NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

THE REMAINDERS OF THE DAY
by X. Libris

Chapter 19: Confrontation on the Plane: Part III

"Oh, no," groaned Tubby Shaft into the airplane telephone he had pulled out from the seat cradle in front of him.

As head of the country's largest chainbookstore, You've Got Piles!, Shaft didn't like to use negative terminology.He thought of himself as an upbeat guy, a real competitor, a winner.Groaning "oh, no" into a phone on a flight from New York to San Franciscowas not his style.

"What's wrong?" said Chintzy, his head buyer. He hadn't heard Tubby utter a negative word since the chain took a bath on "The Filament" by John Squishem, the light-bulb-lawsuit thriller that unfortunately never lit up.

Tubby waved at Chintzy to wait a moment. "You mean ALL the first printing? To ONE independent bookstore? Well, no wonder we couldn't - . But how can we -

?"

By now Chintzy was concerned. He put down the galley that had kept him intrigued since takeoff, "Memoirs of a Sous Chef," the story of a girl whose impoverished family sells her to a five-star restaurant in the south of France. He had just gotten to the part where the 6-year-old reveals a talent for Bernaise sauce when Tubby's groans interrupted him.

"Well," sighed Tubby, replacing the receiver. "The bad news is that those dunderheads at Verschleppen sent the entire first printing of 'Ureter Sleeping' to one store - an independent bookstore of all things - and that's why we don't have a single copy in the whole chain."

"And the good news?"

"Why, my friend," Tubby said, brightening, "we are on our way to Francisco's, the very store in Posterior, California, where every single one of those books now resides! I tell you, it's uncanny, sometimes. I've just had the best return on emotional investment since I read that great book for Type A gourmands, 'Zen and the Art of Cuisinart Maintenance.' "

"Oh, right," said Chintzy. "That's the one where you slow way down and bring - what's the word?"

"Gutfulness."

" - gutfulness into the workplace, yes. And you think that accounts for - "

"Our creative problem-solving approach. We got on this plane to go after the author himself when we realized not a single copy of 'Ureter Sleeping' had hit the chain. Now we find out this Thyme fellow has won a Pulitzer Prize, and we've just been told where the books are, so we don't have to bother with Thyme."

"Weren't we going to grab him first and tour him?"

"What for? Nobody's going to BUY the book, Chintzy. It's another prize-winner that's too good for most people to stomach. No, we just need to get enough books to cover our New Releases tables before Choppers undercuts us."

Choppers was the chain/online bookstore whose discounts were so heavy ("We CHOP book prices in two!" ran the ads) that neither You've Got Piles! nor bladderbooks.com, the big Internet supplier that was making Tubby's life miserable ("challenging," he would say), could keep customers from bolting out the door/screen.

"I've figured out a new income stream, Chintz," he said happily. "It came to me when we sneaked into that awful little store uptown, what was it called?"

"Oh, you mean the Possum Book Mart."

"That's it. Remember we stood behind the counter and eavesdropped on the clerks? Every one of them knew the stock backward and forward and loved talking about books they thought the customers would love."

"What a waste when they could have been inputting data. It was sickening."

"I'll say, but you remember what we saw with our own eyes? The customers loved those clerks - they took the staff's advice all the time."

"But we don't pay our clerks enough to find the bathroom, let alone read the - "

"That's right, WE don't pay 'em, we make publishers pay FOR them!"

"Publishers? My god, we're already gouging them for everything - placing their books in the windows, the endcaps, the bestseller list, the catalog, the front piles, the counter piles, the back piles, not to mention the Wonderful Writers We Love From Our Very Hearts and Souls piles . . . "

"Yes, yes, but now we're gouging them for the STAFF, don't you see? Now look, if clerks' recommendations mean so much, all a publisher has to do is enter our new Buy a Clerk program and attend a few line-ups here and there. We trot out some of these likable guys and gals so that publishers sitting behind a one-way mirror can size 'em up. Sort of a reverse focus group. We could even have the clerks say something like, 'Do you like John Grisham? Then you will like James Joyce' - you know, to show how personable and authoritative they can sound."

