NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #98
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 12, 1999:

THE LAST INDEPENDENT BOOK FESTIVAL IN AMERICA GOING 'DUTCH'

LETTERS

THE LAST INDEPENDENT BOOK FESTIVAL IN AMERICA

Once upon the time, the story goes (and this is a true story), a terrific book festival opened in a metropolitan area and drew tens of thousands of people to its many exhibits and author events.

The first year, Festival X, as we'll call it, was given a donation by a Big Chain Store, which then created an inflatable Big Chain Store replica right on the fairgrounds that dwarfed the exhibits of independent bookstores and publishers.

Oh well, said the Festival organizers, that's a small price to pay for financial support: Heaven knows the exhibits don't pay their way, nor do local philanthropic institutions help very much, and author honoraria and expenses do mount up.

The second year, Festival X was given more money by the Big Chain Store, which created its own stage for authors inside the huge inflatable replica and placed signs and promotional materials about Big Chain Store events and locations throughout the fair.

The third year, Festival X was given so much money by the Big Chain Store, according to one person who attended the Fair, that "you had to walk through a Big Chain Store arch or doorway to get in. There was so much Big Chain Store signage around that you felt the Big Chain Store owned the fair - and they did own most of it; other parts were owned by Starbucks and Target."

The speaker is Brenda Knight, who had set up a booth at Festival X for her publisher, Conari Press of Berkeley CA. Brenda is author of the widely acclaimed "Women of the Beat Generation" and program director for the 10th Annual San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival, which moves its locale to the gorgeous Fort Mason this weekend (see http://www.sfbook.org ), and which, she believes, is probably "the last independent book festival in America."

Brenda says that during Festival X's third year, "I looked around and thought what a shame it was that 'real' bookstores were getting lost in the shuffle. Independent booksellers brought the best books and the most knowledgeable staff people, but they couldn't afford anything more than these tiny booths.

"Meanwhile general book readers and especially parents who wanted to introduce their kids to good reading were bombarded by a kind of book festival TV. There were all these corporations pushing themselves or their advertisements in front of people and taking credit. Even the main stage was called the Starbucks Main Stage. You just couldn't get away from it.

"I felt as a lot of people did that all this commercialism ruined the original spirit of the Festival. The whole thing lacked a feeling of the culture all around us. It was a turnoff. I came back to the Bay Area agreeing with people here who believed that our Book Festival should remain independent of corporations and chains of any kind. This is just enormously important to the readers and writers who live here, and especially to young poets and writers just getting started who will be as famous as Lawrence Ferlinghetti five years from now."

How to go about it? "You have to make this very tough, very conscious decision every day," says Brenda. Her work as an unpaid volunteer has brought about an astounding lineup of Festival authors, including Rebecca Wells, Tom Kenneally, Suze Orman, David Guterson, Susan Faludi, William Gibson, Marian Wright Edelman, Howard Zinn, Alice Waters, Dean Ornish, Marianne Williamson, Ron Hansen, Mickey Hart, Steward Brand and others.

Unlike other book fairs, the San Francisco Book Festival pays no fees or travel expenses and has thus, Brenda bemoans, "lost a number of very good authors because we can't compete." However, publishers and authors still see the San Francisco venue as an important one, and because the Festival's volunteers employ a "bottom up" approach (each community tells the organizers what's important and timely), the panel discussions also offer an astounding range of authors and topics. For example:

"After the Raj: Post-Colonial Indian Writers Create a Genre," with Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Shauna Singh Baldwin and Bibhuti Patel. "These are writers who have mastered the English language that was once their master," says Knight. "This is where literature is so vital; it is culture changing and we're feeling it right now."

"Dialogues with Revolutionaries," with Congressman John Lewis ("Walking with the Wind"), Oakland mayor Jerry Brown ("Dialogues"), historian Jim Loewen ("Lies Across America") and Aeeshah Ababio-Clottey (coauthor with Marianne Williamson of "Beyond Fear"). "This is a big break for us," Brenda says. "John Lewis was the right-hand man of Martin Luther King and rarely makes this kind of appearance."

"Kafka's Children: Czech Writers after the Velvet Revolution": Seven Czech writers - dissidents who spent time in prison for translating Western liteature - talk about the shape of their country today. "People have these incredibly romantic ideas about the Czech republic," says Brenda, "and we should, since a playwright runs the country. But now for the first time writers are free to tell us what it's really like. They have no money to travel, so we got 500 Czechs in the Bay Area to donate frequent flyer miles."

