HOLT UNCENSORED #136
by Pat Holt
Friday, March 10, 2000:
THE LAST OF THE SEASONS OF GAIA
THE LAST OF THE SEASONS OF GAIA
GAIA Bookstore looks these days like it got hit with a literary neutron bomb (it kills the books, not the people). The place is packed with teary customers buying every book and fixture in the place (all discounted at least 30 percent) because the store closes tomorrow.
Meanwhile, however, here's a neat story about a bookseller who won't quit until the last door locks her out.
It happened only recently when the legendary author Bell Hooks ("Ain't I A Woman," "Outlaw Culture," "Talking Back") arrived in Berkeley to sign her new book, "All About Love" (Morrow; 240 pages; $22; buy online at http://www.gaiabooks.com - the website lives on) .
GAIA held the event at a crowded-to-its-bell-tower 600-seat church nearby, and there Hooks explained to the audience that even before the book was published, she had been told it was a "failure." The reason: "certain big conglomerates were known not to have ordered very many copies of it." Because of that, this once-bestselling writer and professor (Yale, Oberlin, NYCC) faces the problem of watching her book sink like a stone.
But as Hooks told the audience, authors and booksellers share a tough fate in today's publishing scene unless readers take a stand. "One of the things that often happens [when] independent bookstores put on marvelous events like this [is that] people come, but they don't buy books," she told the audience. "Not only do the independent bookstores do the work of bringing you the books by the writers and bringing you closer to the writers, they don't get the reward . . . "
Then she made the first applause-rousing statement of the day. "This is something you have to remember - purchasing the book is a political gesture in support of independent bookstores. It's not just about the discount you can get elsewhere. It's about these spaces and keeping them going. It's also about keeping writers like myself going.
"I'm in the midst of trying to sell my second book in a love trilogy. I find I am the high priestess of love, yet people are saying not enough readers are interested in this topic. The immediate book sales don't reflect large numbers. So I urge you not only to buy one copy of 'All about Love' but another copy for someone you love." Hooks was just playful enough, and convincing enough, to make everybody want to run out and buy a fistful of copies.
She was also a great crowd schmoozer who threw out one insight after another about love and honesty, love and greed, love and spirituality, love and death. She struck an exposed nerve when she said that "our tragedy, our emotional famine" in the United States is the dismissal of love by young people, many of whom tell her "they have never had love" in their lives, or don't trust love, and would rather have money instead.
"People say to me, 'Oh, the hard monsta black woman Bell Hooks is getting soft! She's talking about love.' Well, to be talking about love is the most militant, daring, courageous thing that I could be doing in my life right now, because the self-hatred that our young people of color are internalizing - the envy of whiteness that they are internalizing - is genocidal to our collective well-being."
The only person not completely engrossed in Hooks' talk was Patrice Wynne, co-owner of GAIA, who had been unable to get enough books to cover the event. With her staff, Patrice had driven to every bookstore in town and managed to cobble together 50 copies or so, which immediately sold out as the event began.
As Bell Hooks continued on, referring to this chapter and that page number and revving up the audience to buy even bigger fistfuls of the book, the ever-inventive Patrice got an idea.
She raced into the hallway to find the custodian and convinced him to open the room that housed a photocopying machine, where she ran off 200 copies of the book's title page. At the end of Bell's reading, people in the audience bought all these makeshift title pages at $22 each, which Bell signed. A week or so later, these new customers came into the store and picked up their books, which the publisher had finally shipped.
This story is all the more poignant for the fact that GAIA's has had many author events recently in which Patrice, a dry-eyed, stalwart warrior, introduced each writer and announced the closing of GAIA by graciously saying goodbye to customers.
But this week after an appearance by Thomas Moore ("Care of the Soul," "Soul Mates"), Patrice started to make the announcement this way: "I understand why GAIA must close from an economic point of view. But I don't understand it from my heart. Why a store with so much energy, so much love, so much originality - " at which point, the dam broke. A standing ovation later, Patrice awarded a Customer Lifetime Achievement award to the customer who had attended nearly every event in GAIA's 13-year history. When Thomas Moore said that Patrice Wynne should get the Bookseller Lifetime Achievement Award, the dam burst again.
