NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

THE REMAINDERS OF THE DAY
by X. Libris

Chapter 11: Decision Time at You've Got Piles!

Tubby Shaft stood up angrily in the New York office of You've Got Piles!, the chain bookstore he founded, and threw his telephone headset down in disgust. He had had it with these book reviewer types.

The great Southern author Justin Thyme had just won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, "Ureter Sleeping," and not one store in the entire You've Got Piles! chain had a single copy on sale. Of course, Shaft had never heard of the guy until 2 minutes ago, but then, nobody in the entire Piles! chain had read Thyme, heard about Thyme, aged with Thyme or passed Thyme on to customers either.

So Shaft had placed an urgent call on his quicktime visionfast top-o'-the-line digi-roam ultracell company phone to Prim Reaper, manager of You've Got Piles! in Posterior, California, to for god's sake go across the street and BUY up as many Thyme books as she could find so that Piles! could at least save face: Thyme was about to make his first appearance in 10 years at the legendary Posterior independent bookstore, Francisco's, though it was rumored that the store was hanging by a financial thread.

With Prim on their way to see Sandy Francisco, the store's owner, Shaft had placed a call to the book review editor of the San Francisco Monochrome to talk about "equal opportunity coverage" when it came to writing about Thyme's appearance at "Bay Area stores." He was sure that as an advertiser he could get a little bludgeon-happy with his request, but the call had not worked out as he had planned.

Just because Shaft let it be known, years ago, that he read only six books a year, the Monochrome's Cody Kepler now had the audacity to call him "unliterary." What an idiot she was. A person had to work in the chain retail business to understand that reading books, as he and his buyers knew, had nothing to do with selling books.

That's why You've Got Piles had NO READING signs posted in staff rooms throughout the country. It was an in-house campaign that Shaft himself had initiated when he saw that reading books led his clerks to form personal opinions. You can't have people thinking for themselves in a chain bookstore, Shaft pointed out. Since You've Got Piles! was paid for promoting books on just about every that was not stocked in quantity.square inch of selling space throughout the chain, it would be suicide to allow lowly clerks to recommend a book not "on the program," as it were.

So one holiday season, Shaft bought 500 self-actualized computer wunderkind electronic pilot-palm digital solitaire games to keep his nonreading employees happy. The units were chained to staff room lunch tables so that workers could leave the room without having their pockets searched. Each game was emblazoned with a "Have Fun!" slogan and personally signed (well, stamped by AutoPen, a Piles! subsidiary), "Tubby S." He thought a personal gesture would bring him closer to the thousands of people to whom Piles! paid minimum wage.

But "unliterary!" He had read the reference in Cody Kepler's column this morning, and he was still seething by the afternoon. The fact was that if anybody understood old, foreign and hard-to-read fiction, it was Tubby Shaft. And if anyone had been proactive about the whole category, well, you were looking at him, he said to the mirror he liked to consult behind his office door. Tubby might be as thick and dense as his nickname implied, but so were his many unique ideas.

Hadn't he, chief honcho of the most important (well, the biggest) bookstore chain in the country, turned the whole Western literary canon user-friendly by turning the store into its own publisher? Hadn't he filled a huge void in American letters by launching a series of books called Classed-Up Classics?

Damn that dimwit book editor at the Monochrome for not writing the real story behind Classed-Up Classics - that the idea had come to him in a dream, a sort of nightmare, in fact. In it, Shaft was back in high school about to take a final exam when it occurred to him that he hadn't boned up on any of his Stiff's Notes - cribsheet summaries of famous books - let alone read the assigned books all semester.

But lo: A half-hour before each test, Tubby discovered a line of books called Classed-Up Classics, stories written for a '90s kinda guy, hip and street-smart but not exactly, well "literary" (of course the SF Monochrome wouldn't have to put in that part).

And sonofagun if Shaft hadn't awakened in a sweat of excitement as he envisioned this exact series in You've Got Piles! inventory! Without waiting to think it through (his tried-and-true method of launching any new idea, and the reason why he had to keep opening new bookstores, one right after another, to show a "profit" for those simpletons on Wall Street), Shaft devised an instant master plan.

