Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 19, 2000


  Shouting Out with Glee
  You Have to Have It!
  The Kind of Discovery You Find Here
  The Big Deal



Here we are in the Philosophy & Religion section at the back of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., where my partner Terry and I are working for the holidays.

Customers swarm into the store looking frazzled and exhausted -- until they notice it's Sing Along morning in the Author Event room. Sounds of children and parents laughing and singing make us all smile as folksinger and teacher Christopher Smith pretends to stumble over familiar lyrics.

"Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer," he sings, "had a very shiny foot . . . "

"No!" the kids yell. "Not a FOOT!"

As Terry and I advance toward a wall of shelves crammed to the point of bursting with thousands of titles, we're filled with a sense of mission to - well, to cram more books into the dang things, Terry starting with Death and Dying and me with Astrology and Wicca.

Of course, you only have to blink in a busy bookstore like this and wham! Enough books have been grabbed right off the shelves to create a hole the size of the ABA's projected deficit (tiny joke). So the idea for shelvers in an independent bookstore like this is to demonstrate that selection is everything; placement is everything.

Our job is to place enough stacks of books face out and enough single titles spine out to show the customer that in this store, in this section and on this shelf, right down to (in Philosophy and Religion) sub-sub categories like Fairies & Myths, somebody bought these titles who's really knowledgeable and is not going to waste your time junking up the shelves with meaningless "product."

Rumi is the popular 13th-century Persian mystic who's also found in the Poetry section, so it's a good thing I checked the ISBN number on the computer before taking it out for shelving. One of the great store disciplines here is that even experienced members of the staff NEVER assume they know the location of a book by looking at the title or author.

Should "African Textiles" be shelved under Africa or Textiles? Does the book about sculptor Chick Austin belong in Art or Biography? In the great mix and spread of literature, every book has a place and every customer a choice, or so goes the theory.

Shouting Out with Glee

I'm trying to find a space for the Rumi title in the "B" (for Bark, you see, not "R" for Rumi, an important distinction), when a customer walks over to both of us to explain that her father is dying of Parkinson's Disease, and she's looking for a book that will "be a comfort" to her mother while she takes care of him.

Terry's still in Death & Dying and holds up a couple of modern classics, one by Rabbi Harold Kushner and another by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross - but these aren't quite right. The customer studies the D&D section for a while as Terry moves over to Women's Issues to give her some privacy.

"Nothing here works," says the customer. She can't put her finger on why. I suggest titles by Sherwin Nuland's and Pema Chodron, but these aren't striking a nerve, either. "It's not as though we don't understand the diagnosis," the customer explains, and suddenly we realize the problem: The books we've mentioned are premature. Her father may be dying, but he's very much alive to his family. Her mother needs a book of wisdom and solace, not directions about coping with death after the fact.

Suddenly I remember -- how could I forget? -- I just interviewed Rachel Naomi Remen (#202), and right there in front of us all is her first book, "Kitchen Table Wisdom." This is a very wise collection of true stories by a local doctor, I tell the customer. Rachel Remen writes as much about the flow of life and death as about the tenderness and grit she's witnessed among people very much like the customer's mother, her father, my mother and father, Terry's mother and father, and your mother and father.

The customer looks at the title for long minutes as we both turn back to our shelving and pretend not to be watching. Finally she looks up and says, "Well, this is perfect," and for a single but lifelong moment we all burst out with joyful celebration and noisy optimism.

"As they shouted out, 'Oh, gee!' . . . " Christopher Smith sings in the room next door.

"NO!" the kids yell. "They shouted out WITH GLEE!"

Back to Rumi: The only way to make room for this book on a shelf that's too tight to begin with, I realize, is to check the previous shelf, and if no room is there, to look on the shelf before that one, and to go back, back, back until I find myself nearly stumbling into Diabetes and Cancer.

You Have to Have It!

But just as I get there a 13-year-old boy and his mother who come in looking for Book #3 in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. Mom and son say they're reading the series together. He has read Books #1 and #2 first, and she has read #1. "That way I can give away the ending before Mom finishes," he jokes.

"Wheel of Time" is a fast-selling series, however, and as we approach Science Fiction & Fantasy, it appears that all the copies of #3 gone from the shelf. "Oh, no! You HAVE to have it!" he exclaims. A check on the computer shows that we do have six copies of #3 on hand. By now this kid is desperate.

"It's been selling fast off the shelf," I say, turning to the window where the Robert Jordan display is set up, "that I bet you'll find some still on the displ -- "

"There it is!" he shouts, and, with eyes agleam and arms whipping out, he grabs the beloved #3 as if his life depended on it, which for that moment it does. Almost immediately his mother is at the counter to buy not only #3 but #4 through #8 and the latest (still in hardcover), #9.

