by Pat Holt
Tueday, June 20, 2000
GLAD DAY'S TRAGIC AND HILARIOUS FAREWELL
I can't remember a more hilarious or tragic letter than John Mitzel's farewell notice about the closing of Glad Day Bookshop.
It's an occasion that makes one wonder which is "worse" -- being gay or being an independent bookseller in Boston.
Thanks to the very funny and outraged language of store manager Mitzel, the letter keeps us chuckling while our jaws drop in shock at the turn of events after Glad Day, which serves the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community (click over to http://www.gladday.com and see how extensive it is) learned that it had lost its lease.
Glad Day's landlord had sold the building, which will soon be converted into "luxury residential condominiums." It seems the dotcom invasion has hit Boston in the same way it has other cities, driving property values into nosebleed territory.
So this is not the familiar story of an independent bookstore struggling to stay alive and sinking, sinking until finally the Good Fight has exhausted owners and staff and forced a heart-breaking end.
It's rather the saga of an established and healthy 21-year-old independent bookstore that has been looking to relocate since April, and whose owner, Jearld Moldenhauer, is ready and willing to pay for new digs in the Boston area. And still the end is heart-breaking.
"One space we very much desired," Mitzel writes, "turned out to be in the hands of a corporation that toyed with us for weeks, wasting our time, ultimately rejecting us, allegedly for 'not having the right financials,' whatever that means.
"I asked another realtor: 'Doesn't being successful in the community for 21 years mean anything?'
"He said: 'They don't see that. They want a national chain with deep pockets, so if they have to sue to get the rent, the chain just cuts the check and they don't have to chase after the Mom and the Pop that went out.' "
Glad Day hardly fits the bill of the Mom and Pop struggling concern. "We are a successful small independent bookshop in a niche market which we have serviced in a comprehensive manner since 1979," Mitzel writes. "We have a staff of seven; the store pays for the full health coverage plan for all the full-time staffers. We have extensive dealings with libraries, book clubs, school groups, etc."
Not extensive enough, apparently: "I asked after a property [that one realtor] represented," writes Mitzel. "I told him what our business was. There was a -- what used to be termed pregnant (why?) -- pause. He told me: 'No one in the Back Bay will rent to people like you.' I am rarely at a loss for words; this gent's statement had me breathless.
"I recalled the 1970s in Boston, after a Federal Judge had ordered busing as a mandated remedy for public school segregation. The busing set off a civil war here in Boston, from which we still bear scars. One black leader at that time was on the TV, being asked by a journalist his thoughts on the 'busing crisis.' The gentleman looked at the camera and said: 'It's not the bus. It's US!' This would become my/our threnody.
"We were shown run-down traps with asbestos walls. One joint had a hole in the floor. I found a nice spot in 'upcoming' Central Square in Cambridge. The elderly gent who owned the property had his lesbian daughter come over and check us out. We didn't pass the test. She told the realtor, who told us: 'Too much male imagery.' Well, there you are . . .
"I have never been one to sing the praises of the rentier class, and my recent experiences make all my radical and critical tendencies against the greedy landlord class even more agitated. What have I learned?
"Glad Day owner Jearld Moldenhauer and I were reminiscing about what we had faced in getting our previous two locations. Guess what? The same as this go-round: the subtle (and in some cases not so subtle) prejudice against a gay book business with a pro-sex attitude--and, yes, we have always carried all the books and magazines, soft and hard, for our market, part of Glad Day's complete commitment to offering all legal product to our community.
"Some realtors had no idea what a gay/lesbian bookshop was about. One said: 'Don't you have those peep shows that cost a quarter?' At least he seemed to know about them.
"One realtor, after I informed him that we were an independent gay and lesbian bookseller, paused -- that awful pause, well, you just know what's coming, don't you? -- and this fellow said: 'An independent bookseller. How quaint. Doesn't everybody simply buy their books on amazon.com?' Rentier class meets the thundering dunderheads.
"The Pod People really have taken over. Jearld Moldenhauer, just yesterday, was speaking with someone who works in the Mayor's office about our situation, and Moldenhauer said: 'The reason I decided to open a bookshop here in Boston [he already had a shop in Toronto, Ontario] back in the '70s was not only because Boston had a progressive and very active gay movement, but because Boston was a book town, with lots of bookstores and used bookstores and a culture of books.'
