by Pat Holt

Friday, April 2, 1999


Dear Holt Uncensored:

As an employee at Powell's and a union supporter, I feel compelled to comment on this morning's piece. First of all, I wonder just who you interviewed for the pro-union perspective. The anonymous character of said individual leads me to think that maybe you just stopped someone wearing an ILWU pin and asked them their opinion. Specific source citations were prolific in your first piece on Powell's, which put a face on management and the owner. Unfortunately, in the second it seems we are shown to be a faceless ideology.

Antiestablishment? Antiauthority? Actually those that have been working hard to bring about change at Powell's are very much interested in making the institution better by raising profitability, retaining an intelligent and helpful workforce, and maintaining the Independent status that you champion. Hardly a radical environment, more rather very pragmatic.

Some of the figures concerning benefits that are discussed with this anonymous person are misleading. When you say "hundreds" of dollars are given for these programs, the general nature of the statement gives a false sense of abundance. The tuition benefit in particular is $200 a term if you were lucky enough to be one of the twenty people to receive it. Not to mention that it has never risen to accommodate the cost of real tuition which has risen every year I have gone to school.

The 3% you mentioned as a raise, 1.5% behind the cost of living increase, was actually capped at three percent. Meaning most people received about 2%, many 1%, and way too many 0%. At best, one can consider a 3% raise, regarding cost of living increases at 4.5%, an actual decrease in salary. This is across the board, for labor anyway.

I would like to make an analogy. In a household one must take care of the bills that accumulate every month first. After they are paid, the consumer takes his or her disposable income and allots it to recreation, savings, etc. As it stands right now, Powell's pays their employees as if it were a luxury after the fact rather than a bill. Does it make sense to defer a bill of labor? While Michael Powell takes a percentage of gross yearly sales, it is up to the laborer to carry the burden of profitability. Profit sharing (which by the way is half of what you quoted) is a benefit that we do enjoy, but unfortunately not this year, the year we continue to build (literally) Michael Powell's business.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Please spare me the grief of Powell's poor booksellers! I worked at The Haunted Bookshop in Tucson for ten years and was making $7.75 an hour when it closed two years ago. And I was shipping/receiving manager. I thought I was being paid well. Retail is notorious for low wages, even among management, bookselling is even worse. Try finding a position selling books that pays a fair wage. It's nearly impossible.

Borders and B&N do not care about the level of experience, nor the depth of knowledge, a prospective employee may have. They start everyone at $6.00 an hour. The most I was offered in books following the closure of Haunted was $6.35, and that from the other local independent. That is why I now work as a buyer for a furniture manufacturer where I can make $12.00 an hour. I would still be at Haunted were it not for the folly of the owners.

Powell's benefit package is not only "generous," it is unheard of in retail. Maybe I'll move to Portland so I can hire on with Powell's. I would sure love to trade my workaday trudge for a job that I could feel passionate about again. Being able to love what one does everyday is a type of compensation in itself . . .

Kim Messier, Tucson, AZ

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Re your article about Powell's and mention of Stacey's. Just to clarify, the ILWU organized Stacey's in the late 1950s, when we were more of a medical books distribution company than a large bookstore. The front part of the store was a medical & scientific book "showcase" while the rest of the building was -- for all intents and purposes -- a medical books jobber for the whole Pacific Northwest. We employed more warehousemen than booksellers. I think it is necessary to clarify this. Although our direction of our store changed, the ILWU stayed with us. This is also why only the San Francisco store is union and the other two are not (nor do they want to be). Some employees genuinely like the union and some pay their dues simply because they have no choice. But nobody in the current generation -- or the last two generations of Stacey's staff -- ever had a choice in the matter.

Second, it bothers me that independent bookstores in Portland cry foul only because Powells is successful at what it does. Unless you are independently wealthy in the independent book business, your first and foremost concern should be to become a healthy, thriving business. Community concerns come after paying the rent and the staff and the publishers and the jobbers. Powells is successful and other independents may not be. It simply means Powells did something right and the other independents did not. Instead of pointing fingers at Powells, they should be turning their attention to their own businesses to where they might change things for the better.

