HOLT UNCENSORED #92
by Pat Holt
Friday, September 17, 1999:
JERRY GARCIA: AT HOME IN INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES
A NEW MODEL FOR AMAZON.COM
JERRY GARCIA: AT HOME IN INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES
Now let's find a seat at one of the most anticipated (okay, by Holt Uncensored) author events of the year: the appearance of Blair Jackson at The Booksmith in San Francisco to discuss "Garcia: An American Life" (Viking: 498 pages; $34.95; http://www.booksmith.com ), his long-awaited biography of Jerry Garcia, the legendary guitarist of The Grateful Dead.
The Booksmith is one of those great independent bookstores that seems to rise organically out of the neighborhood - in this case the still lively and only occasionally degenerate Haight Ashbury district.
Only a block away, at 710 Ashbury, Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl (his second wife) lived with band members Pigpen and Bob Weir and a host of groupies and roadies in 1966.
So one expects The Booksmith to be loaded with freaks and hippies from the '60s tonight. Considering that "Garcia" is already considered the definitive book on the Dead, there's every chance that this could be one of those wiggy, pot-filled, noisy, crowded, acid-trip Happenings that used to to make the Haight so wildly distinctive.
But whoa, thinks the maverick columnist who's old enough to be everyone's mother: Most of the people here are in their 20s and 30s. They're young, quiet, even studious about Garcia, with nary a boom-box or suspicious cigarette among 'em.
They're here, says Steve Silberman, the 30ish author of "Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads" (1994) who introduces Jackson, because "the Grateful Dead were never stuck in a tie-dyed time warp . . . If you were a young freak in suburbia, you could still discover what Jerry Garcia called the Grateful Dead Outback - a wild refuge where freedoms thought to be extinct thrived in secret."
Vast noddings of heads greet Silberman's words, and when Jackson appears, the joy of listening to someone who knew Jerry Garcia and interviewed him in depth as many as 9 times (Jackson has been an editor at the music magazines BAM and MIXX) is as thick and head-filling as that much-missed rank of true Dead fandom.
Jackson's remarks are similarly quiet and respectful. He mentions a stray Dead lyric and people smile and murmur the name of the Grateful Dead song from which it came. He reads from the 180 pages that had to be cut from this already-huge 500-page biography, and the crowd nearly swoons. (You can read the missing pages - and they are wonderful - at http://www.blairjackson.com ).
Some of the people here are old enough to thank Blair for publishing The Golden Road, a fanzine that he and his wife, Regan McMahon, edited for 10 years with an offbeat mix of humor, scholarship and you-are-Dead immediacy. Their attention to minutiae, right down to the number of guitar strings Garcia had to change with each performance, is still remembered .
"Getting The Golden Road on a regular basis was something to die for in the Midwest," explains a man in the audience, and everyone nods again. Part of the reason this crowd considers Jackson's credentials so impeccable is that The Golden Road offered the first intelligent writing about the Dead - "an oasis in a desert of shallow commentary," someone says.
Jackson brings similarly high standards to "Garcia," in which he is not only a biographer of his famous subject but a critic, historian and unabashed fan. He charts Garcia's rise from homeless drifter to megacelebrity not as a rise at all but an exploration of different realms. "We're not thinking about any kind of power," Garcia said of the Dead's improvisational music. . "We're not thinking about revolution or war or any of that . . . We would all like to be able to live an uncluttered life; a simple life, a good life. And think about moving the whole human race ahead a step, or a few steps."
A big surprise in the book, even for Deadheads, is Garcia's bountiful sense of humor. Jackson has a good time describing the reaction of Warner Brothers executives when The Dead, after convincing the record company to give the band total artistic control, named its album SKULLFUCK. "It was more a joke on our part," Garcia recalls. "Aesthetically, it would have been so perfect," except that "they were horrified! They were shocked! . . . so eventually we backed down."
Perhaps the best part for bookstore lovers is the key role played by an independent bookstore at the start of Garcia's career when he had been kicked out of the army and found himself homeless, unemployed and without a speck of ambition. All he could do was play his guitar all day, every day at Kepler's Books near Stanford University - "a serious hangout that attracted all sorts of interesting characters" (Joan Baez was one), and where Garcia discovered himself to be a voracious reader of books on everything from Zen buddhism and physics to political theory and, of course, music.
So it's fascinating to sit in a bookstore like The Booksmith and feel a sense of personal erudition shared by author and reader alike. Surrounding us are shelves of hardcover books that would have been too expensive for many Haight residents during Garcia's time. But just as The Booksmith and Kepler's have gone through many outward transformations over the years, their role as independent bookstores sensitive to the tastes and interests of their customers has remained unchanged.
That heritage is as meaningful to the people here tonight as the nonjudgmental attitude toward music that Jerry Garcia left behind. "We're not telling people to go get stoned, or drop out," Jackson quotes Garcia saying in 1967. "We're trying to make music [that] doesn't have a message for anybody. We don't have anything to tell anybody. We don't want to change anybody. We want people to have the chance to feel a little better. That's the absolute most we want to do."
