by Pat Holt

Friday, September 25, 1998



JUST ABOUT EVERY guidebook on San Francisco mentions the city's famed Union Street area and its expensive-but-worth-it boutiques as a great place for out-of-towners and locals alike to browse, shop and eat. The stores are small, unique, eccentric, classy and filled with the kind of inventory you can't find in other places. A few chains have crept in - Kenneth Cole, Armani, Z Gallery, Starbucks - but the mix is original and people keep coming back because of the character of the stores as much as the treasures inside.

The story of Solar Light Bookstore would be fascinating in this regard because it's one of those gemlike independent bookstores where every nook and cranny is so crammed with books that some of the shelves sag visibly. For a boutique store of only 2,000 square feet, Solar Light carries an astounding inventory (22-25,000 titles) and has a similarly astounding impact on the neighborhood. A "Guaranteed Read" display (you get your money back if you don't like the book) established by owner David Hughes often features unknown authors and sells in the hundreds rather than dozens - 600 of "Cold Mountain"; 400 of "Montana 1948"; 165 of Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux's moody and wonderful short stories, "Same Place, Same Things" (now in paperback from Picador; 208 pages; $11) and another 125 of Gautreaux's novel, "The Next Step in the Dance" (Picador; 340 pages; $23).

Hughes admits he's never run his store by formula. "We have an inventory turn [the number of times each book sells] of about 2.3 or 2.4 a year," he says. "Other booksellers have a turn of between 3 and 4, so for my sales, I have too many books in the store. It just happens that that's the way I want Solar Light to be. I don't want everything face out [displayed with the complete cover showing]. I want as many books as I can jam in here. If sales go down - if I can't afford this breadth of stock, - I'm just not willing to cut back."

The store's annual income of about $750,000 a year is "the best we've had," yet not what it could be, even with Hughes' wife and two kids taking their turns behind the counter and a fluctuating staff of about six clerks keeping the store open every day late into the night. Signage is old, the stuffed chairs and carpet a bit threadbare and the look decidedly funky (and even a little seedy). "Well, I don't want it to look junky," says Hughes. "I want it to look relaxed, like someone's living room, not corporate in any way. If I had unlimited funds, I'd probably varnish the wooden shelves." Attaway.

But the story for this independent bookstore is potentially (and typically) a tragic one, because the Borders chain is planning to bring a gigantic store of 19,500 square feet, which would take up the space of several existing smaller stores, right across the street. As Hughes stands outside Solar Light eyeing this location, it's hard to believe his store isn't being targeted for extinction. Chain stores have been accused of predatory practices - moving in across the street, down the block, around the corner from existing bookstores, then using heavy discounts to lure customers away - and Hughes has no doubt that if Borders moves in, he'll have to close. "I don't have the heart to watch my store bleed to death for the next three or four years," he says.

The irony is that nobody on Union Street wants Borders to move in, either. The merchants' association, which has a policy against any store larger than 5,000 square feet, has informed Borders that it's not welcome to open a store nearly four times that size. The already congested traffic would snarl to a stop with the many additional cars, loading docks, dumpsters and trucks that would pile up outside of Borders, and again this time the character of the neighborhood is very much at stake. "Parking is already at a premium around here," says Solar Light clerk Amanda Cotten. "You can just see a carful of people TRYING to visit Union Street, looking for a place to park as they drive past the stores they recognize, like Starbucks or Noah's Bagels or Nine West or Borders. Who could blame them for deciding they can always visit these stores at their local mall and driving away?"


THE OCTOBER 1 Planning Commission meeting that will decide whether Borders can move to Union Street happens to be scheduled on the very afternoon that the West Coast Book People's Association is hosting a lunch for the launching of Holt Uncensored.

