Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, November 17, 2000





I shouldn't start this piece with a story about The Thief Who Got Away from an independent bookstore, but it's too funny and too typical of the spirit of resilience that pervades Hicklebee's Bookstore, in San Jose, Calif., to bury below.

Co-owner Valerie Lewis is standing at the front door of Hicklebee's, and as I look past her shoulder as far as the eye can see, I find myself admiring the giant sycamore trees that lend a lovely pastoral quality to this otherwise urban-sprawly neighborhood.

Twenty-one years ago, Valerie and her partners joined with a few other retailers to plant these trees as little spriglets. Now one can't imagine this woodsy neighborhood of Willow Glen without them.

"We opened the store originally with $10,000 - each of the four of us somehow scraping together $2500" - so you might way we were a bit undercapitalized," Valerie explains.

"We were all young mothers and didn't know a thing about distributors like Baker & Taylor or Ingram. We sat in our kitchens with our favorite children's books trying to figure out a starting inventory. We'd say, 'Okay, here is Goodnight Moon, and the publisher is Harper & Row. We'd then call information in New York and say, 'Hi, we're opening a bookstore - would you send us a catalog?' and mark that publisher off, and go to the next tone..

"The lucky part of it was that since we didn't know any better, we worked with sales reps from the beginning and learned that what makes for a diversity of titles in a good bookstores. You get that by having to choose from all the different publishers and elements of publishing. You don't get that by using distributors exclusively, because they don't carry everything. "

In 1989, the store moved across the street and tripled its size (to 3400 square feet). "We knew we had to move but couldn't afford higher rent," says Valerie, "so we took out mortgages and purchased this building, which had been a big furniture store. The place felt as huge as an airplane hangar at the time."

It filled very quickly when the inventory of the first store - a block away and across the street - was carted over to the second store by a contingent kids, parents, teachers, librarians, publishers sales reps and other retailers. "The whole transfer took only three hours," Valerie recalls. "Teachers were directing traffic, and even an ambulance was involved. Everyone left that day feeling they had a personal investment in Hickelbee's."

Unfortunately the 1989 earthquake erupted six months later and required a $68,000 retrofit, for which few banks would extend a loan. So for 10 years, not much has been done to Hicklebee's in terms of upgrading bookshelves bought at half-price from other stores, or a maintaining a ceiling whose tiles only recently started falling, or a carpet that has shown more than a bit of wear and tear.

And the sales counter, which should have been placed at the front of the store, remains at the back, so that clerks have to walk past a dozen bookshelves to protect front-of-the-store inventory from pilferage.

Meanwhile, Hicklebee's aggressive marketing campaigns to parents, libraries and schools in the community was so successful that the store attracted national attention. Valerie began appearing on CBS Morning News periodically to recommend children's books, and at one point Hicklebee's had a television set running videos of her presentations near the front of the store.

"One day, I was walking in the door when I met a young woman who was pushing a stroller on the way out," Valerie recalls. "I stood there holding the door for her. 'Did you find everything you need?' I asked, and she said, 'Oh yes, thank you.'

"As she walks out, I'm looking at the bundle inside the stroller thinking, whoa, that must be a fat one in there and not even wondering what's going on until she's completely out of sight and I realize she's just stolen the front-of-store TV! Some of these pilferers are so cheeky. But I'm easy - it never occurs to me that people would actually steal the merchandise, and then they walk off with half the store." Indeed, the next TV installed in the store was stolen as well.

This is what I love about Hicklebee's - it's an independent bookstore that has overcome every obstacle with a spirit of playfulness and integrity that has kept its standards of selection and customer relations high -- and its décor, well, inventive, to say the least.

"We got tired of the carpet having so many spots because we were waiting to have all this stuff done - rewiring, re-fixturing, re-roofing - so I got some paint and told everybody on the staff, 'When you see a spot, just give it a little redesign."

And sure enough, the carpet itself is as whimsical as some of the books it lies under with its tiny hand-drawn space ships, stars, letters, characters, gewgaws, stripes and faces scattered throughout the sales floor in multicolored day-glo that just happens - and even if you look closely, you can't see it - to cover a multitude of history, so to speak.

But then, the carpet is the last thing you notice when you walk into Hicklebee's, one of the great crammed-to-the-ceiling bookstores of all time. The first things you notice, among the thousands of spine-out titles crowded into every nook and cranny, are the fantastic characters occupying every counter, shelftop, ceiling and wall hanging in the store.

