by Pat Holt

Tuesday, May 18, 1999:




Of all the tragic situations confronting independent booksellers, here's the latest heartbreaker: Having survived the assaults that are by now so familiar - chain stores, price clubs, department store discounters, Amazon -- independents now see potential income coming right at 'em in the very near future (used books! Internet presence! ebooks! nonprofit opportunities!). Yet for many booksellers - who've been running out of cash, time and energy for some time - that future may arrive seconds too late.

Such is the situation at Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles, one of the most beloved of women's bookstores in the country during its 27-year tenure and certainly one of the most historic.

Founded in 1972 by former sisters-in-law Adele Wallace and Simone Wallace, Sisterhood started as a small room in the L.A./Crenshaw Women's Center "where we gathered books and articles sent to us by women across the country," the two founders recall. As feminist books and magazines proliferated, Adelle and Simone and a third partner opened a tiny storefront on Westwood Boulevard a few blocks south of their current location.

To say the store was a hit from the beginning would be an understatement. Alice Walker, May Sarton, Adrienne Rich, Lily Tomlin, Mary Daly, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Angela Davis, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Gloria Steinem, Paule Marshall, Ntozake Shange, Carolyn Forche, Marija Gambutas, Sheila Kuehl, Maxine Waters and hundreds of other authors found a home at Sisterhood during the many changes of the Women's Movement, right on through to 1992, "our best year" in sales, says Adele.

When the early waves of chain stores razed the landscape of many independent bookstores in Los Angeles, Sisterhood added and increased sidelines (music, posters, buttons, t-shirts, craft items), captured the textbook business at nearby UCLA Women's Studies Department, doubled store size in 1981 and became a valuable referral site for women's classes, dances, political actions, cultural events, lesbian news and nonsexist/nonracist/multicultural children's programs.

So here again is an independent bookstore that became so valued by its constituency it was already acting as a community center when a huge Borders store moved in directly across the street, discounting many of the best-selling books that Sisterhood needed to stay alive.

Moving aggressively against the drain with fundraisers hosted by celebrities like Gloria Steinem and Lily Tomlin, and readings by star authors like Alice Walker and Angela Davis, Sisterhood was on the Web, in the news and on its way back to health when Amazon hit, and the drain of sales turned into a hemorrhage.

It's not that the two founders ever believed a women's bookstore would or should endure forever. "We assumed that after a while there wouldn't be a need for a separate women's bookstore," says Simone, "because 50% of the inventory of every bookstore would consist of books by and about women; 51% of the art sections would reflect books by women artists; and 51% of the literature would be women's literature. It seemed so obvious."

Is that not the sweetest thing you've ever heard in your life? Of course the "obvious" didn't turn out that way.

"People say that women's bookstores are going out of business because we've 'done our job too well,' " says Adelle. "In other words, we've educated the public about women's issues, so naturally the chains and Internet book services would 'take' the books we've sold and sell them as general books.

"The fact is that women's bookstores are needed more than ever, but to do a different job. If you look around, you know the fight is not over - women are still paid less money, still experience sexual abuses, violence, discrimination, harassment.

"What's needed is for Sisterhood to become a much larger community center, more involved, say, in issues of single mothers, women's health, feminist law, lesbian rights, children's literacy - even classes in yoga, cooking, dance, pottery, and so forth - not offering these things ourselves but working in conjunction with other groups that provide these services."

One has to applaud such spirit and endurance in the face of coming doom: If the debts keep piling up, Sisterhood will be sold or close by July. Yet even at this 11th hour, Adelle and Simone can already see how to reinvent the store with books as a strategic part of a new model. What they need is a lot of cash (come on, you Hollywood/Brentwood/Westwood/Beverly Hills feminists!), state-of-the-art pro bono legal services (come on, you UCLA/USF feminist lawyers!), a new location with plenty of parking and no chain stores a'looming (get away, you predatory Borders and Barnes & Noble!) and lots of community input, which they've always sought.

