Thanks for…

Needless to say, one is thankful for friends and family, shelter and good food, health and solvency, ideas to think about and projects to work on. But this is a blog about writing and reading, so a very particular list emerges. Here are a few of the gifts I’ve appreciated this year.

libraries & librarians

My own beloved New York Society Library heads this category, along with every librarian, events producer, acquisitions person, cataloguer, circulation desker, conservator, systems specialist, development honcho, bookkeeper, and maintenance person at the NYSL. And anyone at the NYSL whom I might inadvertently have left out.

independent bookstores

Heroes, all. Champions of life, literature, joy, and freedom. GO, INDIES! (Note all the links to indies at the bottom of my posts; see IndieBound for much more info on independent bookstores.)IMG_0579

the authors guild

Of which I have been a member since 1988, and—I regret to say—am still paying the same amount of annual dues because you pay according to what you earn from your writing. However, I’m always delighted to write the (small) check because the Authors Guild has done so much good work and continues to do so.

the authors who took a stand against the gorilla

This year nothing surprised me more than the birth of Authors United, the movement started by Douglas Preston and joined by so many writers of note and less note, to speak out during the Amazon/Hachette battle.

my laptops

A special thank-you for my writing tools: My laptops (one MacBookPro and one MacAir) are my intimates. Image 1It may sound a little crazy, but I feel a very powerful bond with each of them—as if we’re in this thing together. Anthropomorphizing pieces of hardware isn’t always wise, because they break down in nonhuman ways that can only be cured by an expert (for whom I’m thankful too: Laurie Duncan of MacSamurai). On the other hand, when I’m nose to nose with either laptop, I usually feel as if I’m having conversation with another person. It’s a good feeling.

the writing retreat that starts tomorrow

Endless gratitude to my beloved friends architect Michael Rubin and landscape architect David Kamp for lending their Shelter Island home to a writer who badly needs a little time to herself, to think and write and calm down. The next blog post will be written on the island, from a blue-painted table with a long view of yard and meadow.

and the girl group, which has ended…for now

Yes, after four amazing years, the Girl Group is over. It’s been a wonderful ride, a rich and rewarding experience, but it’s time for the (current) writers to try life without the group. Well, without this group, anyway. Maybe they’ll surprise me and start a different group, though it’s my hope that each writer will work on her own for a while. This photo shows our (now former) lair: the corner table at the Pembroke Room in the Lowell Hotel, where the GG has been meeting from the get-go. It looks very ladylike, but the GGs are not. Many’s the time an un-tea-room-like word has rung out, turning the heads of actual ladies eating petits fours and cucumber sandwiches.

more time for writing, as of now

I worked double-hard for the past twelve months, banked some dough, and it appears that maybe I’m going to have a writing sabbatical, barring disaster. All plans these days are bracketed by “maybe” and “barring disaster.” But I’m hopeful for the new year, and I trust you are too, for your new year and new projects.

Whether you’re spending this national day of observance with family, friends, or—as I have chosen—alone, The Book Under Her Bed wishes you a happy day.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Hooray for Books!, Alexandria, VA

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT

A Room of One’s Own, Madison, WI

 

 

 

marketplace report

The article linked here is exactly what I was writing about on November 17 (after that epiphany on the crosstown bus), in a post called “Returning to center.”

The Publishers Weekly piece is “The Rise of the Seven-Figure Advance.” Subhead: “Major deals become the ‘new normal,’ thanks to steeper competition for fewer high-profile projects.”

It’s a good job of reporting, and no fault of the reporter (Rachel Deahl) that the information is simultaneously all true and all nonsense. The article addresses why publishers are throwing huge amounts of money around right now; when the same publishers decide it was a mistake to hand out seven-figure advances, they’ll tell a different story. Wait, watch, and see.

