HOLT UNCENSORED #3
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, September 29, 1998:
SOLAR LIGHT VS. BORDERS: THE TENSION BUILDS
FORMER BORDERS EMPLOYEE SPEAKS OUT
A QUESTION OF (HUMOROUS) MEDIA COVERAGE
INTERVIEW: AUTHOR RON TAKAKI
THE REMAINDERS OF THE DAY: CHAPTER 3
SOLAR LIGHT VS. BORDERS: TENSION BUILDS
Thursday's meeting of the Planning Commission in San Francisco (401 Van Ness, Room #428, between 2-5 p.m.) seems certain to be packed with supporters for Solar Light, the tiny (2000 square feet) Union Street bookstore that is facing certain doom, according to owner David Hughes, if a giant (20,000 square feet) Borders chain store wins its petition to locate directly across the street.
Borders' representatives have compiled a formidable sheaf of materials, the most egregious of which, perhaps, is a "Comparable Book Store Impact Study" by realtor Matthew F. Holmes.
This slick, four-color brochure makes it appear that independents not only continue to exist but can actually flourish when a chain bookstore moves into a nearby location! One example: Dirk Krane, owner of Megabooks on University Avenue in Palo Alto, "felt fortunate," according to Holmes, "to be next [door] to Borders Books. He had to become more aggressive in pricing and promotions and stay focused on customer service. He said that Borders Books brings more customers by his front door and that his business has improved since they [Borders] arrived on the street."
It's so cute. Nowhere does that naughty Holmes mention that Megabooks' inventory is 60 percent used books and that the store's new books - most of them bestsellers - are discounted more deeply than are the books at Borders. Contacted anew by phone, Krane explained, "Borders discounts their bestsellers 30 percent, but we go to 35 percent. Most of our books are sold at 20 percent off, while Borders discounts some at 10 percent. So you see, it's better for us when Borders customers walk by our store: They see a better deal here if we have the book they want."
Tom Allen of Stacey's is also quoted in the brochure stating that the "sales [at Stacey's in Palo Alto] initially went down when Borders opened, but now the biggest competition to Stacey's are the internet book companies such as Amazon.com and the Barnes & Noble website." Asked about this quote, Allen said that the words are true but not the context. "He [Holmes] acts as if the first situation went away when the second situation began to predominate. I certainly didn't mean to say that Borders has gone away. It's just that the other has been added on and I do believe it's more significant now." Will the Planning Commission see beneath the surface of Holmes' unlovely lacework? Only Thursday's meeting will tell.
Meanwhile, thanks to innovative tactics by other bookstores, retailers and friends of the store, Solar Light has mounted a considerable counterattack. The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, for example, has teamed up with the socially responsible long-distance service, Working Assets, to publish a full-page advertisement that appeals directly to consumers in an alternative newspaper, the Bay Guardian. "The strategy here isn't new," states the ad. "National chains target a neighborhood where local businesses selling the same products or services already exist. In this case, Borders is looking to locate directly across the street from Solar Light. Does anyone doubt that this small community bookstore could be put out of business?"
The ad asks people to attend the Planning Commission meeting or write the commissioners and mayor "and tell them Borders does NOT have your permission to move in. We block Borders now, we can block the next invasion into the next neighborhood. This time, we save one of the city's local independent bookstores. Next time, we save other local, owner-operated businesses that add so much to San Francisco's unique character." Query: If coalitions like this can raise consciousness in one city, couldn't a series of coalitions and ads work nationwide?
A QUESTION OF (HUMOROUS) MEDIA COVERAGE
It appears, at least in California, that even as the American Booksellers Association hires a new marketing director who is "very experienced in marketing large concepts" (see Monday's PW Daily firstname.lastname@example.org), the media have already absorbed the big picture and are able to pass their findings on to readers without comment.
Even a chuckle is allowed amidst otherwise dire findings. In the following exchange, which appeared in Los Angeles Magazine back in July, columnist Mary Melton apparently felt that readers knew a great deal about the chain-vs-independent controversy. She thus did not attempt to explain why the phone calls were made or what the responses indicated. (The magazine's use of italics for the clerks' voices is not possible here, but the run-on mix of voices has been preserved.)
