by Pat Holt
Friday, June 9, 2000
[NOTE TO READERS: We're off to Book Expo next week and will resume publication when we return.]
ON INDEPENDENTS AND THEIR CRANKY IMAGE: AMY THOMAS
"Independent booksellers want it all," says independent bookseller Amy Thomas. "We want the publisher's book to be very well marketed, and we want people to know about it, and we want it to be a sure thing, yet we don't want them to publish garbage.
"We want to be asked our opinion, but we don't want publishers to go to Barnes & Noble and ask their opinion. We want to be able to say, oh, stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid, even if the publisher goes away and says, I'm going to sell these books to someone who doesn't care if they're stupid."
"But when we find a book we admire, we'll sell it to the end of time. The classic example here occurred with one of our first 'Store Recommends" about Cormac McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian,' which my buyer Jo loved. She wrote a recommendation for customers that made it pretty clear what this novel was about - you know, it's a pretty dire story, hardly an easy sell.
"Our initial buy was about 6 - that's 2 for each store. But the staff got behind it, and over the years we've sold about 2000 thousand copies. I tell this story when publishers complain that independents buy only in 2s and 3s. And when they say, "We can sell 20,000 of the first printing to Barnes & Noble," I reply, that's true of ONE book. Why not keep that 2000-buyer network of independent bookstores alive for all the other books on your list? You know, the numbers do build up."
The speaker is Amy Thomas, owner of two stores named Pegasus in Berkeley and one in Oakland named Pendragon, all of which sell used books (about 70% of the stock) as well as new (30%). About three years ago, Amy saw her stores declining and went into a state of what she calls "panic city" that caused her to sit down with her 30 employees and discuss ways to revamp.
Reading programs for children, in-store recommendations, free broadsheets of poems during poetry month and a new way of welcoming and engaging customers have by now resulted in "the best year we've ever had," she says.
The other side of the comeback was personal: Amy's husband died suddenly, and "all I wanted when I came back after my big grief was the world to be full of love. The staff was incredibly supportive. We kept thinking, we're our own company. We can do whatever we want. We don't have to be assholes! This made so much difference that the stores turned the corner very soon afterward."
She does not mean that Pegasus/Pendragon workers changed their identity. In an age when chain bookstores train their staffs to sound as chirpy and perky and scripted as McDonald's or Starbuck's clerks down the road, Amy insists that the "eccentric, oddball, smart and funny bunch of people" who have worked for her, some for over 20 years, should be encouraged to "use their intuition and act from their gut," rather than put an a phony customer-is-always-right face to the world.
"Everybody at Barnes & Noble down the street is so nice, I can't believe they don't have employment complaints," Amy says. "We as independents have a cranky image to keep up."
She means it. Thomas believes independent booksellers are engaged in a conversation about books that requires used-book dealers especially to develop "a little edge," as she calls it. .
"When people bring in books to sell, you have to be able to say no. You have to be able to identify hot [stolen] books. You have to know that even the best customers are sometimes going to snap at you. 'You're not taking that? You're not taking THAT?' You have to be tough and escort out people who smell bad or are bad-tempered. You have to be confident and assertive, and sometimes that's interpreted as surly and impolite."
Amy talked so much about her workers' right to be "brisk" at times that I walked into Pegasus in the Rockridge section of Berkeley expecting to have my head handed to me. Instead I found a beautifully literary environment with exquisitely selected books, all of them clean and near-new (no dog bites, crayons, mildew or suspicious fluids), displayed from floor to ceiling in a range and variety that was astonishing. Shelf-talkers (written staff recommendations) were enthusiastic and literate, and the hard-working clerks gracious and efficient.
The store had so much character, I felt I could move in one day and never discover all its surprises. Yet I could see why some people might regard this independent bookstore as something to dismiss or ignore.
