by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 22, 1998



I hadn't seen "You've Got Mail" last week (#24) when I quoted a bookseller who hated the movie. But now that I have seen it (loved them, hated it), let's continue the discussion by hearing from Oren J. Teicher (, Chief Operating Officer of the American Booksellers Association, who writes:

"Pat: Your piece about 'You've Got Mail' misses the point on a whole bunch of levels. First of all - it's only a movie for pete's sake - so let's not take it that seriously. Having said that, millions of folks who see this film - who never have thought about the plight of independent bookstores - are going to get exposed to our struggle in a very sympathetic - albeit Hollywood style - treatment.

"Would we rather have had the independent bookstore in the film not go out of business - of course - but, as you know all too well from events in the Bay Area these past few days - good stores do go out of business even if they do everything right.

"Everyone we talked to after seeing the film felt there is an underlying unmistakable message...if you don't support your local independent too may disappear.

"As we'll be reporting in next week's Bookselling This Week, dozens of booksellers across the country who saw the film during one of the previews we helped arrange completely agreed - and, felt that whatever you may think of the film as a movie (I'm sure there will be lots of opinions on that front) it does tell our story."

Well, gee, Oren, you'd think a trade association that's trying to sue the pants off chain bookstores for illegally and unfairly driving independents out of business would be a little more concerned about a movie that "tells our story" with the kind of bias that really tells only half the story (and the wrong half) by saying the following:

Message #1) CHAIN STORES AREN'T SO BAD; THEY'RE PRETTY GOOD IN FACT, offering a better selection and more space for reading, especially for children, and they welcome knowledgeable booksellers from the independent sector whose experience and wisdom educate the rest of the staff.

Response to Message #1) In a pig's eye: Chain stores are eating away at the strength of an informed citizenry because they offer sameness rather than variety, formula rather than true options for readers. We know from testimony offered here by former Barnes & Noble and Borders employees that chain stores DON'T WANT knowledgeable clerks from the independent sector because these are people who read, after all , and who may actually have opinions that differ from the buyers and marketing department at the chain's main office, where books are given store-wide support not because of the quality of the books but because of a fee paid by the publisher.

The movie does not go into this stuff because writer-director Nora Ephron has a bent for the witty but superficial romantic comedy, and an accurate picture of the "bookseller wars" is secondary.

Message #2): INDEPENDENTS CANNOT HOPE TO COMPETE with a big chain bookstore even when they "do everything right."

Response to Message #2) Good heavens, Oren! Let's get a little exercised about this one: THOUSANDS of independent bookstores exist today because they have survived chain bookstores by creating new and innovative programs and promotions, carved out a treasured niche in the community, formed exceptional bonds with customers and in many cases reinvented themselves on the Internet.

The fact that Meg Ryan's store is portrayed in the same way as Just Another Inevitable java joint getting in the way of a Starbucks or a Walmart is an insult to every independent bookstore that's faced the chain store dragon, hung on for a year as customers see what a chain store CAN'T do for them, and re-welcomed people drift back a year later when the chain is found wanting. THAT is the story that could have been told, Oren! What Ephron tells is a pitiable down-the-tubes story that only makes independent look like victims, unable to fight back or recreate themselves for the 21st century.

Message #3) AW: IT'S TOO BAD BUT A FACT OF LIFE that chain bookstores are just going to plow independents under in the name of "progress." Sure, you independents can try to mobilize supporters, but eventually you'll just have to give in because even the most loyal customers (ditto the now-successful authors you discovered when they were unknowns) can't help it - they have to capitulate to the chains because the discounts and the glitz and the double decaf nonfat mocha lattes are just too much of a lure.

So go ahead and shed your tears, but remember, another future awaits. "Closing is the BRAVE thing to do," says Jean Stapleton as the bookkeeper of Meg Ryan's store in one of those falsely ennoblizing movie moments that just sound too cloying for words.

Response to #3: Hey, did we hear right? Closing can be a brave thing, says Nora Ephron? Why, CAVING IN is what this movie excels at - witness the strategic placement of Starbucks, Visa and other products whose makers shell out the kind of dough that let a slick and well-oiled movie like this pay a lot of bills before it even opens. And Ephron has the gall to chide customers for confusing Starbuckian language (tall/short, caf/decaf) with "defining a sense of self."

Message #4) IT'S JUST A MOVIE, FOR PETE'S SAKE - light entertainment, a romantic comedy starring that favorite duo of Hanks and Ryan who never quite got together (on camera at least) in "Sleepless in Seattle." So relax and enjoy. You didn't take "Citizen Kane" seriously, did you? Or "Thelma and Louise"?

Response to Message #4) Even more than books, movies are a cultural force in our society, so you can never dismiss something like "You've Got Mail" as "just a movie." After all, this movie's stars ARE actors with the kind of chemistry and charisma that stay with us forever (think of Tracy and Hepburn, for pete's sake). We root for them to get together against all odds because in this romantic comedy, the "bookseller wars" are only the subtext Ephron uses as a vehicle to that end. So of course she doesn't care how much she subverts the independents' story to get there.

