SINGULARITY & CO.
It’s an ongoing story. Independent bookstores are undercut by big chains (Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, etc.), which in turn are sideswiped by Amazon. Hardly new. It’s about volume and money, right?
Except that sometimes it isn’t. Here’s a new bookstore, Singularity & Co., which exists both online and in what they call “real life,” and which, according to its owners, doesn’t need to make much money. And they plan to sell both old and new books. Crazy, no?
Late-night good idea
Three book and sci-fi nuts—CiCi James and Ash Kalb (they’re an item) and Jamil V. Moen—had a “late-night good idea”: they would take their favorite out-of-print works of classic and/or obscure science-fiction, track down the people holding the copyright (if they were still around), and publish them online and on all the major digital platforms at little or no cost. And that’s what they’re doing. They began with a Kickstarter campaign and soon found themselves drowning in positive feedback and support—not just from fans and bloggers, but from the likes of fantasy giant Neil Gaiman, too. The trio all have other freelance professions, and the bookstore has effectively become their office, too. “We had a conversation about what would be the ideal work environment,” says Kalb, “and the answer was a bookshop. So we made it.”
Singularity & Co. opened last summer. “The meaning of the name is a little tricky to explain,” says Kaila Hale-Stern, the group’s managing editor. “Singularity is the idea that originated in science-fiction to describe the belief that we’re heading to a point in technology where technology is going to overwhelm and take over the world. It’s an event that a lot of futurists believe we are fast approaching.” At the Singularity Institute, she continues, “scientists and computer scientists are attempting to predict what this event will be and how we prepare for it.” Think rebellious, humanized robot—HAL from 2001. “Singularity is really the point where technology surpasses human control,” says Moen. “Most people think it’s going to be a 21st-century event.” The store’s name is also a play on the name of Paris’s famed Shakespeare and Company, which Hale-Stern says is her “favorite bookstore in the world. It’s my dream that we will have people someday sleep here and do their art.”
Fortuitously, the three founding partners have complementary skills: Kalb is a self-described “serial founder, publisher, media and transactional attorney”—a consultant and lawyer who’s worked with tech start-ups “doing really cool things with technology.” CiCi James, he says, is a rock star, anthropologist and the one who does most of the scanning, publishing and editing. She says of herself that she’s a vocalist, writer and producer who’s “very thorough.” She’s written a graphic novel and a couple of children’s books that are in the process of being published; she also models the T-shirts on their site. Moen claims he’s the least embedded in the sci-fi genre, though he says “I’m a huge reader of any genres”; his background is in fashion, PR and marketing, and he writes and edits a blog called The Noble Savage where he riffs on clothes and Vogue spreads.
However, it’s Hale-Stern who’s not only frighteningly young-looking and enthusiastic but who seems to have the most experience of what the bookshop could become, having previously been the community manager at the online media group Gawker, where, she says, she “helped build and talk to these people who would literally sit around talking about the stuff they’re obsessed with all day.” In a way, Gawker was an early blueprint for the bookshop. “We had a science-fiction site there,” says Hale-Stern, “and we/they curated virtual places that used to be what bookstores and other sub-cultural spots were, by drawing people in to share their common passion.”
Hale-Stern left Gawker, she says, because she’s never felt so inspired as by what the three partners were setting up at Singularity. As she sees it, they’re doing several things at once: making a community-oriented space for lovers of long-out-of-print books (most of which were published at least 40 years before they were born); creating a cool place to hang out and find old and new titles about the future and the fantastic; and producing reimagined books, using the latest scanning and editing technology, to be read online. In doing all this they are also finding, in some sense even creating, a whole new audience for this work. It’s a past, present and future mash-up. “We’ve been dreaming about this from a young age,” says Hale-Stern (who’s also a writer). “I’ve wanted a bookstore since I was 10. If I ever have kids, I was thinking it would be a strange thing for them to have a mother who had a bookstore. It would be cool and quirky, but like owning a vintage store more than anything else. It kind of blew my brain.”
The enthusiasm is palpable. “We love books a lot. And, we love sci-fi books, new and old, but mostly old,” says Hale-Stern. How do they interpret this resurgence? “People are living their lives online,” she continues. “Everyone’s filtering everything through so much technology I think there’s a blowback to that.” In part, it’s precisely because they’re disappearing that people feel drawn to books, both for reading and as objects in themselves.
“None of us knew about selling books “ says Kalb. “I think our ignorance of traditional publishing and how bookstores are normally run has been an asset. Not knowing what we can’t do has been a real boon, because it means we figured out ways to do things that other people say we can’t do.” Moen quotes Arthur C. Clarke:
Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: (1) It’s completely impossible. (2) It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. (3) I said it was a good idea all along.
