Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bizarre Halloween Nightmare

I normally don't blog about dreams that I've had - however, I've been working on the latest draft of my forthcoming novel I, DEATH and recently going back and doing touch-ups on scenes in the first third of the novel where the main character Peter O'Mallick - a teenager convinced he has some sort of supernatural death curse because the people around him are dropping like flies - is blogging about nightmares he has been having.

Because I'm trying to spend every free moment working on the novel, it's the first thing I think about when I wake up.

So last night, I had a very vivid dream about being woken up by a noise in the house.

It seemed normal and natural, because at 1:30 AM, I HAD ACTUALLY awoken to a strange BUMP in the night.

For real. It was no dream. A loud noise coming from downstairs woke me.

I sat up, heard another loud thump. Then another. I wasn't frightened though, because I recognized the sound immediately. It was our dwarf rabbit, Earl, thumping his back paw. He does this when he's particularly pissed off about something. And when he does it in his cage (with a plastic bottom that reverberates quite loudly off the tile floor), you can hear it, quite loud, through the entire house.

I figured that Earl had run out of food so I went downstairs to check on him.

He had plenty of water, pellets and hay (he even had half a tortilla chip - a treat we'd given him before bedtime). So he wasn't annoyed about the food situation. I reached into his cage and petted him, thinking maybe he was lonely. But then he thumped a couple more times.

I thought maybe he was thumping to alert us of something (a common reason why rabbits thump is to warn other rabbits of danger), so I peered out into the back yard - nothing. Then I went to the front to check the front yard and our quite elaborate Halloween decorations (always leery of vandals) - everything there was fine.

Earl thumped one more time. I told him to knock it off, got a glass of water, gave him a small handful of Cheerios, then went back up to bed.

He ceased the thumping and I went back to sleep.

Some time later is when I had the nightmare. In the dream, I woke to a strange noise. I, naturally, assumed it was Earl "voicing" his displeasure to the rest of the house. I sat up, shook my head and then threw the covers back, thinking I might as well head downstairs and continue work on my novel. I was annoyed to be woken, but didn't feel tired - so was actually feeling pleased with the thought of having some time to work on the book.

As I walked over to my dresser and leaned down to pull out a pair of pajama bottoms from the bottom shelf, I saw a shadowy figure standing quietly and motionlessly in our bedroom doorway.

I shook my head and did a double-take. It was a dark, very tall figure, obviously not Alexander coming in from his room. My heart leapt into my throat.

There was someone in our house!

I scrambled to grab the mag lite that I keep on my side of the bed.

"Get out!" I tried to scream at the dark figure, and at the same time I tried calling out to Francine to call 911; but my voice was breaking, I could barely push any words out. I lunged toward the door with the mag-lite raised high, ready to strike, and the figure turned around and quickly started moving down the stairs. I began to chase him.

As he moved down the steps, he moved through a beam of moonlight coming in from outside. That's when I saw the unique black with white smudge pattern of the robes he was wearing and realized the figure walking through our upstairs was the grim reaper from our front lawn Halloween decorations.

The Grim Reaper who stands at the front left side of our yard this Halloween

That's when I woke up for real.

Wow! Strange dream. But still pretty cool.

I still find it interesting that I wasn't as afraid of some strange dark figure that broke into our house (remember, I was prepared to chase after him and whack him with my mag-lite) as I was of an inanimate lawn decoration stalking through the house. The fact it was a "monster" is what scared me so much I woke from the dream.

For the record, this morning, once the sun came up, I went outside to check to make sure the grim reaper was still standing where I left him. He was. So I took the picture posted here.

After I snapped the shot, I could have sworn that he offered me a wry grin and a quick wink.

But then again, my imagination often gets the best of me.

Friday, October 28, 2011

All Hallow's Read 2011

I love All Hallow's Read.

It's a relatively new tradition started by Neil Gaiman - the basic premise is that it would be really nice if, at Halloween, people give a scary book.

No, not instead of candy, but as an additional fun thing to do. Give someone a scary book, give them something fun and scary to read.

