by Pat Holt
Friday, December 8, 2000
BOOK CRITIC AS BOOKSELLER: DAY ONE
It's our first day in training as holiday workers at Book Passage in Marin County, Calif., and we arrive with the freshly scrubbed exuberance of fledgling elves.
I'm here because I can't think of a more exciting place to work during the holidays than a bookstore where the atmosphere is so festive. Poinsettia plants are all over the place, holiday music is playing and "Giving Trees" are on the counters (where you can choose a book for an underprivileged child by removing a star [Jewish] or angel [Christian] ornament and coming up to the counter ["We do the rest!" as I already love to say] to make the purchase).
My partner Terry is here because she's written a book about her mother that will be published next spring and can't think of a more terrifying prospect than talking about it in public. She hopes that by working in a store like this, which hosts an author event almost every day, she'll ease into the idea of BEING an author event without paralysis relatively soon.
We got here because co-owner Bill Petrocelli mentioned a few weeks ago that many bookstores are having trouble hiring new employees. The new dotcom (Internet/tech) companies are still luring workers away with higher salaries and promises of stock options, he said.
In fact, the store is now so desperate for workers, he added, that "we'll hire any warm body," and by golly, something clicked when he said that. "It's our best feature," I told operations manager Robert Dry, who didn't seem to care, and here we are.
Our first lesson is to learn how to shelve books and try not to gasp out loud when Rita, who's training us at the cash register, moves aside and says, "Here, you take over," as the next customer steps up with 16,000 purchases.
The sheer pace of business is unpredictable and magnificent. At one moment a hush descends, and no one is in the store except for a couple of browsers back in Crafts and Hobbies. At the next, swarms of customers advance on the sales counters with such urgency and need that even the two rookies are enlisted to search the inventory on computers and chase down books they pray to heaven are still on the shelves.
We know already that a certain level of controlled frenzy can be maintained when everything functions perfectly. But then, "nothing with a soul is perfect," as Rachel Naomi Remen (see #202, 12/5/00) writes, and in an independent store with events going on night and day, things sometimes ebb when they oughta flow.
Just yesterday, for example, the 10 or 12 kids who were supposed to show up for a pajama party in Children's Books mushroomed into 50 little bodies overflowing into the Author Event room. There Dr. Alan Rubin and Fran Stach were conducting a discussion of their book, "Diabetes Cookbook for Dummies," and the interruption in turn delayed the Jewish folk singers who had arrived to play nondenominational music for customers.
You'd think small mixups like that would be a bit anxiety-producing for the staff, but the standard here is set by the customer - if they aren't bothered, nothing really can go wrong - so everybody rides whatever tide happens to be moving through the store at the time.
We see how consideration for the customer has become something of an art when we're taught how to giftwrap. You take the leetle edge like zees and make an extra fold like zees," says Laurence, who's from France. The extra fold at the either edge of the package isn't necessary, she says. "It's just nicer," pronounced "nizair."
Most retailers offer giftwrap during the holidays, but here the store has installed huge rolls of many different kinds of decorative paper with various themes - Birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah, Travel and Other.
Customers usually decide which paper they want to use for wrapping each book, but sometimes I overhear members of the staff conspiring -- "This book is for a little girl on her birthday," Christy whispers gravely to Betsy. "Let's go with the floral pattern" -- when the customer has gone off to browse.
Exquisite small disciplines are everywhere in store policy. When we telephone customers to say the book they ordered has arrived in the store, we never mention the title of the book if the customers are out and their answering machine takes the call.
The reason is that if the book is a gift for someone in the household, and if that someone happens to be standing nearby when the answering machine is played, and if we've mentioned the title on the tape, we would spoil the surprise.
Authors are also treated with special deference, and author appearances are regarded as something sacred. We don't use cash register #4 (closest to the Author Event room) for fear of distracting the speaker and audience, and when the room isn't full, sales clerks who can get free (along with the two trainees who don't know anything) are rounded up to take up spaces and bring a fuller sense of conviviality to the occasion.
Today, as it happens, the two trainees are honored. Before us on the dais sits Eiko Ishioka, the great costume and set designer from Japan, whose movie and stage credits include "Bram Stroker's 'Dracula,' " "M Butterfly," "Chusingura" and most recently, "The Cell" (a movie worth watching ONLY for its haunting, rip-your-heart-out costumes, we feel).
Her book is "Eiko on Stage" (Callaway, 221 pages, $90; buy online at www.bookpassage.com ), a lavish and luxuriously rich oversized exhibit-format book with pictures to gawk at of the artist's stunning concepts for stage and screen.
Best of all as we browse the text is evidence of delicious behind-the-scenes revelations about directors Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog, magician David Copperfield, actors Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder,Anthony Hopkins and others.
