made us laugh, or both! Bookstore videos offer glimpses into their worlds, and highlight just how important they are in their communities.”

“I think these videos demonstrate just how flexible and responsive independent bookstores can be to any situation,” added NAIBA Executive Director Eileen Dengler. “They are a testament to the resiliency of small businesses.”

Winners will be announced at the VIndie Awards Ceremony, which will include viewings of the finalist videos, and will take place during the New Voices New Rooms Fall Conference Sept 27-October 1. Prizes will be awarded to the winning stores.

The Award Categories are:

Best Drama
Best Comedy/Musical
Best Animated
Special Category for 2020/21: Best Covid-Related Video

To be eligible, videos must have been created by a SIBA or NAIBA member bookstore and must have been publicly exhibited – appearing on the store’s website, in their social media channels, or in their store newsletters — between January 2020 and June 1, 2021. Nominations may come from independent bookstores or any fan of independent bookstores. Only one nomination per category, per store. Click here to nominate:

The VIndies Nomination Form

The deadline to nominate is July 15.

For more information visit www.newvoicesnewrooms.org or contact:

Linda-Marie Barrett lindamarie@sibaweb.com
Eileen Dengler naibaeileen@gmail.com

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Celebrate #NationalWritingDay on Wednesday

Wednesdsay, June 23, is National Writing Day, hosted by First Story. This year, they’re challenging writers to #FilltheBox with a piece of creative writing – a poem, a letter, a story – using the theme of connection:

Whether it’s in 280 Twitter characters or on a post-it sized piece of paper, there’s a space to write for everyone. An average post-it note is around three inches tall and wide. If you’re drawing your own box, try imagining the length of three bottle caps!

Their website offers resources for parents; resources for teachers; guides and templates for writers of all ages; prompts for the creatively muddled; and YouTube tutorials offering advice on how to take the #FilltheBox challenge to the next level.

Participants are encouraged to share their creations online using #FilltheBox, #NationalWritingDay, and @FirstStory. Then, tag one person to add their story to yours!

You might use this excerise to get you warmed up before your “real” writing session; to launch yourself out of some creative doldrums; or to put your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for the first time in years. Whatever your motivation, have fun. And remember to share!

Click here for First Story’s webpage devoted to all things #NationalWritingDay. They’re also on Facebook and Twitter.

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