NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #95
by Pat Holt

Friday, October 1, 1999:

HUNGRY MIND BOOKSTORE, REVIEW, PRESS
UMBA II: SOME MIDLIST GEMS

LETTERS

THE HUNGRY MIND BOOKSTORE, REVIEW, PRESS

It's a balmy Fall morning as we toodle out Hwy. 94 from downtown St. Paul, Minn., driving west toward the leafy neighborhood of Hungry Mind Bookstore, an institution in the Twin Cities area for 29 years.

Our mission is to figure out why this independent bookstore continues to succeed despite a Borders store competing like mad a mile away, a Barnes & Noble ditto within 2 miles (not to mention about 20 other chain stores littering the region) as well as Amazon.com and many online aggressors doing their cyber-discount thing on the Web.

Then, too, since the early '70s, a good chunk of Hungry Mind's business has come from textbook sales (located in an annex down the block) for nearby Macalester College. But the latest online rage of discount textbooks at various Internet sites has taken its toll - not huge but visible - on the store's income as well.

While Hungry Mind's website ( http://www.hungrymind.com ) announces author events and welcomes email queries and sales, a search function isn't up yet and there's no store inventory or half-million-title data base ("we're waiting for BookSense.com," says the store management), which means that potential online sales, for a while at least, are lost.

Yet for all this, the Hungry Mind is down just a dimpy 1% in sales from 1998 - only the second year in its history that it didn't make a profit - even as it continues to support two hungry offshoots of its own: the Hungry Mind Review (founded 1986), a beautifully produced 60-page quarterly with a staff of four; and the Hungry Mind Press (founded 1994), an ambitious book-publishing operation tended by another staff of four.

So: With all these expenses, how has Hungry Mind stayed afloat when other stores like it have gone under? Founder David Unowsky has many reasons we'll talk about later, but heck, let's just walk in the place and see if we can judge by the store's look and feel what keeps its customers coming back.

Feeling welcomed right away by a friendly staff and an open, woody, high-celinged store with books jammed into every nook and cranny is certainly a plus. Announcements and posters about community events and services make everybody in the store (at the moment you look up and notice these things) seem to be part of one big family.

But the best part is perhaps what what hits us next: A wall of books called THE HUNGRY MIND 25, which turns out to be a mix of 25 hardcover and paperback books at 25% off, a few of which are bestsellers but most not, and all of which bear that great feeling of the unhyped, unpredictable, really-worth-your-while books you can't wait to investigate.

Long before it was a bestseller, "Corelli's Mandolin" was on that wall (the store sold 300-400 copies in both hardcover and paperback, we learn), as was Ann Wilson Schaef's "Women's Reality" when it first came out from Winston Press, as was a book called "Shame" by Gershon Kaufman that Unowsky also sold during a social workers' workshop downtown.

This brings up one of the ways the Hungry Mind pays the bills - by selling books at professional conferences which, in the case of "Shame," returned a huge profit. "We had been selling ten to 15 copies of this book a week when I learned the author was coming to St. Paul, so I called him," Unowsky recalls.

"He held a conference at the Radisson Hotel, and we were set up outside in the hall. At the time we weren't taking credit cards, and at every break more people would come out and buy two or three more copies of his books. Pretty soon I was standing there with 3000 dollars sprouting from every pocket. We've sold thousands of that book and another thousand of a second book through Hungry Mind alone."

It's through finding niches like that, and hand-selling books they know customers will love, that Hungry Mind has grown from 1100 square feet with 2000 paperback titles in 1970 to the sprawling sunlight-dappled book-and-magazine emporium it is today.

But clearly what makes the place work is the way Unowsky and staff have defined their audience - liberal, academic, literary - and staked out a personal relationship with it.

" 'Independent' is an important word here," the website explains. "We identify with a Midwestern small-scale independence. We are not a chain, or a mega-corporation; we are not part of the literary establishment on either coast. We like an idea that stands on its own better than one that has been processed to fit a market.

"We like the edges of things, new thinking that challenges the status quo, poetry and essays that go well beyond the commonplace into the fresh understandings of the human experience. We like the bioregional picture, the critical point of view.

