HOLT UNCENSORED #41
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 2, 1999
THE BOOK BRIGADE TO COVER TO COVER
ABOUT THAT AMAZON 'COMPETITOR'
OOPS: 'COOKING WITH HONEY'
THE BOOK BRIGADE TO COVER TO COVER
It's book-moving day on 24th Street in San Francisco, and already hundreds of volunteers are standing in a single-file line that stretches from the old Cover to Cover bookstore (1100 sq. ft.) to the new Cover to Cover (2650 sq. ft.) a block away.
As one of the few hopeful signs on the often bleak landscape of independent bookstores, the expansion of this much-loved former cubbyhole has inspired customers from 8 months to 80 years of age to step on out this beautiful February morning and help in the relocation - and celebration - of the 16-year-old store.
At 9 a.m. sharp, our chief, owner Nicky Salan, gives the signal, and the books begin moving from one body to another, each person in line oomphing and hauling and sometimes separating small stacks for little kids to handle, and the Great Book Brigade is underway.
Waiting at the new store, appropriately, are Nicky's new partners, Mark Ezarik and Susan Talbott, there to call out the shelves where books should be deposited so that unlike Lucy Ricardo in the Candy Factory, they won't get behind and end up stuffing books into every nook and cranny.
Of course they've hoodwinked us a little bit: Most of the new store is already gloriously and beautifully stocked with books, all perfectly placed in the spanking-new bookcases and gondolas and tables and counters, welcoming and inviting and calling to us to browse and look and poke into and discover.
A big box of donut holes and gallons of apple juice are at the door, ready to contribute to Opening Day as soon as the "work" is done, but shoot, some of us think - well, Holt Uncensored thinks: We wanted to move the whole inventory, really get our backs into it. "It's largely symbolic, of course," beams Nicky, looking down the line at the happy volunteers, "but just as meaningful for everyone, don't you think?"
Yes. Certainly it's more fun than work to chain-gang these books down the street like this. After all, the occasion is one of those neighborly gestures you don't get to make very often in our fast-paced, no-time-to-help society. But as each book-in-passing is held next to the heart for just a moment, maybe glanced at or pondered, then passed on with a mention or two, one can't help feeling personally invested in the process.
"This is what happens when the community gets behind an independent store," says Nicky, and sure enough, there's not a face that isn't smiling or laughing, one arm swinging to the right, hand open and ready, then grasping the precious cargo and switching it over to the strategic hand-off on the left. Like any assembly line, this one gets into the rhythm of moving and pacing very quickly, the few gaps between volunteers filled easily by kids willing to make a run for it.
At one point Holt Uncensored is assigned last place in the line to carry books inside the store, where waiting children take a bunch and race to the back for shelving in the History section. One can't help but pause at what fascinating books they are: a surprising number of university press books, memoirs by unknown historical players, beautifully written essays on ancient civilization, hot and snazzy revisionist treatments of the Vietnam and Desert Storm era.
In fact it's so easy to get caught up these books that the sudden demands of the line intrude without warning. "Hey, Holt," chides Walter the Giant Storyteller (Walter Mayes). "Don't decide if the books are WORTHY of the store. Just get them IN the store!" Everyone laughs as the last books trundle along toward the new store.
NOTE TO READERS: If you want to stay with the Book Brigade, scroll down eight paragraphs to the three asterisks (***). If you want to witness what Holt Uncensored's editor feels is a gross-out parallel to "Moby Dick," keep reading.
Suddenly, in a single moment, the line seems to freeze. Stopped in the midst of grasping books or handing them off, each person appears to be touching the next, and the next and the next. And just as suddenly, this wonderfully linked line of people, so intent on moving books from the old bookstore to the new bookstore, reminds the observer of that classic scene in "Moby Dick" where Ishmael and other crew members sit in a circle on deck, carrying out what Ishmael calls "a sweet and unctuous duty!"
This event happens halfway through the book, following chapters in which Herman Melville has so plunged us into the magnificent contradictions of whaling - the astonishing beauty of the whales and the means by which they are killed; the respect of the crew for these giant mammals and the gutting, fileting, scrimshawing and blubber-slicing that takes place at strategic intervals.
