Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, July 6, 2001





That story a few weeks ago (#244) about 2000 librarians constituting "the most civic-minded room in America" at the American Library Association (ALA) convention prompted Jim Mitulski of the San Francisco Public Library to write a most delightful addendum.

Mitulski is outreach coordinator for the library's James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, which sponsored a tribute to librarian and gay activist Barbara Gittings at a branch library in the city's heavily GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) district near Castro Street.

Just previous to this event, news had spread from Anchorage, Alaska that a gay pride exhibit at the local library had been "taken down June 5 after mayor George Wuerch decided the exhibit was not appropriate for the library," wrote Lisa Demer in the Anchorage Daily News.

"Nothing in the display is sexually explicit," Demer continued, not that this was the point, though its "family-friendly" character had been emphasized by organizers.

The exhibit was placed "in exile" at the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus Center. "The message of tolerance is intact, organizers said, but the integrity of the exhibit's design is not," Demer wrote.

" 'My heart just aches looking at it,' said the Rev. Jan Richardson, whose Lamb of God Metropolitan Community Church helped create it. The exhibit was meant for a 30-foot wall at the library but is squeezed onto two panels at the Campus Center. 'The display the mayor didn't want you to see,' reads a new sign."

Meanwhile, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Anchorage to bring the gay pride exhibit back to the library, mayor or no mayor.

So skip back to the ALA Convention in San Francisco and Mitulski's story about the tribute to Barbara Gittings:

"We had a total of 250 librarians, about 200 at the peak - which filled the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk branch to capacity," Mitulski writes.

"I pitched the idea of supporting the Anchorage ACLU suit as a tribute from those gathered to celebrate Barbara Gittings. Barbara loved it - she is going there this Fall - and said it was perfectly consistent with the activism of the early gay group in the ALA in which she was involved during 1970-86.

"This is just the kind of thing they were fighting for, she believed. So we passed the basket and raised $600, which we are now sending in Barbara's name to the ACLU."

Wow, just like that. Those librarians, bless 'em: They go to a fun reception off the site of the ALA convention and end up shelling out for a cause they only just heard of. True, $600 may seem like small patooties when it comes to funding a lawsuit with First Amendment implications, yet it's exactly the kind of core energy that can galvanize a community and even revitalize a movement.

"The central legal argument, both sides agree, is whether the library is a public forum," Demer wrote yesterday. "U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton on Tuesday ordered the city to put the exhibit back up at Loussac Library. The larger issue of free speech will be decided later at trial." Let's hope "Machine Gun George," as I hear Anchorage Mayor Wuerch is called for blasting away at progressive measures he doesn't like -- gets the message and supports returning the exhibit to its most appropriate and celebrated origin, the local library. By now, ACLU lawyers, freedom-of-speech proponents and librarians all over the country, are waiting.



Gad, I didn't think the Rupert Murdoch Era of Interactive TV (see #243) would arrive so soon (or from a non-Murdochian direction), but according to the July/August issue of Mother Jones, Big Brother is here.

In it, writer Brendan Koerner offers a chilling update on TiVo, that little box that sits on the top of increasing numbers of TVs (about 150,000 so far) around the country and makes it easy to record up to 30 hours of programming.

But that's not all TiVo's doing. Turns out TiVo doesn't just find the shows you want and record them for you. It also "sends nightly reports back to corporate headquarters."

Nightly reports? Yes, like something out of George Orwell. TiVo has a built-in modem that "transforms reams of information on everything from the console's internal temperature to users' viewing records," writes Koerner.

"The company insists that it removes the data's personal markers and keeps only 'anonymous viewing information.' But Richard M. Smith, the Privacy Foundation's chief technology officer, says the practice conflicts with TiVo's written promise to its customers that 'all of your personal viewing information remains on your receiver in your home.' "

TiVo users can choose not to participate in such data collection, "but few have done so," says Koerner, "perhaps because the opt-out instructions are buried deep within the Byzantine literature that accompanies the device.

"And while the company's privacy policy forbids the peddling of customer information to advertisers, the manual takes care to note that rules 'may change over time.' "

Gee, sounds like that assurance a certain online retailer used to give - you know: Don't worry about personal information exploited by us or sold by us and landing in some greedy conglomerate's files. That's not the way things are done today. Of course we can't promise that tomorrow.



Speaking of Big Brother, darn it, secret modems and hidden cookies aren't invading our privacy enough. We need something truly obscene, so let's hear it for the Tampa, Florida, Police Department.

This week the New York Times reported that Tampa police "placed three dozen security cameras with face-recognition software in a downtown district popular with locals and tourists."

The cameras electronically scan the faces in the crowd, looking for matches with police mug shots of wanted criminals. Pretty neat, eh? The system is similar to the one used at the Super Bowl to look for terrorists.