"We are suspicious of those who would limit hungry minds, either in the courts or in the corporate boardrooms. We prefer baseball on grass to baseball on astroturf."

So true! Those !@#$%^&*! chain bookstores are built on astroturf! (Such is the kind of emotion that wells up in the hearts of some customers when they read such statements at The Hungry Mind).

Unowsky is one of those curmudgeonly booksellers with a heart of mush who believes that a bookstore should follow its political values to the end. That's why he started the bookstore (his family ran a liquor store and he knew the first rule of retail, he says - "work like a crazy fool"), and that's why he started the Hungry Mind Review and the Hungry Mind Press.

"If we don't stay alive as independent bookstores and presses and present some other point of view," he says, "as large corporate structures dominate the culture, every book is going to be a Rupert Murdoch book, and that's pretty scary."

So true! That !@#$%^&*! Rupert Murdoch has just plonked William Morrow in with HarperCollins and is cutting the staff to the bone while cancelling critical books on China to no good end! (Such emotions come up in the hearts of many whether The Hungry Mind initiates the discussion or not.)

But perhaps the most fun about Hungry Mind is "shelf-talkers," those little handwritten notes to customers that independent booksellers often stick under books here and there along the bookstore shelves

The key to a good shelf talker - and the reason chain stores can't use them - is the personal conviction of the writer and the kind of succinct writing that can put a verbose critic to shame. About "A Lover's Discourse" by Roland Barthes, a staff member writes: "A painfully beautiful book. Forget about Mars and Venus. 'A Lover's Discourse' is the ultimate honeymoon/breakup/celibacy guide (and much, much more). Barthes' fragments ooze anxiety, passion, intensity, infatuation and fear. A must have."

Here's another one that's worth studying for its marvelously offbeat insights (this is a longie but the writer got it all on a single piece of paper the size of a coaster) :

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson: "This is the kind of book that demands to be read out loud to anyone within hearing. Brilliantly funny and utterly real, it's the Dick Van Dyke show as seen by a woman known for her disturbing and subtle horror stories ('The Lottery' is probably the best known). As an added bohus the book's lack of graphic sexual or physical abuse makes it a refreshing relief from the spate of horror stories and memoirs now littering the shelves. Jackson's homage to human weirdness [is a] beautifully written and classic memoir of family life. Its pleasures are abundant and long-lived."

A person can poke and browse around The Hungry Mind for hours, absorbed by the selection of diverse and compelling books you rarely see in chain stores and "talked to" by conscientious and articulate buyers and staff members who tell you just enough about favorite books to decide whether to buy 'em. No wonder people keep coming back.

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UMBA PART II: SOME MIDLIST GEMS

Emphasis on regional writing at an Upper Midwest Booksellers Association trade show panel last week brought out a number of books that not-so-ironically transcend regionalism. Here are three midlist titles that many readers may enjoy and that can be purchased online by writing info@hungrymind.com .

SEASONS OF SUN & RAIN, Marjorie Dorner (Milkweed; 346 pages; $23.95)

Few novels about Alzheimer's disease dare to show us the world through the victim's lens, but this story of six women friends who go on vacation together offers a rare look at the internal experience of deterioration and the external confusion of friends-in-support.

Already sensing loss in her marriage when her husband says "listen to me" and makes her look at him as he lowers his face to hers, "as if there were no other way to guarantee that she would pay attention to him," Mickey at 50 has already covered her home with Post-It reminders she often finds incomprehensible.

Now she seeks the comfort of trusted friends at their famous "Camp Men-O-Pause," a rural bed-and-breakfast in Grand Marais, Minn., near Lake Superior. Surprisingly, Mickey doesn't want to talk about Alzheimer's when they arrive (perhaps to make a better story for the author), so the diagnosis hangs in the air as the women exchange stories and secrets about childbirth, in-laws, the Catholic church, adultery, hot flashes, careers and that "Click" experience they believe can turn unliberated women into feminists.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, and the shifting emphasis offers welcome variety. Despite problems of complexity and depth (one-dimensional characters, flat dialogue), Dorner teaches us so much about the human side of Alzheimer's, from "sundowning" (a tendency to become more distracted in early evening) to the question of preparing for suicide, that we turn the pages with increasing absorption.

