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March 24, 2004

The miserable Hugo
Posted by Teresa at 02:39 PM *

Okay, that settles it: this is National Whine About Publishing Month. Avenue Victor Hugo, a thirty-year-old brick-and-mortar bookstore in Boston, is going out of business. They’ve announced this on their website, and followed it up with a long twelve-point whine about the death of the small independent bookstore. I’m not saying independent bookstore owners don’t have anything to complain about; but Avenue Victor Hugo deserves some kind of prize for contriving to blame absolutely everyone for their demise.

They blame: Corporate law, Publishers (“marketing their product like so much soap or breakfast cereal”), Book buyers (“those who want the ‘convenience’ and ‘cost savings’ of shopping in malls, over the quaint, the dusty, or the unique; who … prefer what is popular over what is good”), Writers (who “write what is already being written or choose the new for its own sake”—a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t formulation that caused me to inhale part of a chicken-and-pesto sandwich), Booksellers, Government (local, state, and federal), Librarians, Book collectors (“now mere speculators … putting books on the same level with beanie babies”), Teachers, Editors (“offering authors the Faustian bargain of fame and fortune, while pleading their best intentions like goats”), Reviewers (“for promoting what is being advertised, … and praising the obscure with priestly authority”—another damned-either-way formulation), and of course The Public (“those who do not read books, or can not find the time; who live by the flickering light of the television, and will be the first to fear the darkening of civilization—for not caring about consequences”).

It ends, apocalyptically:
Thus, we come to the twilight of the age of books; to the closing of the mind; to the pitiful end of the quest for knowledge—and stare into the cold abyss of night.
It’s such a fine and mournful and elevated sentiment—Emmeline Grangerford herself couldn’t have done no better—that you almost don’t want to tell him that by our best calculations, using every scrap of reliable data we can lay hands on, at this very moment more people are reading more books, reading a greater variety of books, continuing to read them later in life, et cetera and so forth, than ever before in the history of civilization.

I expect he has a point, though, about changing patterns of commercial traffic on Newbury Street.

(All you aspiring writers? Please don’t read that AVH jeremiad and get depressed about the state of publishing. Like the imminent death of the internet, the death of the publishing industry is frequently announced, and so far has failed to happen. Not that it couldn’t happen; but in our case, these fruitless announcements have been appearing for centuries.)

Comments on The miserable Hugo:
#1 ::: Dr. Evil ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:06 PM:

Of course, they got it all wrong: It's my fault that AVH is closing.

#2 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:13 PM:

This is too funny, Teresa. Not last week and I stopped by the store on my way to a lunch meeting and told the guy (I presume the owner) behind the counter how delighted I was they were still here--reason being the Globe had all but buried them last winter with a story saying they were shutting down.

Apparently some angel stepped in at the last minute and helped them survive...another year.

Since I had a few minutes, I popped upstairs to check the SF/Fantasy section to see if they might have a copy of Ballantine's Fellowship of the Ring with Tolkien's Bag End cover. (I've got the other two as well as the Hobbit with his artwork). Nope.

No biggie. Maybe they have some of Gene Wolfe's short story collections or an older version of Urth of the New Sun?

Nope.

Not saying that this is my litmus test for book stores when it comes to SF, or anything, but I was underwhelmed.

I still felt bad for the guy as I left.

Maybe not so much now. :)

#3 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:17 PM:

It's my fault for never having visited Boston. Hopefully that will change in August.

#4 ::: Adam ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:22 PM:

Well, dammit! They specifically left me off the list of folks getting blamed.

See if I stand outside their store and physically prevent customers from entering anymore.

Hmph.

#5 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:22 PM:

That's one reason I haven't been there in quite a while myself - they hardly ever had anything that I wanted. Of course it is in the nature of a used book store that it has somewhat limited control over what it has in stock, but it still didn't incline me to make a special trip to Newbury Street (I live in the Boston suburbs) just to shop there. (I do go to Boston for other reasons, but generally it isn't convenient to pop into random stores when I do.)

I'm amazed they've survived on Newbury Street as long as they have, given what the real estate must cost them.

#6 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:23 PM:

On Page Blue Cat:

"Many people come into the shop just to visit him."

. . . AND NOT BUY ANY BOOKS, the CAT-LOVING ILLITERATE BASTARDS!

#7 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:31 PM:

What, they didn't blame Grady Little or the Big Dig? Sheesh. And they call themselves Bostonians.

#8 ::: James Angove ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:32 PM:

It strikes me that what is dying isn't so much the independent bookstore as the small book store. Last I checked, large independents (Stacy's in the SF Bay, The Seminary Co-Op and the Powell's in Chicago, and of course the vast and mighty Powell's City of Books in Portland, OR against which all other books stores are but sad little imitations) were all doing just fine. Its the little guys that are getting crushed; they don't have the shelf space to be an intersting browsing experience, and if you just want *that book* you can go to Amazon. But its not something that singles out the independents -- I don't see alot of B. Daltons or Waldenbooks around anymore either.

It likely makes me an ass, but I can't find it in my heart to much mourn this trend that seems to me to replace not very good book stores with mostly better bookstores with more and more kinds of stuff. (I do kind of mourn that seems to be hard on specialty stores as well, though).

#9 ::: Holly M. ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:37 PM:

>All you aspiring writers? Please don't read that >AVH jeremiad and get depressed about the state >of publishing.

Hey listen, I was depressed for a solid month before Whine About Writing month began, and I've gone steadily uphill through the whole of March. Nothing like other people's problems to put your own in perspective. Whiners.

But be careful, Teresa, somebody might construe your reassurance as speaking ex cathedra, or leading us on with false hopes only so you can smash them cruelly, or something.

#10 ::: Holly M. ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:41 PM:

Jeez. And now that I've read the article, it sounds like it was written by the Comic Store Guy on Simpsons. The same combination of snootiness and cluelessness.

#11 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:43 PM:

I got the impression after a while that the whole laundry list wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It seemed too nuttily over-the-top. Am I wrong?

If it was sincere, then, well, sorry....

Book buyers...who buy books according to price instead of content

If there's anywhere where someone would buy a book according to price rather than content, wouldn't it be in a used book store like this one? I know I've done that at the Strand numerous times.

#12 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:52 PM:
It strikes me that what is dying isn't so much the independent bookstore as the small book store.
And not even those, necessarily. There still seem to be quite a few small and medium-sized independent and used book stores in the Boston area, but mostly in Cambridge and Somerville, where the rents are lower than on Newbury Street, there are lots of university types around, etc.

Which is another reason why I haven't been to AVH in a long time - I don't often deliberately go on a bookstore crawl these days (though I would like to do so more often), but if I did I'd go to Cambridge and work my way up Mass Ave, where I can go to lots of bookstores (and one or two other places I like). If I go to AVH, I can shop in the rest of the stores on Newbury at the same time, none of which interest me in the slightest.

It's not their fault that their neighborhood changed under them, but I can't see it as the fault of writers, editors, publishers, readers, cats, etc.

#13 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 03:53 PM:

Here in Kansas City we're waiting to see how much a 1/2 Price Books, which moved in at the Westport Shopping Center, will harm the few excellent small bookstores in the mid-town area - Prospero's, Spiveys (they should not be affected at all, they're an antiquarian, map and print place), Seldom Seen Books (which is new, but a used book store)(there may be more but I'm not remembering... or I've never been in 'em). There are two comics/game stores that are right across Main from one another, and they're not eating each other, yet. We had a Barnes & Noble move in on the Plaza, which is only a few blocks south of Westport, but that didn't seem to make an impact.

We did have a new/used science fiction only bookstore out in Johnson County that opened and closed really fast, but that was more because he had a business partner fail to live up to his part of the deal. He's now a Web only store, though.

#14 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:00 PM:

Dan,
There still seem to be quite a few small and medium-sized independent and used book stores in the Boston area, but mostly in Cambridge and Somerville, where the rents are lower than on Newbury Street, there are lots of university types around, etc.

Absolutely right. For example, just driving fown 53 or Route 3A from Boston to, say, Plymouth, you'd be surprised what little hole-in-the-wall places there are. One shop right off Marshfield Center that used to be facing the town bookstore; then there was Annie's Book Shop in Weymouth. And in Hingham, and a great little one in Braintree on Washington Street... etc.

#15 ::: Brian Ledford ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:02 PM:

Is pandemonium books [if I've named it wrongly, I mean the SFF specialty bookstore in Harvard square] doing badly? I would mourn its passing. And if it isn't doing badly, I have to wonder why Victor Hugo is. My hope is Pandemonium is doing well and competing with the big box stores because I think it can/could/does - larger inventory of its niche, used books, imports, a somewhat broader interpretation of SFF than my local Borders (i.e., Christopher Moore, Ian (no M)Banks). They also get new SFF releases on the shelf a week or so earlier than Borders (at least for Lord of Castle Black). So if they are doing well or surviving comfortably, I could attribute V-H's troubles to something else.

#16 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:07 PM:
Is pandemonium books [if I've named it wrongly, I mean the SFF specialty bookstore in Harvard square] doing badly?
I have no idea how they're doing financially, but they're still there, which says something. I have no reason to expect them to have the same problems as AVH, given their location. They're upstairs in a little urban mall in Cambridge - granted, in Harvard Square, which ain't the cheapest commercial real estate around, but I am bound to think this is cheaper than on-street space on Newbury. They're also in proximity to related stores (other bookstores, Million Year Picnic, etc.) and lots and lots of university people.
#17 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:10 PM:

This is definitely the best of the two whines I've sampled today. Jane Austen Doe's whine was simultaneously fruity and bitter, not to mention immature. I suspect that it became spoiled somewhere in the bottling process. Lastly, it left a sour aftertaste which took some time to fade. I gave my complimentary bottle to the bum at the freeway offramp.

The Hugo whine was by far the better of the two. It had a deep and sullen flintiness, which stopped just short of being bitter, and there were some darkly mellow overtones which were obviously the product of careful, long fermentation. Unlike the Jane Austen Doe, which was clearly the product of a huge, metal tank, the Hugo showed the kind of richness which can only be acheived by careful aging in ancient oak barrells. I took a couple bottles home, and I'll serve it on the porch this summer. I have no doubts that its truculant flavour will create a lovely contrast with the green hills which surround my home.

Alex

#18 ::: Jon P. ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:11 PM:

Um. They're a used bookstore, no? (from the comments I'm reading; I'm not From There, so I don't know.)

How'sabout blaming Used Bookstores for stealing customers who'd otherwise buy new?

Just a thought.

-j, used book buyer but, still... put the blame where it properly lies...

#19 ::: Meredith ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:11 PM:

So I'm good if I write the new as long as it is for something else's sake? Like, say, the love of a good cat or to save the spotted subjunctive? Just checking. I wouldn't want to inadvertently cause the death of the independent bookstore while I'm figuring out how to make my outline work.

What is the level of Beanie Babies anyway? Somewhere below the prodigal and above the sullen?

I feel for the plight of the independent retailer. But it is a remarkably similar plight across industries – I write for a gift trade magazine, and the problems have a lot in common. So do the solutions, at least at the level a storeowner can implement. If he’s so convinced that it is some kind of sacrilege to treat books like any other product, it seems rather gauche of him to have expected to make money.

#20 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:29 PM:

Other Change of Hobbit's closing will not try to blame publishers (who do the best they can) or our regular customers (ditto); much more blameworthy is the effing Bush economy which seems to have been particularly hard on the people who want to support small businesses. When we go, we'll go with a desire to move forward rather than blame.

And hey -- 27 years is a very good run for an independent bookstore. Don't see what the AVH folks are bitching about having managed 30.

#21 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:34 PM:

Twenty-nine, actually, but I was being lazy.

#22 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:38 PM:

>Is pandemonium books doing badly?
Given that they're a specialty store, as of last weekend, they looked good. They recently had a large signing event that sold out (of the book I was looking for, actually), and they're selling the books for the largest class in the Harvard anthropology department, "Anthro 121: Humans, Aliens, and Future Home Worlds: An Anthropologist Looks at Science Fiction."

Also healthy as of last weekend, walking from Harvard Square to Central: WordsWorth (discount new); The Coop (new and textbooks); The Harvard Bookstore (new and used); another used bookstore I can never remember the name of; and Rodney's Used Books. And I can name at least six more specialty shops in the Square alone. We have lost a couple shops in the past few years, and I heard that the Grolier poetry shop is in trouble, which is a shame. But Boston unable to support bookshops? Nope.

#23 ::: Ashni ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:52 PM:

"Anthro 121: Humans, Aliens, and Future Home Worlds: An Anthropologist Looks at Science Fiction."

Just curious--what's on the reading list for that class? I'm a couple hundred miles too far west to take it, but it sounds interesting.

Northampton has a great SFF/mystery bookstore (The Space-Crime Continuum, if you're anywhere nearby). A couple of months after we moved in, the owners had figured out our favorite authors and were pulling them without our asking. That'll get you customer loyalty every time. On the other hand, when I lived on Long Island an hour plus drive from the nearest indie bookstore, I was pretty grateful for Borders.

#24 ::: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 04:55 PM:

This reminds me of a famous magazine editor who briefly directed an SF magazine during those heady days in 1977 when it looked like the market in Italy could sustain one. On the last issue of the magazine, before it folded, he published a long, bitter, angry rant about the necrophiliac public who didn't buy magazines for the posthumuos (I'm sure the sp is wrong here) pleasure of being able to mourn them. Of course the only ones who got to be lectured at were those, like me, who actually _did buy_ the magazine to the bitter end.

#25 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 05:11 PM:

Tom, I trust you are speaking hypothetically? If not I really should have bought more last November the last time I was in Berkeley . . .

#26 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 05:22 PM:

Ashni: The anthro 121 reading list with all the shorter articles is pretty long, and the class has movie screenings as well. There's a number of nonfiction books, including Adam Roberts' Science Fiction: A New Critical Idiom; and Camille Bacom-Smith's Science Fiction Culture, wherein our hosts are interviewed. The fiction is Childhood's End, The Left Hand of Darkness, Wild Seed, The Forever War, War of the Worlds, and I, Robot; plus some short stories. The course homepage is at http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~anth121/, and I think they have a syllabus up.

