‘I Might as Well Be on Pluto.’ An American Bookseller in Frankfurt
Ariana Paliobagis on a Whirlwind Trip with Europa Editions
The staff at Europa Editions envisions a world where American booksellers are connected to and integrated with the rest of the wide book world. Instead of islands unto ourselves, we would be in communication with our varied colleagues from all parts of the international publishing scene. To help achieve this goal, Europa has started funding a scholarship to bring an American bookseller to an international book fair every year. And I am the first bookseller, the guinea pig.
Monday, October 17, 2016
Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport
I have a very specific flying routine to stave off severe anxiety, and getting to the airport ridiculously early is part of it. But at least now I have time to scope out the Book Fair app while trying to eat lunch. The app shows a near endless stream of programming each day, and my anxiety increases. I don’t know what events to attend, if any. And where even are these events? Building 6.1 A.127 or 4.3 F.108 or 5.0 D.04—it’s like a series of chemical compound abbreviations.
I’m nervous. I’m terrified. I’ve never met Michael Reynolds, Europa’s editor-in-chief, I don’t speak German, I know this fair isn’t aimed at me, and it’s giant. Also, my stage fright extends to one-on-one conversations. Sometimes everything I know just flies out of my brain and no words, at least nothing coherent, comes out. I’m afraid of looking like a blithering idiot, thus embarrassing Europa, myself, my American bookselling colleagues, and all of the U.S. I feel like everything hangs on this, and if I fail, I might as well pack up my shingle and go to a nunnery. Sure, Europa has sent me an itinerary, but it’s heavy on the drinks, receptions, parties, and dinners, and not so much on workshops or meetings like I had first expected. There are also a couple tours, a panel to appear on, and one day spent at an international bookseller’s conference.
One assignment (which I asked for, because who gets a scholarship without having to do some kind of homework?) will help fill some time on the flights: read Europa’s newest title, 33 Revolutions by Canek Sanchez Guevara, critic and grandson of Che. Rum and coke is an appropriate pairing for this book. One of its themes is loneliness while among comrades. I’m afraid that’s going to mirror my Buchmesse experience.
I’m nervous that I haven’t done enough prep and the whole trip will be a disaster. I’m also worried that if I don’t sleep on the flight, I’ll never be able to go to two receptions tonight and be on European time to make it to appointments the next morning. I’m taking frantic notes in my spiral-bound, and now I’m worried I’ll run out of pages. It’s 4 a.m. in Germany, and I’m on my third glass of wine. I swear after this I’ll go to sleep. The man next to me had a Crown Royal and Diet Coke followed by three cartons of milk. I’m clearly missing something here.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Frankfurt, 10:30 a.m.
Like all taxi drivers I meet, this one believes that e-books have taken over, no one reads anymore, and print and bookstores are dinosaurs. I try to tell him otherwise, but I’m not sure my message gets through.
At the Spartan but serviceable hotel I’ve been assigned, I take joy in the little things: the windows open and there is a safe in the room. The neighborhood is just off a main road leading to the Messe buildings but quiet and leafy.
To combat jet lag, everyone advises against napping, so I go out for a walk. I knew I was coming to a business city, but the number and quality of suits and heels on the street is staggering. I pass what feel like twelve dozen banks and finally find a café with sidewalk seating. It’s chilly, but I don’t want to be indoors. I’m immediately thrown off by my lack of German skills. I point to a sandwich. I think I can see what’s on it. Words for coffee seem to be pretty universal.
The woman at the next table asks if I’m here for the Buchmesse. We have a stilted conversation. She’s trying to learn English so she doesn’t give up when it seems obvious the conversation can’t go much further than quizzing each other on basic vocab: chair, table. The taxi driver, too, immediately assumed the same: the Messe. It takes over Frankfurt. Later at an all-things-verboten shop—alcohol, tobacco, etc.—I overhear a conversation between the shopkeeper and pick out that their discussion is about the Buchmesse and the rudeness of Americans. I set my bottles of red wine and water on the counter, trying to avoid talking and to be very small and inconspicuous as I fish through my Euros for what I hope is the right amount.
