by X. Libris

Chapter 23: Spanky Pulls a Fast One

"Take it down, right now," said Simon Harper of Verschleppen US. "Dismantle the whole thing, and I mean it."

He was facing a mountain of books - 8,000 copies of Justin Thyme's "Ureter Sleeping," sent by mistake from his company's new warehouse to Francisco's Bookstore in Posterior, California.

All around Simon stood a crowd of hostile customers, a dozen angry colleagues in the book business, a hysterical broad calling herself Spanky and, somewhere in the maw, Justin Thyme himself.

Clearly his approach, he decided, had to be a combination of "No-Nonsense Paternalism" and "The Boss's Love for His Inferiors," two chapters he had taken to heart from the bestseller by epidemeologist-turned-sales guru Tom Peepers, "In Search of Pestilence."

"I mean it, son," he added lovingly. That ought to do it.

"Over my dead body!" came the answer from Sandy Francisco, owner of Francisco's. "Verschleppen sent 8000 books when I ordered 200! Now you want ME to pay return freight! Well, no deal! I'm not capitulating! I'm independent and I've got the book!" he added a bit hysterically. " And furthermore, I've got Justin Thyme!"

Sandy didn't have an idea in the world where Justin was, but he loved talking this way. It was like a scene out of that psychological Western, "Gunfight at the I'm OK - You're OK Corral" by Thomas Spareus: the good guys and the bad guys struggling for consensus before killing each other.

"You'll never get away with it!" yelled Simon's colleague Warner Villard. "We'll never send you another author again! We'll ruin what's left of your credit!"

"Ha ha!" barked Sandy. "I don't HAVE any credit!" The crowd advanced, growling its support.

"Wait a minute!" said Maggie Editoria, marketing director for Justine Thyme's publisher, Patrich Patriarch's Sons, Nephews & Male Cousins. She stepped forward. "Sandy, don't fall into this trap. Remember Mr. X? He had to learn the hard way."

Sandy knew what she meant - a character from the widely circulated underground book called "Independents Who Love Books Too Much and the Conglomerates That Hate Them" by spymaster Robert Flubbum. In it, Bookseller X sold off his whole inventory to the used-book department at You've Got Piles! and went crazy as a result. Only a special session on "The History of Hugging" with Werner Airhead saved Mr. X.

Before Sandy could answer, Tubby Shaft, founder and head usurper at the bookstore chain called You've Got Piles!, stepped forward. "Listen, Bro, we want a level playing field as much as you do. Forget the freight. We'll pay it. Just let us take all these books off your hands, and - "

"Not on your life," snarled Sandy. "Get back! Get back, all of you!" Things were approaching the lethal stage, he knew. He felt like one of the doomed chefs in that big bestseller by Tom Chancy about culinary war tactics, "Bread October."

"Hey, Sandy, you don't think there's a conspiracy against you, do you?" asked Jesse Bezos of the Internet book supplier that was driving everybody to the poorhouse.

"Oh, don't you see?" Sandy implored. "It doesn't matter if there's a conspiracy! It doesn't matter if everybody's out just to win, and kill each other on the way! What matters is that books like this" - and he gestured to the giant pile of Justin Thyme's books stacked as high as the Eiffel Tower - "are getting lost in the shuffle! For god's sake, we've been standing here for an hour, and not one person's been able to READ the damn thing."

"I'll read it, if you don't mind, that is," a baritone voice with a Southern drawl suddenly announced from the back of the crowd. Everyone turned, and a great hush fell over the back end of Posterior. Creating a makeshift stage of several dozen boxes of books ("Oh no," groaned Simon and Warner, "don't let him STAND on his own books - think of the spines! the binding! the - "), the young woman whom Justin called Spanky smiled generously at the crowd as she gestured to the figure climbing up the boxes.

And indeed, here was Justin Thyme at last, showered and clean-shaven, dressed in fresh clothes from Sandy's closet ("you don't mind, do you, Honey?" said his wife, but Sandy was too besotted, too soaked with emotion at seeing Justin Thyme, could not answer).

The great Town Square clock of Posterior struck 2, exactly the moment that Thyme had been scheduled to read. He opened his copy of "Ureter Sleeping," briefly looked out over the expectant crowd, and began.

Chapter 22: How Art Saves Us (Conclusion)

Walking determinedly across the town square, arriving by train and plane, clogging up the roads and freeways, thousands of people were finding their way to Francisco's Bookstore in Posterior, California.

Many had planned for months to hear the great Southern writer Justin Thyme read from his long-awaited first novel, "Ureter Sleeping." They did not know that Thyme had just won a Pulitzer Prize, nor that half the book industry's heavyweights in publishing and bookselling had swarmed into Posterior as well.

All anyone understood for sure was that a mountain of books - thousands and thousands of copies of "Ureter Sleeping" - stood like a beacon outside the window of Francisco's, where a sign announced: "Just in Time! Justin Thyme!" ("I couldn't help it," Sandy told his frowning wife that morning.)

True, some people thought this huge Eiffel Tower of books was the latest Stalmart gimmick for announcing Danielle Schpeel's 623rd romance. But no matter now. Once Justin Thyme opened the book and began reading, the power and beauty of his words wafted over the crowd like a hypnotic cloud.

