NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #1
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, September 22, 1998:

Why This Column
On the Typo Front: THE PACIFIC COAST TRAIL
Cody's Fights Back
Your Burning SAQs (Seldom Asked Questions)
Solar Lights vs. Borders
IF I DON'T SIX
Book Passage vs. Amazon
Ron Takaki Takes 'Em On
The Remainders of the Day, Chapter 1

WHY THIS COLUMN

"Holt Uncensored" is a candid look at books and the book industry, appearing twice a week in your e-mail at no charge. After 16 years at The Chronicle, I'm turning to this form as a way to develop a new conversation about literary standards - and about the "bookseller wars" of the ' 90s.

My base is the San Francisco Bay Area, where only a few years ago I would have said that independent bookstores were thriving right along with the chains.Today, however, when many regions of the United States have been nearly razed of independent bookstores, cracks in the Bay Area's armor have begun to show. So I felt I had a decision to make - I could hide behind my safe role as approved media witness at The Chronicle or get out and report the stories I felt were falling through the slots.

At the same time, I'm a book critic at heart and hope to cram "Holt Uncensored" with entertaining and informative hits - book reviews, author interviews, industry commentary, excerpts, anecdotes, hot tips, up-and-coming titles. All the impatience and lust for knowledge that strike people when they go online should motor up the pace while still giving you time to hyperlink in and out of stores (and stories), mark your calendar for in-store events, order some books, hear about what authors really DO at autographings and have a laugh or two.

So go ahead, accelerate that scroll! This first dispatch from Holt Uncensored introduces what's to come, so it's longer than future columns will be, but near the end be sure to stop at X. Libris' industry spoof, "The Remainders of the Day" - that's your dessert. ON THE TYPO FRONT: ALONG THE PACIFIC COAST TRAIL

HAVE YOU SEEN the gorgeous ALONG THE PACIFIC COAST TRAIL from Westcliffe (144 pages; $45)? It’s a great gift book with an otherwise unmarred text that explains why hiking in 90-degree heat does not make "for easy walking if your prick fitness program has been composed mostly of good intentions." Apparently the intended words were "pre-hike fitness," but readers always delight in variations on a theme, don’t you find?

What I love about this mountain trek from Mexico to Canada is the ability of author Karen Berger to state the obvious ("the trick, of course, is not to fall") and frankly huff and puff toward some of the most "stupendously beautiful" scenes ever to hit the eyeballs of John Muir. Her account, with breathtaking color photos by Bart Smith and you-are-there journal entries by Daniel Smith, is the perfect antidote to that pokey slacker Bill Bryson, who whines his way through "A Walk in the Woods" but gives a patchy account (by comparison) of the Appalachian Trail on his side of the continent.

UPCOMING: CODY'S FIGHTS BACK

IF THERE'S A MAGICAL PLACE for books of all kinds it's in Berkeley, Calif., city of tolerance and weirdos and literary freedom - and, of course, the legendary independent bookstore, Cody's Books. So how can owner Andy Ross dare to say that the dopeheads and crazies camped on Telegraph Ave. don't have a constitutional right to deal drugs and accost customers outside his store?

The antiSemitic skinheads make their complaints felt by sending Ross volatile hate mail, sometimes right through the display window. But! The great thing about this upcoming story is that even as a hugely cantankerous rally recently convened to both excoriate and celebrate Ross, he found himself caught ... in the Trap of the New Independent.

That is, after opening a second store on Berkeley's tony Fourth Street a few miles away, Ross not only blocked chain bookstores from moving into his store's territory, he also found that sales in the Telegraph Store had dropped! It was as if a chain store HAD taken customers away after all, only it was Ross who did it and he had all the bills to prove it! Can there be a happy ending to this story? Tune in next week.

YOUR BURNING SAQS (Seldom Asked Questions) #1:

WHY THE NAME "HOLT UNCENSORED"

I WAS GOING TO CALL the column "In Your Email" but that sounded a bit too aggressive. The late gossip columnist Herb Caen is probably up there chuckling over the Yahoo magazine writer who’s already taken the name of "Dot.dot.dot.com." But coming from print to website, from journalism to advocacy, I thought I’d let ‘er rip and just call it "Holt Uncensored" to get the idea across that the lid is off. For example:

UPCOMING: SOLAR LIGHTS VS. BORDERS

I CONFESS TO NOT visiting Solar Lights in San Francisco for 20 years because this Union Street store used to stock books mostly for tourists and New Age readers. But boy! Take one look at the jammed shelves and crowded aisles of this small (2000 square feet) hole-in-the-wall store and you'll be hooked on the place for life.

David Hughes bought the store in 1981 and has developed such a powerful voice in the Cow Hollow neighborhood that a slot in his "Guaranteed" display (your money back if you don't like the book) often results in the sale of HUNDREDS of copies of a single title. (For example, he sold 600 copies of "Cold Mountain" - 100 before it hit the major lists - and several hundred ... well, you have to wait for the story.)

