by Pat Holt
Tuesday, August 15, 2000
GOODBYE, GUALALA BOOKS
During the last 11 years, one of the attractions of the tiny coastal town of Gualala (California) for people with vacation homes has been the prospect of calling Barb Tatum or Lynn Gigy at Gualala Books before making the long drive over the mountains to get there.
These two veteran booksellers knew the tastes of everyone in town (and those coming to town) so well that they'd have a pile of books waiting for the whole family the moment the car arrived.
The gusto with which everybody would pile out to see what treasures awaited at Gualala Books was equal to the joy of rushing into the family cabin for the first time.
Inside the store, customers were treated not only with well-stocked shelves and books by local writers but a bountiful, sit-on-the-floor-and-read Children's Department, complete with storytelling hours and Winnie-the-Pooh tea parties.
Gualala Books also offered an up-to-date searchable database of over 2 million titles; a storewide10% discount to frequent buyers; no shipping costs for those who ordered by phone, mail, fax or Internet; and a special discount for schools and libraries.
Of course this wonderful service operated all year for people who lived in Gualala, and that is the problem townspeople and vacationers alike are facing this summer, now that Gualala Books has closed.
It's not as though customers were taken by surprise. In 1998, Barb and Lynn ran an ad in the Coastal Observer explaining that sales had plummeted because people were buying books elsewhere (see Holt Uncensored #28).
The ad did not characterize Gualala Books as a victim of the chains or Amazon.com, nor did it ask people to rally for the purpose of saving the store. It simply pointed out that Gulala Books could successfully compete with any other book outlet when it came to Selection, Convenience, Price and the "Diversity of reading choices in the nation."
Customers heard the alarm and responded appropriately. Business increased by a whopping 60 percent the next month, and by January of 1999, the store was up 33 percent over the previous year.
But as independents have discovered elsewhere, readers are going to buy books wherever they happen to find a bookselling service, no matter how loyal they declare themselves to be to their neighborhood store. What is lost in the meantime is almost impossible to pinpoint until a store like Gualala Books closes for good.
What Enriches Our Lives
So this is what the Letters to the Editor of the Coastal Observer have been grappling with this summer: It's not that people ever stopped loving Gualala Books; it's rather that they didn't know how to value it enough.
"I think Amazon.com is not necessarily to blame for the closure of Gualala Books; it is the community," writes a 13-year-old reader to the Letters column. "Part of being a community, to me," writes another, "is supporting those people and places that help define a dynamic, interesting, and vital community. Gualala Books was one of those places."
"All of us who ever typed in 'amazon.com' instead of 'gualalabooks.com' (same service, just as fast) to order a book on the Internet contributed to the demise," writes another. "What does this say about a community that can build a million-dollar arts center but not support the modest needs of another important asset -- an independent bookstore? Shame on us!"
And still another: "I am ashamed of the parents and citizens that allowed this to come to be. Did you think that a tiny store filled with unique books would support itself?"
In her own Letter to the Editor, Barb Tatum does not mince words: "My belief that the Gualala area is a special place, an oasis, where people live for whom books are a necessary part of life, has been painfully shaken. I believe that books should always be readily available to discover, share, treasure and to give to others. LIbraries are a wonderful source of books, but owning one's own books enriches life."
A Real Bookstore
Before the store closed last month, I asked Barb and Lynn if there might be a way to use the Internet to create an additional source of income. Instead of people calling ahead to tap into the store's expertise for books that would be ready on their arrival, perhaps customers could join a Gualala Book Club and receive a book or two every week from these trusted booksellers. Wouldn't many readers find such guidance priceless? Or was I being unrealistic?
Well, Barb and Lynn responded, they liked the idea, and maybe it would have worked as an adjunct. But the fact is, Gualala Books was a bookstore, and the bookstore experience was everything.
"What our frequent visitors truly loved was wandering around finding our 'favorites' themselves, taking them off the shelves, holding them, maybe sitting down and reading a little in them, and having the real books in their hands before buying them.
