HOLT UNCENSORED #67
by Pat Holt
Friday June 4, 1999
THE TIDE, SHE CHANGING #624
NOTE FROM HECK
FIELDS OF COURAGE
THE PRIDE OF HAVANA
TALES OF THE LAVENDER MENACE
THE GOOD LISTENER
THE TIDE, SHE CHANGING #624
Another strategic piece in The Comeback of the Century mosaic fell into place this week when the Federal Trade Commission leaked rumors that it would oppose Barnes & Noble's takeover of the nation's largest book distributor, Ingram Book Company.
One couldn't help but cheer at the announcement Barnes & Noble henceforth issued: "Although both companies [B&N and Ingram] believe that the transaction would ultimately be approved in the courts, protracted litigation would not be in the best interests . .. " and sure, sure.
This is known as the skittering defense! You know when you turn on the light how all the bugs go skittering under the bed? Not to say that B&N is a bug or anything but just that after all the swaggering and assurances that buying Ingram would benefit not just themselves but every single animate being on Earth, they sure hightailed it for cover when the the going got tough.
So thank you, Federal Trade Commission - what a momentous decision it would have been. And thank you, American Booksellers Association, for coming down hard on the FTC with petitions and lawerly might; and thank you, Authors Guild, for mobilizing writers and even more legal support; and thank you, California Attorney General's office for joining the fray; and thank you, individual booksellers for spreading the word and believing that readers would rally, and most of all THANK YOU to the tens of thousands of American book customers who "got it" about this flagrantly anti-competitive proposal and the threat it posed to independent bookstores, not to mention long-range First Amendment concerns and Our Way of Life.
Yet what a pyrrhic victory it may turn out to be: Ingram, already crippled by Amazon's move to build its own distribution centers and rival Baker & Taylor's plans to double in size, now must watch another of its top customers, Barnes & Noble, make a similar move by constructing warehouses in Reno and Memphis.
I must say that sounds awfully pouty of Barnes & Noble. Why not beef Ingram up again and go on with your plans to dominate the world? Or does B&N - actually we might as well say Bertelsmann, as much a ruling force here as with barnesandnoble.com, of which they have 50% - have to own everything it touches?
NOTE FROM HECK
Well, here's the kind of tidbit you find in the paper that just sets the head to waggin': In a "Brief" of June 1, the Wall Street Journal describes "ecampus.com, a new online college bookstore to be launched July 2. The company said it plans to spend $23 million on ads in its first year."
What a great idea. Since there's no competition to speak of and we know from Amazon how easy it is to break even after spending even hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, ecampus should float right into the kind of stability and success for which the Internet has become famous.
You know how so many satellites now circle the earth that scientists say the galaxy looks like a junkyard? Well, it ain't lawnmower.com that's junking up cyberspace, you know. Too many competitors for online book sales will just end up knocking each other off and make independent bookstores look (onsite and in sight!) better and better.
FIELDS OF COURAGE, Susan Samuels Drake (Many Names Press, http://members.xoom.com/sdrake ; 149 pages; $14.95 paperback; readers can buy the book online from http://www.keplers.com.
Few people knew farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez for as long or as closely as author Drake, who worked with him for over 10 years until, despite their high regard for each other, he fired her in 1973. (They remained friends for 20 more years until his death in 1993.)
In straightforward poetic pieces, Susan Drake sheds new light on the human side of this Ghandi-like man who nevertheless was once so frustrated because she wasn't in the office that he ripped her phone out of the wall and often was so tender toward her that he would share roses and confidences, stories and ideas.
"I know the work is hard / very hard," she remembers him saying to farm workers. "I know we deserve respect. / You work all day deserve to go home at night / with enough money in your pocket / enough dignity / to continue."
Susan came to work for Chavez when her husband Jim, a community organizer, began traveling with the United Farm Workers in the furnace-hot farming towns of California's Central Valley - places with names like Goshen, Delano, Fresno and Bakersfield.
In "Where We Came From," she pinpoints the magnetic pull of seemingly opposite childhoods that kept her friendship with Cesar as welcoming as it was tempestuous.
The Chavez house in San Jose [where Cesar grew up] sat
in el barrio
called Sal Si Puedes - Get Out If You Can.
