NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #28
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, January 12, 1999

1. TAKING IT PERSONALLY: THE GOOD NEWS
2. FACING THE WORST: THE BAD NEWS
3. KINGSOLVER INTO THE FRAY, BLESS HER HEART
4. THAT HISTORY-MAKING WEBRING
5. LETTERS ON WEBPAGE

1. TAKING IT PERSONALLY: THE GOOD NEWS

So many bookstores have closed or announced they're in trouble since the holidays that it seems another period of terrible defeat is in store for independents - and for literature, for concerned readers, for posterity, even (and especially) for the media.

But thanks to generous and sharp-eyed bookstore owners and staffs, there is much for all of us - readers especially - to learn as the book industry moves into 1999.

The good news is that just about every factor in the "bookstore wars" is changing.

** The MEDIA, once infatuated with the Goliath Vs. Goliath (Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble) baloney, are beginning to publish or broadcast heartfelt stories and editorials exploring just what it is about independent bookstores that is so important, so much fun, so wonderfully adventurous, so crucial to an informed democracy.

Of course, too many reporters wait until a store closes before mourning what has been lost, but word is getting out nevertheless, most recently through such newspapers as the Washington Post, Boston Herald, San Jose Mercury, St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune, to mention just a few of the larger ones.

(Come on, New York Times and Wall Street Journal and USA Today: What's happening in the neighborhoods is THE BIG STORY.) Scores of smaller papers are providing detailed coverage of the day-to-day business of independent bookstores, and this has proven invaluable.

** AUTHORS are coming forward at last to support independents, and whenever they do, their words should be blown up onto huge posters, published in full-page newspaper and TV ads and distributed in hard-hitting promotional campaigns nationwide (what a terrific project for the American Booksellers Association).

Prominent authors not only counter the slick and expensive promotions of Amazon and the chains, they redirect attention back to fundamentals about independent bookstores' role in our democracy that many have forgotten in the heat of "e-commerce" and merger-mania.

Barbara Kingsolver especially couldn't be more eloquent in this regard. As she tours the country for The Poisonwood Bible, this bestselling author often begins her talks by giving credit to independent booksellers for launching her entire career when they discovered her first novel, The Bean Trees (first printing "about 3000 copies"). When someone like Kingsolver explains how "the First Amendment is at stake" every time independents undertake the launching of good books, you never want to give your business to a chain store again. (See below for her latest and most incendiary accusations against chain bookstores.)

** CUSTOMERS are finally "getting it" about deliberately and conscientiously giving their business to independents. People who are hooked on Amazon need only to learn their favorite independent bookstore has a website that's just as efficient, often less expensive and even more informative (especially in terms of local literary events), and they "come over," cybertechnically speaking, to independents.

Here's a great tip for 'em: You know the "cascade" process by which bookstores order from wholesalers, beginning with the top wholesaler that can fill most of the order first, and moving down the list to increasingly specialized outlets? Website customers might be encouraged to create their own priority lists of "favorites" that they can visit to find the books they want and pick up unexpected tips and ideas and local news along the way. (What a great poster THAT would make for ABA graphic artists). When they too "come over" in this way, they may never find need to use Amazon again.

Stores in trouble that have appealed to customers often find the response heartening. When tiny Gualala Books in California ran an ad in the local weekly that chain stores and Amazon.com were driving the store out of business (for the full text, see this magnificent piece of writing in the Letters column of http://www.nciba.com/patholt.html very soon), business increased by a whopping 60 PERCENT the next month, and today the store is up 33 percent from a year ago.

Previous to running the ad, "we tried to look more successful than we were and people took us for granted," co-owner Lynn Gigy told the local Santa Rosa Press Democrat. "Our honesty woke people up."

When in doubt, writes David Hughes of Solar Light Books in San Francisco, who successfully campaigned against a Borders store opening across the street, "Use your customers as a base of support. They will support you." At the worst moment of the battle, his customers rallied and helped to save his store.