#27 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 05:34 PM:

You know, I've never actually seen a finished copy of Science Fiction Culture. I wonder what we said.

All this discussion of Boston-area bookstores moves me to note that, honest to gosh, New England is probably the least typical piece of the US when it comes to bookselling overall. I mean, there are probably more bookstores in Vermont towns of 5000 people or less than there are in some entire states.

#28 ::: Kathy Li ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 05:39 PM:

Claude, sadly, Tom was not speaking hypothetically (sigh).

#29 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 05:47 PM:

When I read the title and the first sentence of this post, this flashed through my head: "You don't mean a Hugo winner is now the latest to jump in and moaning about publishing?!"

No? Phew.

;-)

#30 ::: Lisa Williams ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 05:50 PM:

I worked at AVH for three years in the early nineties when I was in college. There were so many funny stories about the place! I think some of the best stories are about the cat. The cat that preceded Smoky Joe, Jupiter, developed diabetes. After taking him to the vet, Vince wondered what to do: should he have the cat put to sleep? Ultimately, he said that if everyone on the staff agreed to learn to give the cat an injection of insulin. One of the store's longtime managers, Tom, had a wry sense of humor and the most efficient injection technique on the staff. He'd snatch up the cat and have the injection finished by the time the cat could blink. One day, he followed the cat behind the counter with the loaded syringe, plucked the cat off the floor, plopped him onto the counter and BANG! Mission accomplished. One problem: a customer was in front of the counter with an armful of books. She was so startled that she yelped, dropped the books on the floor, and ran out the door.

#31 ::: Lisa Williams ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 05:57 PM:

Another curious thing: Who's John Usher, the person the list is attributed to? That's not the owner's name. Is the list a quote from a book or article?

One thing that's also rarely noted is that it's quite possible for a used bookstore to have bigger margins than a new bookstore. Back when I worked at a new bookstore, we never got more than 40% off the cover price, so if a book cost $10, the store made $4. But at used bookstores, we bought books by the crateload from library and estate sales for as little as ten cents (like most used bookstores we also bought books from patrons, giving them 20-40% of cover price on new books, but that represented only a small minority of total stock). A decent new hardback bought at that price could sell for $5-7 dollars. The thing was, you couldn't control your stock to make allowances for popular titles or subjects as easily as you could at a new bookstore.

#32 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 06:04 PM:

Ok, ok, that list is a bit whiny - but can we cut them a little slack? Going out of business is a pretty miserable process, and people aren't at their most sensible when they're living through a massive disappointment.

Also - note the list is "From THE HOUND by John Usher, copyright 2004." Is John Usher (I don't know of him) any relation to the store? It feels a little different if they're reprinting someone else's ready made rant.

#33 ::: Alice Keezer ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 06:09 PM:

*finally stops laughing at Lisa's anecdote long enough to post*

Yes, Patrick, New England towns have a plethora of bookstores. Something about long winter nights and not wanting to relate to one's neighbors, I'm sure.

I grew up on what I considered an intellectual stimulation void on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Having moved to an 'artsy' city in the North Carolina mountains, I realized that, taking population density into account, there were about twice as many bookstores within 10 miles of where I lived on the Cape than where I live now, and roughly five times the number of independent bookstores. Main Street, Hyannis alone had two used bookstores, a well-stocked library and two independent bookstores.

There may have been no place to eat after 10 pm, but nothing to do?

Go figure that I preferred Borders.

But then, Borders is where I discovered one of my current favorites, Charles de Lint. And where I stocked up on my favorite poet, Billy Collins. And the people working there were more approachable.

But despite a Borders and a Barnes & Noble being located more centrally, plus outrageous rent, the independent bookstores are still doing fine.

#34 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 06:26 PM:

rant deleted: no blame, just a catalog of difficulties. We hope to have a press release out by the end of the month. We expect to close at the end of May, and we're hoping that most of May can be a celebration of what we actually managed to do over the years. We made a few books, we helped a few authors, and we've been (in my opinion and much by my hand) probably the most fannish SF specialty store. The end of May is our 27th anniversary -- not a bad innings, I'd say.

#35 ::: Tom Galloway ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 06:32 PM:

Alice, I suspect you now live in Asheville. Trust me, the book situation thereabouts has improved markedly in the past couple of decades, probably starting with when Malaprop's opened in '82. I grew up 40 miles away in Brevard, leaving in '78. Back then, there was no bookstore in Brevard (a 5,000 person town, seat and largest town in a 20,000 person county), and the only bookstore I knew of in Asheville was a B.Dalton in the Asheville Mall. Now, *that* was an intellectual stimulation void. :-) Asheville wasn't even noticably artsy or hip back then either.

#36 ::: novalis ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 06:39 PM:

Ashni, some fannish friends of mine currently taking Anthro 121 say it's not stellar, but they're working, with some success, to improve it by their contributions.

As for AVH, John Farrell has it exactly right about selection -- I visited this summer, and couldn't find anything I was looking for. Lucius Shepard and Tim Powers are the only ones I can remember right now, but I looked for many names major and less major, and the cupboard was bare.

#37 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 06:41 PM:

Perhaps we should invade large printing presses and B&N warehouse distributers and throw doc martins and berkenstocks into the machinery :-)

Seriously - indie bookstores that stock lots of popular books, have a good location and a nice staff can stay in buisness. Encouraging customers helps. Childrens books are a huge market. So's the latest John Grisham or Jan Karol. Specialty bookstores have it tough.

I hope some good will come out of the sucess of the LOTR trilogy in terms of further investment in fantasy/scifi. It's certainly working that way with comic books.

#38 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 06:47 PM:

In my capacity as a member of categories three, four, eight, ten (just barely), and twelve: If that’s how you really feel, then screw you, Avenue Victor Hugo. I’m glad I never had the opportunity to shop there.

For some reason, I’m reminded of nothing as much as Charlie Stross’ recent comment: “then why are you obsessed with placing your masterpiece . . . in front of an audience of idiots?”

#39 ::: Joy Rothke ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 07:07 PM:

I hope they're offering 50% off on Jane Austen Doe books.

#40 ::: Michael Rawdon ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 08:16 PM:

I lo-o-oved AVH when I was in high school. I made so many good finds there, and in retrospect so many other finds that I didn't appreciate at the time and wished I'd splurged to pick them up.

At some point in the 90s, AVH went downhill, in my opinion. The quality of their used books - talking mainly science fiction here - really declined, to the point that I would find maybe one book every four or five visits (spread over 3 years, since I don't live in the area anymore). They started carrying new books, which held no attraction for me since I always bought new books elsewhere (usually patronizing indy stores near where I lived, since I didn't live in the area anymore).

By the year 2000 I went there more out of nostalgia for my younger days than because I actually had success finding books there.

I don't really know what happened to cause its stock - the stock I was interested in, anyway - to decline like this, the policies of used bookstores being something of a black box for me. But, based on my own experiences I'm not surprised it went out of business.

Alas.

#41 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 08:17 PM:

It likely makes me an ass, but I can't find it in my heart to much mourn this trend that seems to me to replace not very good book stores with mostly better bookstores with more and more kinds of stuff. (I do kind of mourn that seems to be hard on specialty stores as well, though).

Specialty stores? If by that you mean stores that sell only one kind of books (like, say, San Francisco's marvellous Stout Books), then that doesn't seem to be the case at all. When people I know are looking for a general bit of reading, they go to Barnes and Noble, but when they want more depth than six shelf-feet of stock can give, they head to a book store that specializes in one kind of book. I rarely buy a book that costs more than $25 at B&N, but I often buy expensive specialty books at specialty book stores.

As for general used book stores, I am very choosy about where I bother to drive, park, and browse. Even in the Bay Area, which has a relatively low concentration of such beasts.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of used book stores. But lately I've been buying books at thrift stores. They rarely price a book over $5, they don't think a ragged, jacketless 1954 copy of Ulysses is a rare book that should be priced at $25 (a form of insanity known to afflict the secondhand book dealer), and they get huge turnovers in stock on a regular basis (largely because the local used book dealers are also there, buying stock for their stores).

Most used book stores set their prices unreasonably high. I like supporting local businesses and having my money stay in the area, but I really dislike being treated like a chump.

I guess in that way, the book trade has become like the Beanie Baby trade. But why bother to buy a stuffed animal when you can buy a book (or ten) for the same price?

#42 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 08:43 PM:

> It ends, apocalyptically:
Thus, we come to the twilight of the age of books; to the closing of the mind; to the pitiful end of the quest for knowledge—and stare into the cold abyss of night.

How about:

The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the [bookstore], in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened --there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind --the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight --my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder --there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters --and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "HOUSE OF [John] USHER."

Now THAT is apocalyptic.

#43 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 09:15 PM:

Ayse: being treated like a chump is how you describe being asked to allow us to offer folks reasonable prices for their used books and still try to make a profit? The community doesn't stop with you, it doesn't stop with the bookstore, and it doesn't stop with me.

Thrift stores are as cheap as they are because they get books for free. I'll shop in them too, but I also shop in other independents who are trying to +make a living+ out of selling books. Which thrift stores, unfortunately, aren't.

#44 ::: Madeline ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 09:35 PM:

The Other Change of Hobbit is closing? Dang it! Tom, if you're inclined to posting your rant on why anywhere, I'd really like to read it.

I guess I need to go to downtown Berkeley and visit you guys some more... Damn the lack of parking, full speed ahead! :(

I'm going to miss you. Great atmosphere, reasonably-priced stuff, got in some darn neat used books, and didn't deface them with black marker or (god forbid) hole punches through the part of the cover that contains the book's original selling price... (Siderant: What is wrong with bookstore people who do that? Did something eat their brains?)

#45 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 09:53 PM:

We decided to use grease pencil to price our books because it would come off (in almost all cases -- doesn't work on magazines, drat the luck). We're actually careful to use white grease pencil when we think black might stain a white part of the book. Both Dave and I are collectors, and Deb was willing to listen to us.

The rant included swabbing out the piss that people leave in our entryway, the fact that Amazon can lose billions and still be the apple of many people's eyes, the number of people who wish they could afford books at all, and a sad feeling for not being able to keep building community the way we started -- there's at least half a dozen people who post here regularly who we nurtured, some with very little visible potential at the start, all with a love for our genre.

Basically, we can't afford to keep losing money at the rate we have. My inheritance is eaten up, Dave hasn't gotten his, and there's only so far we can go with selling off our own collections. Not enough people in the door, not enough money per person coming in.

Does it hurt to think about letting it go? Fuck, yes. If I were rational about it, we'd probably have closed many years ago. But now it's time, and it's time to do something else. None of us can lose what we had, but we can know that it won't come again in the same way.

Patronize Borderlands in SF as much as you can.

#46 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 09:54 PM:

Datapoint from one avid reader and consumer:

We do virtually all our book shopping in Barnes & Noble, Borders and online. Short, four-word reason why: we're satisfied with them.

Longer reason why: I don't feel like I do as much browsing as other book-lovers seem to do. I think of browsing as a sort of random walk through a bookstore, pulling out books as they catch my eye, and basing a buying decision on the cover, and random reading of a page or two. Whereas, generally speaking, when I browse, I'm more purposeful than that. I'm looking for things I've already decided, through some other channel, that I will like. I'm looking for new books by authors that I know I like, or books and writers that I heard good things about.

And when I do browse, when I feel like truly wandering at random through a bookstore, I'm generally pleased with the selection at B&N/Borders.

The last time I did a true browse was Monday night, actually, and I did it spontaneously, because I was going to the supermarket and there is a B&N in the same shopping center as the supermarket, and I figured, WTF. And I came away with a pretty good score, too - only two books, but they were two very nice finds: The first book was a biography of Diamond Jim Brady. I got sold on that when I opened a page at random and came across a discussion of the role that trains played in the pop culture of the 19th Century. The second book was a third volume in Tom De Haven's Derby Duggan trilogy, which I didn't even KNOW was a trilogy - I read "Derby Duggan's Depression Funnies" years ago, and I loved it, but it didn't even OCCUR to me that it might be a series. Then I came across "Funny Papers" and I said to myself, holy crap, there's more than one book about these guys? But it never occurred to me that it might be a TRILOGY. Woo-hoo!

I bought a third book Monday night: "Summerland," by Michael Chabon. Am reading it now. It is migh-T-fine. Is it sf or is it fantasy? I'll let you know when I finish, but my answer so far is: yes.

P.S. I drink at independent coffee houses when I'm home, but when I'm travelling, I often find myself in a Starbucks. And we buy Starbucks coffee from the supermarket, although our brand loyalty is fairly slim there and we may well buy some other brand next time.

#47 ::: Alice Keezer ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 09:54 PM:

Tom G. - yes, exactly right.

Don't get me wrong. I use 'artsy' in quotes because it's not a word I'd use to describe Asheville, though it fits. The random art on downtown sidewalks is enough to convince me of that. And Asheville certainly isn't an intellectual void, either. The number of bookstores is nothing to sneeze at. But my hometown in New England had a lot, too.

I suppose what my post was doing was marveling that I had the gall to whine about the lack of things to do when there was practically a bookstore on every corner.

#48 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 10:23 PM:

The Other Change of Hobbit is closing? Damn. I'd heard rumors of it for a while, including from you guys, but I was always hoping you'd decide to shoulder on. Tom (& Dave), I'm really sorry to hear this. I too wouldn't mind seeing your rant -- this particular comment thread doesn't seem the most appropriate place for it, of course, but somewhere.

As far as used/small/independent bookstores go, while I enjoy the feeling of walking through a huge room surrounded by books, I enjoy the feeling of quirky possibility and personal service even more. Where I live I've watched most of the used/small/independent/specialty bookstores take a dive whenever the book warehouses like Borders or Barnes & Noble appear. (The one exception is a new/used bookstore in Palo Alto *right next to a Borders*, and I have no clue how they survive. ("It's not very easy," they've told me. I buy from them whenever I can, and eschew the hulk next door.)

