“Everything is being stripped down to what’s essential”: Introducing A Word with You

Times are strange right now. We’re all looking for ways to stay connected to the book world we love so much, from the wonderful independent booksellers who champion our books to our publishers who put those books into the world. With that in mind, we’re pleased to introduce A Word with You, our new weekly feature where we’ll chat with folks from all over the publishing ecosystem to hear about what we should be reading, what’s inspiring them, and how they’re dealing with this global crisis.

Our first conversation is with Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics. He opened the store in Portland, OR in 2006, focusing on a unique selection of mainstream, genre, literary and self published comics. It has since been celebrated as one of the most beloved comic shops in North America. Floating World branched out into publishing in 2008, starting with underground broadsheets and zines and then comics and hardcover art books available all around the world.

So . . . how are you?

I’m gonna steal a response from my friend Tom [Kaczynski of Uncivilized Books]: So far so good. But, ask again in a month.

What are you missing the most right now?

Friends, my customers and coworkers, Portland’s cheeseburgers.

What’s the best piece of bookselling advice you’ve received recently?

I’ve been very busy creating an online version of the store for mail order, scrambling to try and generate sales while our doors are closed. The best advice is anytime someone tells me to slow down and just do nothing for a while. Get some sunshine, relax in the backyard, pull some weeds out of the garden.

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about?

Floating World Comics

There’s a pretty good sense of unity with other booksellers and publishers. We’re all in the same boat. In the same way that we’re hoping to flatten the curve of the health crisis, I think that’s sort of happening with the economic recession that’s coming as a result. We got just enough relief (or offers of relief) to make it past April 1. We’ve got a while until the next round of bills are due. If we can share the burden, pass it around, pick it up again, repeat, we might be able to sustain.

That sense of unity is relatable on a spiritual level. Everything is being stripped down to what’s essential. Some of those discoveries are surprising to society. When we rebuild after this I hope that we’ve learned from the experience and can make resolutions.

There’s been a lot of rewarding moments—connecting with customers, people that care about Floating World, and the comics community here. It’s been endearing and inspiring.

I was emailing with one of the book printers that I work with in China and she was signing off all of her emails with warnings about the virus, which was just starting to spread in America. This was in early March. It was the same every time: Please take care of yourself, wear a mask when out, wash your hands, try not to be in public.

A week later she mentioned that they had a regular source of mask manufacturers and she could send some free masks with some paper samples I requested.

Another week later (March 19) everything on the calendar was getting cancelled, the shop was closing. I wrote to her asking about the masks. Are they N-95? How many could we get?

She sent pictures of the KN-95 masks, the Chinese equivalent of N-95 masks. I sent some of the photos to my Mom who can read and speak Chinese. We read about the rise of counterfeit masks from China, but saw that the factory we ordered from had been around for 5 years.

The minimum order was 1500 masks. We considered the risks. What if the masks didn’t work? What if they didn’t make it through customs? But I trusted my printing rep. I’ve had a working relationship with her for years. This was a personal connection that I trusted and her concern for us in America was genuine. She got FDA registration so they could get the masks through customs. My wife texted some friends to see if anyone wanted to place orders. One of her friends said she wanted to buy two entire boxes to donate to our local hospital. The next day my wife’s friend had thought about it and wanted to order another box. She knew someone who wanted to buy a box too, for their local hospital.

Jason with his wife and daughter

I’m guessing it’s not possible for a hospital to just place an order with random Chinese manufacturers. There are probably strict medical regulations that they can’t get around. But in a pinch this is a good workaround. We’re getting supplies to people today that will make a difference.

The first shipment arrived a few days ago. We distributed some to friends and then found a contact at the local hospital where we could take the donation. They were speechless. They were so grateful. We did a little post online and started getting thanks from health workers in our area.

I know that earlier I said the best advice was to slow down and do nothing. But my default is to do everything I can think of. If I know the work is good and worth doing, I do as much as I can until I’m exhausted.

What’s something good you’ve read recently?

I’m reading a book about the history of electronic music, told through developments in equipment and technology called Live Wires.

David Anthony Kraft’s run on Defenders is fun. Steve Gerber’s style is more intense, takes you on a trip. Kraft’s comics are like a six pack of cheap beer, easy reading. I’m interested in tracking down more of his work.

Read a bunch of Christopher Priest comics recently – his Deathstroke run and about half of his Black Panther run.

The Beautiful Ones, Prince’s unfinished memoir.

Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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