by Pat Holt
Tuesday, November 7, 2000
A BOOKSTORE FRENZY OVER 'CLASS DISMISSED'
You can imagine the exhilaration of an author and independent bookseller when they realize the in-store event they have planned - even one they know will be crowded - begins to take on a life of its own.
Such was the case when Andy Ross of Cody's and Meredith Maran, author of "Class Dismissed: Senior Year in an American High School" (St. Martin's; 299 pages; $23.95; buy online at www.codysbooks.com), watched as attendance to Maran's signing grew increasingly boisterous, crowded, frenzied -- and even a little literary.
Of course, you would expect a book like "Class Dismissed," which follows three very different seniors through a year at Berkeley High School, to bring a lot of students and teachers into a neighborhood bookstore like Cody's.
But Maran's book had struck a universal chord about the American high school experience, and by 7 p.m., at least a hundred people and were crammed into the upstairs author-event room with a parade of customers piling in behind them.
A half-hour later, when Meredith stepped up to the podium, a massive roar rose up from the nearly 250 people crowding the aisles and stairways all the way out into Telegraph Ave.
When, in celebration of the book, students got up to read poetry with the energy of Beat/hip/language/punk/slam! poets who have challenged society in this same bookstore for many a decade, parents and teachers alike marveled at the wondrously multicultural look of the crowd.
No wonder Maran writes about Berkeley High, many thought, - here's a school with students from every ethnic and national background you can think of (45 languages are spoken among its 3200 students, Maran tells us), and they seem to have overcome or anyway represent the best and worst aspects of high schools everywhere.
Certainly a fascinating aspect of "the most integrated school in the country," as the New York Times has called Berkeley High School, is that inside, it's a mass of contradictions and failures, a pressure-cooker of racism at the same time its programs foster excellent cross-racial relationships.
On the outside, when it somes to academic test scores and the numbers of college-bound students, BHS performs beautifully. Inside, Maran shows, rich white kids from the hills are the stars going on to Harvard and Yale, while blacks and Latinos from the poorer sections of Berkeley barely make it to graduation.
On the outside Berkeley High School lures the most gifted and idealistic teachers; on the inside, Maran demonstrates, the pressures are terrible, with teachers lasting typically only a few years.
On the outside, BHS is one of the noblest experiments American education can offer. On the inside, BHS could be another Columbine, ready to explode any second.
Both Maran's children graduated from Berkeley High, and as a journalist (and author of several books, including "What It's Like to Live Now" and "Notes from an Incomplete Revolution"), she has written about the school since the 1980s.
She makes it clear early on that the problems plaguing BHS may be easier to see in Berkeley, but they are everywhere.
"We're ALL worried about our teenagers now," Maran writes. "They're shooting at each other, at their teachers, at us. They're doing scary drugs, having scary sex. They're scarring their bodies with piercings and tattoos. They wear pants that sag to their crotches, tank tops that cling to their cleavage, headphones everywhere they go. They cut class, they disrupt class, they sleep through class. They aren't learning; at least, not what we think they should learn in the ways we think they should learn it. Worst of all, they won't tell us what they're doing. And when we find out, they won't tell us why."
Writing like that - matter-of-fact yet excruciatingly sensational because it's true - makes "Class Dismissed" both compelling and terrifying. Thanks to Maran we cannot and don't want to turn away from the awesome pressures affecting our high school kids, in particular the "achievement disparity" between whites and minorities, between rich and poor.
Parallel to that is what might be called the "Columbine factor," that potential for violence that seethes beneath the surface of every class and is reflected by the existence of increasing numbers of security guards (School Safety Officers, "the intensified partnership with the police department, the expanded number of teachers on hall duty, the erecting of the chain link fence [following a rash of stabbings and shootings], the militaristic 'Columbine practice run' conducted the week before the school opened . . . [and] the school's increasing practice of conflict resolution."
The book opens with Berkeley High in flames during its TENTH arson fire of the school year, but Maran is quick to show us that the real breakdowns occurring here, as is probably true everywhere, begin with the way Americans seem to have abandoned teachers at every level.
