HOLT UNCENSORED #112
by Pat Holt
Friday, December 3, 1999:
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
WHAT DOESN'T MATTER
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
If you're looking for the true spirit of the season (any season), let's go find people who love their work and are knowledgeable about the things they sell.
In keeping with end-of-the-millennium trends, we don't have to leave home to get there, and we don't have to succumb (wholeheartedly) to the dazzle and frazzle of e-commerce ads that all sound the same.
Instead, we can assume that efficiency in delivering "product" is a given, and that whatever books we want to buy can be ordered and sent to us within a few days. That is now basic to any Web outfit.
What is rare on the Internet is a bookstore with character and personality - a place where people think independently and are interested in ideas that are larger than this gift or that sale or the coming fashion or fad.
With that in mind, I can't begin to describe the feeling of relief and calm that flooded through me upon discovering a couple of the musings posted on the website of Readers Bookstore in Sonoma, California ( http://www.readersbooks.com ) .
The warmth and humor with which Lilla and Andy Weinberger welcolme us to their bookselling home are just the beginning of our "conversation" - about books on sale, surely, but also about the way books weave through one's consciousness from childhood on.
Here's an excerpt from Lilla's mini-essay on her own "very mixed feelings about 'controversial' children's books" and the mixture of courage and caution her life as a bookseller demands.
She writes about her own "odd assumptions" about books that might upset young readers and remembers "the times I used to take my kids to the movies and put my hands over their eyes during the scary parts. I learned when they were older that they thought it was because I was scared...and maybe they weren't far wrong."
Lilla says her decision to buy any controversial book for the store depends not on the topic but on the text - "good writing can redeem a book no matter what it's about." Although it's easy to sell books "about gangs, violence and difficult childhoods" to the teacher from the town's school for troubled teens, a larger question persists.
"While we stand behind the books we love, there is also the caveat that tastes, moods and needs vary, and no one book is going to be for everybody. So what happens if a controversial book ends up in the wrong child's hands?
"When I was about nine, one of my mother's friends loaned me an adult novel that took place in Mexico. At the time it probably would have been regarded as inappropriate for a young girl. I remember being mildly confused about something that happened under the heroine's coat that resulted in a baby sometime later.
"I also read lots of my neighbor's Book of the Month Club Frank Yerby novels and, somewhat later, discovered erotica in the form of 'Forever Amber.' (So much for my caveat about good writing!)
"These books were fascinating to me: They opened worlds, they gave me information, and what I didn't understand I skipped over. My inner landscape would be poorer without them. So I guess I come down on the side of access.
"Essentially, in spite of a certain trepidation when faced with books that I fear are going to deal poorly with subjects I wish would go away - war, death, sorrow, pain, the sturm und drang of daily life with our very imperfect fellow human beings - I find myself, sometimes unwillingly, drawn into the story of a well-written book, giving myself up to the author's ability to illumine another person's life, no matter how hard, and applauding the writer's courage in attempting to tell the stories that need to be told to give us all a full picture of our humanity."
What an eloquent and abiding rumination, and the best part is that one feels so invited in. If you walked into the couple's store in Sonoma, you'd hear this kind of discussion going on all the time, but if you live on the other side of the country, Andy Weinberger offers a suggestion in a piece he has contributed to the Readers' site called "What Matters Most."
Here he talks about "gargantuan" independent bookstores like Powell's in Oregon and The Tattered Cover in Denver, as well as "equally 'great' " ones like The Bookstore in Lenox, Mass. (pop. 5,000).
The Bookstore is so small that "you can take it in at one glance," Andy writes. "[Owner Matt Tannenbaum] doesn't do school bookfairs and he doesn't offer discounts. He has no newsletter, no computer, and no working cash register. He does own a telephone, but by any other standard he is still living back in a bookseller's Stone Age.
"What Matt has that other book retailers lack is a deep knowledge of and an almost religious respect for books. He only orders books he feels certain his customers will love, only high quality books, and only in numbers that he is pretty darn sure he can sell. He doesn't appeal to all tastes, but for those who share his passions, [shopping there] is a pleasure beyond words.
"It would be nice to include solvency in this discussion, but great independent bookstores, in my view, are not built around money. They come from the characters of the owners and their staff, their loves and strengths and foibles.
"Moe's Books in Berkeley is a great bookstore because Moe had a great heart. His bookstore was a people's bookstore, his restrooms were open to anyone who needed them, no matter how scruffy the people appeared.
