NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #78
by Pat Holt

Friday, July 23, 1999

WHEN FEMINIST BOOKSTORES FIGHT BACK
THE FOCUS AT BARNES & NOBLE
LETTERS

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WHEN FEMINIST BOOKSTORES FIGHT BACK

Feminist bookstores seem to be the most vulnerable of the "niche" bookstores these days - 25 have closed in the past two years - and yet those that survive, even while hanging by a thread, are making chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders become better bookstores.

At least that's the contention - and I believe it - of Carol Seajay, founder of Feminist Bookstore News, that now-famous trade journal for women's bookstores that has been such a treasure of information and a joy to read since 1976. Why, I remember FBN, I sez to Carol, when it was a single sheet that used to end with the words, "I better stop now as the stencil is falling out of the typewriter," and sure enough the last line always slanted right off the bottom of the page.

Now FBN regularly appears with more than100 pages crammed with book industry news, raves, columns, tips and hot takes on everything from art to children's books, gay to mystery literature, audio/videos, sidelines, online resources, women's presses and no-nonsense commentary on what's really happening in the book industry. I've felt for years that I haven't really attended an ABA convention until I read about the controversies, political issues and protests that only FBN seems to find and report in depth.

So what does it mean that 25 feminist bookstores have gone under in two years? "It's true that we used to have 110 members in the feminist bookstore network," says Carol. "That's a 25% drop, but look at it in the context of the rest of the book industry: Compared to statistics for general independent bookstores, which have fallen by 40% (5200 to 3300 according to the American Booksellers Association), you might say we're ahead of the curve," she adds with a smile.

The reason many feminist bookstores continue to survive, she says, is that they built up a community of readers long before "the bookstore wars," from the height of the women's movement on. So they've been extremely effective in educating customers about chain stores moving across the street or Barnes & Noble buying Ingram or Amazon.com's threat to independents. Nevertheless, "the exhaustion and burnout you see in feminist stores grew worse over the years." she adds.

What about the common perception that feminist bookstores have done their job TOO well, spreading the word of books by and about women with such success that the chains and Amazon plucked the best-sellers out from under women's booksellers' noses and discounted the books to smithereens?

No, no, no, says Seajay, who's too nice to use the word "simplistic" about such a scenario. "What we're seeing in the chains are a lot of women's books that are pretty and nice - some call it the 'Girlfriends' category. These books are a bit fluffy, as are many alleged 'women's health' books carried by the chains that are written by stereotypical authoritarian doctors telling you how many mammograms you should get without giving you intelligent information to make your own decisions."

You mean feminist booksellers see it as their job to separate the fluffy and the finger-wagging books from the empowering and substantial books? "Many of them do. Sure, the chains carry some substantial books, and feminist bookstores carry some lighter books. What I mean is that feminist bookstores have proven time and again that women want books that give them real choices."

The way Carol sees it, chain bookstores have set up a wall between feminist bookstores and their customers. If you aren't aware of what's behind the wall, she says, "you won't know that books on, say, women's health at Barnes & Noble or other chains are PASSING as feminism."

There's always more than what a chain store offers, says Carol, but how can the customer tell? "The real danger is that people who shop in a chain store may find books in the categories they seek and think they're informed; they'll never know what other possibilities exist if they don't hear about independent bookstores."

Carol believes that even a bestselling authority on women's health such as Dr. Susan Love might not have been published if only chains existed. "Susan Love tells you how to read and interpret medical research through information that is complicated and respectful of the intelligence of women. Without feminist bookstores driving the demand for such books, I don't think Susan Love's books would be published; we'd just have more books that generalize the research to all women and don't bring real information to the reader."

Look at this problem through the category of fiction, Carol says. Over the decades, novels ranging from "Rubyfruit Jungle" to "Bastard Out of Carolina" wouldn't have found an audience without feminist bookstores and wouldn't have been published without feminist publishers. She notes, for example, that Dorothy Allison (author of "Bastard Out of Carolina"), who first published her work in feminist bookstore magazines, has said that without women's bookstores "encourag[ing] and sustain[ing] my imagination, I would not have known what to do with the stories I wanted to tell."