A similarly astute restraint could be applied to the role of "Garcia" in today's market. Despite the inflated expectations of Holt Uncensored for tonight's reading, this is not a big, splashy celebrity bio but a good mid-list book with a target audience that miraculously keeps reinventing itself and will probably buy the book for another century. Years ago, that was enough to say about any book; in some circles today it's considered the kiss of death.
But with its first printing of 20,000 copies sold out and another 8,000 on the way, "Garcia" may survive as a sure-and-steady backlist title for the new milennium. Heaven knows it deserves to be, and chances are good that independent booksellers are out there in number. If anyone can carry on Jerry Garcia's latest incarnation, they can.
A NEW MODEL FOR AMAZON.COM
What an irresponsible gadfly I've been to complain that Amazon.com's home page looks lifeless and dull, now that the company has relegated its Books department to the back pages.
Let's turn instead to a shopping concept that was inevitable on the
Internet - and one that might be something Amazon.com could follow. It's
. . . The Great Intermall of the Americas! (http://www.intermallamerica.com ) !
The Intermall is a "real world 'brick-and-mortar' shopping environment that just happens to exist in cyberspace," the Intermall folks put it. After you click onto the site, a map pops up on the screen to reveal a giant mall with TWELVE FLOORS of shops selling all sorts of valued products - fragrances, candy, comic books, cars, Omaha steaks, sunglasses, kitchen stuff and you know the drill.
You can go up and down escaltors, stop at the international food court, browse in the bargain basement and find many discoveries apparently unavailable on land. Among them are Solar Tan Thru Swimsuits that allow your body to "tan thru the fabric for an all-over body tan with no lines!" (from LifestylesDirect.com) and iron-on Dog Badges ("Proud of your pet? Show your loyalty by wearing a classy embroidered pet badge on your hat, jacket, or shirt!") from DogBadges.com.
And just as you'd find at any mall, public restrooms are available at Intermall. Click on the bathroom icon and you're inside the usual mall facility (apparently the one for women). Another click and you're in a bathroom stall, viewing graffiti on the walls above the extra-sanitary toilet (not pictured). Look closely since you're not doing anything else and what do you find? Why, each scrawled word is actually another advertisement! What fun! You can click on the graffiti and find yourself AGAIN in stores selling candy, sunglasses, fragrances, phone cards, steaks, cars . . .
The Great Intermall of the Americas has ethical concerns, taking a brave stand in its mission statement against those "Internet retailers [who] have viewed cyberspace as a vast expanse in which they can merely throw out a bunch of space junk to satisfy an undiscriminating consumer. Just because the resource is vast does not mean that we have the right to waste it."
Very good, Intermall, though sorry to say this site offers comic-book illustrations of the "storefronts" on each floor in some of the junkiest designs yet seen on the Web. The place is so dumbed-down even kids will tire of it within a few minutes.
Still, the Great Intermall of the Americas is worth visiting not because it's different from Amazon.com or the web versions of Borders or Books-A-Million et al, but because it's more of the same - a lot of dazzle and canned sales pitches, discounted books you can find anywhere and . . . no human beans in evidence.
Oh, the Intermall uses a Barnes & Noble affiliate store as a place to sell books and magazines, but the push is to LEAVE the Great Intermall and click over to the barnesandnoble.com site. Once again the absence of human interaction is almost painful.
By contrast, independent bookstore websites going up on the Internet seem to burst with actual people behind the screen waiting to answer questions, talk about books, respond to emails without consulting an answer sheet and get book orders in the mail as efficiently and inexpensively as possible.
A great way to explore these websites is to go to the American Booksellers Association website http//:www.bookweb.org. Click on the Members Directory, find the bookstores near you with active websites and explore your independent bookstore "neighborhood" online. Another good avenue is http://www.booksite.com .
The contrast of those sites alone demonstrates that the Great Intermall got something right: People who seek the mall experience want more than unique gifts like swimsuits that tan you to the bone. With another "big ecommerce season" predicted for the holidays, shoppers this year will seek out websites with a human touch, insist on personal service, want to know about in-store events and engage in conversation with the staff.
Even Amazon, even Barnes & Noble, and yes, even The Great Intermall of the Americas can't compete with Independent booksellers when it comes to that kind of service.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a bricks-and-mortar retailer and most likely a booksense.com e-commerce participant, I agree with both Andy Ross the ABA and John Velonis [that Internet booksellers should pay taxes]. Retail is retail, and these transactions are taking both commercial and tax dollars from the local community.
In our own circumstance, competing with an online bookshipper (note: I hesitate to call them booksellers as the name implies that the person actually knows something and cares about books), we are at a competitive disadvantage with the total cost paid by the customer. If online sales were subject to sales tax, these charges combined with shipping and handling costs suddenly make those great big discounts go away.
Books at Stonehenge
Raleigh, NC 27613
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Isn't the term "biggest market share" just a euphemism for monopoly? It seems to me that the logical goal of trying to increase "market share" in any business is eventually to have the WHOLE market--that is, to have a monopoly and to drive all "competitors" out of business. (Buying them is one, but only one, way to do that.)
