Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, August 22, 2000





Does the fall of Mom & Pop stores reflect an inevitable decline of independent bookstores? This question, posed many times here, came to mind when I read about a city council choosing another assembly-line Starbucks over a unique bookstore/coffee house/theater/cultural center.

As an update, you may know that Starbucks took a big hit - something like $20 million - as an investor when Living.com, the online furniture store that had been partnered with Amazon.com for only three months, went bankrupt (see #177).

I mention this because $20 million is not even a ball of lint in the deep pockets of this coffee retailing giant, which promptly announced it's got another $43 million invested in Internet and e-commerce companies, according to CBSmarketwatch.com.

Such deep pockets reinforce the seeming presence of Starbucks on every corner of America, its huge financial clout and its tendency to steamroll over the competition when banks and municipalities give up on independent stores.

This apparently happened in San Fernando, Calif., according to the lively Comunidad section of LatinoLA.com http://www.latinola.com/espresso_story.htm . According to reporter Amanda Peosa, the city of San Fernando recently approached Espresso Mi Cultura, a successful coffeehouse/bookstore/cultural center in Hollywood, to open a second, larger outlet (with a new 90-person theater) in the San Fernando area.

"We weren't really looking at expansion at first," Espresso Mi Cultura co-owner Josie Aguilar said, "but since the city of San Fernando proposed that we look at this 3,400 sq. foot building . . . [and] since we felt that [a second outlet] would be of mutual benefit for both parties, we looked into it."

Comunidad says that few other cultural outlets existed in the heavily Latino community of San Fernando, so Espresso Mi Cultura was doubly attractive because of its success in mixing Latino with mainstream influences. Featured at the Hollywood location were Culture Clash, Lalo Alcaraz, writer Graciela Limon, local artists, open-mike nights, art exhibitions and so forth.

So Espresso Mi Cultura asked for a grant, loan or combination of the two of $125,000 for the coffeehouse and $45,000 for the cultural center, which would hold both bookstore and theater. But after all that buildup and research, the City Council denied its proposal.

In a separate but parallel move, however, the City Council granted approval to Starbucks, which also asked for $125,000 for the development of a drive-through coffee house.

Now how could it be, Comunidad wonders, "that San Fernanco approved the Starbucks bid the same day it was proposed, while Espresso had been forced to 'sell' their project to the city through testimony at more than one City Council meeting" before the final vote turned Espresso down.

The Espresso co-owner offered an answer. "What the Council of San Fernando is really basing this [decision] on is how many cups of coffee Starbucks can sell versus Espresso," said Aguilar.

"But we're not in the business of merely selling coffee. Besides, Starbucks isn't in our league. It's not that we're not in theirs, they aren't in ours."

It sounds as though some members of the City Council approached Espresso before other council members got on board, so Aguilar had to plead the Espresso case in what became an increasingly uphill battle. At the same time, City Council members had no qualms about voting for Starbucks, because here, after all, was a famous chain, a known entity.

It's something to remember the next time somebody like Marty Asher of Vintage Books says that Mom and Pop stores, forced to close by chain-store competition, are the first to go, and independent bookstores are next. Consumers know this and adapt to it pragmatically, turning to the chains as a new force of nature.

Well, thank heaven many Americans don't feel that way. I know I've said this before, but it's truer now than ever: When it comes down to shopping at various outlets, consumers want it all, including neighborhood independent stores, AND they want that wonderful weave of school, library and bookstore that so enriches community life.

And not only do they want it, they have learned to appreciate and support independent bookstores, even and especially when it comes to protesting such takeover attempts as Barnes & Noble's proposal to acquire the independent distributor Ingram Book Co.

Maybe the lesson here is that opportunities like Espresso Mi Cultura come before us every day, but they're trounced so easily by the Starbucks/Barnes & Noble/Borders/Walmarts of our era, we almost don't notice them.

But here in the new century, maybe all that's called for is a simple shift of focus. If it takes a conscious effort for a city council or bank to listen more closely to proposals from independent stores, hooray. Finding stores and companies that contribute to the character and health of each individual community could become our most exciting challenge.



Last week I wrote an open letter ("Say It Ain't True, Mikey") asking filmmaker/author Michael Moore ("Roger & Me," "Downsize This") to stop directing readers who wanted to buy his books to Amazon.com.