Even the collection and disposition of sperm oil - a subject that could make the hardiest reader queasy - becomes an enthralling episode in Melville's hands. We feel as at home on that ship as Ishmael when he sits with the crew around a great vat of whale sperm, all of them there to plunge their hands into the heavy fluid. Their job is to squeeze coagulating lumps of the jellylike substance "back into liquid."
Since the sperm of the whale can be considered the literal and metaphorical manifestation of the great life force of the universe, Ishmael, mesmerized by the sensuous quality of the fertile ooze inside the tub, falls into a rapture not unlike that which overtakes many on the Book Brigade line today, as we, too, in our own chainlike fashion, find ourselves bearing a different kind of life force (in our case, literature) from the old store to the new.
And like the members of the Book Brigade in mid-motion, Ishmael is aware of the deeper meaning of the project at hand and is perhaps just as exuberant at its larger purpose. "Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze!" he exclaims to himself, and us. "I squeezed that sperm until I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules."
You'd think those tough and jaded whalers would pull back in horror when they realize another man is massaging their submerged hands, but no. They continue their labors, now united in the circle, their hands clasped and squeezing, and seem as overwhelmed by the knowledge of something larger in their purpose as is Ishmael.
"Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget," he tells us, "that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, - Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness."
And so it is up and down the ol' Book Brigade, we happy souls joined not in a circle but as a human bridge literally and metaphorically securing the safe passage of great (and lesser) works of art. The idea of a group of people somehow locked together in common cause, now centuries later and for the sake of something as fundamental as literature and posterity, could bring tears to the eyes if you are as sappy about such matters as Holt Uncensored.
***What occurs to many along the line is that a Book Brigade like this could never happen with a chain store. Not only would chain executives employ professional movers to pack up the books, store policy would probably dictate that customers should never TOUCH the "product" with their sweaty hands, especially in the street, if they have no intention of buying it. After all, insurance representatives and lawyers might say, the passing of cooties could be a sueable offence.
And maybe it could be said that as far as the Barnes & Nobles or Borderses or Amazon.com are concerned, even in its new and sparkling digs, Cover to Cover will never change history . But it's sure as heck going to MAKE history for the people in this line`and all of the neighbors in the area and all of the customers to come. If ever there were books that are treasured, these lovingly dispatched works of literature have already paid their own way.
Now with the last book in place, the assembly line breaks up as the volunteers pile into the new store that "we" helped to build. Kids are already asking, "Can we come back next week and pick out another book to read?" Ands a final treat, the staff passes out actual party favors - those little one-dollar Penguin Classics (Gilgamesh! Machiavelli) that a reader can inhale in an hour and are so much more healthier than donut holes. All in all, everything about this day has reintroduced literature to a diverse group people who will never think of or pass by Cover to Cover without wanting to enter this place with a proprietary air and make a purchase or two.
ABOUT THAT AMAZON 'COMPETITOR'
Didn't you love the way Thomas Friedman of the New York Times discovered an entrepreneur named Lyle Bowlin who has been "re-creating Amazon.com in a spare bedroom" in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with http://www.positively-you.com?
At least that's the way it sounded when Friedman fell for - pardon me - explained the notion that it's "easy to compete against Amazon.com." Though conceding that Bowlin and other upstart book suppliers on the Internet are not "an immediate threat to Amazon.com," Friedman made it appear that you or I, just like Lyle Bowlin, could use Amazon's "very same book wholesalers," get the "same volume discounts" and hire credit card services and Internet service providers so cheaply that monthly costs would be (as they are for Bowlin) only about $150 a month.
With Bowlin's nearly nonexistent overhead (his daughter does the accounting, his wife the shipping), he can take 5 more percentage points off a big bestseller like "The Testament" than does Amazon, and charge about a dollar less for shipping (he's faster so he can use the U.S. Postal Service rather than UPS).
