HOLT UNCENSORED #56
by Pat Holt
Wednesday, April 28, 1999
AMAZON ON A SPENDING SPREE
PACIFIC NORTHWEST: VI
POWELL'S GETS A UNION
GO, YOU AUTHORS, GO
SO LONG, NEW LEAF
NOTE TO READERS: Because of BEA, this Holt Uncensored comes to you Wednesday. There will be no Friday column. See you next week.
FURTHER NOTE: A not-so-happy virus called Happy99.exe has invaded the computer system of these here offices (all right, the dining room table), and apparently many PCs using Microsoft Outlook all over the world. The virus usually comes as an attachment displaying a (really lousy) fireworks show and is a havoc-wreaker of email (it does not modify files or destroy data). Don't open if you see it, but if you're infected, click over to http://pages.prodigy.com/virushelp/index.htm for instructions (it's relatively easy to expel) or Microsoft's website.
AMAZON ON A SPENDING SPREE
Amazon.com is behaving like a - well, a renegade Amazon in its fiercely acquisitive mode this week. Remember the $1.5 billion raised in "junk" investments a while ago? Well, the resultant mad spending has hit the fan.
On Monday, the company announced three new buys: Exchange.com, owners of the once (sigh) independent used-book marketplace, Bibliofind http://www.bibliofind.com; Accept (http://www.accept.com), an e-commerce company of some kind; and Alexa Internet (http://www.alexa.com), a burgeoning Web navigation service."
Then Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon is soon to go into the greeting card business. That will fill out the diversity model initiated by drugs.com, pets.com, neutronbombs.com and stolenbabiesfromChina.com, already so popular at Amazon. Word has it that donors will get special discounts as soon as blackmarketorgans.com goes up.
Meanwhile, Bibliofind falls in the funny-if-it-weren't-so-tragic category. Let's compare Monday's happy upsy-daisy announcement from Bibliofind ("It is with great pleasure that we announce that Exchange.com, of which Bibliofind is a part, has been acquired by Amazon.com . . . "), and the oh-no, what-a-disaster response from booksellers:
"As a Bibliofind bookdealer, I was always proud of the fact that we did not deal with the big superstores such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com or Borders," writes Sandie Herron of A Novel Idea in Sarasota, Florida (http://www.anovelideabooks.com). "Now, all that is in ruins. I wonder if Bibliofind will even continue to exist or just be folded into Amazon.com itself."
"I was shocked to see the consolidation of the market," says Anirvan Chatterjee of Bookfinder (http://www.bookfinder.com), the used-book site that draws information from Bibliofind, Advanced Book Exchange (http://www.abebooks.com) and other sources.
"In a sense it's good to see validation that this industry has real money and attention coming into it, though maybe a bit too fast. it's a also a bit frightening." Chatterjee, who has made Bookfinder an Amazon Associate (see Letters below), says that "Amazon tends not to tinker a lot with the companies they acquire."
Of course that means an otherwise free-flowing marketplace must depend on the largesse of its parent to leave it alone. But perhaps more worrisome to used-book dealers, and to customers (and posterity, democracy, the economy and the future), is that corporate encroachment on the used-book Internet scene is advancing beyond all expectations.
Not only is Bibliofind now in the pocket of Amazon, Advanced Book Exchange, the other large used-book marketplace, has created a special program for Barnes & Noble and is thus channeling thousands of books (for starters) to B&N's used-book empire.
Of course, if these two sites don't serve used-book stores well, the Internet will wallop 'em with emerging competitors. Several other used-book marketplaces exist and many are in the works, including Used Books, http://www.usedbooks.com, set to open this summer, which aims to make its profit from advertising and transaction fees and says it can thus bring 6000 booksellers online at no charge.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST V
Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle is a giant bookstore/cafe with creaky wooden floors and cedar shelves and many rooms that give you a sense of being deep in the forest. Wandering into a fabulous grove over here, packed to its leafy ceilings with books, you venture into a dense jungly area over there that's jammed everywhere with books and personal "shelf-talk" notes eloquently written by staff members. Steps lead to more rooms that beckon like 19th-century treehouses. The children's book section alone, with its many cubbyholes to hide and play, is worth an entire visit.