Granting that publishers and authors should have the freedom to sell books through all the channels and outlets they can find, I felt that a person "who fights for the disenfranchised and decries corporate abuses" like Moore might take a more enlightened and consistent path by removing Amazon.com as a website link and "find[ing] an independent bookstore you can link up to with pride."

Well, Michael Moore heard about this and has responded with this very useful and eye-opening letter:

"Dear 'Patty' --

"This is 'Mikey.' You must have me confused with somebody else. You wrote that my 'whole purpose in public life is to stand up and say how big companies are forcing out the little guy' -- and by 'little guy,' you meant the independent bookseller.

"My purpose is to stand up for the little guy who owns neither the big corporation nor the locally owned business down on main street. I AM concerned about the little guy who is mopping the floor or stocking the shelves and getting minimum wage and lousy or no benefits.

"I like independent bookstores. For years I have encouraged many of them to do what they need to do to stay alive. I have spoken at their annual gatherings and, on my book tour, 42 of the 50 stores where I spoke and did signings were independents.

"As you may recall, I found myself 'disinvited' from a certain chain bookseller for a while. How many other authors do you know have been willing to take such a public stand against the hand that feeds them? Although mine was the ONLY new non-fiction book published by Crown/Random House that year to have made the New York Times best seller list, I was informed that I had caused enough grief for them by going up against one of the Big Two. So they decided not to publish the paperback (of a best selling hardcover that sold 150,000 copies), and sold the rights off to another publisher. So, please, spare me the lecture of not willing to take a stand against the big guys. I take the kinds of stands that end up costing me a lot.

"I have encouraged independent booksellers to do two things for years: get online in a big way and, for the 'snooty' few, take the invisible sign off their door that reads 'keep out' to the working class and non-intellectuals. The Big Two are successful, in part, because they make the average working stiff or student feel welcomed to come in and stay as long as they want.

"Regarding buying books online, it has taken forever to make this happen with some independents. To prove my point, I went to the booksellers YOU have listed on this site and just clicked on the first one -- Alexander's Books in San Francisco. And, lo and behold, there is NO WAY to order a book online from this store -- even though your site has it listed as an online seller!

"I want people to read more books. I don't care if they get them from the Mormon library in Salt Lake or Amazon.com. I just want to get books in people's hands. And for those who can't afford them, any place where they can get them cheaper, all the better.

"I live in the real world. I drive a Chrysler, drink Coke, and use MasterCard. They are all evil. I suppose I could go live in a cave. Or San Francisco. But I live out here where I'm more concerned with other things. You send out your email via EarthLink -- aren't they a part of Sprint? Would you like to see some of the mail I have received from the shafted workers at Sprint, the very people you help to oppress by using their e mail service?

"Why not spend your energies continuing to rant on about the real issues as you have done in the past, such as why are our anti-trust and monopoly laws not being enforced? Why are independent booksellers gouged with high prices that make it impossible for them to discount? Is it safe in a free society, where the free flow of information is vital, to have one out of every two books that are bought coming from the shelves of only two companies? And if we are to practice what we preach, why are there organizing drives taking place at independent bookstores by employees who make the same wage as they do at Amazon.com?

"And finally, what about me? Should I just limit my work to the choir? Should I not write my next book because it is being published Rupert Murdoch? Should I cancel my TV show because it is aired on a network partly owned by GE? Should people throw away their copies of 'Roger & Me' because it has the Time Warner logo on it?

"Or should we concentrate on the work that needs to get done?

"As soon as the independent booksellers have an online service that is reliable and offers consumers the best price available, I will proudly put it on my website. In the meantime, I will continue to meet "the people" where they are (they use Amazon.com) instead of demanding that they come to me.


"Michael Moore"

I felt what Moore had to say was important and instructive, and have written the following to him:

"Thank you, Mr. Moore! That was a beautifully stated letter, and your point of view is appreciated.

"One issue needs clarification: No one's saying Amazon.com should stop selling your books. The question is which online bookstore you choose as your personal link-up for customers.

"You can give your readers better options as to price and edition, and earn a better overall commission (because it applies not only to your books but all the books purchased by the people you refer) by using independent store websites such as Powell's in Portland - and believe me you'll win the hearts and minds of many if you do so.

