HOLT UNCENSORED #117
by Pat Holt
Friday, December 21, 1999:
ABOUT THAT 'PERSON OF THE YEAR'
ON BOOKSELLING AND READING:
NOTE TO READERS
ABOUT THAT 'PERSON OF THE YEAR'
Well! With its usual burst of creativity and genius, Time Magazine has named Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos its 1999 Person of the Year!
What a fascinating statement this makes to the rest of the world: Just to think of candidates of equal importance - Brian Boitano, Tina Brown, Puff Daddy, Bobby Haft, Mary Kay, Steve Forbes, Tori Spelling, Barry Bostwick - brings a lump to the throat.
The Time cover couldn't be more timely or inspiring. Here is Bezos as classic American pioneer, 21st-century style. He left a traditional job to drive across the country with his girlfriend at the wheel while he typed out the first prospectus on his laptop. With little money except what he could raise through his wits alone, he created his first desk by laying a door across two sawhorses in his Seattle garage.
That's the kind of image that appeals to the Yankee in every American, isn't it? Horatio Alger couldn't have done better, and in the meantime, Bezos taught the world what the Internet was capable of - for better or worse - while making himself a billionaire on the one hand and King of the Debt World on the other.
Time Magazine has always said that you don't have to be a great leader or a positive influence to be named Person of the Year - you just have to dominate the news. So good for Jeff. Whether he pulls Amazon.com out of the red or finds himself facing bankruptcy doesn't matter, because he continues to distract American audiences from the most significant story of the decade - the steep decline and unbelievable comeback of independent bookstores.
Time and other magazine articles that have endlessly portrayed Bezos as "King of the Jungle" or "King of the Hill" or "Man of the Year" have seemed all the more riveting because Jeff's story is not about death but about birth (of the Internet), transformation (of Wall Street) and renewal (his own).
And yet increasingly there's been something childlike and worshipful about so much attention - something superficial, short-term and glitzy. As independents have stood up to Internet competition and gone online themselves under increasingly difficult circumstances (the demise of booksense.com was only one), a different message is emerging.
From the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle to sales tax hearings at the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, consumers are demanding greater responsibility on the part of large conglomerates and voicing their concern that independent retailers - especially booksellers - will be able to can compete with chains and online retailers on a level playing field.
Let's hear it for Jeff: Perhaps the greatest lesson he and the Riggio brothers (Barnes & Noble) and the folks at Borders can learn in 1999 is that there's room for everybody in the bookselling world as long as no one attempts to "win" the "game" at all costs.
BOOKSTORE: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books (Harcourt Brace; 252 pages; $25)
This story of Books & Co. as perhaps the best general independent bookstore in Manhattan (from 1977 to 1997) is told in thick and chunky anecdotes that inspire as much laughter as gasps of disbelief.
Here is Truman Capote coming in with a "bloody gash on his head and blood on the collar of his coat," not from a bad fall or other accident but "probably a hair-transplant operation," recalls owner Jeannette Watson.
Here are death threats arriving daily because Watson insists on keeping Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" in the window. And here's Roy Blount saying how he loves going to the store simply because it isn't streamlined or sanitized but "laid out by human hand."
So much name-dropping goes on in this book ("I remember Jackie Onassis was very gracious and nice, and I remember Woody Allen was secretive. I remember Gene Wilder floating by") that we almost lose track of the story, which is about learning from scratch to be an independent bookseller when your first partner deserts you and nothing you learned at bookselling school seems to work.
"The dream had become a nightmare," Watson says of her experience as a bookseller early on. "Our initial laxity with bookkeeping, the numbers of books we ordered and couldn't return because they were signed, the overstock that overwhelmed our small space, the staff turnover . . . " all this nearly causes the demise of the store until Watson begins shaping an efficient and conscientous bookstore staff that seems to know customers' tastes before they walk in the door.
The store becomes a literary home to such writers as Susan Sontag, Calvin Trillin, Paul Auster, Brendan Gill, Amy Hempl, Simon Schama, Susan Cheever and a host of others. But the invasion of chain book superstores in Manhattan creates another nightmare.
The one customer who nails the problem - its effect on Books & Co. and on American culture as well - is the indomitable Fran Lebowitz: Chain bookstores, she says, "are now the engine" of book publishing. "They drive the publishing business, which means the publishing business has adapted to them . . .
"I was in Chicago, and there's a gigantic Barnes & Noble the size of the Library of Congress, and across the street a Borders was going up. Now this is just pure crazy boy stuff. Are there enough people in Chicago to support these two bookstores? No. This is territorial stuff, like we're going to put this store up to kill you, to move you out.
"If you look at the pattern of where [the chains] open up, it is not inadvertent that the little stores go out of business. It's the point. This is agent orange, the point being to put the other out of business."
Once the same superstores move into city after city, Lebowitz observes, "there's nothing to see. [Tourists] come to see the remnants. They come to see the ruins. [New York] is Ancient greece. There's nothing here anymore . . . All this money, Hard rock Cafe, all these theme restaurants, they don't live here - that money goes right out of the city."
Books & Co. closed for other reasons than the encroachment of chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, but its story demonstrates the importance of bookstores in distinctive neighborhoods, even and especially in a large borough like Manhattan.
MOCKINGBIRD, Walter Tevis (Del Rey; 275 pages; $11.95 paperback)
What happens when people's sense of community disappears altogether is one of the absorbing themes in "Mockingbird," a futuristic novel written 20 years ago by the late Walter Tevis, perhaps best known for such gritty urban novels as "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money."