Seattle is such an entrepreneurial city that people say you can get there on the Internet by clicking "startup.com." Businesses as diverse as Microsoft, Starbucks and dozens of thriving microbreweries set the pace. It was perhaps predictable that Elliott Bay, having survived the '80s as a tower of literary strength, would get clobbered in the '90s by the Barnes & Noble and Borders stores that have become so prevalent in the Pacific Northwest - and, worst of all, by the noisy competitor in its back yard, Amazon.com.
"I felt our size and reputation would insulate us in the '90s," says the store's founder, Walter Kerr. "The reverse happened: We got bigger than the smaller stores and found out that they were insulated. Then it was only a matter of time. We have a dedicated, hard-working staff that had to be cut back and given less and less. I had to face up to tightening our belts, but I became increasingly resistant to good ideas from the staff."
What we usually hear about the fate of Elliott Bay is true. A shopping mall developer, Bob Sher, having enjoyed success with bookstore projects that combined used and new books, came along and bought Elliott Bay, promising to mix 50,000 used books with the180,000 new titles and upgrading the store's cafe, website (http://www.elliottbaybook.com), decor, the works.
What does not often surface is that before Bob arrived, Rick Simonson, the store's head buyer and events coordinator, had been meeting with three other movers and shakers in Seattle to design what the Seattle Times would later call "a kind of Medic One for valued but ailing institutions" on the local scene.
These kinds of community troubleshooting groups are cropping up everywhere, offering hope especially to struggling independent bookstores."The idea is to have a source of money and expertise to rush to the aid of a stricken organization, taking it out of harm's way (bankruptcy, the wrong purchaser), stabilizing it, then getting it into the right hands, with a better formula for sustainability," the Times wrote.
As it happened, the immediate needs of Kerr's and Sher's bookstores were almost perfectly conjoined. Sher is known as a compassionate developer whose malls embrace community interests and history. But his Third Place Books - row after row of new and used books in a north Seattle shopping mall - had a sterile look that needed the expertise of the Elliott Bay Book Company staff.
Saved by the bell, the Elliott Bay Book Company was no longer the subject of discussion at the meetings Rick attended. But the model for an "intervention team" in the arts was begun. Calling itself the Elliott Bay Group "in recognition of the near-death experience of the bookstore," the Times wrote, the group has attempted to stop the razing of historic buildings and offer businesses in distress a host of services - counseling, loans, interim sales and transitions to nonprofit status.
As to the bookstore, "I'm feeling an energy I haven't had for a while," Rick says. " Bob Sher has a longer view of things and an admiration for good books. He knows that used books are not a panacea, but people do come in looking for them. Given the long-term picture, we don't know if bookstores will be generating books or producing them out of book machines down the road. So it makes sense now to sell used books within the realm of what the bookstore is and can be today."
Next: The Big and the Little in Seattle
POWELL'S GETS A UNION
In what could be the slimmest margin in labor history (at least with bookstores), employees at Powell's Books of Portland, Oregon, the country's largest bookstore, voted 161-155 last week to join the International Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union (ILWU).
The vote follows months of simmering hostility on both sides over a 3 percent cap on salary raises and a controversial restructuring of job descriptions that many employees felt robbed them of their longheld expertise in stock management and customer service. Since the store's average wage for full-time workers has long been in dispute (management said $9.81; union organizers said $7.60, according to Gail Hill at the Oregonian), the next step will be the very arduous and painstaking task of simply agreeing on definitions.
Once the gloves are off and bargaining begins, however, the matter of Powell's expansion on the Internet and in the city of Portland will be watched by publishing observers from here and afar. Whether this phenomenal retail store can take on Amazon.com and the "killer B" chain stores, yet raise salaries and give workers a significant voice in operations at the same time, nobody knows.
GO, YOU AUTHORS, GO
Powerful forces are unleashed whenever authors join together to make a stand. It's not easy to transform a solitary and contemplative lifestyle into political activism, but in the case of the 100 sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists who have formed The Council on Contemporary Families, http://www.slip.net/~ccf, the result is a fascinating exercise in contemporary democracy.
One senses that anger as well as principle motivated these professors and researchers to begin creation of CCF a year ago. Sick of the Christian Right's attempt to keep "family values" as pure in America as in Afghanistan and Kosovo, they are challenging what they consider to be simplistic and polarized language coming from ultraconservatives about this extremely complicated issue.
