Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, November 30, 2001


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OKAY, so I got carried away (again) by the fantastic discoveries of independent booksellers on the web, and I'll tellya, a year or two ago you just didn't see the kind of diversity of resources and inventive services that are now available to Internet customers from independent booksellers.

So who wouldn't get excited - or a little windy - at compiling a guide to bookstore websites on the Internet? They all put that dull and dowdy old dumbed-down A----- to shame, but of course you expected that.

But because the list is so lengthy I'm breaking it up into digestible chunks of a dozen each or so, none of which (particularly this one) are listed in priority, and no attempt has been made to cover any bases in terms of specialty or location. It's just the list I'm honored to start with, and it, with the others-soon-to-come added on, will soon be posted on its own page at www.holtuncensored.com.

Meanwhile, remember: You can do a lot of holiday shopping on the Internet through the websites below, many of which offer unexpected resources that will surprise and delight even the most weary shopper. So here's the first batch:

BOULDER BOOKSTORE - http://www.boulderbookstore.com
With its rustic Rocky Mountain feel and its invaluable subsites (YogaSight.com and BuddhaSight.com, which feature databases, conferences, seminars and such items as Yoga mats and cushions), this blue-as-the-sky website offers wide-ranging staff recommendations and lists of prize winners (though I wish these were updated more frequently) and still runs, for those who missed it, Modern Library's list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and the Radcliffe Publishing Program's not-so-snooty own list in response. Its politics as a community activist bookstore are evident in the story behind the Boulder Independent Business Alliance - a model for many retail coalitions. The Boulder Bookstore Shares Program (giving back to the community) are as inspiring as the site's intriguing links (Reclaim Democracy; Academy of American Poets, Library of Congress, etc.). Searchable; emailable; sign up for monthly listing of author events.

BLUE STOCKINGS - http://www.bluestockings.com/
With a lovely watercolor painting of its storefront on the home page, Bluestocking's bookstore, cafe and art galley in New York City's lower east side welcomes us to walk in the door and consider staff picks that will be unfamiliar to some and a delightful find to many. The store's collective strives "to be multi-lingual, open to all sexualities and spiritualities." Here is an "intergenerational" emphasis on books that's out to "challenge racism, classism, ablism, sexism, ageism and sizism." Being against all the "isms" ain't easy in this prejudiced world, but in this store it means you can trust the staff's politics and its dedication to find the books its cybercustomers want.

HARRY W. SCHWARTZ BOOKSHOPS - http://www.schwartzbooks.com/
Milwaukee's oldest and largest independent bookstore (founded in 1927) is so much fun to visit online (see its "Short Irreverent History" complete with a wine-stained napkin note to William Faulkner and the original Harry's "slashing attack" on book collecting) that you may forget to peruse its "Features page" with great picks and unexpected discounts. But don't miss the "Schwartz 100" books of special merit (which unfortunately ends at #8, so you have to email a request for the full catalog). Schwartz's five stores are loaded with "serious readers" on the staff who are "passionate about our favorite authors and subjects. Some of us are writers and many of us have spent our adult lives in bookselling. Living as we do in a time when alienation from one's job, we are privileged to spend our days in an occupation we love." And it's a privilege for travelers in cyberspace to see the commitment of the store (see "Schwartz Gives Back") and to understand why they say "providing readers with the books they seek is a commitment we do not make lightly." This is a searchable website, and you can send queries by email.

BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH - http://www.brooklinebooksmith.com/
"You gotta love a bookstore where dogs are welcome," as the Boston Phoenix wrote when its readers named the Booksmith "Best Store for New Books," and somehow this website recreates the store's atmosphere of "creaky floors, wooden shelves, reading chairs and the smell of printed paper." It's a very heady, literary, joyously eccentric and opinionated place where you can save money because you're on the Internet with the Online Bargain Title of the week and fall in love with the articulate and enthusiastic mini-reviews. When I read the Staff Picks page at the Booksmith, I want to buy ALL the titles. Don't miss pages with great ideas for gifts and for kids. Searchable; emailable; sign up for online newsletter.

CODY'S BOOKS - http://www.codysbooks.com
Here is one of the best collections on the Internet of literary information from varied sources: A lengthy and diverse list of succinctly described Staff Picks; holiday gift ideas; cookbooks; children's books and archived backlist are just the beginning. Juicy interviews follow with authors ranging from Simon Winchester ("The Professor and the Madman") to children's writer Jack Prelutsky, plus first-person essays by diverse authors (mystery writer Dana Stabenow, poet Albert Goldbarth). A feature worth checking frequently is "Read Up!" - essays and annotated lists of books related to the news (the Gore/Bush election, events of 9/11 and aftermath); books that inspired movies (and whether the film adaptation changed the ending!); books after The Pill; and the BookSense 76. Store bestsellers, book awards (national and regional, with links) and essays on the book industry make this one helluva stop for booklovers. Searchable, emailable.

