by Pat Holt
Tuesday, May 23, 2000
TAKING A STROLL WITH THE PREZ
With the book trade's BookExpo convention in Chicago only a few weeks away, let's take a stroll with the new president-elect of the American Booksellers Association, Neal Coonerty.
Here's a man with a lot to say who's waited a long time to say it. A decade ago, Neal was on the verge of becoming the ABA's president when the California earthquake of 1989 erupted under his store, Bookshop Santa Cruz, causing a half-million dollars' worth of damage in 15 seconds.
Joyce Meskis of Denver's Tattered Cover took over as the ABA prez while Neal and his wife Candy moved the Bookshop to Santa Cruz's temporary city of tents. The two had bought the struggling store in 1973 and spent 15 years building up Bookshop's assets. Now they had to start over again.
"After the earthquake, most of the wisdom from consultants was to declare bankruptcy and start over," he recalls. "Candy and I felt we could pull our way out of it. Publishers extended us credit and we didn't want to stiff anybody. So only a few years ago we got out of that hole. We paid everybody back."
Getting out of the tents and taking advantage of disaster loans brought an unprecedented opportunity to the couple in the form of a 14,000-square-foot bookstore right in the heart of Pacific Avenue, the main street of downtown Santa Cruz. "It was a huge risk for us, but we decided we had to get up near 15,000 square feet because some time in the future, a big competitor would come to town."
Neal joined the City Council (1990-94) and was elected mayor (1993) as the city tried to rebuild itself while still retaining its character as a seaside town with a variety of independent shops and great local color. Of course, in creating a new downtown, it wasn't as though Santa Cruz had much choice.
"When the earthquake hit, most of the chains abandoned the city," Neal says. "Local merchants stayed and rebuilt the area, but you could tell the chains were waiting until it was safe to come back."
And come back they have, led in part by a huge Borders, following bitter and prolonged battles in Capitola (where it was rejected) and Santa Cruz (where it was accepted). In the middle of the controversy, Candy Coonerty died after suffering a massive stroke. Neal continued on, building the store's assets to withstand a drop in sales he predicts will fall anywhere from 25% to 40% for the next two years.
And, irony of ironies, the new Borders of Santa Cruz is set to open on June 3rd, the second day of BEA, when Neal will moderate a panel for independent booksellers facing the threat of chain superstore competition called "Enhancing Independent Business Influence for a Level Playing Field" (2-3:30 p.m., room S-504d).
So Neal and I are in the midst of our stroll as we turn left from Bookshop Santa Cruz's entrance and walk down the street to see the new Borders. Ordinarily the big chain store that moves in on the established independent is about a mile or two down the freeway, or in some cases 8 or 10 blocks across the downtown area, or when the threat is really close a 10-minute walk, or sometimes just around the corner, or at the very, very, very worst just down the block on the same side of the street.
And here it is - a 2-minute walk from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and on the same side of the street. Even with its books and CDs still in boxes and its shelves in disarray, this is one lethal-looking chain store.
Neal heaves a sigh. There is no way he can say this isn't so bad. "You know, a bookstore is more than the exchange of money for books," he says. "There are a lot of intangibles. We feel that we understand that; I don't think Borders does. This store may have an advantage of a lot of money behind it, but we know the community. So," he concludes, taking another deep breath, "we'll just be forced to crush them."
This unexpected humor causes me to burst out laughing so loudly that the Borders' installation team, probably warned by Ann Arbor that people in Santa Cruz sometimes laugh out loud, glower with suspicion from the dreaded dark dankness inside.
"Getting through the earthquake was a lot worse," Neal continues reassuringly. "We've had two strong years, and so has the whole town. The dotcom revolution has spread from Silicon Valley right here to Pacific Avenue" - his arm sweeps upward - "where all those second-floor offices are occupied by software engineers.
"Here's the odd thing: In a place like this, where so many people are stuck at their computers all day, the local bookstore is the fun thing to do. We're where the community meets, where your friends gather. So as we've built up our inventory over the last two years, we haven't hired more staff. It's not easy for everybody to stretch thin, but it means that when the hit comes, we won't have to lay anybody off, or at least that's the hope.
Clearly it's going to be intriguing for independents in the ABA membership who are facing this kind of threat to know their president is undergoing the same thing - and he has a plan. First and foremost, he says, "the public still needs to be educated." The perception is that because Borders is a big conglomerate and buys books at big discounts for itself, it discounts books for customers more than anybody.
Not true. Borders isn't a discounter. It doesn't pass a bargain through. It uses its reported illegal discounts from publishers to pay for its inefficient operation.
"Bookshop Santa Cruz has the same discounts on bestsellers that Borders has," Neal adds, "AND we have frequent buyers club discounts that are the equivalent of another 5%." That means customers can buy books cheaper at Bookshop Santa Cruz than they can at Borders, which is big news for anybody.