Mine, twenty miles away, was in another enclave
called Palo Alto
which might as well have been called
Get In If You Can Afford To.
Susan Drake's poetry is so plainspoken that she often surprises us by the precision and quiet passion with which she describes workers problems with pesticides ("danger seeping through their skin"), carcinogens in "cancer-cluster towns in farmlands," nonviolence ("A tiny, grandmotherly woman / steps in front of him / wraps her arms around him, yells, "No, M'ijo! No violencia. Cesar dice / 'No violencia . . . ' ") Teamster goon squads ("bodies / blood / shreiks / nausea") and welfare, which she defines as "the money / our government pays / some of the growers / not to grow / when they don't feel like planting / because the price isn't right."
Few books have ever gotten so close to the daily life of Chavez, the endless speeches, back-breaking marches, media appearances and all-night meetings to create national boycotts and strikes, to stand up to growers, Teamsters and police and to somehow keep thousands of migrant farm workers and their families clothed, fed, healty and calm.
One day, Susan writes, she looked up to see Cesar rubbing his neck and "stretching / next to my desk. / I blurt out / 'You are the most Christ-like person / I've ever met.' " Smiling his "devilish grin," he pretended to choke her, "Just so you know I'm not."
With photos of a boyish Chavez growing grayer and wiser alongside supporters such as Robert Kennedy, the Reverend Eugene Boyle and an aging Susan Drake as well, "Fields of Courage" is a special relevance today as UFW elections continue and the lessons of nonviolence seem lost in a distant past.
THE PRIDE OF HAVANA, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (Oxford; 464 pages; $35)
Havana is purty trendy these days, thanks to Martin Cruz Smith (see #65), Christina Garcia, Wendy Gimbel (her fascinating true story of one matriarchal family's involvement with Fidel Castro is just out from Vintage) and now former (semipro) catcher and present Yale professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria.
"The Pride of Havana" is a definitive baseball history and a response to the kind of American biases that an author such as Gonzalez Echevarria likes to describe with a growl and a snarl.
He says, for example, that American sportswriters have foolishly perpetuated the myth that Fidel Castro was once a great baseball player - so great that he almost signed with the Washington Senators. Had he done so, the story goes, there would have been no Cuban revolution.
Well, what a load, says the author. Fidel (Cubans never call him Castro) is no good at the sport and Gonzalez Echevarria shows us the photos to prove it.
He adds that self-serving stereotypes about Cuba abound in the U.S. press. "[E]ven well-meaning writers distort Cuban and Latin American baseball when they plea for the acceptance of its exuberant, flashy, and carefree style of play, which they often liken to their (also faulty) understanding of Latin music and dance.
"In other words, they argue in favor of allowing the Latin players to live up to American stereotypes about them."
Cuban baseball is vastly more conservative than United States observers want to admit, the author says: "Cuba's style of 'inside' baseball, consisting of bunting, slapping a grounder past a charging infielder, almost no base-stealing, and patience at the plate was derived from the pioneers of Negro Leagues baseball, who had much influence in Cuba during the early part of the 20th century."
So there is much to learn here about baseball's relationship to cultural blindness in the United States, as well as, of course, music, art and politics in Cuba. For fans of the game, experience comes as close as you can get to a seat at Gran Stadium, where Leo Durocher was spotted with gamblers and subsequently suspended by the baseball commissioner, we learn in one of thousands of fascinating tidbits.
TALES OF THE LAVENDAR MENACE, Karla Jay (Basic; 278 pages; $25).
June is getting to be as big a month for gay books as February is for African American books. It even seems that interest in both splurges out either end, occupying November - March for Black History Month and April -July for Gay Pride. This means normal bigotry can continue for a good 7-8 months a year.
Published a few months ago but still selling (and it should go on forever) is Karla Jay's often hilarious and eye-opening "Tales of the Lavender Menace." Now a professor at Pace University in New York and author of eight books on gay life ("Lavender Culture," "The Gay Report"), Jay participated in the early feminist movement and its "lavender menace" as a go-for-broke lesbian activist and describes the early gay scene with flair, as this scene from a gay bar in Greenwich Village shows:
"A female employee sat outside the [restroom] door and handed patrons exactly three squares of toilet paper on their way in. No one knows how the management decided on three squares as opposed to two or four."
