by Pat Holt

Tuesday, April 25, 2000:



To New Readers: "Holt Uncensored" is a free online column about books and the book industry written by former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and critic Pat Holt. You can subscribe or "unsubscribe" by clicking here.


(Note: We're off to Seattle today, so here's the column a little early.)



That attempt by drug enforcement agents (mentioned in #146) to barge into Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver and subpoena records of book purchases has the dubious honor of becoming "First Amendment Outrage of the Week" on the Freedom Forum Online website at http://www.freedomforum.org/first/outrage.asp .

Freedom Forum monitors a good many First Amendment Outrages ("cops dissemble right to protest," "city's limit on church attendance out of line"), but this one got high marks because it was BOTH the Drug Enforcement Agency and Denver's North Metro Area Drug Task Force that came looking for a suspect's "purchase records" of two books on the making of methamphetamine.

Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis not only stopped the DEA by insisting its administrative subpoena was insufficient, she later stopped the Denver police by getting a temporary restraining order to block the Task Force's search warrant.

The case offers a lesson for all of us on fundamental protections of the First Amendment. As the Freedom Forum explains: "Reading literature that might offend someone else is not illegal. Further, reading about something illegal is not illegal. It's a personal thing. 'Freedom' might be the operative word here."

And to make it even more personal, the FF offers a chilling scenario: "Think about how comfortable you would be reading if you thought law officers, essentially just by asking, could get a record of every book you bought or every book you checked out from the library.

"What if, for example, someone on your street is the victim of child abuse, and authorities go to the library and get the records of every person in your town who checked out books on child rearing in the last five years?

"And what if, because you checked out such a book, you suddenly find police officers on your porch questioning your motives in reading that book and making you appear to be under suspicion, just because of something you read?"

Pretty good example, and to prove how vigilant we must all be to violations of the First Amendment, especially now that our reading habits can be tracked on the Internet, consider the case of Bruce Mirken, a gay reporter in San Francisco who's contributed to both the general and gay press (Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Examiner) - and who recently experienced one of those Kafkaesque nightmares that nearly landed him in prison.

Having published stories about despondent gay teens, Bruce had turned to the Internet as a place to make contact with potential gay runaways as sources of information, and, after establishing a relationship with one young man through a series of emails, arranged a time to meet him. Upon arrival, Bruce was arrested and handcuffed, his apartment searched - "trashed" would perhaps be a better word - and computer confiscated.

Now granted the police have their hands full trying to locate and apprehend people who use the Internet to lure minors into dangerous situations. Had they done a little checking, they would have discovered that Bruce had a clear record and established career and many editors and publishers waiting in the wings to corroborate his story.

Nevertheless, authorities attempted to establish as evidence the gay pornography (especially porno involving teenagers) that had been sent as junk mail to Bruce's email address - email that Bruce had opened, glanced at and deleted time after time.

Thank heaven computers keep records of the amount of time users look at email after opening it. Because his computer revealed that Bruce had not looked at this spammed porno beyond the few seconds he took to recognize it for what it was and delete.

Lucky for him - or I should say thanks to the sharp and sophisticated defense he had mustered in TWO court appearances spanning several months while his parents and friends scraped up the money to pay his lawyer - the case was thrown out of court. And lucky for us, he has continued his work as a reporter, knowing Big Brother is still out there, watching HIM.

But the fact that any computer user would have to prove to anyone else the acceptability of what he or she has (or hasn't) been reading is the scary part.

I think about this from time to time because the oddest thing happened after I began this email column. Its name as you know is "Holt Uncensored" (after my last name) but because "uncensored" is a loaded word on the Internet (and a lot of people misread "Holt" for "Hot," as in "HOT UNCENSORED"), I receive a lot of porno spam.

Or maybe not - maybe I get as much as you do and routinely delete it just as I throw out physical junk mail. But every time I get one that says something like "TEEN SLUTS WAITING FOR YOU" or "IF THEY WERE YOUNGER IT WOULD BE ILLEGAL," I think of those government agents who barged into Bruce's apartment looking for - well, what?