#49 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 10:51 PM:

Tom W.: Wait, I lied, this is the *exactly* right thread to post your rant in. :)

Mitch W.: My definition of browsing includes "browsing within a category," not just random walks. I regularly browse only within a particular section of a store. As for looking for new books by authors that I know I like, or books and writers that I heard good things about, my experience is that 90 percent of the time, the staff of a smaller store will have a better line on that than that of a large chain.

Not only that, the depth of knowledge frequently available at a smaller store can whittle down my browsing time even within a category, especially when I'm looking for something new but trying to winnow through the chaff. A question I've heard several times in the Other Change of Hobbit, paraphrased: Which authors do you wish you could read all over again? Tom W. (or Dave N. or whomever) mulls over my answer, compares it to what's new and interesting in the store, and directs me to books I otherwise might never have picked up.

#50 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 10:52 PM:

...to save the...subjunctive?

Oh, would that we could.

#51 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 11:02 PM:

Vanessa: I don't really take recommendations from bookstore staff.

On the other hand, maybe I should: I used to frequent a small, indie bookstore in Newton, N.J. and one day the staff there gave me a gift of some kind of pre-publication galley of a book called "Mohawk," by some fella named Richard Russo.

I thanked them nicely and stuck it up on my bookshelf and forgot about it.

Six or seven years later I took it down again and read it over and now I'm a stone Richard Russo fanatic.

#52 ::: Nomie ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 11:30 PM:

Xopher:

>...to save the...subjunctive?
Oh, would that we could.

Isn't that an optative rather than a subjunctive?

[/language geekery]

#53 ::: Ogre-Eyed ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2004, 11:42 PM:

Honestly, I've found more Barnes and Nobles and Borders that I've liked than small bookshops. In fact, my first memory of a small bookshop comes from when I was six or so and accompanying my father into a little bookstore...the owner, a crusty old woman in a dirty sweater, freaked out, since kids weren't allowed in her store. So I waited out in the car. Yes...the "dusty and the unique", indeed. Dave Barry once wrote something to effect that malls often crush out Small-Town Businesses because the malls don't have window displays featuring dead bugs and crepe paper that hasn't been changed since the Eisenhower administration.

Granted, it's totally unfair to characterize something from one experience. However, I remember when I was a poor college student and took the bus everywhere. Naturally I took my backpack with me, since it's the easiest way to carry stuff on the bus. Once in search of textbooks I went to a huge used bookstore, three floors of stuff (stank of cat urine, incidentally, as the owner was rather fond of cats and less fond of cleanliness). The owner actually called the cops on me, since I had a backpack on and, for some inexplicable reason, was convinced that I was shoplifting from his pornography section (in fact I was shopping for a medieval history textbook). Never got hassled for carrying a backpack when I went to a Barnes and Noble or a Borders. So admittedly my bias is somewhat against independent bookstores.

But then again, I have found some superb little, independent, and used bookstores. Renaissance Books in the Mitchell Airport at Milwaukee is the best I've found...used and new, and a prime location, being in Milwaukee.

It was also a small bookstore that got me started on Stephen King. While a poor college student, I took the train to Milwaukee to visit a friend and within a matter of hours was totally lost. I found this neat little store called "Little Read Book" somewhere in the suburbs and asked the propreitor, a gracious middle-aged woman, for directions and if I could use the restroom. She graciously provided directions, but said if I used the restroom, it was considered only polite to buy something in return. I agreed and bought, at random, a copy of "Salem's Lot". On the ride back I started reading it, and later neglected all work for a day as I finished reading it. "LOOK UPON ME AND DEEESPAIIIR!" indeed.

So I suppose the moral is that indepedent bookstores can be a lot of fun, provider the propreitor isn't a crazed, embittered tyrant.


#54 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:19 AM:

Tom --

May it is. I'll be there.

#55 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:25 AM:

Patronize Borderlands in SF as much as you can.

I second that emotion! Sorry to hear that OCH is going under.

Vanessa, have you been to Know Knew Books? It's in the other Palo Alto downtown area, on California, and they have hundreds of shelf-feet of well-organized used SF and fantasy.

Kepler's in Menlo Park is as large as a Borders but much nicer, and Wessex across the street is small but very tasty.

I'm not totally against the big boys--they're certainly preferable to the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton's of my youth--but living in SF there's really no reason for me to go to one unless I need a lunchtime Calvin & Hobbes fix or something. Like Starbuck's, it's fine if there's nothing better around, but no more. And Borders (my local one, at least) is a miserable record store--I wish they wouldn't even bother, and just put more books in.

I'm a committed browser and only order on-line as a last resort. I don't really know why.

And I'm glad I got to go to A. Amitin's in St. Louis before it closed. Now that was a bookstore experience.

#56 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:32 AM:

Brian: Don't worry about Pandemonium--I'll be moving to the Boston area in the near future.

#57 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:50 AM:

Know Knew Books is amazing. I'm sorry I didn't get to go more than once or twice, but I was already busy blowing my nonexistent spending money on popular math books for my student-teaching classes. Found Kuttner's The Dark World there, for which I am eternally grateful to them. If I ever get to return to Palo Alto with a bookbuying budget...

#58 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:06 AM:

Found Kuttner's The Dark World there

As did I!

#59 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:19 AM:

One of these days I'm going to have to check out the other used book shops in the Bay area. The only trouble is, to get to any of them, I have to walk past BookBuyers on my way to the station...

#60 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:20 AM:

There were a good bunch of Kuttner's pulp adventures published by Ace in the mid sixties -- have you folks read the others? I don't find them as interesting as the later Kuttner/Padgett etc, but they're some fun anyway.

#61 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:28 AM:

Alex--I'm always saying "Would you like some cheese and crackers with that whine?" to a particularly whiny friend of mine, but you've got me beat by a mile.

I'm sorry to hear about AVH closing--I would usuallly visit it when I was in Boston and certainly have found some cool obscurities there.

I find all of the establishments mentioned (chains, inependents, thrift stores) useful. E.g., speaking of Chabon, I recently picked up a perfectly nice trade pb copy of Kavalier and Clay, which i've been meaning to read for a while, for 79¢ at the local Salvation Army. If I have some specific thing I must have at once, it'll probably be B&N unless I know St. Marks Books will have it. But StM has really good remainders...

I'm also a great fan of the street booksellers, who are out mostly in the summer, despite the cops' unconstitutional hassling. Some of the rarest books I own are from them. I'm incorrigible. I remember walking rapidly on the way to a movie with a bunch of friends and yelling "I'll catch up with you in a second" as I snatched up a nice copy of the Conan the Conqueror Ace Double, handed the seller a dollar, and dashed ahead...

But of course the best place of all to get books is from the trash. I have an 1839 Thomas De Quincey collection of essays that I found in a trash can on First Ave. I have strange Santería handbooks, bondage porn paperbacks from the '70s, Black Muslim literature, and the entire Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Just last night, it was what looks to be a great bit of military history, The Armies of Wellington, by Philip J. Hawthornthwaite (London:Arms and Armour, 1994), 1st ed. mint in DJ, with a clear plastic wrapper to boot! Who are these people who throw this stuff out?!

And let's not even talk about vinyl...

#62 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:38 AM:

I've only read The Dark World of his pulpy stuff, and it's alleged to be one of C. L. Moore's anyway (I'm a big Jirel fan). I have Fury and Valley of the Flame on my to-read shelf, though.

As for the Padgett era, well, one of the tracks on my latest album is called "Rattle-Geared Narcissus"...

#63 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 02:12 AM:

Ayse: being treated like a chump is how you describe being asked to allow us to offer folks reasonable prices for their used books and still try to make a profit? The community doesn't stop with you, it doesn't stop with the bookstore, and it doesn't stop with me.

No, Tom. Being treated like a chump is something that dishonest secondhand booksellers -- the ones who go out of business in two to four years and blame Barnes and Noble for their demise -- do to me. It's secondhand bookstores charging way more for a piece of crap than it is really worth, it's a dealer telling me that a reprint is a first edition when it's clearly not, it's a seller thinking that I'll be fooled by the age of a book into thinking it has value beyond the words on the page.

I don't object to secondhand stores charging reasonable amounts for books I can't find elsewhere. I object to a bookseller who is very obvious about thinking, "These people will buy anything." That attitude will make me shop elsewhere.

If you're paying sellers more than stock is worth, that's really a business problem. If paying too much for used books means selling them for too much, the market will correct you on its own. "The community" doesn't buy me books, so I don't feel any need to support "the community" in my book-buying endeavors. (I very rarely sell books, as I only buy what I want.)

Note that I don't buy SF at all, unless the author is a friend of mine. Don't know the genre from Paracoccidioidomycosis brasiliensis. It might be a totally different deal for that market and I would never know. But the next dealer who offers me a jacketless, foxed 1950's Grosset & Dunlap for $100 is going to get a stick in the eye.

#64 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 04:43 AM:

I get most of my news off the net these days but somehow I never expected to hear something like OCH closing in a venue such as this one.

I remember when I first encountered the store. I must have been about ten, and was walking with my family through the shopping building south of campus and my mother pointed out the sign. (The original one in black on orange wood.) I didn't realize that it was a new store, I thought it had been there for a while and I'd just never noticed it.

I remember being in there chatting with Debbie about this and that, and feeling the shake of a truck driving by overhead. Only it wasn't a truck, it was the start of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Fuck.

#65 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 08:33 AM:

When we lived in the Bay Area, we bought a lot of books at OCH. Not because it was convenient; it was a 45-minute BART ride away, and we had a Borders 10 minutes from our house. Not because the selection was better than at other stores; sometimes it was, and sometimes it wasn't. Not because it's independent; I support bookstores based on other things than that.

We went to The Other Change for two reasons: a few odd magazines we wouldn't find at chain bookstores, and the clerks. At least two clerks there recognized my family on sight. I don't know if they knew our names, but they knew that we'd been in there before, that I'd come in looking for Judith Merril stories and left with a Jonathan Carroll novel instead. They would chat with us over what we'd bought, what we were buying this time, what else we thought was good, what we thought was eye-rollingly bad. They knew how many people were in my family and would ask after whoever wasn't there. It got to the point where we knew our favorite clerk's work schedule and would put off going in if he wasn't going to be there that day.

Now we shop at Uncle Hugo's, where they rarely send books back to the publisher, so I can buy The Fortunate Fall new. Where -- surprise! -- we have a favorite clerk who knows who we are and reads out bits of Locus to us while we're in the store and talks to us about what we're buying and what we bought last time and all of that.

It's possible that this sort of "our own clerk" thing could happen at a local chain store. Heaven knows I'm not opposed to the chain stores. I remember how my high school friends and I used to make pilgrimages down to Lincoln's Barnes before Omaha got one. I remember how we got sneered at and asked to leave one of the local independent non-genre bookstores for the horrid sin of being teenagers who wanted to look at lots of books before selecting a paperback apiece. Compared to that, Barnes was a fabulous place to buy the things Star Realm and Merchant of Venus didn't have. (And besides, my mom was none too sure she wanted her 15-year-old daughter wandering around on 42nd St. at a place called Merchant of -- Merchant of what?, she demanded. And B&N stayed open late.) I don't feel sorry for AVH, because they're acting just like the people who kicked us out of their bookstore when I was a teenager. I am sorry that OCH won't be there if we visit friends in the Bay Area again. It was a good place to go.

#66 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 09:17 AM:

I ran a comic shop/used book shop/used record shop/etc for a year or so in the 70s. I liked educating my younger patrons in the history of my beloved comics medium, and some of them were regulars. I only found out later on, by accident, that they not only were robbing me routinely (so the jerk who managed the place before me was right, "the little bastards are robbing me blind!" -- but then, so was he, it turns out), but they actually thought I knew about it and tacitly encouraged it.

Perhaps it's just as well I only found out later.

#67 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 09:52 AM:

I've worked in bookselling or publishing for exactly twenty years this past March. [Jeez, scary how time flies!], and have heard every dire prediction foretelling the end of bookselling and/or publishing that I can think of. None of them has ever come true.

Where I grew up, on a tiny island off the Jersey shore, there weren't any bookstores. None. But that's the beauty of mass market publishing. There were always books to be had in the drugstores, grocery stores, AM/PM minimarts, convenience stores and even in motel lobbies along the beach. And lo and behold, books will always find a way into a buyers hands' no matter what circuitous route they may take. So I always had books to read when I was a kid.

Bookselling is in a constant state of evolution, and always has been. So is publishing. If you read Michael Korda's book, Another Life, you'll see that in the 1950's, old school publishers and booksellers were complaining that things weren't as they had been in the 1930s. In the 1960s Jacquelyn Susanne practically invented the concept of media hype for her book The Love Machine. She made her publisher do things nobody had ever thought of: courting boooksellers at the bookselling conventions, giving away prizes and incentives and coop, etc. And old-school publishers again cried that these new tactics would destroy the industry. They didn't. They helped it grow in leaps and bounds, and more bookstores opened than had ever existed before.

When audio books came along, some cried foul again, the end of the paper book is near. Didn't happen. Then Rocket Book came along and the old school turned up their collective collars again and despaired, certain that the era of the printed book was doomed. Again, didn't happen. And now publishers are getting bigger and eating each other up. No, no! This must SURELY be the preordained apocalypse of bookselling. Well, ya know what? It isn't going to happen now, either.

The fact is that in bookselling and publishing, as in any other business, there will be winners and there will be losers. Borders and Barnes & Noble were once single independent bookstores. Obviously, someone there had some business sense once upon a time, yes?

There are also great thriving independent bookstores, stores like Tattered Cover in Denver, Stacey's in San Francisco, Powell's in Portland. They recognize that bookselling is first and foremost a business, a money-making venture, a way to pay the rent. After you have a business plan, then you can add your bookselling mission statement. Thus they stay in business. When the smaller independents around them go belly-up, those that haven't ever grasped the concept of a business plan, will they then point fingers at their fellow independent stores and cry foul too? Probably.

You know, I do hear a lot of grumbling and complaining about the state of bookselling and the state of publishing, and once in a while, when I am having a weak moment or am not properly caffeinated, I find myself among the whiners. But then I slap myself, and get over it. Because ultimately, I love what I do, I love books and being around books and publicizing books and sharing books I love with others. It's in my blood. If it isn't, you have most likely have no business IN the business.

My two cents...

