by Pat Holt
Friday, August 11, 2000
One expects new management to do a bit of cleaning out whenever a retail store is taken over.
So when Follett College Bookstores franchised the struggling and debt-ridden ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) Bookstore on the Berkeley campus, nobody thought twice about old boxes and cobwebbed files landing in the trash.
But that was June of 1998. Now that ASUC Bookstore is "shiningly solvent," as Berkeley newspaper East Bay Express reports, you can imagine students' surprise when three big dumpsters of unsold books from the store were discovered awaiting recycling trucks under Eshleman Hall, the building next door.
The books were mostly textbooks considered by Follett to be out of date and unsaleable, but general books were found in there, too - "masterpieces by the likes of Adrienne Rich and Jose Saramago or treasures such as 'Citizen Democracy' and 'Globalization,' " the Express reports.
Most of the books were in such good condition that students not-so-jokingly encouraged each other to "dumpster dive for their education" by literally digging into the wasteheap and hauling out some true cultural gems for free.
So now the savvy students "are attempting to keep up with the bookstore's dumping schedule by hauling the unappreciated literature to safety," writes Anna Godbersen of the Express -- not only to divvy-up the books among themselves but also to find a solution for the "immense waste and sadness of it all," as one thoughtful student put it to the Express.
By "hauling Volvo-loads of reading material" from the dumpsters to a temporary location on the south side of the campus, these students hope eventually to donate the books to the nearby Prison Literacy Project and Oakland Public Library.
Pretty altruistic, eh? That's certainly more than you could say for Follett, which was mum about the dumpsters until a clerk tried to reassure the Express that the orphaned items were "foreign books" or "old editions" that "had no wholesale value" - no kidding - and in any case, she said, "We were not able to sell them."
I know there are purists like novelist Nicholson Baker who seem to believe that no book should ever be trashed or recycled, period. But most librarians and booksellers are professional enough to know that some stock does get too old to return or sell at discount or donate.
Nevertheless: Three dumpsters of books? That's a little much, wouldn't you say, Follett? And apparently that's just for starters. Since overstock is being trashed in one Follett store, should we assume it's going on at the 500 other Follett stores?
As to why Follett couldn't have given the books to worthy causes in the first place, the Express leaves us with a student who works for the University Recycling Services and who figures that for a company like Follett, "donating the books would have been more of a pain than just getting rid of them."
What I love about this story is that if Follett doesn't care, the students do. Today in our supposedly cynical era, when college campuses are reportedly rife with narcissism and greed, a deep and abiding respect for books lives on.
This will be stirring to remember the next time you see an ad showing scruffy college kids obsessed with day-trading and startups that will make them a million dollars by graduation. What they're really doing, many of them, is reading books, buying books, saving books and redistributing books to beat the band.
Follett, take a lesson.
SLEEPER OF THE SUMMER: 'INSIDE THE GLITTER'
The great unfolding story of migration and labor - once found in America's factories, farmlands, shipyards, mines and sweatshops - has moved to a curious place, says photographer/author Kit Miller.
As the United States gives up its landscape to tourism, and tourism to gambling, and gambling to giant, mawkish casino theme parks, a huge and complex service sector has emerged that aspires to its own version of the American Dream.
Thanks to Miller, it's more illuminating to step behind the casino facades - and meet the pantry workers, dealers, security officers, pit bosses, cashiers, bartenders, Keno runners and change aprons who make their living as casino workers - than to try our luck at games of chance.
These workers aren't easy to find. They're supposed to recede behind the allure of gambling and become invisible. But because of Miller's indefatigable efforts, a riveting and largely untold story awaits us in "Inside the Glitter: Lives of Casino Workers" (Great Basin Publishing, 6185 Franktown road, Carson City NV 89704, (775) 882-0191, email firstname.lastname@example.org , see excerpts at http://www.greatbasinweb.com or buy online at Modern Times Bookstore, http://www.mtbs.com; 100 pages; $24.59 paperback).