Weighing in as CCF members are some pretty heavy hitters, including:
*UC-Berkeley professors Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan, authors of "When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples" (Basic);
*Constance Ahrons of USC, whose 20-year study of divorced families is the subject of her forthcoming book, "Divorce and Remarriage: The Children Speak Out" (HarperCollins, 2001);
*Donna Franklin, psychology professor and author of "Ensuring Inequality: the Structural Transformation of the African American Family" (Oxford);
*Stephanie Coontz, history professor and author of "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families" (Basic);
*University of Minnestoa professor Pauline Boss, whose "Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief" comes out this year from Harvard University Press;
*Judith Stacey, USC sociologist whose most recent book is "In the Name of the Family" (Beacon);
*John Gillis, historian at Rutgers and author of "A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Rigual, and the Quest for Family Values" (Basic); and many more.
The problem as CCF members see it is not Dan Quayle getting headlines by criticizing Murphy Brown for being an unwed mother. Far more insidious is the deliberate confusion of language: Statistical correlations, for example, are too often presented by conservatives as rock-solid causes of social ills. "Just because single-parent homes are correlated with poverty, it doesn't mean that single parents cause poverty," as the Los Angeles Times put it in an article about CCF. "Because rises in the divorce rate accompanied rises in teenage drug use, it doesn't mean that divorce causes teenagers to use drugs."
That aspect alone rang a bell just last Sunday on "60 Minutes" when Ed Bradley mentioned that many people would consider divorce one of the reasons behind such school massacres as the Jonesboro and Littleton disasters.
The CCF was created to straighten out such longstanding mythology, define "the new mainstream" in America as "nontraditional and ethnically diverse families," change public policy, push for more enlightened legislation and educate the media to think beyond judgmental attitudes of both the right and the left. Their conference, "What Works for Families: Building Bridges from research and Clinical Practice to the Policy and the Media," meets this weekend in Washington D.C.
Most members have impressive academic credentials, but it's their books that give CCF so much force and credibility. As authors, these academics are comfortable with working with the media and determining new ways to describe the American family. For more information on the conference call John Gillis, chair, at 510 845-5441, or email 110762,email@example.com.
SO LONG, NEW LEAF
Every time an independent store closes down, it's another blow to all readers. In the case of New Leaf Bookstore in Larkspur, Calif., which closed last weekend, that sense of peace and well-being that comes from the browsing experience alone has just about vanished with the store.
For eight years, New Leaf, with its comfy living-room feel and beautifully appointed interiors, has been dedicated to selling books and tapes on spirituality - one of the few niches that has proven so stealable by chain stores and Amazon.com.
New Leaf was created as "a refuge for spiritual seekers, an oasis of calm and serenity," as owner Susan Scott puts it, and in that it succeeded beautifully. With its soft lighting and engaging music, its many books and gift items, the store offered space for community meetings and author appearances on everything from sexuality and astrology to career planning and 12-step recovery.
Susan noticed the store losing serious ground last year and made an appeal to readers. "I have learned time and time again that refusing to ask for help from my friends disables me, fostering only fear and negativity in what is already a difficult situation," she wrote in New Leaf's exquisite newsletter last November.
Customers rallied and the store carried on, but profits continued to drop. While closing the store has been "heartbreaking," she leaves a message (from her March 1998 newsletter) that's worth remembering:
"Booksellers create their own ecosystem. When they are forced to close, the entire community is affected. If the bookstore-as-gathering place is important to our diverse community, we need to be aware of the social and economic issues that affect the survival of that particular community center."
Dear Holt Uncensored,
If Michael Taekens thinks that there is no independent bookstore where he can find titles from university presses on the shelves, then he's missed the last 25 years of University Press Books/Berkeley. And we'd like to have 25 more, thank you. Call us/write to us, Michael, we're here for you! (And everybody else too!)
Christina Creveling, Manager/Partner
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I think Rosie O'Donnell (#55) is way off base. The kids [who murdered the students in Littleton, Colorado] are NOT just like other kids--they did become monsters. That's what Rosie - and most of us - can't face. There's a huge leap from being a miserable [even suicidal] teenager, to becoming a mass murderer. Easy access to weapons and violent images might be part of the reason but certainly not all of it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A number of years ago, the Question (Wo)man at the Chronicle asked what the worst thing was that could happen to anyone. One person answered, "To have a tragedy in my family and the media would show up." That's been born out repeatedly within the last few years. There seems to be a kind of gloating quality to the reporting of tragedies, to the photography, to the headlines, that used to be reserved for really big real estate sales.