Perhaps most enrapt was Tubby Shafts, head of the bookstore chain called You've Got Piles! At first sight of the giant book tower, Tubby and his head buyer, Chintzy, had stared menacingly at the copies of "Ureter Sleeping" that somehow never reached their 650,782.5 stores. "Now that," Tubby had said to Chintzy, "is a pile."

As Thyme's velvety voice gently ladled readers into the melting mud of Part I: "Paleogick," Tubby was transported. He felt he was sinking - not only in Thyme's magnificently imagined "ancient gick and ooze," but in the dense lusciousity (OK! he made the word up! so sue him!) of Thyme's language.

This took him by surprise, since Tubby had never read a novel all the way through. He didn't like fiction, and early on, as he built up the chain, he told himself the only way You've Got Piles! was going to win "the bookstore wars" was if he, Tubby Shafts, did his homework.

He had thus become an expert in business books, and had just read a bestselling autobiography, "Every Page a Memory," by the famous Copy Center founder, Kinko Biloba. Of course he hadn't finished that one, either (too repetitive).

But "Ureter Sleeping," thought Tubby, as Justin moved to the spectacular marital tubing scene, made all he had ever wanted to do with You've Got Piles! - the frenzied construction of each 280,000-square-foot store, the frantic push to go online with even the need to "win if ya hafta shaft 'em all," as his father, Tufts Shaft, used to say - somehow meaningless in a joyous way.

Looking for confirmation, he turned and nudged Chintzy, but the chief buyer was horrified. He hadn't seen such sappy emotion on Tubby's face since the chain's first invisible takeover of a college store in 1992.

Surely Tubby didn't want to buy "Ureter Sleeping," any longer, Chintzy hoped. Admittedly, the novel was mesmerizing and inspired. People all around him were falling in love with it.

But that was the problem: A book you had to read to appreciate was no good for a chain store. Chintzy himself hadn't read a book in years.

And why was that? he suddenly wondered. He used to love to read. One of his favorite novels was Robert Bedlam's "Conspiracy of the Stupids," a perfect book for any chain store. He had even "matured up" to John Le Filet and Graham Spleen before working for Piles! and then . . . and then . . .

Chintzy looked to the sky for comfort and found as he did that Jesse Zebra of was looking straight up as well. Of course, Jesse couldn't take his eyes off the huge mountain of "Ureter Sleeping" books because he hoped that no ducks would fly into the thing and break their little necks. He was a cautious man, a caring man, a loving man. And he wanted those frigging books right now.

But as Justin Thyme got to the "clinging viscera" passage in which vacuum cleaners played such a devastating role, The Old Zebester felt an utter stillness blanket his very soul. Maybe making another billion personally while losing a billion professionally just didn't matter anymore, spiritually speaking. Maybe he had diversified enough, and selling those stolen babies from China ( wasn't going to be worth it.

He glanced at his partner, Yahoo Flochart, who by now had fallen into a state of happy paralysis as well. Yahoo had been his right-hand colleague ever since burst its first seam. Suddenly The Zebes felt his eyes well up with tears. O friendship! he thought, his heart bursting as Thyme moved on to the climactic banana slug scene.

Why, he would just leave these "Ureter Sleeping" books here, where this mawkish independent bookseller could take care of them. That way, he and Yahoo could return to's pretend warehouse in the Yukon, where they could increase the inventory by another million books nobody would ever know they didn't have.

Just then, Jesse realized, the two executives of the US office of Verschleppen, the German publishing conglomerate, had ducked into Francisco's. He peeked through the window to see what they were doing and lo, it appeared they were holding the books up like foreign objects! They were fingering the bindings and rubbing their hands over the covers and clasping books to their chests!

Good heavens, thought Jesse, The Two Stuffies, as Simon Harper and Warner Villard were called, have never been in an independent bookstore before! They're actually discovering literature in there!

He was only half right. Just a few minutes before Justin Thyme had begun reading, the Two had cornered Horatio Toast, sales representative for the company that Verschleppen recently acquired, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins.

"We've cut your accounts by half," announced Warner, "so you can sell to bigger stores in your new region - Poughkeepsie, Tallahassee, Anaheim, Azusa, and Cu - ."

"What? You can't do that!" Horatio had snapped. "Every one of these accounts is important! They might buy only one or 2 copies of a book like Justin Thyme's, but they believe in these books! They hand-sell them! Their customers get word-of-mouth going! Look at that phenomenon outside, will you? That is the potential for every good novel if we just SUPPORT these independents instead of always caving into the chains!"

"- kamonga. You can start on your new territory tomorrow."

At least, that was the way they talked before Thyme had moved on to Part II: "Paleobscene." Now, as Warner and Simon moved around Francisco's, they found books published ten years before that were still selling; novels and memoirs and travel books and how-to's and cookbooks and spiritual guides published by independent houses they had never heard of; personal notes about books that members of the staff had written with tremendous passion and energy.