Certainly chain store executives love to say that customers prefer the uniform comforts of giant superstores. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com dismisses independents as relics of past eras. Even Martin Manley of Alibris.com suggests that used-book dealers are so plagued with problems (incompetence, fraud, confusing book descriptions, shoddy fulfillment, unsecured credit-card sites) that customers need Alibris to act as Big Brother and make every transaction safe.
All three retailing entities (chains, online new, online used/op/rare) have been trying to convince publishers and customers alike that selling books on a massive scale can be easy - invest in or sell to or wait for your bills to be paid by them and you'll see that the modern, computerized, streamlined, formula way, presented with scripted responses by happy clerks or customer service techs, is the way of the future. Get on or get lost in the past.
But independents like Amy Thomas are here to tell us that "books are hard to sell - they're worth it AND they're hard. You would not believe how fast you can pile up books that don't sell - books that are good, much less the ones you passed that are terrible."
This is the problem Alibris will soon face. Currently buying up store inventories and large private collections to create the look of empire with its 10-million-book database and .5-million-book warehouse, Alibris is trying to woo scouts away from used bookstores like Amy's and put used-book buyers on Berkeley's streets who could dry up many of Amy's sources.
She is not worried. "When the money runs out, what is Alibris going to do with all those books? It doesn't make sense. You have to think about books. They're not an automatic sell - they're an intellectual property. Maybe the top 20% are fast and easy, but for the rest, you can't just press a button."
She's not worried, either, about Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble - passing interlopers who never cared about books to begin with. "It turns out that books were the gateway for them," she says. "Now even Len Riggio [of Barnes & Noble] is confirming that the money is not in books. Getting the intelligent customer to shop online has always been the point, with books as a way to start, because readers are people who tend to know more, and once you've got them on your site, you can sell things that will make more money than books."
In the meantime, systems that were once sacred in the book business are gone, too. "It's not just that entertainment companies have bought publishing houses and rule with a revolving door," she says. "The problem is we've lost the sense of common cause, that we as independent booksellers used to share with publishers - especially publishers' sales representatives."
The bright light on the horizon, is the American Booksellers Association's "Booksense" program, which is bringing independent booksellers together in a way that demonstrates their incredible power to discover and sustain sales of more books than publishers have ever realized.
It's not just books like "Angela's Ashes" and "Cold Mountain" - titles that chain stores missed and independents hand-sold right into bestsellerdom. It's authors who get a second chance. For example, Thisbe Nissen's short story collection, "Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night," might have experienced a short run with the University of Iowa Press if Amy's buyer Jules Davis hadn't fallen in love with it.
"We sold hundreds of copies of this book, and Jules recommended it to Booksense, which picked it up as one of its top 76 titles. That list was seen and discussed by editors at a meeting at Alfred A. Knopf. They contacted the author and made a deal for a two-book contract. They've repeated Jules' blurb from our own 'Store Recommends' card in all their advertisements for it.
"I was so excited to see this because it said to me that people in publishing companies still care and are looking for very good books the want to publish well - and that publishers are acknowledging that the books we as independent bookstores are recommending. Not only are we recommending them, we're selling them, and cranky as we are, we're selling them in quantity."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Enjoyed reading about Neal Coonerty and his unending humor. Recently, my husband and I did a roadtrip across the States and were shocked by the loss of uniqueness from California to Maine. We blamed the chains and the factory stores. Where one used to be able to see something special from each State, some handmade item or clothing or local books is rare.
That gave me an idea for independents throughout the country. They can market themselves as a commodity, a lost art. Kind of like the billboards one sees rolling into a town. "A REAL Bookstore - 5 miles ahead" " A place where locals hang out".
Here in the Napa Valley, tourists and Napa Valley wannabe's are desperate to find out the local hangouts. Our local bookstore is still alive after 18 years, cornered more by the escalating rents on Main St. than a local chain store.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You often give reasons, in your columns, why running an independent bookstore has suddenly become so much more difficult. Publishing house mergers, online retailers with venture capital, large-chain promotions of bestsellers.
