Most writers don’t like to talk about their work in process. I guess I’m not most writers, because I like to talk about pretty much everything. I do usually hold back, though, until I’m really sure the book is going somewhere. At this point, I’m far enough along that I’m ready to let the cat out of the bag.
As anyone who has visited my tea bar knows, I am as much in love with the stories of different tea styles as I am with the tea itself. Thus far, I have mostly told the tales as they were told to me — or as I found them in the course of reading about tea. Many of these wondrous stories are far too short. The poor farmer who cleaned up a temple and was given Tieguanyin oolong as his reward by the goddess. The mandarin who added bergamot oil to an English earl’s tea to compensate for the calcium in the water and created one of the western world’s most popular teas. The tea master who performed one last tea ceremony after he was ordered by his daimyo to commit seppuku.
In Myths & Legends of Tea, my goal is to create the Grimm’s Fairy Tales of tea.
I am taking each of these tales and retelling it in my own style, most of them somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 words long. Each is accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story. Some of the stories are entirely legend, their origins lost in the mists of time. Some are based heavily on fact. Some will be familiar to any tea aficionado. Some are purely the product of my own imagination. In all of them, I am focusing on building a sense of the time, the setting, and the characters, and bringing the stories of tea to life.
I know what you’re thinking. At least I hope I know what you’re thinking. “When will I be able to buy this wondrous book?” (If that’s not what you’re thinking, please don’t tell me). If all goes according to plan, sometime in the autumn of 2013. I’ll keep you all up to date!
Since I split off Tea With Gary as its own blog in 2011, I have tried to keep the two separate. In this particular case, however, this post is both about my writing and about tea, so I am placing it on both blogs. Henceforth, I will place my updates about the book here and specific tea stories on Tea With Gary, although I’ll probably do some cross-linking. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll do a lot of cross-linking, because that’s the way blogs roll!
Once upon a time, I had a blog. I talked about all kinds of stuff on that blog, but mostly books, writing, and tea. Over time, I found that the people who read the tea posts really didn’t have that much interest in my writing. What to do?
Well, like a sexually-ripe amoeba, I realized it was time to split. I created the new blog “Tea With Gary,” and moved all of my tea posts over to it. With the content in place, I just need to unpack everything, hang the curtains, throw on a fresh coat of paint, and it will be ready for the world.
This post, in slightly different versions, is going in both blogs, explaining the process and guiding my friends and followers to the one most appropriate for them. If you wish to follow both, by all means do! Otherwise, enjoy the lack of distraction. Make a nice cup of tea, relax, and do a bit of reading.
The split itself was an interesting process. After creating the new blog, I brought up a post in the old one and searched for a way to move it. No “move” command. There’s a “copy,” which allows you to use one blog post as a template for another, but it won’t cross from one blog to another. I brought up the list of posts and checked all of the possible bulk actions. No luck. After a half hour of monkeying around, I went to the WordPress help files. Searching for “copy posts between blogs” and “split a blog” didn’t help much, nor did variants of those phrases and keywords.
Finally, I turned to the forums. That, my friends, was a positive and pleasant experience. A fine fellow by the name of Captn Mike responded in less than ten minutes with instructions and links to help files. It was an easy process once he pointed me the right way. Just “export” all of the tea posts from the main blog, “import” them into the new blog, and clean up all of the links.
The reproduction of the chromosomes (the posts) is complete. Once I trim out the unnecessary stuff and clean it up, the blogs will be cleanly divided.
When I was growing up, we did two types of shopping. Commodity items came from department stores like Sears, and specialty items came from specialty stores. To this day, if I walk into a book store, I expect to encounter a book expert behind the desk, who can help me find what I want. If I walk into a hardware store, I expect someone who can help me to fix a problem with my sink. If I walk into a feed store, I expect someone who knows the difference between red oat hay and alfalfa hay. In a department store, I have no such expectation.
Most of us who still have independent bookstores have survived because we know our products. When someone comes in my store looking for that mystery by a Montana author with a detective that works in a topless bar, we can find it. Same thing if they’re looking for last month’s bestseller with the pink cover, that long poem about Hell by the Italian dude, or a good book about building tree houses. That skill alone, however, will not allow indie bookstores to survive much longer.
The Wal*Mart generation has grown used to walking into stores and finding employees who know nothing about the products they sell. When they go shopping in brick & mortar stores, they’re either browsing randomly, or they’ve researched what they want. To me, it’s worth paying retail if I can engage with someone who knows what they’re talking about and get tailored recommendations. To the current generation, it’s not.
So we face a dilemma. We can try to cut our costs and compete on price; we can specialize, go high-end, and develop a reputation people will seek out; or we can diversify.
Option 1 seems on its face to be a disaster. With rents and wages up, we can’t possibly compete on price with Barnes & Noble, much less Costco. But there are stores out there that are making it work with used books, remainders, overstocks, and “scratch & dent” books. If you know what you’re doing and put in the time to build your stock well, you can even compete with the e-reader crowd. Why pay $10 for a new book on Kindle or iPad when you can buy a used copy for $3 and then sell it back to the store for $1 when you’re done reading it?
Option 2 (the “Nordstrom” option) works in larger communities where there’s a big customer base to draw from, but it’s getting harder and harder to pull off in small communities. The only way to make it successful is to specialize and build a stock that nobody else can match. This will require a great deal of time tracking down those small publishers and vanity-press books that don’t show up in book distributor databases — or even in Bowker’s Books in Print database.
Option 3 is an extension of the route most bookstores are already taking. I remember attending a bookseller conference five years ago where one of the panelists said every bookstore should have candles and wind chimes because they sell. Coffee shops in bookstores are so common they’re expected now. Book-related products like journals, calendars, and magazines have been bookstore mainstays for years.
It’s possible to combine options 2 and 3. A good example would be Barjon’s Books down the road from us in Billings. Their specialty is “alternative spiritual” books, and they stock it deep. Where my store has a shelf for pagan and earth-based religions, Barjon’s has a whole section. And they also stock everything from herbs to candles to tapestries to belly-dancing outfits. This approach has kept them alive and thriving since 1977. Just don’t go there looking for a copy of Huckleberry Finn.
It’s taken us a little bit of time to settle on our direction. We’re keeping the “general bookstore” selections like bestsellers, thrillers, and Sudoku, but we’ve heavily tailored our stock to local themes and children’s nature/science. We still have a used fiction section, but it can’t compete in sales with our tea bar or cigars. The children’s books are augmented with educational and nature toys.
How are people taking this? For the most part, very well. A few customers have come in and declared that we’re obviously not a bookstore anymore because of “all this other crap” even though our book inventory is the highest it’s ever been. That’s a risk we took when we packed the shelves tighter to make room for tables and chairs. Our sales of tea (both bulk and served in-store) and cigars have more than compensated for the steady slide in new book sales over the last four years.
(The “all this other crap” comment amused me, because it was made by someone who was looking at the spinner rack of my Who Pooped in the Park? books, which has a selection of authentic Montana Turd Birds sitting on top of it.)
What will Red Lodge Books look like in another ten years? Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be selling kilts and swords. But if we continue to adapt with the times, try new things, and drop what doesn’t work, we’ll still be here.