HOLT UNCENSORED #123
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, January 25, 2000:
FROM THE DANGER ZONE TO SHAMBHALA BOOKSELLERS
FROM THE DANGER ZONE TO SHAMBHALA BOOKSELLERS
Well, I had a good laugh - heaven knows the only one - yesterday while reading about Time Warner's acquisition of EMI music. There on the inside page the New York Times ran a sub-headline that read:
"A merger of the Spice Girls and Eric Clapton makes good business sense." So true! This merger stuff is getting kinky, and with it, a new danger zone has rippled right out of the headlines and onto Main Street USA, whether you're on the Internet or at home.
So on this blustery, windy, shivery day, with its iron-gray lackluster bone-chilling drop-dead news, let's stroll down Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, California, and duck into one of the city's most revered institutions for a much-needed restorative.
The store we enter is Shambhala Booksellers, for 31 years a warm and welcoming place that brings the word "sanctuary" to mind, followed by some combination of "peace," "calm," "safety" and "home."
Stepping inside, we feel instantly welcomed by the light aroma of sandalwood in the air and mood-inspiring music (never New Age or particularly religious) coming out of some deep oak-barrel (aged and sacred) space in the store.
Past the altar by the cash register, past the hefty gondolas featuring in-store bestellers (Buddhist author Pema Chodron's books sell by the thousands), and here we are, surrounded by 30,000 titles crammed so meticulously and lovingly onto bookshelves and reaching so far up the walls on either side that the store feels like an enchanted forest.
That's something of what the name Shambhala conveys - a "hidden kingdom of enlightened souls" - and it's what motivated a 19-year-old student named Sam Bercholz to take a chance on selling obscure books on Eastern religion inside another Telegraph Ave. bookstore called Moe's in 1968.
There in a little closet with a black curtain and a sign that read "Now Entering the Kingdom of Shambhala," Sam and a friend, Michael Fagan, started a bookstore that helped launch a spiritual revolution that continues to this day. Borrowing money from Moe to open Shambhala Booksellers in its present location, Sam began publishing books out of the supply room in back and eventually founded Shambhala Publishers (no longer connected with Shambhala Booksellers), which he moved to Boston.
Meanwhile a young student and spiritual seeker named Philip Barry, who had begun working at the store in the 1970s, realized the growing potential of something called the "human potential movement" in the 1980s.
By 1987, this tiny store was making a phenomenal income (nearly $1 million in sales annually) , employing 13 people, staying open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day and going a little crazy with "almost too much business," as Philip, who now owns the store, puts it today.
With the height of the New Age, "we had triple shifts going and still could barely keep up with it," Philip recalls. Of course a great thundering thresher machine called COMPETITION was mowing its way toward Shambhala, but the store held its own - probably because of Philip's refusal to be parochial or snooty.
"If a book is popular with audiences," he says, "that means it's touching something spiritual, which is usually a good thing. Besides," he adds hopefully, "interest in one book might lead to something else."
You have to hand it to this staff, devotees of Theosophy, Ayruveda, Sufism, the Kabbalah and a hundred other spiritual subjects, for taking a deep breath in the late '80s to carve out a full section on Channeling and other with-it topics.
"I admit to underestimating the impact of Shirley MacLaine," Philip says. "When 'Out on a Limb' was published, I ordered 4 copies. We never sold that many, but the Suggested Reading List in the back of the book was full of titles you couldn't find in other stores. We had them all."
Soon a pattern developed. For 15 years, Shambhala had done very well selling books of tremendous diversity and range on Tibetan history, meditation, the Enneagram, Tutenkamen, angels, Gandhi and Joseph Campbell.
But as readers discovered these subjects and more books were published, chain bookstores merchandized to the "new" trends, and wham: What used to be the whole pie of sales on a title for Shambhala became a very thin slice, after all.
Then, too, not only did chain stores in the area take a big hunk out of sales of spiritual books, so did supportive neighbors. Independent bookstores within a half-mile of Shambhala - such as Cody's, Shakespeare, Moe's, University Press Books, Black Oak, Gaia, Cartesian, Sunrise, Lewin's, Half-Price and others - had to build up their own inventory of spiritual books or lose customers.
Thus, "by the time a topic peaked outside, it was usually done in here," says Philip. "When Joseph Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers, Campbell books soared everywhere else. But here, where we had always carried everything by or about Joseph Campbell, sales dropped dramatically."
Then came the other component: "Publishers would sense a spiritual trend and end up glutting the market, often with inferior books," says staff member Don Frew, "People would pick up a book that's superficial on the subject and never come back. Why should they? It still happens. From a business standpoint, why publish a book that doesn't generate later sales?"
As a result, the once-colossal income of $1 million a year was whittled down to half that by 1999. Today Shambhala Booksellers is open 9 hours instead of 12 hours a day and employs only 5 people, most part-time. "I'm the only full-time person left," says Philip.
What happened in the 12 years between prosperity and what Philip calls "retail snorkeling" (treading water to exhaustion) is the story of many independent stores, of course, and in Shambhala's case the factor of the Internet - its curse and its potential - is still an unknown.
Amazon.com and other online booksellers may taketh many sales away (80 percent of Shambhala's inventory is listed on Amazon.com, Philip says), but the possibility of the world coming to Shambhalabooksellers.com one day, simply to ask the advice of Philip Barry, one of the most erudite buyers of spiritual books in the country, may bringeth many a sale back.