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JAILHOUSE STORIES, Neil Haugerud (University of Minnesota Press; 223 pages; $18.95)

As the sheriff of Fillmore county, Minnesota, for nearly 10 years (1959-1967), author Haugerud learned how to tell a funny, tough, ornery or ironic story. He recalls, for example, working cases with a macabre county doctor who hums at the most inappropriate times.

"Say 'Ah,' Barney," Doc commands the long-dead victim of a hanging who, once the tight rope is cut by the Doc's scalpel, emits a gaseous "Ahhhh." At that, "everyone in the crowd jumped backward," Haugerud writes. "Doc never looked up. 'Dum te dum dum dum,' he hummed . . . "

So it's a quiet book of reminiscences, simply written but not without action. Between the frequent guests in the drunk tank and the sizeable Mrs. Culbertson, who keeps "breaking into the German Lutheran chuch and playing the pipe organ for hours on end," Haugerud surprises us with tales of criminals threatening to murder him, wife-stabbers needing apprehension and professional safe crackers luring him out in the dead of night.

As much as we learn about the clannish habits of the mysterious "Big Woods" people, Haugerud's cherished Thursday night poker game, local bass fishing and farming habits along the countryside, the most endearing stories describe the building that houses the sheriff's office and jail cells on one side and the sheriff's growing family on the other.

Neil's wife, Helen, feeds the prisoners with a dumbwaiter in the kitchen and learns the latest news - a full-fledged prison break in one instance - from a sweet recidivist named Irving. The kids grow up with prisoners and deputies as family friends, and although Haugerud's sense of humor has a definite mean streak (it's not funny to let mental hospital orderlies nearly cart Helen away instead of Mrs. Culburtson), the book offers a little something about Minnesota in the '60s for everyone.

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THE METCALFE FAMILY ALBUM, Sallyann J. Murphey (Chronicle Books; 256 pages; $29.95).

One might dismiss this family album of annual writings by six generations of Indiana women as gimmicky soap opera meant to pander to that penchant for melodrama in us all - except that it's been researched so impeccably by former BBC producer/Indiana transplant Murphey that every page seems steeped in the kind of history that is rarely told yet always valued.

Begun in 1934, when a feisty young Frenchwoman, Marianne Metcalfe, throws a fit that her pioneer husband has loaded gunpowder instead of her fine linens on the wagon taking them West to Indiana, this is the kind of album that's handed down, and increasingly loaded down, with reminiscences, recipes, postcards, labels, photographs, invitations, swatches and even a love letter we can pull out and read from a World War I doctor who encloses rose petals from the trenches.

Each narrative is presented in a different type that evokes the handwiting style of the period, and each woman's personality seems to emerge through the trappings of her time. Thus we learn of Anna's thrill at playing "a Victor Victrola talking machine" in 1908, and Jessie's introduction to the family farm of "a fridge-freezer and, for the first time in its history, a dishwashing machine" in 1959.

While it can be enthralling to follow the adventures of characters from early childhood to old age and decline, Murphey's penchant for tragic deaths, romantic themes and womanly self-sacrifice can grow mawkish and burdensome as each the family reinvents itself. But the package is so beautifully produced and the how-to portions often so intriguing (Katie's tie-dyeing instructions of 1968 will be nostalgic for some) that the story gains in universal appeal.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Finally! After years of being in awe of your fairness and always in total agreement with your passionate stands, I found something to disagree with you about! Well, we disagree only in how a certain myth is fostered.

This coastal vs. regional thing? That's an old perception, fostered by a few, while the reality is what you and I do agree on - it's ALL regional writing. The kiss of death for a book these days is if the book IS set in NYC. We marketing types dread having to sell a 'NY book.' Think of where all the great recent literary and commercial fiction of late has been set.

