by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 27, 2001
ONLINE BOOKSELLERS: ALONG THE INTERNET ARCADE The Internet is being clobbered from all sides these days (re dotcom failure, privacy invasion, perceived threats to children, smut-and-spam and the like), but it's still the only place not on Earth where you can create your own Arcade of Bookstores from every specialty, every location and every Bookmarked priority.
So let's go on the Internet and see how much fun shopping for books online can be when we're not Wal-Marted to death by the sterility and excess of product that has crept into (heck, barrelled into) the Amazon.coms and Barnesandnoble.coms of yestermonth.
True, Amazon.com used to be considered the most dazzling and efficient website on the Net because the company spent hundreds of millions believing it could outclass, outspend and outkill all competitors.
But like Barnesandnoble.com and the nearly bygone Borders.com, Amazon and others have gotten pretty drab and characterless of late - good maybe for reference but not much fun anymore, not much pizzazz, too much postage, too many delays and not much love for books (if there ever were).
On our new and varied and colorful and lively Arcade of Bookstores, nobody's out to win over the other guy or dominate the world of books or any other retail field. So consider the following websites just the beginning - they're listed here in no priority and will eventually be collected, sorted and placed on their own print-outable page at www.holtuncensored.com.
This joyously imaginative site has gorged itself from the pastel bucket a few too many times for my taste, but boy, that turquoise and orange on the home page would make Frank Lloyd Wright a'quiver with admiration.
An all-new INFO BOX with lines of type printing out ticker-tape style is so entertaining that you find yourself reading the store's "B-Mail" messages two or three times before realizing these updates on store and community events have you mesmerized. It's a great way to chisel information in the brain about the Brookline Music School Faculty Concert Series or the coming appearance of poet William Corbett.
If you're a faraway visitor who'd like a to know what this wonderfully dense, busy and seemingly cluttered store looks and feels like, click on the Bookline (store newsletter) archives page and click again to a riveting series of photos by B.D. Cohen called "A Day in Our Life."
Here among the stacks and around the cash register and counters we find ourselves unabashedly staring at books, customers, dogs, clerks -- and one smiling little cutie who gazes up from the sales floor in his miniature boots and incredibly heavy winter coat and simply lights up the store with his smile.
The bookstore scenes are so timeless and universal that if you blink twice you'd swear these are pictures from Paris in the '30s or Berkeley in the '70s. In one photo, a man sits in a chair reading while his dog faces the lower shelf of books as though deep in thought about the next book to buy. Few are the observers who wouldn't want to rush to Brookline and open that book for the four-legged customer at the Booksmith, where it's clear that absolutely everyone loves reading.
Brookline Booksmith has a searchable database, low postage ($2.50) and the first actual picture of a "search engine" I have ever seen (on the FAQ page). What things we mortals learn from bookstore websites!
LEFT BANK BOOKS
"He was grouchy, particular and loved by all." No, that's not a description of the store's founder; it's a eulogy for the first Left Bank store cat, Captain Nemo, "who was rescued from drowning (hence the name)," and followed by an "equally literary cat" pictured on the Cat Page of this engaging website that appears, like its store, to be nestled in palm tree fronds.
Founded 32 years ago, Left Bank is "the only independently owned, full-service bookstore in the greater metropolitan area of St. Louis," and its support of community interests extends to fundraisers for the Legal Defense Fund, Literacy Investment for Tomorrow, Reproductive Health Services, independent publishers and the Book Angel Project for children.
And here's a great idea: "Our latest project is 'Pass the Book,' wherein our customers sponsor 35 students at Clark Elementary School who will receive a book a month until the end of the year."
This kind of spirited commitment to the future of customers and noncustomers alike makes Left Bank a treat to visit, and how smart this staff has been in starting a Friends of Left Bank Books five years ago. Here members pay a subscription fee ($35-$100) and receive a variety of premiums, such as invitations to private receptions with authors.
