NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #7
by Pat Holt

October 14, 1998

'GARAGE SALE-ING' WITH LILLA WEINBERGER
TODAY'S SLEEPER: UNDER A WING
THE LANGUAGE OF BIGNESS
CHEAP THRILLS WITH THE 100 TOP NOVELS
ON THE FAULT WITH PHILIP FRADKIN

'GARAGE SALE-ING' WITH LILLA WEINBERGER

It's 9 o'clock on a brisk Saturday morning as Lilla Weinberger and her husband, Andy, pull up in front of their store, Readers Books, in the historic Northern California town of Sonoma. A sense of urgency fills the cold air as they make space in the van for the boxes of used books that Lilla hopes to find at garage sales in the area.

With a dozen listings marked in the newspaper (wealthy neighborhoods first, then bohemian/artistic), she enters the jet stream of "garage salers" who hit the asphalt as early as possible. For veteran traders of used and rare books, searching through various yards and garages can be an obsession. Lilla has already been elbowed out of the way by zealous book scouts at Friends of the Library sales who cover their stashes with shirts and jackets so they can later cull out the real finds.

"You have to adopt a Zen attitude," she says. "No one can be at all garage sales at the same time, so a big part of it is chance." Still, mixing used books with the 18,000 new titles at her smallish (3500 square feet) store has made a big difference at Readers, especially after a chain store opened in nearby Santa Rosa and took customers away for a year or so ("they came back," she says, "and we absorbed it"). It's true that B&N is planning to sell used books in a big way, but the chain can't bring in the kind of profit Lilla has a chance to make today.

Her antenna seem to rise visibly at the first sale, a crowded front yard with tables of books full of prospects. Lilla eases into the melee with the authority of a gentle battering ram as she begins picking up mass-market reprints rapidly - two Salingers, an Amy Tan, an aged Henry Miller - "rapid turnover stuff" that "people buy by the handful." She pays 10 to 50 cents for paperbacks, a dollar or so for hardcovers and will sell them for half the listed price - a huge profit (sometimes 300 percent) in the bookstore biz and still a bargain for customers.

But she leaves two Updikes - both Bech novels - behind. "People don't read Updike here - well, some do but not the Bech books. Certain writers seem to be too East Coast - Philip Roth, John Updike, in fact all the authors we bought when we first opened the store seven years ago." She laughs at how naïve she was as a buyer then. In an age of cookie-cutter chain stores, "understanding regional buying patterns is REALLY important for an independent bookstore," she says.

Even a tattered children's hardcover is a good candidate. "I don't care about a book's ragged condition," she says. "Parents will buy it because they want the child to appreciate the value of reading hardcover books. We can take the jacket off and price it down beautifully. It makes reading available to people on a broad scale."

On the other hand, some books - certain Disney titles, Bernstein Bears - she will never buy. "An awful lot of books for kids are just pap, and sometimes parents don't know the difference," she says. "We try to stock books that are fun and valuable in some way and not carry the junk - the 'merch,' as it's called."

On to the next, a large driveway loaded with furniture and kitsch, videos and kitchen appliances. Lilla homes in on a box of books nobody has touched and nabs a paperback anthology of Latino fiction. "We have a large Spanish-speaking population in Sonoma," she says, "and we sell a lot of books in Spanish for kids. An anthology would be fairly expensive if it were new and in hardcover. But with a used paperback, people are more adventurous."

But oh-oh, a telltale smell wafts out of the box, and suddenly Lilla is on not only rifling through but sniffing all the pages. "Mildew," she says, shaking her head sadly and putting them back. "I've never been able to get that moldy smell out. People can't stand it."

The next sale offers no books at all, so Lilla goes hunting for related matter - bookends, chairs, bookcases - and ends up chatting with the seller and other customers. "In a store filled with new books, you end up dealing only with people who can afford them. I resisted going into used books for years, but doing this gets you out in the world, and I need to do that more.

"The book world is so engrossing and such hard work, you can spend your whole life in the bookstore. To be a good bookseller you have to be a whole person. The more you participate in the culture, the more you get out of having a tunnel vision. Out here you learn that not everybody's major concern is Barnes & Noble or Amazon."

Still, the pickings are slim today, and Lilla's time - as buyer/bill payer/publicist/events coordinator - is precious. "We're lucky to have a good shipping and receiving team," she says of Andy's parents, now in their 80s. Andy himself, who seems to have a gift for finding the right book for the right customer, sells and returns books with the help of a devoted staff. Throughout the day, Lilla runs into Readers' clerks on their day off who treat her like the head of a vast and loving household. No wonder: "That's Officer Murphy," she says as a police car drives by. "He buys books on homeopathy."

At the next garage sale she spies a battered copy of "The Olympia Reader," a remnant from the Grove/Evergreen years that could be valuable on the rare-book market. Having attended only one course in antiquarian bookselling, Lilla will "stash this one away" until she can research its value and resell it, possibly on the Internet, where rare-book auctions can be extremely lucrative.