"They liked discussing the books 'live' with us and, as often happened, talking with other customers in the store. The traditional, old-time experience of being in a real bookstore and having the chance encounter with another reader or with an unknown book or author was what was valued. It was fun for us and the customers to participate in the mutual love of finding books."
Even the Tragic Parts
I'm a person who's fascinated by everything in the publishing industry, even the tragic parts, and when a bookstore dies, I think it's important to know what is lost.
In this case, you can't help but be reminded that "the mutual love of finding books" is a sensibility one often sees exploited by the chains and Amazon.com but rarely exists except in an independent bookstore.
Editors like Jason Epstein of Random House tend to say the "real" independent bookstores are the big ones (like Tattered Cover in Denver or Cody's in Berkeley - my examples) and that these are numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands. But the truth is that the health of our nation's literary base has for centuries been protected by every bookstore in every town in America, no matter what its size.
Of course, publishers increasingly believe it's easier to get an order for 10,000 copies from a single chain bookstore than to spend time collecting orders from 5,000 independent bookstores for 2 copies each.
But that kind of publishing is "easier" only if you abandon the idea that when booksellers and readers share in "the mutual love of finding books," many more kinds of books will be sold than can be squeezed through the expensive promotional funnel of chain stores or Internet outlets like Amazon.com.
(I always remind myself that Amazon.com can LIST three million titles -- a number I also doubt -- on its dazzling website, but it doesn't stimulate the circulation of a diversity of books because so many of its "recommendations" mean nothing - they're bought and paid for by publishers. When one senses a "mutual love of finding books" at Amazon, it's only because of customer reviews and exuberance.)
I know I've made this point before, but the consequence of all this, I feel, comes down to the fact that a democracy is based on many different ideas and many different voices, and fundamental to that premise is the notion of many different books serving many different audiences.
Every time an independent understands and protects "the diversity of reading choices in the nation," as the Gualala Books advertisement read, democracy is strengthened a little bit more. And every time the decision about what Americans will be able to read falls into fewer and fewer hands, democracy weakens.
Perhaps that's what the people writing to the newspaper in Gualala are facing. They know what's at stake now that Gualala Books has closed, and they're very sad about it. Who can blame them: With every loss of one of the thousands of independent bookstores over the last five years or so, the rest of us know it, too.
PEARSON AT IT AGAIN
Recent strategic moves by Pearson Ltd. are making this British media conglomerate as worrisome as the German publisher Bertelsmann in terms of corporate plans to dominate world media.
In its most recent acquisition, Pearson, which owns Penguin/Putnam/Viking/Dutton/NAL in the United States, has decided to buy the U.S. educational services company, National Computer Systems.
This is not a small sale. The price tag is $2.5 billion, and the deal is designed to "create the world's leading integrated education company."
In fact, not much that Pearson does anymore is small: In 1998, the company bought the textbook division of Simon & Schuster for $4.6 billion. In April of this year, it combined its broadcasting division with that of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann and the Belgian group Audiofina to form a $3.68 billion "international media concern" with designs on the U.S. broadcasting industry.
Then in June, Pearson made a deal with American Online in which Pearson's Learning Network will be the "anchor tenant" on the main screen of AOL's Research and Learn Channel. This is a huge service from Pearson that will provide "educational content for all stages of a person's life, from pre-school to adult learning," according to AOL, including parents helping their kids with homework to adult needs in higher education and corporate/professional development.
This deal brought a little terror into the hearts of many observers, not only because the Pearson/Bertelsmann/Audiofina company was designed to circumnavigate U.S. laws limiting foreign ownership of television stations - laws Rupert Murdoch has been trying to penetrate for years (see #144).
But also, now that AOL and Time Warner are merged, Pearson's deal with AOL can be seen as a foot in the door, with the next goal to sidle up to that huge entertainment package of Time Warner with all its ripe broadcasting opportunities.