"It's been a slow, tough fight," says Adele about the Women's Movement, "but it's also been an awfully good time. Which is why for as long as it takes, we'll still be here."

The question is, are the rest of us ready? (I hate that TV ad that's stolen this great line.) Are we up to it? Saving independent bookstores at this juncture is a one-by-one effort and needs plenty of conviction and active commitment. Get those Big Ideas a'buzzing and give Adele and Simone a call (310 477-7300). Perhaps a Friends of Sisterhood group can be formed to take the burden off these two gifted booksellers before it's too late.



That was some announcement the Book Industry Study Group provided at BookExpo in Los Angeles last month regarding both the decline of adult book sales in the United States last year and the decline of independents' market share from 17.2 in 1997 to 16.6 percent in 1998.

It's hard to know how to deal with such figures when the rhetoric from the chains and Amazon keeps saying that the book market is growing larger, sales are soaring and all is chirpy even now that they're discounting bestsellers by 50%.

I remember feeling a bit queasy about statistics showing flat sales of books when Steve Riggio explained last year why he thought Barnes & Noble, the bookstore chain that he heads with his brother Leonard, has "expanded the book market." Rather than rail against the chain store phenomenon, he said, people like me should thank Steve and Len and the people at Borders for blah blah blah, you know the drill. Here was the example he gave:

"In New York City, the story that gets played endlessly is the closing of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore on 81st and Broadway after a location became available in the area, and we [Barnes & Noble] took it," he said in an interview last year.

"The fact is that Shakespeare had been doing about $5-6 million annually. Our store opened and we did $20 million. Shakespeare lost about 20 percent of sales, dropping from $6 million to $4.5 million. So where is the other $15 million coming from? That's the additional demand that we created."

Riggio believes that B&N stores draw new audiences to their shelves in locations where existing independents are considered too fuddy-duddy to patronize any longer. "We're not the reason for Shakespeare's demise," he said, "and you know how well documented it is that most of the customers really didn't like Shakespeare, [which was] not very good at service, not very friendly, and not really a great place to shop. Shakespeare could have parlayed their earnings into a large store -- it had all these options that were open to any entrepreneur.''

Not too cool, Steve, to knock the competition you certainly did kill off (I loved that Shakespeare location!), but that's not the point. Even if Riggio is hugely exaggerating, don't we acknowledge that in smaller towns and remotish areas previously unserved by bookstores, the chains have indeed brought books to new customers? Don't we concede that Amazon was the first to attract a whole new audience on the Internet, and don't we believe those many readers who say they buy more books than ever because it's so much fun to explore these snazzy databases (it's a new toy! soon they'll transfer over to independents' websites!). And what about all those other Internet suppliers of new books? Don't these numbers add up?

Never mind that the chains may go just as broke as Crown Books did and that Amazon's losses increase faster than its gains: The fact is that an astonishing number of books is being sold out of these outlets, and if the rate of books sold overall has been flat or has declined, does that mean we're still in an era of massive returns (haven't they calmed down since '96?)? Or have mass market declines been so large they skew everything downward? OR are we assuming that the chains and Amazon (et al) stole all these sales from independents? If so, wouldn't that account for a larger drop in independents' market share than the .6 percent decrease quoted by BSIG for 1997-98?

I'm not doubting the figures, but I do think there's a leetle tendency to discount the impact of the chains and Internet book suppliers, and friends, you know that if anybody could blast 'em for this too, it would be Holt Uncensored. It's just that we live in an era in which books have practically been reborn - everybody is reading AND writing now, whereas a decade or so ago, reading was not cool, television had won, very few people wrote little notes to friends and colleagues and even Oprah couldn't have started a reading club if her advertisers had depended on it.

Today a virtual renaissance in books and interactive use of print communcaction has made television a dinosaur, and a one-way fascist influence at that. With the emphasis in society everywhere on books, you'd think the market would have expanded to SOME degree and sales of books would be soaring.