 

 

 

The tap-dancing typesetter of ETAOIN SHRDLU

ETAOINSHRDLUETAOINSHRDLUETAOINSHRDLUETAOIN

 

0003778800-01-3_20141110Carl Schlesinger died on November 9, 2014. His family described him in his obituary in New Jersey’s Record/Herald as…”a vibrant man who loved the printed word, the New York Times, tap dance, music, writing rhymes, union and printing history, and entertaining audiences.”  

You’ve probably never heard of Carl, but to a considerable number of typophiles and type historians he personified both the love of old printing methods and the intelligent acceptance of the transition to new ones. “Carl was a fascinating link to a different time and technology. And somewhat unusual in that he adapted to computer typesetting,” says Joel Mason, former president of the American Printing History Association.

This was poignantly demonstrated at the New York Times, where Carl worked for a total of thirty-five years: On Saturday night, July 1, 1978,  the NYT published the last newspaper printed via Linotype, a hot-metal typesetting process; the very next day Linotype was definitively over when the newspaper switched to computer-generated cold type.

lino9260 The night was documented in the award-winning twenty-nine-minute film called “Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu“— meaning farewell to a string of letters that represented the arrangement of keys on the old Linotype machines.

That singular night marked the end of nearly a hundred years of a particular convention in newspaper printing. In a way, Sunday, July 2, 1978 ushered in the digital age. The documentary became a classic, and Carl Schlesinger was the central character in the film.

Other Linotypists understood that their jobs were either disappearing or changing radically; Carl saw the demise of Linotype in a larger context of social change. There’s a nice line in his New York Times obit: “A loud century of men hammering out the news on big metal machines was giving way to the digital whisper of the future.”

Social change was a fact of life to Carl Schlesinger. He wasn’t a man who sat back and complacently punched a keyboard: He took time-outs from the Times for heading a printing program in Kenya and fund-raising for the Flying Doctors Service of East Africa; he turned his lifelong love of tap-dancing into the co-founding of the New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day and he co-chaired the Tap Extravaganzas in New York for twenty years.

Carl was a union man and worked hard for the Typographical Union. He wrote two books on printing, one of them about Otto Mergenthaler, inventor of the Linotype. He was a storyteller, polymath, educator. He heard and loved percussion in the crash of Linotype, the click-click of computer keyboards, and the tap-tap-tap of dancing feet.

Laura Minor’s eulogy to her father was quoted in NorthJersey.com:  “He once told me that he was never bored a minute in his life.”

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Many thanks to Joel Mason for saving Carl’s card and for sharing it with The Book Under Her Bed.

 

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Magers & Quinn Booksellers, Minneapolis, MN

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, New York, NY

The Bookworm, Edwards, CO

 

 

Welcome to Purgatory Pie Press

Once upon a time you could only have a sweater if someone knitted it for you. Then machines replaced hand-knitting, and everyone could have sweaters. For a while, handmade sweaters were scorned because they weren’t made by those amazing new-fangled machines. But the wheel turns, and soon enough hand-knit sweaters regained value because they were made by hand.

By the same token, the more technologically sophisticated our machinemade or digitized books become, the more cachet and artistic value attaches to handset type and handmade books. The output of small letterpress print shops can have delicious appeal—in the use of beautiful old wood and metal typefaces, gorgeous papers, real ink, and unique design.Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 4.31.27 PM The work can be rich in personality, a revelation of artistic vision as compelling as any painting or sculpture. Letterpress printing has traveled a twisty road: once commonplace, then ignored, and now exceptional.

Two (historically) old friends of mine are purveyors of the exceptional in letterpress printing: Esther K. Smith and Dikko Faust, owners of the Purgatory Pie Press in New York City. Dikko&EstherDikko is the typographer and inky-fingered printer; Esther is the designer, and also the author of How to Make Books, Magic Books & Paper Toys, and a significant contributor to The Little Book of Bookmaking.  HANDMADEBOOK flyerIn a long collaboration—married!—they’ve made everything from wedding invitations to accordion-fold books, postcards, toys, and all sorts of magical printed pieces both two- and three-dimensional.press-nice-view

Purgatory Pie Press is so versatile that it would be easy to write about (and show) a dozen kinds of PPP work and still have dozens more to go. Instead, Esther suggested a focus on the datebooks that she and Dikko have been creating since 1980 (for the year 1981). “Keeping a datebook becomes an autobiography,” Esther points out, which has to sound completely right to writers.