First, he hired a bunch of writers from the old "Arsenio" TV show to goose up those tired old classics nobody read, and boy, were these guys - masters of the 5-minute comedy sketch - hot for it. The easy stuff they took care of right away, turning endless Russian novels into accessible comedies like "Anna K'monina" and mysteries such as "The Brothers Killemalloff."

The Arsenio writers had even better success taking a theme from one era and applying it to another, as in the Scottish liberation novel, "Uncle Mac's Cabin," or in that great tragedy set in a Gap fitting room, "Stall of the Wild." How families loved their fun YA (Young Adult) title, "The Scarlet Litter," a fanciful story of a family of church kittens who were born with a tiny "P" (for Puritan, our forefathers believed) emblazoned on their little chests. Classed-Up also introduced the first romance writer, Mark Swain, whose tales of love in an aerobics class ("Huffing It") were almost as popular as Native American stories without the sad ending, such as "The Penultimate Mohican."

Of course, the best thing about Classed-Up, Shaft knew, was that the books were sooooo cheap. In each SALE section of You've Got Piles! across the nation, Classed-Up titles stood out as just tacky enough to be worth a try by desperate parents and anxious students - and any drunken bum, really, with a little cash and minimal reading skills. Often, parents returned the next day to say that even their illiterate children couldn't believe what Tubby's writers had done to literary works that had been cherished for centuries. Such comments made Shaft proud.

But now that - that bimbo at the San Francisco Monochrome called him "unliterary." Shaft picked up the phone again and placed another a fast-track speedial pop/pack quick-cents pan-satellite fingertip interoffice call to Prim Reaper. Damn, still out, and still no Thyme books in hand. All this couldn't have come at a worse time. At present, Shaft was engaged in a "war of wits," as he liked to call it, with his chief Internet competitor, bladderbooks.com. The public tiff had started when he touted the chain's online bookselling service, pilesgalore.com, as the biggest bookstore "in the nation!" in a New Yonkers ad. The next day a full-page ad shouted back at him that bladderbooks.com was the largest online bookseller "in the world!"

Soon pilesgalore.com screamed from another ad that it was the largest bookstore "in the universe," and bladderbooks screamed back, "Oh yeah? How about Uranus?" to which Shaft had responded "if the bladder ain't full . . . " and on and on down the toilet it went.

What terrified Shaft was that bladderbooks had already branded its name and image on the urinary tracts of the nation's readers and that Thyme was going to end up siding with both his competitors - the independent store Francisco "and the online branding fool, bladderbooks.com. "Oh hell," Shaft told his secretary. "Get me on the next plane to San Francisco. I'm going to Posterior to talk to Thyme myself."

Chapter 12: Verschleppen Goes Too Far

Patrick Patriarch III snapped on the fluorescent lights in the historic library of the publishing house his grandfather had founded, Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins.

Facing several big decisions today, Patrick had come in early to visit his beloved "fueling station," as he called it - the vast array of books his family's company had published since its founding in 1889.

He remembered walking these halls as an office boy during World War II, carrying freshly printed galleys to editors and sending books to salesmen from the mail room. What a thrill he had felt with each visit to this library, to witness the legacy he knew was his destiny to carry on one day.

The house had contributed so many landmark books to American literature that the simple act of touching their bindings made him tremble even now. Each of these books was the second to come off press (the first went to the author; the second to the firm's library). Each had been handled by his father or grandfather, signed by the (often famous) author and numbered not only for placement on these shelves but - Patrick always got goosebumps at this part - for posterity.

Here, for example, was the nation's first breakthrough ecology-diet book, "On Scaldin' Pond" by poet-turned-chef Henry David Poureau. What a coup his grandfather had made by convincing satirist and whale afficiando Edith Fharton to write her brilliant comedy of manners, "Muffy Dick." And here: Even today, feminists embraced the still-in-print Latina suffragette classic, "Donna Quixote."