Part of the answer, at least in regard to the kind of books that are selling, can be found in a fascinating booklet called "Independent Bookselling & True Market Expansion" by American Booksellers Association president Richard Howorth. This was passed out at BEA and offers evidence of an awful turn of events in book publishing.

It may be that sales of books overall have been sluggish and are declining, Howorth shows, but sales of bestsellers increase every year. This means that "marginal books, or midlist books, are falling off the edge - never seeing the light of day," writes Howorth.

Observers have sensed for some time that range and diversity of titles were diminishing on the lists of mainstream publishers. But now it appears the focus is switching more than we ever thought to potential bestsellers, quickie "popcorn reads" and gimmicks - all the "safe" books (half of which bomb anyway) that fly through acquisition committees and chain store buyers' offices.

With independents declining in number (from 5,200 in 1991 to 3,300 today, says Howorth, though reports show that the present number is even lower), all those gloomy predictions that emerged when Bertelsmann merged Random House with Bantam Doubleday Dell are coming home true: Quoting the Wall Street Journal, Howorth notes, "the midlist [titles are] gone because there is no place to sell them."

The only hopeful note in all this is that ABA membership is up slightly for the first time in years, which may signal a trend toward creating more independent stores that make it their business to seek out good books and the customers who love them. (For more information about Howorth's pamphlet, call the ABA at 800 637 0037, email or click



When I referred to independent bookstores in Seattle of living with "Amazon in their back yard" a reader sent a note to make sure I didn't mean that Amazon has a physical store. No, no, I meant how it feels for independents to have this nationally famous Website and all its palaver yammering around from your own home base.

It's not a lot of fun to be working at, say, Elliott Bay Book Company, which [Amazon founder and head] Jeff Bezos somewhat patronizingly calls his favorite bookstore, and have to watch Bezos bring a TV crew from the Jim Lehrer program to Elliott Bay, which he did some months ago, so that he could be interviewed in a physical store. (Several people on the staff at Elliott Bay had trouble keeping a straight face when they described how Bezos tried to dissuade the Lehrer crew from speaking directly to Elliott Bay customers about Amazon. Apparently the crew appeared to relent and left the store, only to return later so they could interview customers in peace.)

While stories do crop up in the local press quoting former employees who talk about terrible working conditions at Amazon (in March, the Seattle Weekly interviewed workers who complained of "verbal abuse" and said "they were worked past the point of exhaustion"), no expose, including the New York Times disclosure about Amazon taking money for placements on best seller lists and "recommendation" boxes, has yet toppled the national image of a company that is hip, savvy, book-loving, youngish and "customer-centric" as Bezos likes to say.

But for veteran booksellers like Michael Brasky at M. Coy Books, Inc., a wonderfully and stubbornly old-fashioned bookstore near Seattle's Pike Street marketplace, Amazon does have a physical presence that can be irritating. "Amazon has a location right across the street. When out-of-town visitors arrive in Seattle to see the place, they often come in to ask where Amazon is," says Brasky. "They know we would resent telling them about the local Borders. Sometimes I say, 'You have no idea how much nerve it takes to ask that question, because I'm not telling you."

Otherwise, except for customers coming in with Borders bags ("we try to assume they're carrying music CDs"), knowledge of the "bookstore wars" is both sophisticated and nonexistent. "Sometimes when I tell people we can special-order a title, they'll say, 'Oh, don't go to all that trouble - I'll just order it from Amazon," Brasky laughs. Other times, "people come in and ask, 'Are you an independent bookstore? I'm just making sure.' They won't stay unless we tell them we are independent."

Comfortable with a clientele that's been building for nearly 10 years and a steady stream of new customers coming in during Seattle's 7-month tourist season, M. Coy appears to have found its niche and its character. Opera plays in the background, a tiny coffee bar has been set up in the back for the requisite latte, and Brasky and owner Michael Coy are the only staff for most of the week, so overhead is exceptionally low.