I see someone walk by with a Granta bag and feel relieved—my people are here. Danke Got. The suits thin out a bit, giving way to occasional arty, literary people in jeans, berets, leather satchels, oversized scarves. I start walking in the direction I think will take me to the river but find the red light district instead. Good to locate that early on. Then I stumble on an outdoor fair with food carts (and drink carts). Seems to be mostly day-drinkers, leisurely smoking and talking. It’s good to stop and try to convince myself I’m really here. Excluding the German signs, parts of Frankfurt feel almost like New York, which is still very far from Montana, figuratively and literally.
Frankfurt, 5 p.m.
The agenda says to meet Michael Reynolds at the Heissicher Hof Hotel. It’s crowded with white-clothed tables surrounded by earnest groups of two or three huddled over portfolios and Moleskines and coffees. Plush carpets, blinding chandeliers, dark carved wood. Confident, laughing people greeting old friends. Shit. I’m out of my element. I worry I’m supposed to go through these rooms with my “I’m looking for someone” face to find Michael. No. Not happening. I text him. I’m standing stiffly just at the edge with the front door and reception desk in view.
Once I finally locate Michael, he ushers me to the bar for a drink. I don’t even time to order before people start approaching him with glad handshakes. “This is Ariana,” he says to everyone. “She’s an American bookseller.” “Ooooh. Aaaaah. What are you doing here?” I’m a bit of a rare specimen. To my knowledge, there’s only one other U.S. bookseller here. Thankfully, this response is slightly more common than variations on “What do you think about this Trump thing?” I apologize a lot. I try to assure the international book community that not all of America has lost its goddamn mind.
To Michael’s great credit, this scene will be repeated over and over throughout my week here. I had nothing to fear in regards to not knowing people. By the end of the first night, I’ve met publishers, editors, agents, translators, rights managers, people who work for the book fair, journalists, and just about every species of book trade person imaginable. I’ve been introduced to people from a dozen different countries across four continents. The notes app on my phone gets surreptitious additions and the drinks keep coming. The night that started with an elegant reception at the swanky Suhrkamp Verlag house to celebrate all the people involved in the Elena Ferrante phenomenon descends into bar-hopping around urban Frankfurt and finally ends at what I’m surprised is an even posher hotel lobby and bar. The Frankfurter Hof feels like a place that shouldn’t exist any longer. We lounge in velvet armchairs and drink until 3 a.m. I take a cab back to my hotel with Eva, the daughter of the Europa publishers and Ferrante discoverers Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola and editor at the family business.
I get back to my room and don’t think I’ll sleep, but I’m exhausted already; it’s been a while since I’ve had a solid hour of sleep. And the drinking. I kept up until the end, but I’m beginning to think I’m more foolhardy than brave. Tomorrow is looking like a challenge.
As I try to fall asleep, I look back on the surreal day. I have been greeted as family by all the extended Europa clan. I was humbled by their keen interest in my work and the respect I was given, reminding me of the importance— easily overshadowed—of the bookseller. Like authors, editors, and publishers, we are driven by our passion for literature, language, stories, and books, and by our desire to create and share them with equally passionate readers. As a bookseller so far from the centers of the industry—and yes, we talk about it in business terms, but it is more of a holistic designation that transcends borders and each of our individual parts, something that becomes an intrinsic part of our identity, something closer to religion—it is easy to assume that for them I am akin to a delivery-person rather than a colleague. But here, that worry vanishes. Here I am brought back into the big tent of book people.
Rumor has it that the bar didn’t close until breakfast started. Happy Night Before the Fair.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
I completely understand why Michael doesn’t schedule any appointments before 10. Sleep was a problem, and just as I began to drift off, a feeling of urgency about my first agenda item got me out of bed. Once through security, I’m terrified I won’t be able to find the one little booth I’m after, or maybe not even the right building, but with stereotypically German efficiency someone puts me on a shuttle, there’s building 5, ah, there’s the row, follow it all the way to the end, and I’m pleased to see familiar faces. I’m not even late.