"The idea for the Friends concept came from our customers themselves," the staff tells us. "The Friends help us to build on our longtime base of loyal customers, while providing them with another way to support independent bookstores."
What a spirit of kinship we cyberspace visitors feel with the Friends! Perhaps one day, bookstores will figure out a way to give premiums to people all over the world who will want to use independents' sites regularly and help support them with subscriptions as well.
BOULDER BOOK STORE
I love visiting this site to see what happens when a local bookstore joins with other independents to reclaim variety and independence on the local scene.
Years ago in response to an unprecedented assault on this university town from chain stores of every kind, Boulder Book Store owner David Bolduc founded one of the most lively and aggressive coalitions in the country, the Boulder Independent Business Alliance.
BIBA, as it's called, does a fantastic job of educating consumers to support local independents and showing them exactly how to do it with inter-BIBA discounts, promotions, giveaways and events.
Boulder Book Store itself does more. In its Shares program, for example, the store offers to donate 1% of a customer's purchases to a nonprofit service of the customer's choosing. The list of choices ranges from local museums and library to the arts center, humane society and food-share agency.
With its folksy pen-and-ink drawing of the Rockies and its special web pages for favorite authors (currently science-fiction author T.A. Barron), the site also reports on great discoveries, such as "The Guide To Getting It On" - a wise and hilariously hip sex guide like none other (see Holt Uncensored #79).
Visiting this site is a great way to introduce yourself to Boulder, get a feel for local politics (a link lets you send a letter to the Boulder City Council in support of the anti-chain Community Vitality Act, for example), to order books from the searchable database and send this brave and enduring bookstore a salute and a sale from afar.
HARRY W. SCHWARTZ BOOKSHOP
Historic bookstores are part of our heritage and have survived against incredible adversity, but where are they? customers want to know, and how long would it take to drive to 10 or 12?
When you're traveling in cyberspace it takes no time at all to come upon the snazzy, clean lines of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop site and a photo-history that's both playful and instructive as we go back to 1927 and see the original store.
Its earnest young founder, Harry W. Schwartz himself, was "accused by many of being an idealist," a term he apparently loved.
Not only did Schwartz promote such authors as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner before they were popular, he also published a minor work by Faulkner, defended controversial authors ranging from James Joyce to Henry Miller and wrote books of his own (the controversial "This Book Collecting Racket," 1937).
We assume Schwartz even forgave his errant son David who, in 1971, "at war with his father and the world at large, [went] off to a commune in Maine" (browsing this site makes you feel like a member of the family!), only to find "pulpwood cutting less emotionally rewarding than bookselling."
This is cheering, since David returned to the store and oversaw several expansions, early discounting (1979) and this wonderfully inventive, customer-pleasing website (1999).
Here's an online store you want to visit often for its Features Page, which greets you with today's date and provides up-to-the-minute discoveries and bargains. During the first week in April, for example, in honor of National Poetry Month, the store will offer 15% off on all poetry titles and conduct poetry readings in all locations.
Schwartz is also another store that likes to "give back" by offering to donate 1% of customer purchases to nonprofit services (opera, ballet, children's theater, museums, literacy council, Habitat for Humanity, ACLU, etc.) With its searchable data base, well-written staff favorites and great photos, it's a site that makes you feel as though you've taken a great trip to Wisconsin and discovered this incredible independent bookstore.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for the clear-headed recap of the issues facing libraries forced to filter. It's always easy to demonize the Internet as the scary threat to our kids. It's harder to understand the problems with the filters and why we can't allow automated systems to make our choices for us--because a) they don't work well and there's no guarantee that kids won't still encounter porn by mistake and b) they often include lists of blocked sites that are considered bad for reasons other than obscenity (e.g. sites that oppose filtering laws).
Public and school librarians are faced with the impossible choice of obeying the statute or obeying the constitution, and until the courts rule on this issue, they're in a bind--made worse by the claims that they're hurting the kids they do so much to serve.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm writing because the fellow from A Different Light who wrote in, Richard Labonte, really hit a nerve. It seems to me that the bookstore where I work is making those same mistakes he cited at ADL.
