NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #13
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 3, 1998

ONE QUIET SELLER: THE GRACE IN DYING
THE WAY ART CAN SAVE US
COME BACK, HUNKY AND DORY
WEBSITE OF THE DAY: BOULDER BOOK STORE
UPDATES: SOLAR LIGHT AND GAIA
ABOUT THOSE 120 DAYS

ONE QUIET SELLER: THE GRACE IN DYING

It just seems to sell and sell, as more than one bookseller has noted, referring to Kathleen Dowling Singh's mesmerizing THE GRACE IN DYING (HarperSanFrancisco; 332 pages; $22).

A hospice worker and psychologist who has attended thousands of deaths in southwest Florida, Singh admits that she used to drive to terminally ill patients' homes with a single word "pounding through my thoughts . . . 'tragedy.' Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy."

In those days, Singh felt that only she knew "what lay ahead for the family - the relentless physical decline, the intensity of caregiving, the heartache - and they did not." Eventually, however, she began to see the profoundly transformative stages of death in which a "quality of radiance" overtakes the dying person, a "quality of the sacred" emerges, and a "quality of perfection" or sense "of appropriateness, of absolute safety," takes hold.

Realizing this, Singh was able to witness to the "powerful, fearless, palpable depth of being" that people become in the dying process. Using Elisabeth Kubler-Ross as a touchstone (whose famous declaration of the stages of dying have been misunderstood as happening chronologically, says Singh), "The Grace in Dying" shows how people move in and out of phases of death simultaneously, even as they progress on the journey to transformation and transcendence.

Singh can be humorous, as when she describes such elements as the rush of energy just before death that can sometimes be felt as "the 'whoosh' of the exit itself" - or, as one person perceived it, "the rushing explosion we once called Mrs. K." But her book stands out as a serious, accessible and important blueprint for "the movement from tragedy to grace" that all human beings share.

THE WAY ART CAN SAVE US Speaking of finding humor in tragedy (YES WE ARE), a funny thing happened to the otherwise uncensored booksellers of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley - and, it must be said, to Holt Uncensored after a little bout with self-censorship.

The book that sparked the controversy is a small chapbook of poems called - well, let's postpone mention of the title for a moment to explain that the author is Rick Fields, who edits the Yoga Journal and is author of popular books on Buddhist thinking such as "How the Swans Came to the Lake" and "Chop Wood, Carry Water."

Fields was diagnosed with lung cancer about three years ago and brought a certain Buddhist calm to the shock, fear, medical treatments and "froggy whispery croak" that soon became his voice. One day he found himself driving a tunnel in San Francisco, "listening to syrupy / Indian crossover music," he would later write, when

"I suddenly burst
Suddenly broke
Into tears
Sobs
Sweeping racking my body
Pouring out of my eyes
And I opened my mouth
Screamed
Raged
Yelled
With all my radiation
Scarred Lungs
FUCK YOU CANCER
FUCK YOU
FUCK YOU CANCER
And kept on crying through
The Golden Gate Park
And over the Golden Gate Bridge."

And that's just Part I. Cancer patients and their loved ones welcomed this poem with expressions of great relief - at last, they told Rick, somebody has said out loud what every cancer patient thinks at one time or another. So Rick titled the book "Fuck You, Cancer & Other Poems" (37 pages; $10 paperback), published it through Crooked Cloud Projects (48 Shattuck Ave., Box 42, Berkeley 94704) and has sold about 750 copies.

The irony is that four-letter words still have a bite. They still make us wonder about the values we have when interacting with each other. Some of the toughest booksellers along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley own stores that overlook street vendors selling t-shirts that read "Fuck The Pigs." Yet they have had a hard time with the idea of blindsiding customers who aren't prepared to see four-letter words in the window of the store, so they carry the book in the back. One of Rickís publishers told him that chain stores refused to carry a previous book with a four-letter word in the title, so the chains werenít even approached for this one, not that he thought much about it.