"Mockingbird" is set in a New York of decay and extinction in the 25th century, where most services are run by robots who think, act and look like humans, though it's been years since they've been upgraded or maintained. So few things - elevators, food outlets, city systems - run well.
"Real" life for humans has become so mechanical and without purpose that a great despondency has settled on the declining population. And because reading disappeared centuries before (perhaps during the era known as the "Death of Oil"), no one has a sense of history, of a shared past or of time altogether.
In a few ways, technology has made incredible advances - there are no cars, but people can telepathically summon a "thought bus" that will take them wherever they want to go. Tranquilizing drugs ("sopors") are liberally distributed (though laced with birth control medication) while television has become ubiquitous and hypnotic.
The book often feels like a combination "1984" and "Brave New World," with a dash of the movie "Escape from New York" thrown in. Children, raised in dormitories from birth, are taught that servicing personal needs is primary and that looking directly at others or talking in a companionable way is considered "invasion of privacy" and an official "Mistake." Platitudes are enforced as strategically as law - "quick sex is best," people are taught (and believe), so there are no couples, no relationships, no families. "Mandatory politeness" is also enforced; the phrase "don't ask; relax" has become so engrained in people's minds that they are uncomfortable questioning anything.
Into this bleak landscape come three who rebel - one man, one woman and one "Make Nine" robot (who's so advanced he's almost human). Watching the two humans, Bentley and Mary Lou, learn to read is perhaps the most engrossing part of the book. When Bentley first introduces the idea to Mary Lou by reading aloud to her, she stares at him: "Were you saying things that you heard in your mind from just LOOKING at that book?" she asks,
At first, their ability to decode the strange and ancient letters they uncover is extremely limited, but soon they can decipher such things as the dictionary. It takes them a while to understand that it's not by accident or coincidence that words are grouped together behind certain letters. Often their conclusions about books are refreshingly original. After many readings of the Bible, for example, Bentley decides that Jesus Christ was a "mystical rabbi" and that the meaning of the word Satan is "enemy."
The fun of "Mockingbird" is to plunge into a primitive world that is nearly bereft of language. Yet we have to learn the language that does exist to understand how the characters can create a new culture. For example, a good 50 pages pass before we realize that "blue" and "yellow" refer to the passage of time, and another 50 pages before the characters read enough about time itself to define for themselves what they mean by "blue" and "yellow."
In his introduction to this new edition of "Mockingbird," Jonathan Lethem advises us that Tevis's "ruminative and ironic" fable offers a message, "richly ambivalent and knowing," that we as readers "want and need more than [we] know." It's doubly telling that a book about the rediscovery of reading should appear on the eve of a new millennium, when publishing and bookselling are undergoing one upheaval after another.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Reading mention of Amazon.com's changing discount policy reminded me that you and other readers may not realize that Amazon.com artificially inflates the "retail" price of unpriced books such as university presses and coffee table or art books. I have discovered this at least five times in the last year when helping a customer find a book, and twice this holiday season, and I've probably only looked there a few dozen times total.
Differences in quoted prices were as high as $20 added to a normal retail price of $35 for a gift book that our store can get at regular terms from Ingram or Baker & Taylor as well as the publisher. You can bet we tell our customers about this, gently and politely, and hope others do as well. Keep up the great work and have a joyous season!
Co-owner, Inkwood Books
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It was with smiles and tears that I read your recent column about Faith Sale -- and Russell Snyder who my husband and I called -- as did most of the kids at Putnam 30 years ago -- Uncle Ru. Uncle Ru did indeed love Kean's Chop House and great gossip. But more than that he loved a good book and the conversation and people surrounding it. He cared about how books were presented, talked about, and yes -- promoted. Those of us who worked on the "dirty" side of publishing where our jobs were to sell, advertise, and promote books learned from Uncle Ru that our work in service of that goal was, if not exactly noble -- well at least worth doing to get the word about another good book out to readers. We all felt lucky to have work that kept us in touch with books. Uncle Ru showed us the way.
Thanks for writing about him.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding the taxing of book sales on the Internet: I have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING against the enforcement of the current rule: You have a "nexus" in my state, I pay sales tax. This should be rigorously applied to B&N, Borders, et al, just as it applies to Land's End, Williams Sonoma, and so on.
BUT if I order a book from Andy Ross at Cody's, I shouldn't have to pay sales tax. That would put Andy at a disadvantage, because I have to pay shipping if I order from him. If I'm going to pay sales tax, too, I'd be better off going to my local B&N, where I pay only the tax.
I'm afraid that in demanding that ALL Internet sales be taxed, the local independents are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Is it true, as I heard on NPR this weekend, that a number of Main Street businesses are reviving because of Internet sales? (The target town in that case was Montpelier, VT.) Won't those struggling businesses, now getting out of the woods, so to speak, because of their Internet sales, be hurt if they have to impose sales tax on top of shipping costs?
Sure, let's campaign for abolishing sales tax on books - or else for enforcing current law. But let's not add another layer of taxation, regressive in nature, on this most precious of resources.
P.S. In case anyone cares: I learned this morning that the bottom line in Minnesota for imposition of "use tax" on out-of-state sales is $770. Below that, no tax is due. Above that, one is obligated (ho ho) to obtain a form from the state revenue office and pay tax on that computer or whatever. The MN revenooers are trying to figure out how to collect in the real world.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Especially liked your recent 'Better Naked Than Nike' that was widely circulated in our office. One correction to #116 containing the Book Club merger article, Bertelsmann owns Literary Guild and Time Warner owns Book of the Month Club.
Beyond Words Publishing
Holt responds: Thanks to the many readers who caught this incredible error. My apologies to all.