Patrick's explorations in the library had long convinced him that the editors at Patriarch, with their high standards (and sometimes unbearable superiority), weren't capable of publishing a bad book. Certainly they wanted authors to succeed, but immediate commercial success had always been viewed with suspicion. No flighty literary fashions, no 15 minutes of fame, no "hot young comers" for them. Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins had survived the lean years (the Great Depression, two World Wars, the New Age) by remaining a successful "backlist" house, meaning that it preferred its books to sell steadily forever rather than make a killing on the first printing and fall out of print.

Take the big feminist breakthrough memoir by housewife-turned-organizer Betty Screedan: The women's movement happened to come into fashion at the time her book, "The Feminist Ms. Speak," was published, and a long tenure on the New York Mimes bestseller list had followed. But the true worth of the book was not proven, according to Perkins "Perk" Maxwell, Screedan's editor, until ten, 20 and now 30 years later when the quality of her ideas and writing were scrutinized anew by each generation.

That was the reason you published, Patrick thought as he sat down at the library's massive conference table. As he remembered his grandfather saying half a century ago, the reason you did NOT publish was to chase after the masses, hoping to "give them what they wanted," as those awful Hollywood types (and, increasingly, New York editors) liked to say.

He had seen his father fall for that mentality and nearly drag the house into bankruptcy by throwing the company's treasury behind such flashes in the pan as "The Lesser Gatsby" and "The Red Badge of Chutzpah."

No, the only reason to publish a book, Patrick believed, was that it was so good you couldn't NOT publish it. You had to believe in each and every manuscript so that however "small" its subject, you felt the book could change the world in some key way. And if, bless their hearts, readers "out there" caught your fire and spread the word and bought the book for decades, if not centuries, why, that was a gift, a blessing and the whole point: It meant that you could watch the very spark of literature that you had brought into the world ignite the mind, one mind at a time, for as long as you lived.

Suddenly tears welled up in Patrick's eyes as he realized where this line of thinking would take him. Of the three Patriarchs who had headed the company, only he had loved this house with the depth and passion of a man obsessed - yet he had driven it to ruin.

Oh, he could blame those damn male cousins in Hackensack for selling the first shares to outsiders, or his widowed mother, "Mattie" Matriarch Patriarch, for leaving her controlling interest in the company to her chauffeur ("why, that new limo Jock drives is big enough for a bed!" she had exclaimed on her 90th birthday - how had he missed the signs of what doctors now call the Doris Duke Syndrome before it was too late?).

But Patrick knew the fall of the house of Patriarch had been his fault and his alone: Had he not been content with a 3 percent profit year after year ("well, we're not in the book business to make a lot of money!" he had said to the board of directors, echoing his father and grandfather before him), perhaps the family would not have seen the vultures descending.

But once the Hackensack cousins sold out and Mattie's chauffeur made a bundle, the German conglomerate Verschleppen ended up owning everything but Patrick's share - though he, by god, wasn't giving up without a fight. After all, Patrick was the one Patriarch scion who had insisted on attending Stanford University in California rather than Simpleton, the ivy league college that had made his father the kind of publisher (he died of cirrhosis at 42) he had come to be.

Perhaps because Patrick had been branded a renegade for crossing the Hudson early on, he had kept separate ownership of Patriarch House, this very Fifth Avenue building that had proven so historic and so valuable as skyscrapers sprouted up all around it.

A former convent whose nuns had used strap-on salad bowls to demonstrate their order's faith in extra virgin mary olive oil, Patriarch House still represented the last of the independent publishing houses, even if the Two Stuffies (as embittered Patriarch workers called the CEO and COO of Verschleppen U.S.) threatened to move the company uptown to the fascist-looking steel-and-glass skyscraper known as 'Schlep Tower.

It seemed that Verschleppen had the power to do anything it wanted - until yesterday, that is, when Perk's author, Justin Thyme, an unknown writer-professor from HowILoveYaHowILoveYa College in Sewee, Ala., had shocked the industry by winning a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, "Ureter Sleeping."

With this huge industry coup, wouldn't the two power-mad executives see how much prestige Verschleppen would reap out of a Pulitzer? And wouldn't they want to leave Patriarch editors like Perk alone to find new Pulitzers in the future? It was a future that he - .