"Extreme Milennium": Great travel writers discuss the best places to go for New Year's Eve. "The coolest trip," says Brenda, "is one where you fly to a little island off New Zealand to see the dawn of the new millenneum, and then, if you didn't get enough of it, you fly to the last inhabited island off the coast of Japan to watch it again. Ticket Planet is giving away two free round-the-world tickets (if you worry about Y2K, they're good for a year)."

"Salon.com's Salon: How the Web is Shaping Literature and Culture" with Orville Schell, Ellen Ullman, David Talbot, Keith Knight, Andrew Leonard and Camille Peri. "Here you have Salon.com, a magazine that exists only in cyberspace," says Brenda, "stepping into reality to host a real-time salon for the first time."

"The American Bible of Outlaw Poetry: A Pre-Millennial, Post-Apocalyptic Slam" going on all night with Michael McClure, Harold Norse, Eileen Kaufman, A.D. Winans and about 20 other poets whose works have been so on the fringe they've been considered "unpublishable" for years.

"Insiders vs. Outsiders: Writing from inside Poverty and Homelessness": Contributors to "Poor" magazine not only discuss their work but sell the magazine to pay their way to the Festival (they get free admission, says Brenda).

Fairgoers can also choose among a bounty of other panels with subjects including Silicon Valley and the "new" Gold Rush (with Po Bronson, James Holliday), spirituality (psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen pairs up with coven leader Starhawk), Y2K, comedy writing, Iranian poets, mysteries (Joe Gores and Katherine Forrest head a panel on L.A.-to-S.F. detective fiction ), gay writing, women of color, feminist men, pornography (Annie Sprinkles, Carol Queen), Gore Vidal's candidacy, Asian arts, Irish poets, multiculturalism and the new avante garde, self-publishing, memoir writing, cooking, teen fiction and children's literature, claymaking, body crayons, cut-outs, dowel designs and music.

So: For all that, where does the money come from? Exhibitor fees, grants, publisher donations and other income cover a big chunk, but only a chunk, of the expenses. "Our budget is only $400,000," says Sheryl Fullerton, president of the San Francisco Book Council, which puts on the Festival. Add five Council employees to the overhead.

"Without the deep pockets that from corporations and chains often provide," Fullerton adds, "we wind up having to charge for admission: $5 at the door or $3 in advance, with anyone under 18 admitted free."

Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. Five whole dollars per adult? This could be a disaster for a Festival that's hanging by a financial thread, that has moved its location from a familiar downtown venue to the less accessible Fort Mason and that has seen several of its organizers - including the Council's executive director - replaced in the last year.

Then there are the troubles of the times. As independent bookstores have closed and independent presses have felt the same pinch in returns and flat sales that larger publishers have experienced, the number of exhibitors at the Festival has dropped. Attendance slowed last year when tickets at the door were only $3. And there is no cushion for the SF Book Festival - if they lose money, they go under, and that's the end.

"For such a great bookselling and book-loving community, the Bay Area doesn't seem to provide the kind of infrastructure that could support a Festival like this," says Fullerton.

Does that mean the Council might accept help from chain stores one day? "Never," Fullerton says. "Never," chimes Knight. "It means we just have to work harder."

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GOING 'DUTCH'

Well, one tries not to laugh at the polite reviews that are coming forward about "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" by Edmund Morris (Random House; 874 pages; $35), but really, this has got to be one of the worst biographies ever published.

It's so bad that almost every page is a howler, so ridiculous and embarrassing, wasteful and irresponsible that it's the century's example of how not to write a biography.

As you may remember, "Dutch" is the book in which authorized biographer Morris decides to invent himself as a Reagan friend from high school so that he can better interpret the life of his subject. It's unorthodox (and in the end, hysterically unsuccessful), but heaven knows no other biographer has penetrated Reagan's famous standoffish amiability, so the reader thinks, great: let's try it.

The guise allows Morris to state his biases up front - he loves Reagan and Reagan's politics with unctuous enthusiasm - and to frankly describe Reagan droning on all over the White House with one boring Hollywood story after another. This way, Morris wants us to believe, we can trust him to straighten things out whenever Dutch mixes up fact and fiction and perceives Ronald Reagan as the hero in his own movie.