I love the tradition - I think it's awesome.

People all over have embraced the idea - this year many have combined it with Bookcrossing (the act of leaving books with specially marked stickers for strangers to find, take and read, then pass along to others - with a tracking number for the book so that people can track a book on its journey) There's also a hashtag being used on Twitter (#allhallowsread) as people are sharing the love of giving a book for Halloween.

This year, apart from wanting to physically hand a few scary books over to people in person, I thought I'd do a little online "give a scary book" - so I've set up two fun giveaways.

First, I'll be purchasing a copy of Terribilis by Carol Weekes, a fantastic new thriller published by Atomic Fez. I'm doing that through the Goodreads giveaway - a great online book and reading community. (I love that Goodreads offers this "giveaway" capability, allowing a random person who enters/requests the book to win. (I've registered the giveaway, but as of early this morning it hasn't yet gone live)

Second, I'm giving away a three story Halloween themed chapbook of mine called Tricky Treats.

It collects three stories I had previously published in Crossroads magazine: But Once A Year, Treats and Tricky Treater (along with a poem: Holiday Demons). All four pieces were reprinted in my book One Hand Screaming, but I thought putting together a special short ebook for Halloween might be fun. (Note: the Halloween stories collected contain ADULT content and are meant for a mature audience -- ie, they're not meant to be read by young people)

Tricky Treats normally retails for $1.50 and is available at Amazon, Smashwords as well as many other places where you can buy ebooks, but I'm offering it free to as many people who want it.

To get Tricky Treats free, simply go to Smashwords and use the coupon code: KH45F. You can download various different versions of it and load it to the ereader of your choice.

The coupon will be good until November 2nd.

Happy Halloween - enjoy your reading!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

HNT - Me And Margaret

The other night at International Festival of Authors there was a Canopy / McClelland & Stewart promotion featuring a cut-out of Margaret Atwood with an alien body. (Her latest book, In Other Worlds, is a series of essays about science fiction)

I, of course, couldn't resist getting my picture taken with the cardboard cutout of Margaret Atwood in Canopy's "My Evening with Margaret" promotion.

Can you really blame this fan-boy reader?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dr. T Cartoons

When I was in Montreal last week, I was able to catch up with an old friend whom I hadn't seen in almost twenty years. One of the things she brought along with her was a couple of cut-outs of a cartoon I had drawn for The Gully Gazette, the Levack District High School student newspaper.

The cartoon was called "Dr T" and featured Jim Turcott, our Math and Physics teacher at LDHS who also ran a DJ service under the name "Dr T."  I have blogged about Jim, a man I truly admired, respected and wanted to grow up to be like -- but I thought it was really fun to see the cartoons I had put together back when I was in high school.

There are two separate strips here.  The first one is just Jim. The second one features me (sitting) and my buddy John Ellis (standing) and, of course, Jim. The drawing style I was using was one I had started back in Grade Seven inspired by a buddy named Kevin McAuley - AKA Slizz (whom I have also blogged about) - the characters look and feel is similar to the ones that artist Don Martin from Mad magazine used.

It was fun to see the fun "writing" I had been doing back in high school and great to smile and remember Jim, that fun teacher who didn't mind that I had drawn a cartoon featuring him.

Thanks, Mitch!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Making A Good Thing Better

You know how peanut butter and chocolate, when brought together, created a marvelous new taste sensation?

I discovered just such a sensation the other night when Francine and I were out on a date. Yes, our idea "date night" involves having a quiet and relaxed dinner, then spending an hour or two browsing around a bookstore, then having coffee and chatting.

On last Saturday night's date (our celebration of 15 years of marriage), I fell in love. But I didn't just fall in love again with my beautiful wife and the life we've created together (like peanut butter and chocolate - to carry the metaphor on, I suppose I'm the PB and she's the chocolate)

What I also fell in love with was the idea of a new version of Scrabble.  

Scrabble for Book Lovers. Or rather, Scrabble: Book Lovers Edition.