Second, while it's true that customers "get it" about independents vs. the chains, especially in Santa Cruz, and many have sworn to Neal and his staff they will NEVER shop at Borders, "I've seen over the years that booksellers who depend on customer loyalty have been mistaken," Neal says.
"People who buy books like bookstores. Borders may be an ugly corporation, but they have a pretty bookstore. We've tried to upgrade ourselves [a new carpet was just installed this week] because they'll have a brand new store, but we have to keep showing the public that our combined experience and knowledge offer the greater customer experience."
Third, what about that old (premature) adage, that independent booksellers who have made it this far are probably safe from further threat? "I'd rather say that the worst is over. One reason Borders is building stores in Australia and New Zealand and Puerto Rico is that there aren't that many primary locations left in the United States, and that's true as well for Barnes & Noble."
"But independent stores are still overwhelmed by chain superstores, and practices we allege to be illegal still go on and are extremely difficult to fight." The frustration and anger in his voice make the point that is so often lost in the midst of legalese: Many out-of-business independents were well-run, efficient booksellers that served their community very well. It was not the fault of their relative smallness that caused their demise; it was the alleged illegal practices on the part of chain bookstores that forced them out.
Perhaps that's the best part about waiting another 10 years before he could take office as the ABA's president: The lawsuit that has been so long in coming against Barnes & Noble and Borders will go to court during his tenure.
This means he'll be "forced to crush them" AGAIN. See Part II, coming soon.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Yesterday we received a letter of instructions from Ingram about a box full of promotional material about Alibris.
In this box are T-shirts that have the Alibris logo on the sleeve, albeit fairly small, with this message: "Sorry, we don't have that book, but we know where to get it" (I paraphrase; I immediately recycled this stuff). The rest of the items - counter cards, posters, bookmarks - feature the Alibris logo (and ONLY the Alibris logo) and more or less say the same thing. In an angry and admittedly vulgar frame of mind I found it appropriate that the '"we know where to get it" was on the BACK of the T-shirt: I KNOW where we're "getting it" in this case!
Perhaps this would be amusing if it weren't so insulting. Now we "have the opportunity" to promote an Internet competitor at our own expense, literally and figuratively - we PAY for Ingram's iPage [where Alibris' books are listed] after all...
Alibris is antithetical to one of the positive aspects of the Internet: decentralization. I relish the ability to deal DIRECTLY with used/op dealers; to interact with real people who know books - not random hourly workers (perhaps they call them "team-members" ?) shipping "product" to "consumers" from a centralized hoard.
Once again, we are urged to abandon diversity in favor of "efficiency". (see James Hillman's "The Kinds of Power" for an insightful examination of the subject). And no amount of CEO-reassurance can obfuscate the clearly monopolistic intent of this company...
But perhaps what companies like this do best is spend venture capital on advertising and marketing?
An Independent Bookseller
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just a few comments about the Alibris pricing and buying issues as discussed in the letters of this column.
The results of the search for the rare e.e.cummings book were interesting, but Alibris marks up expensive books much less than inexpensive ones in percentage terms (and most books sold on the net are inexpensive.)
A good example of a relatively uncommon, but not expensive book, was a recent search I did on addall.com/used for a children's book, "The Visitor" by Helen Oxenbury. Only one copy of the true first edition (the UK edition) appeared on ABE and Bibliofind. It was offered by an English bookseller, Abbey Antiquarian Books, for $3.00. Alibris had the identical copy for $20. In addition, multiple copies of the paperback reprint were being offered by a remainder house, Book Closeouts, for $1.49 each. Alibris had the same paperback reprint for $16.
I will add that on the stock that Alibris purchases for sale directly, the prices are often competitive - so Alibris is not always the most expensive - however, the reason for that is obvious when one reads the letter from the bookseller who was offered 25 cents on the dollar or when one reads this flyer from Moe's in Berkeley (as posted on another mailing list) with a letter to the East Bay Express:
Dear Holt Uncensored;
Mr. Bram makes some interesting points in his letter concerning the Internet presence of the e. e. cummings "CIOPW" work. The only thing I'd question is the implication that ABE "has" 5 copies or Bibliofind "has" 3. You can say this (actually, you HAVE to say this) about Alibris, since they hide the identity of their vassal-dealers. With ABE and BF, on the other hand, it is quite evident which dealers own the copies.
Stephen D. Ball
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Bookopoly.com ( http://www.bookopoly.com ) is another good source for used, rare, collectible, and out-of-print books and it is not currently being searched by the Meta Search Engines such as Bookfinder. Both individuals and small bookstores offer books, magazines, etc. for sale here and there is no markup by Bookopoly; prices are set by the seller.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We are a used bookstore marketing on the Internet. We started by listing our books on abebooks.com, and I like them very much. They have set the standard for used book databases and seach capability as far as I am concerned.. I list my full inventory with them.