What could be more Bay Area-oriented (thank you, Fred Cody) or in keeping with the new advocacy role of Holt Uncensored than to recast this luncheon as an eat-and-drink rally of sorts for Solar Light There ideas can be discussed and perhaps carried on to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association regional trade show that weekend. Afterward, everyone who wishes can adjourn to Civic Center to pack the Planning Commission hall and, when appropriate, speak to the commission about the impact of a chain store like Borders and what the loss of Solar Light would mean (to the First Amendment, to literacy, to the free flow of ideas, to an informed citizenry). One caution We MUST BEHAVE OURSELVES or we'll be a hindrance, not a help, to Solar Light.

If you want to come to the luncheon (cost is $26), call organizer Frank Goodall right now (415-459-1227, phone and fax) to reserve a place. Meanwhile you can contact Hughes at or send a letter of support about Case No. 98.323C to John Billovits, San Francisco Planning Department, 1660 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103.

If you want to attend only the Planning Commission hearing, the exact time of the Borders case won't be known until Monday; watch this column Tuesday for that announcement.


BERTELSMANN HAS ANNOUNCED the name of its new online book service, and no, it's not or even but "," surely an anticlimactic moniker if ever one existed.

Bertelsmann is the German publishing conglomerate that recently bought Random House, already owns Bantam Doubleday Dell and half of America Online's European and Australian services. For all the millions has spent "branding" - goodness, what a horrid word - its name into America's brain, and for all the billions Bertelsmann has spent BUYING America, "" sounds dinky and noncompetitive, of all shameful things.

So the burning question now, as Bertelsmann prepares to take on all the .coms - Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble and thousands of independents - is whether "" will be up to the fight. That new magazine devoted to media criticism, Brill's Content, appears to have the answer in its October issue but heavens, the SQ (swaggering quotient) is almost unbearable. There Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff announces that "Amazon will be the second, let me say, AOL in the e-commerce world." You're gasping at the show of power, right? Whapping B&N and Borders off the map, Middelhoff declares Amazon a losing contender and his own company the winner with its less-than-intimidating (for now) The fun part should come when the so-called big guys brand and outspend each other to death, leaving the way clear for something refreshing, like online services with personalities and character from the so-called little guys.


APOLOGIES TO Karen Berger of Westcliffe Publishers and author of that gorgeous book I unfortunately called "Along the Pacific Coast Trail." A bit of fun was had here with the term "pre-hike fitness," which wound up in the book as "prick fitness," though it's a bit terrifying to learn from Berger that "the mistake was introduced by a proof-reader using spell-check." However it's not in any way funny and please no smirks out there about Holt Uncensored #1 to learn that the book's title is not "Along the Pacific Coast Trail" but ALONG THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, still smashing in its exhibit-format photo essay of a Mexico-to-Canada trek by Berger and Daniel Smith.


YOU MIGHT NOT THINK a book about fear and loathing in Los Angeles would excite booksellers outside Southern California, but independents elsewhere can't seem to say enough about ECOLOGY OF FEAR Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (Metropolitan/Holt; 484 pages; $27.50) by former meatcutter and truck driver (and MacArthur Fellowship winner) Mike Davis ("City of Quartz," "Prisoners of the American Dream").

The book is a blistering indictment of destruction, real and imagined, in "the land of Sunshine," where rapacious developers and ignoramus residents lurch from visions of a Mediterranean paradise (still "sprinkled like a cheap perfume over hundreds of instant subdivisions") to terror over continued catastrophe (earthquakes, riots, droughts, floods, fires).

The writing is so original and stunning that you have to pause and look out the window for a while when, for example, Davis characterizes the arrogance of Orange County, with its "endlessly regimented rows of identical red-tiled townhouses" as an "affluent version of architectural Stalinism."

Davis beautifully dismantles continuing misunderstandings about a shortage (or is it really abundance?) of water, the nature of earthquake faults, the threat of floods and the difference between fires in wealthy Malibu and impoverished South Central. But his most exquisite writing is reserved for the way Los Angeles gets "parboiled by aliens in 'Independence Day,' " stewed to smithereens under molten lava in "Volcano," "swallowed by the San Andreas fault," drowned by tidal waves, eaten by killer bees and otherwise made the center of apocalyptic rapture in novels and movies. Eventually , thanks to Davis, "Ecology of Fear" is as much about L.A. as the true price Americans believe we must pay for a nationwide urban sprawl-to-the-death.