It plays like traditional Scrabble but there are bonus points for using author names, book titles or literary characters. There are also book-world themed cards that seem to work like CHANCE or COMMUNITY CHEST cards in Monopoly, where you can play one of those cards to perform some sort of special bonus activity) It looks like a lot of fun and a book nerd's delight.

The game is made by Usaopoly and licensed by Hasbro, but I haven't been able to find it on either of their websites.

In any case, both Francine and I were delighted to see this incredible merger of two things we love so much. We love playing Scrabble (although, admittedly, she often kicks my ass) and we love books.

This new version of the game seems to be just such a thing for us to spend a relaxing evening at home together in front of the fireplace after Alexander goes to bed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Hot And Cold Of Misperception

It wasn't until the end of the day yesterday when I finally figured out the answer to a strange little mystery that had been nagging me.

I was curious as to why the faucets at the washroom I'd been using at U of Montreal were reversed, with cold (C) on the left  and hot (H) on the right. I knew it wasn't a Quebec thing, because the faucets in my hotel room, which were colour coded (blue for cold and red for hot) were as expected. Hot on the left and cold on the right.

Also, by habit, I used the tap on the left (hot), and never clued in that the water running from it (marked C) was warm.

When I quickly glanced at the faucet on the right, I had abruptly interpreted the scripted letter there as some sort of fancy and strange "H" - but in fact, only noticed yesterday that it was an F.

C and F?

Then it struck me.


C didn't stand for cold, it stood for the French word for hot, which is chaud. And that fancy script wasn't an "H", but an F, which meant froid.

It's funny how our mind makes quick and often incorrect assumptions that, although we are presented with concrete evidence that supports an alternative hypothesis (the water temperature, the F, the fact I was using a washroom in a predominantly French society), we ignore the facts and stick with that first assumption.

Sure, this is a simple thing regarding faucets in Quebec; but how many more other assumptions do we make each day which can have an adverse affect on the things we do and the people we communicate with?

I'm reminded of the importance to pause, step back, and take another look (attempt to take a fresh look) at something I thought I was looking at. And let the information presented to me try to get through rather than be filtered by the auto-editing that takes place in my perception.

A good thing to remember. A chaud little life lesson perhaps?

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Fun Play On Words (en français)

Although my last name is French (no, not "Leslie" - that's my middle name as well as part of my nom de plume), I'm not fluent in the French language.

Shame on me for that.

But I am trying. And working with a great group of folks at the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) is helping me because it's given me a great excuse to try saying some things in French. And the best part about it is that everyone is so wonderfully accepting of the manner by which I'm gently murdering the French language that I'm not afraid to take large stabs at trying to express things in French. And when I stumble, everyone is helping me get it right.

And they are also very patiently explaining things to me.

For example, Simon, the Xerox rep whom I'm working quite closely with, explained the brilliant play on words on the sign for the U de M's forthcoming Espresso Book Machine launch later this week.


"Histoire" translates most closely to "history" but is also a synonym for "story" -- thus the play on words and the twofold message. Come to the opening of the EBM at U of Montreal and be part of history (ie, the evolution of printing). But, when printing your own book (imprimez la votre!) you're making your own story. So you're witnessing history AND being part of the story. Nice.

I'm just a sucker for a good play on words - no matter which language it's in. (J'aime un bon jeu sur les mots)

Okay, now back to my French lessons . . . (maintenant de retour à mon cours de français)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Celebrating Independent Booksellers

Today is Independents' Day - part of the Canadian Bookseller Association "Independents Matter" grassroots campaign designed to promote the importance of a locally owned business to communities.

Today, across Canada, is the perfect time to pop into your local bookshop and check out all they have to offer.

Hundreds of booksellers across the country are hosting special Independents' Day events, some of them featuring authors, some featuring special sales and promotions, some featuring special activities.  Others will simply just doing what they always do every Saturday afternoon - offering customers a chance to step into a magically world when they cross the threshold of their bookstore.