I still own the PPP datebook I bought for the year 1983, shown at right: I used it as a studio notebook, keeping track  of the paintings, prints, and artist’s books I was making back then when I was still a visual artist and not yet a writer. IMG_0837It’s pocket-sized, so I always had it with me when I went to my studio, and I mixed the informational with the personal.

Here’s a typical entry, for IMG_0838June 4, 1983: Arrived with pigeon shit in my hair. Thanks, NY. Bumped into Ann [Banks] and Peter [Petre] in the market. They came up for a few minutes. Then I puttered, thinking about the next collage I’ll make.

The gallery of photos below shows a sampling of the datebooks Esther and Dikko have made over the years. Below the gallery are links to their website and to other articles about PPP.

special thanks to Marna Chester for letting me use her photo (above) of the actual purgatory pie press.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, MA

City Lights Booksellers, San Francisco, CA

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

 

1295225429_2893_FT0_dsc09298_No cops (we hope), no sitcom families (we hope), no lawyers (that’s too much to hope), no crime scene investigators (not going there)—just…the Miami Book Fair.

PBS is going to stream live coverage of the fair on November 21, 22, and 23. It’s kind of a cool idea—it might just work. Read about it here. This is one of the very-big-deal book fairs, so there’ll be very-big-deal authors to view and listen to. Give it a try?

Thanks to book cheerleader Laurie Duncan of MacSamurai Consulting for bringing this to my attention.

Returning to center

Friday night, on the Seventy-second Street crosstown bus, I had an epiphany. Or rather: after reading W.S. Merwin’s poem “The Blackboard” on the crosstown bus (on page 48 of the October 20, 2014 edition of the New Yorker), I came to my senses.

“The Blackboard” is an exquisite poem, which I’m surely not allowed to reproduce in full without permission. But I think the “fair use” doctrine will allow a few lines:

The question itself has not changed

but only the depths of memory

through which it rises and now in a late

dream of childhood my father is a blackboard…

For several weeks I’ve been preoccupied with publishing news stories about the enormous advances recently given to debut novels: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (one million dollars, reputedly; Simon & Schuster), Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise (a seven-figure amount; St. Martin’s Press), Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (a million; Little, Brown), to name a few.

News about this phenomenon keeps cropping up in the publishing newsletters as well as in newspapers. Every time I see one of these reports I think, What’s going on here? How can these money-strapped publishers be sinking so much dough into completely unpredictable ventures? What’s happening to advances for mid-list novels that might be just as good (or bad) as this slew of newbies? Haven’t the Big Five publishers learned anything at all from past experience?

Past experience should show them that investing that much money in books that may or may not earn out their advances is risky in the extreme. But they don’t seem to learn anything from past experience—hope apparently springs eternal, for no good business reason.

The common wisdom is that the more a publishing house sinks into the advance, the more marketing support the book will get. But that doesn’t guarantee sales. Sometimes that strategy works, sometimes it doesn’t. And meanwhile, what happens to the rest of the books that house is publishing? None of it makes sense. I’ve been trying and trying to figure it out, and I’m not alone.

The Merwin poem has nothing, nothing, to do with the state of publishing. I did not have that Friday-night epiphany because the poem told me something about the madness of the publishers.

My Merwin-induced moment of clarity and insight was about a different kind of business entirely. It was about this: the job of serious writers is to write serious work, beautiful work, intelligent work, and to hell with the business of publishing. Not exactly news, I admit, but a jolt I needed badly.