He says, for example, that the new owners, "in seeking necessary profitability, gutted the bookstores in every way -- they hired (at least in West Hollywood) what one long-time West Hollywood customer called ‘shoe clerks’ to staff the place; they turned them into what Don Bachardy among others termed "porn stores" and, most disappointingly, dealt with former staff, sales reps, authors and (from what I've heard from several small but important queer presses) not a few publishers with arrogance, ignorance and condescension. " As to the idea of seeking necessary profitability: At our store, due to drops in sales, pressure is really up to make a buck. This pressure falls especially on the used and remainder sections where the margin is better. So we pay as little as possible for books and mark them up to whatever we think we can get for them in both sections. And sales are still down, so the only thing to do is keep pushing the envelope, marking things higher. As to turning ADL into a porn store: With the bottom line as the top priority, some more pornographic stuff has crept in (it sells). We're all against censorship, but let's face it, we didn't use to carry it. It's our right as an independent to select out these titles - or it was, when we could afford to. About ignorance, arrogance and condescension: Middle management gets burned out every 1-4 years, and every six months the bookselling staff turns over. So we’re always dealing with someone new. It's cheaper for management to hire "shoe clerks." No one stays long enough to get a raise. Some people get away with ignorance, arrogance and condescension. It’s embarrassing.
The bookstore is quickly losing its identity and its reputation, and that sounds a lot like what happened to A Different Light.
A Burned Out Bookseller
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Thanks to the many readers who sent me this self-quiz and warning materials that explain what happens if you or a loved one suffer from Literature Abuse, or LA. This was "once a relatively rare disorder" that's become far more prevalent now, "due to the accessibility of higher education and increased college enrollment since the end of the Second World War."]
How many of these apply to you?
If you answered 'yes' to three or more of these questions, you may be a literature abuser. Affirmative responses to five or more indicates a serious problem.
SOCIAL COSTS OF LITERARY ABUSE
Abusers become withdrawn, uninterested in society or normal relationships. They fantasize, creating alternative worlds to occupy, to the neglect of friends and family. In severe cases they develop bad posture from reading in awkward positions or carrying heavy book bags. In the worst instances, they become cranky reference librarians in small towns.
Excessive reading during pregnancy is perhaps the number one cause of moral deformity among the children of English professors, teachers of English and creative writing. Known as Fetal Fiction Syndrome, this disease also leaves its victims prone to a lifetime of nearsightedness, daydreaming and emotional instability.
Recent Harvard studies have established that heredity plays a considerable role in determining whether a person will become an abuser of literature. Most abusers have at least one parent who abused literature, often beginning at an early age and progressing into adulthood. Many spouses of an abuser become abusers themselves.
OTHER PREDISPOSING FACTORS
Fathers or mothers who are English teachers, professors, or heavy fiction readers; parents who do not encourage children to play games, participate in healthy sports, or watch television in the evening.
Pre-marital screening and counseling, referral to adoption agencies in order to break the chain of abuse. English teachers in particular should seek partners active in other fields. Children should be encouraged to seek physical activity and to avoid isolation and morbid introspection.
DECLINE AND FALL: THE ENGLISH MAJOR
Within the sordid world of literature abuse, the lowest circle belongs to those sufferers who have thrown their lives and hopes away to study literature in our colleges. Parents should look for signs that their children are taking the wrong path--don't expect your teenager to approach you and say, "I can't stop reading Spenser." By the time you visit her dorm room and find the secret stash of the Paris Review, it may already be too late.
What to do if you suspect your child is becoming an English major:
You may be dealing with a life-threatening problem if one or more of the following applies:
* She can tell you how and when Thomas Chatterton died.
* She names one or more of her cats after a Romantic poet.
* Next to her bed is a picture of: Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner or any scene from the Lake District.
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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