So that's not so bad, but whoa! Here is Morris completely going overboard right at the moment of Reagan's birth by inventing the first of many stupendously bad scenarios in which . . . destiny calls! As though a faux Greek chorus invades the nursery, the tiny baby Dutch is seen kicking in his little bed in 1911, those "familiar shapes, each small, female, strong-jawed, authoritative," waiting to take their places:

"NELLE REAGAN [mother]    (firmly) Ronald!
"MARGARET CLEAVER [girlfriend]   (austerely) Dutch!
"JANE WYMAN      (impatiently) Ronnie!
"NANCY REAGAN     (snappishly) Ronnie!"

So this, it turns out, is Morris's insight - a bunch of women calling, demanding, intruding, making their presence known to the boy while "CAMERA begins a SLOW ZOOM" (yes, Morris falls for the same cinematic fantasies that later overtake our prez!). But hold on: Two lines later, baby Reagan senses "taller blurrier figures" ahead:

"MAUREEN REAGAN       (plaintively) Dad?
"MICHAEL REAGAN      (plaintively) Dad?
"PATTI DAVIS       (plaintively) Dad?
"RON REAGAN       (plaintively) Dad?"

Is this not deep? Is an artist not at work here, sculpting, carving, etching? Well, it's just the beginning: When a family friend shows him a photo of Reagan as a boy with his parents swimming in a creek, Morris says, "I could not take my eyes off Nelle's breasts. Here was a young woman full of the milk of life, relaxedly half-naked in public."

What an eye, what a predisposition has this artist, we realize. Morris decided to take on the job of writing Reagan's biography in the first place, he tells us, because he didn't want to grow old remembering "budding opportunities unblown, breasts not cupped in my hand, scripts unfilmed and books unfinished . . . "

Yes, it's the old "uncupped breast" dilemma that drove Morris to it. (Scott Peck, stand aside.) But don't think he's so self-consumed that Reagan is given short shrift. "I am attempting, you see, to get myself out of [Reagan's] biographical way," Morris writes, and a paragraph later begins, "My birth, on August 9, 1912, more or less coincided with the archeological furor over Piltdown Man . . . "

Morris never leaves the narrative as uninvited friend of the subject, and of course he's not the only imagined character in this drama. America wanted an imaginary Dad in the White House, Morris indicates, and that's why Reagan got away with his adolescent notions of a Star Wars defensive shield, why he probably authorized the IranContra transfer of illegal funds - "not having the smallest comprehension of the laws he was subverting."

But that's not as interesting to Morris, really, as the possibility that he, the invented pal, might have been one of the 77 swimmers whose life Dutch, a former lifeguard, once saved. This is the last imagining, but perhaps the best part awaits in the lengthy (150 pages!) scholarly section of chapter notes, in which the biographer reveals his impeccable sources. Somehow he neglects to say, "Oh yeah, I made that part up, and I made this part up, and then I made that part up . . . "

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your technophobia really gets the best of you in your article about collaborative filtering. Who do you think sent in all those opinions? HUMAN BEINGS. Your individual independent bookseller represents a kind of aristocracy, let's say enlightened aristocracy, against which collaborative filtering presents the wonderful organized chaos of democracy. No one is telling anyone what they have to buy and where they have to buy it. Collaborative filtering is yet another useful tool presented by technology. You don't help the cause of independent bookselling, which makes important contributions to our culture and which I (like you) want to be strong, by your knee-jerk dislike of computers and the way they are changing the culture. Everything you are writing was also written about typewriters and how THEY would destroy literacy, personal relations (what, no handwriting!), and everything else. The twentieth century isn't over yet, Pat -- there is still time to join it!

Holt responds: Well, since we're conferring on the Internet you have to agree I'm not exactly fighting the oncoming technology. Collaborative filtering sounds like a neat tool, but I am talking about the New Yorker writer's idea of using it to REPLACE the booksellers. With respect, what sounds a bit knee-jerk to me is this idea of independent booksellers as an "aristocratic" elite that tells people "what they have to buy and where they have to buy it." The nice thing about having a CONVERSATION with a human being who makes a living as a bookseller is that the two of you can explore many different facets of literature that might not come up in knee-jerk collaborative filtering, which remains limited by statistical input.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am so glad that someone had the time to write what I myself thought when reading the comments about the title "GRAVITY." As an author, and a friend of authors who have been through this, I can only add, I agree!