Of course we all know why GAIA is closing - the chains, the discounters, the price clubs, the Wal-Marts, the Targets, the Amazon.coms and other hot-shot Internet services that lose more money in a month than GAIA makes in a year; publishers who insist on early payment from independents and allow late payment from others; an audience that grew so large it's served by every spin rack in America; a location in North Berkeley that lost its foot traffic, an owner who burned herself out battling all this years ago - and kept on fighting.
It's all very logical until we remember that GAIA started out as "the country's first spiritual feminist bookstore" in a tiny 300-foot room producing the WomenSpirit Catalog, and it grew so fast into a brick-and-mortar store that Patrice and her partner, Eric Joost, couldn't do anything wrong.
Thanks to them, the idea of "spirituality" at the end of the hard-hearted '80s became a lens through which one could learn about health, religion, creativity, family, feminism, environment, fiction, poetry, race, gender, politics and cultural change. The store's atmosphere of openness and quest invited seekers to explore whatever spiritual representation seemed of interest, from books on Tibetan Buddhism to Dennis Lewis' exquisite tape, "Breathing as a Metaphor for Living."
And in came the authors, many of whom were unknowns before their careers got launched from this store: Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Carolyn Myss, Suze Orman, Gary Snyder, Andrew Weil, Robert Bly, Marion Woodman, Jeffrey Masson, Annie Sprinkle, Allen Ginsberg, Iyana Vanzant, Starhawk, Isabel Allende, Gail Sheehy, Timothy Leary, Kathleen Norris, Ronnie Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Jane Hirschfield, Robert Hass, Faye Wattleton, Joanna Macy, Chitra Divakaruni, Eve Ensler, Czeslaw Milozs, Gloria Steinem, Riane Eisler, Rachel Naomi Remen, Alice Walker, Terry Tempest Williams, Susan Love, Marion Zimmer Bradley and others.
Of course we know why GAIA is closing. Founded on the belief "that business can never be separated from the world we live in," this was a store with close ties to the community, and an understanding of life's flow from one profound transition to another. Patrice and her staff know very well the spiritual resources that can strengthen and empower at a time like this.
The question is, what will the next Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carolyn Myss and all the other unknown authors do when they're just starting out? Where will we as readers go to find the magical place where the owner just "knows" certain authors are going to hit a nerve, stick around, join the pantheon, contribute to posterity?
It's interesting to note that when Patrice was racing around to buy up copies of Bell Hooks' new book, "All About Love," she found only one copy at Barnes & Noble, one at Borders and one at B. Dalton. Other independent stores had more. Total sale of this "failure" at GAIA to date: 215, "but we could have sold a hundred more," says Patrice.
GAIA closes tonight, but not before an evening of dancing and celebration from 5-11 p.m. The place will be packed, and how could everybody not have a good time? When you say goodbye to the end of an era, you might as well kick up your heels for the last time.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A while back there was some discussion about how the English version books were being Americanized. This is truly a shame and if this continues, the publishers should mark these books as translated versions. My daughter, who is twelve, is reading Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth and we had encountered many English words in the King's English spelling and English expressions. Even though this was a different era, by keeping this book intact, she was able to learn about the differences in the language and between our cultures.
"So, what's their point in Americanizing these books, Mom?" I don't have an answer.
Just an FYI -- In response to the earlier message about using bibliofind.com. This is owned by Amazon.com.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Am I missing something here? Senator Boxer was quoted (Holt #135) as saying:
"If, on the other hand, I purchased goods over the Internet from a business outside of California, then no sales taxes would be paid. "
This was followed by a quote from Andy Cody: "She is now advocating the status quo. Sales tax on intrastate commerce. No sales tax on interstate commerce." Both are wrong.