As others have said, readers want to support independents but don't know how. The first way is education. Shambhala Books now distributes the first in a series of "Open Letters to our Friends & Customers" in which the store explains its current "financial difficulties" and the hardship of competing with "the deep pockets of Barnes & Noble or Borders." Chain stores, they explain, "are willing to lose money on many sales . . . to secure their market share by driving everyone else out. They can afford to launch massive and misleading marketing campaigns to undermine consumer confidence in their local independent bookseller(s)."

Laying it on the line like this is a compelling, convincing and bold gesture that galvanizes readers to act. For once they understand that the chains are using predatory and illegal practices to drive out the competition, they take the news very personally indeed. They get it, they see it, they become part of the battle ... MOST of the time: Patrice Gottfried of Book Tales Ltd., a children's bookstore in New York State that is soon to close told her local newspaper, The Journal News, "People in Rockland always talk about a sense of community. I have found that's more talk than anything else. I'm angry at people . . . I think they need to be chastised about this." Of course, chastising customers is not going to draw them in; educating them early on is the only answer.

** UNLIKELY COALITIONS are springing up by the score to bring other independent retailers, unrelated trade associations, local celebrities, the media, city governments, authors and customers together to explain the vital role independent bookstores play in American life and thought. See more about this next week as we investigate the current battle between Capitola Book Cafe and Borders, the closing of Printers Inc. and comments by other stores.

** AND NOW, HOORAY! A CHAIN STORE BACKLASH is growing very much on its own, spurred by publicity surrounding the "bookseller wars" and protests against such berserk antitrust violations as Barnes & Noble's attempt to buy Ingram, the largest book distributor in the United States. Even aside from that, all on their own, American consumers are increasingly weary, and they're expressing it, of being Rite-Aided, Walmarted, Gapped and Starbucked to death.

Every ad, every store opening, ever so-called "discount" (guess who's paying for the so-called "savings?") is seen exactly for what it is - a way of dumbing-down a message that customers take very personally, too. Increasingly, they find, the character, originality and appeal of independent retailers are seen as refreshing and solid, something like going home again. That bugaboo about "economies of scales" is increasingly replaced by a search for interaction on a human scale.

And soon, when the e-commerce fad runs out of gas and Amazon is considered about as "in" as TV shopping or catalogs-by-mail, the notion of supporting your neighborhood bookstores instead of going to the chains, even if you have to pay more, will be felt as something right to do - a small but key thing; a small but powerful thing, and in the end, not so small at all.

2. FACING THE WORST: THE BAD NEWS

If all this sounds like so much pie in the sky, let us remind ourselves that no bookstore, no matter how successful in the past or how large and loyal its base of customers today, can compete when the chains descend like predators to drive the competition to extinction.

The struggle is often Herculean: What a recovery was made, for example, by The Book Mark of Tucson, one of the oldest and largest bookstores in the Southwest (founded in 1958), when a Barnes & Noble located three miles away in 1993. At first, as readers drifted off to investigate this chain, annual sales at Book Mark dropped from $1.725 to $1.647 million. Typically, though, as customers realized the Barnes & Noble didn't have the books they wanted, they returned to The Book Mark, whose sales returned to $1.734 million by 1995.

Then, however, a Borders store opened several miles away, and sales dropped to $1.606 million again. The Book Mark staff worked diligently to recover its customer base until wham, in 1996, ANOTHER Barnes & Noble appeared several miles away in 1997, and sales dropped to $1.389. Even then, the store held on, and customers were again coming back, when snap! went the camel's back as ANOTHER Barnes & Nobel store opened 1.3 miles away, resulting in a sales drop of $1.217 million. That was it for Owners Larry Spohn and Brenda Blanton (all along, of course, Amazon.com has been enjoying its own cut of Book Mark sales): They announced the store would close by February 1999.