What's the harm? say the cops. It's "no different than having a cop walking around with a mug shot," they say. Besides, among 20,000 people, "your expectation of privacy is somewhat diminished anyway."

Thanks for making that decision for us. Of course, some people might worry that routine surveillance is what a police state is all about.

Thank heaven for the ACLU, again. "This is yet another example of technology outpacing the protection of people's civil liberties," said the director of Florida's ACLU. "It has a very Big Brother feel to it."

No kidding. Of course, "the Tampa police call the privacy issue overblown," says the Times, "because the camera does not record images of people who have not been charged with a crime. 'We are not cataloguing a thing,' " a detective said.

Well, maybe not today.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

One important nit to pick regarding your column about the Atlantic Monthly article on bookstores. I'm afraid you seriously misrepresent what happened at Penguin regarding the $25 million settlement with the ABA. It wasn't only bookstores that were abused by preferential terms, IT WAS PENGUIN AS WELL. Penguin was defrauded by a member of its staff. To imply that this was a company policy is simply wrong. One can ask (as I did), Where was Peter Mayer when all this was going on? But fraud and policy just are not the same thing. Even a "cultural elitist" (why would anyone want to be anything but?) can see the difference.

Joe Esposito

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I agree with most everything you have to say about Brooke Allen and her oddly hostile article in the Atlantic Monthly.

But this one comment of yours gives me pause:

"The data is meaningless if we don't know how many serious vs. commercial books Barnes & Noble packs into that 85%, and how many serious vs. commercial are returned. Allen doesn't tell us that."

I venture to suggest that there's nothing wrong with selling commercial books. More importantly, once you define the mission of a good bookseller as selling "serious" books, aren't you by definition acting as a "cultural elitist"?

I'm a mystery specialist, myself, and happily plead guilty to the "commercial" charge.

Jim Huang

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the Atlantic Monthly article, I sent the following. I haven't the foggiest if they'll print it. I don't really care. I just had to give the writer what for:

Dear Editor:

For better than seven years, I was a bookseller, briefly with a chain and then, thankfully, with one of the great independents in the country. In that time, I got to see things from both sides, and believe me when I say that I never would have spent that much of my life in bookselling working for a chain.

At the indie, I was not only treated as though I had a mind but that I could use it. That wasn't at all how we were treated when I worked for the chain bookstore. Also unlike the chain, there were opportunities to move up and even make a living at the indie. I took every opportunity I could and eventually managed two of our stores. You came to the conclusion "that the average chain salesperson is neither more nor less ignorant than his or her counterpart in the independents." After years of interviewing, hiring, training and overseeing hundreds of booksellers, I can say with certainty most of those who had worked for the chains weren't up to snuff because they weren't willing to work hard for our customers. When they didn't get hired, we would often see them working for the chains. Besides, if the chains are so terrific, why apply to work at the local independent?

In discussing mid-list titles finding mass success, you give much far too much credit to the chains here. "The promotional and marketing clout" of PUBLISHERS is what "brought these relatively high-quality works to a mass market readership" because they saw indie booksellers handsell all hell out of these books. You don't have to be a genius (or even work for a chain) to see that when a book sells, you must make hay. Len Riggio wouldn't have made a hit out of Frank McCourt's Angela if it had bit him in his Ashes.

Edmund Leites asks "why should we care about the collapse of snotty, understocked bookstores where they complain if you want to return a book?" I won't defend the "snotty" bookstores at all; many have gone out of business for this very reason and I lift my glass to that. As for the stores who "complain if you want to return a book", I have seen how some people return books - sad, mangled, water-damaged, dog-eared, obviously well-thumbed books with broken spines and greasy fingerprints all over them. These people also believe that when a bookseller raises an honest objection, the louder and more indignant you become as a customer, the more "right" you are. (Customers aren't always right but they ALWAYS come first.) Finally, an economics lesson - many indies are "understocked" because they can't afford to carry as large an inventory as a chain store. (Please pass on to Mr. Leites that an independent can special-order a title for him, as well.)

Then you bring up Mr. Edward Harte of Corpus Christi, Texas, who notes that the Barnes & Noble store near him "isn't a cuddly, cozy place, but they're courteous and they have computers that can answer your questions. They even accept personal checks." Can't you just picture the broad smile of customer satisfaction on his face? Me neither. Like you, the chain's lack of passion has caused him to settle for what's there instead of what he deserves.

A computer that can answer my questions! I'd rather have a bookseller put a book in my hand and tell me why I "have to read it." If you're passionate about books, don't you want to see that passion reflected where you buy those books you love?

These days, I work in publishing. My experience at the indie was one reason I was hired. While the chains are our clients and are important to our success, my heart will always be with the indies.