In most jurisdictions, the sales tax is really a "sales and use tax," levied against the consumer. What is at issue is whether an out-of-state company can be compelled to collect the tax on behalf of the state levying the tax. The state is still due the tax, the government just lacks an efficient mechanism for collection. The state could, if it chose to do so, collect the sales tax from the end user. States already do this on big-ticket items such as cars and (in the case of California) cigarettes purchased from Indian reservations.
In sum, there IS a sales tax on Internet purchases; the tax is just not collected. Congress is NOT considering a permanent ban on internet sales taxes; the tax the Congress is considering is a tax on connection, use, and transactions such as e-mail. The complaint, if there is one, is not whether a sales tax is levied or due, it is; the complaint should be over whether the state can extend its authority outside its borders and force a company to act as the state's tax-collection agent.
I don't see how it is possible to lobby - or in the case of Senator Boxer vote - on the issue without understanding what the issue is about.
Andy Ross replies: Mr. Huling is technically correct, and I apologize for engaging in excessive simplification.
However I hold to my position that the sales tax laws, as they currently exist, discriminate unfairly against community based businesses vis a vis out of state Internet businesses.
A good tax policy should be based on the principle of the level playing field. Companies which are selling the same products to the same consumers in the same localities should be subject to the same sales tax rules. To do otherwise is to discriminate unfairly against the disfavored group.
Internet and mail order retailers are profiting from this unfair advantage. Government policy, which allows this loophole, is distorting the free market by influencing consumers to make their buying decisions on the basis of tax avoidance; rather than on more rational buying considerations such as price, availability, service and convenience. The government, in effect, is picking winners and losers in the marketplace by this discriminatory tax policy.
Mr. Huling correctly points out that these taxes are still due as "use taxes" even if they are uncollected by out of state sellers. But he also correctly points out that these use taxes are (with the exception of large purchases or some business-to-business transactions) almost never collected. Tax experts will be the first to admit that these use tax laws are effectively unenforceable on everyday commercial transactions.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Sure, keep beating the drum for an Internet sales tax. Eventually the folks in Washington will realize that it's an attractive idea - but not on behalf of the states. We'll get a federal excise tax on internet sales, and the states will be robbed of one more revenue source. Remember the adage: be careful what you pray for; you might get it.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I read Warren Cassell's recent letter [lamenting Booksense.com to Len Vlahos of the American Booksellers Association] with interest and irritation. I am a longtime bookseller and an ABA member, and since I have had my own differences with the ABA style I wondered why I was so annoyed at his remarks. I guess it just seems very unfair, somehow, to accuse our trade organization of not swooping in at the first sign of trouble and making the world safe for its members. It would be helpful to remember a few truths about our part of the industry.
First, up until a few years ago, ABA represented all booksellers - chain, mail order, bookfairs and independents - and not just out of myopia, but out of a firmly held philosophy. When it finally became painfully obvious that [Barnes & Noble head] Mr. Riggio's business model showed a scant relationship to actual bookselling, ABA's focus changed and the independent bookseller formally became its core member. The former executive director of the organization came under a lot of fire for pursuing not an activist agenda but one that sought to put the ABA on a sound financial footing. When the ABA had to abandon the idea that it could usefully serve all kinds of booksellers equally, and indeed that independent booksellers required that legal action be taken on their behalf, the fact that it had been well-shepherded financially was a godsend.
Secondly, the scope of the e-commerce threat, if you like, in the form of Amazon.com, was revealed during the years when ABA was pursuing a David and Goliath legal battle for fairness (a battle in which, by the way, they prevailed time and time again) The members began to stand up in general meetings, regional meetings, board meetings and advisory meetings, to urge ABA to explore an Internet solution for its member stores. But, and it is a key but, these members also wanted a really great solution. The only unanimous feeling in the room was that a half-assed solution would be no solution at all.