We observe, first of all, in this serious and very moving book, that these workers know ALL the gossip. "Movie stars do not tip," says Mary Hughes, head of uniform control at The Mirage in Las Vegas, where 6500 uniforms are cleaned after EVERY shift. "Kenny Rogers never tipped. Barbra Streisand wouldn't talk to you, she'd send her secretary. But Dolly Parton is a wonderful person."
Hughes was once a Guest Room Attendant ("that's a maid") working in the Villas, those "high-roller" rooms that provide their own back yard, swimming pool and separate bedrooms and rent for $3,700 a night.
Las Vegas used to cater to a lot of high rollers back in the decades that the Mob ran it all. "Everyone made money in those days," says waitress Cindy Turdell, a "serving wench" at the Excalibur. "I could make $300 a night in tips.
"[The mob was] strictly interested in gambling. They comped the shows, the meals. . . It was a safer place to live when the mob was here. You'd never see bank robbers come in and try to rob a cage. The mob would blow their brains out right there."
Ah, nostalgia. But soon legit corporations took over and "family casinos" moved in. "At Circus Circus there are good deals on rooms so we get not as high class of people," says Shirley Robinson, a maid who holds down two jobs at $8.76 an hour.
"They sleep a lot of people to a room, make a big mess, destroy everything but the furniture. And the maid has to make the room nice so the next person won't complain. One customer checked for dust everywhere and told me, 'You did a real good job. You just missed down here behind the toilet."
The spirit of finding a new life of independence and security, despite long hours and low wages, is as inspiring here as anywhere else in American history. Phan Dang and her Vietnamese family "arrived in Reno without even a dollar." In little over a year she was dealing blackjack and poker at the Comstock casino.
In Miller's photo, Phan Dang stands at her crowded table with the authority of a general at war, her palms spread out on the felt, one finger pointing to ask a player if he's going to double-down, the other hand facing players who wait anxiously for the next card. Phan Dang works the graveyard shift, while her husband works swing. ("We hardly see each other. It's OK. Less fighting.") Both her sons work in the casinos. Last month she bought a condominium for them all.
Miller follows slot mechanic Mike Hart into the catacombs under the casinos, sign maintenance worker Mario Basurto above downtown Vegas where 2.1 million lightbulbs need to be changed regularly. She goes to construction sites, Fort Mojave tribe casinos, "the most famous casino/bar in Elko, Nevada" and the only saloon casino in faraway Manhattan NV.
Her subjects surprise us many times. Pit boss Ellie Hays is a Catholic lay worker who visits orphanages in Bolivia and Nicaragua. Jerry Tiehm, a bellman, is a botanist who's discovered eighteen plants new to science, five of which are named after him (such as Stroganowia tiehmii).
Room service attendant and budding magician Mark Zartarian is pictured with his baby snuggled so lovingly on his lap that we almost fail to notice the giant, firehose-sized boa constrictor winding its way under and around father and daughter.
In an interview, Miller said that after working in Brazil as a photojournalist, "I realized I had become a voyeur chasing the exotic, what anthropologists call 'the other.' Then I came back to Nevada and found a not-so-different 'other' in my back yard - a huge population that's rarely been seen or acknowledged. So the book became a kind of mission."
Some 350,000 employees work in America's multi-billion-dollar gambling industry, with card parlors and poker clubs mushrooming into full-fledged casinos every day. Yet reading "Inside the Glitter" is reminiscent of books about farmworkers before Cesar Chavez or sharecroppers before Martin Luther King. Unions exist in Las Vegas but are scarce elsewhere, and wages throughout the industry are so low, the author shows, that in some cases two and three families share a trailer outside of town.
Miller published the book herself after a nearby university press opted out, but "Inside the Glitter" is not an example of the new print-on-demand (POD) movement. "POD as yet doesn't have the production values you need for good reproduction of photographs," she says. So on a shoestring budget she printed 1000 copies and so far has sold 700.