Yesterday, Quill & Quire did a feature spot on this day, highlighting events at 6 different stores in four different provinces:

Burlington, ON: A Different Drummer
Edmonton, AB: Audreys
Saskatoon, SK: McNally Robinson
Sarnia, ON: The Book Keeper
Ottawa, ON: Collected Works
Sackville, NB: Tidewater Books

These are just 6 great locations where something fun is going on. The Free Press also did a nice bit on Polar Peek Books in Fernie, BC, the activities they have planned as well as a bit more about the store and owner.

If you live near any of these seven locations, they're certainly something to check out. If you don't, check out the bookstore(s) in your local community so you can see all they have to offer and take the time to celebrate your independents.

Last year for Independents' Day, I made a point of visiting a few different stores that were doing Independents Day activities in the Toronto area. It was part of a mini Celebrate Independents tour I did with Toronto Mayor David Miller, who was signing copies of his book Witness To A City.  We visited Another Story Bookshop and Mables Fables.

David Miller, Eleanor LeFave and me

This year, my schedule prevents me from having the time to do something as fun as visiting a few different stores; so I'm making a point of doing a special "Indie" celebration errand.

Later this morning, when Francine gets back from her Saturday morning run, I'm heading down to Locke Street in Hamilton, buying some bagels at an independent bagel and coffee shop, Locke Street Bakery - then I'm going to pop in to Epic Books on Locke Street and purchase one of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted books.

How will you be celebrating the great local bookstores in your neighbourhood?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Got A New Skull

Yesterday, as part of a themed series of gifts from Francine (she loves to do fun themes that she knows I'll love), I received this great skull.

It's a bowl - we'll likely use it as a candy dish for Halloween - but I'll want to use it when I do book signings - particularly when I do them during the Halloween season. You fill the bowl with some free treats and it often brings people a little bit closer to your lonely store-front table . . . it's also a fun conversation piece.

Okay, who am I kidding? I'll want to keep this thing out year, round. I could eat popcorn out of it. Wouldn't that be a great popcorn bowl when you're watching horror movies? I could perhaps find a spot on the end of my desk to keep this on, fill it with tiny chocolate bars so that when I'm in the throes of an all-day writing marathon I don't need to stop for sustenance - I simply reach over and keep myself fueled.

Hmm - I wonder if they have a similarly sized skull coffee mug?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fifteen Years

It has been fifteen years since the glorious day captured so wonderfully in this picture.

I'm normally pretty verbose but only one simple question strikes me now.

How did I get to be so lucky?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Turning Points

My article regarding the latest turning point in publishing with respect to print on demand and the Espresso Book Machine appears at The Mark News this morning. It is one of the 5 top featured stories scrolling through the initial landing page.

The article is my commentary on the recent HarperCollins announcement of making a batch of comprehensive backlist titles available through the Espresso Book Machine market and how I feel it marks a positive mindset change from one of the industries larger players.

As always, I'm impressed by the fantastic editing job done on the originally submitted article.

Check out my original post on Sept 24th "First Major Publisher Finally Gets It!" and compare it to the edited post "A Turning Point for the Publishing Industry" printed on The Mark News.

Yes, I believe that I have talent as a writer. I've been writing for almost thirty years now, continually plugging away at stringing words together to tell stories and share ideas. But I'm no fool in believing that my writing doesn't benefit from the fine surgeon-like skill of a good editor's touch. Simply, the editor's touch typically makes my writing shine, allows the things I am expressing to be more crisp and concise.

I believe that, in every writer's journey, there is likely a turning point in which they recognize that as hard as they work, as much as they revise, there's nothing that compares to getting to work with a really good editor. I was fortunate to benefit from learning that early on and have been able to use that knowledge to my advantage rather than get into ego-based fights with those whose goal it is to help refine and polish a raw piece of writing.

Three cheers for great editors!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Practically Side-Splitting

After hearing so many great things about Trevor Cole's Practical Jean, I finally gave it a read.

I mean, it won the 2011 Stephen Leacock Medal for humour, I had heard him interviewed several times on a couple of great CBC radio programs and Cole was also writer in residence at McMaster a few years ago, likely had been working on this novel while he was haunting the halls of the Department of English and Cultural Studies and helping local writers with their own projects.