As the Freedom Forum puts it in the Tattered Cover case, "No one disputes the authority of the DEA or the North Metro Drug Task Force to investigate possible violations of the law and prosecute violators. But what really would they gain even if they were able to categorically pin the purchase of two books on making methamphetamine on their prime suspect? Perhaps he bought them for someone else. Perhaps he bought them by mistake. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps."

And what really would they have gained if Bruce's computer had shown that he looked at gay porn for more than 30 seconds, or 40, or 60? Perhaps he was going to write about it as part of a predatory culture awaiting gay teens? Perhaps he was looking at it for a friend or editor. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

The point is the same: It's nobody's business what a person reads. In our system you can't prove guilt of a crime through the nature of a person's reading material.

So what WERE these agents doing in any of these cases? Grasping at straws, attempting to use intimidation, throwing their weight around - who knows? But they're still out there, believing they have the authority to make the equivalent of illegal search and seizure by virtue of subpoenas and search warrants.

This is as scary on Earth as it is in cyberspace. But at least this time, thanks to the courage of an independent bookseller and a gay reporter, we know that some kind of counterforce is possible.



First, go right now to http://www.johnsmith.co.uk/special/old.pl before the page is redesigned and you'll find a delectable photograph, taken in the mid-1930s, of the Children's Book Department at John Smith & Son of Scotland, the oldest bookstore in the world (founded 1751).

The great tragedy, as The Times of London reports, is that John Smith & Son "is to shut its doors in Glasgow after losing the battle against book superstores and online discount shopping." (The firm is not going out of business; more about that later.)

So the photograph in Children's Books during the mid-'30s offers a double-kabammie heartfelt experience: Not only do we see a store loaded to its ceilings and tables and floors and shelves with books; we also find customers so engrossed in titles that they have sat down or stood paralyzed in the aisles to complete the browsing experience.

But, typical of John Smith & Son's straightforward and honest manner - plus a playful behind-the-scenes-humor - the caption says that the names listed on the back of the photograph reveal what is possibly a long-held secret.

"It appears that most [of the people in the picture] are members of staff posing as customers." Indeed as we glance again at the photo, it looks as though everybody is a bit too engrossed in their children's books, with one exception - "the lady behind Peter Rabbit," the caption gleefully announces, "was a genuine customer!"

So it was a slow day in the two-and-a-half-century-old history of John Smith & Son bookshops, and who knows how much business has slowed in recent years. "The decision to end trading at its famous St. Vincent Street address has sent shockwaves through the Scottish book world," the Times announced gravely.

The firm was a favorite of poet Robert Burns, who certainly would have been shocked by the headline, "Internet kills off oldest bookshop." But the Internet giveth as well - or we should say, the staff that makes the Internet work can stay in business a while longer.

According to the website, John Smith and Son is reinventing itself. Managing director Willie Anderson writes that the company is taking "a strategic shift back to our roots in academic and specialist bookselling" with a new website "in development."

He goes on to explain (at http://www.johnsmith.co.uk/features/change.pl ) that the company's bookshops in seven of Scotland's universities and a relocated 30,000 square-foot international supply business will remain in operation.

So race to the present website at http://www.johnsmith.co.uk and visit the store before its web redesign. You can climb the cyberstairs to each level (Basement, Ground, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th), each with its own web page showing photos and recommended titles.

You can also visit the store's legendary departments -Scottish history, a great map room and the wondrous Stationery Office. The latter, by the way, is not for envelopes and letterhead. Formerly His Majesty's Stationery Office, it's still "primarily for Parliamentary Papers but also covering a wide range of subjects on behalf of Government Departments and National Bodies."

I'm sorry the Times neglected to report that John Smith & Son will continue operations online and in its academic locations. Granted the death of its two general bookstores warrants a headline that says "Internet kills off oldest bookshop," but perhaps a few more facts were in order.

In any case, this an independent bookstore that is not about to be "killed off." As Willie Anderson explains: "The book world has undergone seismic changes in the past two years, and we have learned very quickly what is and what is not possible. We have to adapt - as we have been doing continually and successfully since 1751."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have been an avid, agonizing reader. I have fretted and sweated through an ascending series of outrages without a trigger to galvanize myself and others, particularly writers, into some level of effective action. When I was in the advertising business, we used to say, "getting above the noise level is the game." Another thought was prompted by Terry Gross' interview with the writer of a book (shame on me, I can't remember author's name or title) on "triggering epidemics," or starting a brush-fire of public opinion and supporting action of any given issue. For a time, AIDs was invisible. Was it the quilt? Something triggered public response.