Eiko is a giant in her field and could be so "high-fashion" in dress and flash and flair -- so much the artiste and so image-conscious -- that she might be unreachable in a setting like this. Instead this simply dressed and surprisingly shy designer is eloquent in her down-to-earth appeal as she invites the audience to ask questions rather than hear her lecture.
As a result of this intimate atmosphere, Eiko explains perhaps in more detail how she designed the huge ramp that cuts across the stage in "M Butterfly." At one point it disappears backstage, so that "you see only half of the ramp but sense the spirit of its meaning: the whole yet to be revealed," says Eiko.
Such profound answers have the effect lifting us out of our shoes as we sit in the audience listening to Eiko and gazing at the photos in the book. Someone asks her about a "Samurai influence" in her work, particularly "Dracula," but she surprises us by saying that nothing influences her, ever. Between projects, her mind is "as empty as a kettle," to be filled and fired only by the essence of the work at hand - for example, the "lyrical eroticism and decadence" in "Dracula" which she transformed into 30-pound costumes combining the sacred with the nightmarish.
So. Not only honored, are we. Not only thrilled as the author takes us by the hand and introduces us to her book, a literary transformation of her art. But also we feel compelled to act. We must buy this book. We must have it autographed for a designer friend who will cherish it, must engage in conversation with the author for a brief moment as - no, not groupies! - critically engaged readers.
Such is the magic that a good author event can create for customers in an independent store, I feel - customers who know that many of the full-priced books offered here can be found at a discount online or at a chain. Does it offset the pull of the chain store across the street that seems to promise more discounts than it delivers?
One answer comes from the great master of customer care, co-owner Elaine Petrocelli, who happens to be presenting her latest recommendations to a women's group on this very day. Terry and I get to listen in, not only to learn the stock but to witness the ongoing dialogue about books and the book industry to which stores like this one regularly invite customers.
Elaine doesn't mind taking a political stance, but she knows how to entertain as well as educate, referring to Barnes & Noble and other chain bookstores as "the aggressive, predatory darlings they are."
She informs the group that "at a time when independents are still closing, those of us who have communities like this one are very grateful. You have stuck by us when you could have ordered books from that river where the piranha swim."
The audience laughs, knowing that Elaine is dead serious. Amazon.com lost millions of dollars, she says, by selling half a million copies of the latest Harry Potter book at 50% off and offering free delivery from Federal Express. Book Passage, she states with pride, "sold 2000 and made a profit on each and every one."
A year ago her listeners might have balked at this - Amazon was still dazzling customers by pretending it was cool to promise no profit for years - but today the crowd regards her as the more responsible merchant, a fighter for American values and a bookseller whose store is worth protecting for all our sakes.
Sure, she says, Book Passage also offered free delivery of Harry Potter IV, not by hiring an expensive delivery service but by sending members of its staff out to hand-deliver the books at the crack of dawn.
"One of our people was greeted by a customer wearing an old tie-dyed t-shirt who had clearly just gotten out of bed," she remembers. "He insisted she come in for coffee, but she explained the store needed her to get back right away, for one thing because he didn't have anything on EXCEPT the t-shirt."
Once warmed up in this way, the audience is ready to hear "Elaine's Picks," as they are called in the store's newsletter, the front sales counter, on the radio show she does regularly and in every speech she gives throughout the year.
She's careful to gear her remarks to needs of the particular customers she's addressing. Today, for example, she explains exactly how graphic or bawdy the sex scenes can be in books like "4 Blondes" and "The Human Stain" because she knows this group of middle-aged women is wondering how appropriate it will be to buy these books as gifts for, say, a distant aunt or father-in-law.
She makes a point of never pitching the books she's brought and of being honest about her opinions. With the latest Margaret Atwood novel, "Blind Assassins," for example, she admits to reading the middle 200 pages so fast that she had to go back and read the novel more slowly, admiring it finally as "a challenge and well worth it."
She confesses that "Ghostwritten" by David Mitchell "didn't quite come together" for her but that her husband Bill liked it. Isabel Allende is a good friend, granted, but if you like Gold Rush settings, you can't go wrong with Allende's latest, "Daughter of Fortune," sold here (as are all Allende books) in both Spanish and English.
I look around this group and watch the club members take notes on the list of "Elaine's Picks" the store has helpfully provided. With each recommendation, Elaine offers an ever-widening spectrum of terrific gift ideas, ranging from "neat stocking stuffers" like the paperback edition of "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" ($11) to "absolutely gorgeous" gift books such as "Einstein's 1912 Manuscript" ($195).
Ordinarily an audience like this is capable of absorbing information about two dozen books at the most, but Elaine takes us through as many as 40 books, each distinctive in its own right but memorable because of her chatty and humorous conversational style.