Message #5: IN THE FACE OF A VACUUM OF INFORMATION, AT LEAST THIS MOVIE BRINGS SYMPATHY TO THE INDEPENDENTS' PLIGHT, showing the deep and genuine grief that customers and staff alike - and especially a second-generation owner like Meg Ryan - feel when an independent store closes. We get the message that every good independent is irreplaceable, that the loss is permanent and that no amount of fancy and expensive promotions thrown around by the chains can ever be as intimate or personally moving as what goes on in Meg Ryan's store.

Response to #5: And seeing the bustle and the industry with which adults and children alike are using Hanks' superstore as a combined library/playroom/reading center/cafe/discussion group, we now feel PERMISSION to troop right on over to the nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble, order up a latte and forget about those whining independents whose discounts never measure up, for pete's sake. Or let's go home and go browsing at Amazon, who cares? Store loyalty is for dinosaurs anyway.


Response to #6: Perhaps the most intriguing SUB-subtext in the movie shows Meg Ryan inheriting the children's store from her late mother, whom she loved so much and whom she misses so badly that she can "hardly breathe," as she says (customers seem to feel the same way). Tom Hanks, by contrast, was raised by a disreputable womanizer who used to steal his son's nannies and have affairs with them and marry them and then toss them away, leaving little Tom repeatedly betrayed and bereft of female love. So Tom grows up abandoned by mother figures yet turns out to be Mr. Decency himself, despite adopting the ruthless and predatory (yet forgiveable in this movie) tactics of his weasel father.

Nevertheless, Meg. R, raised by this loving, wonderfully successful woman, doubts her value in the world while Hanks never does, even as he is mowing down really good independent booksellers right and left ("don't take it personally," he says to her; "it's always personal to someone," she says to him, and right there you think there's some kind of balance to this movie but uh-uh, Meg's going to get knocked into submission in the end).

Meg represents the independent bookseller who doesn't really know how to fight back (until Tom tells her), doubts her own worth and must learn to accept (and like) the inevitable - her doom. Tom is the chain store king who likes to celebrate the death of each independent with his hideous father and equally predatory grandfather by making pistol-shooting motions with his hands as they all chortle, "Another independent bites the dust - onto the next one!")

What a statement: Tom never doubts himself, never has to change, never apologizes for what he's done to Meg or her store, never says he'll think twice about the next independent he kills, and the next and the next. Maybe only a few people will wonder how Meg's going to adapt to a life with Tom after the movie ends, but since it's "only a movie, for pete's sake," one is wise not to think too much about the consequences of her decision. After all, every decision in this movie is made for her, so who are we to worry?

If Ephron is telling us that the place for independents - among bookstores, readers, thinkers, writers - is dying and dictatorial thinking (among chain stores, publishers, corporations, conglomerates AND CERTAIN REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS) is taking over, who are we to argue. For pete's sake. And how harmless is that?

But now: What does all this have to do with real life? Let's take one bookstore as an example.


"We're seeing a more thoughtful kind of buying among customers this year," says Trish O'Malley, assistant manager of Copperfield's bustling 3500-square-foot Sebastopol, California, store. And "thoughtful" does seem to be the theme of sales in all the stores of this "multiple independent" with its four stores selling mostly new books and two stores selling mostly used books (the "c" word is never used when independents have more than one store because each store in the, er, multiple is given enough leeway to act as an independent in its own right).

Bestsellers are flying out of the store like crazy, but among the thoroughly perused and happily messy "staff favorite" shelves are names of authors ranging from Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood to Flannery O'Connor and Michel Foucault. Interest is also running high in the "little discoveries" such as a trade paperback reprint of Jeannette Haien's THE ALL OF IT (Harper; 145 pages; $11), written in a lilting, nearly musical Irish brogue about a priest who makes a scandalous discovery; and J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (Scholastic; 309 pages; $16.95), a funny, touching and wonderfully original young adult title (for all ages) about an "abnormal" boy who flies off to face his destiny with much more than magic tricks. The staff so loves this first novel that the Petaluma store alone has sold over 70 copies this Fall.

What makes this year so "thoughtful" in terms of book sales? "Well, I'm not sure," she answers. "I do know that Cold Mountain means a great deal to us beyond its continued sale, because when you ask people what they've read, and they say 'Cold Mountain,' that means you can open doors to a lot of books that you might not have recommended so easily before."

Aha. Well, thank you, Meg Ryan: Independents, not chain stores, discovered Cold Mountain and recommended it to customers, who now come back wanting more novels like it. So independent booksellers provide the link to a variety of other books that offer deeper and more complicated reading than, say, many bestsellers or even many of the books Oprah has recommended.