Colleen

#68 ::: Joy Rothke ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 10:57 AM:

I'm a former longtime SF resident who grew weary of the condescending attitudes of many of the indie bookstore staffs. To them, reading/writing romance/women's fiction was beneath contempt. A Clean Well-Lighted Place, IMO, had the snottiest staff. Stacey's wasn't much better.

Now I live somewhere where there's neither a library or a bookstore. I've ordered from Blackwell's in the UK, and half my orders are stolen by customs here. An order from B&N.com took six months to arrive. A recent Amazon order arrived in under a week.

#69 ::: Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:40 PM:

I also have to say that in general--there are specific exceptions--I don't much mourn these kinds of closings. Because in general--there are specific exceptions--many small bookstores bring it on themselves. The only reason to favor such places is when they offer that sense of being a "great good place", a gathering, or when they offer through specialization and backlist a depth of selections that the gargantuas (independent and corporate) can't offer.

Many small independent bookstores offer neither, but act as if their resulting struggles are a matter of dire community concern. I can think of one independent store in the Midwest with a good selection where the owner went out of his way to insult almost everyone who went in, and refused to help patrons find particular books. I can think of another store, a SF-focused one, in the mid-Atlantic (that probably isn't there anymore--I haven't been to the city in question for about seven years), that was dank and foul-smelling and where the owner's many cats were permitted (encouraged?) to litter the floor everywhere with feces. And I can think of an indie in my very own neck-of-the-woods (NOT the superb House of Their Own, which is a great place, but another store in downtown Philly) that has a mediocre selection of almost everything and no particular compensatory virtue.

So yeah, those stores, if they go bye-bye, I can't especially get too worked up about.

There are a few used establishments which are really special, to be sure, and I'd feel terrible if they disappeared. Acres of Books in Long Beach CA is especially worth mentioning in this regard--better by far than the Strand, and more reasonably priced to boot.

#70 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:54 PM:

Bay area folks, let me second Know Knew (Palo Alto, California Avenue between El Camino and the train) as a great place for used books. Their SF/F section is pretty darn well-stocked, and if you're a social sciences geek like me, they've also got a reasonably good history section. Mystery and thrillers are both smaller but good selection. I can't speak to the general fiction section as I rarely read such beasties but it's a good size.

I also like Book Buyers in Mountain View, but they're a little out of my way so I don't go very often. It's the sole reason I miss living in Mountain View. They carry both used and new, plus CDs and movies and software, and if Caltrain would just start running on the weekends again, I might even go there more often.

I go to places like Know Knew when I'm just looking for generic 'books'. But when I find an author I like, I prefer to buy new, which isn't an option there. Independent new-book sellers are harder to find (and I have no car, so it's not like I can range far afield), so most of my new-book and specific-book purchases are either online (meaning mostly Amazon, occasionally elsewhere) or at Barnes and Noble.

Now, if someone wants to open up a small bookstore that carries sf/f, mystery, and social sciences books, both used and new, in San Jose, I'll be there about once a week. (Alternately, if you know of one, preferably in the Willow Glen area, please do let me know.)

#71 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:57 PM:

I admit to shopping at Barnes and Noble as well, although Lee and I do get all our comics from a small independent shop, which rocks the hizouse. (Said comic store also stocks a large selection of used and almost new books, which I raid every time I go. Once the owner gave me free books since I sold a shitload of books--some OSC, some Barbara Hambly, some Pamela Dean--to a browsing couple just by telling them what I liked. That kind of personal interaction seems almost impossible with the larger stores.)

My love for Barnes and Noble sprang from the obscene amount of books they'll have on almost any subject. Which means that Lee and I can to our local B&N and look up books on ibizan hounds, the Better Homes and Garden's Big Book of Home Repair, the latest Spectrum (a yearly art periodical), issues of Locus for me, road maps, yoga videos, vegetarian cookbooks, a copy of the Kama Sutra with a tiny plasticine wall frieze featuring Vishnu and several apsaras, coffee cake, Mormon history books, the occasional CD, and of course, mounds and mounds of beautiful, lovely, destined-to-be-read-in-my-bathtub skiffy and fantasy!
(Oh, and the kid lit section is usually nice and chunky with lots of variety. I might not want to read the Gossip Girl series, but I'm sure there is a thirteen year old somewhere who does. Unless an indy is devoted solely to kid lit, I've been rarely impressed with their selection of YA, which is often small and bleak.)

Plus, I'm amazed by the tiny bonsai trees you can purchase just before hitting the register. (I'm such an impulse shopper.)

#72 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 12:57 PM:

Re: childhood bookstores

I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, your basic middle-class NYC neighborhood. Until I was 10 or so, there were _no_ bookstores in Forest Hills. A couple of places had spinner racks, but it was easier to find comics than real books for sale. I spent a lot of time at the library and reading through my parents' SF collection, much of which was bought through the SF Book Club.

Eventually we had a small Barnes & Noble and a tiny Waldenbooks. No used bookstore or independent bookstore. If we went to a mall (3 stops on the subway), there was a bigger B&N, but we weren't mall people.

When I was 12ish, I began commuting to Manhattan for school. I spent a lot of time and money in bookstores after that, in various parts of Manhattan. Regular bookstores, specialty bookstores, used bookstores.

A few years later there were 2 comic book stores in the neighborhood as well. I rarely went in them because their staffs suffered from "girls don't read comics" syndrome and the male patrons either patronized me or tried to pick me up.

I still live in Forest Hills. We have one bookstore, a big B&N. A small number of books, mostly bestsellers, can be found in Walgreen's and a few other chain drug/etc. stores. No independent bookstore. We still spend a lot of time in the library. One of the comics stores has survived, but I think they make most of their money from gaming leagues these days.

#73 ::: Contrary Mary ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:05 PM:

As a AVH shopper for over 20 years, I'll be sorry to see it go. But... I haven't been there that often since I moved to the suburbs. I think one of the real things that has probably hurt them more than they know is Abebooks. If there is an out-of-print book I am looking for, I can just go online and get it. No months of spending hours hunting through used bookstores. Plus I'm buying from a small independent bookseller, just one in another town.

Seeing as I spend more time in Harvard Square rather than Newbury Street, I'd like to comment on the decline in Wordsworth Books. First, no overstock stacked on top of shelves. Then, more books facing out, top or bottom shelves removed. Now I go in and see that in both the mystery and sci-fi sections have whole shelving units removed. (Three apiece instead of four.) The place is often empty. But Harvard Bookstore is jumping. Lines before you buy, shelves fully stocked, great used selection downstairs.

Interesting how this happens. I remember Wordsworth as being the far more jumping spot ten years ago.

#74 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:48 PM:

Regarding used bookstores, the leases on retail storefronts can be quite expensive, particularly in tony neighborhoods like Newbury Street.
However the Internet has been a massive boon, allowing people to sell books online from home (or inventory in cheaper warehouses) without the hefty overhead of keeping everything presentable to foot traffic.

I'm somewhat surprised Avenue Victor Hugo didn't go that route, although I suppose it depends on what one gets out of running a bookstore.

#75 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 01:58 PM:

Colleen, from my viewpoint as a reader, *I'm* one of the losers too. There were three or four small &/or specialty bookstores in my immediate area that died when Barnes & Noble came in. The stores probably did have a business plan, but I suspect that plan didn't include a huge chain store opening within a quarter of a mile of them.

I notice that you praise Stacey's as the fine independent bookstore that it is: the Palo Alto branch of Stacey's closed shortly after the Borders opened down the street from it. (The branch further south also closed around that time.) Stacey's had been there for many years. The store's business plan worked as a whole, I guess, since the original store survives in San Francisco, 30 miles north, but for me, the local reader, they're basically gone. The store staff told me it was the combination of Borders and Amazon that did them in at the Palo Alto location. Reading is in my blood, but driving 30 miles isn't.

Could've been worse -- at least Barnes & Noble didn't buy the smaller bookstores and then close them (as Rite-Aid did with our local pharmacies, and it was pretty darn funny, ha-ha, when most of the Rite-Aids then closed too because they weren't making their nut, so we had empty stores *and* fewer pharmacies).

Isn't there some way that the evolution of the bookselling business could work to the benefit of someone who wants to be able to walk in and physically pick up a book, occasionally getting knowledgeable advice from store staff? (Personally, I blame the inventory tax laws, but that's another post.) I buy many fewer Del-Rey books these days -- the B&N staff doesn't know Del-Rey from Del Taco.

Ogre-Eyed & Tim Walters & Mris: Yeah, the character of the store owner becomes paramount in a smaller store, which is why a big, understaffed, impersonal store can seem much better in comparison to a small store owned by paranoid people-haters. But when the owner is a good sort, you get places like Know Knew Books in Palo Alto, where the owner will remember your preferences in used books, hire like-minded staff, and let you put that book of illustrated Toulouse-Lautrec menus on layaway. Kepler's (new) and Wessex (used) in Menlo Park are similarly fine. Don't forget to patronize Megabooks in Palo Alto -- they're the new/used store next to the Borders on University, and they keep Borders-comparable prices on well-known new books while offering reasonable prices on the rest of their new & used stock. I still don't know how they do it. Maybe they're selling crack out of the storeroom -- if so, buy it there too.

#76 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 02:16 PM:

I remember Megabooks! Spent too much there, too. Great place.

The guy at Know Knew Books also gave me fair warning on the Peter F. Hamilton "trilogy" when I picked up the first two paperbook volumes (or first book, trilogy-wise). Enjoyed them, but he was right: way long and involved.

Haven't read any other Kuttner/Moore novels, though a decent amount of the shorts. I'm still working off a dozen library books, and four more are on hold for me right now. Whoops. :-p Being able to place books on hold from online is dangerous, but sooooo good.

As far as independent booksellers go, I am sadly reminded of a bookstore in Houston some 10? years back where my mom used to take me. We found great stuff there, like Mad Mazes. But at one point I, being a tactless 6th? grader, mentioned that I was looking for a Dragonlance (yes, Dragonlance--I was in 6th grade, what can I say?) book that wasn't there, and would I be likely to find it in a bookstore at the mall? The kind old woman's face got red as she stammered something out, and my mom was so mortified that she hauled me out of there, explained to me my lack of tact, and never took me there again. I have repented that moment many times over the years, but I can't help thinking that I would have continued to be a customer if my mom had only let me, assuming the proprietor ever allowed me back in. :-] Maybe there should be a Bookbuying 101 course for tactless children...

#77 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 02:24 PM:

I used to work at Borders in downtown DC. Loved that job - if I could've made a decent living at it without becoming management, I might be there still. I sure like the money I make at my office job, but nothing I've done there in four years has felt as satisfying or as significant as putting Charles de Lint or Robin Hobb or Thomas Ligotti in the hands of a wide-eyed new reader.

I don't recall meeting very many people at that job, even the ones at the corporate level, who weren't in it because they loved books. Most of the folks I talked to were there because they'd had the same experience I did the first time I was in a Borders: Ohmygodthisplaceisfulloffuckingbooks. Indeed, one of the best things about that line of work was spending all day around books, and people who loved books and loved talking to people about them and sending them off to good and loving homes. The Decline of Literacy in the West (a beast I have heard much of, but never actually seen) is not a creation of the Big Chain Stores.

I've lived near, and loved, a number of really great indy bookstores, and happily fed them my money and patronage. I've also been in a lot of crap ones, with awful lighting, a bag check (I understand this, but it still sucks having that we-have-to-assume-you're-a-criminal thing hit you right on the way in) and surly proprietors. And I can't tell you how many times a sign promising USED BOOKS has led to a tiny shelf of SF in no particular order, if it can be found at all. (Sometimes this disorganization is charming, and hunting through the stock is half the fun - depending on the atmosphere of the place. Usually, though, it's a great big pain in the ass.) There's something to be said for knowing what your shopping experience is going to be like. Independent booksellers are a gamble - great when they pay off, but you don't always want a gamble when you're looking to satisfy the book-jones. Even a second-rate Borders is still a Borders, dammit.

#78 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 03:16 PM:

Thinking back in greater depth on my own experiences with indie bookstores, I found that I had some bad experiences: surly clerks, mainly. Also, some great experiences - I mentioned the place in Newton, N.J, which I went to so often that the staff and I knew each other and they gave me a gift of a book I liked. Also, there was the used bookstore we frequented in in San Francisco where the clerk was always playing eclectic music, which we frequently and vocally admired - one day he just gifted us with a compilation tape.

From which I draw the profound conclusion that indie bookstores are businesses, like any other, and some are good and some aren't.

#79 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 03:32 PM:
Alex: Jane Austen Doe's whine was simultaneously fruity and bitter, not to mention immature. I suspect that it became spoiled somewhere in the bottling process.

That's where these ranters usually fail--neglecting to put the cork in.

Meredith: So I'm good if I write the new as long as it is for something else's sake? Like, say, the love of a good cat or to save the spotted subjunctive?

The Usher rant could have been poetic with a little more work. For instance, symmetry demands that there be an out for those who write the old, say if it's not for the sake of predictability or nostalgia or, oh anything.

Tom: Other Change of Hobbit's closing....

That's so damned depressing, even though I never got there. I think I've been sensitized by seeing Larry Smith's bag at Lunacon, with the Somniorum Mercatores logo from Moonstone Bookcellars.

Jill Smith: When I read the title and the first sentence of this post, this flashed through my head: "You don't mean a Hugo winner is now the latest to jump in and moaning about publishing?!"

On the way to that very idea, my eye chanced on the second word of the second sentence, and I decided this was another of those high culture moments in Making Light where we get to hear a fine French auctorial whine of the nineteenth century. Eventually I engaged the reading muscles and was otherwise enlightened. "Never mind."

Lisa: ...if everyone on the staff agreed to learn to give the cat an injection of insulin.

Everyone's hitting my maudlin buttons today. I, too, learned to inject from a cat, now ten years gone.

Josh: Perhaps we should invade large printing presses and B&N warehouse distributers and throw doc martins and berkenstocks into the machinery....

Or take a line from Cory Doctorow--invade the presses and warehouses and do their job better (seventh section, "Bitchun wars", and passim). I've become a real Cory fan in the last week.

Tom again: The rant included swabbing out the piss that people leave in our entryway....