Even Holt Uncensored, released from the confines of a "family newspaper" that regularly covered every sex slave and serial rapist on the front page (with pictures) but somehow grew paternalistic about readers' sensibilities when serious books about the same issues were reviewed in the back pages, has futzed around with this story too long, a bit too anxious, perhaps, about assaulting readers' sensibilities, even in cyberspace.

But here is the great lesson: "Fuck You, Cancer" is a terrific little poem, its impact and its aesthetic all the more strengthened by the release of this horrible obscenity and its own assault on a horrible disease. Itís not a big poem, big book, big market, or big splash, but it deserves to have its say, and thank heaven there are stores out there that give it its place.

COME BACK, HUNKY AND DORY

Every time the publishing industry seems to sort itself out in an awful but tolerable way, somebody puts things in a different perspective, and suddenly we're all on a different planet.

Thanks to the Authors Guild for sending us straight to Mars this time by publishing "an overall industry update" in a recent issue of the AG Bulletin. Here various pie charts reveal how Bertelsmann's recent acquisition of Random House affects the adult book market.

In 1977, says the Guild, more than 50 publishing houses competed against each other. Today that number has dwindled to less than a handful, with only four publishers controlling a whopping 61 percent of adult book sales. These are the new Random House (including Bantam Doubleday Dell), Simon & Schuster, Penguin Putnam and HarperCollins.

Of that 61 percent, the new Random House controls almost HALF THE BUSINESS.

Add the next three publishers (Time/Warner/Little, Brown; Morrow/Avon; St. Martin's/Farrar/Holt), and the picture is even worse. Here statistics show that "seven companies control 73 percent," of the pie, with "All other publishers" competing for only 27 percent.

Of course, publishing observers have been predicting a certain literary fascism ever since merger mania began to overtake the industry in the late 1980s. Certainly nobody accepts all the Emperor's New Clothes baloney from people like Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff, who likes to say that everything is hunky dory in American publishing.

Well, I tellya, I've met hunky and I've met dory, and they're not happy either, especially when it comes to fiction.

Looking at the fourth quarter of 1997, the Authors Guild shows that in the pie called "Fiction Market Share," Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell controlled a giant 36 percent, Simon & Schuster 18 percent, Penguin Putnam 8 percent, HarperCollins 5 percent and "All other publishers" 33 percent.

But don't worry! says Middelhoff. We're decentralized! And with our latest snarfing-up of 50 percent of barnesandnoble.com, all we want is to "use the power of the Internet to make more titles available and more easily accessible for millions of readers around the world."

So there. Isn't that great? It's true, such declarations about world power have always made publishing observers nervous. Along with the delightful idea that more and more books may become worldwide, there is also the not-so-hidden threat that fewer and fewer people are deciding what those books are going to be.

Besides, who else has sounded like that? Rupert Murdoch when he merged Harper and Collins; Robert Maxwell when he merged Macmillan and Scribner; and that kid on the Titanic who wanted to be king of the world (I know I've mentioned the character before, but look what happened to HIM).

WEBSITE OF THE DAY: BOULDER BOOK STORE

What fun it is in cyberspace to pop over to Boulder, Colorado, and see what's online at the new website at Boulder Book Store (http://www.boulderbookstore.com).

With its pen-and-ink drawing of the folksy entrance inviting us into this venerable community bookstore (25 years old this year), the website offers nothing fancy - or junky: If we lived in Boulder, clicking here would be a great way to learn about upcoming events (the store hosts more than 100 author appearances a year), reading clubs, discounts, staff recommendations and the store's own best-seller list.

The store's strong community ties also show up on the website and are nice for customers to know. For example, a new partnership program invites customers to donate one percent of their purchases to a local nonprofit group such as the Boulder County Safe House, or Emergency Family Assistance. An under-construction web page will lead customers to other independent retailers and companies in the area through BIBA (Boulder Independent Business Alliance).