"It is funny to go to his Web site and see it offering 'Millions of Books at Great Prices,' " writes Friedman, "knowing that it is all being done out of his spare bedroom - as a hobby!"
Perhaps that's why positively-you.com makes such a nice story: Instant access to "millions of books" is the genius behind Amazon, and its open secret: Everybody knows Amazon doesn't really stock millions of books on the premises - that's all part of running a "virtual bookstore." You can browse along the pretend aisles with your pretend shopping cart and feel like a literary astronaut in a virtual universe of books - a cosmic Books R Us - and voila! The actual, physical books you order are on your doorstep within a few days.
At Bowlin's website, positively-you.com, however, everything is promised, little delivered. The heavily discounted bestsellers are there, but beyond the top books in the #1 slot, they're just listed without photos of jackets or explanatory copy. If you want more on Hardcover Fiction, for example, you find a pretty mealy-mouthed list of less than 40 novels, all but three published back in the September-November 1998 period.
Hit the Black History category and you find only four titles, all from 1998; hit Audio and you get two titles. Hit Business or Inspirational and you get zero titles. Try the search mechanism and you get back categories only, within which you're supposed to look for the book you want. I tried "The River Midnight," a January novel from Scribner about a Jewish village in Poland at the last turn of the century, and the first category that popped up was "Football."
So Bowlin is clearly just beginning. On the Search page, he says he's only got about a thousand titles listed and asks for our patience "as we upgrade our data." Well, he sounds like a nice guy from Friedman's article, but really, why should the consumer have to wait?
Last fall I pretended Holt Uncensored was an independent bookseller and signed up with BookSite, the Ohio service run by a bookseller that allows independents the use of data bases at Baker and Taylor or Ingram as well as Internet providers and credit card channels like the kind Bowlin uses. Within minutes my bookstore's website was providing access for customers to a half-million books.
One would think Bowlin, who uses the same wholesalers as does Amazon, could move as fast, but then again, if it's his hobby, why should he? Like the new Bestsellersforless.com (which, by the way, is cheaper but not faster than Amazon; excuse my mistake in #40), if Bowlin wants to act as a channel for a relative handful of commercial titles, fine.
It's what he represents that's intriguing - a new wave of online book suppliers that is moving in fast, undercutting existing suppliers and making Amazon look like a dinosaur.
Who would have thought that Amazon's data base would become so big and sluggish that it wouldn't catch alleged hatemongerers like ultraright radio broadcaster Bob Enyart; or that it couldn't keep up with discounters; or that it would begin to appear like all the other big businesses out there, especially chain bookstores, whose greed leads them to gouge customers with such practices as charging publishers for "recommended" titles without telling customers a thing about it.
It's fascinating to watch Bowlin and others ride the coattails of Amazon's expensive "branding" campaign to show readers that better bargains exist off the brand. Perhaps, then, the next step for readers will be to build their own "cascade" system of favorite booksellers:
Just as independent bookstores send out orders to wholesalers in cascading order - with the top one filling most of the orders, the next filling as many of what's left, and the next and the next, so may readers start with, say, Codysbooks.com or Keplers.com or Tatteredcover.com and skip all around the country checking out websites as they order books.
In the process they could find out events and autographings and news in the website of the bookstore closest to home. That's what the Internet is for - a world at your fingertips - and as that hardworking Lyle Bowlin demonstrates, you can do it all from a spare bedroom.
OOPS: 'COOKING WITH HONEY'
My apologies for completely missing the point about the in-store event, "Cooking with Honey," at Charis Books (mentioned in #39). I thought the term meant that customers brought desserts made with honey and listened to literary works read aloud.
Then when it turned out that the whole event was a celebration of a book called "Cookin' with Honey: What Literary Lesbians Eat," edited by Amy Scholder (Firebrand; 185 pages; $13.95), I still didn't get it. "I've read 50 pages of this very informative and often hilarious book and not one recipe uses honey," I told my partner, Terry. She was patience personified: "I think the title means these are lesbians who cook with their 'honey,' you know, their sweetie," she said, looking at me as if to say, you yourself as a member of the 'community' oughta know that.
