by Pat Holt
Friday, July 7, 2000
Well, tonight's the Big Night for Harry Potter #4, and congratulations to independent booksellers who've braved silly affidavits, last-minute cutbacks and Internet bullies to keep this event untainted and special.
Bravo as well to indys who can't afford it but will spend a small fortune underwriting special store hours, decorations, snacks and costumed staff to make this crazy literary event as much fun as anyone could possibly imagine in the history of bookselling.
So break a leg, you stalwarts, and lest ye think Amazon.com got away with another embarrassing show of wealth and will never get caught with its customer-centricity down, read on.
I nearly fell off my chair when Amazon.com announced a new lesbian and gay section recently, and Giovanni's Room (the independent bookstore serving the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender community in Philadelphia) noticed not just a few errors but A BUNCH OF REAL WHOPPERS.
It's often tough for independent bookstores to demonstrate clearly to their customers why Amazon.com may appear to be more efficient, less expensive, faster and even more knowldgeable than other retailers - but is actually more expensive, slower and even slovenly in finding and selling books for customers.
But thanks for his vigilance and articulate anger, Ed Hermance of Giovanni's Room not only shows the kind of mistakes Amazon.com makes every day, he reveals an arrogance and dismissive attitude that should (well, one hopes) send customers running for the cyber door.
Hermance takes most exception to Amazon.com's "Queer History" section, which is divided into two lists, one for gay men and one for lesbians. In a letter to his customers, he writes the following:
The gay male list:
One doubts that Amazon.com has been so sloppy or misleading or condescending with other special-interest sections. Even its language in the Queer History category has the wrong ring to it. "Take pride in your history!" Amazon.com demands, not, as Hermance observes, "Take pride in OUR history" (emphasis mine).
So it seems that Amazon.com has relegated the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community to some lesser corner of the world, used computer filters instead of human researchers to create "Queer History" lists (how else would "Gay" Talese make it?), sent the whole thing out in an overpriced frenzy and thought customers might not notice. Well, guess what? We do.
(You can order the books above by writing directly to firstname.lastname@example.org ).
A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing that double-CD of tape recordings mentioned in #163, in which a furious and inebriated Judy Garland rages into a microphone for a proposed book she wanted to write near the end of her life.
First, my apologies to the estate of Judy Garland, her daughter Lorna Luft and Luft's literary agent Alan Nevins, as well as to Richard Labonte of A Different Light bookstore. It turns out the estate of Judy Garland never authorized the release of these tapes, so this pirated CD is a violation of copyright law, and I can't review it.
Labonte has pulled the CD from sale, and neither of us can help you find the weasel Internet distributors that (up to yesterday anyway) continue to sell it. Meanwhile, there's much to learn from this incident about the making of literary works, the role of independent booksellers with pirated books and the elusive power of Internet websites.
One day when we're surrounded by chain stores of every variety, people will seek out independent bookstores because, like A Different Light and others today, they'll be the only retailers selling fresh and original "product" that isn't stamped out of some mainstream machine.
To do that they have to remain open to self-publishers and independent presses, no matter how obscure, and they can't spend a lot of time investigating what might seem to be signals or alarm bells that indicate certain works may be pirated. I admire A Different Light for carrying the Judy Garland CD initially, even though it's no longer available and was never worth the $16.99 price tag.
The idea to make these tapes was suggested by Irving "Sparky" Lazar, the popular Hollywood agent who created a number of million-dollar book packages for celebrities at the time.
Garland seized on the opportunity. "Do you realize how many people have talked about me, written about me, imitated me?" she asks, her voice rising. After all the books and "scandalous obscene lies of the so-called printed word," now it's her turn to set the record straight.
The problem is that she never does. After the first five minutes in which we are mesmerized that this magnificent voice with its genius for musical interpretation has been reduced to a halting, confused, abandoned and angry soul crying out in misery, Judy Garland repeats herself for the rest of two entire CDs, adding little more than variations on her despair.
"I've been ripped to pieces, ripped to pieces!" she shouts about the media, her greedy managers and judges who want to take her kids away. The one dazzling revelation - that this "living legend," as she ruefully acknowledges herself - controlled by parents and managers since age 2, when she was thrown onto the stage of her father's theater to sing '"Jingle Bells" - has never been asked what she wants. "Not once."
So although it's a revelation to glimpse Judy Garland's life through her lens, soon the very act of listening makes voyeurs of us all. Apparently the distributor thought this would be the attraction; even the unflattering cover photo makes the star in midlife appear slatternly, dissipated and lost. It's really a hateful product that I think Garland's fans will find despicable regardless of its legality and booksellers like Labonte, who listen to customers, will cease carrying.
On the Internet, the potential for material like this spreading illegally is about 100 times worse than in physical stores. Since the Garland CD is still for sale on the Web, it's up to consumers to grapple with the problem of how widespread piracy has become and how vigilant we all must be when faced with suspect material.
In the end, all Garland asks for is respect for her privacy. She never got it from the people who surrounded her, except for her kids, she says here. The least we can do is give it to her now.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As an avid reader of Holt Uncensored, I have noticed the recent discussion concerning the omission of numerous titles in R.R. Bowker's BIP+. This clearly represents a problem for independent booksellers--how can they sell what they don't know about? Part of the discussion centered on the claim that BIP+ has no competition. But there is competition in the form of Title Source, compiled by Baker & Taylor. For titles published prior to 1990, Title Source's single CD carries over 819,000 book, audio and video titles, in-print and out-of-print, while BIP+ contains 263,000 in-print only titles. For titles published in 1990 and later, Title Source has 1.77 million titles, while BIP+ has 1.54 million. The overall gap is 787,000 titles.
I realize Holt Uncensored is not a forum for product promotion, but since this issue is so vital to the success of independent booksellers I felt compelled to speak up for the benefit of your readers, the independent bookseller.
Robert H. Doran,
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You lament the possible coming of the University of California at Burger King as if this were some new trend. Where have you been? The University of Oregon at Nike made the news recently when Nike CEO Phil Knight threw a temper tantrum over the University's association with a human rights for workers group. He took his money and went home, leaving UON wondering how to build its new football stadium. Sporting events already are named after corporations. Surely the corporate-university connection, long in place, will become more visible soon, and the University of Oregon at Nike is just a wee bit ahead of the general revelation.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote, "What's next, the University of California at Burger King?" Why not? There's been a McDonald's University for years.
Holt responds: Your message motivated me to look at the McDonald's website where I found not McDonald's U but . . . Hamburger University! You know how sometimes you drive by a McDonald's on the freeway and the smell of beef tallow stays on your clothes for miles? How could Barnes & Noble ever compete with that?
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.