This book had long been on my "to read" list but I still hadn't picked it up. I finally ended up reading the NetGalley version of the book on my ereader - this was in anticipation of the Harper Collins US release of the book. (In Canada, the book is published by Mclelland & Stewart - a subsidiary of Random House Canada)

Harper Collins US cover
I kind of prefer the Canadian cover for the book (below), which seems to properly capture the feel for the hilarious superimposition of Jean's "traditional housewife" character with the morbidity of the story - and yes, it's these two elements so masterfully meshed together, which make the novel such a great read.

M&S Canadian cover
In a nutshell, the novel concerns itself with a middle aged relatively bland woman living her bland suburban life in a small town. When she loses her mother, realizing how completely helpless she is to do anything to either save her or prevent her suffering, she decides to do all of her loved ones a favour by ensuring they experience a great moment of happiness before killing them; in essence preventing them from the kind of horrible suffering that her mother experienced.

There is a beautiful flashback scene to Jean as a little girl being forced by her mother to practice euthanasia on a pack of puppies which helps paint for the reader how Jean's view of the world can be painted.

Cole brilliantly pulls off this morbid tale of a house-wife gone mad and beginning a serial-killer string of activities. The novel is, at once disturbing and hilarious. There is a fine balance kept whereby the dark humour doesn't overshadow the story and characters, nor do the graphic scenes of murder detract from the emotional plunge Jean is going through.

It is both amazing and disturbing to see the woman justify her every action, to ensure that her plan is practical and generous; to see how she is sacrificing so much of her own life and her own needs in order to do the best she can be the people she loves most.

So, while the novel is filled to the brim with a morbid humour, Cole manages to pull back, just enough and at the right times, to illustrate a main character whom we can empathize with. And yet, at the same time, we offer a guilty chuckle at her exploits. We want to laugh at her but also cry in her pain.

This is a masterfully executed story and novel that, so many times could have devolved into a schlocky over-the-top series of dark humour jokes; but Cole demonstrates the precise skill of a surgeon in terms of being able to steer the prose, story and Jean's very character away from that path at exactly the right moments.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Tiny Bubbles In The Bowl

Remember those smiling little bubble soldiers from the Scrubbing Bubbles television commercials?

You know, the ones that work hard cleaning your bathtub and sink so that you don't have to? Well they're back with a new product that I checked out via BzzAgent.

I signed up to receive a free sample of the new Scrubbing Bubbles One Step Toilet Bowl Cleaner. We got it last week and have been using it for a while. God, why hadn't they invented these things when I was a bachelor? My apartment would have been sparkling clean. Well, at least my toilet bowl would have been sparkling clean.

Okay, yes, I was disappointed that I didn't get to see those smiling little Bubble Soldiers zip around the bowl and clean (yes, part of me hoped I'd see them smiling while they worked, occasionally looking up and winking at me and saying: "Don't worry, Mark, we're on the case. We'll have this toilet bowl spiffy clean in no time. Your presence and efforts are not needed here. You simply go back into the living room and sit down and relax with that book you've been itching to pick up and get back into."

But even though I didn't get to watch these fun cartoon characters in action . . . (as seen in the TV commercial clip below)

. . . I'm still rather impressed with the simplicity and ease of use with this product.

You simply install it on the side of your toilet bowl and slip in the refill canister (the process takes about 2 minutes). Then, twice a day you step on the little "gas pedal" for about a second to release the little smiling guys into your toilet bowl - the spray covers the entire interior of the bowl (but do be careful, if you stick your head down too low in an attempt to look closely and smile back at the little smiling bubbles you could get a face-full of the cleaner)

About the only disappointing thing about this new product is the fact that my seven year old son Alexander enjoys the simple process of stepping on the pedal and releasing the cleaner.

This means that, while I initially got to enjoy playing with this fun new product, I haven't had a chance recently. Alexander is hogging all the fun.

