Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, February 13, 2001





It's a dark and stormy night in Cotati, California, and Carolina Clare is worried.

As co-owner of North Light Books, she has advertised the appearance tonight of Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons, two therapists from Oakland who've written a beautiful and unusual book called "Undefended Love" (New Harbinger; 196 pages; $13.95 paperback).

"You could call it a self-help book, but it's more psycho-spiritual, not New Age, but not pop-psych either, sort of undefinable," she says. "Maybe that's the problem."

"The problem" is that it's 7:15 p.m., and nobody except the authors and one maverick columnist have shown up for the 7:30 event. "Maybe if the rain fell a little straighter," says Carolina, peering out at hail slicing sideways across the dark.

"Well,it's Monday, a slow night," she says, closing the door. Jett and Marlena nod.

Behind Carolina is something unique in these parts - not a bookstore with a coffee shop added but a full-service restaurant, now serving dinner, with a tiny, cozy, gemlike bookshop to the side that takes up perhaps 900 square feet.

It's stocked with a remarkable mixture of spine-out books, including a colorful children's section with plenty of space for kids to read and even a gorgeous Book Sense table now displaying Carolina's favorite picks.

North Light may be small, but it's one of those key pieces of the bookselling mosaic that would change the entire picture if it disappeared. It's drawn as many as 140 people to its twice-a-month author events, and as few as 3. Tonight the number may be zero.

That doesn't seem to bother Jett and Marlena. Their book, "Undefended Love" is about the kind of "direct, unmediated, heart-to-heart connection" that turns a "problem" like this into an unexpected opportunity, one that "can only occur," they write on page 1, "when the heart is 'undefended.' "

If we feel "exposed or vulnerable," as authors-with-no-audience-in-sight must certainly feel tonight, it would be easy to react defensively - to feel "emotionally disconnected, incomplete, or unloved."

But "Undefended Love" teaches us how to "relinquish the strategies" we've used since childhood that make us "feel safe and in control." In fact, it's only when we DON'T feel safe - when our defenses are stripped - that the deepest, rawest, strongest resources inside us can emerge.

At least, that's the theory.

Suddenly two drenched couples race into the cafe, clearly not for the book signing but for the House Special.

"Ah," says Carolina. "An audience."

Jett and Marlena look at her with puzzled expressions. It's now 7:25 p.m.

The two authors have certainly faced small turnouts before, having just returned from the first leg of their nationwide tour, where they taught the "Undefended Love" approach to groups of all kinds and sizes in independent bookstores, Learning Annex classes, spiritual institutions and women's centers across the country.

A handful greeted them at Bluestocking in New York City (granted, this was during the NYC World Series); but about 35 strangers turned up at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington - a good showing for two unknowns - and an equally energetic number at Beyond Words in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Closer to home, crowds have ranged from 30 to 70 at bookstores as diverse as Shambhala and Cody's in Berkeley, Barnes & Noble in Richmond, Capitola Book Cafe near Santa Cruz, and Book Passage in Corte Madera.

That's pretty good for a work that got 45 rejections from New York publishers and whose tour has been entirely set up by the authors.

So tonight, even though nobody in the restaurant appears to have come to North Light for the advertised book, Jett and Marlena are delighted. They see two stragglers arrive, both with a copy of "Undefended Love" in hand. They're clients of the two therapist-authors - not here to buy the book exactly, but certainly to lend support.

By 7:29, Carolina walks from table to table, talking to people like an old friend. The columnist tries to listen in and is both aghast and admiring.

It seems Carolina is actually convincing restaurant customers not to leave after their meal - not to go to the movie down the block or to work on their calculus homework here but to listen to the two guests, who "really have something to say,' she adds.

The customers sort of shrug and nod. The storm is worse, and something about the title, "Undefended Love," hits a little ping! inside. For a few of them - of course we won't know this until later - this is going to be an unforgettable night.