As we walk through the giant halls at a brisk pace, Michael points out, there’s Japan, there’s Greece. The booths are shiny and everything is so brightly lit. As we walk and talk through Europe and Asia and the Middle East and North America I’m almost overcome by a feeling of vertigo. It’s all so familiar—like BEA—but the people are all calm and better dressed. Everything is larger but also emptier. No one accosts you as you walk by, no one scans your badge to see if you are worth their time rather than looking at your face. There are no jostling, roped-in groups of swooning fans waiting for a signature from the latest celebrity-turned-author. No people weighed down by giant tote bags filled to the brim with Advanced Readers Copies. Here, everyone seems focused and unencumbered.
Michael has to go upstairs for meetings in a tightly controlled area where no guests are allowed. The Booker Prize talk will be happening soon. I follow that with a presentation on copyright, and then I hear my name. The organizer of the panel I’m to be on later in the week comes over. We’ve never met, but she’s done her homework and recognized me from my photo. I’m realizing that despite my stage fright, being involved, even in a small way, makes the fair more useful and personal. You sometimes pay attention in different ways when you feel you are more than a spectator.
I’m grateful to have the Europa stand as a home base. It gives me a place to refresh in-between sessions, a place to tune out for a minute, to take notes, to discuss what has happened that day. There are two last items on the afternoon’s agenda: a cocktail at the French publisher’s hall and drinks at Hhof. We do neither. Instead we have beer and meatballs at a Swedish publisher’s booth and prosecco at another Italian booth. Gianluca Catalano, an editor and sales manager from the Italian house Edizioni E/O, coaches me on the proper pronunciation: pro-sAY’-ko. We run into more of the crowd from last night and follow them on the subway downtown. Apparently Buchmesse tickets also are good on public transportation in the region all week. When we arrive at the bar, the crowd is enormous, and we have to push our way inside to get drinks. It is the small and independent publisher’s party. Here, I meet some of the most innovative people at the fair. The crowd is young and beautiful and suave. Dinner is at 9 at an unfortunate Italian restaurant, but the company of ten is fabulous, more editors and agents from the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Holland, Italy. I meet the agent for an author one of my booksellers has a deep crush on and find out he would welcome a letter. Dinner ends at midnight and the parties continue, but I call it an early night.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
The European and International Booksellers Federation Conference starts at 10am. I’m still not sleeping, despite my exhaustion, so I’m grateful that booksellers know to have free coffee—and plenty of it—at our events. I have a great chat with a bookseller from New Zealand. There’s something very heartening about knowing that our struggles are all so similar. As booksellers in the last couple decades, we’ve learned that being nimble and creative and not getting stagnant or complacent is essential. Later, I have coffee with Dutch booksellers Wieke and Astrid, and I get a fascinating picture of their work making former chain stores independent after the parent company went bust.
After a lovely final chat with Betsy Burton and Oren Teicher of the ABA, I head back to the Europa booth for the reception to celebrate the publication of 33 Revolutions. The food and wine are excellent, but to my dismay, tequila has replaced rum as the drink of the night. That’s okay. I should stick to wine anyway.
There’s nothing else on my agenda for tonight. Michael apologizes for not arranging dinner, but I am so grateful. My exhaustion is bone deep. I was fighting the nods during the bookseller conference, so I know it would be unwise to venture out on my own. I head back to the hotel, stretch out on the bed, and just think. And enjoy the peace. And quiet. This hotel is delightfully quiet.
I’m still amazed that I’m here and that I get to meet these people—and that they seem excited to meet me. My 12-year-old self could never have imagined this as she checked out giant Writer’s Market guides from the library of a Montana town too small for a bookstore. I had pored over the listings, memorizing the names and addresses of publishers, trying to imagine New York and what it must be like to be exalted enough to get to make books. I read all the articles and knew what a query letter was before I ever heard of a CV. This was the world I had always wanted to be a part of, but I felt that I might as well as been on Pluto.
But here I am halfway across the world celebrating literature and lucky enough to be a part of making books and bringing them to readers. And I’m home.