SQUARE BOOKS - http://www.squarebooks.com
You'll feel almost set down in the hot and leafy Courthouse Square of Oxford, Mississippi, as you meander toward the cool interiors of the two-story Square Books that's pictured on the home page. The store's entire catalog is featured in full color on the site each season and a joy to see and peruse. Square Books offers an astounding range of books about the South - "Mississippi Lit" in particular - as well as a full inventory of new books for the general reader. Don't miss "Dear Reader," the newsletter that updates us about up-and-coming Southern authors, University of Mississippi writers' conferences and visiting (or returning) favorite authors. Signed collectibles a big plus here. Searchable, emailable; subscribe to online newsletter, the Speed Reader.

JOSEPH BETH - http://www.josephbeth.com
It's fun to put a face to the recommendation when this site's "Master Booksellers" - veterans, "legends," experts, all - offer their own smiling mugs to introduce an eclectic array of books, neatly and succinctly reviewed. Since these Master Booksellers come from the Joseph Beth stores (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Lexington) and their sister bookstores Davis Kidd (Nashville, Jackson, Memphis), over time, you can find the bookseller whose tastes are closest to yours and not only follow his or her recommendations but also send email questions about titles that will fit your interests even more snugly. An addictive service called "Bringing Readers and Local Authors Together" entices online readers to view photos of author events and read about local authors and books with universal appeal at every location. And don't miss "JB Author Interviews," a lively and growing archive. Searchable; sign up for email list of author events.

POWELL'S CITY OF BOOKS - http://www.Powells.com/
The grandaddy of online independents still has that youthful exuberance, hilarious cynicism, kick-up-your-literary heels and wiseacre adventurism that makes this Portland, Oregon-based site as enjoyable as it is informative. Miss good reviews at home? Subscribe for free to Powell's Review-a-Day emails (culled from various sources) or better yet, watch for continued musings called "Bibliolatry: Opinions from a VERY Independent Bookseller" named Carlisle whose wide-ranging essays are erudite, cranky, humorous and downright convincing. Like the big barn-within-a-barn-within-a-barn atmosphere of the store itself. Powells.com is loaded with sections to browse, annotated lists, "Other Voices" (great links), author interviews, "Host Bookshelves" (from Atlantic Monthly, BlueEar.com, Mother Jones, etc.), award winners, collectibles, "Great Deals," staff picks and "HOT TITLES" (as quirky and reliable as the word of mouth they're based on). Don't miss readers' picks called "The Daily Dose," which includes cash prizes for Internetlopers. Of course this site is fully searchable, and be sure to subscribe to Powell's email news, one of the newsiest, most erudite and hilarious newsletters on the web.

POLITICS AND PROSE - http://www.politics-prose.com/
Talk about widely read - the wise and articulate owners of this legendary Washington D.C. bookstore seem to march forward with all their staff members alongside to help you find exactly what you're looking for even if you don't know what that is. See, for example, the stunning, exhaustive and magnificent treasure trove of book suggestions in their Holiday Book Catalogue (including a section for stocking-stuffing mamas called The Perfect Little Book). A thoughtful essay appears every month to chat about the news and good books to go with it, and what a great holiday gift idea is the Monthly Book Club, for which you send P&P the name and interests of a book-reading friend (or your own book-loving self), and the staff will handpick and ship a new title to that person every month (billing you, of course). Great links here to reading group guides and local favorites like the Congressional News Service. Fully searchable; subscribe to email newsletter.

ELLIOTT BAY BOOK COMPANY - http://www.elliottbaybook.com
That great Northwest woodsy interior of this exposed brick-and-cedar Pioneer Square (Seattle) bookstore brings hearty inspiration to a website loaded with diverse and often surprising book suggestions. This is a bookstore that's papered its bookshelves with handwritten staff suggestions, so it's no surprise the website should offer photos of smiling and scowling staff members who recommend titles ranging from books you've always wanted to read but have forgotten to books you've never heard of and will thank your lucky stars when you finally read them. A click on the children's book page with its winged alligator and inviting castle makes you want to cross that moat into the Children's Room forever. Don't miss the Booknotes section - wonderfully chewy essays about politics, poetry, feminism, short stories, science fiction and the best resource for books of all time - those engaged and articulate customers who walk in the door. Searchable.