There are plenty of reporters reporting on the state of publishing. No one needs me to do that, blog or no blog. don’t need me to do that either. Granted, it’s fascinating, in a horrible sort of way, to follow the marketplace, but how can I possibly do that better than people who are full-time employees paid to know everything about the topic? I can’t, and I shouldn’t try. I shouldn’t think about it. Or worry about it. Or get preoccupied by it.

What they do is report; what I do is write.

The sheer quality and brilliance of Merwin’s poem—and frankly, it could have been another fine poet’s poem that did the trick—snapped me out of my silliness and slung me back to where I belong: at my desk, working on my novel, working on my short stories, working on the posts I love writing.

There’s nothing on this earth I can do to influence the publishing business, of course, and the only thing that happens when I—or you or other writers—get off track is that I do less good work and spend more idiot time in a place I don’t belong.

I have plenty of writer friends who are savvy about the marketplace and discuss it endlessly. They strategize, plan, decipher, figure, calculate—and that has its place. At the proper time. Right now I’m returning to center.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Village Square Booksellers, Bellows Falls, VT

Reading Rock Books,  Dickson, TN

Powell’s Books, Portland, OR

 

Reader’s Diary: end-game journeys

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As you see, I did not want to put the buzzwords into the title of this post because if I had, there’s a chance you wouldn’t be reading this very sentence.  Some of the buzzwords are:

aging •  failing • waiting • loneliness • Loss • ending • dying • DEATH

Grim stuff? Perhaps, but it’s our stuff. Everyone’s stuff. Everyone ages. Some of us won’t age as much as we wish we could, some of us will age more than we’re happy about. But we will age; we’ll approach death. Writers will write about the experience, good or bad; many readers will read about it, though sometimes reluctantly.

  • There’s a kind of fiction that’s incidentally about aging and death, that is, the aging simply happens along with the story. Memory or flashback is often the frame.
  • There’s another kind of fiction that’s about coping—with aging, being older or old, illness, imminent death, the aftermath of loss. Some of that fiction is from the point of view of the older person, some is from the POVs of children, friends, or caregivers. It’s fiction like any other, and it can be very helpful to readers.
  • A lot of aging-related nonfiction is, of course, factual information offered by experts, about the process, the physical and emotional issues, etc.
  • Memoirs and creative nonfiction written in old or older age frequently describe the experience of aging, being old, living old, and knowing you’re going to die soon. They’re about personal experience, setting the record straight, filling in the blanks, sharing knowledge or wisdom, being angry or sad, funny or resigned, ready—or not ready.

Readers generally choose age-appropriate or stage-appropriate literature. When you’re in your twenties, in school, in love, in early parenthood, etc., you’re less likely to want to read an account of life in the assisted-living facility. Yet if you’re in your forties and coping with elderly parents, this may be your literature of choice. At my stage, I’m not much interested in meet-cute romances or the trials of motherhood, but tales of aging can depress me.

The problem is that a great deal of amazing writing gets done by older writers and some of it is about aging and some of it gets short shrift. Only a very unusual thirty-year-old editor is going to take an old man’s memoirs seriously (unless he’s an ex-president) or an old woman’s short stories seriously (unless she’s a Nobel Prize winner).

May Sarton, poet, novelist, and memoirist, wrote eloquently about aging. “Memoirist” is not quite the right term for her, but one can’t call her a “journalist” despite the fact that she wrote elegant journals about her life. For example, Journal of a Solitude is—if you allow yourself to be absorbed by this poetic yet down-to-earth account—simply a wonderful journey with Sarton. And perhaps that’s the best word association: her journals are about her journey.

Sarton, who died in 1995, overcame several major illnesses and the loss of many close friends and lovers to continue writing journals almost to the end of her life. The journals are sometimes marred by her narcissism, yet they remain astonishing views into the process of aging. I single her out because her journals are favorites of mine, but she is only one of many writers who have had the courage, insight, energy, wit, and humor to tackle waning lives as only writers can—by writing through them.