At Berkeley High we may meet some of the most caring teachers ever to hit the classroom scene, but as they put in 12-hour days and put up with low pay, broken-down equipment (the clocks and class bells seem permanently stopped), threats to accreditation, union problems, administrative chaos (all but one counselor and five vice principals are fired before school begins), school district ultimata (a "D" is no longer to be considered a passing grade) with no teacher input or retraining at all, and state government declarations (new tests, ditto teacher input), one wonders why they teach at all.
And they come to work at a school in which protests, demonstrations, walkouts and "slowdowns" are so common that classes are interrupted frequently. Thus does high school become more than an institution; in Maran's hands it's "a character - an eccentric, complex, formidable one, requiring great amounts of attention and examination."
Maran follows everyone around, listening to their conversations, interviewing them about what they really think, so that when teachers and parents and advisors speak out, we get the same shot of adrenalin they feel, the same helplessness finding solutions and yet the same pride in watching American kids learn to write, speak and stand up for themselves.
Indeed, the best part is the way Maran weaves the stories of the three students we end up rooting for: Jordan, the well-to-do white senior who seems a shoe-in for an elite Eastern college; Autumn, the biracial high-achiever who's determined to go to college despite her impoverished, desperate home situation; Keith, the engaging African American football player who's functionally illiterate and suddenly, unexpectedly finds himself in deep trouble with the police.
Like "Hoop Dreams," all is not as it seems when these kids' stories unfold, and along the way, Maran seems to accomplish the impossible: Through the specific details of one unique school, she holds up a mirror to all schools - to our hopes for them, our attempts to protect, fund, supply, staff, maintain and upgrade them.
The fact that she finds some answers makes the 250 celebrants at Cody's applaud and stomp with greater frenzy when Andy Ross sits Meredith down to sign books for a long, long line of customers. This is one book on education everybody can read, and the fact that Maran throws out some no-nonsense ideas on how "we must radically restructure the American system of education" is one terrific bonus.
More about that next week, plus a look at other books on the same subject.
DICK HARTE ON THAT FORTUNE ARTICLE
Dick Harte has been helping independent booksellers build their own websites and utilize a shared database through the program he founded called Book Site (www.booksite.com), for about two years now, and all along he's been telling me I oughta quit complaining (COMPLAINING? I offer the best watchdog stuff in the business, but he doesn't listen) about Amazon.com because the reason independents should establish their own websites, he says, is not to try "branding" customers as does Amazon, which is going to topple eventually, but to offer customers an online service that's equal to the kind of service those same customers get in the store.
And all along I've said, yes, let's hope you're right about that topple business but who knows when it will eventually happen because look at the bouncy nature of the stock even now and the billions Amazon.com says it still has in safe keeping. So Dick has been doing his own watchdog service for Book Site customers and noticed this article in Fortune Magazine's October 30th issue. In an email sent out yesterday he provided a much better summing-up than I could, so with his permission and credit to Fortune I herewith reprint this excellent memo.
Fortune magazine's October 30th issue has an article called "Lessons from the DotCom Crash," by Jerry Useem, but it's really about sanity returning to the business world. This is an upbeat article that everyone should read. Bottom line, it is looking good for us [independent booksellers]. It is organized around 12 observations, with another 50 lessons listed in outline form. Here are the highlights.
(1) The Internet isn't as disruptive as we thought. Bibliofind, which changed the used book market, and eBay, which converted every consumer to a retailer, are good examples of disruptive technologies. Amazon, BookSite, et al aren,t considered disruptive technologies (I feel Amazon with their lose-lots-of-money strategy is an example of a "destructive" technology).
Best of the rest
(3) Banner ads don't work. (Actually I think they do. It's just that the wrong things are being advertised, e.g. Amazon.com instead of books).
Suggest you read the whole issue. It is an eye-opener.
Thank you, Dick Harte. I love the fact that similar articles are popping up everywhere. In "Charting the Dot-Com Crash," The Street.com notes that the term "path to profitability," once a joke at Amazon.com and others, is now gravely, almost biblically intoned in many a press release.
Examples are provided, as in: "Terra Lycos will pursue an accelerated path to profitability through diligent fiscal responsibility," and buy.com's "positioning" of itself "to accelerate our path to profitability."