Let me offer an alternative theory. Bookselling used to be relatively easy, as running a small business goes, because it was often a local monopoly. Anybody who wanted to read in a town or a neighborhood or even a county had to buy whatever they could get from one or two local stores. It wasn't high profit, but it wasn't all that competitive. Now suddenly, and I admit the change has been sudden, readers anywhere can get any book they want. It turns out that while some of us do want the personalized book-buying experience, quite a lot of us just want the books.
I think the loss-of-monopoly theory explains one thing I've noticed in your column: chains and 'dotcoms' don't have to do anything specific to earn your ire as the voice of independents. Yes, you call them to task if they do something illegal or unethical. But you're every bit as angry when they do legal, ethical things such as offer a wider selection of titles or quicker special orders. The real affront seems to be the fact that competition exists at all.
I've never seen you make an exception to the big = evil equation. If a small store hosts an author signing, it's a value-added event which proves how responsive they are to their customers. If a chain hosts a signing, it proves how unfairly chains are trying to steal business from the little guy. Even when it's the same author.
The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, as a reader and book buyer. I know that small stores represent people's livelihoods and personal dreams. (So would a restaurant or flower shop, for that matter.) But that still doesn't make me want to live under a local monopoly, or ignore my other choices and PRETEND I live under a monopoly. The more I read columns that assume the local store owns its customers, and has a right to ply them with guilt if they try to escape, the less I feel like rallying to the cause. Sympathy is one thing, but I hate being pushed around.
Yes, the business has changed. Complaining that it had no right to change, and seething at the customers, is the worst possible way of dealing with that reality. How about a column about some bookstore which is just getting on with it and trying to do a good job instead of sticking poisoned pins in Jeff Bezos dolls?
Holt responds: You're certainly right on many counts: 1) Ever since the first chain stores wiped out a good thousand or so of independent stores, I've been suspicious of 'em! And that's been since the '70s! And yes, take away the allegations of illegality (which of course I believe and you should, too) and they're still 'bad' - chain stores had to take market share from independents to survive, and along the way they've missed, dropped or ignored serious books that independents buy routinely. Comparing a branch of a chain store to an independent bookstore only confuses the point: Taken together, independents offer a wider range and variety of books than chain stores. If chain stores are killing independents, particularly through illegal practices, our whole literary base is jeopardized. 2) The biggest lesson I have had to learn throughout this turmoil is that independent bookstores are not only resilient in the way they bounce back from one threat after another, they're pretty pragmatic about coexisting with chain stores while I've been jumping up and down with my baseball bat on the sidelines. 3) It's true I've never considered a lone independent store as being a monopoly in a town. I've rather thought that a town with one bookstore wasn't large enough yet for more and hoped one day it would be. What I've always loved about independents when there are more than one or two is their respect for each other and the way they utilize their community to help customers find books - they recommend each other's stores, they borrow from each other to fill orders, they "share" publishers' authors, and so forth. 4) Refering to other products and stores only distracts us from the fact that this is literature we're talking about, and independent bookstores have a track record for preserving books for posterity that nothing else - not chain stores or online retailers - can match. If we lose independents, our literature is weakened. 5) Right again, bigness means consolidation of power, and when decisions about what we read fall into fewer and fewer hands, the health of our democracy is jeopardized.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for running the piece about Neal and Bookshop Santa Cruz. As a local who lived here before the earthquake I remember well the streets of downtown and how sad empty buildings can be. It was thrilling to watch Neal and Candy find a way to keep Bookshop open. As a community we needed someplace to gather which felt familiar in the midst of all the change. They provide it. Neal still does and Candy's spirit can be felt everywhere in the store.