Ditto Angela's Ashes, an extremely painful book that coincidentally shows us how good writing can transcend a story that might otherwise be considered "depressing." Independents hand-sold this book long before the chains got on board; now they direct customers looking for "another" book like it to memoirs that must be just as well-written, just as thought-provoking, just as transcendent. Thus do high standards of literature return to the marketplace through simple exchanges of customers and retailers.

That it's a link you don't find in chain bookstores is a fact even Nora Ephron concedes in "You've Got Piles." There we recognize by the expression on Tom Hanks' face that chain store clerks do not "know" the stock or are they expected to - and similarly do not recommend good books to customers, cannot make the connection between one book that hooked you to another that you'll love just as much. The painstaking, labor-intensive and time-consuming process that takes place in independent stores - between the publishers' sales representative and the store's buyer; between the clerk and the customer - provides the fertile ground in which a country's literature sinks its roots, and resides for a time, and grows and grows and grows.

The deeper problem in a chain store is that if the buyer doesn't "get" the book, NONE of the 500 stores will carry it in quantity; whereas if an independent buyer doesn't "get" the book, there are hundreds of other independent buyers who'll come to the book with a fresh eye and may buy it in quantity. More to follow on Copperfield's.


The MANY reasons an independent store may have to close - including one not mentioned so far: the changing nature of location, location, location) - have come together tragically yet with an inspiring twist in terms of the demise and coming rebirth of GAIA Bookstore in Berkeley.

Indeed, if "resilience" has been the byword of independent booksellers who have survived competition from chain bookstores, price clubs, discounters and, "reinvention" may be the watch cry of 1999.

For GAIA, all the Barnes & Nobles, Costcos, Targets and Walmarts couldn't trounce the spirit or the sales of this legendary 12-year-old store. But declining traffic in GAIA's neighborhood of North Berkeley and online purchases to services like Amazon gradually reduced sales by about a third this year.

The sad news is that co-owners Patrice Wynne and Eric Joost have announced plans to sell the store by early 1999. The buyer they seek will have to cover existing debt and be willing to reinvigorate the couple's original vision by creating a different and expanded store-with-books rather than traditional bookstore.

"For the right owner, the future of a new GAIA with a much wider range of products is exciting," says Patrice.. Jewelry, candles, incense and statues are already on sale, but higher-margin items such as massage tables, yoga mats and sculpture could be part of the mix.

So the good news is that the new store would also contribute to the next step for Wynne and Joost, whose genius for redefining the cutting edge of their field remains as incisive as ever. In recent months, customers and backers have come together to look again at the "ignition factor" that made GAIA successful at the beginning, and to think about ways to reinvent it in the future.

While it's true that GAIA's selection of books had much to do with attracting a huge customer base early on, "we've had to come to grips with the fact that carrying a heavy debt as a bookstore-only operation is not our path into the future," says Patrice. Since spiritual books can now be found in every chain and online outfit even thinking of selling books (gad, look at Starbucks), the identity of GAIA as a bookstore has already changed.

On, then, to the more instructive second stage, a deeper understanding of why independent bookstores like GAIA can be so loved by customers yet so caught in the crossfire between chains and Internet suppliers like

Supporters believe the real lure of GAIA is the store's addictive environment - that synergy one feels just walking into the store that's discovered so many up-and-coming authors, or attending GAIA's unique author appearances, or listening to a group discussion, or participating in the many talks people have with clerks and owners about the huge range of books and ideas that can be found under the category of "spirituality" (never a hard-and-fast category to begin with).

Looked at in that light, GAIA, like many independent bookstores, has been a community center busting out all over the place from the confines of a bookstore. People love coming here when energy is high and that spark of discovery is in the air. It's the one thing that is identifiable about this store that is missing in chains or Amazon altogether.

How, then, to reinvent GAIA and keep the store intact at the same time? Thanks to a downtown renovation campaign in Berkeley, it's possible that by the year 2000, GAIA could move into and transform a new and larger building into a true center for spiritual growth, with space for conferences, performances, art, books, classes, a café, videotaped author lectures, screening room and computers. By then, the thinking goes, the new owners of the revitalized GAIA in its present location would provide the bookstore component inside the center, while Patrice and Eric would coordinate related activities All activity would be channeled into interactive use on a website that could have international impact.

Success of this collaborative approach combines many innovative ideas - mixing profit/nonprofit approaches, using city development funds to enhance the spiritual aspect, bringing in new customers as paying clients. If it works, it could create a new way for independents to regenerate their core identity without being tied down to the kind of heavy debt that a bookstore involves. The process is wrenching, the money needed to support it mind-boggling - but the new goal and the vision behind it are inspiring.

Meanwhile, says Wynne, it's important to understand that GAIA's problems have not been confined to competition from chains or the Internet. "All of us are affected by the corporate globalization that is eating up independent businesses," she observes. "We've seen it all too much in publishing, where mergers of every kind are eating up the diversity and variety that have made this industry strong. Now it's as though the book industry is consuming itself before our eyes."

That regeneration is even possible in these harsh times is perhaps one of the few good omens for independents this holiday season.