There are many choices for reading in this topic; the following is quite a short list, compared to what’s available. Which is to say that despite the reluctance of some editors and some readers, good books about difficult topics do get published.

Tales from Rhapsody Home: Or, What They Don’t Tell You About Senior Living, John Gould

Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner

The Diary of a Good Neighbor, Doris Lessing (NB: also called The Diary of Jane Somers #1)

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Memento Mori, Muriel Spark

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

Krapp’s Last Tape and Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Signs and Symbols, Vladimir Nabokov

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

As We Are NowMay Sarton

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow

The Year of Magical ThinkingJoan Didion

My Mother’s IslandMarnie Mueller

PatrimonyPhilip Roth

And here are a few links to very good lists of books—fiction and nonfiction—about aging:

I would like to add two more words to the discussion: William Trevor. Not that beloved Mr. Trevor, who is now eighty-six, is a writer particularly concerned with work about old age. No, I mention him because he is still writing, he is still brilliant, and any reader or writer of fiction who hasn’t read him should search him out ASAP.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Crawford Doyle Booksellers, New York, NY

Snow Goose Bookstore, Stanwood, WA

Women & Children First, Chicago, IL

 

 

Andre Dubus III, travelin’ man

I do not review books on this blog; book reviewing is a special skill I don’t have. But I do often express preferences, confess infatuations, cheerlead for my favorites.

Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III is an astonishing book in every way, not least for its form: separate but slightly interwoven long stories (as opposed to short stories) that focus on different characters but allow peripherally reappearing characters. It’s rich, very rich—and dirty in the best way.

This description doesn’t begin to capture the quality of the book, which is why I disclaim book-reviewer mentality. I can’t explain this book, but the writing is extraordinary and I was transfixed.

So, curious about the writer and not yet having read his memoir Townie, I poked around to find out a bit about him beyond the obvious. Read Wiki for the obvious, though you won’t learn much. You do learn that he has a wife and three children.

And then I went to his website and discovered the meaning of “traveling man.” I nearly fell off my desk chair. According to his “Tour Dates” page, the man has been and will be on the road in 2014 for fifty-nine events, some of them gobbling up more than one day. And there’s travel time between dates, because he hopscotches the country (and sometimes the globe) without cease.

Take June, for instance, in sequence: Toronto, Massachusetts, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Mississippi, Louisiana, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine. Awesome.

How about April: Massachusetts, Florida, Italy, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

And this is a guy who says, “Whenever I’ve gone without writing two or three days at the most I feel far away from my center almost on a spiritual level and I have to get to the desk.” So with all that traveling, when and how does he get to a desk and summon enough mental wherewithal to write?

But clearly he does find it, and I would be riveted to hear how he does it. One can’t help but be knocked over by the sheer energy of the man. One little weekend trip to Richmond, another week-long trip to Oregon, and I’m ready to tear out my hair. I want to know what his secret is. No, I really mean it. How does he do it? I want what he’s got.

In an interview he gave in 2010, Dubus said, “I really feel that if I hadn’t started writing I would not have outgrown my rage. But I’ll tell you this—I’ve always loved human beings, working out and taking care of my body while helping others to do the same. So I think I might have become a family doctor in some small town. At least that’s my hope.”

I don’t think a small town could have contained his energy.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Horton’s Books & Gifts, Carrollton, GA

Edgartown Books, Edgartown, MA

Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, CO

Oh, that New York Times. How hard it must be to fill those pages every day. But some days we get lucky and the editors push themselves onto new turf. As yesterday in the T Magazine, in a piece called “Old Books, New Thoughts.”

The article comprises seven writers reconsidering their earlier work, and this sentence alone—from Philip Roth, on the topic of Portnoy’s Complaint—made me grateful I’d stumbled on the piece.