"We sell an inordinate amount of hardcover books," Brasky says. An example is "The Professor and the Madman," of which 40 copies were sold by this small store. With its 2000-plus square feet of selling space, the store has the atmosphere of a personal library, where sensitivity to reading tastes sometimes reveals the first glimmerings of new trends.

"There seems to be a snob thing going on about Oprah Winfrey," says Brasky. "Some reading clubs think the books she chooses are beneath them." He doesn't know if it's a trend. "One woman said her group had a heart attack when she suggested an Oprah title. I said, 'Don't you think they might have their heads up their ass?' It was just an expression. She agreed that they might."

Brasky and Coy have only recently bought a computer, as the inventory is small enough to "keep in our heads," as they say. "People are so used to computerized inventory that when they ask for a book and I say, 'We don't have it,' they just look at me. 'We'll I'll just look to make sure,' I say, and go off to pretend I'm looking. It's part of the fun of running a small bookstore." There should be thousands of them everywhere. Hey, come to think of it, there are.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

The May 10, 1999, issue of Publishers Weekly includes an article called "Amazon Plans More Investment as Sales, Losses Mount" (page 20). The first paragraph reads:

"Sales for the first quarter ended March 31, 1999, jumped 236% to $293.6 million at, although the online retailer reported a loss of $61.7 million in the quarter, compared to a net loss of $10.4 million in last year's first quarter. The loss in the most recent period includes a $25.3 million charge related to a number of acquisitions made by Amazon; excluding the charges, the loss was $36.4 million."

The important, ongoing truth about Amazon is buried in this gobbledy-gook: Amazon's first quarter sales increased by 236% this year, but its LOSSES increased by 250%! It's not only losing money, it's losing MORE money! The real news story about Amazon should be about its staggering unprofitability, not its staggering growth.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Things change slowly, but there's hope.

Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press is an independent publisher, and often our 800 number begins to ring because one of our titles has gotten a bit of play in one local paper or another. When this happens, we ask the caller what independent bookstore they normally would buy the book from, and then call that store and explain why we've called and ask that they bring in a few copies.

In the past, in 80% of the cases, two things would happen. If we did happen to get through to the owners or buyers, they would often act as if our call was a bother--we always wondered if they thought it a bother when Random House's rep called-- then they would ask if the book was available through Ingram.

Yes, Ingram carries our titles, but what about American West Books, BookPeople and Partners? They also carry our books. And why act as if our call is a bother? If the store owner's customers are calling us to buy our books, don't the owners or buyers want to know about it?

This week in the East Bay, one of our new titles, "The Memory Manual," got a nice mention. We got about ten calls, and we called the two independents where these callers normally shop. In both cases the owners let us know they were pleased to hear from us, and only one asked if it was available from Ingram. The other actually asked if it were available from BookPeople, an independent wholesaler.

I think independent bookstores are just begining to realize that, as Andy Ross of Cody's so aptly put it, the "diversity and multiplicity" required for the survival of literature, free speech and an informed citizenery is not just necessary at the retail level, but is necessary at the publisher and distribution level as well.

Mutual support among independent bookstores, independent publishers and independent wholesalers is wise for all of us--and our society.

Steve Mettee, Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'd like to wade in on the issue of sales tax and a call for fairness. Our own website has been selling books out of state for two years with no sales-tax collected. For books shipped within California, we collect 8.25%, the sales tax in Berkeley...but you do know that you are "required" to collect 8.5% for books shipped to San Francisco, and report and pay that to the Franchise Tax Board, take a look at your tax reporting form! I'm sure many have had the experience of being required by customers in other counties to charge them their local sales tax rate (in some cases as low as 7.25%)? I for one have "given up" trying to track this and pay the state Berkeley's tax for all sales, eating the small difference.