Howard Cohen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

What's this? Holt's being called "elitist" in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, which, just a few pre-makeover months ago, was itself an elitist publication, and usually a very good one? I'd call that ironic, but I suppose only lit-snobs deal in irony.

Chris Tucker

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm a freelance writer and the "special events" coordinator hired by iUniverse, a POD publisher, to bring experts in self-publishing to the web chats, where they can advise our clients. I've been here two years and believe the company is serious about helping good and independent authors market and sell their books, though as you can imagine, it can be an uphill battle.

I wanted to say, "well done" regarding your response to Brooke Allen and her Atlantic Monthly piece on chains vs independents. I have a place in my heart for independent bookstores, with their amazing personal connections and author events, and I lead a children's writing group at a local chain superstore because the indies don't have the floor space. So to me, both have genuine appeal.

Even so, as I read Allen's article, it had such a glaring lack of objectivity, I kept wondering if she was monogamously in bed with a superstore, or was just naturally predisposed to that seductive hybrid Starbucks/Polo aroma blend. We may never know.

Kelly Milner Halls

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the Atlantic Monthly article, you wrote:

* Chain bookstores, says [writer Brooke] Allen, "have a vastly wider choice of books" than independents. This is unbelievably naive. Taken together, independent bookstores offer a wider range and variety of titles than the formula buy you get in chain bookstores. This has never been disputed.

And if I had an opportunity to visit ALL independent bookstores (i.e. "taken together") at once when I want to browse, this would no doubt be to my advantage as a reader. But the fact is that if there are two bookstores I can reach on my lunch hour, a big chain with 200 titles in stock in my favorite category and a small indie with 50 in that same category, the chain offers me four times the chance to pick up something I want and haven't already read and still get back to my desk by 12:30. You have never acknowledged this kind of math, that I've caught you at.

Louann Miller

Holt responds: The other day I was in the Barnes & Noble (yes, I go there! I study 'em!) flagship store on 5th Avenue in New York and boy, when it comes to the downstairs area where B&N stocks its backlist, I couldn't believe how sloppy and neglected many of the sections were, even those that offered hundreds of titles. So when it comes to "acknowledging the math," while I see what reader Miller means, the numbers rarely tell the whole story, just as Brooke Allen couldn't communicate the value of the inventory when she measured various sections by FEET.

While reader Miller wants the chain store to place a lot of titles on the shelf, I go into many independent bookstores quietly THANKING the bookseller for culling through hundreds of titles to get down to the 50 or so they like and stand by for their customers. I like trusting their expertise.

Either way, it's important to remember that without independent stores, the chains would not carry the number or range of titles they do now. We know that because when a special-interest bookstore closes, the nearest chain no longer feels the pressure of competition and often cuts back - sometimes waaaay back - on inventory. These cutbacks are reported to people like me in detail because the ones who see the loss most acutely are the going-out-of-business independents. That's why I use the term "taken together" - of course we can't visit all independents and enjoy their many and diverse inventories; we can know their power and place in society is crucial whether we get to visit all of them or not.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About independent stores and the selection of material by "opinionated" booksellers [as mentioned in the Atlantic Monthly article]: This can be a real advantage when your own tastes are reflected in theirs. Many times I have walked out of Powell's with nothing in my hands (for one thing, it's so huge how can I FIND the bloody books?) and walked to one of the nearby used book stores that "cater" more to my taste, to exit with a shopping bag or carton filled with finds. There is nothing more gratifying than finding a bookstore (new or used) that carries just the "right kind" of stuff - in abundance, and readily found. I can go into a B&N and wander around in a kind of daze, wondering what's wrong with me that I can't find SOMETHING exciting. Then I go to the UO Bookstore and I'm annoyed that I can't afford EVERYTHING I find that's exciting.

But maybe we're talking about two different kinds of customer here -- people who buy books (gifts, how-to, entertaining reading) and people who love books and want the specific, academic, small literary, etc. books that fit their needs and interests or tickle their curiosity.

Lee Kirk

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Downtown Sacramento used to have an old-fashioned independent bookstore - Levinson's - (they had a larger, plusher suburban outlet also) - and although it has been closed now more than 10 years, it still sits empty. We were downtown recently, and, struck by the mosaics in the sidewalk in front of the shuttered store, we decided to memorialize them on our website.

Check out our homepage - http://www.BOOKFEVER.COM

Chris Volk

Holt responds: This is a gorgeous sidewalk mosaic, and what a heart-tugger to see it preserved in cyberspace at www.bookfever.com. It must have acted as both a playful invitation to passers-by (Come in and lug out an armload of books!) as well as a tribute to the art of non-wreckable-by-shoe-leather sidewalk design of the times. One feels both heartened and saddened that it remains beautifully intact there, having survived even the bookstore that inspired it.

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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