Kids walking in are so astonished their jaws drop open and they forget to breathe when there behind a pillar they spot Charlotte's web, and over here waving at them is a full-size cut-out of Eloise, and way in the back a hickory dickory mouse is climbing up the chimes of a grandfather clock, and over here in the science department a dinosaur rears up with authentic wood-chip bones, and right here in the fantasy section a bunch of little pink tutus hang over books about angels, and off in another corner a giant bathtub awaits anybody who wants to climb in and read, and here behind a framed Willy Wonka golden ticket, peeking out for all to see (but you can't unless you're searching) is Waldo, at least for today because he's moved around the store quite frequently, and here at the sales counter, as your mom buys you the book you've wanted all your young life, you gasp looking straight up and see, hanging from an invisible thread, the Golden Snitch from Harry Potter flying proudly right above the cash register.

This magical feeling of books opening to release their unique features, which now reside among the rafters, is just for starters. Over to the left by the windows, authors have donated artifacts by the invaluable dozen, beginning with the historic sketch by Jeff Moss of "Jelly Beans Up Your Nose," the "actual bone with dog slobber on it" chewed by Pinkerton the dog and donated by author Stephen Kellog, an original manuscript from Patricia Riley Giff, the "big dusty feather used by Fred Marcellino when he drew the illustrations that won the Caldecott for 'Puss in Boots,' and all the Exacto knife tips used by David Wisniewski when he wrote 'The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups.' "

Valerie laughs when I ask how staff members keep up with it all - how they not only share authors with schools and libraries but present new books to teachers and librarians; how they keep re-creating the Hicklebee Hall of Fame, the Hicklebee Game Card, the Hicklebee Scrip Program, the Hicklebee Book Exchange, and the all-new Hicklebee Book of the Year Award (about which more next time).

(About the Exchange, Valerie says: "Our accountant once said jokingly, 'It's too bad you can't sell books twice,' There was a pause, and I said, 'Really?' Well, soon afterward we creatred the Book Exchange, a simple way for customers to sell the books they buy here back to us for a percentage of the price they paid, and we then mark up and resell them as used books.")

"How do we keep up with it?" says Valerie, emitting one of those deep-in-the-diaphragm chuckles for which she is famous. "Well, we have a great mix of younger booksellers, but as far as owners like myself and my sister Monica [Holmes] are concerned, we're now at that menopausal time of life when we're all turning the heat on and off or stopping to ask out loud, 'Does anyone remember why I'm in this room?"

Then Valerie and I head off to the California Library Association where Valerie wows 'em and I make a few discoveries in next week's column.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Recently I sent this letter to Amazon.com:

Dear Amazon.com:

I have been a good customer as well as an author whose books have fared well on the pages of Amazon. But I am shocked beyond belief at the posting of used/review/promotional books for sale at well below production cost on the same page as your offering of the new book.

If this is not reversed, modified, or otherwise changed for the better, I will do the following:

1. buy from Barnesandnoble.com or other online bookstores from now on 2. remove all mention of Amazon from my rather large web page (I have over 200 books out) 3. urge my publishers (Harcourt, Simon & Schuster, Viking, Little Brown, HarperCollins, Boyds Mills, Interlink, August House, Tor and others) to cease offering special discounts to Amazon as well. 4. urge the various writers organizations I belong to--SFWA, SCBWI, MWA, HWA, Author's Guild--to take legal action.

Jane Yolen

The following has just arrived from Amazon.com:

Dear Jane,

Thank you for writing to Amazon.com.

We understand your concern at having used copies of your books advertised on the Amazon.com detail page for your book. As you may be aware, Amazon's Marketplace has been selling used and collectible merchandise for well over a year. The recent introduction of the Amazon Marketplace onto a book's detail page allows greater contact between book buyers and sellers, resulting in a fuller shopping experience for our customers. This new feature also allows for customers to better locate used and collectible copies of titles they may wish to purchase.

Amazon.com launched this new feature to provide our customers with selection beyond that which we deliver ourselves. We feel this new feature will encourage trial of new authors and genres and will enable customers to find, discover and buy used, collectible and rare merchandise. All these things make Amazon.com a more valuable place to shop for our customers, which in turn yields a better place for our merchants and vendors to sell their products.

When we launched our customer review feature five years ago, it also generated great controversy among authors and publishers. Some thought it was a mistake for a bookseller to allow negative reviews of books. However, over time the customer review has proven to be among our most popular features, enabling the support of authors and publishers, both large and small, through shared customer experience.

We genuinely believe that doing the right thing for the customer, whether it be allowing negative reviews or allowing the purchase of used books, grows our community of customers and therefore increases sales of new books.

Thank you for taking the time to write to us -- we value your feedback. Please let us know if we can assist you in the future.

Best regards,

Lisa Sandoval
Book Catalog Department
Amazon.com, Inc.