The front and back covers have a somewhat amateurish feel, but the beautifully coated stock inside, the striking photos and engrossing text bear the touch of a professional who's clearly mastered her material and invites us to take a life-altering look. "Inside the Glitter" is an important work that could, while the author is deciding whether to go back to press, be picked up by a publisher or distributor who could give it a formal launch nationally.
Meanwhile, you needn't be a prospective maid to take heart from Bernice Thomas, a maid trainer who teaches young housekeeping students how to clean 16 rooms a day, handle "needles, blood, all kinds of things" hiding under the beds and keep up their stamina at $8.20 per hour. Having grown up in Tallulah, Louisiana, where farm laborers earned three dollars a day, she advises students as gravely and assuredly as though she were inspiring astronausts in "The Right Stuff."
"It's a goal out there," she says to Miller. "But it's not easy. I've had them come in here in tears saying, 'I can't do it.' Ain't no sucha thing as you can't. You can. You have hard days, you get real disgusted. But the main thing is to do the best you can, keep a positive attitude, and you will make it."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your column uncovering the Amazon.com connections among several of the sponsors of the New York Times ad on e-commerce and community. I often run across well-informed, well-meaning groups with links to Amazon.com on their web sites. The one that really blew me away was the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which had the logo/link right on its home page. The Trust has since completely removed any links or references to Amazon.com, I suspect in response to complaints from its members. I hope the good organizations involved in this ad will soon do the same.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just to let you know that we too refer our website visitors to Powell's. Check out www.newdimensions.org and you can see and hear ND broadcasts. I am always surprised when progressive and socially relevant orgs use Amazon.com. I enjoy your online news. Keep up the good work.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This note will probably be too long and too paranoid for you to use in your column, but I thought it might be of interest to you in your war against Amazon.com.
I hasten to say I have never bought anything from Amazon.com, but I find them a handy reference, more complete and up to date than Books in Print (and free too) that I can use before going to my local independent. Also, since I am still the publisher of some of my books, I have to be businesslike about that. They post a complete list of my books, with quotes from reviews, and more information than any bricks and mortar store is able to do. I fill an occasional order from them, and I felt that it made sense to keep their listings on my books up to date, and to add the author or publisher comments that they invite, for the convenience of people who do order on line. As invited, I sent cover copy and reviews to make a more attractive and complete display, and when I saw an error in any listing, I'd send a note pointing that out. I was impressed with how quickly, directly, competently and courteously any correction of mine was handled. Until now.
A few days ago, I checked out the listing for the first time in several months, and discovered that a strange error had crept in. Nine of my books were listed under a heading I had never seen before: ON ORDER/NOT YET PUBLISHED. Most of these books used to be listed as SPECIAL ORDER: 34 WEEKS. I sent off a note politely pointing out the error and saying that all these books were indeed published and in print. For the first time I got back a long, long answer of businessese gobbledegook, the kind of letter sent by an underling whose job it is to defend an indefensible practice to a dissatisfied customer. I wrote back, what gives here? where are all the nice people who used to answer sensibly? and got more bureaucratic crap.
By clicking on the books under this heading, I found the old listings and the ordering information, the "34 weeks." I wrote again, pointing out that the books in questions were neither ON ORDER nor were they NOT YET PUBLISHED, and that customers as stupid as I am would believe the books had been ordered but did not as yet existand might not click on the titles to find out differently. This went on through two more exchanges, in which I was told (in that smarmy, dealing-with-difficult-people style) that books that were SPECIAL ORDER, as mine were, (not that 3 day delivery they promise, but, I understand, they often cannot fulfill) are listed under ON ORDER/NOT YET PUBLISHED, becausewell, because that is their policy. I wondered, how did I miss that? am I crazy or senile? as I gave up on an exchange that had become repetitive. Then I checked the printout I had made back in November 1999 when I first became aware of their listing of my books, and indeed, as I remembered, there was no heading of ON ORDER/NOT YET PUBLISHED. Each book was listed with the designation SPECIAL ORDER, 3-4 WEEKS.