It’s something everyone in the group seems familiar with. “I feel the craziest ideas are the best places to start,” says Kalb, who has something of the crusader-superhero about him. One of the reasons, he adds, that people don’t go into the business of selling vintage books is that they’re very difficult to database: “We’re about to launch a web shop and that’s a real logistical nightmare, because these old books from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s aren’t scanned.” After several abortive attempts Kalb created an inventory system from scratch. “It was a challenge,” he says. “We had to build the software to integrate the e-store and the bricks-and-mortar store at the same time, to make sure we’d only sell a book once.” Now, every time he walks into a bookshop, Kalb ends up asking the owners how they do it. “Their answer is always ‘It’s impossible.'”
All four see their business model as the way independent bookshops will be able to survive. “It’s so easy now just to download books to your Kindle or iPad,” says Hale-Stern. Comic books have also embraced electronic media. While many fans say they still feel the need to hold a physical comic in their hands, particularly for the art, others say it’s saving the industry. “I love to go and sit in bookstores. I was raised by Barnes & Noble,” Hale-Stern goes on. “But they aren’t going to be able to sustain that business much longer. However, I don’t think the love of the book is ever going to fade. At Singularity we’re very much focused on things that are rare or exceptional, because the market for mass books is very price-competitive, and there’s no reason for us to be part of that.”
It was Kalb’s legal background, he says, that made him realize they could produce the books. “We’re doing it in a curative way, in collaboration with our subscribers—they make suggestions and we see what’s possible. It’s a lot of research and a lot of work,” he says, “but I’m in a good position to do it.” After they’ve chosen a book they want to bring back, Kalb deals with any permissions or copyright issues. They scan the original, using OCR (optical character recognition) software, which converts printed words into machine-encoded text, after which it’s copy-edited, since “strange things happen in translation.” Then come new covers and their own introductions, and, hey presto, a new/old book is born. It takes about an hour to scan one book, but then they own it. “Our production time from raw book to text is probably around 20 hours,” says Kalb, although he thinks this will shorten as they get better at it.
The first three books Singularity scanned were all C.L. Moore titles, which they did together because, says James, “We’ve found that when people stumble on authors they tend to stay with them.” From the glass case where the rare and expensive items are kept Hale-Stern pulls out a Buck Rogers comic book from the 1930s: “Somebody grew up with this as their first real escapism. I can post a picture of Buck Rogers on our Facebook page and get a hundred responses from people telling stories of what it meant to them.” What really excites her, she says, is that they get kids in there who are living for these books, as she says she once did—and then they have 70- or 80-year-olds on Facebook saying they haven’t seen a picture of Buck Rogers since they were kids.
Hale-Stern grew up with sci-fi books, but says she never knew how to pick them. “I would honestly pick the books for its cover and just see what caught my eye,” she says. Some of those who come into the shop are in a similar position; they may know nothing about the genres Singularity stocks and often ask for recommendations. “Some are drawn to a cover, whether it’s spectacular or ridiculously awful,” Hale-Stern adds, “but with some you never know what’s going to catch your eye.” My own eye falls on a pile in a box. Among them are books by “Grand Master” C.L. Moore (who was actually a woman)—1930s “sword-and-sorcery” adventures collected as Jirel of Joiry and A Haunting Powerful Fantasy—and Andre Norton’s mid-1950s survivor horror, Sea Siege.
For someone like C.L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore, says Hale-Stern, “science-fiction used to be such a male-dominated industry that you could only ever be published under a male name or initials, the way J.K. Rowling had to for the Harry Potter books.” Today, though, she says, “Modern sci-fi and fantasy have got much better for women, and comic books are really the battleground [over issues such as sexist portrayals of characters like Cat Woman in bondage outfits and high heels]. Women artists are just rebelling over being asked to draw women as sexpots without normal bodies. A comic fan, a woman, came into the store recently,” she continues, “and said she didn’t feel comfortable going into most comic stores, because they tend to be so male-oriented, full of gamers just sitting around with their comic books.”
The oldest book on their shelves right now is Kipling’s The Jungle Book, first published in 1893. There’s also a copy of The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1915). “There’s some debate as to when the first science-fiction book was written,” says Hale-Stern. “Many credit Jules Verne, but people seem to have been sending themselves to Mars ever since we could first imagine it.” A lot of fans prefer books shelved by era, apparently; at Singularity they tried that to begin with, then realized they wanted to organize them by author, too. Now they have a bit of both. “So many of the older fans started loving science fiction when it was really a fringe thing, but nowadays we consider that time its golden age. It’s the same thing with comics.”
The ’30s and ’40s were a huge boom in the genre; technology was advancing rapidly, and, Hale-Stern thinks, people were dreaming bigger ideas while worrying about the destruction of the planet and society in general. “Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles was published in 1950, at the beginning of the Cold War; it’s all about humanity having to leave the planet because we’ve destroyed it,” she says. “The great thing about science fiction is that it’s always reflecting the things that society is concerned about, but through a future lens.”