Now all you emailers who have been writing that independents "complain" or "whine" but don't do anything to "meet the competition" or "get bank loans like everybody else" or "learn how to discount" or "fight them on the Internet" or "create tough-minded business plans" and so on, please note:
This kind of competition is too lethal, happens too fast, overcomes too mightily, outlasts all efforts to fight it and in the end simply smothers independents (smaller stores in Tucson - Coyote's Voice and the Haunted Bookshop - have also closed in the last two years). So let's remember this really is a war to the death. A huge campaign is needed to undermine the worst (meaning the most illegal practices - more on this next week) of the chains' illegal and under-the-table practices.

3. KINGSOLVER INTO THE FRAY, BLESS HER HEART

Meanwhile, Barbara Kingsolver, who lives nearby in Tucson and has been visiting The Book Mark apparently since birth, has written an article for the Arizona Daily Star that should be excerpted and plastered across every forehead in America (ABA, you can do this!).

Again acknowledging that "I owe my career to people such as those at The Book Mark" and other independent stores that discovered and hand-sold her books when she was an unknown, Kingsolver then turns to the chains:

"I have a bone to pick with the way the behemoth chains organize their bookselling: They don't play fair. They purposefully out-compete with neighborhood shop, dazzling customers with glitzy displays and - above all - discounts.

"They can afford to cut the price of the latest blockbuster, because chains order these books by the thousands, at a reduced price that the publishers don't offer independents . . . Publishers also subsidize certain books with 'co-op money,' a payola scheme that determines which books move forward into the chain store's large displays . . .

"It's not just starving artists who should care about this; it's a First Amendment issue. To put it bluntly, chain stores and publishers are in league to manipulate what Americans will see, purchase, and read . . . "

Good heavens, did Barbara Kingsolver use the word "payola" - did she actually accuse publishers and chainstores of acting as "Big Brother" (a term she does use later in the article) to "manipulate" American readers? For an author whose bread and butter is now made by chain bookstores (not independents), this is a dangerous message to impart, and of course if you're on the independents' side, a heroic one, too - and let's hope she's the first of many. (Hey, Authors' Guild! Talk about galvanizing members!)

Next week we'll visit the Book Mark to learn its tragic lessons on the selling floor, and let's watch as the embattled Capitola Book Cafe confronts some of the more tangled questions of the day - for example, 1) how can a city government say no to one bookstore (a chain) and yes to another (an independent)? Don't they both sell books? Isn't it a matter of First Amendment protections? Or 2) don't Americans want MORE bookstores in their community, not fewer? Wouldn't it be wrong to stop the competitive process just because a chain is bigger and an independent is smaller? Whoa: them's the toughies - and let's go get 'em.

For now let's turn to something SO POSITIVE IT'S UNIVERSALLY UPLIFTING to everyone, customers especially, plus a lot of fun.

4. THAT HISTORY-MAKING WEBRING

Now, why are you reading this column when you could be zipping around four websites that are making history for independent bookstores? In fact, this experiment in cyber-collaboration is so literary and so wonderfully commercial that it could become a customer-building, store-enhancing, sales-increasing and profit-making vehicle for every independent in the nation.

You've perhaps heard about the four independent booksellers in the Bay Area who have twice collaborated on what they call a "webring," a shared website they produce together that is devoted to a book they choose and that uses materials supplied by the publisher and essays they write themselves.

The current book is THE RUM DIARY by Hunter S. Thompson (Simon & Schuster), and regardless of your own feelings about the good Doctor - in fact, it's better if you can't stand him any more (see below) - click on over and follow directions to "The RumRing" at any or all of the following:

The Booksmith, San Francisco: http://www.booksmith.com

Printer's Inc., Palo Alto and Mountain View: http://www.pibooks.com

Cody's Books, Berkeley: http://www.codysbooks.com

Capitola Book Cafe, Capitola: http://www.cruzio.com/~bookcafe

The webring these stores have created is a classy, constantly intriguing and adventurous presentation of Thompson's newly published first novel, complete with four-color graphics, excerpted chapters, reviews and blurbs, a bit of audio (from actor Campbell Scott's reading on the cassette version) and passages from other Thompson books.