So I have written and told the people at Amazon that since they refuse to address the issue, I have no other recourse than to remove the links and stop buying from them. Also I may stick a notice on my website: AMAZON CHEATS AUTHORS. PLEASE DO NOT BUY FROM THEM

Jane Yolen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I would like Patricia Holt to know that not everyone in the publishing community, much less booksellers, is opposed to the recent addition of a link to Amazon.com's book merchandise page that invites the browser to resell the featured book. Indeed, I'm both humored and somewhat alarmed by Holt's suggestion, quoted in the November 10, 2000 issue of PW Daily, that her, and presumably others', protests against Amazon's new sales feature are not tantamount to "whining." If so, I'd like to know when the term applies. We usually accuse children of whining when they demand something in a plaintive voice that they either do not need or do not deserve. In the case of the complaint against Amazon's practice of offering customers the option of reselling a book, Holt et al demonstrate both.

Do authors, agents and publishers "need" to collect all revenues garnered from the sale, use and resale of intellectual property? While new technologies point to possibility of such a scenario, it has yet to have been the case in the history of publishing. Libraries have always existed as a means of subverting this sort of intellectual hegemony. Indeed, the public library in Holt's home town exists for the purpose of offering the free use of copyrighted material to as many users as feasible for as little payment to publishers as possible. The typical bestselling hardcover novel purchased by a library may end up in the hands of as many as 20 readers in its first year on the shelf, depriving--according to Holt's reasoning--its publisher of hundreds of dollars of revenue.

Similarly, many bookstores offer used books in the same retail space as new inventory, often stocking the used shelves by buying back books they only recently sold from the front of the store. While publishers have, of late, struggled to remain profitable in a rapidly changing business environment, and while they now face the probable reconfiguration of revenue streams, the reuse and resale of their content has long been and will definitely remain a fixture of the industry, just one more liability publishers must factor into the cost of doing business. In short, Holt and others in the content origination chain don't "need" the revenue they allege Amazon of depriving the industry.

More to the point, the publishing community doesn't "deserve" this revenue. Copyright law has, for example, repeatedly upheld the right of the owners of video recordings to lease or sell original content for private, home viewing. Once Holt's favorite video store buys a video, it can rent or sell it to whomever, in whatever way the market will pay for it, provided the video is not shown in public for profit. Someone who purchases a book may exercise the same right to lend it to a friend, to donate it to a library, to sell it to a used bookstore--so long as fair use laws aren't violated. Publishers' right to control the material object through which content is delivered effectively ceases at the point the object is sold.

Thus, in demanding something that the industry neither needs or deserves, Holt is, in fact, whining. But the childishness of her and others' complaint doesn't end there. By attempting to defend the industry, she -- and any others who criticize Amazon's innovation--may well be harming it.

Consider, for a moment, where readers first discover their favorite authors. Whether Judy Blume, Charles Bukowski, or Saul Bellow, chances are that our first encounter with the books we hold dearest occurred at a school or library, a site where books are held in public trust and freely exchanged. If Holt asked her hometown booksellers who stock both new and used books why they trouble to traffic in both, it is unlikely that she would learn about the deep margins earned from the inventory in the back of the store. More likely, she would hear a testimonial to how the prospect of making an inexpensive find in the used inventory lures customers in to purchase the higher ticket new release.

Napster, and now Amazon, are forcing media professionals at large to consider something wise publishers have known all along: It is through the unfettered circulation of copyrighted content--even the symbiotic exchange of new for used, used for new--that content originators attract new customers and, ultimately, turn a profit. Holt et al would do well to stop their whining, lest the market relegates them to a permanent "time out."

John Lewis Needham
University press editor by day, online used book dealer by night
Highland Mills, New York

Holt responds: This would be a great letter if it weren't so whiny. The joy of libraries is that they ARE libraries. My problem with Amazon.com has been the kind of arrogance that makes pawns of publishers, authors and customers, not only in the above example but in a new one that appears to have occurred in the blink of an eye. Read on.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I've been an Amazon.com defender in the past, but they've just thrown me over the cliff in terms of a new "feature." I'm an author and have two titles with their own Web sites. Startingthis morning, it looks like, clicking on my sites to my book at Amazon.com brings up something called a "similarity explorer" which shows COMPETING TITLES below the one the user actually wanted toreach.

This doesn't benefit the consumer. It doesn't benefit the affiliate. It confuses the issue. If you click on my title, why do you want tosee up to nine related titles on that screen?

This is the kind of thing that will cause authors to cut their ties to Amazon.com. Unfortunately, they have us by the you-know-whats, asa) BookSense won't allow other bookstores to appear on the same site and b) Amazon.com forms the vast majority of all revenue from these two book sites I run, even though I link to several stores, including Powell's.

rrrrrrr....not what I want to wake up to.

An Author

Holt replies: I sent a query to this author about a few points and got back this note:

The author responds: I checked again, and it's gone. What do you bet I walked in on a test, and they already got a lot of angry email this morning and disabled the test?!


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.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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