"Oh, I get it. You mean we simply put our hired staff out for - for further hire," Chintzy said. "I like it. Eventually when I buy books, I can make the matchup right there - I'll just hold up a picture of our next available - let's call it a 'Talking Clerk' - and the publisher okays the deal right there."

"It's perfect," said Tubby. We can even offer something called Skin Real Estate for the stock clerks. They go around the store all day shelving books and never talking to customers, but there's no reason they can't pitch in, too: A pair of earrings advertising the latest Barbara Kingsolver, or suspenders covered with the face of John Grey, that sort of thing. Why, we could make a fortune if enough publishers go along."

"What do you think the clerks are going to say about it?"

"Say about it?" said Tubby. "They're not going to say anything about it, Chintz. Oh, we'll offer them something extra, you know, in health benefits - a pet burial or fungus treatment - and in the end, they'll all love it. You remember we read that book about getting your way in the '90s, 'It's a Compromise-Compromise Situation'?"

"Now there was heavy literature."

"Well, the best thing about clerks working in chain stores is, they're paid to know nothing about books. That's what's going to make Buy a Clerk so lucrative."

Chapter 20: Descending into Posterior

Jesse Zebra woke up with a start as he felt the airplane shift to its subtle descent toward San Francisco. He stretched, glancing over at Yahoo Flochart, his second-in-comand at bladderbooks.com, the online bookselling sensation that had made a fortune by losing one in only a few short years.

And that had just dodged a very big bullet. "We should think of this as a vacation after what we've gone through," Jesse murmured, looking past Yahoo for signs of San Francisco's famed back-bay town, Posterior, California.

Yahoo looked out the window and yawned. "That's for sure, Boss," he said luxuriously. Both felt like warriors moving on to the next scene of battle. "We're the good guys again."

They smiled at each other, remembering the close call. Although their office and pretend inventory of six billion books were located in the Yukon, the two had flown to New York to calm Wall Street and the press after word got out that bladderbooks.com's editorial recommendations of books were bought and paid for by book publishers.

So? What was wrong with that? Jesse had wondered. "Everybody in the business takes money for so-called recommendations," he told Yahoo after the first story hit the press from the New York Mimes.

"You've Got Piles! gets money rup the nose for every stack of books on the floor, every bogus window display. Look at that ridiculous promotion called Our Staff's Proud Favorites - honest to god, what loading-dock worker or shelving clerk or floor manager is going to recommend books like 'Dogs Who Bark Too Much' or 'Everything about Retainer Walls'? "

Yahoo waited for Jesse to finish venting. "The thing is, people expect a certain amount of greed from the chains," he said. "They've lived with phony chain-store 'recommendations' for years."

"My point exactly," Jesse interruped. "You think that insulting Spite Aid drugstore chain engenders trust, for crying out loud? Or that Price Max office supply chain with its unbelievably inflated prices isn't out for huge profits at customers' expense?"

"That's true," Yahoo said sympathetically. "What I mean is, people expect it from the chains, boss. But not from you."

That had stopped the Old Stripester, as Jesse Zebra liked to be called. The two had been studying the addition of another billion titles to bladderbooks' nonexistent inventory when Jesse slammed his meaty fist down on the BLADDER/BLADDER/BLADDER company mousepad.

"My god, you're right, Yahoo! I'm the only one who's been straight with 'em! I've always said the Internet is the last frontier for truth and individualism! Our books stand for something - if we really had any, of course - and I'm not going to let them down!"

So Jesse and Yahoo had flown to New York, where Jesse immediately went into his Orwellian Newspeak mode. He had loved the way Orson Wells had pushed the envelope on language in some Newsweek article in 1984 or something, and spoke with the same passion for truth as he described bladderbooks.com's integrity:

"Our staff picks are never for sale," he told the press. "If the publisher wants to contribute to our dedication in getting the word out about good books, we are happy to create a new channel for customer education."

That oughta do it, he thought, but no: "People want to know why you didn't tell them before this about taking money from publishers," Yahoo told him.

"Hey," Jesse told him. "That statement was taken right from bladderbooks' Omission Statement. Can't do better than that."