"Hi, Pat, sorry I'm late," came the voice of Margarita ("Maggie") Editoria, marketing director of Patriarch for the last eight years. Slipping into one of the solid oak hardback chairs ("not exactly ergonomic," the Verschleppen executives had pronounced on their first visit), she sighed wearily. "Well, I've just left Warner and Simon," she said, referring to the Two Stuffies, "and they're not budging on the Thyme second printing."

"What do you mean, 'not budging?' " Patrick asked incredulously. "We're out of stock on a book that just won the Pulitzer Prize because they were so stingy to begin with. The matter is not even in question. We go back to press for at least 20,000 and we do so right now."

"Well, they see the Pulitzer as falling by the wayside as a sales tool, much like the Nobel," she said. "Every time some 'cow-driver in Burma,' as they put it, wins the Nobel, the publisher spends a ton of money going back to press, and all it gets is a library sale of maybe 3,000 copies and remainders they can't even dump in Australia."

"But the Pulitzer is always worth at least 10,000," Patrick argued, "and with the cult following already built up behind Thyme in California, not to mention critical reviews about to start - "

"I know, I told them," Maggie said wearily as the door to the library opened and Perk Maxwell walked in. "But you know what the problem is? It hasn't got anything to do with the Pulitzer Prize OR the Nobel."

"Yes, I know what the problem is," Perk said furiously. "I only know too well!" He slammed his papers down on the conference table. "Justin Thyme is not THEIR author! He was signed on before Verschleppen bought Patriarch! They don't WANT success until they can claim it!"

"I think you're right, Perk," said Maggie, "but they're saying it's the pornographic element."

Perk and Patrick looked at Maggie with their mouths open. "What porno element?" asked Patrick.

"Well, they think the hero's ureter - remember the fire hose scene? - is going to be too much for the Oprah set."

"The Oprah set! What are they talking about? This isn't a come-from-the-dead self-esteem weeper! This is a literary effort rooted in existential urinary ennui!"

"All they know is, it's about a guy's ureter, in the same way that Justin's 'The Swollen Member and Other Stories' was about a guy's - "

"All right, self-esteem in the lower regions, I don't care! - because if you don't have a functioning ureter - "

"Wait. It's not women's urinary tracts Thyme is talking about," Patrick said, trying to understand the argument. "So maybe that's why they're worried about the Oprah set - women, who buy most of the fiction, can't identify with men's nonfallopian tubes. Still, I don't see how a ureter in any way can sound pornographic."

"They did mention the vacuum hose scene," Maggie said. "The testicles as dirt clods and so forth. I thought it was brilliant, but - "

"I'll say!" Perk and Patrick responded as one.

" - but you have to admit, the Two Stuffies just aren't literary enough to understand that sort of thing, let alone believe the general reader would. In fact, they suggested we submit to book to the Classed-Up Classics program at You've Got Piles! That would 'save the novel,' they said."

"What?" shouted Perk. "Why, that is the last straw! Classed-Up is the program where they get those hack writers from the old 'Arsenio' show, right? And these - these - gag artists would rewrite 'Ureter Sleeping' for college kids?"

"No, they could get it down to the high-school level," Maggie replied. "You know how 'The Sound and the Fury' got changed to 'The Patter of Little Feet' in the teen-aged mothers program where they tithe their lunch money to - "

"I don't care about any teen mother except the last one Thyme impregnated!" exploded Perk.

An abrupt silence filled the great library. "Wait a minute, Perk. You're speaking figuratively, yes?" asked Maggie.

"Not exactly," Perk answered, suddenly deflated. "I've just learned from Justin's wife that a student he used to call Spanky is three months' pregnant and her father is so furious that he's smuggled a double-barrelled scattershot automatic assault minibazooka flame-thrower in his artifical leg and is on a plane to California. You know Justine's doing that autographing in Posterior tomorrow."

"Why, yes, I do!" exclaimed Patrick. "I not only know that, I've figured out the answer to all our problems!"

NEXT: NEW LEAKS AT BLADDER.COM

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