News of Pearson's aggressive acquisitions is usually cast in an "it makes sense" mode. If you were Pearson, and you were competing against two other giants in the education industry (even in the subcategory of college publishing, the competition of McGraw-Hill Higher Education and Thompson Learning is formidable), you'd do it too, say analysts. You'd seek worldwide domination in a second.
Book critics, on the other hand, try to see such news through the lens of the reader. Can the spreading tentacles of Pearson and Bertelsmann (and Murdoch, and AOL/Time Warner, and so forth) be good for the wide range and diversity of literature that the reading public seeks?
I can't see it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
After you reported Barnes & Noble's decision to toss the space they had set aside for free local newspapers and magazines and replace it with more book displays, I wandered into the downtown Ann Arbor Borders. You know, the first one. The one that was really cool before the company went chain-link. (I often shop there, then take a titles list to Shaman Drum, an independent up the street.)
Guess what I found? The foyer, which was for decades stocked with free local newspapers and underground publications, now displays piles of remaindered books. I asked a clerk about it, and she said, "Oh, we don't carry the papers anymore."
Monkey see, monkey do.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This very situtation (unwanted books thrown in dumpsters) occurred in Toronto last fall, after the RT conference [Romantic Times, one of the largest romance writers/readers conferences in the world] and the Chapters-sponsored autographing on Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning, my assistant and I walked into the huge hall and saw five or six dumpsters full of stripped books - mostly paperbacks. My mother (now deceased) was in a nursing center at the time, and she and her friends - all of them Medicaid patients - loved to read but couldn't afford to buy books. I asked if we could have some of the stripped books to take back and donate to the center. The people in charge said yes, so we each stuffed a half-dozen or into our suitcases. Needless to say, my mom and her friends were thrilled.
It made me sick to see all those good books going to waste. Chapters obviously over-ordered, and the authors will "pay" for that with their numbers. As a small press owner, I'd made a separate deal for my authors' books and we had no returns. In fact, we've had orders from readers since the convention. But how sad to think that there are books being dumped like that when there are so many readers in need.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About the reader who reported the rumor 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."
Others could answer this better than I, but I have read studies that indicate large chains make a substantial profit on collecting sales tax. By designing their prices to collect the extra fractions, they get to retain 10-20% of what they collect. A simple example: at 5% sales tax, you sell an item for 50 cents and collect 3 cents tax, repeat that sale and you have sold $1.00 worth of merchandise and collected 6% sales tax but only have to remit 5%. Of course, that is mere pennies to the small dealers but to the giant chains it works out to be millions. The retail giants only give lip service to sales tax opposition. They will embrace a national sales tax policy as it will mean greater profits for them and will overburden their smaller competitors.
Dear Holt Uncensored;
In response to Dorothy Bryant who is having a difficult time communicating with the Amazon, may I suggest she do what I did and from which I got results. My next book comes out December 1. It is my first release with a small press and I wasn't aware of the difficult ride they all have with Amazon. For this book coming out in 3 or 4 months, Amazon warned PUBLISHERS MAY RUN OUT OF STOCK AND CHOOSE NOT TO REPRINT. I first tried communicating with Amazon, as Ms. Bryant did, and got the same gobbledygook in reply. After 2 attempts at reason, I gave up and posted an author's comment to the listing. In it I said that this book had not yet been published so it was premature to warn that it may go out of print, etc. Swiftly, a real person from Amazon communicated with me. He said two things:1) Authors should comment only about the content of their books and 2) Amazon had taken the liberty of changing the listing to reflect my message. You might want to try the same route, Dorothy.
Anne Underwood Grant
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Inspired by the article "Follett Hits the Dumps" and Dorothy Bryant's letter in column #175, I searched Amazon.com under the title word "dumpster." The hits that I got were divvied into three categories: "In Stock/Readily Available"; "On Order/Not Yet Published"; and "Out of Print."
What really struck me was that the one appearing at the top under "The most popular are:" was ART AND SCIENCE OF DUMPSTER DIVING by John Hoffman, which was listed in the "On Order/Not Yet Published" category. A look at the listing itself reveals that the book has a publication date of September 1999 and is a "Special Order" item: "Availability: This title usually ships within 4-6 weeks."