When I walk down Pacific Ave. now and look at the large, still empty building which will soon be home to Borders, I cringe. They are a threat to what has been a wonderful Santa Cruz institution. Hopefully book lovers of Santa Cruz will understand what is at risk when they decide where to purchase their next piece of fiction or non. Mystery or poetry. To imagine that years from now Bookshop could be sitting empty is unthinkable. And yet it is a possibility that can't be ignored. We need to learn from the experiences of other towns across the country.
There are so many place where good book stores are needed. Where folks don't have access to the latest best sellers or good science fiction. Wouldn't Borders feel more welcome there?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Before the BEA subsumes you and everyone I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the major contributions of one who won't be there this year---Nancy Bereano of Firebrand Books. She has sent out letters to all of her writers announcing that she's sold Firebrand to LPC, which has distributed Firebrand for years.
Firebrand has been my publisher for the past ten years (15 years/100 titles!) and I am honored to have had an independent feminist publisher's faith in my work. I feel many things right now: sorrow at the passing of this era; relief for Nancy who's fought the corporate tide so wonderfully; and alarm at how narrow the field of publishing is becoming for non-blockbuster women authors.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am a bookseller who has used several search services for finding out of print books for my customers; after trying them all I've gone to ABE exclusively because they are so well run and because their dealers seem to have almost everything I ever look for. So when I go online with my own used books in a few weeks I'll be listing them with ABE.
As for Alibris... I heard early on about their markups and avoided buying from them from the beginning. Now, as a dealer, I will refuse to sell them any of my stock. There are plenty of ways for the customers to find used book dealers and deal with them directly, and I believe that if used book dealers get behind the principle of the thing and refuse to sell out of print books through companies like Alibris, we can as a group show book buyers that mega-corp companies can't do everything, and don't have access to every single book in the world. We have access to out of print books through a myriad of sources that Alibris will never be able to monopolize, and the more savvy buyers become about the internet and the relative ease and satisfaction of dealing with book dealers directly, Alibris will be seen as the unnecessary dinosaur that it is.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I had a recent buying experience that might interest some of your readers. I should preface my story that I was, until a year and a half-ago, an employee of Borders (a buyer), before that a buyer for Barnes & Noble's College division and before that an employee of an independent store in Boston, Mass. I am no longer in the book industry, but I know something about what I'm writing.
I went into a local independent (who shall remain nameless) in the Union Square area of New York, intent on using my recently acquired gift certificate to pick out some quality literature. I aimed for fiction where I sought either "The Beautiful and the Damned" or "The Great Gatsby" -- or preferably both. Neither was on the shelf. I looked around for a member of the staff and had some trouble identifying one. I walked up to several other shoppers before I correctly identified someone who could help me and inquired after Fitzgerald's works. His response was (and this is not a joke) "Umm...I don't know much about fiction. There's a short good-looking chick around here somewhere who might help you out." I went to the information desk instead of searching her out. When I asked about the books the clerk said (without ever looking at me) something to the effect that he couldn't tell me for sure whether they had these books or not and if they didn't how long it would be before they could get them.
I surrendered and went to my back-up choices: the recent Dave Eggers novel and/or any copies of McSweeney's (check out www.Mcsweeneys.net by the way--great stuff), a literary journal. There were no copies of the Eggers novel to be found on the shelves--they were all stacked on a table--likely to be missed by customers unless they knew where to look. They'd never heard of McSweeney's despite it being a pretty hot item around New York these days.
The rub of all this verbiage is that this experience shows part of the reason why customers have been abandoning independents for the chains. If you can't FIND a book, you can't BUY the book. Please, independent store owners--make a commitment toward ease of shopping by rationalizing where your books are placed and maybe how a customer can identify your staff, at least. Staff, please try to be slightly more helpful (and courteous) to someone who asks you for help and don't make them feel like you're wasting their time. The horrible thing is that I still have a balance on my gift certificate and I have to go back to use it. I figure I'll give them 3 weeks to get the Fitzgerald books in. I'll let you know how things work out.
Holt responds: So often people write that the same experience has happened to them in chain stores!