Hughes' staff is so articulate (one former Borders clerk will provide an eloquent insider's view of the difference between chains and independents) that this interview would write itself EVEN WITHOUT THE THREAT of Borders trying to move into a building - right across the street; what a coincidence! - with a 20,000-square-foot store that could simply wipe Solar Lights off the face of the solar-loving planet.

As we go to press, Hughes faces an October 1 meeting of the Planning Commission that could spell doom or save the store that's been his family's livelihood for nearly 20 years. Of course, Holt Uncensored will be there, but in the interim you can contact Hughes at solarlight@aol.com or send a letter of support about Case No. 98.323C to John Billovits, San Francisco Planning Department, 1660 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103.

QUICKIE: IF I DON'T SIX THEY SAY FOOTBALL FANS don’t read books, but maybe that’s because the pablum usually served up is a lot of bravado in tight pants.

Not so with IF I DON’T SIX (Doubleday; 259 pages; $22.95), an autobiographical novel by former player, bouncer and bartender Elwood Reid about college football that tells us as much about language (my, those boys are obsessed with their private parts) as about the behind-the-scenes savagery of coaches and The System that has turned college football into a horror for the young men who play it.

Of course, Reid is a rookie in print and makes all sorts of mistakes with food metaphors, of all things ("face like bread dough," "lips the color of raw bacon" -- no, Elwood, no!). But he sure can show the purity of racism, misogyny, homophobia in and out of the locker room and the joyous perversity of having a 6' 6" body that can only "hit, hit, hit" on a field where "it is okay to want to hurt somebody ... [to] cream them in the ear hole, break their f-- ribs" as the game requires.

It would be too kind to call this book a meathead's version of "The Catcher in the Rye," but the hero does grow up the hard way in Reid's albeit self-serving narrative. Any teen or sports fan at your house who thinks reading books is sissy stuff might give this flawed but authentic toughie a try. It's impossible to watch a college game the same way afterward.

UPCOMING: BOOK PASSAGE (ET AL) VS. AMAZON THEY SAY THE NAIL in the coffin for independent bookstores today is NOT the problem of getting Starbucked to death by encroaching chain bookstores or even heavy discounters like Costco or Targets but the simple removal of customers from the stores by online services like Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, not to mention the new Borders and Bertelsmann book websites coming up.

So often you hear online readers who love their neighborhood stores confess that in the wee hours, "it's just easier" to order a book through Amazon than to wait until the morning and call the local store. Of course the risk is a suspicious piling up of postage costs and the kind of invasion of privacy ("Say! Since you bought MEIN KAMPF, perhaps you'd like Mary Higgins Church's MYSTERY OF MEIN HEART ... ") that can ruin anybody's healthy paranoia.

But the big discovery among independent bookstores that may change all that is a new online bookselling service with half a million titles that is every bit as fast and accessible to customers as Amazon. This is an amazing database offered by a brainy webmaster who understands the needs of ravenous book consumers and their love of online browsing and shopping carts and is offering it to independents.

As we'll discover in an upcoming interview, Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., is among the first to combine this magical service with the existing website of his independent store. A big plus, Petrocelli feels, is that Book Passage guarantees no invasion of privacy, no added postage costs and - ta da! - NO POSTAGE AT ALL.

The added factor for the many independents now adopting this data base is that they can bring their store's character right onto the screen, announce special offers and create in-store events that customers can visit by going online or by their very own feet. You can view the ongoing construction of Book Passage's website (http://www.bookpassage.com) and watch for my interview with Petrocelli and that savvy webmaster who's created this online treasure trove.

UPCOMING AUTHOR INTERVIEW: RON TAKAKI

EVERY TIME HE TURNS AROUND these days, it seems as though University of California at Berkeley professor and author ("Strangers from a Different Shore," "A Different Mirror") Ron Takaki walks into another controversy.

Tomorrow night he takes on UC Regent and author of Proposition 209 Ward Connerly in a sure-to-be inflammatory debate about affirmative action at Dominican College in San Rafael (415-257-0113). Only a month ago he received an emergency call from students at a major university who had just occupied a campus building and told Takaki, "We're doing it all for multiculturalism," for which the ethnic studies professor has become famous.

"It was just like the 1960s," he says in an upcoming interview about his arrival on campus before the police and his first sight of the building where students had inscribed the names of their multicultural heroes on the outside walls - "MARTIN LUTHER KING ... NELSON MANDELA," and of course the equally famous (to them) "RON TAKAKI."

He laughs with affection at the students' zeal, but who can blame them: With his latest book, A LARGER MEMORY (Little, Brown; 369 pages; $15 paperback; $25 hardcover), Takaki again becomes the only historian to describe America's founding from the points of view of Japanese farmers, Chinese railroad workers, African American laborers, Native Americans - as well as the Irish, Jewish, Mexican, Polish, Filipino and other immigrants whose stories are somehow missing from most U.S. history books.

Chapter 1 of Remainders of the Day is with the rest of the story in a separate column on this website.