Of course it's the smaller independent women's presses that have published feminist writers in the first place - Allison, for example, started out with Firebrand Press and was later "discovered" by Dutton. The point too often forgotten is that because feminist bookstores carry so many books by these publishers, Carol says, chain bookstores carry them, too.

"Competition is supposed to keep you sharp. Were feminist bookstores not there to compete with, the chains wouldn't need to carry the depth of stock that they do. It's not just us. We've seen in cities where a women's booksore or an African American bookstore closed that the stock in nearby chain stores declines within months. When a feminist or African American store opens, however, the chain's inventory for those categories increases in that city, while 20 miles down the road those same sections of books dont exist."

Meanwhile, new feminist bookstores are opening (Bluestockings in New York, for example), and existing feminist bookstores are finding new ways to fight back. They're creating nonprofit subsections of the store, forming Friends of the Store groups that raise money and expand services, establishing new websites ("a big new force of independent feminist stores will go online with the ABA's new BookSense.com program," Carol says), and expanding the bookstore as a full-fledged community center for women.

And what does the oldest feminist bookstore in North America do when corporate encroachment tries to stomp it out of existence? Well, when you're Amazon Books of Minneapolis, which has been carrying on the Amazon name for 25 years, you hire the best trademark lawfirm in the country and sue the jebezos out of Amazon.com for trademark infringement. More on this next week.

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THE FOCUS AT BARNES & NOBLE

Gosh, I can't imagine anyone not chuckling (or weeping) over that story in the New York Times on Tuesday about Barnesandnoble.com employees "walking around with calculators trying to estimate what they would be worth" when the company first went public a few months ago.

These were employees who had "accepted stock options as a big chunk of their compensation" when they were hired and had "talked giddily about their future wealth." They hoped "their shares would mimic those of companies like The-globe.com, whose stock shot up 500 percent on the first day of trading."

One had to chuckle because the image of bookselling employees walking around without books under their arms - or at the very least without sales sheets or advertising copy or advance galleys or author track records - and instead futzing with calculators to figure their personal worth at any given hour, while "discussing plans to repay student loans or buy new apartments, " doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

It means that shifting the focus from books to personal greed is apparently condoned if not encouraged at Barnes & Noble, no doubt following the lead of its founders.

But what a weeper it turned out to be when the stock dove and "within a month of going public, half a dozen or so disillusioned employees had tendered their resignations." Now let's see: Was it about this time that Barnes & Noble executives began selling off their own stock, as reported by Publishers Weekly? And what about those clerks making close to minimum wage? I bet they chuckled, too.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Will customers forego certain heavily discounted books at the chains, Costco, etc., and choose to purchase them instead from their friendly independent, even if it means paying more money? Well, I'm here to say that yes, I do purchase all my books from my independent store, Rakestraw Books in Danville CA (a GREAT store), even when I see the same book available for considerably less at Borders or Costco . . .

Let me share one experience with you because, for me, it sums up why I have become a diehard independent bookstore supporter.

The last time I was at Rakestraw, I asked Michael (owner) for a recommendation on books for my 8-year-old daughter, an avid reader who devours books. Michael had great ideas, but I got more than the owner's thoughts. A friendly mom came up to me, said she overheard my question and wanted to share with me all the great books her 8-year-old daughter had enjoyed. She recommended "Regarding a Fountain," a book I had never heard of. Based on her wildly enthusiastic recommendation I purchased a book that, frankly, did not look that promising.

But how right she was. First, I read it and laughed out loud at its quirky characters. Then my daughter read it amidst peals of laughter about the funny character names. Then we spent a Saturday afternoon reading it out loud to one another and cracking up all over again. And I ask myself, what is that memory worth, that experience of reading a fantastic book with your child and laughing and sharing a book. It is priceless. It is a treasure beyond value. And I never would have had that experience but for Rakestraw and the type of bookstore it is and the nature of the customers who shop there.

