by Pat Holt
Tuesday, May 15, 2001
JANE HIRSHFIELD: 'WE HAVE TO SUPPORT WHAT WE WANT TO SURVIVE'
Increasingly, authors are becoming our sentries in the book biz. More than any of us, they're the ones who are out there talking with the media, with booksellers, with readers and with librarians, teachers and students throughout the country.
So while independent booksellers have moved on - that is to say, returned to their vital work of supporting literature even when it sells slowly - after the disappointing news that they won't have their day in court against Barnes & Noble and Borders after all (see "About That Settlement," #231), I still want to know this one thing:
What's the feeling about the book biz "out there"? Do people understand the importance of independent bookstores and of the constant need for vigilance when it comes to continued problems with chain bookstores and Amazon.com? Or do readers figure the controversy's over and everything's as it should be?
Poet Jane Hirshfield is a perfect person to ask because she, a veteran author who began writing in 1982, has just seen her fifth book,"Given Sugar, Given Salt" (HarperCollins) go back to press for a second printing in only five weeks.
Granted, the first printing (6,000) hasn't exactly overwhelmed the presses, nor has the second (1,500). But Hirshfield's presence as a critically praised and important poet is to me the strategic component. Several of her books (poetry collections, anthologies, translations, essays) have reached the 25,000-40,000-copy mark - and like many a poet, she travels constantly to make a living, teaching and speaking at universities, literary centers and libraries throughout the nation.
So somewhere between her stints in Baton Rouge, Waco, Tuscaloosa and Punxatawny, I nab Jane to ask the Big Question: Is an understanding of what's at stake with independent bookstores spreading, or are people losing interest about "the bookstore wars" now that the media isn't exactly keeping the fires stoked?
Jane, a great teacher as well as a great poet, decides to tell me an instructive story. "Earlier this year I was asked to appear at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. To get there I flew into Birmingham, where several UofA students came from Tuscaloosa to pick me up.
"They said they had arrived early because just driving into Birmingham was 'a great expedition.' The reason was they could browse the local Barnes & Noble store, because nothing of equivalent size or scope exists in Tuscaloosa. It was very exciting to them to be able to spend time in this very big chain superstore before coming to get me."
I can see Jane unsuccessfully hiding a grin as I try unsuccessfully to hide a grimace. What could possibly be in this story to smile about? I wonder.
"Then these students told me that they don't buy books at Barnes & Noble - they just poke around there," Jane says. " 'When we order books, we go on the Internet,' they said. 'That's because we understand about the issues of independents vs. chains. When we do buy, we get our books from Powells.com on the Web. We don't use the other option.' "
Why, Jane, you sly dog. "No doubt it has to do with the faculty in Tuscaloosa," she adds, "giving them the information that as readers, we all have to support what we want to survive. Don't you think?"
Of course I do. What a wonderful story, and how joyful it is to think that students across the country are doing the same thing - and are PROUD of doing it, so much that they, too, can't wait to tell their own visiting poet/speaker/mentor/teacher that they only browse, never buy, at chains or "the other option," Amazon.com.
But what about you, Jane? I ask: As an author, how do you feel about the chain bookstores vs. independents question? It can't be easy for any writer, but for a poet with strong convictions and not a lot of sales, it must be doubly difficult..
"Well, here's the way I approach it," she says. "I think that when someone sells your books, you can hardly say you refuse to set foot in their store. After all, in New York City, publishers put most authors in chain bookstores because in large part, that's all there is now - many independents there have died, which is tragic."
But her gratitude toward independents, beginning in her home region, is the telling point: "I certainly can say that in the Bay Area, my presence as a poet has been completely created and supported by independent bookstores. A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books was my earliest 'best-friend bookstore' - their Larkspur Landing store [now closed] was incredibly supportive, even listing 'The Ink Dark Moon' [love poems by Ono No Komachi and Isumi Shikibu, for which Hirshfield is translator] on their bestseller list for a long time because they kept hand-selling it.
"Oliver's Bookstore in San Anselmo is an absolute center for poetry in Marin County in the way that a chain bookstore is not, and couldn't be. Black Oak Bookstore was enormously kind to me from the beginning. I did my first reading with another poet at Cody's poetry series. The store charged $2 for admission and divided the take between us. I made $18 and went with my boyfriend to the newly opened Chez Panisse Cafe, where we had two glasses of wine and one calzone on my ill-gotten gains."