"Remember I'm not talking about taking your books off the Amazon.com site. If you believe your readers are going to Amazon.com to find your book, fine. I'm talking about the readers who start out on YOUR site and want to see a listing of your books for sale. These are readers directed by you, so it doesn't matter where they go because you aren't meeting them at Amazon or other store; you're sending them there.

"From your letter I see you would be 'proud' to direct them to an independent online store that provides service that is equal in every way to Amazon.com and also stands for the things you believe in. (And fyi as to the 'best price' available, Powell's has your books on sale in new, used, sale and markdown prices with discounts that far exceed Amazon.com's.)

"Since this is not your field I apologize for the confusion regarding 'my' site - in fact the website where I have a webpage is the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, which has been the distributor of my email column. Alexander's is only one of the 65 stores listed there with an online presence, and please note that you CAN order from Alexander's. You just email them with your request and they email you back to confirm, and then you order with credit card - it's not a searchable database but so what? Had you clicked on the next store listed, Avenue Books, you'd have found a search function with a 500,000-copy database in which your own books and one audio adaptation are listed and come right up.

"Anyway, what do you think? I'm not pushing Powell's - it's just that this is one store I hear good things about from websites that 'partner' with it as yours could (you can find this program at http://www.powells.com/partners/partners.html ). I hope you check it out.

"And one last thing: You're probably aware that Amazon.com was able to 'get online in a big way' only by giving Wall Street such a snow job that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on a dazzling website - and Amazon.com is yet to turn a profit. But the 'real world' for independent booksellers is based on making a profit on sales alone, so it's been very tough for independents to get online. The miracle is that most of them have, and more are coming.

"I say this because I think 'the average working stiff or student' understands a lot more about this than even you give him/her credit for. The reason thousands of independents have survived is that average readers notice how few options chain stores offer when it comes to true diversity and range of titles, so average readers come back to the independent. It's very easy to use the word 'snooty' for a bookstore that doesn't make you feel welcome, but the nice thing is you can always go find another bookstore. If the chains win out - and they're out to win - none of us will have any options left.

"So when you say, 'I want people to read more books,' I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks again for writing.


Meanwhile, I'd love to know about other online independent booksellers who "partner" with authors and publishers of all sizes by giving them a commission for referrals. Now that Booksense.com is soon to be up and running, the more booksellers online, the merrier we'll all be.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thought you might be interested in a letter I recently received from Amazon.com. It was from a dept. called AP Special Project. It says they are in the process of conducting a review of their Accounts Payable unreconciled items. They are requesting the assistance and cooperation of their MAJOR VENDORS (emphasis mine), by providing them a current statement of all open transactions. If I am unable to provide them an open item statement they'd like an 'aged trial balance' of their account.

I am a small used book dealer who works out of his home, listing my inventory on Advanced Book Exchange. I sell mostly mysteries, some romance and other genres. At one time Amazon ordered quite a few books from me, but lately their orders have fallen off considerably. In the past sometimes they would order a book, but it would be sold, which I would so inform them, but they would sent payment anyway. I would return the money. Happened three or four times.

This letter indicates several things to me. First and foremost it seems that Amazon hasn't a clue who owes them what, or even scarier, who they might owe money too. Also they seem to have sloppy bookkeeping, which should scare Wall Street even more.

But what I think is even more telling is the drop off in orders I have received from them. Plus from talking to other book dealers who do business with Amazon, most have also seen a drop off in the business they do with Amazon.

Just another indication of the problems Amazon is having and the confusion that must reign at headquarters. Can you imagine working in the AP dept. and not knowing who owes you money. Scary.

Ken Hughes
Strange Birds Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am a used book dealer in Chicago. I list my books on-line through ABE. For the last 2 years, we have been receiving around 4 or 5 orders per week from Amazon.com. Up until this week, the procedure was always the same. They would send us an availability inquiry that we would respond to with-in 24 hrs of receiving it (as we do for all on-line requests). Then, they would forward a purchase order (presumably once their customer had confirmed the order). The PO was followed by a check, usually a week later.