And all the while they listened to Thyme's voice as it flowed through the windows, overtaking them with the poetic rhythms of the mutual colonoscopy scene. So taken were they by the diverticuli-diverticulae dance sequence that Simon made an unprecedented suggestion to Warner.

"You know, we have to get that mountain of books out of here," he said, "but why pay for it? Let's make this Francisco guy our distributor for back orders out of Posterior. Since he's on credit hold anyway, he can sell the first printing exclusively. If he doesn't, we break his knees."

Warner, distracted by a young woman who had just been approached by Sandy Francisco, nodded quietly and tilted his head toward the conversation, so that both he and Simon could listen.

"Everyone here admired the way you got Justin Thyme cleaned and sobered up to do this reading," Sandy said to the woman. He knew that Thyme called her Spanky, but he didn't know her real name.

"Well, I've known Justin a long time," she said. "I was a student of his at HowILoveYa HowILoveYa College in Sewee, and we . . . we . . . . "

"Is it true you kept his books for him?" Sandy asked. As an informal scholar of Justin Thyme, he knew all about the Alabama writer and his paramours, this one especially, since Justin had written about Spanky in a number of guises over the years. "You paid his bills, handled his legal affairs, that sort of thing, Ms. . . . Ms. . . . "

"Deborah Nargang," she said. "Yes, I did all of that, and I wrote his speeches and corrected a lot of his papers, too. I won't be going back with him, though. I came to California to look for a job, but I'm not having much luck."

"Well, I wish I could offer you a job - you'd be a great asset here, but . . . " At that point The Two Stuffies marched over to Sandy, as fatuously as they were able, to announce the new Verschleppen plan. Debbie was thrilled to be chosen the store's new coordinator for special sales.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" Sandy asked after the two men left them. "Why does Justin Thyme call you Spanky?"

"I don't know, something about my last name. Oh, listen, Justin's about to read the urethral panic scene. I remember when he wrote this. He was dead drunk at the time."

Clearly Perk Maxwell, Justin's editor at Patriarch, remembered it, too. He was standing outside, staring bullets at Justin Thyme. You rotten old falling-down womanizing drunk, Perk silently said to Thyme. You have dragged us through the worst delays and self-indulgences and childish tantrums I have ever experienced. You have made me break every standard I ever cherished as an editor. And yet, right now, I don't give a damn about any of it. I'm just as much an unabashed fan as anybody else here.

Maggie Editoria, marketing director for Patriarch, felt the same way. She had been the first to see past Justin's womanizing - and it was a good thing, since Justin had his hand up her skirt at the time - to the gifted writer he could become. And she looked at Patrick Patriarch III, who was about to wrest his family's publishing house from the jaws of Verschleppen and somehow start all over again.

Patrick himself was trying to contain his emotion as he listened to Justin Thyme. The only thing he had ever wanted, besides continuing the firm his crooked grandfather had founded and his drunken dad had nearly lost in many a poker game, was to keep publishing enough good books and enough payroll to keep the door open. But the one thing he had most hoped for was the chance - not even the reality, just the opportunity, the promise - to publish greatness.

And here it was. Justin Thyme was the firm's gift to posterity. Everybody here felt it, he knew - these thousands of people around him listening as though their souls depended on it. What a privilege it was, he thought, to work so closely with "real" literature - to create the means and the channel for it, to know that generations will be touched by it, to feel your own roots deepen because of it.

Sandy Francisco emerged from the store to set up an autograph table, stopping to listen as Thyme brought tears to the eyes of listeners with the final hair restoration scene. How consoling it was to know, Sandy and Patrick thought separately, that even if the book industry was falling apart around them, cultural forces would always insist upon emerging, and that art - its purity of expression, its call to the highest standard, its transcendence - could withstand every assault ever thrown its way.

And what was Justin Thyme thinking through all this? He was thinking about the flow of words on the page, the magic of reading, images that would transport readers to a world only he could imagine, but that was just the start. He was thinking how extraordinary it was that only when the author's and reader's imaginations connected could the the printed page or screen every yield up the great truths of literature.

And so Justin Thyme finished his performance of the looping, swooping, tubular masterpiece that was "Ureter Sleeping." By now, word had gotten out that Francisco's was selling the book, and without further instuction, customers formed a human book brigade to dismantle the great literary mountain and bring "Ureter Sleeping," one copy at a time, back into the independent bookstore where it belonged.

Watching this, the San Francisco Monochrome's book editor, Cody Kepler, had an inspiration. "You know," she said to the associate book editor, Copper Field, "watching these people move books from hand to hand reminds me of that scene from 'Moby Dick' where Ishmael and the crew are sitting on deck squeezing the globules out of this big vat of whale sperm. Since we know the sperm represents the great life force, and . . . "

"Wait a minute, Cody," said Copper Field. "You're not starting that analogy about the hands touching as they move the great life force of literature, are you?"

"Well, I . . . "

"Because you're at the wrong end, remember? That's not sperm but spermaceti they're massaging, and it doesn't come from the sex organ, it comes from the head!"

"Oh, that's right. Well, heads or tails, it's still a whale and it's still 'Moby Dick,' same life force, right?" said Copper. "In the end, art saves us, one way or another. So come on, let's go write it this down before we forget."

The End.