But it's as a bookseller who works with customers in her store that Lilla feels the greater motivation. "People seem to have a passionate relationship with their books that isn't entirely rational," she says. "Even if they don't look at their books on a regular basis, there's something about having them there and knowing that they're available that makes a great difference in life.

“The writer Jeanette Winterson writes about why it makes a difference that an author has actually touched the book you're buying. She has a signed copy of a Virginia Woolf book, you see. I think it's a sense of connection to the world. It's the same when you walk into a good bookstore and feel uplifted that authors of all kinds are thinking and writing and caring about things, and there is this huge amount of books right there to learn from, and it just lifts you out of whatever rut you've been in."

By noon, she returns to the store with a few dozen books - not the 10 or 12 boxes she had hoped to find. But then, you have to view the garage sale scene over a long period of time, she says. "We love this work, this business, but I don't think we're particularly good business people." Here is the paradox: "If we were more careful about the bottom line, I don't think our inventory would be as good, but we'd have more money."

The key factor, experts say, is the number of "turns" (sales) per title. Lilla admits there are some books at Readers that don't turn even once a year. "I had a big argument last year at a seminar on financial management for booksellers. It was all about turns. I made some comment about how important I thought it was to keep books on the shelves even if they don't turn, because many of those books identify you as a serious bookseller."

Another paradox: A wide-ranging selection of books should bring in a wide range of readers, thus enhancing the potential for profit; but because the inventory can be seen as too wide-ranging, profits fly out the window. What's the answer? "You do other things - author signings, community events, a lot of hand-selling. And then you go on your quest for a better [profit] margin at garage sales and have a good time doing it.

"The world is very generous," says Lilla, a former photographer, quoting an author she has admired. "As a photographer, all you have to do is find the right place to stand in order to 'see' what's there. I feel that way about used books. They're everywhere. All you have to do is know enough about them to develop an instinct for what's interesting to your customers. I don't consider myself exceptionally good at it, but I'm getting better." That must be the understatement of the year.

TODAY'S SLEEPER: UNDER A WING

If you want to learn about Charles Lindbergh, the Scott Berg biography can't be beat. But continuing to touch readers' emotions for its simple eloquence and poetic journey is a very different book, a memoir by Lindbergh's daughter Reeve called UNDER A WING (Simon & Schuster; 223 pages $23).

This is the kind of book that in the specific details of one person's family somehow offers universal insight to all families at just about any time. We know going in that Charles Lindbergh, forever scarred by the kidnapping and murder of his first child, would turn with a protective ferocity toward his five later children, and Reeve supplies absorbing scenery even here.

"Our father was so vigilant about outdoor dangers of every magnitude, large or small, that we had almost no broken glass on the property," she writes of the family home in Connecticut. "We didn't have rusty nails, either, or barbed wire, or even poison ivy. As long as he was responsible for it, his children were safe to walk, free from fear or footgear, anywhere on his land. We just had to wipe our feet afterward."

We learn, too, that Lindbergh was both a demanding and an absent father whose face in magazines and newsreels "was not exactly the father I knew, [living] a life that did not touch but still ran parallel to my own." He did take his children flying on Saturdays "to share his love for the air," Reeve writes, "the way sports-minded fathers took their children to ball games." But in his single-mindedness, he did not notice that Reeve sat in the rear cockpit "feeling a little sick to my stomach," looking down "from an intense vibrating height and hop[ing] that my father would not notice that I had cotton balls stuffed in my ears."

Details about her mother also seem at first so specific - Anne Morrow Lindbergh's bright red lipstick was never flattened in its cylinder case but "worn into a bright, deep concavity, with two high points forming a groove between which she ran her lips." Yet the child's view of her mother, which might have been honed to bitterness or resentment by a neglected yet pampered daughter such as Reeve, reflects the longing of all children.

"And on the days when I saw my mother walk away down the path to the driveway, leaving our family to step into the car that would take her to the city, I felt the gray house losing warmth, felt it withdraw entirely into itself, and absorb the chill and dampness of every stone."

THE LANGUAGE OF BIGNESS

Learning that the German conglomerate Bertelsmann is buying publishing AND bookselling concerns in the United States has prompted many readers to comment on the language of bigness in both the private and public sector.

Perhaps because it's so big, Bertelsmann seems to assume people will believe its statement that recent takeovers of Random House and half of Barnes & Noble's online service will somehow allow for autonomy and independent thinking.

"In our e-commerce initiatives, Bertelsmann will continue to adhere to our principle of decentralized operations," says Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff. "Neither our English language book publishers nor our consumer direct marketing book clubs will be involved in the management or operations of barnesandnoble.com."

So the publishing concern will not invade the bookselling concern. That's a nifty way of not saying that Barnes and Noble has already invaded the realm of publishing decisions about print runs, jacket illustrations, titles, author promotion and editorial content.

It seems the language of bigness can be so instrumental in rolling across boundaries that speakers themselves are often not aware how much they have succumbed to the idea of power for its own sake. One reader is reminded of a "spooky" comment by Attorney General Janet Reno following the disaster in Waco, Texas, where a group of Branch Dividians perished. Asked to define the term "cultist," she answered as follows:

"A cultist is one who has a strong belief in the Bible and the Second Coming of Christ; who frequently attends Bible studies; who has a high level of financial giving to a Christian cause; who home schools for their children; who has accumulated survival foods and has a strong belief in the Second Amendment; and who distrusts big government. Any of these may qualify a person as a cultist but certainly more than one of these would cause us to look at this person as a threat, and his family as being in a risk situation that qualified for government interference."