Says TheStreet.com: "Now, the first time you hear someone way 'path to profitability,' you might not think too much of it. But what if you heard it all the time? Day after day after day?
"Take it from us, it's pretty damn inspiring."
Hey! A dotcom business magazine with a sense of humor! Let's invest!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your piece about the ABA's Carl Lennertz: For a decade or so [when Carl was at Knopf] I remember Carl's newsletters celebrating not just his publisher's books, but good books recommended by booksellers around the country. He had a contagious enthusiasm, a real passion for selling the good books. This is at the heart of what makes great independent bookstores.
I should tell you, for a decade I worked at Andersons (general manager/buyer, through June, 1996), in fact we all met Carl years ago when he came out to visit us. I remember Mary Yockey, the store manager at the time (she's now the buyer), telling Carl about a book she was handselling (we're talking a thousand copies or more here!) called She's Come Undone. No one had heard of the author yet and the book was still an independent bookstore cult favorite, (which is to the point you/Carl were making about the Book Sense list).
I'm a literary agent now, and two nights ago one of my authors was in for a signing at a B&N. In addition to being an author with Doubleday, he's been a publisher in religious books for 30 years. We had some time before his event so we dropped by some other stores to sign stock. We happened to walk in the back door of Andersons Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, just as children's author Eric Carle was in their back office signing box after box of presold copies of his new book.
Doubleday publicity had called Andersons but because my author (whose book, by the way, was "I Like Being Catholic") had only this one night, and this one night was booked for Eric Carle, we were too late. But the staff was very gracious to us. My author signed some books for the staff and signed the store's stock, and we were both thrilled to find a double-facing of his book in the section. We had to scramble around the store, because well before the Carle signing started more than a hundred people were in line waiting and more browsing with armloads of books for purchase.
My author was overwhelmed. I don't think he really believed (too many years in publishing, viewing life from NYC) that independent bookstores like Andersons really exist. They do, and they will continue to do the great things independent bookstores have always done.
As we were making our way to leave, through the growing crowd, I noticed the distinctive blue Book Sense logo at the check out area. Later, after a nice signing at the B&N, all my author could talk about was Andersons. If Carl can help the independent booksellers remember what makes them great --- the fact that he's been able to herd the highly independent minded bookstores, I'm thinking of the "cat herding commercial, " --- than Book Sense is a welcome thing and ! ! Carl is continuing to create passion for good books.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for the great ink on Carl and his crusade. For almost seven years, I worked for Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The staff was once treated to a breakfast with Carl and it was quite something to see. His infectious enthusiasm, his wit, and his belief in indies rubbed off on everyone.
What Booksense is accomplishing is nothing short of amazing. In just over two years, Booksense has gone from a powerful idea to a powerful tool. My heart will always be with the indies even though the chains are also accounts of ours in my present job. Please continue to chronicle Carl and Booksense and show that fighting the good fight in this day and age isn't chasing windmills at all.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Well, at the risk of seeming like an ungrateful bore, I do have to take exception with your characterization of my work at Book Sense as being a one-man band·or brand. I know you got to see me in signature foaming-at-the-mouth action, but I'm just one of a team here at ABA who, along with booksellers on the board and various committees, have been traveling and proselytizing and banging the drum as much as or more than I have.
The Book Sense concept came out of your backyard, as you know; out of the heads of Northern California booksellers. The campaign was then taken national under the direction of Mike Hoynes, a branding pro, as part of ABA's new marketing efforts, a new priority that came from CEO Avin Domnitz and the bookseller board of directors. I actually came to the campaign late, to develop book-specific aspects of the larger campaign. Avin, Oren, Ellie, Len, Jill, Mike, Linda, and others have been traveling the country even more than I have, spreading the word.
We've been welcomed at individual stores and at regional forums to talk up the campaign and to get feedback and ideas at every step of the way. (And it was Oren who mobilized the effort to stop the B&N/Ingram merger.)