I'm in total agreement with the comments about the local support for schools, police, roads, and social services that the sales tax pays, but I also feel that the inequities between cities and counties - and non sales tax States - create confusion and real problems for businesses (particularly small ones) across the country. And NOW the Internet! UGH.

So, my proposal: How about a completely separate INTERNET/ELECTRONIC COMMERCE/MAIL ORDER tax collected by a centralized agency (again, ugh, but someones got to do it - how about the IRS?) and distributed based on population to ALL States? This would provide the "Level Playing Field" we all need, and provide a distribution of the taxes equitably to all.

George Kiskaddon,
Builders Booksource, Berkeley

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I wish the issue of sales tax on the Internet were as simple as some of your readers make it seem. The unfortunate thing is that forcing sales tax collection on all sales will only strengthen giants like that can afford to pay the $100,000 or more for the software required to collect sales taxes in the tens of thousands of jurisdictions that levy them nationwide. Yes it is simple to sit and say I collect sales tax where I sit, but a small independent publisher like us (Lorica Publishing, Atlanta, GA) depends on mail-order sales, and requiring us to collect sales tax on all sales would be a nightmare.

Don't forget, most mail-order and Internet sales have to charge shipping, which more than covers the difference collecting sales tax would make. I wish sales tax were simple, but then again I don't, because I work days publishing expensive newsletters on sales and use taxes to help well-paid professionals negotiate the minefields of state and local taxes.

Richard Jarvis,
Lorica Publishing

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The issue of the complexity of record-keeping is a serious issue but not one that is unsolvable. Computer programs already exist that can sort out this kind of record keeping.

I very much respect Andy Ross and his wonderful store, which I went out of my way to visit on my last trip to the Bay Area. There's a real difference in scale between what he's doing and what I'm doing here in Kalamazoo. I suggested in an earlier message that B&N and Amazon can afford to deal with 50 different state taxing authorities, and maybe I should have added that large independents like Cody's can as well. I can't. I'm already drowning in paperwork and can't afford to hire extra help just to deal with it. Or spend any significant amount of money on new software, or more time from my CPAs. And it's not just a matter of record-keeping; I'd then have to send that $5.73 out to Nevada, $12.65 to New York, etc.

Maybe the argument here is that since my business is so small and so marginal that I can't deal with this stuff, I should just be forced off the Internet and not be able to sell through it to other states.

The brick-and-mortar merchant across the street can join as an Amazon Associate to sell the same book to the same customer through Amazon with no sales tax that the independent bookseller must sell with sales tax. Why wouldn't that Associate's storefront establish nexus for Amazon?

Dick Harte's comment here appears to make sense, until you turn it around. If this relationship has created a nexus for Amazon in that brick-and-mortar merchant's home state, then why hasn't that same relationship created a nexus for that brick-and-mortar merchant in Amazon's home state? It seems obvious that a "nexus" is a two-way street. How does Dick suggest that Congress write legislation to avoid this interpretation? (You can't just say it's only a nexus for the big bad guys....)

That last point is the bottom line. Congress will have to deal with this issue in new legislation that addresses the problem on a national basis. I remain fearful that any new law will hurt my business more than it will help. The comments that I've cited here from Andy Ross and Dick Harte, which are written in the spirit of convincing me that I'm wrong to be so fearful, raise the very points that I find fatal. This is not reassuring.

Jim Huang
Deadly Passions Bookshop *

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I just want to throw a suggestion out. Since expertise and personal referrals (among other things) are what both we (the readers) and we (the authors) cherish about our beloved independant booksellers, why not incorporate such a thing into this massive collective Internet database you have referred to (was it "bookfinder"?). Perhaps "experts" in several fields could be available (via e-mail) to "chat" - to refer customers to certain books and authors, to recommend little-known books from obscure academic presses, to consult and ponder and pontificate, to steer and guide and push and nudge. If enough stores are involved, the costs would really be minimal to have a handful of knowledgeable souls for no other purpose than to provide "the human touch" that is so sorely lacking in a society run by machines.