I did learn from the introduction that the idea behind the book, published in 1996 and very much in print, is to show that lesbian writers cook just like everybody else but often with a flair and sense of humor that is idiosyncratic and worth exploring for its own sake.
For example, about the red dye in Dorothy Allison's recipe for Sinful Red Velvet Cake: Don't buy standard supermarket dye, says Dorothy, because the FDA has made it "much less deadly . . . For the genuine lurid red dye color you have to go back to that semipoisonous old food coloring that only ancient grocery stores or foreign manufacturers will provide. "
Jewelle Gomez recalls working in African American theater in New York at 7th Avenue and 137th Street, where the New Lafayette Theater, "affiliated originally with the Federal Works Project, had been host to most of the shining stars of Black theater in the '20s and again in the '60s," she writes. "We could feel their ghosts in the rafters, watching, waiting for a resurgence of the art which had been their passion."
Jewelle's apartment was so small that she had to keep her blender in the coat closet. As a result, she and her lover Sandy got very good at creating dishes of the "one-pot variety" like the easy-to make "Pseudo Vegetarian Chili" found here.
It's a wonderful book, and the fact that few of the recipes include the kind of honey made by bees is not a problem to anyone but hard-of-hearing and decidedly unsavvy Internet columnists.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Buried deep in Holt Uncensored #40 was a little nugget that made my heart dance. It was nice to hear someone else say what I believe has been happening in the indies vs. giants war.
You noted that customers appear to be returning to the independents, because the "superstore inventory gets very tired, very soon."
I am the only book show in town (Aurora, Ontario - pop. 41,000). Our store covers - on two levels - about 4,000 square feet (75% new books).
Three miles up the road, in Newmarket (pop. 65,000), a 25,000 square-foot Chapters (20% owned by Barnes & Noble) opened a year ago August.
My sales that month, and for eight months after (including the lucrative Christmas season) fell off 30%. Every negative thought that existed went through my mind. But we stayed with it...and, lo, things started to improve.
What I hear most is: "I couldn't get what I wanted at Chapters, and they couldn't get it when I ordered it. You guys always seem to find the books I want, so YOU order it..."
In my one visit to Chapters, I found the same title in FIVE locations. It's all smoke and mirrors and astute book buyers are realizing it. While my sales have not surpassed the level of pre-August 1997, they are headed back that way.
So, thank you for confirming what I thought I was seeing in the industry and please keep up your support of the indies.
Ron Wallace, R & R Book Bar
Dear Holt Uncensored,
As a small publisher, I get boxes returned from the chains with the books having never hit the shelves (they are still shrinked-wrapped together) yet the stores have managed to crush the books into accordian shapes. (They must have a special vise to do this.) Thus the books are not re-sellable. I pay postage (UPS required) both ways (on the "sale" and the return) and can't do a damn thing about it. They will literally return 10 books (crushed) one day and order 10 more the next day. (Then I call Ingram and the voice I get can't see a problem with this. The purchasing end knows not what the returns end does.)
Also, I am kept on "probationary" status with Ingram because I only sell several hundred books a year to them. This means they will not order 50, 80 books at a time (and make it worth the postage I have to pay to ship UPS), but they order one at a time. Thus I get an order for one book ($8.00 order) and I pay $5.00 to UPS it to them! They definitely keep a small publisher an indentured servant.
Anyway, that's the news from the publishing front. We are the ones most needing independent book stores!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You'll be happy to know that Waldenbooks is now selling books by size.
I went in looking for "Angle of Repose" by Wallace Stegner. I looked in fiction and found only Steele, etc. I said to the clerk, "It's unbelievable that you don't have any Stegner." She said, "That sounds really negative." I said, "It was meant to be." She said, "Have you checked in the mid-sized fiction?" and directed me to a shelf where the books were indeed larger than the Danielle Steele books. (A separate section for those high-brow mid-sized books.)
After asking me how to spell Stegner, she found the book (while grumbling that she's not the one who selects the books the store carries).