It could be that every customer here (there are about 50) will spend about $100 on books in the store, which would make this a lucrative lunch hour for Elaine indeed. But hours later, I look up from the sales counter and see Elaine giving the same speech to a group of seven people in the back of the store.
They don't appear to be the kind of customers who'll spend $100 for book gifts - maybe 30 bucks is about their limit - but Elaine offers the same recommendations with the same mix of honesty, humor and passion, throwing in perhaps more paperbacks this time as great stocking stuffers.
By the time our shift ends, staff members tease us for falling into the trap of every reader who's ever worked for a bookstore. Even with the staff discount for the Eiko book, plus a great (not so expensive!) lunch in the store cafe, mileage and bridge and three kids books for Terry's nephews plus a paperback reference I've always needed ("Lies My Teacher Told Me") we finish our first day about $12 in the hole.
But here's the best part. Walking out the door, we have this odd sensation that working in an independent bookstore is like walking into the pages of a good novel, with all the subplots, characters, settings and intrigue that compel a person to keep coming back to it, to think about it - even worry about it - when away. And to feel its larger message - whatever it is - somehow enhancing daily life.
That message we find right in the stacks on Day 2: THE THRILL OF SHELVING, to appear next week.
Thanks to the many readers who graciously wrote and called about my latest gaffe, which was to mix up the names of Changing Hands, the Tempe, Arizona, independent bookstore, with Page One Books in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
It was Page One to which Rachel Naomi Remen referred when she said (in Holt Uncensored #202) that her last visit was so inspiring she'd WALK to Albuquerque to do another author event. Speaking of gracious, when I called each store to apologize, the answer in both cases was, "It's the holidays - we all make mistakes this time of year," bless 'em.
Rachel writes to clear up a few other details: "I have had Crohn's disease for 47 years (alas, not 30) and am the Co-founder (not Founder) of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, a retreat for people with cancer, which is one of Commonweal's service programs. I do not see patients at Commonweal, which is an education and research oriented nonprofit, but in a private practice that is independent of Commonweal."
Finally, the URL for the Freedom Forum is www.freedomforum.org (not .com).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I received this from a bookseller, thought you might be "amused."
To: Friends of Independent Bookselling:
EMAIL RECEIVED 12/07
I'm Bob Mankoff, Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker Magazine, President of The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons.
It's hot off the press, hysterically funny, and selling for only $12.48 at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1576600750
How good is it? Amazon gave The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons five stars - their highest rating.
Since it would be immodest of me to rave about the book, I'll quote someone Donald Wayne Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell is an author and has reviewed over 827 books on the Amazon site.
"This book contains 110 cartoons that have appeared in The New Yorker relating to technology. Most have something to do with computers or the Internet, but faxes, cell phones, and biotechnology also make their appearances.
"The book is one of the best collections I have seen of New Yorker cartoons. It also provides Mankoff's best introduction to any of these collections ... as well as a CD of the cartoons in the book.
"I was pleasantly surprised that this collection was done in such a way. Perhaps it is because Mr. Mankoff is a self-confessed technophile. He defends that preference as being better than being a Francophile."
Yours in especially good humor,
MY RESPONSE SENT 12/07
Dear Bob Mankoff, Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker Magazine, President of Cartoonbank.com, and proud editor:
Thank you for your recent e-mail informing me of your hysterically funny book on technology. I laughed and laughed when I read that it is available for cost at Amazon.com. (Only $12.48!! How very funny, Amazon can't make any money at that rate. They must be giving it away, ha, ha, ha. You guys crack me up.)
You know, as an independent bookseller on tired legs, I carry all of your other hysterically funny books of New Yorker cartoons. Lawyers, Doctors, Politicians, Business, Money, 75th Year: I sell them all. And at a respectable pace for a very small, modest, and exceptionally slow independent bookstore who must, and I emphasize, MUST, sell them at full retail if I'm able to stay in business. My only question to you as the steward of New Yorker intellectual property is that would you mind, every now and again, maybe emphasizing quality over cost: plan on rewarding the few remaining independents who have supported you and the NEW YORKER all of your existence? Or is that contrary to your selling schemes?
Keep 'em laughin'.
Holt responds: Gee, what about the guy who's quoted in Mankoff's letter? His credibility is established mainly by the number of customer reviews he's submitted to Amazon.com - a whopping 837! Or wait, maybe that's not even a record at that shop. Maybe from now on we'll see a new standard for celebrity blurbs with both ends of the spectrum equally valued, something like:
"Pleasantly surprised!" -- Donald Wayne Mitchell, 837 customer reviews, Amazon.com.
"More of the same!" -- Patricia Holt, 0 customer reviews, Amazon.com
Okay, maybe not...
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