"Good Evening," booms Carolina from the stage. "I'd like to say a word about self-help books. They're written by people who've been down the road and have something to say to all of us on our own road." She holds up the book.

"I feel about 'Undefended Love' the same way I do about cookbooks - if you get 2 recipes out of them, they're worth the money. In this case, if you learn one thing from this book, it could change your life forever."

Very nice. Blunt and to the point.

So Jett and Marlena face about 20 people eating, talking, reading and yawning. The cooks and waiters are clattering behind the steam table, and the latte machine is making its guttural spit-up sounds. Newcomers burst in from a howling storm that sends wind a'whistling down the salad bar every time the door opens.

And yet within minutes, all is quiet as Jett and Marlena begin posing questions we have all asked ourselves for years:

Why are relationships so hard? Is it just that people are different? Falling in love is exhilarating, but after that, love is such WORK. Are some people blessed in finding the right partner and others unlucky? Or is there something inside that causes us to make mistakes?

The answer to all these is so simple and yet so elusive that we grasp it and lose it at the same time. "When we think being in a relationship is 'hard,' " says Jett, "we may be experiencing something that's become 'hardened' in us.

Falling in love, "we get a glimpse of our greatest potential," she says. So when we say, "this is really hard," rather than blame our partner, we learn how to look inward, where the same potential awaits. "It's ironic," says Marlena, "that so often we resist being changed by relationships, when that's exactly what we long for. We want this intimacy to be deep enough to evoke something fresh and genuine and unknown about ourselves."

Now the two take a chance on this audience that didn't come to see them. They ask us to "close your eyes and imagine a partner or ex-partner doing the one thing that irritates you the most - that makes you so upset you want to leave the room."

Grimaces surface behind 33 pairs of closed lids. Partners are imagined dropping laundry on the floor, chewing with their mouths full, talking on the phone too long, neglecting children, running up credit card debt.

Then we're asked to imagine the opposite. "Think of the partner or ex-partner walking into the room and being the person you've always wanted - someone who's meeting you, loving you, appreciating you, hearing you. Now how do you feel?" Here smiles appear as everyone thinks of the partner they fell in love with, and why.

Jett and Marlena make the distinction clear: The fact that our partner or ex-partner DIDN'T just walk into the room, and that we ourselves evoked two very deep but opposite feelings, means that the partner's actions are only a trigger:

We have these feelings inside us all along. We can evoke them, we can change them. We can use them to grow by ourselves as well as deepen the intimacy we seek.

Simple exercises like this captivate the audience. There's not a plate moving or fork dropping in the place. And it's amazing how much material is covered - the difference between personality and essence, between a defensive reaction and an "undefended heart" - and how much the audience can absorb.

Noticeable throughout is the fact that simpler books, like John Grey's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," are out of their league here. For one thing, Jett and Marlena believe that gender differences are a false notion. After a decade working with clients in private practices, "we have found that the intrinsic capacity for intimacy is the same in women and men," they say.

But it's the question-and-answer period that proves nearly transformative. "How do I know when to leave a relationship and when to stick it out?" people ask. "What if I want to do this 'undefended' work but my partner doesn't?" "What if I think of myself as generous but my partner thinks I'm stingy?"

Perhaps the most life-changing question comes up, of all places, in the autograph line: "People fall in love with me," a woman says, "but I've never been in love." She's wanted to know for years: how could this be?

"What's the experience you'd be trying to have if you were in love?" Jett and Marlena ask.

"Oh, to be safe, to feel wanted, to be loved and special," she answers.

"And if you were the one in love, what would be 'hard' about it - how challenging would that be?"

"Well - I - that would be terrifying," she says. Her eyes fill with tears. "I'd be afraid the person would leave."

Perhaps, the authors suggest, "you fear that you're not lovable enough, that something about you wouldn't be compelling enough for a partner to stay with. If you're afraid of being left, you may think there's no place to go home to in yourself."