The publisher's web site (http://www.loompanics.com/) indicates that the title it is in fact available. I realize that a publisher's web site is not 100% reliable -- one doesn't know that a book is available until one has it in hand -- but this is certainly not a "not yet published" book. I know what "on order" means in real life, but I think Amazon.com must have coined their own definition, one they aren't sharing with us.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your column, "Follett Hits the Dumps": Maybe the lads have found solvency by way of the ole payoff from the trashmen. Any book seller knows you can write off at least a portion of your "trash" if you donate it to a needy cause! Last summer when cleaning out our warehouse we had a standing order with: Family Crisis Center, Women's Crisis Center, Salvation Army, and Goodwill - in that order. All it took was a phone call to each to set it up, and all each of them asks is that a) they are somewhat neatly boxed, and b) that the books at least have readable pages.
First Monday of each month was FCC, second was WCC, third was SA, and finally the last Monday was Goodwill. I will openly admit we worked harder to have books on the first two Monday's of each month!
Anyway, if that student is right -- that for Follett it's too much of a pain to give books away -- I suggest we put the chain's executives through a program in which they have to spend a year with a young single-parent family where the closest thing to reading material is located on the back of a cereal box. While they're there they can take out the garbage. Grumble ...
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your suspicions about the effect of Alibris' scouts: As someone who makes a living buying and selling used books on eBay, I am finding pickings slimmer and slimmer at thrift stores in the East Bay of Northern California. Haven't made a great find in weeks now.
I do not know that it's because of Alibris, but I do know slim pickings when I see them, and I often emerge from a thrift with a paperback or two instead of a bagful of potential merchandise.
I also spend more time in thrifts that are not tied to a "central collection" system and receive direct donations. Their books are a bit more expensive (up to $1.45 for a paperback) so I'm very selective, but the stock is "normal" there.
I do believe I pooh-pooed the notion that Alibris could do this successfully when first you mentioned it. As I hit the road to Vallejo and Concord thrifts, I am not quite so cavalier about Alibris.
The good old days (last winter) when I could stroll into my neighborhood Goodwill and waltz out with three hardback dust-jacketed "Little House on the Prairie" books (at 69 cents each) seem gone. Too bad.
Searching used to be the easiest part of the job, and the most fun. It's become one of the more trying aspects of bookselling on the web. At least I have some clue as to why.
Just how big is their warehouse? Can I hope it will eventually fill up and they'll stop cornering the market? I had thought the Bay Area was so big and the thrifts so plentiful that stock would always be available. I'm not as confident of that today. It's scary.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm baffled that folks are charging Amazon's reviewers with plagiarism based on the use of one or two words from a dust jacket (HU #174). For instance, a reader writes:
"Jane Adams' review of Barbara Neely's latest novel BLANCHE PASSES GO begins: 'Blanche White, Barbara Neely's smart, queen-sized, middle-aged African American sleuth...' The jacket cover of BLANCHE CLEANS UP offers this blurb from The Cleveland Plain Dealer: 'You have never met a mystery protagonist like Blanche White. Middle-aged, queen-sized, and feisty, she redefines the black sleuth.' "
Surely a reviewer can state a mystery protagonist's name, call her a "sleuth," and report she's "middle-aged" without stealing from another writer. The only other term these two passages have in common is "queen-sized," which does indicate creative thought by the original writer. But was that writer at the PLAIN-DEALER? The word had already appeared in BOOKLIST's review of BLANCHE CLEANS UP. Penguin's paperback copy uses it, as do many reviews and blurbs about Barbara Neely's books on the web. It's hardly the smoking gun of a plagiarism case.
I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon's reviewers pluck phrases from jacket copy. Having written my share of book flaps and press releases, I can attest that publishers hope a reviewer will pick up on how they present their books. But if Amazon's practice is blatant enough to warrant condemnation, surely there are stronger examples.
J. L. Bell
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.