Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, May 21, 2002


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It's a quiet morning in downtown Blytheville, Arkansas, as the staff and I mosey down Main Street in our rental car. We're in search of the legendary independent bookseller, That Bookstore in Blytheville, and its owner/founder, Mary Gay Shipley.

Behind the scenes, business may be bustling, but to be frank, the lack of traffic and a smattering of closed stores make it appear that Blytheville, like many small American towns, has lost much of its downtown business to shopping malls and big-box stores located outside the city limits.

Suddenly we spot a burst of energy ahead as two Head Start classes are herded onto the sidewalk in front of That Bookstore in Blytheville.

Wouldn't you know, we think to ourselves: Mary Gay Shipley is the kind of bookseller who doesn't depend on foot traffic! She brings potential readers of all ages and from all walks of life into the store at all hours of the retail day.

This turns out to be true and not true: During the three hours of our visit, only four people come in - two browsers, a UPS driver and a man selling tickets for the upcoming Masonic barbecue. The rest of the day, we later understand, will not be that different.

That does not bother Mary Gay Shipley. She is as industrious at her desk near the front counter as if the store were full of people, and in some ways it's going to be. For one thing, Henry Louis Gates will be here in a few days to discuss and sign "The Bondwoman's Narrative" in a much-publicized event that will certainly fill the store and eventually sell hundreds of books.

Today Mary Gay looks up with a smile of such warm expectancy it's hard to believe we're meeting her for the first time. She has a tall, lithe frame and stands up quickly with her hand up, like a traffic cop. "Hold on a minute," she says in her velvety Arkansas accent, "while I come around and hug yer neck."

I ask how the store compensates for lack of that old retailer's standby - location, location, location. "Oh, well, it doesn't," Mary Gay replies. "We've learned to call this a 'destination' store. That means people call on their cell phone to say they're just driving up. I've been considering curbside delivery for 25 years now."

In 1999, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell admired Mary Gay for just that kind of sensitivity to customers *and* beginning authors, when he compared her bookselling methods to a technological concept called "collaborative filtering."

I wrote about this in column #97, and concluded; "Shipley, he makes clear, is one of those great booksellers whose very presence defies the declining market share of independents. So instrumental has Shipley been in the launching of such authors as Rebecca Wells, David Guterson, Terry Kay and (way-back-when) John Grisham, that American literature could not bear up without her.

" 'People like Mary Gay Shipley don't merely predict sleeper hits,' he declares; 'they *create* sleeper hits.' "

The first bestseller she helped to create was "To Dance with the White Dog" by Terry Kay. "Peachtree sent me the book in manuscript. I remember changing planes somewhere after reading it and calling them to say I loved the book and would do whatever I could to help it along.

"I found myself talking about it so much before it was published that I couldn't remember anything about plots or details by the time it was published. By then it had become an emotional experience. I had to read it again to make sure it was as good as I had been saying.

"All along we had been telling people to take it home, and if they didn't like it, to bring it on back. But they would call and *thank* us. They would want more copies for their whole family. I thought, 'Well. This is pretty powerful. I kinda like this.' "

But it didn't work every time. "There are authors I've totally spoiled people from ever reading again," she says, "because they read the author's book when they shouldn't have read it. 'Cold Mountain' was one. I loved it, and I sold a lot of copies of it, but people would come in and say about the two heroes, 'Well, did they ever get back together?' 'Did they live together?' 'Did they die at the end?'

"After that, when I recommended 'Cold Mountain' I learned to say, 'Look, this is a journey, for you and the characters. If you only want to know what happens at the end, it might not be the book for you, because you might not figure it out.'

"Then the next thing happened that was even harder. The book became a bestseller and the author got the kind of famous publicity that made a lot of people think they should buy it. And all along it was still a book that wasn't for everybody."

This is what the New Yorker writer didn't understand, she says now. "What if there were a simple way," he wrote, "to build your very own Mary Gay Shipley? This is the promise of a new technology called collaborative filtering, one of the most intriguing developments to come out of the Internet age."

Collaborative filtering was in its early stages as an electronic way to recommend films at a site called Movie Lens when Gladwell reported on it. He believed that one day the new technology could be applied to books.