Now here is the paranoid conclusion that occurred to me. Perhaps they INTEND to make customers believe that these books do not exist. After all, they sell one of them only every couple of months, and they have to take the staff time to special order, then cut a check to a small publisher. Much more trouble than it's worth. They still haven't posted a profit, and lately their stock has fallen precipitously on the market. So, in a cost-cutting move, why not cut out the small publishers? At least discourage customers from wasting their time. They could still fill orders for the persistent ones who go ahead and click, despite being told the book doesn't exist, but let the rest of them go without or go to the independents and give them an unprofitable single order.
As I said, this sounds like pure paranoia, but this little change and the weird way they dealt with questions about it may be symptomatic of a further move away from offering the complete service they boast of.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re: Amazon reviewers stealing jacket copy from books.
That's old hat. They also steal from readers' reviews! I once wrote a review of an Irish music CD that I'd just bought and enjoyed greatly. At the time I submitted my review to Amazon, it was the only review of that CD on the site. But within a week their "house" reviewer had written a review too -- which echoed mine in ideas, structure, and even language -- and, of course, since THAT was undated and appeared above mine on the book description page, it appeared that, instead of writing an original review, *I'd* just parroted the Amazon.com reviewer! Sincerest form of flattery, and all that, but I thought it was rather sleazy.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm sorry to disillusion you but Amazon represents about 20% of my total online business. I'm especially glad that Amazon is who it is, and reaches out to all the potential book buyers that I cannot, and all this for free. You would have me join some exclusive club to advertise my tiny shop, at a cost that probably would exceed the revenue gained.
I'll take Capitalism any day of the week! Down with socialism! Up with Amazon!
Holt responds: I'm curious to know how you, a bookseller, advertise your "tiny shop" to readers through Amazon.com? Or do you mean you sell books on Amazon through its auction? Have you not wanted to use, say, www.ABEbooks.com ?
Andrew Gutterman replies: Amazon pays my landlord in three ways:
Numbers 2 and 3 reach out to 18,000,000 potential customers that I wouldn't otherwise have. Neither B&N.com nor the other sites like ABE have anywhere near as many customers.
As to selling books, I sell to whoever wants to buy them. I don't agree with Alibris' ethics or methods, but I'm in this as a businessman, I cannot afford to say no to their money. So I sell to anyone.
Nor am I concerned that they will eventually put me out of business. Used books on my level is much like farming, there is always a need for the small farmer who can make a living on a small crop. I don't see Alibris going to yard sales or people's houses to buy books, better that they get them from me and resell.
And all the ranting and raving from the 'Independent' new books stores vs Barnes & Noble is pure crap. B&N builds the superstores because there is unmet demand for them. Right here in Charlottesville we have a B&N superstore, as well as several smaller new stores. We also have 9 open used book shops and 7 who operate out of their homes. This is the book capital of Virginia. But recently one of the area's most well-known new "Independent" new bookstores went out of business, blaming B&N for their failure. B&N had nothing to do with it. In talking to their former customers we all got the same impression: The owners and their employees looked down on their customers. Well guess what? The customers went somewhere else.
Your comment about Amazon routing out independent new bookstores isn't quite accurate. If customers wanted to order from Amazon because of it's location why should independents stay in business? We call this progress. Not a block away from here is an independent that has been in business since 1924, every time I walk by I see customers in the store. And this in a town of so many choices! As well as the Internet. There are no guarantees in life. Sometimes progress rolls over on you, you pick yourself up and do something else.
Holt can't stop herself: Alibris is hiring scouts like mad to go to those garage sales you think they don't cover - maybe this hasn't happened yet in Charlottesville but it's sure happening on the West Coast. Do you think the used book landscape is even too vast for that?