Another unfair advantage of the dotnets, except that it reminds me of a National Lampoon parody of A Connecticut Yankee that used this as the Achilles heel of the electronic future. I wish I could remember it better. Something about our hero engaging in trial by combat, and single-handedly shorting out the master mainframe using the most convenient fluid.

#80 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 05:15 PM:

Vanessa --

I agree that readers lose out when bookstores close, but these things happen and you cannot always lay the blame at the feet of Amazon.com, B&N or Borders.

I worked at the Stacey's in San Francisco for about five years as a marketing manager and set up their event system. The overall management of Stacey's [which used to be a local chain in the Bay Area] was very good. The business model they developed made them decide to shut down their outlying stores. The Stacey's in Palo Alto suffered from a number of problems, not just from Borders and Amazon. Stacey's was originally a technical and business bookstore; they never did well as a general bookstore and Borders offered a larger space with better selection of general books. The physical location of the Palo Alto Stacey's was very small and leasing a larger space in downtown pre-dot-com-bubble-burst Palo Alto was prohibitively expensive. The powers that be decided that for the good of the business as a whole, it made more sense to shut down and focus on expanding the San Francisco location. The Cupertino location of Stacey's, which was about 80% technical and computer books, closed down AFTER the dot-com bubble burst. There were no surrounding businesses left to feed customers into the store.

There were a number of very good bookstores in the Bay Area that closed down in the late 90's. The Larkspur location of A Clean-Well Lighted Place for Books closed, and the closing was blamed on a nearby Borders opening, but the factswere very different. In reality, Book Passage -- which is located across the street from the Borders in question -- is a very healthy and thriving independent, and recently opened a new location in San Francisco as well. In truth, the interior of the Larkspur ACWLP was designed poorly, and became a haven for shoplifters. The shrinkage due to shoplifting was enormous, and they could never recoup their losses. In addition, the management was difficult, so they constantly lost good booksellers to other stores.

Likewise, Printers Inc in Palo Alto on California Street was a wonderful store with owners who had very little real business savvy. The fact that they stayed open for twenty years was a miracle. They had a great staff, great selection, a nice little coffeeshop, a deep love of books and....not much else. Then the foot traffic decreased when the rents in the area went up during the dot-com craze. Every other store on the block had closed, and the downtown shoppig became more focused on University Avenue, a good mile away. And the owners decided to expand. Common sense said "Hey, no foot traffic -- why expand? Why sink more money into this?" But they did, and then went almost immediately belly up.

I could go on and on about the hidden reasons independent bookstores go belly-up.There is always more than you see at the surface, and rarely have I actually seen a bookstore closing that can be blamed solely on the opening of a nearby chain.

#81 ::: Alice Keezer ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 05:22 PM:

Yoon Ha wrote: "Maybe there should be a Bookbuying 101 course for tactless children..."

If only the "can I find it in store X?" was limited to clueless children. I find it kind of cute, coming from children. But by the twentieth (no hyperbole involved) time an adult asked if he could find a movie at Best Buy or Wal-Mart, I snapped. Smiled very sweetly and said, "I don't know; I don't keep track of their stock."

The worst part was that he didn't realize he was being insulted.

My long, extended rant (which I won't punish anyone here with) involves making people work one day in retail before they can ever step foot in a store. And that day must be the Saturday before Christmas.

#82 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 05:49 PM:

Alice --

Actually, thats a great idea. I always thought that anyone who worked in publishing, but particularly editors, and even more particularly NON-FICTION editors, should have to work at least one week in a bookstore at Christmas before they are ever allowed to buy a manuscript. For once, see what real people in real bookstores actually are drawn to, pick up and buy. Watch how many times they come to the information counter, carrying a book with a cool trendy vellum cover that happens to be shredded after one day in the shelf and asking if they could possibly get one that wasn't so torn up [please, publishers everywhere -- give up on vellum! it's always a bad idea!]...or see how often they pass over those stunning works of literary genius and award-winning plotless short stories which are biding their time on the shelves before they find their ultimate destiny at a remainder house. And see how many parenting books the reading public actually buys at any given time [Hint: not many].

It would be most entertaining, I think...

#83 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 05:56 PM:

I have been known to ask "Do you have X?" and after being told no, "Is there any place around here that might?" I assume that if they don't carry it it's by choice, and that they will be willing to direct me to a place that does, if only for my future goodwill.

Different if they're just temporarily out of it, especially if they can tell me when it's coming in. (I might still ask if I need it in a hurry.) And I'd agree that asking a small store about a huge faceless chain's stock is gauche.

#84 ::: Bacchus ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 06:14 PM:

Way upthread Asni wrote:

"Northampton has a great SFF/mystery bookstore (The Space-Crime Continuum, if you're anywhere nearby). A couple of months after we moved in, the owners had figured out our favorite authors and were pulling them without our asking. That'll get you customer loyalty every time."

I went to college with Deb and Chris, the folks who own the Space-Crime Continuum. They are extremely good people, Chris has a hard corps fan and gaming background, and I'm not at all suprised to hear they run a great store.

Plus, Deb's hair smells really really good. (Or, at least, it used to.) Whoops, darn, probably more than you needed to know.

#85 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 06:49 PM:

Xopher wrote:

>I have been known to ask "Do you have X?" and after being told no, "Is there any place around here that might?" I assume that if they don't carry it it's by choice, and that they will be willing to direct me to a place that does, if only for my future goodwill.

I'm pleasantly surprised how often staff at bookshops (and other places like hardware stores) refer me to their competitors when they don't have what I'm looking for.

Also, at my local big-chain-but-pretty-good-anyway store (Reader's Feast) they have a staff reccomendation section, and the blurb for a particular Philip Dick reprint said that a) it was actually book X deceptively retitled and b) it wasn't his best work and was really only for completists.

Things like that are enough to restore your faith in human nature. Plus, of course, they're building up a stock of trust and gratitude which can later be redeemed for valuable prizes.

#86 ::: Kathy Li ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 07:25 PM:

I'll miss OCH. I can still remember being a student, wandering through their doors one day, sick with a cold, and Shelob let me pick her up and I snuggled down in a chair with her as Tom told me things I'd need to know while reading Sayers and how to judge the age of a book by the smell of its paper, and just being utterly content. I remember watching Jan's jaw drop as Jon Singer and I reunited before she could introduce us. Discussions with Deb. Discussions with Daves Nee and Goldfarb. (Almost) everything I learned about fandom I learned at OCH (the rest was found at Fourth Street and Comic-Con :-). And while it's been over a decade since I browsed OCH's shelves, they left a legacy with me.

I don't work in a bookstore. But I just attended a Laurie King signing at Mysterious Galaxy last week, and handsold two Connie Willis novels to the woman next to me in line, who said "Oh, I don't read science fiction." Tom, just wanted to let you know that the effect of what you guys made can linger for a good long while.

For those of you in Berkeley, (to paraphrase Helene Hanff) if you should happen to pass OCH, kiss it for me. I owe it so much.

#87 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 08:01 PM:

Dunno if it's changed these last few years, but when I was at Borders we were told in training that directing someone to another store was a reasonable extension of good customer service. Apparently even the Borders brothers themselves hadn't discouraged this, back when they were in charge. (A story is told of an employee who was asked for a book the store didn't have, and gave the customer the name of an indy store in town she knew had it in stock. She was briefly horrified to find out she'd done this in front of Tom Borders. But he approved, and pointed out that people come back to the place they got really good help at. Which is absolutely right.)

#88 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 08:11 PM:

Colleen: You've introduced a bit of excluded middle, in that I didn't say Borders, B&N, and Amazon were the only reasons bookstores close. Local business conditions and management traits will always play a role. To downplay those three, though, is a tremendous mistake. I guess I oughta be glad that their growth (plus the Web as a whole) led independent bookstores to band together with Booksense and the like. But I still mourn the dead stores at the side of the road.

[Did I mention that I don't really give a damn about survival of the "fittest," when it comes to bookstores? That is, I don't equate "fitness" with "constant growth" or "as rapacious as the big boys down the street." I equate it with "capable of serving the population cheerfully and knowledgeably while making the owners what they consider a reasonable living."]

Re: Stacey's -- Well, that was my previously stated point, wasn't it, that the store's powers-that-be decided to shut down the branches outside of San Francisco to preserve the original store. I didn't mention the dot-com bubble, which I assumed was a given, but certainly that's affected all the bookstores in the Bay Area. I'm aware of Stacey's history; what you're not mentioning is that despite the pre-Borders disadvantages you mention, the Palo Alto store did manage to survive reasonably well, even with the Stanford Technical Bookstore one block away, until Borders and Amazon showed up.

I can't speak to what happened to the branch of A Clean-Well Lighted Place for Books in Larkspur, ~40 miles north of me. But the Cupertino branch closed because of competition from superstore chains and online stores and because of publisher discounts to those superstores. Wasn't there a lawsuit about that a while ago, she wondered ironically.

I'm calling you on your characterization of the Printers Inc neighborhood in Palo Alto, which I've frequented for many years. "Every other store on the block" certainly did not close. Only particular kinds of shopping focused on downtown PA (i.e., the big chains, which the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce fawningly courted, and which have been disappearing in the wake of the dot-com bust and in-house fraud). The coffeehouse was separately owned, and it survives. The customer base was steady. What the owners and the landlord said did in Printers Inc was online competition and higher rent. Here's the story from the Palo Alto Weekly.

In fact, I find your characterization of all these closings to be suspect. Yes, shoplifting and theft by employees exist, and store managers vary in business ability. Independent bookstores aren't temples. But to attempt to shift the blame for bookstore closings onto individual management -- "rarely have I actually seen a bookstore closing that can be blamed solely on the opening of a nearby chain" -- strikes me as both technically correct yet ideologically filtered.

#89 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 08:52 PM:

Contrary Mary - oh, geez. So sorry to hear the decline of Wordsworth Books. I now live in the DC area, but remember when I was a callow student twenty years ago and Wordsworth was **pure effing magic** because it was big and funky and offbeat and in the center of Harvard Square. It seemed to have everything - I remember having ten dollars to spend and having to winnow down to the bare essentials in order to make the tab.

Now I have more dollars to spend, but less to do with it.

It's ironic - it used to be the chains (B.Dalton and the like) who were the norm and had no selection, and the rare indies had the huge racks of everything under the sun. Now it's the chains who have the selection and the indies have none and are going under. I guess the rule is selection does sell. Give the people what they want.

Has anyone mentioned Alibris.com? I've found TONS of out of print stuff there, and mostly for decent prices. They aggregate a bunch of independent used booksellers in order to make up their catalogue - a great solution in the internet/globalization age: both great selection and keeping indies/used sellers in business. My husband, an academic librarian (did I marry a good one, or what? ;-)) swears by them to round out his library's collection.

#90 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 10:35 PM:
Has anyone mentioned Alibris.com? I've found TONS of out of print stuff there, and mostly for decent prices. They aggregate a bunch of independent used booksellers in order to make up their catalogue - a great solution in the internet/globalization age: both great selection and keeping indies/used sellers in business. My husband, an academic librarian (did I marry a good one, or what? ;-)) swears by them to round out his library's collection.

I haven't used Alibris myself, having heard far too many complaints from people who have (you're actually the first person I've encountered who had good dealings with them, although of course there must be others).

There are a number of other "aggregation" services out there, the one I have used most being ABE Books. However, the best place to go for used books is BookFinder, which is a meta-search engine - it will search ABE, Alibris, other services, Amazon, BN.com, etc.

#91 ::: inkling ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 10:56 PM:

I'm a current employee of one of those nasty, evil chain B-bookstores, and I want to speak up in defense of our staff. Most of us are there because we love books and have heads full of book info that only another bibliophile would appreciate. We have our sci fi specialist, our romance specialists, lit and movie and kids and music specialists--and our knowledge isn't just new titles. The staff at all chain stores may not be so, but don't write your chain store off without giving those folks a chance, first.

(And if we don't have a title in hand we don't hesitate to send people to the B&N or the behemoth indie store in our town--though I privately think it might be good to warn them about the dead mice behind those shelves. )

(One further note, our store recently changed management, and the staff are getting a rather brutal education in just how much corporate nonsense our previous manager simply ignored in favor of both his employees and the book buying public. At this time the corporation is well on its way to losing employeees like myself and my coworkers who are there because we love books and stories and sharing them with other readers, not because we enjoy being treated like we work at the local Wal-Mart.)

As for me, even with my employee discount I shop wherever I can find the books I want. My last book purchase was a first British edition of Rosemary Sutcliff's "Sword at Sunset" (which title is solely responsible for every other Celtic King Arthur tale out there.) I purchased it online through a search service; it shipped from a used book store in Arkansas, halfway across the continent from where I live. And yes, I checked my local used bookstores first before I ordered online.

When the Borders and B&N went in there were two smaller bookstores that closed in our area, and yes, those big chain stores 20 minutes away were part of the problem. But there are a number of other used and independent bookstores in our metro area, some specialty stores, all doing quite well cheek by jowl with the chains.

#92 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2004, 11:42 PM:

Can Anyone Explain the Paradox of the Missing Books?

My book-buying experience has been similar to most of you
who have already reported above:
but I've seen the arrival of the chain superstore
coincide with the disappearance of the USED bookstore.

I can remember when there was scarcely a new bookstore
worthy of the name here - books came from drug store racks,
department store 'book departments', etc.;
but now we have SEVERAL chain superstores.
And when the superstores arrived, our used bookstores
(for the most part) vanished.

Even ignoring the Internet, many more NEW books seem to be sold;
yet they don't seem to be turning up USED.
Now AVH is going, too.
This paradox seems to force us to conclude that either:

a) everybody hoards books now, and never disposes of them
or
b) people are throwing books away.

I don't want to believe "b)"

Anyone have any evidence either way?

#93 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 01:28 AM:

Back when Crown was big, I remember discovering that there were two types of people who would work there: those who would do anything to work in books, and those who would do anything to have a job. Many people who worked at Crown were really good book people, and I had some great conversations with some of them.

Business plan or no, the question is: do enough people come in and buy books? Do we make the daily nut? And, frankly, we don't.