Colleen B. Lindsay, Stacey's Bookstores

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I read with interest your article, JOURNALISM GETS AN 'F'. I am an old geezer (age 54) who is definitely wired and who has found herself appalled by the ignorance displayed by so many print journalists whom we are (or have been) trusting to let us know what's going on.

And their worst sin, in my opinion, is that when people who know better attempt to correct their mistakes, usually via e-mail, they generally ignore us. They don't print corrections. They've lost interest. They've moved on, and are now mis-reporting something else, usually something to which they can give a salacious/malicious/censorious slant.

I no longer read any newspapers or news magazines. I see so much inaccurate reporting of things I'm interested in and know something about that I don't trust what I read there anymore. I also tend not to read the online versions of those media either, because they're just the same old message via a new medium.

I won't even go into the underhanded way that weaseled my e-mail address out of me and is now spamming me with unwanted e-mail. (Only a few messages, so far, but they won't tell me how to get myself off their spam list.)

More and more I get information from the small, well-informed communities that have formed around common interests on the Internet. Sure, you have to be careful what to believe. You have to exercise judgment and discernment, but no more so than with mainstream media. And after a while you get to know who's to be trusted.

Let me also mention, as long as I'm writing to you, that it took me about two seconds to realize that was faking me out when the various search engines told me that amazon had books about whatever I was searching for.

Catherine M. Wilson

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Jon Katz makes one good point--that traditional journalists believe they make the news--then blows his credibility big-time. In advocating a more interactive approach to journalism, he says, "The young like ... point-of-view arguments, not objectivity." In other words, stories about bombing Kosovo, putting Pinochet on trial, and looking for a killer in Yosemite do not constitute the news. The news is really people's opinions of these events, not the events themselves.

That's the kind of "creative risk" talk-show hosts and novelists should take, not journalists. To borrow an expression from the attitude Katz admires so much, "DUH."

Sally Driscoll
San Jose, CA

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re Jon Katz: This is the email channel of Stating the Obvious, located on the web at (Note to readers: This is a blistering attack on Katz as a self-promoter interrupting the flow of free information and noncelebrity in the "open source" movement on the Net.)

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I loved hearing your synopsis of the meeting with Katz. He is dead on. I am an articulate, intelligent, concerned citizen and I have pulled the plug on my newspaper. All it was giving me was negative features on who killed whom and the grisly details. I am 44 and was raised on newspapers.

I just spent a week with a group of 27-year-olds, and they were fascinating to watch. They read absolutely no newspapers and believed nothing that came from an "official source." Their circle of friends and the Web were where they got the bulk of their info. When I would argue that one needed to be informed, they looked at me as if I were an idiot - they argued that there was no truth in any news stories, and it was then I realized that I practiced the art of reading between the lines.

Katz is right - the toothy, stiff-haired TV newscaster with sound bites is an ossifying dinosaur ready for extinction. We beamed our sound and air waves into other countries for years as a propaganda measure, and to most people in this country it is viewed as propaganda as well.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

The St. Louis Post Dispatch had an article today about Barnes and Noble, their college bookstore at Washington University, their plans for the store, and Left Bank Books--St. Louis's only remaining large independent bookstore. LBB is located near Washington University in an area of St. Louis called the Central West End.

Seems that Washington University has been leasing its bookstore to Barnes and Noble for a few years now and is happy with the arrangement. So is B& happy that they are going to expand the size of the store and increase the store's inventory from college textbooks to include some general titles. While the store isn't going to be as large as a superstore, it is going to be about four times as big as Left Bank Books. Of course, Left Bank Books isn't too happy about the whole thing. The owners view it as a very real threat to the store's survival.

On a similar note, St. Louis University also leases its bookstore facility to Barnes and Noble to supply the needs of the University's students.

The people at Left Bank Books are great to work with. They have a small store, have a very loyal customer-base, and are supportive of small press--especially local publishers and authors. They are also active and outspoken about the growing demise of indpendent bookstores due to the now "old story" of competition from the chain super-bookstores.

John Coker
Broken Heart Publishing
St. Peters, MO

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I'm writing in response to this fascinating (anonymous?) letter in #47, about Barnes & Noble and college stores.