HARVARD BOOKSTORE - http://www.harvard.com/
This privately owned independent bookstore - not connected to Harvard University and not in any way operated, god knows, by Barnes & Noble (B&N runs the Harvard Coop) - offers wonderfully inventive book suggestions linked to politics, the news and the world of academe. Each week, for example, the site reprints an eye-opening article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that's bracketed by o a list of books that are thrillingly relevant to the subject. Titles from the store's spirited Friday Forum discussions with authors of scholarly books constitute an invaluable resource, as do business books from the store's Competitive Advantage Breakfast series. The idea that a website can scoop up the books most featured and talked about at the bookstore and offer them with as much enthusiasm to Internet readers as person-to-person talks between staff and customers would have seemed unreachable only a year or so ago. But it's just one of the many opportunities available to cyberbrowsers who won't want to miss the new "Remainders Sneak Peek," either. Searchable.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL - http://www.msbooks.com/
Any bookstore site that lists "Public/Sex" as a Featured Section surely calls to the adventurous cyberreader for a further look-see, and sure enough, not only does this savvy Santa Monica store boldly list books few booksellers have featured up front elsewhere, it also leads us to the excellent guerilla artist adopted by the store, Robbie Conal (sample posters shown for sale here), as well as essays demanding the most opinionated of customer response, and details about the latest invasion in the area of chain superstores, which, "no matter how honorable their intentions, may well kill us." With each section of the store converted into a web page, and a variety of resources popping out all over the place from "resident experts, e-mail discussions, book reviews and recommendations," this "social and cultural bookstore" certainly does offer, as it claims, "books & ideas to change the world." Searchable.

AMAZON BOOKSTORE COOPERATIVE - http://www.amazonfembks.com/
No, it's not *that* Amazon, thank heaven - it's the *better* and *truer* Amazon, the oldest independent feminist bookstore in North America, founded in 1970 when Jeff Bezos was but a wee boy in his sandbox preparing plans to rule the beach. AmazonFemBks.com is also the only independent to have stood up to Amazon (the Seattle company)in a trademark infringement lawsuit that was settled so favorably for Amazon (the Minneapolis collective) that the store was able to expand to a new building. There the glorious sections that are hard to find in general stores - Feminist Theory, Violence Against Women, Women of Color, Lesbian Fiction & Culture - are reproduced beautifully on a site that specializes in "non-racist, non-sexist and multi-cultural books for children and young adults." Searchable.

SHAMAN DRUM BOOKSHOP - http://www.shamandrum.com/
Any website that pictures a bald-headed boy with a big lizard on his head surely has an original appeal, and this Ann Arbor store - specializing in scholarly books in the humanities and literature - doesn't disappoint. The photo inside draws us into a sophisticated and warm atmosphere with soft lights and wooden shelves, and the website is just as alluring. On one page, three people review the new novel by "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk - two are staff members who love it and one is the author, who hates it ("What you're getting here is a stupid story about a stupid little boy...").

Shaman Drum is one of many bookstores to use original material for the home page that connects us to a BookSense.com model. More about that and other bookstore websites next time.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read the article about Barnes & Nobles in the New York Times somewhat differently than you did in #283. The objection that Len Riggio had was that the publishers are selling operations like Costco and I suspect Walmart the most popular books at a bigger discount than they allow B&N. That they probably sell B&N these same books at a bigger discount than to small book stores is a different issue that doesn't seem to be such a problem to B&N.

When B&N does have a major distribution operation it isn't so clear that their discount should be the same as a bookstore that takes a few copies as the shipping costs of the publisher would be less. The real stupidity of this it seems to me is that the publishers destroy their long-term customers,independents as well as B&N, Borders etc., by selling the books that would generate an easy profit for an independent bookstore to operations like Costco for what can only be short-term substantial sales, but maybe not as much profit as they would get if the same book were sold through an independent who paid them more.

I don't think B&N is wrong on this complaint, but I doubt that much will happen. Auto tire dealers have the same complaint and nothing has happened. As to the monopoly question - copyrights and patents create limited-time monopoly power - while the general economic theory is that monopolies are bad, it is recognized that limited monopolies are necessary to allow serious development activities. The problem comes in the abuse of the system by firms like Disney who got a 3rd extension on "Snow White," even though there wasn't any conceivable argument that it was necessary to stimulate new products - I think films are written off in a few years and 50 years isn't necessary to make investment in films attractive.

The whole law should probably be looked at, but since the powerful players are all on one side, it would probably come out worse than it is now. Mike Sunshine

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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