Remember, the only seemingly successful Internet models to that date had required staggering amounts of investment capital, and still do - ABA, representing as it does independent business people, couldn't issue an IPO, or sell itself to Random House, or even expect to receive realistic investment amounts from its own members. Its only course was to imagine a comprehensive, functional, affordable, flexible, idiosyncratic entity that would be so well imagined that it would attract both booksellers and fulfillment partners, and would impress and satisfy the book-buying public. This is the entity that booksellers asked for, and the one that ABA dearly wants to deliver. It isn't reinventing the wheel - Booksite is not the wheel! Booksense.com is a completely new animal.
Finally, independent booksellers are businesspeople, not children. If booksellers felt that their store was dying because they couldn't sell online, there were and are dozens of things they could have done. To suggest that ABA reimburse booksellers who have invested in another solution is nonsense. It is a trade association and does not exist to solve all of its members' business problems. If ABA can produce the product that they want, it will be worth every penny. If they can't, it won't have been for lack of trying - in the face of impatience, criticism, a thousand personal wish lists, and an actual, real budget.
Bookstores are not dropping like flies because of a lack of Internet savvy. Competitors have attempted to discount us out of existence, and continue that blunt strategy, on and off of the web. ABA is trying to find a tool that will work for the bookseller who has an awesome site already, and also for the bookseller who doesn't have a fax machine.
If they were Len Riggio, of course, they would have dropped the inefficient, smaller and less profitable stores from their calculations and concentrated only on improving the prospects of their largest stores. But the board members of the ABA are booksellers themselves, and understand that at its best bookselling is a quirky, passionate enterprise run imperfectly (and often profitably) by people who learned all they know about business strategies on the job. They are hoping to create an Internet site that celebrates that, and I for one hope they pull it off.
Pegasus and Pendragon Books
Berkeley and Oakland
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In searching for a book entitled Jesus of Nazareth by Klausner (long dead), I reached a dead end. The book was reviewed in Haaretz newspaper in Israel recently, having come out with a Hebrew translation. Kepler's, as usual, said it wasn't listed. Tried several other places and ended up with Amazon who listed it at 25.00 and maybe yes and maybe no. When the book still was not sent by Amazon, I canceled. Then, I phoned Cody's in Berkeley who did not have the book, but gave me the publisher's name and phone no. Publisher returned phone call immediately and is shipping the paperback for half the amount of the hardcover listed by Amazon. The publisher can't figure out why his books are not selling and seems puzzled on how to promote them. He'll be republishing a couple other books on the 1st century in Palestine in the near future. The publisher is Bloch, phone no. 212 532-3977. The fax is 212-779-91. Address is 118 E. 28th, NY NY 10016, ste 501.
I wonder how many other obscure publishers there are who are practically invisible and are relatively unfamiliar with the computer age.
Anyway, thanks again to Cody's!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here are a couple more points about eBay dealing that might interest you.
I consider most of the books we personally sell as ''rescued'' books. We get the majority of our stock at yard sales and auctions. For some reason, NO ONE in our small town seems to do much more than glance at boxes of books, except maybe romances. We pretty much run free in the book territory. And I am sorry to say that what we don't buy often ends up at the landfill. (I have myself clambered into the dump bins to save neat old books--and had to be rescued by the dump attendant when I couldn't get out again, but that's a whole 'nother story.)
Being the book lovers we are, libraries are hallowed ground, and we support ours with sweat equity. Like many libraries, ours has a volunteer organization, Friends of the Library, that puts on book sales of donated and de-accessioned items. They used to mutter all the time about how the (e-vile) Dealers would buy all the Best Books to Make Money. With eBay, we suddenly had an alternative. Now those really excellent books go up for sale here:
We estimate this, at minimum, doubles the $$ being plowed back into the library every year. We've also branched out to help, on an 'as needed' basis, the schools and school libraries here in town with NoBakeSales (I haven't put together a page for them yet). For instance, the Parkview library found a 1921 copy of Pyle's Pirate book--really worn, but worth $11.27 more than if they had tossed it in the trash!
In closing, here is my very best book sale story ever, which you might find amusing: http://neonnurse.freeservers.com/coinc1.html
Susan the Neon Nurse