Indeed, a look around the store with an eye to the treasures awaiting discovery yields some incredible gems. Out-of-print or rapidly disappearing books - such as "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki, which Ingram no longer stocks - still sell by the thousand at Shambhala.
Customers come from all parts of the world to see what Shambhala has found in its dedication to collecting the complete works on such masters as Almaas, Meher Baba (each volume of this 18-volume biography costs $80), Muktananda, Yogananda and many others. One can find books imported from little-known publishers as far away as Sri Lanka, India and China. Many scholarly publishers, having refused to sell titles to bookstores they did not deem "sufficiently spiritual," eagerly sell books to Shambhala.
So before going outside to face the freezing headlines and storm of mergers that are forcing out so many levels of creativity and originality among the truly gifted artists and writers of our time, let's stop and acknowledge what is going on in one place that in its own way has been completely successful in reversing the tide.
All around us, American publishing houses - indeed, most of American media - are moving in a direction to entertain and accommodate as a standard way of business. Very rarely are the risky books, the challenging books, the deeply spiritual books or intellectual books even considered let alone published.
And just when you think there AREN'T any books that consider or challenge the heart, brain or soul, stand in the middle of this store, take a gander around, and you'll feel all of life's questions as well as all the world's answers transported. Thus Shambhala becomes as much a "gateway," "path," "journey" as "home" and "sanctuary."
"The great traditions are demanding and challenging, as well as compassionate," Philip states in a Shambhala newsletter. "They call us to waken our responsibility, to a level of commitment and effort that is not haphazard.
"Here at Shambhala we try to aid our customers in clarifying or fulfilling their intention, to enable our customers (and ourselves) to find that ground where wisdom and compassion and our everyday lives intersect. These books are not simply meant to be read: They are meant to be lived."
Will Shambhala Booksellers itself live? Perhaps one day, with a new Friends group assisting the store and a website that offers the wisdom and vision of its staff to the world, its "retail snorkeling" days will be over. Until then, every day that Shambhala opens its doors, every moment it persists in its vision, enriches us all.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In #122 you say that you are bothered by the prospect of WalMart.com following the model of the biggies and not paying sales tax except in select states.
However, as reported in Bookselling This Week on December 20, 1999, "Several major retailers with online sales are currently collecting sales tax, including Wal-Mart and The Gap." This quote is from a paragraph discussing the testimony of several California booksellers to the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce in San Francisco on December 14 and 15. The sentence I quoted is immediately following a quote by Andy Ross of Cody's Books, although the article does not attribute the above sentence to any speaker.
I do not have any direct knowledge of Wal-Mart.com's sales tax policies, but I hope the above quote is accurate. Enjoy your newletter, keep it up.
Dee Gee's Gifts & Books
Morehead City, NC
Holt responds: I think the quote might have been accurate for the old Wal-Mart.com, but the new one setting up shop in Palo Alto as a "reinvented" company co-owned by Wal-Mart and Accel Partners, a venture capital firm, seems to see avoidance of sales tax as central to its strategy. Here's the text from the Chronicle story of January 15, 2000:
"One element of Wal-Mart's decision to spin off its Internet operation that hasn't gotten much attention is the fact that the new firm will be able to avoid sales taxes for most of its online transactions.
"Companies are now required to collect sales taxes for online and catalog purchases in all states where they have a physical presence. Wal-mart has more than 2,500 outlets nationwide.
"But as a separate firm with physical operations only in California and Arkansas, as well as a distribution center in Utah, Wal-Mart.com will be able to avoid collecting sales taxes in most states, making it a more nimble e-commerce competitor."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just a minor clarification: Sisters in Crime is an organization comprised not only of mystery readers, but also writers, agents, publishers, librarians, editors, men -- in short, anyone with an interest in the mystery genre. It's a great way for readers to meet authors and authors (and editors and publishers) to hear directly from their readers.
SinC has chapters all over the world and online. They're at http://www.sistersincrime.org.
Northern California Chapter, Sisters in Crime
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I had a wonderful independent bookstore discovery I wanted to share with you. I was in New York on business on Monday, and staying with a friend in the West Village. We were leaving his house and heading to a movie when I see this tiny bookshop on the corner. Now Sam had never been in there. I walked in and it was pure Dickensian. Dark wood shelves, floor to ceiling, packed with (mostly) fiction and staffed by 3 women...
Since I really didn't need a book at the moment, I simply asked, "What is the number one book you're recommending now. Tell me what to buy." The answer (once they determined that I was looking for a paperback) was unanimously "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham. I had a long chat with the owner--we talked about publishing, the types of books they stocked (mostly fiction, all books they want to read), the industry . . . What an incredibly pleasant experience. I can't wait to read my new book!
Living in DC, I shop at Politics & Prose, which is, of course, an extraordinary book store, too. But P&P is large, has a cafe, and looks (on the surface only) like a chain store. Three Lives and Company, Ltd. Booksellers at 154 West 10th Street in New York is something entirely different. You could smell and feel the reverence in this musty little space. What a find!
And by the way, my friend Sam was awed by the place and my mini-lecture on the necessity of supporting independents, and he has pledged to become a regular customer. Not only does this mean he'll be helping the good guys, it also means he'll start reading fiction. A win-win if ever there was one.
Teaching Strategies, Inc.