That is really what we are talking about here - the dehumanization of the book industry. Computers figure out what is "good" (what sells), and then promote that with flashing lights (no bells and whistles...yet!), and then people make choices based on what the computer has told them. What does a computer know about literature? Literature is a very intimate matter: the consciousness of an author meeting the consciousness of a reader, with a "book" being created somewhere in the middle. Such a sacred exchange needs nurturing - the recommendation and gentle prodding of a trusted guide and book sage. If that can somehow be injected into the equation, perhaps the great monster will begin to feel and breathe, much as a great book does.

I write this with in mind. To my mind this is one of the greatest "bookstores" in the world, run as a catalogue and website business in addition to a storefront. If you know Todd (Pratum), he is the epitome of a book sage, and he and his catalogues have steered myself (and my library) towards heights I wouldn't have dared to scale alone, without guidance. It is his "human touch" that gives me hope for this whole internet/bookseller interface question.

George Mangels,
Mt. Shasta, CA

Holt responds (passing along his great tip to readers): I've just had a delicious time perusing and reading its succinct and splendidly critical descriptions of books I never thought would interest me personally (cosmology, hermetic philosophy, psychology, pagan religion), but do just because of his conviction. Here's an example of a bookstore's unique character making the transition from brick-and-mortar to Web and having tremendous personal impact throughout, though Pratum insists his Internet presence is really an introduction to mail-order catalogs! Nevertheless, as in the case of a 1989 book called "The Discovery of the Art of the Insane," he takes a book by the teeth and won't let go until we see exactly why he thinks it's worth reading (for full text go to - take a quick look:

"Students of modern art will be amazed at the secret history of its beginnings, how the great modern masters (Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky) studied, and even copied outright, the works of 'madmen.' What one realizes while reading about the lives of people trapped in 18th century insane asylums such as Bedlam, furiously scratching out masterpieces only to have them thrown in the trash by ignorant doctors, or about modern hermits of the 19th century living lives of voluntary or enforced isolation in urban apartments painting or sculpting masterpieces of astounding brilliance, is that a culture such as ours pays only lip service (at best) to the concepts of freedom, originality, and self-expression. When the uncrowned mystic-saints of 'art' appear, we are so stupefied by our own mundanities that we can't even recognize them and, worse, condemn them to the lowest rung of society, so fearful are we of the dark depths of our souls."

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Dick Harte wrote in #60: "I would bet a dime to a donut that the biggest source of sales for Amazon is Yahoo. Right around the corner from these guys, and probably what the Silicon Valley folks use to reach Amazon. There would be no Amazon if not for Yahoo. So why is this not nexus?"

And I would bet not. Silicon Valley folks are savvy enough not to need a portal like Yahoo to find their way around the Web - even as they don't need AOL as an ISP.

Wayne Douglass,

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In regard to Andy Ross's letter about sales tax:

It's true that some sales tax is used for education. But isn't it also true that some of it is used to improve the infrastructure of the community--such as roads and downtown parking--that supports "physical" stores but not "virtual" stores? If I drive to Kepler's and buy a book, then I've used some of the city's resources to do so, and the city takes it out of me and Kepler's by taxing the sale. However, if I mail-order a book from Nebraska, I've used hardly any of the infrastructure, so I shouldn't have to pay for it.

It may not be equitable now for me not to pay any tax on that book from Nebraska. But if I paid the full tax, then both I and (indirectly) the Nebraska bookseller would be paying for more California parking spaces and road improvements. That doesn't seem right either.

I don't know the right answer to the question of taxing, but I believe it's premature to call for a sudden imposition of taxes -- especially when this would tax the independents as well -- on a basis that was not designed for mail-order or Internet transactions. Some owners of small bookstores have said that this tax would be a huge burden on them. And the addition of taxes to the price of the books would result in fewer books being read overall--surely not our goal. Let's look before we leap.

Chris Phoenix,