Enough of the preamble. My idea is simple: a slogan to start it all, aimed at dislodging politician stolidity and stupidity, that somehow, because it is electronic, merchandising should not be subject to the same taxation as bricks-and-mortar selling. The brush fire begins with a slogan:


This means that we - the people - constitute a threat to the central objective of politicians' careers: getting re-elected. Something as humble as a lapel button, a stick-on label affixed to letters to representatives, senators, executive office-holders, "teaser ads," bumper stickers, etc. (Suppose, for example, the effect of a flood of lapel buttons appearing at a political convention. Warning rumbles from an earthquake to be . . . ) The funding should be readily available through those who suffer most the consequences, particularly independent bookstores.

It's a humble beginning, but at least it is a beginning.

Thos. J. Cox coxco@ix.netcom.com

Holt responds: This is a hilarious and brilliant idea that goes to the heart of every history/civics lesson in America. If there is a formal group out there promoting enforcement of current sales tax laws, let's hope this "new" slogan will find its way to the top of the stationery.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your reference to Yeats and the rattling pebbles on the shore in Holt Uncensored #145:

The origin of the image is actually Matthew Arnold's magnificently gloomy 1867 poem "Dover Beach." The rattling pebbles pulled by the receding waves associate in Arnold's mind with the receding of the shining "Sea of Faith" and its replacement by the dry landscape of science, reason, and Victorian propriety. (One can see how this poem is prep for Eliot's "The Waste Land.")

Yeats's poem, "The Nineteenth Century and After," is actually a cheer-up-old-boy response to Arnold, from Yeats's "wild old wicked man" period: to take a rascally delight in the sensuality of the present moment in the midst of personal and social decay and approaching death.

What's interesting is that Yeats and Eliot wrote these particular poems in the 1920s - which Jason Epstein [in his New York Review of Books article about publishing] in turn apparently sees as the great literary period whose receding wave we are now rattling in. Will readers and writers in 2040 look back at year 2000 as the lost Golden Age of literature?

Maybe the message is to pay closer attention to the overlooked, undervalued jewels in one's own time (cue: this is where independent bookstores come in).

Carl Grundberg

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was interested to see Neal Coonerty's report of the subpoena Bookshop Santa Cruz has received in regard to the ABA's suit against Borders and Barnes & Noble. He listed several types of records that the national chains' attorneys have demanded. I wonder if he or someone else could report on what records the ABA has subpoenaed from those chains.

The ABA has contended that Borders and Barnes & Noble engage in "illegal business practices." Those chains, I understand, have replied in essence that their practices are normal in retailing. To allow them their legal defense, it seems necessary for them to have the opportunity to show that smaller booksellers engage in similar practices. If they can't, their case would be weakened.

If the ABA has demanded fewer records than the two chains, it would most certainly make sense to protest against the broad swath of the latest subpoena. And, of course, we must recognize the burden that a request for eight years of records places on a small organization. Nevertheless, it also seems important to allow both plaintiff and defendant to make their cases in court. Accepting the burden in exchange for that freedom seems like one of the necessary compromises in our legal system.

J. L. Bell Newton, MA JnoLBell@compuserve.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here's why I love independent bookstores: In Berkeley where I live, the neighborhood bookstore is Avenue Books on College Avenue. Not long ago, I was talking with a writer friend named Jane Meredith Adams, who had just written a very funny story for a magazine about trying to simplify her life. She had bought a couple of recent popular books on the subject, and said one in particular had helped her.

By the time I decided that my life needed simplifying, too, I'd forgotten just which book she had recommended, so I went into Avenue Books and said to the man at the counter, "Do you have any of those simplify-your-life books? He looked at me a long time, running his hand over his bearded chin, and then said,"Walden Pond?"

I had to laugh--and decided I didn't need the new-fangled books anyway.

Karin Evans