by Pat Holt

Tuesday, August 3, 1999:




Here we are in the back row of a little bungalow called the Girls After School Academy (GASA), located in the middle of a government housing project in San Francisco.

Tacked around the walls are examples of writing from GASA's poetry class for 6-12-year-old girls. One expects to see sheets of binder paper with poems written near the top, but instead, strange squares of foil shine out from one wall, and shooting targets drawn inside the outlines of women's backs are on the other side.

These are the ingenious "magic papers" brought to class by Marvin White, a gifted teacher with WritersCorps, the nonprofit community service group that works with kids in deprived areas.

Marvin has been teaching two classes at GASA (6-to-12 and 13-to-17-year-olds) for nearly a year. He says it's taken that long for him to gain their trust. "When I first started, they had trouble hearing me and held their pencils like this," he says, making a fist out of his hand and grinding the pencil into the paper. "Now they want to get started right away."

Why wouldn't they, one thinks, surrounded as they are by their own brilliant works of art. The pieces of foil, it turns out, were introduced as writing paper during one exercise because Marvin is aware that the girls' self-esteem at this age may be a bit shaky, and he wanted them to write about their lives as they looked at themselves in the mirrorlike surface of the foil.

In another class, he handed out the papers with outlines of women's backs, and the shooting targets within, to encourage the girls - whose housing project has experienced more than its share of shootings - to write down thoughts about the "they" of their fear. Now next to these drawings, line after line of carefully handwriting tells us the state of society as seen through the lens of 6-to-12-year-old girls: "They make me a target because I am black." "They make me a target because I am a girl." "They make me a target because I am poor." "They make me a target if I can't read or write."

Of course these are very young writers, so in spite of the industry they bring to the current exercise, (writing a poem entitled "I Can"), they still burst out giggling for no reason, still have to sit next to their best girlfriends and still have dreams they plan with certainty to achieve (the older class is very different, Marvin says).

Marvin thus spends a lot of time patiently shushing little explosions of disruption that break out around the room, as does Ade (pronounced Ah-DAY), a young woman employed by GASA who acts as class monitor and pretends to be stern. What goes unsaid here, though everybody is aware of it to some degree, is that poems written in this makeshift classroom may be included in a book published by WritersCorps ("What It took for Me To Get Here" - just out) or read in a Youth Poetry Slam League competition at a downtown bookstore.

As many of these kids rarely get out of the housing project, you can imagine how thrilling, yet how painful, it is to even contemplate reading one's work in a competitive public setting like a poetry slam. Some of the children get there and just rebel, says Marvin, because they are so terrified. "Well, what are they calling on ME for?" they say when they pass one level or another of the contest. "I don't have to get up there and do this. I can just go home."

At this point, Marvin has several messages to get across: First, poetry slams can sound like a lot of rap and hiphop lyrics without the music, which is fine; but they can also provide a forum for really good poetry - the kind of writing that hits people so deeply they don't just say, "I liked your poem" - they say, "Do that part in your poem again where you talk about .... " and then repeat the part they remember.

So when the kids' conviction flags, it means a lot that Marvin stays by their side to help them get through each grueling moment. "They call on you because your poem is so good!" he says. "You can do it! I know you can!"

Imagine what it must have taken, then, for GASA member Natriece Spicer, who at 16 years of age did so well at the local poetry slam that she was chosen to fly with Marvin to Washington D.C., and participate in what was considered the championship Youth Poetry Slam League of the year.

It was a big deal just to make the trip, of course, and once there, Natriece, who had practiced her poem a hundred times with Marvin, changed her mind and decided to perform a different poem when her turn came. Marvin remembers feeling shocked at her decision, because the new poem was not as polished and perhaps not as good as the other one. But Natriece insisted, and Marvin, wanting this to be entirely her experience, said okay. "What happened then nobody could have predicted," Marvin says, "especially me."