Independents elsewhere supported Jane when there was no money for a tour. "I understood why a tour wouldn't be supported, of course," she says. "I thought, fine. I'm a poet, I know how little money that books of poetry really make, even from a good-selling collection.
"Then requests started coming in. Elliott Bay in Seattle requested an event; so did Hungry Mind (now called Ruminator) in Minneapolis, Planet Drum in Ann Arbor, Chapters in Washington, D.C. All of a sudden I had a book tour because stores called up and said, 'We really want her.' I don't think a chain store would have done this, and that makes a huge difference. Individual bookstores said, 'We believe in these books; we want to bring her in.' "
The gist of it was that Jane told her publisher she would read at a chain store after the last independent had asked for a reading. That seemed to satisfy everyone and kept all channels open. Jane doesn't believe different audiences shop at different stores - and heaven knows all of them (all of us) need poets wherever we can find them. For Friday's column I want to describe the peculiar stillness and contemplative state of mind we enter upon reading a Hirshfield poem, especially those in the new book, "Given Sugar, Given Salt," and what happened when this peace-minded poet found herself teaching at West Point at the outbreak of the Gulf War.
But for now, as we sit in the Marin County sun discussing poems, Jane is showing some restlessness about my mention that her sales of poetry books - even the big ones - aren't as high as that of many commercial books. What she says is not a defense but rather a celebration of "low numbers," as they are called. Her remarks soon become something I cut out and place on the wall above my desk:
"I don't think unfavorably of poetry's low sales," she says. "In a celebrity culture, to practice an art form that exists on the margins is very important. Someone has to give the point of view of the periphery and not get caught up in the great currents of Hollywood and capitalism at its worst.
"So it's probably healthier to have our poems not sell for very much money. I mean, what poet in the history of the world has gotten wealthy from poetry? Nobody does. So the margins are important spaces. They allow you to say things that might not be said if you were occupying the center of power and of the cultural current.
"On the slight other hand, one of my hobbies has been noticing poems out in the world - not within the narrow center where poetry lives and people buy entire volumes of poems, but in those places where the ordinary person might encounter a poem.
"And poems, I find, are ubiquitous. I've had a poem in that program where poetry runs on the buses and subways of New York. I have a poem engraved in brass on a Muni bus stop in San Francisco. I'll notice that a National Geographic article on salt has quoted Pablo Neruda's 'Ode to Salt.'
"Many movies have a quoted poem in them, and when they do, there's a run on books by the poet. After 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' for example, there was a run on books by W. H. Auden. After 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' there was a run on e.e. cummings.
"I've bought a dress that for no absolutely reason had a tag attached to it with four lines from Wordsworth on beauty - this did nothing but cost the manufacturer a couple of cents per dress, and yet there they were.
"Poems are quoted. They are alive in the culture. When someone is married, a poem is read; when someone is buried, a poem is read. That brilliant poem by (Greek poet) Cavafy, 'Ithaca,' when it was read at Jackie Onassis' funeral, was reprinted in every newspaper in the country. It's a great poem, and it was there because it had an organic place in someone's actual life, in a great moment of transition.
"And that is poetry's real life - one poem at a time, or a phrase at a time, being carried around broadly. I think at that level, poetry really is out there in the world doing its work in a fulfilled, thriving way."
Ah, blessya Jane! More on Friday.
TERRY'S GREAT ADVENTURE: THAT CBS SUNDAY MORNING SHOW (II)
Well, when it comes to filming stories with a heart, you have to hand it to a show like CBS Sunday Morning. Gad, what an emotional powerhouse they packed into the short feature presented on Mother's Day about my partner Terry's book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less."
Having watched this TV crew nearly dismantle the town of Defiance, Ohio, as they filmed well over two dozen interviews in two separate trips that amounted to what I gauged to be more than 10 full HOURS of videotape, I couldn't fathom how they could boil it all down to 9 MINUTES (see #235) and get anything serious or significant across about Terry's mother, Evelyn Ryan.
But in telling this story through Terry's eyes as she went back to Defiance to speak and sign books to audiences all over town, producer Mary Lou Teel and her crew seemed to understand they had crossed into a sacred space.
As much as possible, they avoided the Small Town USA cliches in order to probe deeper into this story of one remarkable mom, who systematically wins contests to keep her alcoholic husband at bay and her financially strapped family of 12 afloat.