This past week, we started receiving purchase orders with credit card information on them, rather than the checks we had grown accustomed to. This switch has me curious. Could this be a cash flow problem? I know the stock prices have fallen and investors are shakier than before. And now this disaster you wrote about with Living.com. Makes me wonder....

Beverly Dvorkin
after-words bookstore
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your story about Amazon.com's partner, Living.com, declaring bankruptcy: Here's one you'll really love. The CEO for Living.com, Shaun Holliday, said his company's inability to extract additional capital from investors was the reason for the company's failure. Now, as any Independent Bookstore operator could have learned him: "Profits are not derived from capital infusions, THEY COME FROM CUSTOMER SALES!

Do you think they'll ever get it?

Stephen A. Doiron
Covington, Louisiana

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Dare I ad another pair of lips to your summer of Lips? These are not overpuffed. Nor are them disembodied. In fact of all the lips this summer these might just fit the book they are intended for the best. Lip Service by M.J. Rose has just gone into its second printing and has been getting - no pun intended - quite qood word of mouth. In fact, Susie Bright has just chosen Lip Service to include in Best American Erotica 2001. These Lips can

be viewed on a very well respected website... Contentville.com http://www.contentville.com/product/product.asp?ProdID={0137A99B-CDB7-4F28-A B63-C2D2DDAC945C} or at www.mjrose.com

M.J. Rose

Holt responds: Gad, these are the "worst" or "best" lips ever - it's hard to tell! They face the reader straight on, with just a portion of the two front teeth showing, and drenched in red paint, perhaps not puffy but collagenicized - e.g., affecting the puffy look. Since this is a novel about phone sex - indeed THE book about phone sex, as it is the first self-published online book to have been picked up by a mainstream publisher (Pocket) - the lips may be appropriate, either in a cheery pornographic way or in a dangerous sicko way. The lucky reader gets to choose. You can read the prologue at the author's site, and it's pretty well-written for what it intends, but good heavens, this theme of ordinary housewives/careerists/suburban moms moonlighting as sex workers gets about as weary as . . . well, puffy lips.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The horror stories are coming in on POD publishing companies. Broken promises, books that fall apart, royalty percentages arbitrarily changed after the contract is signed, and in my case no information forthcoming on sales or even royalty statements, an author charged for new cover when the first one lopped off part of her name. It certainly hasn't taken long for the thieves to close in on this business, has it?

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here is an idea that may help bookstores like the Gualala store. Have an annual subscription program in stores figure out how much money they need to survive, and perhaps post that sum on a wall. Then they mount a fundraising drive asking customers give the store say, for example $100, or whatever sum they're comfortable spending, for books that they can buy during the following year until they have raised the sum needed to stay in business, then other sales will be gravy. They could recognize sustaining members with an annual honor roll posted on the wall, discounts, an annual party or whatever else they can think of.

The store's predicament reminds me of an idea that I think you may have already used: having an Independents Day on which stores invite customers to an independence day party and talk about their challenges as booksellers, and have local authors speak on their behalf, and perhaps use a one-day sale as an inducement to boost attendance.

Mike Larsen

Holt responds: I asked Barb and Lynn at Gualala books what they thought about this idea. Their response follows:

"We did post and maintain the graph we ran in the newspaper advertisement, which showed annualized averages by month and a line showing what the average had to be for us to stay in business. No one who came into the store and paid any attention to the declining graph was surprised at our closing. We would not have been comfortable with any more active forms of fundraising."

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I thought your readers would be interested in the extra charges demanded by credit card processors on the "non-swipe" sales that characterize nearly all Internet transactions. Claiming that non-swipe sales carry a higher risk of fraud, the companies that authorize credit card transactions and deposit funds in merchants' bank accounts impose an extra fee of 1 per cent or more. Combined with all other charges and fees, this extra charge puts their income around 5 per cent off the top of booksellers' Internet sales.

Ironically, American Express recently advised its merchants that non-electronic, paper transations would also suffer an extra fee of one point -- also claiming the risk of fraud.

Publishers of periodicals and booksellers are treated equally with merchants that market easily resalable commodities targeted by crooks for fraud, such as home electronics. Companies with very large sales volume, of course, can probably negotiate better terms than the majority. Merchant processors who don't charge the extra fee may be start-ups with few resources, representing a serious risk to the cash flow of their customers.

Albert Henderson


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.