Apparently Natriece got up there and nailed it. She performed her poem so beautifully and with such fervor that photographs show row after row of people sitting among the books jumping and clapping in the aisles as the judges held up signs reading 10, 10, 10 10 and 10 - a perfect score. This meant that Natriece Spicer not only won the entire Youth Poetry Slam League, she was about to be offered a scholarship to college.

Of course we have to remember, as Marvin moves around the bungalow with the younger class, that it isn't the chance of winning the big prize but the experience of writing poetry itself that is going to open the door for every kid in this little room. And they know it, too.

As in all the places WritersCorps goes - juvenile detention centers, inner-urban schools, other housing projects - attention is placed on the art of writing itself, because personal engagement with art yields up the answers to many of life's biggest questions. To give these very young writers the gift of that knowledge is the moment-to-moment, day-by-day challenge of Marvin and other dedicated teachers like him.

Well, all of this makes a direct hit to the heart of the maverick columnist who's sitting in the back with Janet Heller, coordinator for WritersCorp in San Francisco (other branches are in New York and Washington, D.C.). It turns out that another poetry student of WritersCorps - a teenaged boy from Log Cabin, a program for juvenile offenders - was the other winner of the D.C. poetry slam, and the pictures show people leaping up among rows and rows of books to applaud and cheer when he won, too.

So where was the Poetry Slam held in Washington? Janet is asked. Was it the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian or some government building with lots of books? "Why no," says Janet, glancing sideways with dread (I realized later). "It was the downtown Borders bookstore in Washington."

Borders? Wait a minute. Suddenly Holt Uncensored looks like Bugs Bunny with his finger in a live socket, every hair permed, the body standing straight out in shock.

You did this at a Borders? Yes, says Janet: Borders sponsored the whole Youth Poetry Slam League and paid for many of the expenses. In fact, until Borders came along, WritersCorps had trouble funding this program. No independent bookstore could afford it, but a national company like Borders has funds for extensive programs like this and can bring it good publicity. Did you know Ray Suarez of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," was the emcee? Or that the Washington Post gave it a big write-up?

No, I didn't. But aren't you aware that Borders is killing independent bookstores and ruining the state of literature in the United States? That there's a lawsuit, and First Amendment concerns, and . . . ? But Janet has turned to help two best friends, Cache and Paulesha, write their poems about each other, and it seems clear that if WritersCorps did not exist, poetry or any other art form might never have the meaning for them that it does now.

Does it all come down to money? In a way, yes. Look what it takes to do ANYTHING for low-income children, says Marya Grambs, co-founder of GASA. Just to find and rebuild the bungalow, to furnish it with tables and chairs - not to mention electricity and donated computers - to get a garden and a little library and programs for all ages, as well as monitors and a director and a board of advisors and contributors and city support all took years of hard work by mothers from the housing project in concert with community activists and city workers - and a lot of money.

And that's just the bungalow. WritersCorp is supported by the San Francisco Art Commission in concert with the Mayor's Office of Children and local schools and law enforcement. It used to be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of President Clinton's national community service program, AmeriCorps.

But when the NEA ceased funding it (another story altogether), WritersCorp had to recreate itself. To find the teachers and the sites, the supplies and the kids, the training and the programs, the monitors and the directors and the funders and the parents who could all work in tandem toward the not-so-simple goal of bringing art into the lives of "at-risk youth" - and THEN to hook up with WritersCorps in other cities - was and is a herculean task.

But here's the hook: If you think Borders' support for programs like this is worrisome (and I do), wait 'til you hear what's going on at Barnes & Noble! See Part II next time.

(NOTE: The review of Catherine Brady's short story collection, "The End of the Class War," will appear Friday with other book reviews.)



Dear Holt Uncensored,

I must weigh in after reading Sarah Read's email about the high prices on books driving "poor" people to spend their book dollars at chains and discounters. As co-owner of the thirty-year-old Left Bank Books in St. Louis, I have had two-and-a-half decades to think about why books cost so much and what customers should do about it.