"Great bookstores are about many worthwhile things, in other words: justice, humor, music, dreams, poetry. Worthwhile things. Intangible things. Things that matter most."
The Readers' Books website is not a place where you can browse through a lot of titles, and Lilla was immediately concerned when I told her I wanted to write about it that the site is "a bit out of date" So it is. But Readers, too, has a big heart, having once made poetry readings so popular in Sonoma that a Beatnik Drill Team marched down the street reciting Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."
Perhaps more important in this billion-dollar marketing age, the Weinbergers prove that there's no trick to getting a store's character and vision onto the Web. When they recommend a book, such as Andre Dubus' "House of Sand and Fog," you know it's good because Andy concludes, "I woke up early to finish the last 80 pages of this book. Lilla was late to work for the same reason." A beat later the site designer inserts another 2 cents' worth: "[Webmaster's Prerogative: He's right! This is an amazing book!]"
So if you're not interested in the crowds or the long lines or the endless wait for help from store clerks, remember you don't have to give up the spirit of the holidays to buy something great. You can ask Lilla and Andy right now for advice ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) and know they'll come up with something unique and appropriate for everyone on your gift list.
At the same time, any brick-and-mortar bookstore fan looking at Readers' website will feel compelled to find this 1904 converted bakery with its giant fireplace and oven that now acts as Readers' brick-and-breadstick store (and across the street Readers offers another store of used books). Once there you'll see how these two have taken personalized bookselling to an art form, and if you look past them toward the back, you'll see why Readers' often gets books to customers faster than Amazon.com: The Weinbergers' kids, parents and friends are wrapping and shipping like a bunch of crazy people.
WHAT DOESN'T MATTER.
Imagine! Some investors are calling this the "Death Dotcom Season" because competition is so fierce among online retailers that most of them will fail. Now that is a horrible way to spend the holidays for anybody - retailer, customer or investor.
And what a strange sight is the current dance of the brands - billions of dollars going down the drain in an effort to imprint e-stores on customers' minds. Actually, it's pretty easy: "Peapod.com" is for soup, right? (wrong: online grocer.) "Expedia.com" is for laxatives (travel) while "ebags.com" is surely for plastic surgery (luggage). Yes, the wonderful thing about so many competing e-tailers is that the names are self-explanatory.
CORRECTION: The price of Ted Daniels' A DOOMSDAY READER (NYU Press) is $18.95 (paperback).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I read with great interest your summary in Holt Uncensored #111 of several recent works dealing with the subject of violence. Following the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression began to compile a list of books that booksellers could recommend to customers who want to learn more about violence in American life, particularly as it affects young people. ABFFE has selected 31 titles that were recommended by members of its Board of Directors, booksellers and publishers.
ABFFE's Selected Reading List on Violence and Youth can be viewed at http://www.abffe.com/violence.htm . We intend to keep our list as up-to-date as possible. Therefore, we will be grateful for suggested additions. We would also appreciate comments on any of the books on our current list.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re books on violence in society: Reading "Dead Men Walking" sure changed my views of the criminal justice system, so much so that I can no longer bliss out with Tony Hillerman's or Elizabeth George's latest. Terribly painful to read, to consider, right along with "the criminals among us."
As for protection for women, I was walking in the park not that long ago, maybe 8 in the morning, on my way to breakfast. Was threatened by a flasher in a car, who, when I ran (there was no one else around), backed the car up at incredible speed, still flashing. I got the license number, ran home (through the bushes) and called the police. The first question from the officer when he appeared at my apartment? "Why were you walking in the park?" Don't think it can't happen to you.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am an emergency physician . . . My mentor in violence prevention, Andrew McGuire, is the Executive Director of the Trauma Foundation at San Francisco General Hospital. Andrew, his wife Kae McGuire, and many on the staff at the Trauma Foundation are leading a new movement called the Bell Campaign. For more information about this, see: http://www.bellcampaign.org/
Ellen Taliaferro, MD
Violence Intervention Prevention (VIP) Center
Parkland Health & Hospital Systems
Holt responds: What an invaluable resource is the Bell Campaign website: Coordinated by victims of gun violence and members of the medical community, it offers updated information on sites of violence around the country, assistance to victims needing financial and legal help and crucially important publications including "Common Reactions to Trauma," "Helping Someone When a Loved One Has Been Murdered," "Helping Grieving Children," "Do's and Don'ts of Being Supportive" and others.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Please note that the correct spelling is millennium (two "n"s).
A former copyeditor
Holt Shamefacedly Responds: Thank you.