"One by one we have seen them go down, and not just the sweet independents but the chain stores, too. The real estate market has got too hot and too greedy to want to 'risk' those enterprises that add cultural value to this town . . .
"I asked one realtor, after we had been shot down, why there are now sixteen --16! -- Starbucks coffee joints in Back Bay and the South End. In the war against drugs, caffeine seems to be the winner.
"So, now Boston, once a great city of books and youth and venues of intellectual creativity and dissent, comes to look like every other American 'mall' city.
"I thought Glad Day had a chance to go on -- you know, they won't even take our money. Friends assure me the crash will come, some of the greediest will go head first out the windows, a la 1929, overleveraged and never knowing a downturn. We'll see about that.
"Thus the boom has given us this: more of the same and the killing off of the odd, niche, daring and different . . .
"I recommend to our on-line and e-mail friends that you look to our sister store in Toronto, the original store, and all inquiries and orders and requests you will find served as well as here in Boston. You can reach them at: Glad Day Bookshop, 598A Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, M4Y 1Z3, Canada. Phone: 416-961-4161. Fax: 416-961-1624. E-mail: email@example.com
"I can't possibly say Good-Bye. It would break my hard-hearted heart. For Jearld Moldenhauer, the staff and myself, I will say to you: 'Ciao!' And THANK YOU ALL!"
Loss of independent retailers has become an old story, of course, ever since chain stores and the big-box superstores arrived decades ago. I thought I had gotten used to getting out of the car in Anytown USA and seeing the same familiar mix of Office Max, Home Depot, Starbucks, Target, Sears, Denny's and so forth.
But now, looking at the urban landscape through Mitzel's eyes and thinking again about the speed, speed, speed theme of the last column (#160), suddenly I see it. What he calls the Pod People are working this "hot and greedy" real estate market like puppeteers, with dot.coms slithering in everywhere and making people THINK remaining independent retailers are out of fashion, shaky to their foundations and expendable.
To think observers thought (okay, I thought) the worst that could happen to independent booksellers was adjusting too late to electronic books. This new threat - rents soaring, buildings sold, leases lost - in cities and suburbs already mined with DSL for the dot.com revolution, could not come at a worse time.
FRIDAY: Some surprising discoveries with Richard LaBonte at A Different Light.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding Christie Schaefer of Book Passage, who wrote about Jeff Bezos announcing he did not want to collect and pay sales tax outside Washington: "Amazon.com does so use resources in the cities to which it sends books (and whatever else). Whose roads are being worn down by delivery trucks? Whose landing strips accommodate the planes?"
I'm no great defender of Amazon.com, but unless Amazon.com owns the planes and delivery trucks mentioned above, the statement isn't true. Delivery companies pay business taxes, fuel taxes, vehicle taxes, etc. and set shipping rates to recover the costs of using (wearing down) the roads they travel. So, in effect the end-customer pays for the use of the roads when they pay shipping.
Holt responds: Could we think about the spirit of the thing for a moment? Independent booksellers collect sales tax, which pushes the price up, and then they pay sales tax to the state, which adds yet another cost. Amazon.com most assuredly enjoys the advantages of every state's roads and services, even if delivery companies and other related businesses pay the taxes. And meanwhile the independent bookstores in those same states lose business because their prices are higher than Amazon.com's.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a small publisher, I've found that one of the greatest benefits of bookstore appearances is that your book often gets displayed in the store window for the week before the event. For me, this has resulted in far more sales than the event itself, attendance at which is often dependent on weather, the parking situation etc.
You're absolutely right about the Silicon Valley attitude of getting it done now then later doing it well. I'm writing articles on the Valley and am constantly told you can't be competitive if you sit around trying to do things right. But I found a good sign that the entire Valley isn't operating at this insane speed: volumes of Proust at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. (My determination to read all volumes this year is my way of putting the brakes on.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The fact that the National Endowment of the Arts has only awarded 45 grants, out of 120,000, that caused anybody heartburn, means that people like Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, and Strom Thurmond are determining the content of our literature.
It's controversial books, outspoken authors who are not awarded grants.
