NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #17
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 17, 1998

1. THAT COMICAL NYTBR
2. NAILING 'EM AGAIN
3. THE FABRIC OF THE FUTURE
4. STACEY'S AT 75
5. YOUR SAQs: AMAZON.COM

1. THAT COMICAL NYTBR

It's hard not to laugh at the way Allen Ginsberg appears to be having a little fun with a very literal and terribly serious Kenneth Koch during a 1977 interview that appears in BOOKS OF THE CENTURY. This is a collection of reviews, essays and interviews from the New York Times Book Review, edited by book editor Charles McGrath and the NYTBR staff (Times; 647 pages; $30).

Ginsberg was perhaps serious to the point of megalomania about his poetry, but he was not above tossing out unintelligible words or making things up as he went along. So if Koch sounds a bit thrown at Ginsberg's use of the word "vowelic," the poet defines it for him with just a hint of subversion as "long mellow mouthings of assonance."

When Koch seems to be stammering about whether "you get poetic inspiration from, or have gotten it from, certain drugs," Ginsberg, a walking pharmacy for some years, patiently explains the prospect of supporting "vowelic heat" through the "side experiment" of drugs and natural inspiration of Buddhist Vajrayana studies. Go, Allen go. Koch tries so very hard to "get" Ginsberg by asking, "What do you mean by what passes through your 'head'?".

This is not to say the NYTBR editors haven't put the book together without a sense of humor. Throughout very intelligent and abiding reviews ("Lolita," "Brave New World," "The Brothers Karamazov"), little "Oops!" boxes remind us that the Times dinged some good ones ("Catch 22" in 1961 "gasps for want of craft and sensibility") and proved a bit tardy on others: "The Bridges of Madison County" was reviewed one year from publication - just about the time rumor had it that somebody in advertising told somebody in editorial the Book Review HAD to feature more commercial books, and boy, were they (allegedly) sore.

2. NAILING 'EM AGAIN

Well, good for Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky for updating their 1984 classic, THE EXPERTS SPEAK (Villard; 445 pages; $15 paperback), one big collection of Oops boxes (see above) about everything from sex to creation (the Earth, that is) in which the experts always seem to goof big time.

Here we see the specialist mistakes ("The Con Ed system is in the best shape in 15 years," said the Con Ed chair three days before New York's historic blackout of July 13, 1977); the funny ones ("What a part for Ronald Colman," said Clark Gable about the Rhett Butler role when he first read GWTW manuscript); the funny tragic ones ("[People with AIDS] emit spores that have been known to cause birth defects," according to a conservative congressman in 1985).

But best of all are the literary ones: "Youíre the only damn fool in New York who would publish it," said Alfred Harcourt to editor Harrison Smith about William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." About "Lolita," commented Jack Goodman of Simon & Schuster, "it sounds repulsive." And "Mr. Lawrence has a diseased mind," said a review of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and of course, that one was true . . .

3. THE FABRIC OF THE FUTURE

So: on the eve of the new millennium, does quote this strike a nerve? "I think the biggest wound in our contemporary psyche is fear. What cripples us from daring the New Day is unconscious fear, the worst kind of fear, fear without content."

You can apply that to the environment, the divorce rate, the stock market, the book industry or your latest bout with an HMO. But as Jungian analyst Marion Woodman puts it in THE FABRIC OF THE FUTURE (Conari; 460 pages; $25), the fear people feel today is often "the loss of personal freedom" as corporations grow bigger and jobs fewer, as nations force people off the land, as "the reliance on reason and technology split head from body in our culture," as the old hierarchies dominate and go under.

Like a billion other people, Conari Press publisher Mary Jane Ryan had been thinking for years that "the old forms were breaking down and the new had yet to emerge" when one day she sat down and wrote an impassioned letter to every woman "visionary" she knew, ranging from Caroline Myss and Joan Borysenko to Gloria Steinem, Starhawk, Jean Houston, Margaret Wheatley, Joanna Macy and Shakti Gawain.

To say that everyone wrote back with an essay that will blow your head off is an understatement about the stunning book that resulted. Here 40 writers from as many different fields tell us that "most people know what is wrong in the world," as West African writer Sobonfu Some writes, and most people know how to change it. But the way to transformation must begin internally.

"The nuclear bomb everyone is so impressed with begins in every cell in our bodies. We sense intuitively the power we have to oppress whoever gets in the way . . . Whoever is our 'enemy' . . . the one to whom we have not surrendered. It follows us everywhere, sleeping and waking, like a shadow." Thus reasons poet and author M.C. Richards, who points to another emerging disaffection - "the sensation of becoming a separate person, no longer identified with the lover, the parent, the brother and sister, the group of friends, the place the time, the society."