Then I listed some of my inventory with Bibliofind - only some because they were not nearly as sophisticated from my point of view. I was, however, surprised to see that they are reaching another audience that abebooks does not. Then I was approached by Alibris to list with them. They are aggressive. I appreciated the comments of "A reader" on Alibris. It took six weeks of struggle just to get part of my inventory lsited, and as of today I have pulled all my listings with them. They seem hellbent on making money for what they do and gouge not only the bookseller but also the customer. In my mind battle lines are being drawn and I am clear which side I stand on. Was very pleased to get your perspective as a buyer/searcher.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your article about Jason Epstein's piece about publishing in the New York Review of Books: I think the most important thing about it is that Epstein is so (perhaps unrealistically) jazzed by the possibilities of POD [print on demand] that he is moved to make admissions about the state of publishing that no other editor in NY ever does -- not in print, at least. They always say that, well, yes, there are some problems, but THEIR employer is publishing more good books than ever and so on and on. Instead Jason admits what frustrated authors have been saying for years--always discounted because, of course, with so many books being published, "if such authors were any good, they wouldn't have such a terrible time finding a publisher." He tantalizingly touches on many points of this new technology--that no book need ever go out of print, that some day these machines will be in local bookstores (is it Tattered Cover that already plans to get one?). It's important to remember and to focus on one point he makes. This is a new PRODUCTION TECHNOLOGY, not necessarily a new way to PUBLISH. Two writers I know have signed on with iUniverse, one to get a book back into print, the other to publish a new one (she has two books published, but no one would take the third) which she can shop around at seminars where she speaks. These two uses of "publishers" like iUniverse seem to make sense: Both authors are aiming at a limited market that they know how to reach. I'm afraid other writers, especially unpublished hopefuls, may expect results they can't get. (Their thinking is being encouraged by huge ads about iUniverse books that became best sellers) I keep wanting to hammer home the point that the production of a book (as complex as it becomes) is the easy part. Promotion and publicity haven't changed, and they are really the definition of "publishing." As a self-publisher I can see advantages of using one of these POD publishers. 1. freedom from learning the ever-changing production technologies, dealing with printers, etc. 2. No large capital investment in books that must also be stored 3. freedom from all the bookwork of running a small business, of which packing and shipping orders is only a small part. Yet, if I published a NEW book with iUniverse, I would still be a self-publisher in that I would still have to do publicity and promotion, still faced with the handicap of the stigma of self-publishing, or "vanity press." And promotion of a book is more daunting than ever, reviews sources drying up, etc. Still, I think that Epstein, with all the little lapses of his article, shows a sign that publishers have seen the certainty of big changes made by this technology, and may be turning their thinking around in a way that will be good for writers and readers. One last comment from a veteran of the midlist. A favorite novel of mine is "New Grub Street" by George Gissing, a largely forgotten English author. Published in the 1890s, it is about the publishing industry (that former "gentleman's game" as Epstein and so many old hands are fond of saying) in England. It relates the struggles of a young unpublished author, as a fatuous scribbler-friend becomes a bestseller and a brilliant and talented writer-friend is driven to suicide. Sound familiar? That's what I thought when I read it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I read your April 21 column with interest, as always.
Being a (relatively) young male writer I find these trends you describe ("THE SEARCH FOR DAD IN 'A FATHERLESS SOCIETY'" and " NEW ROLE MODELS IN COMMERCIAL FICTION" intriguing and disturbing. They seem to be parts of a larger trend, well defined by Robert Bly in "The Sibling Society".
I do fear this "downgrading" of male identity and the general culture is potentially dangerous to society as a whole.
About your review of "Nobrow": If the "highbrow" completely disappears -- either through lowbrow taking over, or destroying itself -- then the concept of what IS "lowbrow" ceases to exist. When I was younger, I looked forward to this development, because I didn't like snobbery.
Now I'm not so sure... why does the F-word have to permeate language to the point that all communication becomes a stream of insults? A particularly bad sign is not so much the use of the word F***, but that it, too, loses meaning and comes to stand in for all the other words that are forgotten or lost.
Imagine Americans, eventually, "communicating" like cavemen in a Larson cartoon:
A. Yngve Norway
Holt responds: American movies seem to be way ahead of (or beneath) you. I remember watching "Apocolypse Now" and wondering what the film script looked like - probably the same as every "action" film since then - F you. Oh yeah? F you! Wait a minute: F you! Hold it: F you! Why, you F'n F! (They fight) Hey wait a minute: F you! Oh yeah? F you!