Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 4, 2001


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Thanks (truly) to the many readers who have written to say that if I'm going to create a list of bookstores online (which I started last time in #284), I should also discuss sites like ABEbooks.com, AddAll.com, Alibris.com, AllBookstores.com, AllDirect.com, AlphaCraze.com, BookCloseOuts.com, BookPrices.com, BookFinder.com, Ebay.com, Half.com and others (including those infuriating used-book sales at Amazon.com) - all websites that focus on low prices and price comparisons.

I know that some readers use independent booksellers to find out information about new titles that interest them, then turn around and purchase the books at the lowest price at these how-to-buy-on-the-cheap websites.

This seems unethical to me and, in the long run, purty dumb. If we don't support the independent booksellers who look beyond bestsellers to find new, original and important books, we'll end up with nothing but chain bookstores and price clubs that have never cared about quality of literature and think they should be paid by publishers for recommending any book at all.

To me, the purpose (and the joy) of preserving your favorite bookstore websites is to create a kind of pantheon of independence that you can visit on the Internet for reasons other than finding the lowest-priced bargain.

Just entering these sites places you in that rarest of literary aeries, a book-loving atmosphere of invention and information-exchange that makes your reading life about as rich and fulfilling as it could ever be. At these sites, you get to know staff members whose interests reflect and deepen your own, browse books you might never hear about elsewhere, consider differing opinions on books and take advantage of the store's online deals.

I've always felt a certain revival of spirit by buying books in an independent store because I know that in a very direct way, the store's independence contributes to MY independence.


So far we've seen how independent bookstores are building their own websites - each one with a unique look - on the Internet, and I'll continue to review these sites in future columns.

But now let's consider what happens when every store listed is unique but, taken together, they all LOOK the same through a program called BookSense.com.

BookSense.com was conceived about three years ago, when it became apparent to booksellers that selling books online was not a luxury but a necessity if they were going to keep their customers coming back to the store and keep them away from that dazzling spendthrift irresponsible money-loser, Amazon.com.

So the American Booksellers Association created an affordable and easy-to-use template that allowed independent booksellers a quick and uncomplicated way to get on the Internet.

This BookSense.com template dovetails with the Book Sense marketing program at ABA as a way to run national ads for books, share a database of 1.6 million titles, offer tips about upcoming books that independent booksellers love (the Book Sense 76) as well as books that are selling well among independents (Book Sense Bestsellers), among many other services.

All this is available on BookSense.com sites, along with particular information about each store that acts as host of the site. So while the look and structure of BookSense.com sites are much the same, the content can be as wide-ranging and unique as each store. It's tricky to do and a huge challenge for overworked independents, but it works, thanks to the sense of fun and freedom that independents share.

Here's a sample of independent stores using the BookSense.com template:

BOOKS & BOOKS - http://www.booksandbooks.com
Thanks to a full-color photo of a pink cadillac pictured in front of the store, few readers will miss the fact that Books & Books is located in Miami Beach (and Coral Gables), Florida, and, as of yesterday, was inviting customers to celebrate Miami's heritage at a store event in which author Becky Roper Matkov will discuss "Miami's Historic Neighborhoods." More photos of the stores walk us into a chockful-of-books environment where we find enthusiastic staff picks next to Book Sense 76 titles and all the specific store info (book clubs, local writers, store history, children's specials, "New & Notable"). I love it that the staff of Books & Books put 1960s activist Bill Ayers' "Fugitive Days" on the home page despite the scorn it's received since 9/11 as "unpatriotic." Then when you click to the official store recommendation page, get ready for picks from no less than 28 staff members.

SKYLIGHT BOOKS - http://www.skylightbooks.com
This Los Angeles bookstore proves its claim of being "fiercely independent" with offbeat recommendations and photos of staff members who are aren't exactly as "photo-shy" as the site promises. Take Garrett, pictured in what appears to be a store mosh pit of ecstasy (other revelers' eyes are covered by a little black rectangular box) and whose favored themes range from transmutations of horror, abductions and murder to "Postmodern Fiction Supercool," teenage girl angst and Post-Punk fairy tales. For his turn, Charles demonstrates that "since he gave up booze about 8 years ago, he is not anywhere near as obnoxious as he used to be." My favorite is the store cat, Lucy, who recommends among other titles, "Vacationing with Your Pet." This is a fun site to watch for underground film titles (the store collaborates with the Sliver Lake Film Festival), and my only wish is that the staff recommend newer titles.

This 25-year-old Arkansas store has become "a unique Mid-America landmark," thanks in large part to the great eye and bountiful energy of its owner and founder, Mary Gay Shipley. It's one of the few stores where John Grisham appears regularly (and where you can order the first signed copies of his latest, "Skipping Christmas"). You can almost feel the heat building up when Shipley gets behind an unknown writer - in this case Ken Wells, author of "Junior's Leg," who speaks to a Kiwanis Club luncheon in Blytheville tomorrow - because her enthusiasm practically sparks off the screen. That Bookstore's newsletter for December is now online, where "Upcoming Cool Happenings" in the store and "What the TBIB community is reading" offer an intriguing mixture of popular and up-and-coming authors.

THE REGULATOR BOOKSHOP - http://www.regbook.com
Here's an example of a smart way to channel information through a bookstore website to local customers: Instead of spending hours answering questions on the phone, state carefully in writing what happens when a best-selling author comes to the store. In the case of The Regulator of Durham, North Carolina, great pains have been taken to explain Diana Gabaldon's coming appearance in such detail that customers who want to buy the book and get a ticket at the same time can do so online, while customers who want only the ticket can buy it for $5 in the store and return it later for credit, and customers wanting to know whether seats are reserved learn that seating is by ticket number and ... well, fans pore over this stuff, and who can blame them? I live some 3,000 miles away, but this write-up makes the Gabaldon event so exciting I want to go. Staff recommendations are superb at The Regulator, thanks to the personal enthusiasm and irreverence of store workers like Tom Campbell, who says the novel "Crooked River Burning" will be "the sure winner of the award for The Great Cleveland Novel - which I thought was a contradiction in terms." Tee hee, everybody but Cleveland residents will chuckle through these picks.

WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST - http://womenchildren.booksense.com
One of the largest feminist bookstores in the country, this Chicago legend offers a human touch right off the bat by introducing a gifted worker on the home page. Deirdra Bishop "creates our window displays, selects the beautiful jewelry and cool magnets we carry, receives and shelves books, helps customers . . . and fulfills all the online orders, which are growing each month." That is great news. An upbeat idea at this 22-year-old store's website is to offer "Holiday Shopping Parties" for schools and organizations that want to "have a party, support your favorite feminist bookstore and get your holiday shopping done all in one fell swoop." Staff picks ranging from "the pride of the store" - a gorgeous book called "Women Building Chicago: 1790-1990" - to "Even Dogs Go Home to Die," a "sharp memoir by outsider artist Linda St. John," are consistently well-written and absorbing, though like many customers, I wish newer titles would be recommended.

LEFT BANK BOOKS - http://www.left-bank.com
With its palm-fronded entrance and photo of its famous bookstore cat, this 32-year-old St. Louis bookstore provides a "cultural and progressive political focus" that generates fund-raisers for literacy, pro-choice, reproductive health and environmental groups. "Our latest project is 'Pass the Book,' wherein our customers sponsor 35 students at Clark Elementary School who will receive a book a month until the end of the year." Customers love Left Bank so much that they convinced the store to create a Friends of Left Bank Books Literary Society as a way to raise money and offer member invitations to private receptions with authors and other perks. Staff picks are personal, often eccentric and hugely entertaining, such as Phil's recommendation of "The Gallery of Regrettable Food." Taken from such 1940s-60s canons as "Cooking with 7UP," Phil writes, "these ancient texts, comprised of unfortunate food combinations photographed in unflattering fashion, have something to say about our culture. Something terrible." Among the Phil's favorites are "disturbing images of Ketchup-Pistachio Cake and Veal Ring Salad." You have to special-order this one, but typically, the write-up is worth the price of the book AND the wait.

TATTERED COVER - http://www.tatteredcover.com
You wouldn't think a website could duplicate the feeling of mountain-cabin sanctity that permeates this magnificent three-story Denver bookstore - and you'd be right. But the next best thing is the series of photos that alternately click on and off on the home page, showing interiors and street shots of both the main store and downtown branch, where "antique overstuffed chairs and couches offer snug places to nestle, reading lamps provide warm lighting, and a homey, relaxed atmosphere encourage readers to linger for as long as they like." At the Info Desk page, doors open before our eyes and welcome us to Tattered Cover's 25-year-old history. A great idea is the Autographed Book Club, where members who collect books "receive one signed first edition chosen by our special events staff each month." These books are written by VERY collectible authors, but you still get two refusals a year, and after you've purchased 10 books, the next selection is free. Tatteredcover.com is not a self-promoting site, so you have to find the web newsletter ("Tattered Times Online") and click on "TC in the News" to read the full story of owner Joyce Meskis' heroic pro-customer and pro-Constitution stand against privacy-invading police - and it's worth it when you find it.

DUTTON'S BRENTWOOD BOOKSTORE - http://www.duttonsbrentwood.com/
This politically tough-minded Los Angeles bookstore makes no bones about its dissatisfaction with the settlement of the American Booksellers Association's lawsuit against chain bookstores last spring. Dutton's was one of the plaintiffs in the case and after three years of providing legal documents and depositions, wanted to go "down fighting ... to the bitter end" rather than "abandon the fight for principle" because of money. Few other independents have posted such a message, and when you come upon it in cyberspace, it gives this bookseller's site the kind of integrity that makes its many resources - links to the nearby Huntington Library, the wonderfully liberal Boston Review, the fabulous Arts & Letters Daily ( http://www.aldaily.com/ ) - hefty and adventurous. These first pages seem to have come from an older site and segue into the BookSense.com template, which would seem to show that Dutton's forgave the ABA while still being mad. All the details about store functions and staff picks are here, but again I wish the book recommendations were more current.

MORE BOOKSTORES ON THE WEB to come in subsequent columns and they'll all be alphabetized on a new page at HoltUncensored.com, about which more to follow.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read the article you mentioned in the New York Times about Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble, but I read quickly, then used it to start the fireplace going, so I might have been careless and got it wrong. My reaction in the first paragraph was outrage, but as I read further, I THOUGHT I gathered that his attack is not on the independents, not on any bookstores, but on the discount Wal-Mart type stores that select a few titles to stock, then bargain and get a deeper discount than the publishers give to book stores. It seemed to me like a case of the big fish encountering a threat from an even bigger fish. Call it karma or poetic justice or whatever, but the Wal-Mart type stores shouldn't be allowed to compete unfairly with bookstores. And if B&N takes on the publishers and protests this policy, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for ALL bookstores.

Dorothy Bryant

Holt responds: I think you got it exactly right if you were thinking logically, which in publishing is usually our first mistake - if, for example, the Riggio brothers hadn't shown over the years that "better" terms for B&N never, ever meant better terms for anybody else. I can hear Riggio contending that B&N is the only bookseller that's large enough to get similar terms as Wal-Mart or Costco and that other retailers, especially independents, don't qualify.

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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