They take the copy of "Undefended Love" the woman has purchased and show her how to use it to find the resources she has inside - resources that have been waiting there all along, they add.

Watching these two authors go from one reader to the next, and one (mostly independent) bookstore to the next, one sees how word-of-mouth can be built completely from scratch - granted, it's slow and "challenging," as they would say, but it may be the steadiest and surest way of all.

And so far, the book that mainstream publishers said would never sell more than a few hundred copies "in the face of John Grey" has sold more than 7000. There will be returns, but the authors and their small publisher, New Harbinger, will be sticking with it for a long time.

So it's been quite an evening after all at North Light. As the waiters clean up and Carolina turns out lights, a feeling pervades that Something Very Big has just happened. "We'll sell this book for a long time," Carolina announces confidently. Total sale? Maybe 20. "You've got to start somewhere," she says.



Thanks to the many readers who wrote to ask about receiving three, three, three issues instead of one last time (#215). I apparantly hit the wrong button and, unconvinced an error was made, hit it again. Please accept my apologies for the confusion, and thanks for your patience.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I must say I enjoyed this issue [#215], particularly the non-gratuitous Amazon.com bashing. It is sort of like nailing the Learning Annex, it is an easy shot, but they so deserve the broadsides. I await them going belly-up with bated breath and have a bottle of champers cooling in the fridge for that happy day.

And re L. Miller. Dearest Louann if you did a little more searching you could find Powell's Books online, the largest independent bookstore in the country where you could get books at reasonable prices. There are also many other independent bookstores online too! And I hate to point this out in lets-make-a-deal cost cutting America, but cheapest is not necessarily best. Need I note that fast food is not necessarily the best, even though it is often the cheapest.

I also offer an argument for paying a little bit more for a book at an independent store (online) than utilizing Amazon.com. Walmart offers items cheap. How? They have the economy of scale to do so, and they drive out all the local competition that provides actual jobs to local folks. Amazon and the chains are doing the same thing. And once they are victorious all that "crap" will no longer be available for sale. (And your prices will shoot up!)

In San Francisco, A Different Light, the local queer bookstore, has recently been "saved" after being purchased by a business minded individual. His strategy has been to stock only books that sell well. And all those hard-to-get books that people travel miles to get? Well, they will simply not be available. Of course, I am sure the 100 or so titles that are for sale will be cheaper than they might have otherwise been.

If you want something you have to pay for it. That is why taxes are higher in Europe; they have strange things like a national health service and public transit.

Tim Kingston

Dear Holt Uncensored:

This is a reply to the letter from John Farrell regarding my attempts to order a book from iUniverse. In order to keep a long story short, I did not recount my contacts with Ingram, which I did try first, in my letter on PODs. The discount with Ingram was worse than the terms with iUniverse...a 20% discount on purchases. That was the reason I attempted to deal with iUniverse directly...hoping that I could find some way to afford my author's book. I have ordered the book from Ingram...but it still hurts financially. Simply because of better freight terms, I might, possibly, make a $.16 profit per $16.95 book after my overheads are addressed. Compare that to the $3.00 plus profit on $16.95 books coming from mainstream publishers, and I hope you understand the point I was attempting to make. Because the author is a nice guy, I'm tying up inventory money for one title which will bring in $.16 as opposed to another title which will bring in $3.00. This makes no business sense at all. No matter how much we may want to support local authors, especially self-published authors, bookstores (at least real ones) live and die by their bottom lines. There is simply no way that a bookstore can afford to support POD titles in any great depth given the economics of the situation.  Lynn Dixon
Cook Inlet Book Company

Dear Holt Uncensored:

When the flight attendant says "Please turn off all electronic devices..." those with the e-books will be staring out the window and I'll still be reading away. Ooh just getting to the good part.

Barry Johnson
Books at Stonehenge
Raleigh, North Carolina

Dear Holt Uncensored:

For once, I was nodding along [to your comments in #215] about the Honor System's potential impact, and then this statement.