This TV crew wanted us to see not only Terry Ryan, child #6, go back to the old house that Evelyn won (twice), but also many of her siblings, LeaAnne, Bub, Bruce, Betsy and Dave (#1, #3, #5, #9, #10), make that journey as well.
They wanted these adult children to stand on the street remembering how they all played ball for years before two brothers (Dick and Bub) went on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers farm team; to gaze at the window where their alcoholic dad used to throw half of Evelyn's winnings away; to talk under the roar of passing trains two doors away that none of them, after they moved into the house, heard following the first terrifying night; and to remark as if it just occurred to them that they had never considered their family (certainly one of the poorest in Defiance) impoverished in any way.
But the part that really zinged it home, I felt, was the way this crew figured out how crucial it was to emphasize the written language on a TV entertainment/news show, which ordinarily depends on slick, fast-moving images that keep us mesmerized rather than inform us in any real way.
They took up precious minutes in that 9-minute segment to place Evelyn's old entry blanks and scribbled notebook pages on the screen, allowing us to see past the fun and amusing visuals (Terry reenacting her mother's 10-minute Supermarket Spree, for example) to the literary heart of this story:
This was the characterization of Evelyn as a gifted writer, as funny as Erma Bombeck and as witty as Dorothy Parker, who had married too soon and won a full scholarship too late to achieve her lifelong dream of attending Defiance College.
While it was true that Evelyn turned her gift for writing to practical advantage by writing jingles and rhymes that saved her family from eviction time after time, the more enduring message she passed on to her children, the show seemed to say, was that grappling with language to express your deepest desires will always give you a winner's advantage.
So it would have been enough for the show to note that the faculty at Defiance College voted to awarded Evelyn a posthumous Doctorate of Humane Letters.
But it was perhaps beyond the pale for the CBS crew to fly back to Defiance and attend the commencement ceremony, let us watch Terry accepting the PhD. with an eloquent speech ("My mother believed the greatest education occurs on the inside, between the heart and the mind") and film the faces of Evelyn's adult children watching their mother finally have her day of academic recognition at last.
When in the final sequence we see Terry and her brother Bruce arrive at their mother's grave, where they place billowing helium balloons emblazoned with the joyous words, YEAR 2001 GRADUATE, what could have been a maudlin scene exploited by TV became a heart-rendering tribute to one very spirited, brave woman of the '50s, who has something to teach us all a half-century later.
Critics like me would say it's the literary component that deepened the narrative of the segment, but I think it was the miracle of everything that television can be when it pushes past the easy and obvious images and takes on the complexity of real life. There are many Evelyn Ryans in our midst - like other "ordinary" housewives, she found hidden resources that shouldn't remain invisible. Here's to the possibility that television goes after the more profound story in all of them.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm not one to follow stock prices or know how well a company does from day to day, or even have much interest in that. Since reading your column, I have learned a lot about Amazon.com that I never was exposed to before. I am glad of that; thank you.
What's the saying about bad publicity versus no publicity?
My previous job was a manager in one of the monster chain bookstores ( I won't say which one, but I enjoyed my years there, and am an avid book reader, and customer service was something I took pride in), and I used to hear about how Amazon was going down, trying to be all things to all people, almost bankrupt, etc.
What does it all mean? Lately, I feel that I hear so much about how bad Amazon is doing, that I will expect to go to the website and see a "under construction" page or something. Well, this is not happening, and in the meantime, my husband and I continue to order from them when convenient. Does that make me a bad person, knowing what I know about this crazy company?
I think one thing Amazon has done for the world of book-selling, collecting, etc. is make it more mainstream. When I first heard about a company that was like an online library where a book could be actually delivered to your doorstep after looking up information about it, I thought it was the neatest thing. It didn't stop me from going to bookstores to actually be surrounded by the books, picking them up, reading through them, etc. Now I do both. Maybe the book industry has it in for Amazon because they were one of the first companies to make this popular? I'm not really sure on that one.
Thanks for letting me ramble.
Holt responds: The reason people like me don't like Amazon.com is not that this company was first online to make a big smash online but rather that it's trying to dominate the Internet (i.e., fencing it off by ill-gotten patents the company then uses to sue the competition); lie to customers (about being paid to make "recommendations" that are really ads); violate customers' privacy by collecting personal information and selling it (or threatening to sell it) to buyers; and finally disparage independent booksellers as creaky old dinosaurs (when independents are the ones who are making a profit and are going to outlive most of the interloper dotcoms). I have a feeling you've heard all this before and are still attracted to Amazon - me too, but I use the site only for research, then order from indies who've successfully gone online. Can I ask if you have ever tried Powells.com? This is an independent store with as big a data base as Amazon, a much better used/rare/out-of-print site and of course to my view, better politics. Plus its running commentary is often hilarious. I mention it not in favor of other indies but because it's a great transition site for those still using Amazon.com, a fuddy duddy and a true dinosaur by comparison.