Many have analyzed book costs in detail, but let me point out some of the causes, which could be corrected by the publishers themselves: 1. Obscenely high advances to a few authors who often times don't earn out those advances. 2. Illegal incentives paid out to chain stores (see ABA's lawsuit) 2. Profit expectations by the multinational corporations now owning the majority of publishers that are way out of line for our industry. 3. Extremely wasteful promotional practices, to wit a small recent example: Yesterday I received a large bubble pack mailer via Second Day UPS from a British-owned publishing conglomerate containing a half dozen book jackets and small posters, some for titles I hadn't even ordered. There was no protection in the package so that even if I had needed or wanted these items, they arrived torn and crumpled, no fault of UPS. Alas, this is not unusual. Why the second day air for something I didn't want? Why the incompetent packaging guaranteeing that even if I did want these things, all I could do is throw them away? If only I could get the books I order this fast!

Of course, books are expensive due in large part to these practices so what else can a customer do besides give dollars to chains? 1. the library 2. used books (we sell them) 3. most independent bookstores do have a variety of discounts in place. Ours include: 10% off *all* hardbacks, a practice we started in 1976 (!); 10% off reading group selections, available to all regardless of whether they are in the particular reading group; corporate, educational and bulk discounts; remainders; two fabulous sales a year for members of the Friends of Left Bank Books Literary Society. (Join for $35, buy about $150 worth of books during the sales, one of which is during the winter holiday season, and you've come out ahead.) And if you have to spend list price in our store, consider doing it during one of the numerous in-store community fundraisers we host and a portion of that full price is plowed directly back into a group (school, youth group, or literacy organization, etc.).

And thank you for pointing out all the little intangibles like human interaction, author events, someone who will be accountable to the customer--those "priceless" values.

Kris Kleindienst,
Left Bank Books,

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I can't help but reply to Sarah Read's letter regarding discounted books making books available to poor people. I've never seen a study, but I think a case could be made that discounting has done a lot to increase the cost of books. Would "Hannibal" really be priced at $27.95 on the jacket flap if the publisher didn't expect everyone to discount it heavily? With a price like that, the publisher is certainly making its money, while the bookstore is forced to reduce its profit margin to almost zero. Our store is specialized (world politics, world lit, African American studies), so this kind of deep discounting isn't as big a problem for us (we don't even carry "Hannibal"), but I suspect it has an effect on book prices in general.

Todd Stewart
Vertigo Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Sarah Read's letter in Holt #80 is an egregious example of victim-blaming. Presumably Read works with a major publisher. I believe that these publishers are, themselves, responsible for the unconscionable rise in book prices.

1) Read assumes falsely that only chain stores discount books. This is a common and false assumption that has been perpetrated by false advertising by the chains and thoughtlessly disseminated by the media. Discounting has become a way of life in retailing and is practiced by most independents as well as most chains. The notion that we must automatically pay higher prices at independents is false. Books purchased on the Internet are even less of a bargain. When you factor in the cost of next-day shipping (which is $11.95 at against the cost of receiving a book the same day at a main street store, Internet shopping is no bargain.

2) Read ignores the fact that major trade publishers are customarily raising the price of books which they believe will be heavily discounted best-sellers. Thus a book, which might otherwise be priced at $22.50, is given the suggested retail price of $27.50; because the publisher believes that it will be heavily discounted and sold for $16.50. By so doing, the publisher receives windfall profits at the expense of the consumer. When the book is taken off the best seller lists, it then is sold at the inflated price. Thus the trade publisher loses nothing and the consumer must pay the higher price.

Andy Ross
Cody's Books

Dear Holt Uncensord:

I'm writing in reference to the letter pointing out that some people really need the deep discounts offered by the chains, I know that's true--particularly for people with low incomes and voracious reading habits. However, if the bookselling industry operates like other industries--managed care, for example--you'll see prices soar the minute the independents are out of business and Borders and B&N have the monopoly they seek.

Juliet Wittman

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I have a different take than the recent letter on the advantages of discount books for low-income people. I can't afford to buy books often, usually a few a year, and often those are used. Still, I can't stand to buy from chains, now more than ever. It will affect the quality and range of what's available, no question about it. Also, the chains are not going to continue to carry important books once they're off the bestseller list. Anyhow, it's not poor people who are keeping the chains in business, it's the middle class.

