by Pat Holt

Friday, January 4, 1999



A writer from an entertainment magazine called to say he had read comments expressed here about You've Got Mail to the movie's writer/director, Nora Ephron, and he wanted my reaction to HER reaction.

This is the way the press "stirs things up!" as they used to say. "Adds more filler!" would be more like it, but the writer seemed conscientious and I was intrigued to learn what Ephron says: She based the movie on real-life events that occurred in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she explains, where Barnes & Noble opened a superstore a few blocks away from Shakespeare & Company, an independent store.

Shakespeare did close, mostly because of Barnes & Noble, and though other circumstances applied, that fact is indisputable. So why should Ephron portray the stores she features - Meg Ryan's children's bookstore and Tom Hanks' giant superstore - as any different? After all, it would be unrealistic to allow Ryan's store to "win" or to portray Hanks as having so much largesse that he would create some way to let Ryan's store "live." Nothing of the kind happened with Shakespeare and Barnes & Noble, and that is the basis of this movie.

One sort of has to, well, laugh. It's as though Ephron, writer of light comedies ("When Harry Met Sally," "Sleepless in Seattle") wouldn't dream of adding a phony Hollywood ending to an already sappy romance. At the same time, I agree with her: If you're going to use a real-life situation as the basis for your movie, don't mess with the fundamentals.

But let's remember ALL the fundamentals: Barnes & Noble and its sister company, B. Dalton, have been embroiled for years in protracted lawsuits accusing chain bookstores of illegal discounts, unfair practices and under-the-table deals with publishers that would make Joe Kennedy look like a boy scout.

Ephron goes right up to the edge of this issue by characterizing Hanks' father as the kind of disreputable weasel who glories in killing the competition at any cost. But she never touches on the lawsuit, which is a "fundamental" aspect to the whole dynamic of the bookseller wars: If the independents are right in saying that the chains use illegal means to drive them under, then Hanks doesn't look so endearing when he makes those pistol-shooting noises and chortles with Dad and Grandad, "another independent bites the dust - on to the next one!"

And when Hanks tells Ryan that "it's just business" that superstores kill independents, she'd be a lot more informed if she knew that so far, the courts have agreed with the independents - it ISN'T just business. What the chains are doing has involved enough illegal practices that publishers have been forced to sign consent decrees to change the way they do business with the chains, and that one publisher, Penguin, was compelled to pay $25 million to the independents through the American Booksellers Association.

And perhaps when Meg Ryan mounts her lame campaign to stop Hanks' superstore from mowing her down, she might be able to tell her customers that the ABA's current lawsuit against the chains is much tougher and seeks more permanent change from the mercurial Hanks' characters who run the superstores in real life. She might feel, along with her terrible sorrow at watching her mother's bookstore close, the motivation of outrage that thousands of independents like her feel. She might have been able to know how deeply and profoundly it does kill something inside the heart to know that you're the target of unfair competition and that what is happening to you means that truly "fundamental" principles of American business are going down the drain.

So I sez to Ephron through the writer, I sez: How can a movie that celebrates small retail owners in New York by showing their character and diversity as they open for business every morning so cavalierly foretell the doom of these places without telling ALL the "fundamentals?" After all, many of the 3300 independents who exist today have survived much worse than the blows Hanks delivers to Ryan throughout the movie. Someday somebody should make a movie about that.