Rachel Joachim answers: I will most likely start using Powells.com for book buying. However, do you have any suggestions for getting CDs and videos for the same discounts Amazon offers online? The orders I just placed with them were actually for music, not books. I am the kind of consumer who will only order online if I know for sure it is what I am looking for. When it comes to book buying, I will not buy a book I have never picked up, held, or read through. For that, I will still trek to the bookstores. Central Florida, particularly the Orlando area, is dominated by Borders and Barnes and Noble. There are few independents here and there scattered, and the majority of them are Christian book stores. Thanks for the opportunity of reading/responding to your column!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a reader of your Holt Uncensored I noticed this go floating by my web browser: Microsoft Press Offers Books "Made to Order"
Now Microsoft Press has an alternative -- custom books. Customers who visit the Microsoft Press Web site can browse and compile individual chapters from selected works, and have them delivered as a single, custom book -- either in printed or electronic form.
Holt Responds: This I think is a true harbinger and I hope everybody gets to read it (notice the URL is too long for a single line so be sure to add on the part that continues on the next line). See Friday's column for more.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This is a message to letter writer Donovan, who writes of being treated so well at the Berkeley used book store Serendipity, where the staff even stopped a charge he couldn't cover and trusted him to send the money later:
The experience and service you had at Serendipity Books is not exactly the norm in the antiquarian book trade, but on the other hand it's not all that unusual, either. I've done similar, so have many of my colleagues. What you did was walk into a real antiquarian bookshop. It's a pity more don't, but they don't. As it happens, Serendipity is one of the greatest shops in North America, or indeed, the world. It most probably has the largest, deepest, most intelligent, and often quirky literary stocks to be seen anywhere in North America. Yes, the owner is a friend of mine, but I speak the truth and am in a position to know.
Steven Temple Toronto
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your column about TV journalists instigating "events" that they then cover as "news": There was a show done on Family Law a couple of months ago that was loosely based on what occurred at New York Central Park with the gang of "men" who randomly attacked women, ripping their clothes off, and in some cases raping them. One of the attorneys, the main character, was coming out of a building and was grabbed, had her jacket, blouse and bra ripped off of her. There were news and camera crew filming the whole event for T.V. They laughed and were actually encouraging the "men" to grab different women. She suffered more from humiliation than the bruises and scratches.
The show was mainly about how the presence of the media worked the "men" up to do more than they normally would have to get their 15 minutes of fame. It was a good lesson - first of all, what you see isn't always the real story, and second, don't jump to conclusions about the people who are involved in the news because what they say isn't necessarily true either.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
If I were Melissa Mackey, I'd be so spitting mad I'd---I don't know. But I wish her eloquent letter could go out over e-mail to all book buyers. I'm willing to accept the idea that for some people there may be times when ordering on-line would be more convenient. But to go into a local store and so blatantly bargain and argue over a few dollars--! And to think I grew up thinking that reading would make people smarter and more civilized.
Maybe her e-mail should be enlarged and hung prominently in bookstores.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Well, I managed to get through an early morning Anglican service, run to the grocery store with my husband for our own "Mother's Day" breakfast and get back home to turn on CBS this morning to watch the show about Terry Ryan and her book about her mother, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio."
Mind you, I never watch Sunday morning TV, but after your reminder about "Tuff's" story, I had to tune in to see what she looked like along with her siblings and just experience the story you've been sharing with all your Holt readers.
Well, CBS did a very creditable job of honing down 10 hours of tape to your estimate of 9 minutes on air - and still get out the story of this incredible mother. Seemed like a "made-for-TV" story for Mother's Day 2001. And it —was— fun to see Tuff zip around that grocery store reenacting what her mother had done in a Supermarket Spree more than 40 years ago. I gulped back my tears, however, when the children brought the 2001 graduate balloons to tie to her headstone in the cemetery. Thanks so much for bringing us through the saga of this family.
And those of us independent publishers and writers and production and marketing folk wish the family well — let's hope Tuff's book tops the "best sellers" this week!
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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