From Grisham's and Karon's South to Mosher's New England to Cormac's Texas to Keillor's Minnesota to Smiley's Iowa to Guterson's Northwest. Frazier's North Carolina and Hillerman's Southwest. Most NY editors get it, and the editors at the regional houses certainly get it, and have for awhile. This is, after all, the great American literary tradition.

Here's where I may sound defensive, but here goes: it is easy to needle New Yorkers as effete and out-of-touch, and goodness knows, some deserve it, but it has become just as stereotypical to do that as it has for Hollywood to portray anyone with a Southern accent as slow (which drives my southern wife nuts) and midwesterners the same way (Fargo). The funny thing is that most New Yorkers come from somewhere else, often fleeing the suffocating aspects of small town life, only to yearn for the good parts of belonging.

Part of this teasing is all in good fun, and the story of the mystery writer, the editor and the changed locks is funny. But part of it reveals an underlying resentment or insecurity. And I get worked up about stereotypes, no matter who the target. They replace nuance and lump people into broad, unfair categories. We book folk should be the last ones to be tempted to do this; we live for the subtleties of behavior and language, and we, more than most others, should be able to see the forces at work and perceive the two sides to every story.

OK, enough - glass houses and all that. Like you, I think it is great how regional pride is flourishing again, as are regional independent presses. (And how sad it is to turn on the radio in any city in this country and not hear accents anymore.)It is equally fascinating to see America's interest in the world's regionality grow, as we look outward, especially in the last 10 or so years, to great writers from Australia, South Africa, India, Russia, Puerto Rico - well, everywhere.

So, up with diversity and down with stereotyping. Let's focus on the real malaise in this country.......and ban the use of cell phones in public! Get a life, people. Got to run; that might be the office calling.

Carl Lennertz
Marketing Consultant for Book Sense
American Booksellers Association

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm writing to add my two cents to the discussion on receiving errors, and it's this: independent presses are consistently better than the mega-presses. Consortium, for example, is extremely well-known and respected by all - independent, chain and wholesaler- for the care and accuracy of their shipments. And they're not alone.

It is, however, a problem that affects the entire industry. Twenty-five years ago, I was a clerk in a small bookstore, learning the business. I quickly realized that the real money was being made on the freight. It's nuts - an entire system that ships heavy items (whose value as nothing to do with weight) back and forth: publisher to wholesaler, wholesaler (or publisher) to retailer, retailer to wholesaler (or publisher), wholesaler to publisher, publisher to remainder house, remainder house to retailer. And we wonder what happened to the margin?

Then, for 15 years (as an independent rep) I listened to booksellers talk about receiving problems. They explained to me that it was much easier to get all their books from Ingram rather that order direct from publishers (large and small) and it was a difficult argument to counter. The discount was not as important to them, but the ease of ordering and returning was. They, and Ingram, realized that time was money. The shipments were clean and accurate (compared to many from publishers), and the small booksellers in my territory went to Ingram in droves.

This is a serious problem for everyone. I hope the B&N tactic works and that it's a system that's adopted by independents as well.

Linda Roghaar
Amherst, Mass

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

This might not be worth reporting because everyone probably already knows. I bought two copies of " 'Tis" from Ingram for $15.60 each. I bought five copies from Costco for $14.49 each. We've been in business for 38 years. We are trying to sell. Wish me luck.

Tom Stoup
Blue Door Bookstore
San Diego

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

In #92, Sandy Jaffe says that Amazon.com has "done nothing immoral, illegal, or unethical." I believe that the posting of spurious reviews, and the apparent refusal or inability to develop a system to quickly correct errors in book listings are certainly unethical, probably illegal, and, in my opinion, immoral.

And Jeff Bezos a hero? His business model, it seems to me (and as I say in an article for this motnh's Foreword Magazine) consists of transferring funds from his shareholders to his customers, who buy books at discounts that often guarantee a loss on each transaction. This, too, is certainly unethical, probably illegal, and, in my opinion, immoral. No one who makes a living doing honest business would survive for long in such a bookselling environment.

Tom Williams
Venture Press