"Borders Books, Music & Cafe, Santa Barbara
What's the name of your store? I think it's just Borders. Is that the full name? I don't know. Can you look on a bag? Well, outside I think it says cafe, too, but I'll check. Hold on. (New voice) Hi, what can I help you with?
I'm trying to confirm the name of this store. OK, hold on. (New voice) Hi, this is the manager. We're trying to find this out for you, sorry. Can you hold on?
Do you have the store's name written down somewhere? Well, the company name is Borders Inc.
Right, but that's not the name of the store, is it? No, no. Hold on, the personnel manager is checking. (On hold.) OK, we found it. It's Borders Books, then comma. Music, one of those and symbols, then Cafe.
Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena What's the name of your store? Vroman's Bookstore. Is that the full name? Yes, it's Vroman's Bookstore. Are you sure? Yes."
A FORMER BORDERS EMPLOYEE SPEAKS OUT
How does a former Borders clerk who now works as an independent bookseller view the difference between chain and independent bookstores?
Sean Schlemmer, who worked as a clerk at two Borders stores before he joined Solar Light Books in San Francisco, said in a recent interview, "My old colleagues at Borders are amazed to hear that if we're thirsty at Solar Light, David [Hughes, owner] tells us to take a buck from the till and go get a drink. At Borders, people search the clerks' bags every night to see if they're stealing books. Video cameras are trained on the employees, so when you're working there you feel like it's San Quentin. Here [at Solar Light] you feel valued as bookseller."
Q: Borders has been said to have a better inventory and more knowledgeable employees than do other chains. Is this not true?
A: Once upon a time maybe, but the chain is expanding so quickly they can't keep [those standards] up. Maybe 15 years ago it made other chains look bad. Right now Borders seems to hire people who are less knowledgeable and less likely to make waves because what they want are people who type things into the computer quickly, or get customers to a book quickly, and be automatons. They seem to feel that independent bookseller types tend to get disgruntled if you treat them like automatons, and those are the people who are either leaving or trying to unionize. So the policy now seems to be, let's get kids in here who don't mind a nondescript place.
Q: How were you taught to treat customers at Borders?
A: The company line was to take a customer to a book, but half the time there was no kind of personal investment in it, partly because of the masses of people coming in and partly because you get so jaded being there that books are no longer books, customers are no longer people, the job is no longer a job, and you walk around like a wind-up toy.
Q: Were you encouraged to read early galleys or advance copies?
A: No, they would be upset if you showed that kind of interest in books. I think the people who ran the place weren't book people; they seemed to be hardcore retail people who didn't particularly enjoy books. The whole bottom line was sell, sell sell. God forbid you should even flip open a book while standing at counter.
Q: Wasn't there a training program?
A: Yes, it lasted over a week and consisted mainly of learning Borders' system of typing stuff into computers - you became a computer typer or cash register ringer-upper. It was nothing like here, where David's giving me galleys every day and looking for an opinion, and people come in looking for Rebecca's picks [handwritten recommendation cards] on the shelves. At a place like Borders, they want you to be as anonymous as possible.
Q: Do you mean it's considered wrong to read a book and form an opinion?
A: Yes, I felt they would see that as loafing. The whole thing is run by the central operation in Michigan. They have experts who decide what's good and not good. It's not your job to decide that. The experts send so many books, and it's your job to put them on the shelf and in the customers' hands. How dare you even assume to know any more than that?
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR RON TAKAKI
OF THE MANY THINGS California has given the nation - theme parks, Ronald Reagan, the New Age, Marin County - its famous voter initiatives are perhaps the most dramatic: Remember Proposition 13, the property-tax disaster that swept the country, eviscerating public library and school budgets? Then came the anti-immigration, show-us-your-papers-or-we'll-turn-you-in Proposition 187; and most recently, the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, which has cut minority enrollments in half at the University of California and other state colleges.