Yes, imagine this: My son and I are now fighting over who gets to clean the toilet. It's like a dream come true for my wife.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

HNT - True Stories Picks

I was recently contacted by CBC Books for a bookseller poll for Canada Reads 2012 - the question was what five books would I select for the best "True Story" pics.

It was certainly an interesting and challenging list to pick from. I wanted to be able to select from the full range of the types of non-fiction/true story books I had read. The selection I ended up going with was something that I feel nicely represents the range of my preferred reading tastes whenever I do pick up a non-fiction book, particularly one with biographical elements.

Here's what I wrote for my submission of the five titles...

"In determining this list I had to wanted to think about Canadian authored books I had read that not only told some sort of "true story" but which also had a significant impact on me. I'm primarily a fan of fiction, and, as such, I don't typically read a lot of biographical books. When I read non-fiction I tend to want to read something that will teach me something. To that end, each of the five books I selected ended up teaching me something. It might have been something new that I was enlightened to learn, it might have been a perspective I hadn't previously considered; but in many cases, the reading of these "tales" taught me something new about myself. Reading these books altered my perception, my understanding and the stories stayed with me long after reading them. I tried to draw a list that ran the full spectrum of the types of "true stories" that I like -- stories that demonstrate growth, learning, the gaining of wisdom through trial and error and overcoming the various trials and tribulations that eventually build character."

And here are the books I picked....

  • Last Resort: A Memoir - Linwood Barclay
    • The first book by Barclay which I read and which turned me on to his wonderful mixture of being funny yet touching at the same time. It was only later that he also demonstrated his mastery of suspense I bought the book after seeing him read at Word on the Street in Toronto. I was working the Toronto Star booth that day and heard the same reading 3 or 4 times - he was just as fascinating every single time I heard it, which sold me on the fact I had to read this book. It was a great introduction to a brilliant writer.
  • Traveling Music: The Soundtrack to my Life and Times - Neil Peart
    • Peart is a talented and passionate writer. His lyrics are what drew me to listen to Rush in the first place, so when he started writing (this is one of about half a dozen of his books) This biographical look at his life, told with respect to the music he was listening to as he was experiencing that life was a wonderful way to explore his life as a musician, a husband, a father and a friend. This book is incredibly touching, thoughtful, introspective, observant, funny, insightful; even if you've never listened to Rush you can enjoy the tale he unravels.
  • Negotiating with the Dead - Margaret Atwood
    • This academically styled look at writers and writing is wonderfully interspersed with Atwood's personal reflections and life experiences. It offers a thoughtful and in depth look at the profession and culture of writing and yet contains enough "light" personal references to be seen in a biographical light. And, as a writer I couldn't resist including this often overlooked gem from one of Canada's most prolific writers.
  • Last Canadian Beer: The Moosehead Story - Harvey Sawler
    • This isn't just the story of a successful independent Canadian brewery, but it's also a look at the story of a family that built a company up and achieved phenomenal success while following a consistent dream. It's as much a "business" biography book as it is a family legacy. Of course, upon finishing the book, my respect for the people behind the Moosehead brand grew exponentially. Since reading it, I continue to pause to toast the Oland family whenever I enjoy a pint of their beer.
  • Me Minus 173: From 328 Lbs to The Boston Marathon
    • Snell is a captivating motivational speaker. Her frank and poignant story of how she got to be 43 years old and decided to make some simple changes to improve her health and lifestyle is inspiring and heartfelt. It demonstrates the power of a person's conviction and can likely inspire others to set and stick to simple goals. It's not so much the story of weight-loss as it is a tale that empowers the reader to follow their own dreams. 

And here's a picture of me holding all five books.

What I think I love best about the selection that various booksellers have chosen is that everybody's picks are quite excellent and wonderfully eclectic. Looking at everyone's selections on a whole you can see that we have covered a significant amount of ground. And I was honoured to be included with such great booksellers.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Shortcut To The Giller Shortlist

I was quite pleased to have been invited to yesterday's press conference announcing the 2011 Shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize which was held at The Four Seasons on Avenue Road in Toronto yesterday morning.