All you'd do is type in your 15 favorite book titles ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. Then the computer would compare your list with the top 15 ranked titles of others - tens of thousands of others - and voila, out would bounce a third list, that of titles you hadn't read but were certain to like. The reason: In the case of Gladwell's picks for movies, "the system found a small group of people who feel exactly the same way I do about a wide range of popular movies."

But Mary Gay suggested there was more to it than that (duh). "What I told Malcolm about filtering titles for people is that not every book that's liked by the 'right' people is going to be liked by you. It could be that you're not ready to read a certain author, as I myself found.

"Then look what happens: You won't give that author the same chance again. There are just lots of people out there who'll never buy anything else that author writes because they read him when they shouldn't have."

I look past Mary Gay to the barn of a store she has been operating since 1979 (she moved it after three years in a previous location off Main Street): Here is the kind of independent bookstore that welcomes you with the feeling of delightful clutter you might encounter in a family living room - books in piles right at the front door with signs and dates of authors soon to come to the store; display dumps clogging the aisles, pleasant and irresistible, loaded with books you just have to pick up and look over.

Seasonal books everywhere on displays to help you with gardening or cooking or traveling; a Book Sense table facing the front counter instead of the front door so the staff won't forget to "recommend the good ones," says Mary Gay, "that our buyer [Mary Gay] forgot to buy."

Nonfiction books lined along the walls in categories (like Music, for instance) so crowded you can't believe half the titles turn over even once a year ("oh well, we have to have *that,*" Mary Gay says when I ask her about a little-known opera book; "oh, well, we have to have *that*" when I ask her about an obscure book about musical instruments).

And finally like a giant battery of armored gondolas marching right down the center of the store, a fiction section with thousands of titles crammed together, spine out, each one hand-picked by Mary Gay and hand-sold by Mary Gay and her small crew - in fact not only hand-sold because the staff thinks these books are good, but hand-sold because everybody takes the time to find out if each customer is *ready* to read the book.

Mary Gay sighs as she sees me looking around. This is not a store, she says, that has a big returning clientele or a huge backlist inventory. "It's not like we have a hundred people out there who'll take anything we say."

It's not a store that does a lot of school fairs or outside conferences. It's not a store that can sell great numbers of "adventurous books" "here in the Bible belt" or have authors come on Wednesdays when most people in town go to choir practice and then to dinner and then to church service.

It's a store that is located at the Northeast tip of an economically poor state with low literacy levels where few people comparatively read books. It's in a city that lives under the shadow of a huge Wal-Mart ("we've been through 3 generations of Wal-Marts, in fact," she says) on a street that's hardly "well-trafficked," as they say.

So what is the key to its success? After the New Yorker article appeared, Mary Gay says her mother counseled her "not to get the big head" from all the attention that might be heaped on her and the store. In fact, "few people in Blytheville ever read the New Yorker so nobody saw it," Mary Gay laughs. "Now an article in Southern Living - *that* really put us on the map."

Still, industry people have been aware of Mary Gay Shipley for some time. "It seems I've become kind of the poster child for booksellers in odd and bizarre places where bookstores don't belong," she says. "The thinking is: If I can sell 10 or 12 copies of a book to people when the author's not here or there's not some compelling reason to buy one, then all the rest can sell bushel baskets full. So that's kind of why we blab about books we like all the time."

Is that what makes the store succeed? See Part II: How a Rebel Named Mary Gay Shipley Founded That Bookstore in Blytheville.



So far in our website serialization of Dorothy Bryant's book, "Literary Lynching," we've read about brutal responses to books that damaged their authors after publication but are no longer controversial today.

With Chapter 5, however, Bryant shows how feelings and fights heated up and continue to boil over right to the present, starting with Hannah Arendt and "Eichmann in Jerusalem."

One phrase from this book, "the banality of evil" has become a familiar, accepted expression of the horrors that can be committed by "little men" who hide behind that now-famous expression, "I was just following orders, doing my duty."

Yet when Arendt first used this phrase in her book, it became one of the bases for furious attacks against her.

Another basis for attacking Arendt was her rather mild criticism of the style of the Israeli prosecutor of Eichmann. In this case, her criticism was condemned as anti-Semitic, and she was labeled a "self-hating Jew," who had said the very thing for which she criticized the Israeli prosecutor. Today as violence continues in the Middle East, we see this same confusion over what is criticism of an act by an Israeli official and what is anti-Semitism.