Ryan confesses that she wanted to bring 40 women visionaries together in one book for the new millennium because "I became tired with all the breaking down - I wanted to know what was breaking THROUGH." Well, one inspiration after another certainly breaks through here; one redeeming vision after another "birth of a new dawn." Browse in it, think about it, read it to friends, give it as a gift: Ryan has published a lot of women writers in her 10 years at Conari: This book is the culmination of many careers and a thousand years of thinking.

4. STACEY'S AT 75

It's a few minutes before noon on a weekday at Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco, and you'd think a dozen Sherman tanks are about to crash through the front door. The clerks at the check-out desk keep glancing up expectantly, and manager Tom Allen stops in his tour of the huge store - 28,000 feet in three floors - to look at his watch and gesture toward the front.

"Pretty soon you'll see how the day is anchored by noontime traffic," he says blandly, and wham! Like banging out of a starting gate, hordes of office workers race into the place, scattering in all directions at the New Releases section and hurrying even while browsing, which must be a lunch-hour art.

Gee, if this happens every day, the visitor muses, does that mean the "bookseller wars" have skipped over Stacey's? Not quite. A huge Borders is only six blocks away, and financial district folk appear do a lot of ordering online from Amazon and from technical-book discounter Bookpool.

Given the length of blocks and population density, it would take these crowds a good hunk of their lunchtime to hike up to Borders, and why should they? "For starters, our section on computer books is double what Borders has," says Allen patiently, "and we have a lot more books on building codes, mathematics, engineering, certification and medicine than most chain stores do."

And that, it seems, is the key: Stacey's may appear to succeed because of the traditional retail dependence on "location, location, location" - after all, thousands of people walk by this store every day - but the real draw for customers with so many options is better described "selection, selection, selection." You don't get ALL the books on medicine or ALL the books on codes or mathematics or reference or foreign languages: What you get at Stacey's, Allen loves to point out, is trust.

"A huge warehouse of books is a lure at first, but then people realize how much they need a knowledgeable buyer or clerk. I still have to hope there are lots of people who want to see a bookstore's staff and talk to them, and hold a book in their hand, and see what the pages smell like. I see people smelling pages, and I'm glad they're out there. We're going to lose some book sales to online services, but I trust we'll gain those who don't want to just sit at a screen - people who want to go in and BE in a place."

Owned by Brodart, the library supplier, and now sprouting two branches of its own (one in Palo Alto, which is struggling against a Borders threat; one in Silicon Valley, which is doing well since the recent closure of a Super Crown), Stacey's has just undergone a $2.5 million renovation that reflects enormous changes over many of its 75 years.

Indeed, the great fun at Stacey's, once known mainly for its computer and professional books (still 50 percent of sales), is to stumble upon sections that have suddenly exploded and see what business people really like to buy. Stacey's has more cookbooks, for example, than any bookstore in Northern California, says events coordinator Colleen Lindsay. Mysteries and science fiction novels have taken off, as has mid-range fiction, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, Lindsay believes. "Romance novels used to sell well for us, but because of Oprah's picks, people realize that straight novels can be as romantic, intriguing and better written than the old romance standbys."

So it's a very heady and wonderful scene at Stacey's (450 calendars! 1100 magazines!), where the unexpected makes any lunch hour a delight. Today the 2nd floor autographing area will host Susan Chernak McElroy, author of "Animals as Guides for the Soul," and three dogs and a variety of cats from the local humane society are already standing in a circle around the podium. (Lindsay likes to offer adoptions whenever an animal book is featured to preserve the focus and save a few homeless pets.) Attendance at these affairs can range from 35 (Simon Singh) to 500 (Dean Koontz); subjects range from Applied Cryptology in Programming to Dave Barry's 50th birthday.

Certainly the openness, professionalism and reliability of Stacey's, which began as a medical bookstore in a 216-square-foot office in 1923, is still very much in evidence, and so are the values of its management. While chain bookstores make sure they are paid for even the placement of books - windows, counters, "endcaps" (displays at the end of aisles) - Stacey's won't jeopardize its relationship with customers for a few extra dollars.

"We only want to recommend books we really like," says Allen. "We want to make a decision about placement based on how we think the book will serve the reader. In some cases computer book publishers know better than we do, so we let them pay. But our policy is to limit subsidized endcaps to 15 percent, and except for one little tiny jewel window we 'sell' to publishers, none of the windows are subsidized. That's just not even on the agenda."

5. YOUR SAQs (Seldom Asked Questions): AMAZON.COM

"Why do you keep knocking Amazon.com?" many readers have asked. "Despite its big numbers, this company is still an independent bookseller, not a chain, right?"