I think those kids who were ostracized, as well as those who ostracized them and may now be dead, were just ordinary kids. I remember the same process happening in my high school -- a small religious high school, by the way. How could the teachers not have known? So -- this morning's question is, given the media from which we gain our news (Internet included) what can I do to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem? Laying blame feels like control but isn't. Reporting is not the only thing that could be improved. How does one begin?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Normally I get a great delight in reading your missives. Today, you were a bit over the top in passion.
Quoting Rosie's assertion that 16 kids a day are killed by guns, or to put it more clearly, 5,840 per year, is repeating a distortion of the facts. Even government statistics do NOT come close to this number. It is akin to saying 80 percent of high school kids are hooked on drugs... and failing to mention that you consider cigarettes and regular Coke as part of the same drug scene.
Besides, quoting Rosie is not living up to your standards. She has a vindictive and mean steak that manifests itself regularly. Her passion for Bill and Hillary's positions prejudice her views on anyone who disagrees with the Clinton policies. Please Pat, give us your opinions, not those of such biased bootlickers.
Holt responds: O'Donnell got that data from the congresswoman who's the leading proponent of safety locks on guns, and who was sitting right there nodding. Even if intentional deaths have been mixed up with accidental deaths to get a larger statistic, I'm not sure what would be the matter with that - death by guns is death by guns. What IS the official government statistic, do you know? And by the way, I would say a 16-year-old hooked on cigarettes or caffeine certainly is addicted to drugs, though I know what you mean.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I can't believe that you buy the 'sanity' of Rosie O'Donnell. These were not kids like all other kids. I doubt that they found explosive devices lying around the house, or sawed off shotguns (although without knowing anything about the parents or family, who knows?). Why don't we put the focus where it belongs...on parents and on a culture which no longer respects people or life.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
What strikes me as ironic about this whole thing--the media reaction was predictable--is that the media have focused almost solely on crime vis-a-vis black and Hispanic inner city youths. Because we have demonized those two groups of kids for so long, suburban and rural white kids have been left out of the equation.
Clearly if our so-called best kids are engaging in this kind of activity, we ought to be very afraid. With all their advantages, they're obviously very angry, frustrated, sad, confused, and everyone--the media, policy makers, parents, school administrators--is ignoring this. I'm sorry to say that it will keep happening because nobody believes that these kids could do a thing like this. There were a lot of reporters at one of our larger surburban 95% white high schools interviewing teachers, administrators, students and parents, and all of them said "Oh, nothing like that could happen here." Go figure.
Dear Holt Uncensored
Nice column on gun violence. Here's one I did not long ago on Vermont Public Radio:
"This is Jules Older. In just a few minutes, I hope to turn off your automatic cattle prod. Please stay tuned.
"On the last day of July, a man carrying a .38 revolver walked into the nation's capitol, dodged the metal detectors, and began firing. Before he was stopped by bullets, he killed two guards, wounded a tourist and terrified the nation.
"The man was a paranoid schizophrenic, a polite and marginally precise way of saying he was stone-crazy. He had in the past made threats against the President, against his neighbors, against a sheriff. He believed his wristwatch was bugged, that Russians were brainwashing us through microwaves and that he was being watched by his neighbor's satellite dish.
He thought President Clinton had killed President Kennedy because Kennedy had stolen his girlfriend-Marilyn Monroe. He'd spent involuntary time in a psychiatric hospital. The week before the killings, he had reportedly shot his father'scats and blown the heads off a dozen chickens. Crazy. Stone-crazy.
"Now, in every age, in every place, under every form of government, there are a certain number of crazy people. Biology over-rules nice scenery and enlightened legislation. The truly mad have always been among us. But something's different here. Something makes this tragedy more than just another case of a violent madman going berserk.
"Before I get into that difference, though, I want to talk about the phrase, 'Distinct society.' Unless you're Canadian, you've probably never heard of it. But every Canadian knows it and has a visceral reaction to it. 'Distinct society' has come to symbolize the Great Canadian Issue: Should Quebec separate from the rest of the nation? And you can't say the phrase 'Distinct society' without automatically turning off most Canadians' ability to think. It's a cattle prod.