Best of all, we discover here materials Thompson has never released before - manuscript pages with (actually intelligible) scribblings in the margins, memos from the Doctor's desk on book production and marketing, even photographs "from Dr. Thompson's collection." Links are here for the dozen other Hunter S. Thompson sites that exist on the Internet.

For fans of Thompson, this single website is just a treasure chest of unbelievable discoveries. But say you're like me - you loved the Thompson's Fear and Loathing books a few decades ago but tired of his sad shenanigans and drug-besotted writings since then: Well! If you miss the manic genius of the old days and want to see how Thompson's missile-trajectory brain was bound to misfire, here is his first protagonist, the young San Juan journalist Paul Kemp, musing about "restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other."

How we see that conflict in the very pages and photographs submitted to the website by Thompson's own hand! It doesn't matter, really, if the book is any good (it's fascinating as an artifact, certainly) - what matters is that peek it offers inside the pre-mottled brilliance! Soon we discover that not only is this book available through a mere click of the mouse at any of these websites, but since Thompson yet again canceled his author tour, we can get autographed copies ONLY through these four!

So what a coup: If you happen to snoop around any of these websites while you're there, you will be rewarded with ideas, essays and booklists that are original to each bookstore. The Capitola Book Cafe site, for example, offers a sensational essay about the way "Americans sense that something is wrong with the places where we live and work," as James Kunstler writes in the Atlantic Monthly - "the fry pits, the big-box stores, the office units, the lube joints, the carpet warehouses, the parking lagoons, the jive plastic townhouse clusters" are symptoms of a greater problem that's best explored through a magnificent list of recommended books from the Capitola staff. These range from great books now in paper ("Jihad vs. McWorld," "Divided We Fall," "The Next American Nation") to harder-to-get titles from publishers like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Brookings Institute, Berrett-Koehler, MIT, etc.).

Similarly, the recommended reading lists from Cody's ("a real bookstore staffed by real people") offers exciting sales - Springer Verlag yellows (mathematics titles)! 30 percent off bestsellers! - as well as in-store events and a great "email mailing list." Suggestions are drawn from the full staff, featuring "books that made them cry, books that made them think, books that let them forget about thinking for a while," writes owner Andy Ross.

Booksmith's website is an artistic wonder in its own right, leading us from Scottish Lit to "Cosmik Debris" (science fiction), Erotica, "GOTHic" ("titles for the morbid sensualist"), poetry, Collectibles, links to censorship issues, a lawsuit information page, bestsellers, store history, online magazines and the first webring that the 4 bookstores created for Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Bitch" (http://www.booksmith.com/bitch.html) - a website so successful, says Thomas Gladysz of the Booksmith, that "we'll probably leave it up forever.

"Thousands have visited the Wurtzel webring," he says. "The author has a tremendous following, and the [interactive] bulletin board exploded with messages about her ever since it went up."

The numbers are already impressive for the Hunter Thompson webring: 3500 people have already visited The Booksmith's RumRing alone, says Gladysz - "3500 people we consider to be more customers walking in the door." What kind of sale can be predicted? "At Booksmith, we expect to sell 450 copies of the Thompson book - about 300 more than we might have otherwise." It's another webring that may stay up forever. "A week before Christmas we were selling 5-6 copies a day, and I'm sure that will continue."

Of course, putting up a webring takes a great deal of work, from programming and design to order fulfillment and Internet marketing. But the ferocity with which these 4 booksellers collaborated with Simon & Schuster to make the Thompson webring a new creation on the Internet been a driving force in itself. As Gary Corduan of Printer's Inc., says, "there has to be an abiding personal relationship with the project, something that goes well beyond the job description, or the job becomes slow death."

Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, Corduan suggests that "a medium like the Internet is its own content, and the relations between people that a new medium creates have deeper political repercussions than what they say with that medium. It's in the discovery of the means of creating new relations with new media that the bookstore wars will be won."

5. LETTERS ON WEBPAGE

Thanks to the many readers who have sent ideas and thoughts regarding "the bookseller wars" and ways independents might use to even the competition up a bit. You can find these through http://www.nciba.com/patholt.html.