But then, I didn't get into the business because it was a good way to make even a reasonable living. I got into it because I love running an adoption service for books. I've given more than half my life to that. I don't regret it. I've put many thousands of dollars into it. Again, almost no regrets. It's not easy. It's kinda like writing -- if you _can_ do anything else, then you should. Some of us can't, or at least couldn't. And then it becomes time to do something else, and I find that maybe I can do something else. So maybe it's time to try.

And fortunately, there are still some folks who are willing to put themselves into it at the level I was 27 years ago. I really applaud their willingness and their guts. I hope they manage to keep the money working for them. And I'll try to support them when I can. It's like the difference between Fred Cody and Andy Ross -- or Ian Ballantine and -- well, I won't mention L rnc. Not that the second person in both hasn't done good things with their power: just that the first had (to me) a different level of heart in the business, and a lot more care about building the next generations. I've got a great deal of respect for both Andy and L, but to me, they're not the same kind of bookmen. I'm not playing in the same league as any of them, but I aspire to being like Fred or Ian, both of whom I'd disagree with at length but I could always respect.

#94 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 09:02 AM:

A lot of people in this thread have been talking about the lifespans of various stores ("It was a miracle that they stayed open for 20 years..."), which has me wondering:

There are a number of frequently-quoted factoids of the form "X% of new businesses close within the first year," where X is a number between 0 and 100, usually greater than 50, that varies depending on the type of business being discussed. I don't really recall hearing statistics beyond that, though-- what's the mean time to failure of the average small business?

It seems to me that one of the defining features of many small businesses is that they eventually go out of business. Eventually, the original proprieter dies, or retires, or loses interest and sells the place, and they close down. Or they make an unwise decision to expand, lose huge sums of money, and have to close down the original place as well. A business that lasts twenty or thirty years, long enough to become an institution, is the exception, not the rule.

What most people who complain about the demise of independent book stores really mean seems to be "My favorite independent store is closing," extrapolated into a global trend. But does it really make sense to identify this as the result of some titanic shift in the book market, rather than just another example of the down side of the normal operation of a market economy?

#95 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 09:49 AM:

Vanessa --

I can speak to the history of Stacey's and Printers Inc becaue I worked at both these stores as a manager. Stacey's in Palo Alto opened in 1940, and did most if not all of their business by mail order. Stacey's in San Francisco opened in 1923 and also did the majority of their business by mail order.They didn't even begin selling non-techical/business/medical books before 1978.

During the mid 1990's, before Amazon.com, we had a guy working on staff who was utterly brilliant, a kid named Simon who developed an online bookselling system that would use our IBID system as a database and allow customers to shop online on this new thing called the World Wide Web.

It was totally innovative and would have given Stacey's an edge in the growing competitiveness between Bay Area Bookstores. But the folks who owned Stacey's decided that they didn't want to pursue this, it was too costly, and ultimately they didn't feel that anyone would want to give up the experience of shopping in the store. Simon quit to go work for a tech firm, we lost our ability to sell online and about a year later, Amazon.com suddenly made the news. Oh, well.

Stacey's never really was able to get their online selling thing going again until around the year 2000.

And no, Stacey's in Palo Alto was never a healthy bookstore. It may have served the community, but they were never able to make it out of the red the last six or seven years they were open [long before Border's opened]. Borders may have been the final nail in the coffin, but it was one of many. For proof you need only notice that there are plenty of still-thriving small bookstores within walking distance of that Borders in Palo Alto.

I do equate good bookstores with thriving bookstores, having made my living working in them for so long. A thriving bookstore makes for a better workspace and a better workspace creates jobs and that is very good for the community. A bookstore that is leaking cash is a bookstore that will soon cost the community jobs, and cost neighboring businesses foot traffic.

Let's talk about GAIA Books in Berkeley for a moment. The folks who owned Gaia were very nice people, with strong idealism and great ideas about the environment and community and all that. But they were less gifted when it came to financial matters, and ultimately it hurt their store. As people managers they were pretty good; as money managers they were less so. For instance, most publishers in the US give bookstores back a small percentage of what they've purchased over the course of the previous year, in the form of coop monies [usually about 1.5% of the previous year's sales] which can be used pretty much at the bookstore's discretion [with the parameters of the contract set down by the publisher]. The coop monies are applied in tghe form of a credit to your account. One thing you can alway get back is most of the cost of your author event expenses, which can be substantial. Gaia had a very busy author event schedule. Yet for an entire year, perhaps two, they just neglected to file coop claims, which cost them a good $10,000. I know this because I was the one they called in freelance to help clean this mess up. I was able to recoup some of their losses by wheedling and browbeating publishers for coop expenses going back two or more years, but at least 50% of the publishers said no. Their contracts clearly state that you must use the coop funds within a year.

Another way they hurt themselves was to constantly buy from jobbers and distributors instead of buying directly from publishers, most of whom give 2 to 6% more of a discount. [This is a mistake that many small bookstores make, thinking that consolidating their vendors will help them. It usually doesn't.]

But when Gaia started to lose money and customers stopped coming, they cried foul and pointed the finger at Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble [which was actually located more than two miles away] and at a community they felt did not care for independent bookstores any longer. They even had the balls to ask the community for money to help them pay their bills.

The fact was that Black Oak Books [a large used & new independent bookstore], which was located directly across the street, was their main competition, and was probably what did them in. And by the way, Black Oak is still there and still going strong, and is still a great bookstore, thank you very much.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place in Cupertino closed primarily due to competition from other bookstores, but not just chains. They had at the time several very strong independents near them, including Stacey's, which was hurting them a great deal as well.

In fact, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association [formerly just called the Northern California Booksellers Association] decided at one point that they would not let Stacey's join because they didn't consider is "independent enough." We weren't owned by locals, we were owned by a small company in Pennsylvania that sells library furniture [Brodart]. We fought that and won.

As for shrinkage, I was not talking about employee theft at bookstores. Point in fact, in the Bay Area during the mid-1990's there was a very highly-organized group of book thieves [see this story: http://www.bookweb.org/news/btw/archive/1230.html] that were taking an enormous toll on a lot of Bay Area bookstores, both independents and chains, to the tune of millions of dollars. Bill Petrocelli, the owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, was instrumental in bringing this group down.

#96 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 10:12 AM:

Inkling --

I too would like to stand up and defend the folks who work in the "evil chains."

The truth is that there are great independent booksellers: knowledgable, thoughtful and helpful, and then there are independent booksellers that are morons: rude, stupid or just plain snotty [an epidemic in independent bookselling, frankly.]

But there are great booksellers in chains as well. One of my first tasks when I came to work at Random House was to travel around the country to check out bookstores to see if these stores were capable of pulling off good author events. Anonymously. [What a great job! I got paid for a year to travel around to visit bookstores all over the country.]

While I was in the stores, however, I was also checking to see how booksellers handled customer requests, if they would walk a customer to a section instead of just pointing, if they would sneer if a customer asked for romance, or sci-fi or a self-help book or if they would be non-judgemental and help the customer find what they were looking for, if they would offer to special orders books for a customer, if they would direct custiomers to a neighboring bookstore that might have the book they need. In short, I was looking for traits of good booksellers. I have trained a couple hundred booksellers in my day, and I know what good bookseller customer service is. And lemme tell you, there are a lot of great booksellers in the chain stores.

#97 ::: Epecho ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 10:16 AM:

One nice thing about specialty bookstores (which I take to include places that don't necessarily have a single area of concentration, but excel in a few things that the owner stuff know a lot about and stock a lot of) is not only that they have things not available elsewhere -- an advantage mitigated by the Internet -- but they can advise you about it.

One bad thing about them is, I have noticed at least here in Toronto, is that they're often in disguise. And strangely, it's precisely those specialty bookstores whose specialty is not telegraphed in any way by the name or description of the store where the staff are most snarky if you come in looking for something off-specialty. I can still remember the superciliousness when I went to a small store called Writers and Company and asked after their SF section, to be told they specialized in books about jazz and poetry. I did not mourn when they went under. Or the picturesque secondhand store on King Street, where I responded to the owner's "Anything you're looking for?" with something from my long-term wish list -- only to not even be allowed to finish before he brusquely told me "Actually, we specialize in foo." (I don't even remember what foo was.)

I can understand if I went to, say, "Books On Design" and asked for the SF section, that they might consider me a little dense, and even be short with me if that had happened a lot of late, but nothing about the name "Writers & Co." suggests jazz, unless it's an obscure allusion to a John Coltrane track or something. (There was the time I went to Books on Design and stood for about 20 minutes waiting to ask a question while the staffer (owner?) chatted with a friend on the phone, about nothing clearly business- or even design-related, but that's a separate rant.)

#98 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 11:36 AM:

When the uptown Shakespeare & Company went under, I have to admit I did a small dance of "nyah nyah"--while I'd always enjoyed cruising through the downtown S&C, every time I went into the uptown store I was amazed at how uncooperative and snide the staff was. The capper was when I tried to order one of my own romances--not then OP--and was told by the woman at the Special Orders desk that "we don't order =that= kind of book." There was much Upper West Side angst when Shakespeare & Company closed, but I couldn't share it. I did most of my buying (and most of my writing) at the Barnes and Noble on Broadway, which was a pleasant place with no particular attitude problem.

On the other hand, just after we moved out here to San Francisco, a local independent bookstore, Cover-to-Cover, announced that it was closing--blaming only the landlord (who raised the rent) and the recession. The neighborhood rallied--found them a new space, raised $40,000 to pay off their debts, signed pledges to buy a hardcover a month for a year. They're in their new space now, and holding on--just in time for Phoenix Books, the neighborhood used bookstore, to be faced with the rent dilemma. They're not blaming anyone either.

#99 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 11:55 AM:

Madeleine --

Cove to Cover is a FABULOUS little bookstore! And you're right; I helped them move [as did most of the community] and they blamed no one; they just tried harder.

Props for reminding me about this cool place.

#100 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 12:14 PM:

What a great job! I got paid for a year to travel around to visit bookstores all over the country.

Green. I have turned completely green.

#101 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 12:32 PM:

Bob Oldendorf--Yes, people are constantly throwing tons of books away. See my post above. Recycling programs encourage people to toss books. I've seen literally an entire semi-trailer full of books being thrown out from some library, either NYU or New school, I think. (They were almost all bound technical journals, so i didn't find much of interest. I did score a pile of about 150 torn-off New Yorker covers, though, going back to as early as their 8th issue, and on into the 30s, 40s, 50s...and including Arno, Addams, caricatures of Hitler, etc.) As I said before: Who are these people? See the work of Nicholson Baker if you really want to weep.

Fortunately, dumpster-diving is a sport anyone can participate in. The film Book Wars, about NYC's street booksellers, shows footage of the sellers rummaging through the trash looking for new wares. Good hunting...

(BTW, dumpsters near secondhand bookstores are often great places to find their discards...)

#102 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 01:06 PM:

Can any of the New Yorkers tell me how well Coliseum Books has survived its move? In their old location, they had a sort of appealing chaos (I used to love to browse their seemingly lunatic face-out racks for odd surprises); however I was always pleasantly surprised to find that the staff always knew where to find specific things I was looking for. External whimsy wrapped around a hidden core of order... bliss (for me).

I'm almost afraid to visit them next time I'm in NY for fear they've gone all orderly inside and out. If I'm in the mood for that, I'll just go to a B&N or Borders (which I don't despise either).

#103 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 03:19 PM:

colleen @ del rey: Another way they hurt themselves was to constantly buy from jobbers and distributors instead of buying directly from publishers, most of whom give 2 to 6% more of a discount. [This is a mistake that many small bookstores make, thinking that consolidating their vendors will help them. It usually doesn't.]

Let's be honest: The reason a typical small bookstore makes this "mistake" is because it falls behind on its payments to various publishers, and winds up having its credit cut off. The vendors wind up "consolidating" largely because if you get cut off by Random House you can always go to Ingram, but if you get cut off by Ingram you're hosed.

You can still put the blame on the financial management of the bookstore's owners, perhaps. But when the money isn't there to pay all the bills, the owners do what they can, and pay the most important ones first.

#104 ::: Jack Womack ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 03:45 PM:

Coliseum is there on W. 42nd (close to where a branch of Bookmasters, many years ago, once was) and seems to be doing OK. It's a much different space than they had at their old store (which was, prior to Coliseum, a car dealership)and definitely hasn't accreted the psychic aura Broadway & 57th possessed.

From the point of view of one who worked there as a manager for two and a half years eighties -- "chaos," yes, that word came often to mind; "whimsy," not so much. I remember the two cashiers who got into a fight with scissors during the 5 PM changeover, the night clerk who threatened to kill me when I asked him to mop the floor (his day job was coke dealer, so his threat carried some weight), the staffer who hurled a drunken customer through the front door, which was closed at the time, the morning four of us got into a tussle with a *different* drunken customer who didn't want to check his bag, and we wound up rolling on the floor....am trying to recall why I got out of retail, after working there...

#105 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 03:58 PM:

Jack - thanks for the memories! As an out-of-towner who only got into that neighborhood once in a while (a friend lives on 57th & 9th), it always just seemed kind of funky, grungy and fun. It certainly never seemed dangerous. But I also didn't enter its unhallowed portals until the late 90's, so what do I know?

You sound like my husband, who similarly wonders why the heck he ever got out of the bakery business. Four AM emergency runs in to bake bagels (in January, in Burlington VT where the wind off Lake Champlain is as cold and hard as the Puritan God) because his baker was hung over again were so darned FUN.

(Sidenote - the symmetry of Jill's question getting answered by Jack is terribly pleasing to me. Thank you.)

#106 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 04:47 PM:

I took the list as a little venting with a little grain of truth here and there. Personally, I didn't like AVH. What's missing in their lament is the fact that their neighborhood has changed enormously. They are located in what used to be affectionately called the ass-end of Newbury Street where anyone making over, oh, $20K didn't venture for fear of brushing against the alternative kiddies hanging out by Newbury Comics or various long-gone punk clothing stores. Their market changed around them, all of Newbury became hoity-toity (and, yes, a B&N moved in two blocks away) but no business can survive if it is not in fact serving its market or has lost a market to serve. That's the nature of business.