And yet however odd and desperate and snake-oily this sounds, it's nothing compared to a second Amazon plan, unveiled this week, that in effect charges publishers for spamming customers via invasive e-mail ads.

Please, Pat! Some consideration!

a) spamming: maybe. Spam is typically UCE = unsolicited commercial email. What all parties in the spam debate are currently trying to figure out is if you establish a business relationship with someone (i.e., buy a book), is subsequent opt-out email wrong? The junk fax law that prevents UC faxes states clearly that faxes from a business you have had dealings with is perfectly legal.

And Amazon.com's mailings tend to be very on target. When I buy Dick Francis, it's very useful to know that another Dick Francis book comes out. (Which, he said after the death of his wife, is unfortunately unlikely.)

b) invasive email: no. clearly identified by source and with a method to remove oneself.

Now the issue that I think you skip is an important one. Before this development, Amazon.com just did this. They evaluated books they thought were worthwhile and sent out tailored email to people with the right previous buying pattern.

Now publishers can "nominate" books. How does this effect the editorial process inside Amazon.com, already chipped away by other co-op dollars, layoffs, and the knowledge that profit may not be around the corner? My friends who work there contend that editorial is still disconnected from co-op dollars, and I believe these people.

Glenn Fleishman

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your story in #215 about Friends of the Library

In the past I had 3 bad experiences with Friends of the Library groups. When I first started dealing in books, I specialized in science fiction paperbacks in the late 1970s. Since I bought a large number of books from the FOL bookstore in my town, I felt I should join the group and even volunteered to work in the store every weekday morning they were open.

About 2 months after I started working there, the manager informed me that my services were no longer needed. I later found out that she was outraged that I would buy a large amount of books everyday I worked there. They would stock in the late afternoon and I opened the store in the morning. The woman who worked with me explained that I was buying the books that the manager usually took home every day for herself and her son. The only difference was I paid for what I left with; she did not.

My next door neighbor worked full-time at a branch of the library. Whenever books were donated at his branch, he would go through them and add to the collection anything that he felt the library needed to have on the shelves. When the FOL found out about this, he was ordered to cease and desist. The donated books were the property of the FOL and were not to be added to the collection. They were to be sold, and then the money could be used to buy anything the library might need. Since in those days, the books were sold for a quarter each this was rank fiscal nonsense.

In the main branch there was a room with shelving used by the FOL. An elderly man who loved books would sort them as they came in each week so they would be ready for the annual sale. Several times each year large-scale book buyers would come by, and he would show them the better books that had been donated. In this way he sold about one-tenth of one percent of the donations for far more money than the annual book sale brought in. The new president of the FOL decided that it was too irresponsible to permit this gentleman in his 80s to sell any books to anyone no matter how much money he was bringing in and prohibited him from selling anything unless she was present. After she failed to show up several times for appointments when book scouts and dealers came by, he sold the books anyway. She had the room locked and would no longer permit him to sort or sell anything unless she was there to watch him. He resigned. At the next 2 sales, no books had been sorted, and income fell drastically. She hired on salary an inexperienced young man to sort the books, and income fell even further. She was voted out of office. The other man refused to come back. The sales now make more money because the prices have been raised drastically to compensate for past stupidity.

After that point I stopped paying for a yearly membership. I also quit buying books at their sales.

Kal Palnicki

Holt responds: Your letter brings up a controversial subject - is the selling of used books by Friends' groups a service for the community or for the public library? I've always felt that the more people used-book sales attract, the better the sales (and the better the public relations of the library) in terms of attracting a wide range of buyers. And like many I've been annoyed at being bumped out of the way by professional dealers in competition with each other. On the other hand, if more money comes in from used-book dealers than from average readers, should the Friends channel the more lucrative sales to that small percentage of buyers? As a reader and library patron, I'd say no, but perhaps I'm being selfish.

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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