I lost my first job, at the University Co-op in Austin, Texas (serving the University of Texas), when it was taken over by Barnes & Noble. Did a stint at Borders in Austin and then moved to Boston specifically to work in an independent bookstore. I'm now at Harvard Book Store, a venerable independent down the street from the Harvard Coop. The coop is now Barnes & Noble. I've been working here for over a year and a half and just yesterday had to tell someone again that no, i don't work for the Coop, and break the news to her that the Coop is a Barnes & Noble store.

Insult is added to injury. Not only did B&N take over a respected college store while hiding its corporate identity so that only booksellers who've been burned before will recognize it as a "killer B"; but people come into the Harvard Book Store and ask us if WE'RE Barnes & Noble!

Harvard Book Store

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your e-letters, which I dearly cherish, have mostly focused on closing of independent book stores on the Left Coast. Here follows bad news about a closing of a super "indie" on the Right Coast:

From the newsletter of Tell-Tale Books in Brooklyn: "Tell-Tale Says Goodbye . . . It is with great sadness that we must report the closing of Tell-Tale Books after two wonderful years. It has been a pleasure serving you, and we hope we served you as best we could, but we just couldn't compete with the brand-name recognition of places like and Barnes and Noble, despite our best efforts to bring you special services like special ordering, free delivery, a better hardcover discount than most superstores, a free monthly newsletter (filled with reviews of books we actually read, as opposed to being paid for placement by publishers, a practice now being carried out at Amazon and the superstores), and a renowned reading series featuring oodles of local authors . . .

"And now a short personal note: It is now more important than ever to support your local, independent, neighborhood bookstores before they all disappear. For readers, these are the places where the staff actually knows you, and knows what you may like to read next - an invaluable service, supplied with a friendly face. And for all those local authors out there, the independents are the stores that are actually trying to sell midlist and little-known writers to an audience who might appreciate them.

"Please don't wait until it's too late, until all the local independents are gone. Because then all we'll be left with are the superstores, and our neighborhoods will no longer be unique, special places. Our neighborhoods will become just like every other homogenized place in the country. The only way to stop that from happening is to frequent your local, independent stores whenever you can, to keep the big national chains from taking over . . . "

Nick Kaufmann a talented client who writes horror/supernatural novels, is co-owner with partner Phil Presby of Tell-Tale Books in Brooklyn, an outlet that specializes in crime fiction and Brooklyn-oriented literary stuff. I remember when my wife, Ann, and I attended Tell-Tale's grand opening a couple of years ago, which happened right in the middle of the UPS strike. Its shelves were only half-filled, but there was a good turn-out nevertheless. I admit, though, we were faked out by the presence of several limousines across the street. Upon closer examination, Ann and I deduced that an organized-crime figure had bitten the dust and was being memorialized at the funeral parlor across the street from Tell-Tale Books.

In my opinion, Nick and Phil went all out to do all the right things to promote their business: monthly e-newsletters containing book reviews, sponsorship of readings by Brooklyn authors at their shop and nearby venues, even walking tours to the residences of Brooklyn authors, old and new. I'm really keening over this latest loss to "big business."

As Kurt Vonnegut said, "So it goes..." But it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Jim Cypher, Author's Representative

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I had to comment on your used book price-gouging piece. While I am a big fan of Holt Uncensored, and no defender of the big dotcoms, the usual markup in the used book world is 100-400%, with 200 and 300% being the most common markups. Many bookstores are now carrying used books to help offset the losses to the competition, and I don't like the implication that making a profit is somehow an immoral thing.

We have found that it takes about 3 hours of staff time to do an out-of-print (op) search, and only about 30% result in a sale. I wish it were just a few clicks, but it's more complicated than that. We've sold used books forever; we pay 15-20% of the cover price and sell them at 50% off - a good deal for everybody, including us. The used department is essential to our financial health and I'm glad to see other independents going into them.

Holt responds: I think I didn't make it clear that I thought it kind of obscene that after somebody like you does all that work, Amazon adds ANOTHER 100 percent. Doesn't that bother you or is that standard practice too?

The reader's answer: I do think it's pretty standard practice. Although they may have the money to automate much of what we do by hand, the big dotcoms still have to find the book, communicate with the customer, pay the vendor, receive the book and probably reship (I'll bet they aren't giving the vendor the customer info for drop shipping). Whenever you deal with ordering one book, it costs money.