The press conference started at 10:30 AM and within the room there were various folks from across the industry. The room was filled with a buzz and excitement that I quite enjoyed. (C'mon, I'm a big book nerd - any time you get me into a room where there are people excited about books and writing, how could I not be excited)

As everybody took their seats and the introductions to the event began, I made the mistake of looking down at my Twitter feed. There were folks in the room "live Tweeting" the event. But then I discovered something that took a bit of the air out of the proceedings for me. The shortlist had already gone live and people were already starting to tweet about the books and authors on the shortlist before the official live announcement had taken place.

The 2011 ShortList Titles - Full Details are available on the Scotiabank/Giller website

I love social media, and I love the connectivity - particularly when you're there and watching something going down live and get an extra layer of commentary to go along with the live experience. It becomes a sort of augmented reality.

I'm just upset that I looked down and saw the list before it could be unveiled in front of me. I suppose it was kind of like knowing the present that is about to be unwrapped.

I'm not much for spoilers. I much prefer the anticipation, the surprise, the thrill.

How about you?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Change My Life Again

One of my favourite pics of me at Titles Bookstore
Friday September 30, 2011 was my last day at Titles Bookstore McMaster University.

It was a bitter-sweet ending for me.

Very tough to decide to leave; but sweet to be leaving in order to explore some exciting new horizons.

I started at the bookstore at the end of the summer in 2006 after having spent 14 years with my previous company. I've always thought of myself as a loyal "stick with it" sort of person, but when you look at the actual details, when I left Indigo, I'd really only worked for Indigo for a few years.

Back in 1992 when I started with that company, the company was called Coles The Book People, and I'd started as a part-time bookseller at the Coles on Sparks Street in Ottawa. And, though I'd been with the same company for 14 years, the company itself evolved as did my roles within in.

In 1994 Coles and Smithbooks merged, creating Chapters. I had moved around in various positions within Coles and Chapters, working at various stores in Ottawa and Hamilton, never staying in a single role for more than a couple of years. Just as I settled in and got comfortable, my regional manager would move me to a different store - it worked out nicely because it gave me exposure to different stores, different environments, different customer bases.

In 1997 Francine and I moved to Hamilton and I worked at the Chapters in Ancaster in the role of Product Manager (which involved a lot of buying which I quite enjoyed). Then in 1999 I moved to the online division of Chapters to learn the ins and outs of electronic data.  Chapters eventually got bought out by Indigo in 2001 and within the changes my roles and responsibilities also morphed.

It was getting to the point where I was becoming more of an IT person and less of a "book" person - that is part of what prompted me to want to move to the bookstore at McMaster in 2006. The other reason was that commuting to Toronto was difficult with a 2 year old son whom I wanted to spend more time with. Leaving a great team was difficult but something I had to do (a feeling I'm experiencing all over again right now)

Interestingly, the place where I got my start, Coles, began in 1940 as an independent bookstore which opened up down the street from University of Toronto, buying and selling used textbooks. How little did I know that textbooks would end up playing such a major role in my bookselling career.

When I moved to the bookstore at McMaster in 2006 I knew a lot about various aspects of the book industry. But I knew virtually nothing about the academic or education side of the book world. Wow. Did my eyes ever open. Little did I know that the role of buying textbooks wasn't the same sort of fun buying that a general or trade book buyer does. But the fact that it's a faculty member deciding what books to buy doesn't make the job any easier. If anything, it makes it three or four times more complex and challenging.

I spent the past five years re-learning the entire book world and being presented with an entirely fresh viewpoint of the academic bookstore. Part of what helped was I had the best of both worlds. I got to work with both general books (the McMaster bookstore boasted one of the largest selections of general trade books a person could find at a University bookstore) as well as with textbooks. The buyers in the general books area had as many years of experience as I did and were true "book people" who actually read and cared for books in that traditional bookseller role. And the textbook buyers had been around even longer; two had started at the McMaster bookstore the year I was born and all three combined had well over 100 years of experience. They certainly taught me a great deal; central to which was always keeping in mind the fact we were there to serve the needs of the students and faculty.