Two phrases from Arendt's reaction to the lynching of her book always stay in my mind. One is that she was attacked for "the image of a book that was never written." The other is her continuing shock at "not what our enemies did, but what our friends did."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

When I was a bookseller and then a manager of one of the country's better independent bookstores, it became necessary, rather early on, to amend the old saw, "The customer is always right." Despite the world-class customer service that we practiced and believed in, the customer is often wrong. ("Do you have Tequila Mockingird?" Honest! It happened.)

It became much easier to do my job when I started to to believe and practice that, "The customer always comes first".

Howard Cohen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm not sure which is more obscene - the way James Patterson markets himself or how atrociously he writes. In either case, you've put your finger on something very interesting: That people can demonize writers who tackle "beyond the pale" topics honestly (like Judith Levine in "Harmful to Minors"), and at the same time want their worst fears realized in the form of entertainment.

In defense of the mystery and thriller genres, however, there are a number of fine writers who portray violence but are not wholly owned subsidiaries of Dismemberment and Mutilation Inc. Are they exploiting violence? No, they're exploring moral conundrums and how society responds to violence.

Take Dennis Lehane's "Gone, Baby, Gone" - it's a brutal, disturbing story, but the violence isn't there for fun; it's there to make us think. The morally ambiguous ending (not to mention the beauty of Lehane's writing) is worlds apart from Patterson's gore-fest. Or take Jess Walter's "Over Tumbled Graves" - which, yes, is about a serial killer but is also about how popular fascination with violence can lead to violence (and is a terrific novel besides).

By all means, let's have the discussion you suggest - but I'd ask a different question - "our most popular entertainers make millions depicting behavior that journalists and scholars are forbidden to examine objectively; how sick is that?" rather than "how sick is this stuff?" Because mysteries and thrillers done well can contribute to our understanding of a world that is brutal and violent and can raise questions that need to be asked. And can do so in commercially viable ways, if not appealing to Patterson's mass audience. (Lehane won the Dilys Award from the Independent Mystery Bookseller's Association in 2002 for "Mystic River". Those booksellers know a thing or two about the business of books.)

Or we could ask "what's wrong with publishing that books like "Kiss the Girls" can make millions while better books fail in the marketplace?" But that may be a cold case long past solving.

Barbara Fister

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your article on James Patterson:

Why don't conservatives shriek about thrillers where young women are described and then killed with great detail with the same vigor that they shriek about books like "Harmful to Minors"? Because commercial art that uses young women as a sexual tease and then punishes them for their sexuality, like having them as victims of a serial killer, is regarded as completely acceptable in this society. Dealing seriously with sexuality, especially youthful sexuality, is regarded as an outrage - look at what happened to former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders when she suggested that frank discussion with young people about masturbation would be a healthy thing to do.

Steve Adelson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Saturday I attended a craft workshop in how to sew your own book. The instructor hadn't actually done it herself, so the workshop was not so much a teaching session as a "let's all figure out how to do this." She had a single how-to book as a guide. Me, the inveterate book collector, brought three other guides. And in all four books--published in the last dozen years-- we turned to the pages of instruction in how to do a Coptic sewn book.

None of the books had step-by-step illustrations. We had to rely heavily on the descriptions in the text. To my amazement, at least two of these four books used identical language, while the other two were merely similar. I was pretty irate. Did they all copy from each other or did they copy from the same source? I was debating complaining to the publishers.

But my other concern was about the editing. I wonder if today's editors bother to check anything or do they just assume the author knows what he or she is talking about? Do they have time to care? Maybe I'm just old, cranky, and miffed because if I was the editor I would have insisted the author clarify the instructions. Plus, I wonder just how often this is happening in publishing today?

Sharon Jarvis

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The comment from Twice Told Tales in Massachusetts about half-price books reminds me of people who ask for BUY ONE GET ONE FREE promotions. I gave up on sarcasm because they don't get it and take insult. Instead, I tell them that today, in order to make up for the freebies we gave away, is a PAY FOR TWO BUT ONLY GET ONE day. They usually smile and give me exact change in case I was serious...

Alex van Luik
Windmill Books

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