We could also find our way to this website through another "door," though, and this is how Boulder Book Store webmaster Buster Keenan says the first sales have originated. By placing "metatags" and key words identifying the store's specialties (books on Colorado, yoga, Buddhism, psychology, Boulder) on the website's URL, Keenan says, "we come up fairly high on search engines" that people on the Internet use to find areas of interest.

As a result, without any Internet marketing at all, the website has filled orders from such faraway places as Singapore, Germany, the Phillippines and Pakistan. With local promotion through newsletters and in-store events, the site averages two or three orders a day, and it's only two months old.

Best of all, says Keenan, the Boulder Book Store website can compete against larger online booksellers such as Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com because it carries the store's inventory of 100,000 titles AND the data base of 400,000 titles from BookSite (see Holt Uncensored #9 or click on www.booksite.com). That's a "search and browse function" of a half-million books, complete with shopping carts and quick turnaround, that gives Boulder readers the bonus of local book news and events, which Amazon can't provide.

Keenan admits "the site takes a lot of work to develop," but it's worth it to keep the business at home. Having survived both the arrival of a Barnes and Noble branch about a mile away and a recent expansion of that B&N store from 14,000 to 28,000 square feet, Boulder Book Store seems determined to expand its 20,000 square feet of selling space to a universe of possibilities.

UPDATES: SOLAR LIGHT AND GAIA

Tension is building again as the Planning Commission of San Francisco lurches toward its Thursday hearing to decide whether a 20,000-square-foot Borders branch may locate across the street from the 2000-square-foot Solar Light Bookstore on San Francisco's famed Union Street.

After Borders pressured for a continuance last month, Solar Light owner David Hughes garnered support from Board of Supervisors members and the San Francisco Council of District Merchants. He has worked out strategies for the meeting with the Union Street Association, which opposes Borders as inappropriate to the character of the neighborhood and far too large (the association has a rule against stores over 5,000 square feet).

And he has learned that coalitions with unlikely supporters can have a huge impact in supporting seemingly powerless and vulnerable independent bookstores. For example, a full-page ad in the local Bay Guardian, taken out by the Northern California Independent Booksellers and the nonprofit group, Working Assets, galvanized many in the book community and among general readers to protest the Borders move.

For Bay Area readers, the meeting begins at 1:30 p.m. in Room 428, War Memorial Building, 401 Van Ness Avenue, but call (415-558-6422) the day before to find out what time the Borders issue will be heard. "Now is the time for us to put our bodies on the line," writes Hughes, "or rather, in front of the Commission . . . People attending the hearing may speak if they so desire, but it is not a requirement. We merely need bottoms in the seats . . . " What a ringing cry!

If Solar Light has discovered the benefits of coalition politics, so has GAIA Books of Berkeley. Last week at a "Wisdom Circle" meeting, customers and vendors alike discussed ways to help the store carry on in the face of declining sales (mostly because of Amazon.com) - and plan for the future in a new downtown building that will provide three times the selling space at about the same rent.

Traditional fund-raising efforts (donations, "soft" loans, author dinners, gift certificates) may help, but GAIA has become more of a community center than a bookstore and needs radically different financing.

Since few investors are interested in traditional bookstores, the group supporting GAIA has started to build a more visionary network of nonprofit groups, profit-making companies, government agencies, community organizations and publishers that could support for the vital but unchargeable services such bookstores provide all the time. New ideas will be entertained at a November 8 meeting at the store.

ABOUT THOSE 120 DAYS . . .

Thanks to the many readers who have written to express their surprise that publishers ever allowed booksellers to pay for books in 120 days, as Eric Joost, co-owner of GAIA, said in a previous column.

"I should have said that terms used to be 90 days," he responds, "but that publishers would accept 120 without cutting off the store's credit. Today we find that some publishers and distributors will cut the store off after 45 days. Things are tightening up on so many ends that they have to do this to protect themselves, I know, but it's impossible for an independent unless you're well-capitalized."