While the protagonist may be straining to escape his moral conscience, I was attempting to break free from a literary conscience that had been constructed by my reading, my schooling and my fastidiousness — from a habitual sense of prose decorum.

 

The Settlement Cookbook

My lovely, talented, smart, sweet niece Sophie Javna has been studying the history of settlement work in Chicago. Hold onto that information for a paragraph or two.

I don’t get to see Sophie often enough since she’s at Colorado College and I’m in Manhattan. However, we converged at her parents’ home in Ashland, OR Sophie/Lorrie at Sharon's b'day party(also home of a wonderful indie bookstore called Bloomsbury Books) in mid-October for her mom’s birthday celebration.

Sophie is a serious food person, but being a mere twenty-one she didn’t grow up with the same cookbooks that her aunt (formerly a serious food person, and author of ten cookbooks) did. I began cooking in the mid-1960s, when The Settlement Cook Book [sic] was right up there with The Joy of Cooking. 

1965 Settlement CkbkI owned the 1965 edition, and the recipes were wonderful—but the chapters that were not about food and that were addressed to young immigrant women in late nineteenth-century Milwaukee made it more compelling than any ordinary cookbook. And that’s what ties right into Sophie’s study of the settlement house movement, as you will see from my article below, written for Eater’s Digest: 400 Delectable Readings About Food and Drink, published in 2006.

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the story of the settlement cookbook

Mrs. Simon Kander was not, reputedly, a warm and fuzzy person. She was, however, a formidable lady who got things done. IMG_02661In Milwaukee in 1896 she and a group of other Jewish women opened a settlement house for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, to teach them English and other useful skills that would assist them in assimilating into American society. Not least of these skills—at least in Lizzie Kander’s opinion—was cooking.  

In 1901 Mrs. Kander observed that in the cooking classes (some of which she taught herself) the high school girls were spending precious time copying down the recipes that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. It occurred to Mrs. Kander that many hours could be saved and much more progress made if each girl were given a printed booklet containing those recipes, along with instructions on various other household matters such as cleaning, stain removal,, and building a fire. The settlement could sell the booklets, too, for a bit of income. 9781557094360_custom-9393f2dac1d4a79cd9d58d571c84b6ddc30a87bf-s2-c85 

She applied to the Settlement Board (all men, of course) for eighteen dollars to fund the project. They turned her down, though they added—famously—that they would be happy to “share in any profits from your little venture.”  

Little venture? The Way to a Man’s Heart…The Settlement Cook Book was printed with the help of Mrs. K’s friends and connections, and the 1901 edition was not a booklet after all: it came off the press at 174 pages.  The first thousand copies sold out in about a year. The cookbook committee enlarged the book and printed 1500 more. By 1910 it was doing so well that profits from the books were used to purchase land for a new settlement house, and more cookbook profits were used to help build it.  

In 1917 there was so much cookbook action that the ladies had to hire office help; in 1921 the committee incorporated as the Settlement Cook Book Company and agreed to take a twenty-cent royalty on each book.  UnknownMrs. Kander’s “little venture” continued to yield money for all involved, and along the way the book became a classic.  Many editions have been published, and over 2 million copies have been sold; in 1978 it was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. The popularity of The Settlement Cook Book spanned most of the twentieth century, and many a young woman started married life with a couple of saucepans and a copy of the book.  

From its inception, The Settlement Cook Book was not just a book of recipes; it was a document of culture, a manual of what was considered proper, important, and useful for girls and women to know in the kitchen and the home. When an immigrant girl read Mrs. Kander’s authoritative advice on what to serve for dinner or how to lay a table, she felt confident that she was on good, solid American ground. And she was.

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SIDEBAR: Noodling around online, I found this delightful post about The Settlement Cook Book. I don’t know this writer at all, but I love the piece and thank her for it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

 William Stout Architectural Books, San Francisco, CA

Subterranean Books, St. Louis, MO

Head House Books, Philadelphia, PA