#107 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 05:23 PM:

So what’s the story on the Mountain View Printers Inc.? The first bookstore I ever shopped at in the Bay Area, one of my favorites even after I discovered Kepler’s and Cody’s, seems to be doing fine . . . then I move to Japan and a year later the space is occupied by some noxious chainlet that’s ripped out the SF section. I’m told things may have improved there since then, but at the time (1999? 2000?) it was traumatizing. Was it my fault for moving?

#108 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 06:14 PM:

David --

No, the Mountain View printer's Inc was always smaller in size and income than the one in Palo Alto, but it was a wonderful store. The folks who bought it are a locally-owned chain called Books, Inc. Each of their stores has a distinct and differet personality. Some I like a lot; some not so much. But they've been around the Bay Area for nearly 100 years.

Just curious -- what do you not like about the way they are running that store? I've not been in since they bought the place. But I've heard good things from our sales reps who call on them, and from folks I know who still live in the Bay Area.

#109 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 06:24 PM:

I rarely go into the former Printer's Inc - something to do with it being next door to a gravitational anomaly known as Book Buyers... But the last time I looked, it had a thriving sf section, it's just moved to a different part of the shop.

#110 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 06:50 PM:

Dan, the Connecticut Yankee pages ran as a serial comic in 1972, and were drawn by Mike Kaluta. The future robots were benevolent and paternalistic, and he couldn't have That.

ps: I updated Cheery Note. I also added pictures of Sarah, and the server responded by blanking the page out. I'll obtain some sort of FTP program this weekend and try again, at which point there will be a dozen new Sarah pix to view.

#111 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 06:57 PM:

Colleen --

I haven't been back there in four or five years; I'm living in Seattle now and when I'm in the Bay Area I usually don't make it down to Mountain View. I just remember that when they'd first taken it over it seemed like they had maybe 25% of the selection of the old PI -- it felt like one of those newsstand/pseudo-bookstores that you get in the back of a Hallmark store sometimes. Encouraged by what you and Julia say about it, though — I'll have to check it out next time I'm back down that way.

#112 ::: Damien Neil ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 07:28 PM:

Damn, I'm sorry to hear about Another Change of Hobbit. I've only made it up there once or twice (it's just far enough away to be inconvenient for me), but I remember it as a great bookstore. It'll be sad knowing it isn't there any more.

I live in Mountain View, and do most of my book buying at the Palo Alto Borders. (I still miss Future Fantasy, where I went often until they closed.)

I generally buy at the Mountain View Books, Inc. (the former Printer's Inc) only when I've walked into downtown and find myself in need of a book. They're a nice enough store run by friendly people, but they can't match the selection at Borders.

The same goes for Megabooks (the independent located next door from Borders), only more so. They're just too small to offer a good variety. (Does Megabooks even have a new SF section?)

Bookbuyers and Know Knew Books are both great, although I've picked over their selections enough that I think I've bought everything they have that I know that I want. I return periodically to look for new arrivals, or authors that I've learned I'm looking for. (Found _Sky Coyote_ at Bookbuyers the other month; alas, if only they'd had the rest of Baker's Company books.)

I sure wish there was still a local specialty SF store, however. I particularly miss having a large new-and-interesting-SF section to browse. I have a terrible memory, and would always discover books that I'd intended to buy but forgotten about.

The other thing I want is a bookstore that works at making sure that if they're selling book 4 of a series, books 1-3 are in stock. Borders is frequently guilty of failing in this.

#113 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 07:32 PM:

They did some serious remodelling of the shop after taking over, including abandoning the back unit, and it was A Bit Of A Mess for a while. But once the building work was over and they'd put the shop back to rights, the remaining floor area was well stocked. There's a lot less floor area than there used to be, but it's definitely a bookshop rather than an overgrown bestsellers rack. The main reason I don't go in there is because I've had an extended fit of buying stuff that's out of print - and once I go into Book Buyers, I sort of go into a trance...

All of which has reminded me that I have been down to Castro Street twice in the last week, fully *intending* to go into Books Inc after I've done my "check stock list and report back to UK friends" tour around Book Buyers.

#114 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 08:04 PM:

Damien --

If you're looking for specialty SF stores in the Bay Area, please make the trip out to Dark Carnival in Berkeley or Borderlands in San Francisco, both good full-service stores. Dark Carnival recently expanded, too. I always liked that place -- and they have the egg chair from The Prisoner that you can sit in while you thumb through books.

Stacey's in SF has a good sci-fi section [well, they used to -- I haven't been in there for about a year.] Booksmith in the Haight has a small but excellent selection of the best SF & F. In fact, it may be one of my favorite bookstores in the country. More good bookstores in the Bay Area: Wessex Books in Menlo Park [I bow before them] -- they are just a kick-ass used bookstore for collectors. [You won't find a whole lot of SF there though.] Keplers. Pegasus Books. Black Oak. Cody's. Diesel Books.

Ya know, there are too many good bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area to name them all. It is still, despite all naysayers' notions to the contrary, a very healthy bookstore market.

Now, New York, on the other hand, could use a few more bookstores. My favorite for browsing is St. Marks, but the service is pretty awful. [I am not hip enough to shop at St. Marks, I confess.] I find myself in the Union Square B&N a lot, although for as big a store as it is, there selection is surprisingly weak in SF & F. But the booksellers there are alway very helpful when I ask for things.

Okay, no more. I could write about bookstores forever.

#115 ::: Madeline ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 09:03 PM:

Anyone looking for bookstores in the Bay Area might be impressed at the listing at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/4824/na-bay-s.htm. I think it was originally compiled on Usenet, but the lady who put it on the web is still adding in comments and reviews from those who browse by.

#116 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 09:03 PM:

Wessex Books in Menlo Park [I bow before them] -- they are just a kick-ass used bookstore for collectors. [You won't find a whole lot of SF there though.]

But what they do have is very tasty. I've seen and bought things there I've never seen elsewhere (both Maeve Gilmore's and Sebastian Peake's books about Mervyn, for example). They have a lot of nice LPs and music books, too.

Sounds as if I need to check out Booksmith.

#117 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2004, 11:06 PM:

Wessex was where I picked up a lot of Edward Whittemore and Peter Dickinson remainders: they had taste!

The problem of having all of a series in is often not the bookstore's fault. The simple version of the riff goes like this: the publisher prints a new book in a series. They have what feels like enough stock on hand of the older books. The older books get grabbed up and go out of print as the new one is still on the presses, and there's no time (and insufficient economic incentive) for them to reprint. So the new one is available, and the old ones are either Out of Stock (if the publisher wants to hang onto the reprinting rights, in some cases: an Interesting Contract Trick which I'm quite sure Tor would never stoop to) or Out of Print.

Which means we can't get them. Like Kage's other Company books, or any number of other titles that we'd love to. That's part of why OCH has a large used section: there's a little larger chance that at least the first few people can get the OP earlier books in a series, as well as some of the OP classics.

#118 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 03:38 AM:

Madeleine -

That was a rude, jack-ass thing to do. ("we don't order *that* kind of book"?! What kind of book would that be? One that someone could *sell?! WTF?)

I used to work at that S&Co, as an assistant manager. I can promise you it wasn't me, or any of the nice folks who trained me, who got snotty with you. If it was around 1995 and you could describe the person to me, I could probably give you some nasty gossip about them. Heck, if I trained them, I could find them and give them a good slap. But then, there were a lot of people who wound up on info rotation, and some of them really shouldn't have been in jobs that dealt with the public. Furthermore, the ordering policy I was inculcated with stated that anything that would bring income into the store was to be encouraged.

Jerk.

But some tales from the other side of the counter;

I remember customers coming in to the S&Co and griping loudly about our lack of 10% discount on hardcovers (which B&N did across the board) even though there were a couple of other discounts we tried to do. I was trained to suggest (not snottily) that they purchase their hardcovers where they could get them for the best deal, as well as refer customers to other stores - including the B&N - for books we did not have in stock. If it wasn't busy, we'd call the other stores and have the books put on hold.

Of course, this was my experience at the B&N up the street, which I worked at when the S&Co left. Instead of the token snotty person, we had a token dumbass. And like S&Co, for some reason the person least suited wound up on the main info desk. I remember the staffing of the first floor (general) info desk being done by process of elimination; i.e. well, this person doesn't know anything about sci-fi, parenting, fiction, computer books, psychology, or any book at all - put them on the main floor. By the time a customer got to my desk upstairs, chances were they might already be frustrated and assume we were all stupid.

In one case, I remember one of the same people who complained about how we wouldn't give them a 10% discount at S&Co, complaining to me that B&N had driven S&Co out of business, and that we were all ignorant.

I swear to you, the intellectual/incompetent contiuum of the staff was nearly identical in each bookstore.

(One of the main reasons that branch of S&Co went out of business was the out-of-control rent in the area, not the competition. Also, the huge problem with shrink - here's a hint, new yorkers -if you see new brand spanking new books at a street vendor's stall, chances are they're stolen.)

I have reached the conclusion that I love the *idea of shopping at independents better than the reality. Sure, I go to Dark Delicacies first if I'm looking for a new vampire novel, I wander into The Iliad if I want to buy random mass markets and skritch the cats, and I just discovered Acres of Books, which is a bit of a haul from here, but has stolen my heart utterly. But if I'm looking for history, sci-fi or just want to browse, I refuse to feel guilty for hightailing it to the local B&N; there is always someone working at the chain who can reccomend something I'll like. (I look for the girl with the unnaturally colored hair, and/or doc martens. Corporate policy dictates at least one per store.)

As far as employment is concerned, in some ways, working at S&Co was better, simply because the amount of Corporate BS was diminished; the owners had spent time doing gruntwork, and knew the realities of it. However, it sure was nice to get enough hours to qualify for insurance at the chain. Being able to see the doctor is good.

#119 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 08:57 AM:

I was at our local bookstore last night, and while chatting (does talking for an hour constitute chatting?) with the owner, Jim mentioned that last year his sales were down 40% last year, and that this year's sales are down already from last year's sales.

But he has *finally* purchased a computer and is going to get involved in on-line sales. His connection to the internet led to the discovery that he was vastly underpricing used books. He had an art book priced at $12 that he found going for $180 used on-line.

I really hope that things work.

#120 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 08:58 AM:

(not the Simon who pre-invented Amazon, sorry to say)

People have written about the rude or condescending staff at some independent stores.

They have also written about the profoundly learned and helpful staff at some other stores.

Rude staff have not been my problem, mostly. (Though I have some stories.) My experience is that when I visit the stores with profoundly learned and helpful staff, they're not in. Behind the counter is some kid who's polite and tries to be helpful, but who doesn't know anything.

This was my experience on visiting both The Other Change of Hobbit and Borderlands in the Bay Area. Neither store impressed me as much as some SF specialty stores do, but I'm not much of an SF reader so I may be ill-equipped to judge. Still, by testimony here The Other Chenge of Hobbit served its regular customers well, so I honor their mourning and salute its owners' efforts.

What has astonished me in the Bay Area is how you can drive almost anywhere and there's a bookstore, even if it's a chain. I have spent too much of my time in a largish and booming urban area which has exactly one bookstore, a Borders out in a distant suburb. What we have on every corner is a pharmacy. (The person who regretted Rite Aid buying out the local Bay Area pharmacies and closing them would love it here, at least for that.)

#121 ::: Robert A. Sloan ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 12:57 PM:

Interesting comment thread -- and since I have a friend whose dream is opening a used and some new bookstore, it's become a useful resource to flag. My thought on too many cats and a stench in the back of the store, is that while I've found that in one store -- the better ones tend to have just one cat and the cat's actually good at his job. I am going to suggest to my friend that when he gets to open it up, he goes to the pound for the friendliest cat in the adult cats area and then insist that cleaning up after him IS part of the job.

I know weird people work in them. Heh. I was one of the weird people in a small bookstore once as a tarot reader in a feminist book-and-readings-and-stuff shop in New Orleans in the 90s. I was a reader in half a dozen other stores, but the one I stayed at for a year expanded into doing art classes and sold some how-to art books, expanded into SFF and local gay and feminist authors, expanded a small men's section with progressive male material that appealed to bi and straight pagan men and it survived.

But the rents were killer and it was a struggle for the owner, whom I assisted sometimes with buying and organizing and stuff since the shop gave me a safe venue for doing readings out of the rain. It didn't have a cat though, and probably would have benefited from a trained Greeter Cat.

Some animals are working animals. The bookstore cat at peak of his or her skills will form personal relationships, care and purr and greet people who are sick or in a bad mood -- and pick up some English keywords like "romance" or "fantasy" -- the area labels, and lead people toward the section they want. One indie bookstore cat in Minnesota spotted a fantasy reader as soon as I walked in the store, probably from what I was wearing and which front display I looked at, and guided me right to the spot by looking back and being friendly but coyly leading on till I was there. I got to the shelf I wanted and got leg-bumped, where I was privileged to pet the cat and got a purr.

That is skill. And the best place to hire it might be older pound cats or those from closing bookstores, if they make it past the interview and weren't a source of bad-smelling back shelves.

Robert and Ari >^..^

#122 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 02:32 PM:

Tiger, the cat at S&Co was not particularly friendly (although she wasn't aggressive either) but she did keep the rodent and bug population to a minimum. One day we came in to discover various bird parts scattered about the mezzanine, so I suppose she helped with birds as well. She did not help in shelving.

I don't think she made the place reek of cat, but she did once pee on my (wonderful, unique thrift store find) wool coat, which I had to toss, because you can't get cat pee out of anything. By the end of my tenure there, I was one of her favorites, demonstrated by bestowing upon me her rarely-heard purr.

When the roommate (not a cat person) and I visited Acres of Books last month, she said that she wasn't convinced the place was legit until she saw the cat. So I feel there is a delicate cat balance to be achieved in a used bookstore.

#123 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 05:10 PM:

Colleen: You've worked in many areas of the book business, but you're not reading my comments very well. I already acknowledged that management traits are, of course, a major factor in how well a bookstore survives. But your re-emphasizing your beliefs that everything is just fine doesn't make it so.