I greatly appreciated your recent articles on feminist bookstores. When I buy new books, I go to Mama Bears, which is run by the women who founded the first women's bookstore in the world, and have been at it ever since.

Max Dashu,

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just read your latest column. In parallel perhaps to the Amazon/ distinction are:

Walden Pond Books (near the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland) and Waldenbooks. There is a Waldenbooks outlet on Lakeshore Ave. in Oakland. Accomodations have been reached, and Waldenbooks staff direct people to Walden Pond if someone comes in looking for it.

Kaboom Books in the French Quarter of New Orleans - a used bookstore, primarily; immortalized in "N" by Louis Edwards (Plume, last year): is it any relation to the new mentioned in today's PW Daily? Hard to tell from the website.

John Leech
Sorin Books,

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Am I missing something in all this emotion [about Amazon Bookstore of Minneapolis suing]? A quick check of a national business database turns up a hundred or more business establishments that use the name Amazon:

Amazon Animal Hospital
Amazon Aquatic Supply
Amazon Barber Shop
Amazon Beach Club
Amazon Construction
Day Care
... Girls Window Cleaning
Paralegal Services
Water Wells

and many more. No one owns the name Amazon. Amazon Dot Com owns the domain name of course, but that is a specific entity.

What a petty waste of time, money, energy, and resources. The whole thing smells of the good old American "maybe we can make a quick, dirty buck with a nuisance suit."

Holt responds: This seems to be what Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis is trying to demonstrate. Other companies named Amazon do exist in other businesses and are separate enough from Amazon Bookstore to have little or no effect on the Minneapolis company's identity or sales. But when another a book outlet named does indeed grow like Topsy to become confused with, and then overwhelm the identity of Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis, shouldn't something be done to clear up the confusion and let Amazon Bookstore regain the footing it's built up for 30 years? Trademark law is very concerned with whether "similar" trademarks are likely to create confusion. If there's no likelihood of confusion, there's no legal case. But the point of trademarks is to have a unique identity, which is the core of the lawsuit.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Please. was, at least at the outset, one of the most progressive startups out there. Jeff's brilliant wife Mackenzie handled finances at the start, the CFO is Joy Covey, half the programmers when I started were female, etc. You got overzealous. It was not a feminist, anti-feminist or chauvinist place. It was a place where intelligence and drive got you respect, equally among the talented men and women. It was also a place of booklovers (which seems weird in its current corporate monolith manifestation) and bookstore lovers.

A former worker

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Books may be expensive, but they are not overpriced. In fact, they may most often be underpriced. The return to the publisher on the many very good books that sell five or ten thousand copies (or even fewer) is very small indeed, and to the author, who works on a percentage of the publisher's net, even less.

The price of books is high for many reasons, chief among them being centralized ordering methods. Bookstores and libraries naturally prefer to place their orders with wholesalers like Ingram or Baker and Taylor rather than placing orders directly with the publisher. It is simpler and much less expensive for them to order in this way. The wholesaler, in turn, orders from a distributor who, finally, gets books from the publisher. The publisher's discount to the distributor ranges from 63% to 67% of retail. And there are other costs, such as fees charged by the distributor for including the publishers books in its catalogs.

The second reason for the high price of books is the policy of returns. For fifty years now, bookstores have been able to return unsold copies of books for credit to their accounts. These returns are often shop-worn, hurt books that cannot be resold. Further, wholesalers regularly take advantage of their key positions in the marketing chain by returning warehoused books for credit just before payment is due to the publisher and then reordering. In this way their own cash flow is enhanced at the great cost of the publisher.

When you factor in the cost of acquisition, editing, marketing, design, typsetting and printing, there is precious little left for the publisher and, especially, the author. The only answer is even higher prices or an unlikely change in the way books make their way from publisher to public.

Tom Williams
Venture Press