It's not that the chains have missed this book but rather that the independents are learning to sell it so well. Cody's buyer Patrick Marks says he "literally started shaking" upon first reading it because "the book is so good and I know how our store can generate interest among our customers." It's wonderful to see, a month after publication, the book still going strong through independents' displays on New Release tables, personal recommendations, author appearances, "shelf talk" cards written by passionate clerks and window displays to beat the band.

"This book is so good it supercedes geography," says Marks. "Davis takes an old-style urban plan that emphasizes a strong center and a linear movement outward - city, suburbs, country - and shows how it's been redrawn, with a collapsed center, barricaded suburbs and walled outer areas. Gradually what he calls the 'imagination of disaster' takes on a level of reality and horror that is just astounding and powerful. And true." From racism to prison, Manson to "Blade Runner," the hunting of cougars to people revealing their inner child after the Northridge earthquake by saying "I feel like Nature let us down," Davis rips apart all the comfortable bases to reveal the disturbing and slippery ground on which modern life is based underneath.

FTCS (Funny Things Customers Say) #1

OVERHEARD AT A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books Customer Do you have a book called "Why Giraffes Don't Get Headaches"? ACWLPB Do you mean "Why Zebras Don't Get...."? Customer That's it.

TRUTH OR (SUB)URBAN MYTH? A woman at a chain store called the chain's headquarters to say "I've got smoke coming from the back of my computer terminal. Do you guys have a fire back there?" Ah well.


IF YOU THINK BILL CLINTON has become a presidential pariah, consider Harry Truman the day after the Democratic party lost both the House and Senate during the congressional elections of 1946. So "discredited" was Truman that "as he walked off the train with a book under his arm, silent but smiling, [he] found no one waiting at the station to greet him," writes historian James Chace in his absorbing biography, ACHESON The Secretary of State Who Created the American World" (Simon & Schuster; 512 pages; $30).

Imagine that. For all his naughty secrets and bad-boy ways, Clinton would never be shunned or shamed or ostracized today. Americans in the late ' 90s are far too addicted to fame to neglect the "discredited" person at the station.

But scenes like this invite readers to consider Truman's time (was it simpler?) and ponder the imponderables (was it more "moral"?), thanks to the elegance and detail of Chace's absorbing biography. As it happened, a lone greeter -- then-undersecretary of state Dean Acheson -- did show up on the platform that day, "tall in his elegantly tailored topcoat and homburg" yet aware, to his "surprise and horror" that the rest of the Cabinet, accustomed to meeting Franklin Roosevelt after each election during FDR's tenure, had not and would not come to greet Truman..

That image of Acheson - loyal yet independent, apart yet engaged, alone but undaunted - follows us throughout this fascinating look at the building of America's world domination following World War II. Acheson's wide-ranging leadership is amazing, considering his influence on such Cold War constructs as the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Truman Doctrine, the Korean War, the firing of General Douglas MacArthur and the ouster of red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy.

But perhaps more surprising are the holy-cow! bits of history Chace uncovers in the course of following Acheson's story. Did you know that both the Congress and American press called on the United States to launch an honest-to-Stalin "preventive war" against the expansionist Soviet Union in 1950, "while America still possessed the lead in atomic weaponry"? Chace brings this out and shows Acheson the militarist sounding surprisingly dovelike as he not only "spoke out strongly" against this idea but argued for "total diplomacy" in the face of a budding "Evil Empire."

Chase sometimes sounds a bit TOO sold on the widsom of Truman's secretary of state, but that makes "Acheson" all the more provocative.

Chapter 2 of Remainders of the Day is with the rest of the story in a separate column on this website.