by X. Libris

Chapter 10: The Staff Gets Ready at Francisco's

When it came to battling the competition, everyone admired the way Sandy Francisco and his loyal staff at Francisco's had survived the first crippling effects of Youíve Got Piles!, the chain-store "house of stacks" that moved in just down the street in the Bay Area town of Posterior.

Then came Piles II Annex around the corner and Piles III CafÈ O' Readers across the freeway. These superchains always opened with huge inventories and quite obvious plans to drive a store like Francisco's out of business. Then, it was said, the Piles! management cut the storeís stock back to the usual number of high-turnover titles, discounted everything to death and cynically hoped to keep an unsuspecting public coming back.

But if you understood the business of personal bookselling, as Sandy believed he did, and made your store the center of community activity - author appearances! PhD. programs! in-store surgery! - you could eventually lure those same wonderful customers back to a place that felt like - well, home.

Of course, surviving the chains had only been Phase One. Then came the giant price club called The Ripoff Barn with its bins of best-selling books on sale for nearly half-price. Modeled after Gum, the Russian store that conservative leaders in Congress said was the only good thing about Soviet life before the crash, Ripoff caught on with Americans the instant its ten soccer-field-sized barns opened in the same block as Francisco's.

Of course, you had to stand in line for an hour at The Ripoff Barn just to get toilet paper, and the selection was pretty shoddy, and people ended up buying things they didn't need, like that 10-pound jar of artichoke hearts Sandy and his wife bought and never opened two years ago. They kept telling each other that if The Big One (earthquake) hit, the family would always have something to eat, but then the kids would stick their fingers down their throats and everyone would laugh and the thing would sit there another six months.

But that's how it went with Ripoff, Sandy knew: The more people went back, the less it was worth it, because they soon figured out the formula: Publishers inflated the prices of books sold at price clubs so the discount looked bigger, but in fact nobody - publisher, author, vendor - lost a dime in these "loss-leader" sales. Except maybe independents who had to sell the book at full price or lesser discounts.

Still, Francisco's supported a wide-ranging inventory that was so famous, people traveled to the store just to see the stock and buy books there. So once again customers had returned to Francisco's, especially after Sandy began a little discounting and replaced the staff room with the store's new Have a Latte Lately? Bar.

What an irony that turned out to be - the profit margin for designer coffee was higher than for books, so it was worth the spills and half-empty cups and pieces of Danish pastry strewn around the store. At the same time, the overhead for staff and designer buns cut right through the profits to make the cafe barely break even.

Sandy heaved a sigh as he looked at the new Kaffe Klatch Korner, where reading groups met and everybody said a store like Francisco's had to show its "community ties." We could have launched a Spanish-language section in that section by now, he thought, and opened the door to a whole new audience of customeros whose neighborhoods were marching right up to the door. Oh well, maybe we can still try a shelf or two if we haven't gone under by The Day of the Dead.

Heaven knew he had to do something, because after surviving the chain stores and price clubs, Francisco's ran headlong into the real killer,, the glorified mail-order house that made phone calls more fun when you clicked a mouse rather than dialed a number. It did no good to joke that BladderBook pissed off everybody in the trade by pretending to carry "all books in the frigging universe." The fact was that anybody with a copy of Books in Print could use the same wholesalers as Bladder and fill orders just as fast.

But Internet browsing and buying had caught on, and customers actually came up to Sandy's staff to say how much fun it was to buy books at Bladder after they had browsed through them at Francisco's. Of course, this was no more of an insult than the people who came to a Francisco's autographing after they had bought the book at 40 percent discount at You've Got Piles!

These uninformed souls actually stood in the Francisco autograph line with the book still residing in a You've God Piles! bag. Thank heaven program coordinator Sam Ramon had suggested offering tickets to each author appearance for people who bought the book at Francisco's. This preserved the sale but offended the gate crashers, who loudly objected to the "greed" at Francisco's when they were turned away.

But now. Annnnnnnd now: With Justin Thymeís upcoming appearance - the first in 10 years anywhere, and the first in the Bay Area - Sandy had an actual, bonafide, historic literary event on his hands. The place was going to be loaded with anxious, dedicated, hunger-ridden if not devouring readers. Corrrrrection: These were followers; these were discriminating buyers turned groupies of Mr. Thyme. They did not sit around all day at Piles! drinking bad coffee and sneaking looks at Nancy Fallop's illustrated grammar book, "Figurative or Cliteral." They were readers, and like the staff at Francisco ís, they were going to . . .

The phone rang. "Sandy! For God's sake! Did you hear the news?" It was Rosa Santa, store bookkeeper and chief worrywort. Sandy had never heard her so excited. This must either mean bankruptcy was a sure thing or . . . "No, what?" he said tremulously.

"Justin Thyme just won a Pulitzer Prize! For that godawful book youíve overbought! And his first appearance since the announcement is going to be with us!"

"You must be mistaken," said Sandy. "Why, Justin Thyme isn't known to the Pulitzer committee. They don't like writers like him anyway. They like, you know, in-crowd people like Saul Baloney or Joseph Hecker or Paul Crabbioux or John Downlez or . . . "

"I'm not kidding, Sandy! Your bad taste has paid off!" Rosa yelled. She hated Justin Thyme. "Break out the - and I mean cheap, Sandy - champagne!"

Just then, Ellis Webster, Sandy's chief of intersection books, held up the other phone. "Sandy! It's Prim Reaper from You've Got Piles! down the street! She wants to 'borrow' all our copies of Justin Thyme! 'Or else!' she says."