Sue, Linda, Ted, me, Rick, Sherri and Helen - my Course Materials Family at Titles

So many folks that I had the privilege of working with at McMaster taught me so much. The team there was very much like a family to me. Most folks working there had been there for a long time, life-long employees of the university; life-long employees of the bookstore. And, though there weren't as many true die-hard booklovers there as I had originally hoped, they each brought something special and unique to the team. And when times got tough, the team came together and supported one another.

Leaving that family, the special environment I had grown to love over the years was an extremely difficult decision to make. In the five years I had spent at McMaster I feel deeply in love with the campus itself, the people there and the richness of the academic environment. I cared deeply for my store as if it were my own business and as if the expenses came out of my own pocket. And I invested as much of myself in the success of the business as if it were my own.

It was just as difficult leaving the continually growing Espresso Book Machine business there, which I had started to build in 2008, often seeing "Mippy" as my baby.  Mippy is the nickname I gave to our EBM - we called the operation "Titles on Demand" for fun and obvious name recognition for the book lovers or "McMaster Innovation Press" for the more serious or academically inclined -- "Mippy" was my pet name for the "MiP" term. Our EBM business forged entirely new business opportunities, established creative partnerships with local authors and with publishers all around the globe. It has been exciting and rich to be a pioneer in the realm of bringing Print on Demand into a retail bricks and mortar operation. Letting go of that was also very tough.

It was also at McMaster that I became involved in Canadian Booksellers Association, joining the board of directors so that I could see what CBA might be able to offer our campus bookstore. I found great riches and opportunities for booksellers in joining an association that focused on collaboration and booksellers working together, and through that have had the great privilege of serving as President. I also became involved in the Campus Stores Canada group as well as the Canadian Campus Retail Associates group -- two other fine collections of campus people working together and sharing.

But beyond all the fun and wonderful things I got to do because of my role as Book Operations Manager at Titles Bookstore was a very single and unique benefit. During what is known as the "Rush" periods (the typically busy season of returning students in September and January - a campus bookseller's busiest times of year - equivalent to the Christmas and Boxing Day rushes felt in other retail environments) I spent most of my time out on the sales floor helping students. I can't begin to describe just how satisfying it has been to be able to assist students with picking out their required course materials; always attempting to help them make the best decision for their particular circumstances, getting the most value for the least amount of money. It is, of course, a challenging task, particularly given the price of textbooks -- but there were various ways to assist students with saving money by making intelligent decisions based on their own needs, their own study habits and their own long term goals. Walking a first year student through the process and trying to help them make solid decisions that were best for them are among my most cherished memories of working at McMaster. And I had been there long enough to see several students through from their first day until graduation. (Yes, the bookstore also takes care of providing gowns and caps to students - so you got the benefit of seeing a nervous first year student looking for books, then, a few years later, congratulating them on the successful completion of their degree while putting a gown on them - talk about incredible job satisfaction!)

So I had spent 5 years at Titles Bookstore at McMaster. In retrospect, it was the longest time I had been in any single position. That, in and of itself, should speak volumes towards how much I loved my job and loved the campus I was supporting. I love the fact that the bookstore's mandate was to aid the academic process and that, despite everyone's perspective of the campus bookstore as being "the place that rips you off" there was always a "we're here for the students" perspective that never wavered.

Some of the Titles team a couple of years ago during our "Don' Be Trashy - Recycle Your Used Textbooks" promo

So, last Friday was my last day at this wonderful job. My last day working with a group of people who were very much like family.

It was tough to leave, but the opportunities ahead of me are part of my natural evolution and things that will allow me to continue to grow and expand my horizons, teaching me, yet again, a whole new aspect of the book industry.

As Neil Peart wrote in the lyrics to the Rush song "Fly by Night" I had to follow this feeling inside me not to mention that a change in the season is enough of a reason.

So, whenever I can end a blog post by referring to a set of lyrics from Rush, I've done all right.