"Well, your citics are accusing you of taking payola."

"Payola!" Jesse exploded. "For god's sake, Yahoo, we're losing $24 million a quarter!"

"Yeah, I know, Boss, and Wall Street loves you for it. So do the banks. But customers are leaving us for Choppers.com - "

"Choppers! That clip joint? Those two-bit hack artists? Why, they'll be dead in 2 months."

"But they're doing the same thing we do," Yahoo said confidentially.

"Exactly."

"Look, Boss, you've just got to keep your customers online and - heh heh, I don't mean this cruelly but I can't help it - 'in line' as well, that's all."

Jesse didn't like jokes about the customers, Yahoo knew. He loved bladderbooks.com and he loved the people who used it. That's why he had overspent on the use-friendly database and its historic efficiency, its full-color jackets for every book, its growing dossiers on the reading habits of every customer, its parallel operations in music, drugs, lawn mowers, hair replacements, in vitro fertilizations, illegal weapons and political judgeships in southern Connecticut.

But if customers were leaving for choppers.com, Jesse realized, one day they'd probably find nothingherebuteverystinkingbestselleryou'lleverneed.com or any of the quick and facile book operations coming online to pick up the tailings of bladderbooks.com.

So eventually, the two had worked night and day on bladderbooks' new program, Diverse Underwritten Endorsements with Ongoing Partnerships, or DUE-WOP. "These are nondisclaimer useage opportunities for any publishers involved in compensatory contributions," Jesse told the press simply. "The program is similar to what you'd find in any cubbyhole bookstore in the country, but the nice thing about it at bladderbooks is that you can use it on any number of books. You can go DUE-WOP, DUE-WOP, DUE-WOP right on down the line on three at a time if you want."

The biggest change came from deep within the bladder system. Customers could now learn about any and all DUE-WOPS whenever they clicked Subsidies by Publishers Assisting with Money, or the SPAM page. "If all you want is SPAM," Jesse said directly to his concerned customers, "all we give you is SPAM. It's now what we do best."

"How do your workers feel about this? " a reporter asked.

"We don't have 'workers' in our family," said Jesse benevolently. "We have only paid volunteers. They love the new program because it gives them a chance to be extra-creative. Why, just the other day, they were exclaiming so much about a new facial beauty book that the publisher upped the budget and bam, that book has been SPAMMED right into customers' emails."

The new book was about a history-making skin cream that wiped out wrinkles and sculpted entire cheek bones at the same time. Written by the pharmacist-and-dermatologist team that had invented the cream, "Sometimes a Great Lotion" had been listed on the Home, Bestseller, We Recommend, Fated for Posterity, Instant Classic, Hot to Trot, Jumpin' Jehovah, Books We Love, We're Lying, We Can't Praise It Enough, Doctors We've Paid Off, AA (Acne Anonymous) and So Good We Can't Read It pages.

"I have to hand it to Shysterion Press for going DUE-WOP, DUE-WOP, DUE-WOP all over the website until none of us could stand it. Of course that was 2 million copies later."

The whole controversy had lasted less than a week. Hits to the SPAM page dropped to nearly nothing, and the press was back calling Jesse Zebra the "King of the Trotters" - ask him anything, and he'd trot out an answer that boiled everything down to - well, not black and white, like Zebras, but mud-grey.

"Whoa, Boss," said Yahoo, peering over the seatback in front of him. "Did you see who's on this plane?"

"Oh, yes," Jesse said casually. "Long ago, in fact. Let me count them for you: The two heads of Verschleppen U.S., the three top guns from Patrick Patriarch's Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins, and Tubby Shafts and his head buyer Chintz from You've Got Piles! Guess why they're all on this plane?"

"You're way ahead of me there," said Yahoo. "I hate to guess, but somehow I get the feeling we're all on this plane for the same reason . . . "

"And the first one out the door is going to be the winner when we all get to Posterior," said Jesse, surrepticiously unlocking his seat belt. "So here's the short-term plan: If we all hit the door at once, you ask the Verschleppen guys and I'll as the Patriarch people if they want to buy an ad."

NEXT: CHASING AN AMBULANCE TO POSTERIOR