Yes, Amazon's upstart appearance some years back had more in common with independent bookstores than with chains, heaven knows. The company's gutsy come-from-nowhere success is amazing and dazzling, but also greased to its database, remember, with free money.

Month after month its losses mount ($24 million last quarter), yet people keep investing with the hope that one day Amazon will turn the corner and make a huge profit. And guess how it's going to do that? By shrinking expensive promotions that "brand" our brains so we'll never order from an independent store again. Once Amazon picks up that 17 percent of the book market that's still controlled by independents, why, the company won't need to spend so many millions on branding, will it? The game will have been won, but never on a level playing field - just ask any independent bookseller who's sought outside investments.

Still, there is something to say about Amazon's nonjudgmental approach, or so believe many mid-list authors and smaller publishers who can't get media attention or display space in traditional bookstores. "Amazon will jazz up the page about a book, no matter who you are," one publisher writes. "They post first chapters for anyone; they do author interviews for anyone (they can do that because the process is automated, but you get to say what you want). They post reviews for anyone."

Of course, that very process backfired recently when Amazon partnered-up with arch-conservative Denver radio Bob Enyart, whose Bob Enyart Live website issues such online declarations as "I was ëborn homophobic.í Iím proud of it!" and "HIV: "Heterosexuality Is Vindicated!"

To be sure, Enyart does not limit himself to anti-gay remarks. He is virulently anti-choice and tells us that the reason "men and women are different" is that "God made women with a sex drive that has a governor on them (like a governor in a car engine that keeps the car from going a certain speed)." Now no jokes, all you post-election governor-elects. Sometimes Enyartís manner of expression is as hilarious as it is offensive. To the statement, "God said, ëDonít be a homo,í " he adds, "Iím paraphrasing," perhaps unnecessarily.

Well, you can imagine how members of the gay community reacted when they spied "A note from Amazon.com" on the site declaring that "Amazon.com is pleased to have Bob Enyart Live in the family of Amazon.com associates."

An "Associate" in this context is a website that sells books through Amazon.com, which gives the website a percentage for each book sold. Barnesandnoble.com calls the websites it exploits in this manner "Affiliates." For a while, Amazon .com and barnesandnoble.com were gobbling up the Internet so fast that their Associates and Affiliates now number in the hundreds of thousands. The only reason the two online book supplies slowed in their gluttony is that they apparently ran out of victims - pardon - prospective sites on which to squat.

"We encourage you to visit Enyart.com often," continued the note from Amazon.com, "to see what new items theyíve selected for you." And what goodies are these? Reading materials include "Cleansing the Fatherland : Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene," "Scientific Creationism" and "The German Euthanasia Program."

But it was the anti-gay stuff that proved the most offensive and sparked a letter-writing campaign that in turn struck a nerve. Amazon, it turns out, knows exactly when to stand up for the First Amendment and when to depart the premises of pure-and-simple hate language.

"For the record, our goal in working with an Associate," Amazon wrote to those objecting to the Enyart site, "is not to provide support to their point of view, but simply to provide interested readers with access to all the books in our catalog. However, after investigating this matter further and receiving an overwhelming amount of feedback concerning our affiliation with Bob Enyart, we have discontinued our relationship with this site . . . "

So thatís nice, isnít it? Amazon seems to make it a policy not to look at the politics of its Associates so the company wonít end up deciding arbitrarily if some Associates are "right" and some are "wrong." On the other hand, if enough people yell bloody murder, Amazon will change that policy real quick and be just as arbitrary as the political climate dictates.

But the Enyart episode also raises the question of what constitutes standards of any kind on a website where so many books by so many authors from so many publishers are offered for sale that Amazon cannot monitor the kind of hate language that its own service spews out in the name of free enterprise. Then, of course, there are those "customer comments" that are translated into a star system that looks like critical review. A number of readers have e-mailed examples of unknown books that receive unanimously favorable "customer comments"ñ all coming from customers who happen to live in the authorís hometown, or all anonymous but sounding so much alike youíd swear they were written by the same person. The more favorable "customer comments" a book gets, the more stars (in a five-star ranking system) are given the book.

Clearly, Amazon doesnít want to make any arbitrary judgments about "customer comments" either, especially when so many are uncannily favorable throughout the website, encouraging rather than discouraging the great unwashed to buy, buy, buy the books under discussion. That's free enterprise, too, but let's not confuse it with the service that independent booksellers provide through years of personal hand-selling of books to customers who grow to trust the word of knowledgeable and conscientious clerks they can talk to in the store or in many cases online.