You do give proper credit to the enormous and unselfish work of thousands of independent booksellers, people who are already working 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week. And yet they give of their time to various aspects of the Book Sense campaign -- to both to sell more books and gift certificates, to get on-line AND to share with their fellow booksellers strength and expertise. I often get the image of thousands of us linked arm-in-arm across the country, or less metaphorically but more tangibly, linked electronically with information and breaking news and words of support back and forth. A passion for books and community shared and trumpeted far and wide.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I love that Carl! And his vision for Book Sense! I think there should be a way to "subscribe" to Book Sense online as an individual and get the weekly or monthly best seller lists or hot picks or whatever it is. I would think lots of people would like that. Can you already do that and I missed it? Or maybe you should put it in your column? Or on your website? Or something?
Carl Lennertz responds: On the long, long To Do list is an email to subscribers about all sorts of book news - including the 76 and the bestsellers - but 'til then, we encourage all to visit an independent store, pick up the 76 flier and make a purchase, and/or visit BookSense.com, find their favorite indie websites and check out each store's favorite 76 and staff picks on-line. The bestseller list is posted in most stores and at BookSense.com. And if this seems like a cheap ploy to get you to come in and shop at an indie, or to bookmark a number of indie stores as favorites to visit often, you're absolutely right!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Kelly Ferjutz of Regency Press wants a ban on the sale of used books until they are at least six months old? Didn't Ferjutz see the negative press coverage and backlash from country music fans when Garth Brooks called for a ban on the sale of used CDs for similar "reasons"? Garth was quick to backtrack on his statements and still it cost him dearly.
Ferjutz wonders, "Who will buy new if this practice is not stopped?" Just who the heck are all those used-book buyers going to buy *from* if there aren't a lot of people buying the book new in the first place?
Let's hope Ferjutz never finds out about "public libraries" where people can just borrow books (for free!) just as soon as they are published.
Ed Dravecky III
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The book industry has got to be the most Chicken Littlish industry on the face of the planet. Every time you turn around, another chunk of the sky is hurtling toward earth.
My own end of the business - used and out-of-print dealers - is as guilty of the syndrome as anybody else. But what sparks this letter is the publisher who has complained about Amazon's new "Sell Yours Here" Marketplace program. Kelly Ferjutz of Regency Press is concerned: "How long do you think publishers will stay in business if you encourage your visitors/patrons to sell their brand new books, as used books, when the book has not yet even been available to purchase for one month?"
Let's examine this scenario. The only way used books are going to be coming back into the market within a month after release is if a person bought the book new and liked it so little they just want it out of their house as quickly as possible and don't care that their return will be less than half of what they paid. If that is what is happening, the publisher has a problem that has nothing to do with Amazon.
Selling just-released books as used is not going to be a large-scale problem because there's no profit motive. Maybe a few individuals will dispose of their new books this way, but it's unlikely to be a stampede. And if Amazon stops this program, those individuals will just wander over to half.com or an auction site or any of the other easily-accessible Internet venues for selling books.
There's little sense in complaining about it. Once a person buys a copy of a book, the physical object is his to do with as he pleases. Rather than demanding "new books should not be allowed to be sold used until they are at least six months old!" publishers should concentrate on publishing books that people will want to own and keep.
I'm not writing this out of self-interest. We carry very few recently-released books, preferring to concentrate on the many fine books go out of print. I'm writing because I'm tired of seeing energy wasted on changes that aren't stoppable, energy that should be directed at maintaining a healthy industry.
The markets change. We don't carry a lot of common books that we used to carry because we can't compete with the people selling those books for less than a dollar on half.com. We can't even catalog and store a book for less than a dollar. It's a losing proposition. That's the reality. Now I can either whine about that and shout "it's not fair!" or I can get on with running my business and directing my energy to the places where I can compete, where I can contribute.
Publishing is a hard business. Bookselling is a hard business. Whining doesn't make it less hard. All these people crying about the various Great Satans ruining the world need to shut up and get back to work.
Now I'll take my own advice.
Holt responds: I think the point here is that it's awfully greedy of Amazon.com to step in and interrupt one sale to sneak in a pitch for another sale. The company does this ALL the time, and until publishers and authors protest, Amazon.com sure won't change it, and that ain't whining.
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.
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