Sci-fi is thriving; its fringe days seem to be over. Singularity’s mission is to “save the sci-fi”—this is their call to arms. “Each month, our subscribers help us choose a vintage, out-of-print book to rescue,” says Kalb. “We’re bringing forgotten 20th-century sci-fi into the 21st. It’s so exciting to rescue titles reduced to just a few copies that otherwise might have been completely lost. We’re redistributing them for the modern age.”
Asked if there’s a book he absolutely loves, Kalb doesn’t hesitate. “The Mote in God’s Eye is a science-fiction novel by the American writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, first published in 1975. (They collaborated on 12 novels). We might be out of copies, because I keep selling it to people,” he says. “It’s one of the first grown-up sci-fi books I ever read, but I reread it last week and it holds up. It’s really, really good. Is basically a Hornblower novel, but in space. And probably my very favorite sci-fi book is Robert A. Heinlein’s
Hale-Stern chimes in: “We sell some new titles such as 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson. He’s considered one of the fiercest weird-world builders, able to combine science with science fiction. That’s actually a debate with a lot of fans: some people like their hard science facts, whereas others can throw in a dragon in the same story.”
The shop’s location—by the East River on Bridge Street—in a still industrial but already hip part of Brooklyn called Vinegar Hill. Science-fiction appears to exist right outside their windows in the form of an enormous Con Ed plant—although there are long-standing plans to tear it down and, horror, turn the area into a park. “It evokes a certain atmosphere,” says Hale-Stern. “It’s a perfect backdrop.” Singularity doesn’t have a great deal of passing trade. “We’re a destination shop. We’re trying to build a community that’s going to come here specifically. I know if I went to another city and I saw this place listed, I would go and hang out here all day,” she says. “We get a lot of coverage; people are finding us and coming over during their lunch break, or biking over after work.”
The shop is open late and they plan to host events, readings and films in the space. “What I’m most excited about,” Hale-Stern says, “is bringing together what is now just tons of online communities to talk about these topics. We want to bring them back into real life.” At the official launch last August, people were spilling out onto the street. “I don’t think anyone is as specified in this genre as we are,” adds Hale-Stern. “Someone came to interview us recently and told us about two new general bookshops that opened around the same time we did here in Brooklyn. We love and support all bookstores, but the reporter told us they’d have to sell a lot of coffee and alcohol to stay open, and we’re obviously not offering those services.”
With so many functions, it’s no surprise that inside, the bookstore has a quirky, old-and-new look. Aside from the shelves and cases and boxes of books, there’s an overhead screen silently showing a 1930s pulp movie; a suit of armor; globes; an old rotary-dial telephone; a huge, ancient cash register with keys like an old typewriter and prices that pop up. “We’re romantic,” says Moen. There’s a wonderful-looking futurist bookstand that turns out to be the scanner that Kalb built himself. He also makes robots for fun. “Our current scanner evolved because we needed it to be portable. The big commercial setups are great, but not only do they cost $4,000, I have to be able to throw this in the back of the car and take it to a rare book, so this is what I cobbled together. It works really well.” They’re also selling some fan-oriented stuff—T-shirts, bags, jewelry and greeting cards representing all the different genres. “People now expect to be in a lifestyle,” says Hale-Stern, “and they want to be able to surround themselves with the things that are their passion.”
So where does Singularity see things going? “The nature of sci and fantasy fans is that they are very pessimistic about now, but optimistic about the future,” says James. “Many of our books deal with the end of the world, so readers tend to be environmentalists, too.”
“We’re embracing the presence of science fiction in our lives as a daily occurrence,” says Moen. “When I talk about the store, I tell people that we’re living in this future that they imagine. I see a trend in ‘future’ beyond books—for instance, I find it meaningful that there are several stories in a recent issue of Vogue based on a space odyssey. There’s something in the zeitgeist about what people think of the future: is it already here? What does it look like? A lot of the aesthetics around us at the moment are very much about androgyny and androids. There’s been a lot about models all looking alike and somewhat blank. It used to be about a superstar or a personality—humanity—and now it’s much more about how this person is serialized, replicated, glamourized.”
“If you really look at all the major media properties that made billions of dollars,” says Kalb, “95 percent are some derivative of sci-fi or fantasy. People like to imagine. We live in such a sci-fi time that nothing seems unobtainable.”
“For those of us who grew up loving this stuff, there’s a certain nostalgia we have, but a lot of what that’s based on wasn’t the best-written book or the best-produced TV show,” says Hale-Stern. “Now, though, things have become a lot smarter. The new Battle Star Galactica or Game of Thrones are really produced at a very fine level.”
Does it seem that a lot of what’s behind this trend is movie-driven? “I think it’s technology driven,” says Kalb. “It’s all about imagining what might happen. People seem to really like sci-fi novels that take place 15 years from now, as opposed to further off. I mean, William Gibson has started to write novels about next year.” And is the time lapse between the present and the sci-fi future getting shorter, I ask? The answer seems to be to a degree, yes. “We live in a time when you can write a science-fiction novel about what’s going to happen in six months, so that’s the rate of change in society and technology,” says Kalb. “It’s Moore’s law, right?”