Prop. 209 has proven so volatile that a lot of hooting and hissing went on at a widely anticipated debate last Sunday in San Rafael, Calif. The speakers were Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who brought 209 to the ballot, and UC-Berkeley professor and author ("A Different Mirror," "Strangers from a Different Shore") Ron Takaki.
As expected, Connerly, a black conservative, insisted that affirmative action policies create "preferential treatment" for minorities and are in essence just as bad as any of the discriminatory behaviors made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Takaki countered that Connerly and other backers confused voters by calling the bill "the Civil Rights Initiative" - a ploy that worked in California and could work in any state: Many voters believed they were protecting affirmative action policies, said Takaki, when in fact they were voting against them.
As it happened, the boisterous debate took place on the day that Little, Brown officially published Takaki's latest book, A LARGER MEMORY: A History of Our Diversity, with Voices (371 pages; $15 paperback; $25 hardcover). In it, Takaki makes the point that underscored his remarks during the debate - that "multiculturalism" is not a new term but an historic phenomenon; that it's a myth - though we're all taught to believe it - that the United States was founded by Pilgrims on the East Coast and their descendants who "won" the West by conquering Indians and valuing individualism.
In fact, says Takaki, the United States was founded by people of all races and nationalities - Japanese, Jews, Chinese, Poles, Irish, African Americans - coming from and to the West Coast as much as the East and beginning life in America as laborers and farm workers, ex-slaves and soldiers. Takaki himself, a Japanese American who grew up on a Hawaiian plantation, remembers living with Portuguese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Hawaiian and Chinese neighbors who spoke different languages yet opened up their homes to families of all origins.
The only member of his own family to attend college - thanks to "an early version of affirmative action" (a high school teacher recommended him to the admissions director of a college in Ohio), Takaki astonished his relatives by earning a PhD, establishing new curricula (he was the first person in the United States to teach a course black history) and write books. As an author he also stands apart: While other minority writers concentrate on their "own" race or nationality, Takaki writes many different histories of many different cultures as part of a woven national character.
Today the political phenomena that has begun in California and spread East, says Takaki, is race. "Liberalism and conservatism no longer dominate politics," he maintains. "Race-based ideas and forces move the pendulum now, beginning with the immigrant-bashing Prop. 187, and the anti-affirmative action Prop. 209." An "economic nervousness" lies just beneath an expanding awareness that whites are becoming a minority, that jobs and resources are being taken over by nonwhites. "A cultural and psychological nervousness has also emerged over the question of who is American, and who is a Californian?"
For Takaki, "this nervousness is understandable - it does challenge your whole identity. But in my books I'm trying to say this nervousness is unnecessary: People in the United States have always been diverse, yet we've been denied a knowledge of this diversity by historians, teachers, political leaders. We have an opportunity now to recognize ourselves in a different mirror, and to re-remember who we are in a larger memory. Then we can realize just how connected we are."
One big discovery in "A Larger Memory," Takaki's latest: "I learned this only two years ago but it is a fact that I wish every American will know: There is incontrovertable evidence that during the Civil War, by the spring of 1863, the North was losing badly. Up to that point, Abraham Lincoln had refused to allow blacks in the Union army because he didn't want border states seceding and he didn't know if whites could fight with blacks.
"But when he had no choice, he sent out orders to start enlisting black men, many of them ex-slaves, and the tide of the war turned. Lincoln knew, when he went to Gettysburg, that if it weren't for African Americans, he would have had to abandon the war effort. So when he refers to the idea that 'all men are equal' in the Gettysburg Address, he is expressing his debt to black soldiers. Until then, the aim of the war was preservation of the Union; when Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, the aim was equality."
Takaki's books don't make many best-seller lists, but the first two continue to sell in the hundreds of thousands and have been adopted as college texts throughout the country. They are fascinating books for nonacademic readers as well, because the history of so many cultures comes alive as if for the first time through Takaki's interpretation and (in "A Larger Memory" especially) the voices of the people he describes.
Chapter 3 of Remainders of the Day is with the rest of the story in a separate column on this website.