D.H. Eraldi

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I would add this to the subject of titles and the problem of authors' lack of input:

I know I am fortunate in that my titles have not been changed in this country--however, the French called my THE DEATH OF BERNADETTE LEFTHAND, "Le Dernier Pow Wow" ("The Last Powwow" YIKES!!), the Germans called it "Das Kurz Leben der Bernadette Lefthand" ("The Brief Life of Bernadette Lefthand"). My latest novel is BAD MEDICINE--the French have titled it "La Tablette Sacree" ("The Sacred Tablet" YIKES! AGAIN!), and the Germans, "Der Tanz des Kojoten" ("The Dance of the Coyote" WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?--that Kevin Costner would see it and think of a sequel to Dances With Wolves, maybe?).

I recently signed a contract for a Bulgarian translation of BAD MEDICINE--I await the Bulgars title with no small amount of trepidation.

Ron Querry
Laredo, TX

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

A promotional idea: collect bookmarks from local booksellers, arrange them on a piece of colored paper and sell them matted or framed as local color. Makes good booksense to me.

Mike Larsen, reporting from Prague

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the letter from bwido@home.com on Barnes and Noble's out-of-print arm. Who does the author think that B&N gets their books from? From the independent USED booksellers (mostly online)! You would serve those of us that sell used books, as well as new ones, by repeatedly telling your readers about bookfinder.com (or abebooks.com or bibliofind.com or any of the other used book marketing networks online), where they can buy the used books, out of print, directly, saving money and avoiding the long arm of the Mega stores at the same time. The prices that B&N and Amazon inflate their out-of-print sales is incredible - I have found a book online for $2, then queried Amazon, and was quoted $30! You have so many valid points to make about Independents vs the "Big Guys" but those points can also be made about used dealers, too.

Our little store offers new and used books, accessories, items crafted here in Tennessee, etc., just to keep people coming in the store. Perhaps that diversification is going to be the necessity to stay alive in a market where readers prefer shopping online, and become "computer potatoes" instead of "couch potatoes!"

Laura, Twice Told Tales
Waverly TN, http://gateway.to/twicetoldtales

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just to throw my 2 cents in - B&N online's out-of-print books selection is just a copy of what is listed on Advanced Book Exchange http://whipper.abebooks.com/abep/il.dll?ph=1 with a signifigant surcharge added to the price - and while I can't say we mind selling to B&N, be assured there is a much large selection available. Check Bookfinder.com.

Aric, Once Read Books
Long Beach CA, once.read.books@iname.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I agree completely with the econ major's comments in your latest column. I realize many booksellers are in business because of their great love for books, but they must realize that first and foremost they are IN BUSINESS.

Look at another comparable situation.Why did many small retailers fall by the wayside when Wal-Mart came to town ? Wal-Mart offered customers what they wanted: expanded business hours, low prices, wide selection, plenty of parking, etc. Wal-Mart could not have succeeded if those smaller retailers had paid attention to their customers needs. The good retailers survived and the not so good failed. It's sad but it's the natural order of business. Deal with it.

Obviously Amazon, B&N, and Borders are taking a similar approach. The ball is in your court. Stop whining about the chains. Find out what they are doing right. And before you say they're not doing anything right, stop and think. They are expanding and the independents are failing. Find out what the good independents are doing. Then formulate a business plan (other than "I just love books so I think I'll sell them").

Before you hammer me on that point, be honest. I bet you can think of quite a few booksellers that have taken that approach. I'm sorry to sound so negative about the independents but sometimes a little tough love is needed. Good luck.

Holt responds: It seems to me there are two matters here - one is the survival of the independent bookstore, and the other is what's at stake for all of us if independent bookstores go under. One of the reasons I wanted to write this column was to show that people like me - literary critics, book editors - have been watching "the bookstore wars" for some time and want speak out on behalf of the SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSES that so many independent booksellers are operating despite unbelievable odds. Why anyone should be accused of "whining" for protesting the illegal tactics of chain stores and online outlets like Amazon.com is beyond me. And Wal-Mart is hardly exemplary when it comes to the American retail model. Independent bookstores, by contrast, are the places where good literature is saved, time and time again, from falling through the cracks. Let's try to "deal with that," as you might say, and support them.

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Responding to: "Re 'the flotilla of smaller merchants': I've long thought that Flotilla would be the perfect name for a waterfront hooker."

File this under Nice Try but Already an Alias: Flotilla DeBarge, New York's largest black drag queen. http://infoseek.go.com/?win=_search&sv=M6&qt=Flotilla+DeBarge&oq=&url=http%3A//www.wigstock.nu/whats/performers.html&ti=WIGSTOCK+98+-+performers&top=