Since a grant confers legitimacy on an artist, we select for the defanged, the circumspect, and the glib, and punish the raw, the forthright, and the rude. "Polishing shit," Quincy Jones called his work on Michael Jackson CDs and videos. CŽzanne called the finish the academy sought "finish of fools." Zola was denied admission to the academy 19 times, on the grounds he was a pornographer, for writing realistically about the demimonde.
The academy. Think of the propaganda art the Reich Ministry of Culture promoted, then think of the Entartete Kunst, or degenerate art the Ministry proscribed. Which art do we remember?
A Ministry of Culture sponsors pork-barrel art, produced by apparatchiks like the ones who expelled Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Writers Union, or the East German writers who informed on each other to the secret police, to keep their dachas and their chit books at the nomenklatura store, their jobs as state-certified artists.
When the state certifies artists, that's the kind of art it gets. Frosting fit to put round cake, as Emerson said. Instead of honest meat-and-potato poetry.
Ask yourself whether the following writers would have gotten an NEA grant: Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Ana•s Nin, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr., John Rechy, Charles Bukowski, Charles Willeford, Hunter S. Thompson.
Look at the work produced by the people who get them.
120,000 minus 45.
Something's out of whack.
Thoreau said he repented of his good behavior. What demon possessed me, that I behaved so well, he asked. I wonder if our grant winners ask themselves that.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Yea for Book Sense for emphasizing that the world of books is a community of readers and writers and not shelves of commodities -- community not commodity bookselling . . .
Regarding our speed up in all areas: As a teacher, I found that I thought I had read stories (Frank O'Conner's, for example), but when I read them aloud to students, I kept picking up on new stuff on every reading -- with some, it happened 15 or 20 times over a few years. Then I started recommending reading things aloud even when alone if you want to savor every nuance of the language and if you have the time.
Then I thought that it is worth making the time even if you read fewer things. How much of my reading life has been keeping a list of books I can check off as "covered"? And how much could I have really gotten from Faulkner as a 20-year-old? When I read "Moby Dick" for the first time in my 40s (to pass a course to get certified as a high school teacher), I was very glad I had not read it earlier because I knew that if I had, I would have been prone to pass on an actual reading and merely scan it.
I want to reread many of the things I tried to read in college (doing "The Sound and the Fury" in 2 weeks!), and some of them have to be read out loud. I just reread "Love in a Time of Cholera" within 2 months of a first reading -- I read a page in Spanish out loud (and I hardly know Spanish), then the English out loud, and then the Spanish again--it was a sacred experience, time be damned (which is why we often read anyway, isn't it?)
And on the subject of the sacred, I think A lot of what Book Sense is about is the combining of the strengths (from hard won experience) of people who were called to the world of books. This collective effort can offer better service to readers than they can ever get from anyone who is first motivated by the bottom line (commodity bookselling).
Taking myself as typical of members of this group, I certainly do not think that every book is sacred, but I believe that what is in books can somehow save us, just as I believe that people who do what is right and brave will somehow prevail (even if it is in Ammon Hennessey's terms, "I may not be able to change the world, but I can make damn sure it doesn't change me").
Dear Holt Uncensored:
What a misnomer! "Holt Uncensored" that is. "Holt Rumor" or "Holt Unverified" would be better. I don't understand what you mean by "...the times are so heady"? This is not 1950. McCarthy is not alive. This is not Syria. Assad is not alive. It is not Watergate. Nixon is not alive. In the year 2000, we live in a prosperous, free nation where jobs are plentiful. Sadly, if some folks are truly fearful for their jobs or their careers, sending out anonymous email is not the best way to protect it. And all of this anguish is for making complaints about chain bookstore practices--not crimes against humanity carried out by terrorist governments or voices crying from prison.
On the other hand, there are other reasons for hiding your identity, and not all of them are as forgivable.
Holt responds: Gee, you ought to talk to chain store employees, though I doubt they'd talk to you for fear of losing their jobs. Don't you feel that especially during times of prosperity, personal freedoms are often most jeopardized? I started this column because I felt the high-turnover obsessions and formula-buying at chain bookstores diminish our choices about what we read. By comparison, taken together, independent bookstores offer a far wider range and diversity of books. If independents are closing because of chain-store competition, we lose constitutional protections in far more pernicious way than if they were taken away by a terrorist government. This is a silent, invisible threat, just as dangerous as the examples you mention.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.