Andrew Gutterman replies: Yes. Maybe they can do it locally, but just try it on a national scale. And what happens when their financing runs out? Just like Amazon, eventually they have to make a profit. CMGI & Ingram aren't going to pour money into a black hole forever.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In Oregon we have a level playing field when it comes to taxing Brick & Morter or online transactions. This national problem is not a factor as we have NO SALES TAX in this state! We have an income and business tax, and all pay regardless. We are not interested in collecting sales tax for other states.
Talbot V. Ridgway
Dear Holt Uncensored:
So that's why the CA store wanted to charge me sales tax on shoes! I tried to explain that PA doesn't charge sales tax on shoes, clothing, food, and, until last year, Bibles.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Texas, as many other states, has a sales tax holiday. In a recent Houston Chronicle article, (8/7), J. R. Gonzales reports that an entire weekend of tax-exempt sales was very good for merchants. "The exemption was extended this year to include layaways. Clothes and shoes under $100 could be put on layaway and paid for, tax-free, later. Lawmakers also are being urged to consider making school supplies tax-free in coming years, and to extend the weekend holiday to two weeks."
Needless to say, I could stand a great weekend as many bookstores could. However I wish to report a rumor. I was told that when approached about including books in this Tax Holiday, the large bookstore chains vetoed the idea. The excuse that I heard was that it would be too much trouble to reprogram their computers for the three days. I'll assure you that I'd stay at the store till midnight to reprogram my register for a store full of people. Perhaps some of your readers might shed some light on this. I would be very interested in joining a grass roots lobbying group to try to get the legislature to include books in school supplies for the next year.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Of all the important issues brought up in your newsletter, I have a hard time accepting the fact that the one which has prompted me to respond is really quite superficial, but maybe I've become desensitized to the monsters and can only be irritated by the mice. The mouse in question would be Charlie Potts, whose letter really seems like the diatribe of a man who disagrees with everything, regardless of subject.
Mr. Potts says: "And one more thing for Mr. Asher and the claim to be publishing lots of good books. How would any individual know? Suppose you read fast, two full length books a week. Thats over 100 a year. And there are 40,000 books published in English. And any individual is going to tell me what's being published and how good it is? Anybody making such claims hasn't really read the material."
I haven't eaten everything on the menu at my favorite restaurant, but I can tell you that they make good food. I haven't listened to every song by Bach, or Sondheim, or Carole King, but I can tell you that they make beautiful music. I haven't read every book in the store I manage, but I can certainly tell you that there are LOTS of good books here, and lots of good books published every month. Yes, there is a fair amount of crap being published as well, although " You can tell [Vintage editor-in-chief] Marty Asher for me that" it rarely comes packaged as a Vintage Trade Paperback, but I don't see this as a mutually exclusive situation. Because there are bad books I can't talk about the good ones? I don't feel that I am overstepping my bounds by discussing things I haven't yet (and may never) read, heard, or eaten.
I don't think a college education has a thing to do with it either, whatever Mr. Potts is implying by writing: "But that's where education comes in. College is where you learn how to talk intelligently about books you've never read." I imagine that several of my customers would say they've had intelligent conversation with me about books I haven't read, and no diploma hangs over my head declaring me to be the proud recipient of the initials B.S. (or any other less amusing/accurate ones) at the end of my name. "College" and "Education" should not be confused as one and the same, and although it is unclear whether Mr. Potts sees either as a good thing or a bad one, I believe it has little relevance to the ability to express opinions with intelligence in this forum. Besides, there is a big difference between speaking intelligently and appearing to do so, as Mr. Potts has so graciously shown us.
An Independent Bookstore Manager
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding my letter about Fair Trade, I realized my sign-off didn't include my email address, which would make it hard for anyone with Fair Trade stories to contact me. It's email@example.com.
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.