"Our cattle prod is not Distinct society. Ours is "gun control." And that's what I'm gonna talk for the next 90 seconds. I urge you to turn off your automatic response. Try to listen. Those two murdered Capitol cops were guarding the most heavily protected piece of real estate in the country. On top of the millions currently spent on protecting our congressmen, we're about to invest multi-millions more. It's almost guaranteed that the American capitol will be the hardest place in North America to enter with a gun. Citizens of Albany, New York, or Albany, Vermont, don't get anywhere near the same protection.
"Yet almost no one is talking about the one thing which could have prevented this and the daily crimes like it that have turned our country into such a dangerous place to live-- serious gun control.
"For while every place has its madmen, we're one of the very few which arms them. Most of the Congressman inside the Capitol voted against gun control again and again. I'm sure they will, again and again. Yet they protect themselves with an army of guards and a fortune in technology. At the same time,they vote against protecting the rest of us by the one means that has a serious chance of working- serious gun control.
"There are something like 250 million guns in the United States. More Americans are killed by the gun in a single day than Japanese in an entire year. Compare the vast number of American children gunned down each year with those killed in England, 19; in Germany, nine; in Japan, zero.If the Capitol killer had only shot his neighbors, none of us would have ever heard of him. It's only the location that made this an uncommon American crime.
"Yet those in the Capitol are increasing their own protection. Not ours-- theirs. And we, in Albany, New York, and Albany, Vermont, have grown so used to America's gun madness that, like the Emperor's nakedness, we don't even notice it.
"This is Jules Older, in Albany, Vermont, the Soul of the Kingdom."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This email was sent from our bookstore to Anirvan Chatterjee re BookFinder:
". . . I am sure many independent bookstores like mine, who do not sell used books but regularly refer people, are holding back from linking your site because you are an Amazon Associate. Your site seems to indicate that you use them for new books (though I am not sure that people visit your site looking for those), I assume to some degree their database adds depth to others you use.
I would merely ask you to consider switching your association with Amazon, as you seem to be in favor of independent bookselling, and perhaps to work with the emerging databases of new books that are used by, and linked to, independent booksellers. Specifically I'm referring to BookSite (you would contact Dick Harte, firstname.lastname@example.org) and the soon to be released Booksense.com database, championed by the ABA (http://www.bookweb.com).
Anirvan responds: Because I don't charge any kind of a markup or fees, I don't get paid when people run searches on the site, or when people buy books through it. Working with Amazon.com for new books is one of the ways I can keep the site afloat. I'm a strong supporter of independent new bookstores and I try to make that known (e.g. I link to the NCIBA, Cody's, and the Elliot Bay Book Company from BookFinder.com's "about" page, at http://www.bookfinder.com/about/ ); but bills are bills, and when it comes down to it, the fees I get from Amazon.com are enough to keep me from falling into the red (banner advertising fees don't cover all of my costs). It's not a choice I'm fond of, but I'd rather be taking Amazon.com's money to help offer consumers alternatives to chain-operated used bookselling, than to shut down the site.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
After reading the letter from Judith Briles' I was stunned to see that her website directs readers to amazon.com for her latest book. Surely she could have directed them to The Tattered Cover's website, as she is Denver-based, or listed several independent bookstores? The Tattered Cover [or any independent bookstore] is as capable as Amazon to handle a mail order. With her letter supporting the independents, it is sad that Judith Briles has neglected this opportunity to support independent bookstores, and it looked to this reader as though she took the easy way out.
Judith Briles responds: I've being trying for weeks to create a link with the Tattered Cover (they are working on it) and finally decided to link with Amazon so that people could get my book without going through major surgery. The Tattered Cover website says that it will take one to six weeks to get a book, but that's not correct in my case (plus, both Amazon and B&N state up front that the title is shipped anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days max). I've told Tattered Cover that I would deliver books to their door if they run short.
Meanwhile, I just bought 25 more books frolm the Tattered Cover for individuals who have contacted me directly to buy "Woman to Woman 2000" at my office address/phone number. These books have been sent priority mail to the buyers. I get a 10-15% discount from TC--an amount that doesn't cover the full shipping handling costs or our time in driving to the store, etc., but it does support TC, our local bloodline.
Judith Briles, DrJBriles@aol.com\r