There was a time when this country passed laws against monopoly power in our economy because it had become intolerable to many people. Now we seem to be passing laws, and accepting conditions in public and economic life, that give monopoly power to outfits a lot harder to understand and to resist than Standard Oil (for example) was at the beginning of this century. I hope that the reason this has been able to happen so quietly and successfully (from the point of view of the monopolists) is just that public perception and the law haven't had time to catch up to new realities like "the global marketplace" and the Internet. But the time is late, and I'm not sanguine.
I guess I'm writing this to you because I think the crushing of independence in publishing and bookselling can be viewed as a subset of the larger trend in our world, and because Holt Uncensored is almost the only forum in which I hear even a corner to this human plight addressed.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
After reading Holt Uncensored for several months I cannot hold back from responding to today's column about Amazon.com. Before I make my comments I should preface my remarks by saying that I own a wholesale book company that has been selling to retail bookstores for over 26 years. The independents have been the backbone of our business during this period, and I can guarantee you that every customer of ours will vouche for our dedication to bookselling and the plight of the independents. We also sell B&N and Borders, but we currently do no business with Amazon.com.
However, your harangues against B&N, Len Riggio, Amazon.com and any other national chain verge on the hysterical. It's amazing how you can find fault when Mr. Riggio gives away millions of dollars in charity. Do you honestly believe that every benefactor in the past did it with totally altruistic motives? Even Pat Holt gets a tax reduction when making a donation. Charity is charity and the millions of dollars given away are going to benefit society. Bill Gates has given millions of dollars to libraries. Is he a better or worse person than Len Riggio?
Amazon.com has as much right to be in business and to grow it in a legitmate fashion as the corner bookstore. They have done nothing immoral, illegal, or unethical. They didn't grow from nothing to over a billion dollars in sales because they were doing something wrong. Obviously, people want to give them business. Just as no one forces people into a bookstore, no one forces all those millions of people to go online and place an order.
You seem totally unconcerned with the welfare of the millions of people who work for Wal Mart, or Home Depot, or Borders, or McDonalds. Sure, they're cookie-cutter operations and take away individuality from a community. But they employ millions of people, pay their taxes, serve a purpose, and provide a service that keeps customers coming back. And, in the vast majority of cases, they pay better, give better benefits, and offer greater security than independent booksellers.
You act like the only good business is a small independent. Amazon.com is a pioneer in a new retail environment. Sure there are mistakes, and they are learning everyday. But Jeff Bezos, in my opinion and the opinion of most knoweldgeable businesspeople, is that he is a hero. Just as any great pioneer of industry has developed new ideas and new methods in a new and unproven field, Bezos should be given the respect he deserves.
Pat, it's time you woke up to the realities of life. E-marketing is here to stay and the book industry is at the forefront. Just as our company has to live with the reality of Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and the publishers, so, too, must the indepdent booksellers. I think your column should spend more time helping them improve rather than tearing down businesses that have every right to exist.
Independents need help; they don't need false hope that Amazon.com will soon die and that B&N and Borders will eventually go away. It ain't going to happen so get on with the job of becoming better and smarter.
It's easy to pick on the "big guys" since they are out there for all the world to see. I'm suggesting you take the high road to actively help retail booksellers. Let your column be a source of creative new ways to generate business, or increase profits, or hold better autographings, or do smarter PR, or an idea center for retailers to commuicate with each other, or a forum for retailers to discuss issues.
I believe in a free market, and everyone in business needs to understand that change is a constant. We must live with those changes and make them work for us.
Holt responds: I think one of the saddest things about the state of our industry is that everyone wants what Sandy Jaffe writes to be true. Of course Jeff Bezos should be a hero, but until he makes a profit and quits talking condescendingly about independent bookstores, he'll be a loser to me. When Len Riggio is described as throwing his weight around with the likes of Toni Morrison because of the huge check he's writing for a library, I think he gets to be in a special category all his own. Easy to be picked on? Paying their taxes? Barnes & Noble and Borders do not pay taxes on books sold online despite their obvious "Nexus" of brick-and-mortar bookstores in every state. When they obey the law, I'll agree they have every right to exist. Meanwhile, thank you: If this column sounds less like a forum for legitimate investigation and more like anger looking for a fight, there's no point in writing it. So I'll keep an eye on that if you'll try to accept this: There should be hundreds of book industry critics out there, just as there are hundreds of TV and movie critics! The "big guys" especially need to be held up to such scrutiny, and believe me, they can take it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a literary small press publisher, and therefore a publisher always concerned about distribution and the difficulty of placing our books in large chain bookstores; I am wondering if there is a mailing list available for purchase anywhere of independent bookstores receptive to literary endeavors.
I thought this information might be of interest to other readers of Holt Uncensored as well.
Potes & Poets Press
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re column #86, I too am a former employee of Waldenbooks (this industry is lousy with them), and I must correct an unfortunate error in Mr. Bial's letter regarding "the book whose proceeds went to preserve Thoreau's Walden Pond."
This book was called "Heaven Is Under My Feet." It was edited by Don Henley, not Don Henson. He is an Eagle, not a Muppet.