It's an amusing detail from a bizarre past, but Jay reminds us the message at the time was primitive and brutal. "No heterosexual bar, no matter how promiscuous its clientele, guarded the toilets in such an overbearing manner. We were constantly reminded that we were degenerates who could not be trusted to be with others of our kind in a public restroom."
Jay combines exhaustive research (dates, names, statistics, milestones, inside dirt) with her own musings about events and personalities over the years. She notes for example that Rita Mae Brown referred to herself as "an orphan who didn't know her racial or ethnic origins" in 1972 and "an abandoned love child with aristocratic ancestors" in 1997.
All the politics, the demonstrations, the FBI agents, the dogma, the Redstockings, the passions, even the orgies are here. "Tales of the Lavender Menace" is as entertaining and informative as American history can get.
THE GOOD LISTENER, Neil Belton (Pantheon; 374 pages; $27)
Imagine how it would feel to be one of the first Jews allowed into Germany at the close of World War II - not only free to roam but officially protected and escorted, wearing a uniform with a six-pointed yellow star emblazoned on a badge showing the letters "JRU" for Jewish Relief Unit.
This was the way Helen Bamber, age 20, traveled into Germany in 1945, writes London editor Burton, who sat down with Bamber 50 years later to hear this "good listener" explain her disenchantment with the the "myth of 'liberation' - as though that had all along been the goal of the war," he writes.
"And the rhetoric of it grated, the lauding of 'survival' and 'the tenacity of the human spirit.' The tone of the expressions of official memory saddened her: 'There is always such pride in OUR generosity and bravery; the complacency of it is suffocating.' "
We follow Bamber's extraordinary work from the Nazi camp at Belsen to her care for displaced persons in Britain. Later she works with torture victims in countries ranging from Latin America to the Soviet Union. Despite all the stories about evil Russian psychiatrists enforcing the will of the state, the novel psychiatric conditions they came up with seem both atrocious amusing. For example, "nervous exhaustion brought on by a search for justice," was one malady, as were "mania for reconstructing society" and "psychopathic paranoia with overvalued ideas and tendencies to litigation" (no bad jokes about lawyers).
Her establishment at age 60 of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture seems a herculean effort yet is less than a dent in the mountain of abuses Helen Bamber documents here. Thanks to Neil Belton's exhaustive efforts, there is now a book that provides an eloquent witness to what she has seen.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Some interesting points were brought up by Robert Segedy, former employee of Waterstone's booksellers, in his letter to Holt Uncensored. In defending "the chain that wasn't," I think he has highlighted an important issue fundamental to independent bookselling.
Whose was the voice that delivered unto him "the message we were told, loud and clear . . . that we were an independent store" - the same phantom menace [sorry] that would later return after the Exeter street store's fire and remove the local autonomy that had made the place unique for a chain (autonomy certainly not "unheard of" for bookselling indies)? This voice seems to have the booming echo of corporate management.
What is it that makes a bookstore independent? Imagine if B&N allowed employees to buy for their individual stores' sections. How would that change our perception of them? I think for many of us, independence has to do with where ultimate authority resides. If it resides in an outside agency through which profits flow, a controlling body for multiple stores that "governs from afar," then the store in question is not independent. To me, the idea of an independent bookstore being closed down by corporate headquarters seems contradictory. I'd be interested to learn what others think.
At Brookline Booksmith we've been fortunate to have a number of former Waterstone's employees on our staff; their experience in book buying and promotions exceeds anything that domestic chains could have taught them. Waterstone's had an undisputedly excellent bookstore on Exeter street, one that was innovative among its peers (before the fire) because of the degree of responsibility given to the staff. But whether they were an independent bookstore is a separate question altogether.
Kip Jacobson, email@example.com
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You can sure say that again (#66) about the new Random House. The best editor at Dell has just been let go; the whole thing is a disaster. My hope is that small publishers may once again arise, and that independent bookstores may somehow continue. That Barnes and Noble may have run up against anti-trust rulings is the only good publishing news lately.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
To respond to the customer who wishes they had access to Books in Print, this is my experience as a bookseller.