The Kind of Discovery You Find Here

I hurry back to Rumi as Christopher leads the kids and their parents in a rousing version of "Lots and Lots of Latkes!" Customers find themselves breaking out in laughter from the joyous energy of the song pouring forth from the p.a. system.

It's very worrisome to leave a book you're about to shelve in the wrong place. You never know when a customer might pick it up and move it somewhere you'll never find, and that bit of inventory will be lost forever. But there is Rumi waiting for me as I return to Eastern Religion.

And there, about 15 feet away, I discover a shelf with pockets of little spaces between the titles, allowing me to push all the books to the left and make a giant (well, one-inch wide) space on the right. This I fill with a book from the next shelf, and that creates enough room for me to push all the books there over to the left-hand side, again opening another inch-wide space to accommodate a book from the NEXT shelf.

In this way I work all the way around the room until I am back to the 'Bs' in Philosophy & Religion. I'm just about to find a place for the Barks' translation of Rumi when a man comes in looking for a book on candida, the yeast disease. I show him a guide to candida and a candida cookbook, which he browses quickly.

"These are great," he says. "Got any more?"

"Well, there are books on yeast in general, and -- "

"No problem," he says, putting the books down, "I'll just check across the street," meaning the Barnes & Noble store on the other side of the freeway.

I try not to react as if slapped. Customers at Book Passage often tell us how much they love independents and how they would never shop at a chain store. Yet they feel "branded" all the same. Every day we hear people say that Borders offers overnight service on all special orders, and huge discounts on all books, all the time (both notions are wrong).

Only an hour ago a woman called on her cell phone from Barnes & Noble to see if Book Passage had a book she couldn't find at B&N. We have it, but somehow winning a competition for every title isn't the point.

Now this guy: Of course it's his privilege to shop around! He's going to a chain store because he thinks he'll get a bigger selection! Not that more books about candida are guaranteed at Barnes & Noble. Mostly the MYTH of every book you've ever wanted on every subject is there. The lure of big chain discounts (ever decreasing, but he doesn't know that) is there.

The safe books, the commercial books, the paid-for placements, the formula buy, everything that's obvious and expected is there. But not the kind of discovery you find here.

So off he goes, and back I go to Rumi. My process of restocking shelves from far across the room has carved out an actual inch of space for the Coleman Barks translation, which assumes its destined place in this literary environment at last. What satisfaction.

That's one title down, about 12 titles to be shelved in my present stack, another 200 books on the cart back at the sales counter and another 5 carts waiting, and we're still talking about the first hour of work.

The Big Deal

Now someone from a chain store might look at this process and say, so what? Shelving is a big deal at chain stores, too. And I'm sure there are people shelving books at Borders and Barnes & Noble who will try to answer customer questions - not that they're allowed to in many cases. Chain stores offer an information counter for questions; beyond that, the environment is strictly self-serve, like a gas station or Toys R Us.

As every independent bookseller I've ever met has said, there's room in the book biz for every kind of retail approach; but there must never be a SINGLE approach, or the whole idea of democracy - many different voices with many different ideas; many different books with many different audiences - could be at risk.

The bookstore wars, then, are not a matter of competing or winning but of living in harmony to meet the great reading challenge before us, of being worthy of the literary environment all around us.

At an independent bookstore like this one, the thrill of shelving is right up there with the thrill of working with customers, one book at a time. Books are flying off the shelves at such a rate that we feel like those baseball machines pitching book after book back in. Somewhere in the midst of this melee, the great adventure awaits.

"Do you think I should shelve this under 'Mountain' or 'Dreamer'? " says Terry. I take a look. The book is "The Invitation" by an author named Oriah Mountain Dreamer. "Frankly there's no room under 'Mountain,' "

"I guess 'Dreamer' is it, then," I say. Terry looks at the Spirituality shelves, crammed so tight there isn't room for a fingernail of space.

"Single bells, single bells," sings Christopher in the next room.

"NO!" laugh the children.

"I guess I'll start out looking for space in Consumer Reference," Terry says, referring to a section that's an entire room away. "I'm just going to find room for my 'Mountain,' " -- not one of the great jokes of the season.

I think if there is one image that comes to mind as we're shelving, it's that a bookstore like this is a living, breathing organism, a kind of literary Gaia. It's not a robot or clone controlled from a faraway headquarters.

It's locally rooted, home-grown to its endpapers with the buyer as the brain and the Receiving manager as the heart who's pumping the great Life Force (the books) into every category and extremity.

So we shelvers are out here in the capillaries keeping circulation moving, and I'll tellya, at this moment, going into the second hour of work on Day 2, for us there could not be a more life-affirming job on the planet.