Whoa, you bad Bible class students, you subversive do-gooders, you dangerous free-thinkers, you big government/big corporation skeptics, it's time to toe that line and lift that bale. Bigness for bigness' sake is IN.

CHEAP THRILLS WITH THE 100 TOP NOVELS

After inspiring an annoying yet wonderfully vigorous literary argument by selecting and ranking the hundred best English-language novels of the 20th century, Modern Library has nearly sabotaged its own good idea.

The first batch of titles from the list, released in affordable paperbacks ($8.95 - $11.95), shows signs of a) terrific novels that many people have never read by the likes of Max Beerbohm, Booth Tarkington and Samuel Butler and b) a cheapening of these books' very qualities by blatant self-promotion on the inside cover.

There, just as you open each book, your eye is drawn to the full list 100 top novels and authors, which have been crammed on the page so tightly and in such small type that it looks like a publisher's ad for a pulp mystery of the '30s. Thank heaven all of the books so far have been reset in a pleasing (digitized Janson) typeface, but each time you close the book, there is that inside front cover saying, hey! You fell for it this time; now you've got only 99 to go…

ON THE FAULT WITH PHILIP FRADKIN

Here we are in earthquake country straddling California's famed San Andreas Fault. One foot rests on the Continental Plate that looms in from the East, the other on the Pacific Plate that runs under the ocean.

Of course it's hard to tell if the width of the fault is really as narrow as a person's stance, since the tectonic plates that cause all the fissures and the frisson and the friction of earthquakes aren't exactly at soil level. Still, one can almost feel a teetering sensation thanks to the exact location on the fault pointed out by environmental historian Philip Fradkin.

His new book, MAGNITUDE 8 (Henry Holt; 336 pages; $27.50), tells a great story about fault lines that have the potential of ripping and rippling the heck out of places like New York (and you thought it was Bertelsmann doing all the stirring and shaking), Lisbon and London.

But mostly his terrain is the book's seismotheme: the California terrain that for millions of years has been joustled and jiggled, torn and tormented by the San Andreas Fault.

Philip lives in the town of Point Reyes only a few miles from the fault and, having studied the impossibility of accurate earthquake predictions, sleeps with a credit card and an extra set of false teeth on his nightstand. "I know better than to run outside with no clothes and only a credit card," he says of a disaster he knows has only a 1 in 600,000 chance of happening (the odds of dying in a car accident are about 1 in 20,000).

With that same air of practicality, he points out a strategic spot near Bolinas under giant 100-year-old eucalyptus trees that run in a straight line for about 400 yards and then - wham! - have actually jumped nearly 15 feet to one side, where they run in a straight line for 100 yards or so. Thanks to the massive power of the 1906 earthquake, these colossally, tall, thick, heavy, soaring trees were simply lifted and dumped, roots and rocks and ramparts and all, across the San Andreas divide.

This sight is dramatic enough, but Philip then reveals what it's like to "see" for the first time what such a fissure reveals: Looking north on Highway One, one feels the hot, roasting, rolling hills crackle and rattle with dust and heat and yellowed grass on the right; while to the left, the eye is bathed in the luscious furry green of forest-covered mountains that seem to emit a moist jungle feel. The difference is the hard clay of Franciscan rock on the Continental Plate on one side and the porous texture of granite on on the Pacific Plate on the other.

It's just one of many aspects of the San Andreas that Fradkin points out in "Magnitude 8," which begins with a report from the future of what the Big One will really entail when it hits - hey, probably not in our lifetime, says Fradkin. He also warns about living in an age of earthquake denial. "San Francisco likes to think it was the fire and not the earthquake that caused the damage in 1906, perhaps because fire insurance money is more available than earthquake insurance money," he says.

Because of that, "we seem to have forgotten how easy it is to take simple precautions." Why build a new San Francisco baseball stadium on the kind of landfill that turns buildings to mush, he suggests, when the whole world watched Candlestick Park twist like Chubby Checker during the 1989 World Series?

And if you think seismologists will take care of it all, Fradkin shows us the very building at the University of California at Berkeley where sophisticated equipment measures and interprets earthquake tremors - no more needles making squiggly lines on big drums! no more Richter Scale! (it's all digital now) - and finds that the building itself has yet to undergo the kind of retrofit construction that would protect it during an earthquake.

A former Los Angeles Times reporter and author ("Fallout," "Sagebrush Country"), Fradkin appears to be one of the few writers to have walked, biked, driven and flown over most of the San Andreas. His home is drilled like a nail into a hillside overlooking a 500-acre ranch (soon to be returned to marshland) that is home to all sorts of wet-season wildlife.

"Living next to the fault lets you appreciate the kind of beauty earthquakes create," he says. "This is true in more places of the country than most people believe."

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