Books in Print uses many codes that make it difficult for the average customer to start using right away. Even the new system my own store uses is generally not available to customers for one major reason. I have seen on many occasions, customers attempt to look things up, not find what they are looking for, throw their hands up in the air and mutter about what a lousy store it is. When asked, it turns out they mispelled the author/title, had the title totally wrong, mangled the author's name or were using the wrong key words.
Databases are great tools but people forget that they will only look for exactly the words you tell it to search for. There is nothing like a real, live bookseller to assist a customer in finding a title. Good booksellers can find books with the most tenuous of descriptions. No database will be able to decipher, "Planet of the Care Bears" and come up with "Clan of the Cave Bear." They also can't find "that purple book with the woman on it that you had in the window last month."
I do think the online databases are great research tools. I have seen a huge increase in knowledgable customers who come into the store armed with printouts complete with ISBN numbers.
Now if someone would only invent a computer that will pick up all the books left on the floor by customers and put them back where they belong, I would be in bookseller heaven.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I found the article on pulling the anti-Scientology book from Amazon.com interesting. It reminded me of "Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie.
I worked at Waldenbooks when that book came out. We were never told not to sell it. We sold out of what we had, which was five copies. It was on the returns list the next week (the week after the death threat was made to Rushdie) for not selling within its three-month time alotment. It would have faded away if no attention had been brought to it.
Waldenbooks was accused of not selling the book because of the controversy, when in actuality, B. Dalton had pulled the book and wouldn't sell it. We sold out of our copies immediately. The policy was not to flagrantly display the book. We also had a statement that was given to the press. Nowere in the statement did it say that we would not sell the book. It did show concern for the safety of Waldenbooks employees, especially since two stores had been fire-bombed. Waldenbooks had the book on reorder to supply the demand for the book. The accusation that Waldenbooks would not sell the book, I believe, came from the fact that they had sold out of the few copies that each store had. The statement was distored almost word-for-word in the press.
When we finally got the book back in, we made an entire window display with the book because at that time, the store manager was sick and tired of the situation. Since Indianapolis has an Islamic center nearby, several of our stores were visited by Islamic practioners, including the store where I worked. I was alone at the time and was questioned throughly about the book. The questions ran: Are you selling the book, "The Satanic Verses"? I replied, Yes, we are sold out. His next question was: Are you going to continue to sell it? and I again replied, Yes, it's on reorder.
My manner at that point of time was not very kind, and he left immediately. I was fortunate. Other stores had people searching the store. In one store, people went into the backroom to see if the book was being stored back there. It was an interesting few weeks.What I found completely frustrating was the customer who believed that we had a policy not to sell the book. In my last response to him about "censorship," I had to tell him that we could order whatever he wanted as long as we had dealings with whatever publisher published the book. But, due to space limitations at the store, it would be impossible to stock one of everything that was ever printed.
That should not be a problem with a virtual bookstore. Yes, Amazon would have faced legal actions, but when compared to being alone in a bookstore with a person making threats because we were defending the right of free speech (Salman Rushdie's ), I think that they could show a little backbone.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I subscribed to your online column, which is always, even if good reading, unsettling. Bertlesman dwarfs the big Americans, and the picture looks more and more like Orwell's vision of the three global trading sectors. Big business has one aim: to get bigger. And so we lose our community, and many people with small shops lose a certain freedom-they are responsible for their business and ultimately their own lives in a way that corporate employees at whatever level right up to the CEO cannot be-and are responsible to their customers, who benefit intangibly.
Many years ago I lived for a few years in West Africa, and participated in, although without a real appreciation, the daily commerce, bargaining with local women for food, bargaining to them being an exchange without which the sales interaction is uncivilized. With a deep understanding of social needs, they exchanged so much more than the manifested discussion of whether a pineapple is worth 15 cents or a quarter. It's hard to look forward to browsing a book "showroom" and making my selection from the samples, which the clerk downloads and prints in an hour.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am answering the second to the last letter in the May 31 edition, concerning the great database at Amazon, and the lack of access to Books in Print at the local bookstore. In Berkeley Cody's books has Books in Print available to customers. It is not impossible. And maybe this suggestion can be taken up by other independents. They even provide help in using it, if needed. A good suggestion, I think. And one that should be more universal.
CORRECTION: Thanks to many readers who caught my unbelievable error in misspelling the name of Peter Olson, head of Random House. My apologies to everyone and especially to Peter Olson.