Gad, more technology problems have created faults in the list-serve! If you're getting some columns but not others, hold on: Help is at hand in a big way (thank you, Santa!) with upgraded services coming in the New Year.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I couldn't help but respond to the letter sent in by Charles Simon. I was surprised and shocked by his experience at a Borders store. I'm a Borders employee and although it wasn't my store, I apologize on their behalf. There was no excuse for your treatment and I'm sorry that you went through that. Also, please apologize to Vibol for me. Borders is unique in that every store has a full-time salaried community relations coordinator (CRC). Unlike the majority of chains where managers or booksellers try to fit events into their busy schedules, each Borders has a CRC who's focus is 100% on events and community involvement. This individual usually plans events months in advance and publishes the upcoming events in a monthly calendar. The stores all have three shift meetings a day and events are usually mentioned daily the week in advance so no one is unaware of an upcoming event. The CRCs also usually personally run the events and it is their job to handle publicity and marketing. I've seen authors upset for not getting readings scheduled (CRCs literally get dozens upon dozens of requests every month), but I was shocked to hear of an event scheduled and then forgotten! Since they usually are in regular contact with the author or publicist for weeks before an event, I was obviously amazed to hear about your experience. I've been a bookseller for ten years (the first four at two different independents and the last six at Borders), and when I hear stories like this about other booksellers, I'm always furious. Again, I apologize and I hope you never have to go through this type of experience with a bookstore again.

An apologetic Borders Bookseller

Dear Holt Uncensored:

With regard to Dianne Day's lament about the name Book Sense, I'd like to clarify for her and others a bit about the process that the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association went through to create the Book Sense identity.

First off, we didn't want just a name; we wanted a brand. So it needed to be something short and catchy. The company we worked with came up with over 100 names based on the five attributes that we identified as describing independents -- knowledge, passion, personality, involvement (later changed to character) and community. From those we whittled it down to ten, then to one. After choosing Book Sense, we created the tag line "Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds" and then chose a logo identity from another 100 sketches.

In discussing Book Sense, there were initial worries about the name and what it might connote to consumers. But the majority of the board of the NCIBA believed that Book Sense worked on many levels -- as an apt description of one of our primary strengths as independents, as an easy-to-remember name that complemented the tagline, as a well-designed, distinctive logo. In short, we believed Book Sense worked as a new symbol of excellence in bookselling. One other attraction was that the name could be turned back on the customer -- we've got Book Sense, you've got Book Sense. While we recognized that some might worry about elitism, we were persuaded that the words conveyed a strong, easy-to-remember message that would resonate with consumers, while implying a cachet that we thought helpful in distinguishing us in a crowded marketplace.

We understand that Book Sense may not work for everyone, but we hope that Dianne and others will accept our months of work and recognize and appreciate the intention of the identity. I would also note that we have been quite gratified by the response to Book Sense, both as a name and as a marketing stategy. We were told that the identity could take 3-5 years to take hold, especially given our inability to spend millions on advertising. We are thrilled that it has already enhanced consumer awareness and appreciation in less than two years of existence. With a bestseller list, Book Sense 76 recommended books and a national gift certificate program in place, the ABA has provided indispensable tools for booksellers, allowing them to use Book Sense as a sales tool in their store while further branding the identity and linking Book Sense with good books.

Make sense? We hope so.

Hut Landon
Executive Director

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You likely know about this, but...

On page 20 of the December 14 issue of the London Review of Books there's an intriguing bit about Waterstone's. I'll quote part of it -- maintaining English spelling, of course:

"Now Waterstone's has been criticised for trying to force small publishers into selling all their titles to the chain at a discount of 50 per cent. Coming under fire at a meeting of the Independent Publishers Guild, David Kneale, the managing director of Waterstone's, reminded delegates that 'we have shareholders and have to make a profit.' He changed tack later..."

Mary Cresse

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Interesting new slant on the discount issue. I just logged on to bn.com, and up popped a window for Joy of Cooking. As a special deal, they will throw in a "Free" Cookbook stand if you buy the book now. In addition, you can "...save $ 12.00 off of the Retail Price, and get the free book holder." They quote the retail price of the book as $ 42.00, and they are selling it for $ 30.00. Only problem with this "deal" is that the price of the book is $ 34.50 as quoted by Simon & Schuster at 5 PM today (12/18/00.) So, since BN has figured that they can't make money insanely discounting books, it appears that now they will mess with the retail price to make it appear that they are giving a better deal. Isn't that special? Maybe they mean that the book and stand combined are worth $ 42.00, but their ad clearly says that you save $ 12.00 AND get the free stand (in fact the pop-up window says it twice.)

Doug Wolfe
Dee Gee's Gifts & Books
Morehead City, North Carolina


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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