So go on girl, you tell all those retail experts and internet analysts that customers do forgo "cheaper" books in favor of shopping at their indies. I may look at books elsewhere, and they may have tempting 50%-off stickers, but I put them back and make my purchases at Rakestraw. My independant bookstore has already given me my money's worth. Besides, you never know when the next Rakestraw browser introduces you to a book, and thereby an experience or a memory that money can't buy.

Deanne Tully

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Every month I look forward to The Common Reader http://www.commonreader.com published by James Mustich, Jr. It's ninety or so pages of reviews of previously out-of-print books he has for sale. The books are all ones he's enjoyed himself. The publisher's taste are wide and idiosyncratic, and these reviews--musings, really are great fun to read. Here is a publisher who genuinely loves books. Check out his website.

Nancy Ward
Berkeley CA

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I use Amazon as a reference: If I'm trying to identify a book I read 3 years ago, the title of which I only vaguely remember, I'll run all the possible permutations through their search engine; usually the book I want crops up on the resulting lists. On this occasion, I searched for the word "anger" in the title. One of the books listed was Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "El amor en los tiempos del cholera," which they had duly translated as "Love in the Time of Anger" ... Well, it shouldn't take a linguistics professor to know the difference between "cholera" and "colera," but obviously whoever translated the title hadn't read the book!

Paula Lozar
Santa Fe, NM

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Several months ago we switched from the New York Times bestseller list to The Independent Bestseller List (bestsellers@wordsworth.com). I wanted a list that reflected what people were actually reading rather than what the big chains were buying. We discount the list 20%, displaying the top 10 hardback fiction, non-fiction and the top 10 paper back fiction, non-fiction. The list changes titles more often and more interesting books show up than on the NYTimes. I believe sales are better, but have done little hard tracking on the sales. Only positive responses from the customers. Probably most don't really notice the change.

The stores listed as reporting are a great group: Annie Bloom's Books (Portland, OR), The Bookery (Ithaca, NY), Books Etc. (Portland, ME), Book Radk & Children's Pages (Winooski, VT0, The Book REview (Newton & Southbury, CT), The Bookstall at Chestnut Court (Winnetka, IL), Brookline Booksmith (Brookline, MA), Carytown Books (Richmond, VA), Cover To Cover Books (San Francisco, CA), Full Circle Bookstore (Oklahoma City, OK), Hungry MInd (Saint Paul, MN), Left Bank Books (ST. Louis, MO), Liberties Fine Books, Music & Cafe (Flordia), North Light Books (Cotatia, CA), Pages for All Ages (Champaign, IL), Politics & Prose (Washington DC), Regulator Bookshop (Durham, NC), Shaman Drum Bookshop (Ann Arbor, MI), Stacey's Bookstores (San Francisco, CA), Three LIves & Company (New York, NY), WordsWorth Books (Cambridge, MA) and a number of other stores.

Jan Warner-Poole
Wayside Books, Battle Ground, WA
jwpoole@ix.netcom.com

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Independent bookselling consists of more than just bookstores: Publishers and consumers have reponsibility for the future shape of bookselling. The large publishers have obviously little interest in the question. They are trying to move as much merchandise as they can, and if that means they have to sell them to Satan today at the risk of losing one more independent tomorrow, who cares?

It's the small publishers who ought to be working with independents as best they can, evn though they are in a worse position to do so. Kudos, therefore, to a press called Brown Bear Books, whose ad for a novel, "Love Songs of the Tone-Deaf," appeared in Sunday's Chronicle with the phrase, "Please support your local independent bookstore." Not much? Well, judging from the size of the ad, this is not a press with a huge ad budget, and the space where this phrase appeared seems like the sort of place where one might ordinarily encounter some odiously long web address, or tout the ease of ordering the book trough amazon/b&n/walmart.com.

So I believe I'll take the advice and support my local independent bookseller, and check out the book . . .

D. Kastin