"For proof you need only notice that there are plenty of still-thriving small bookstores within walking distance of that Borders in Palo Alto." I don't know what your definition of "plenty" is. However, in case I haven't made it clear, I *know* that area -- I shop there, read the business and city council news there, talk to the staff of the stores where I shop. Which is why I know that you are talking through your hat. Megabooks (the new/used store right next to Borders) is not thriving. They're surviving, and I do my tiny part to keep them afloat. Bell's Bookstore, a venerable used store in business since 1935, is nevertheless not thriving. And that's it.

[I did forget about one store that has "book" in the title, Modernbook, but they themselves bill the store as a "curated modernist boutique," and while they do sell some books, they're more like a museum store/art gallery. I don't know that they're thriving (unlike the other two, I haven't spoken to management); the last time I was there they seemed to have cut back on books and beefed up the art gallery.]

My point is, there used to be more bookstores in Palo Alto (and the rest of the Bay Area), there aren't now, and Borders & Amazon have been big factors, apparently more of a factor than your personal axioms allow you to credit.

It's particularly telling that you slagged Gaia for asking their community for help. Two of my favorite comics-related businesses asked their communities for help recently. They asked their regulars to buy more from them during a set period, to fend the wolves from the door. To the best of my knowledge, that approach succeeded for both businesses. (Tom W. would probably know better than I about Comic Relief.) Why is getting help from one's patrons and friends a bad thing for a business, especially if it helps them get past a rough spot?

It's a shame that Stacy's missed the boat regarding the Web, but that doesn't automatically make them bad businesspeople. (Non-innovative, sure.) Your history of Gaia Books is potentially interesting, but because you've made enough errors in places that I can check, I'm taking your version of events there with a grain of salt.

One more thing: In a later post, you listed a number of good bookstores in the general SF Bay Area region. Did you notice that the stores on your list were almost entirely in SF and Berkeley? (For those of you who aren't local.) The rest of the Bay Area is a little shy of bookstores now. Except for the big chains. Gosh, maybe everyone outside SF and Berkeley suffered a sudden loss of business acumen.

To the several people who've spoken up about being knowledgeable employees in a big chain bookstore, I know you exist, and I salute you. I wish there were more of you. My personal experience in those stores is that there is one knowledgeable person per store -- every once in a while I meet that person -- but as others have said, that person is often unavailable. Or not replaced when they quit; I've noticed fewer staff in our bookstores lately. Good for the business plan, bad for service.

Trying to respond to everything before I run out the door doesn't work: this is a fascinating thread even if I don't agree with everything said. One thing I've noticed is that some people writing here seem to like big, brightly lit stores just for themselves. Some people don't like the used-book smell. This wouldn't have occurred to me as a patron. It's not that I'm immune to the lure of bright, wide-open spaces with shiny things; sometimes I too wander around Restoration Hardware just for the visual experience. But it's intriguing to realize how much of what the big chains offer is atmosphere. (Which they can afford to pay for, as part of a chain.) I'll remember to consult a business lighting expert before I open my storefront.

#124 ::: Alice Keezer ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 05:56 PM:

I'm surprised Ted hasn't spoken up yet, as a knowledgeable chain employee. Maybe he doesn't consider himself knowledgeable in comparison to his fellow employees. Or maybe he's busy sorting out his life, in which case I'll stop piping up for him.

My husband and I have a comic/roleplaying shop we frequent. It's a 20-30 minute drive, but very much preferred to any downtown comic source. We walk in sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month. Regardless, they pull out the comics we've had them holding for us (without asking for our names anymore), chat about anything from an upcoming comic movie to the state of the economy to pets. Even if I can't contribute to the conversation, it's often amusing.

The last time I asked how they were doing, the response was positive. Apparently, in this economy, people will buy things like comics when they can't afford to buy a video game or the latest system.

No, they don't have a cat, but none of the employees strike me as cat people. I think a dog would be far more at home there.

#125 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 06:20 PM:

Madeleine Robins: On the other hand, just after we moved out here to San Francisco, a local independent bookstore, Cover-to-Cover, announced that it was closing--blaming only the landlord (who raised the rent) and the recession. The neighborhood rallied--found them a new space, raised $40,000 to pay off their debts, signed pledges to buy a hardcover a month for a year. They're in their new space now, and holding on...

Cover to Cover? That was on 24th, right, in the general vicinity of the supermarket? It seemed like it was a very small space, and I'm not surprised they ran into problems, but I'm glad to hear they're hanging on. Where did they move to?

--just in time for Phoenix Books, the neighborhood used bookstore, to be faced with the rent dilemma. They're not blaming anyone either.

Phoenix Books is in trouble?! Argh! That was the very place I was talking about earlier in this thread, the one where the owner gave us a compilation tape just because he thought we might like it.

Jack Womack: ... the night clerk who threatened to kill me when I asked him to mop the floor (his day job was coke dealer, so his threat carried some weight),...

He couldn't have been a very good coke dealer if he had to work nights at a bookstore to make ends meet.

#126 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 08:42 PM:

Madeline, thank you for that link. If you wonder where I am over the next several weeks, start at the top and work your way down to find me.

#127 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 09:14 PM:

The problem with lack of knowledgeable staff boils down to economics; unless you are management, you cannot pay your rent and still afford food working at a bookstore. I was one of the exceedingly knowledgeable staff for years; the experience in various bookstores added to my already solid genre/history knowledge with a whole lot of broad-based stuff learned by osmosis. I trained new hires, including new managers. For many of my shifts, I was the designated "I don't know, how about we ask Joy" bookseller. I was helpful, not snotty (at least not in front of customers), and often the person that "problem" customers were sent to so they wouldn't leave the store angry. I ran the cafe when cafe managers kept quitting, sometimes covered the music department (where I was especially helpful with classical questions), acted as head cashier some nights, balanced the books at the ends of shifts, and was given the keys when the managers wanted to step out. Lucky for my customers I had low self-esteem, no car, and no other work skills. In Milwaukee, after 5 years with the company, all those responsibilites and the title of department manager, my wages topped out at $7.75 an hour.

As an assistant manager at S&Co (where I will admit to not being the most knowledgeable in the store) I don't think I even made $6 an hour, in New York.

If I had wanted to be promoted at B&N, I would have had all the previous duties, with the added responsibility of working 6-day weeks around the holiday season, and being a Salaried slave for around $20k a year. Between that and all the corporate BS (don't get me started on the damn "readers advantage" quotas) I decided I'd rather take my big brain and customer service skills to the world of the cubicle, where they would remain unused, but I would make enough money not only to pay rent and buy groceries, but also to re-learn the cello.

Gah, I sound like I'm still burnt out, and it's been two years since I've worn a nametag to work.

If I were independently wealthy, I might go back to a used or specialty bookstore part time, if for no other reason than the employee discount.

Maybe when the economy gets better more people won't have to worry so much about paying for neccessities, and can work where it makes them happy, and bookstores will be able to afford a massive staff of brilliant and helpful people.

And just to lighten up from all the whining I seem to be doing in this thread (my god, it *is Whine About Writing Month) I shall relay one of my favorite customer stories. There I am, working at the massive NY-UWS B&N, and a man comes creeping off the escalator. He looks around shiftily, lowers his voice and asks, "Where do you keep your books on extraterrestrial insects?" I ask if he has anything particular in mind, and he shakes his head "no". "Well," I say, wandering out from behind the desk, "I'll show you where the science fiction books are, and I can give you a couple of reccomendations." He does not follow my lead, instead standing completely still and looking a bit offended and shouts: "No, I don't want science fiction; I want Non-fiction books on extraterrestrial insects!"

#128 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 10:02 PM:

Since a lot of this thread seems to have wandered into discussions of Palo-Alto area bookstores, I'm a bit surprised that nobody's mentioned Feldman's in Menlo Park; they've always been one of my favorites.

Also, two or three years ago, there was a small SF-only bookstore on El Camino towards the south end of Palo Alto, with large glass windows and a hand-painted name on the window that had "Fantasy" in it, and a stamp-collecting store with a name in the same paint next door. I stopped in there once because I was looking for a small dragon and had absolutely no idea where to find one, and somehow they happened to have exactly what I was looking for, and then a week later the windows were papered over and they were gone. I've always wondered what their story was.

#129 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 10:35 PM:

Did the dragon turn out to have a terrible curse on it? I think that’s usual with strange disappearing shops.

#130 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 11:03 PM:

Brooks, that sounds like Future Fantasy.

It closed three months after I moved to Mountain View. I was not a happy bunny :-(

The gist seemed to be rents going up, sales going down, not worth re-signing the lease.

#131 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2004, 11:16 PM:
Colleen: You've worked in many areas of the book business, but you're not reading my comments very well.

Vanessa, I'm afraid I get the opposite impression, namely that you're not reading anyone else's comments very well. To take just two examples:

It's particularly telling that you slagged Gaia for asking their community for help. Two of my favorite comics-related businesses asked their communities for help recently. They asked their regulars to buy more from them during a set period, to fend the wolves from the door.

Ignoring the fact that you don't explain at all why this is "particularly telling," Colleen's criticism was in the context of her description of Gaia's poor business decisions, which cost them a lot of money, and then blaming the community for not supporting them enough. There's a big difference between having financial difficulties which are not your fault and asking people to buy more in consequence, and pissing away money, blaming other people for it, and then asking them to give you the money. If in fact Gaia just took the same tack as the other stores you mention, and asked people to buy more, to me that's only slightly better (if that's what they did, you should have said as much).

And yes, I know you referenced Colleen's comments on Gaia's money-losing decisions later on, but they're directly relevant here.

One thing I've noticed is that some people writing here seem to like big, brightly lit stores just for themselves. Some people don't like the used-book smell.

Well, yeah, bright lighting and space to move (and comfortable chairs) are in fact things that many people like to have in a bookstore. However, I don't recall a lot of comments in this thread that mentioned these features very much, and none at all that mentioned "used-book smell." Several people did mention that used-book stores that smell strongly of cat urine turn them off. Would you like to make a snide comment about that?

#132 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 04:32 AM:

Once upon a time, I was a really -easy- person to get to walk into a bookstore and walk out with an armload of books and a thinned wallet. I may have bought three or four books from AVH, but not a dozen, in literally decades.

Much of it is that I live out beyond Route 128. There is a sidewalk across the street from where I live. It doesn't extend for the full length of the street, it's only for part of the street which was reconstructed some years back. It's a mile plus to the center of town, and some of that distance has usable sidewalk. There had been a Walden's in the mall near the town center, years ago, but the non-K-Mart anchor store in the mall closed beause the chain (Almy's) was mismanaged, and most of the stores which had been in the mall gradually closed up from lack of foottraffic business--malls with empty storefronts continue to empty out. The Walden's moved into Burlington Mall after Burlington Mall on 128 & Middlesex Turnpike, with US 3 on the same exit as the Middlesex Pike, going north to/coming from New Hampshire, added a second story. Ironically, once upon a time there were three, maybe even four, bookstores in there -- originally there was Lauriat's, which started in Boston, enchained itself and went into suburban malls, such as Burlington Mall.

Burlington Mall has lots of parking, is in a major commercial/office park area, is bounded by high traffic roads, and even has residential areas in walking distance (if you don;t mind getting run over by lots of traffic). During Christmas Sales Season, the parking lots overflow....

Lauriat's was the original bookstore in the mall. Waterstone's was in there for a while, where there used to be a cinemaplex before mall reconstruction, and there was another bookstore I don;'t remember the name of in there. The only one left in there is Walden's, which was the last one in. Lauriat's went bankrupt, failing to be able to compete with Barnes & Noble and Borders. Waterstone's had a large store in Boston, which got flooded out and that sort of washed away the one 17 or so miles away in Burlington, too.

However, there was another general bookstore, in a stripmall on the other side of Mall Road (bounds Burlington Mall on the north; south is 128, west is Middlesex Pike, and further to the east is 3A/Cambridge Road, the Marriott Readercon's been at for several years is bounded by 3A, 128, and Mall Road), a one story Barnes & Noble. It's not there anymore, where it was is occupied by Eastern Mountains Sports (EMS) or whatever the name of the store is. The Barnes & Noble moved to a new building, which replaced what had been a Howard Johnson's Motor Inn, which is two stories high, has a dozen overstuffed chairs, set up as four each surround a low squar table. There are more dark wooden chairs that are set at dark wooden small student-type tables than I've bothered to count. Two of the tables surrounded by overstuff chairs are on the mezzazine level -- the second floor is mezzazine-style, with a large open D-shaped area in the center, so the it overlooks the first floor from all sides. The up escalator is at the north end of the D, the down at the south end of the D. The bow of the D faces the front of the store, the front of the store is a glass wall. The area from the center of the D to the glass is full of tables and chairs, where people sit and read, do homework, work on whatever having hauled in laptop computers and sit working with them....
The employees come by and ask people sitting in the chair if the books on the tabe are associated with the people there, if not, the employees take them away and reshelve them.

The parking lot usually has lots of cars in it. The store;s open hours something like 8 AM to 11 PM daily.

Meanwhile, compare that to something in downtown Boston. The parking garages in Boston just cut their rates, now they're probably merely $16 a day instead of $24 (there are some that were lower than that...). But to get to them, you have to drive -into- Boston. Or, you can take the MBTA, assuming that you're somewhere that has usable and reasonable mass transit to get into Boston. There's on-street parking, for those who are lucky and/or persistent enough to go driving around and around and around, at a mere $.25 for fifteen minutes, and with an hour or two limit on the meter. And then the stores have a tendency to close at 5 or 6 PM -- Boston's population is what, roughly 600,000? During the workweek day there are nearly two million people in the city.... two-thirds of them head out at the end of the work day, and that's why so many of the stores close in downtown Boston, while there are people who live in the Back Bay, most of other the people in Boston, are only there during business hours. Meanwhile, there are more peole who live out in the greater metropolitan area (there are also lots of people who work out there). Burlington Mall is open until 10 PM, and it's at the intersection of major highways, and has people living nearby.

Looking at my own situation.... did I want to go into Boston to go buy books at Avenue Victor Hugo, when that meant having to -get- into Boston, find a parking place, pay for parking, etc.?

Answer -- no, particularly not when there is this quite large Barnes & Noble seven miles from where I live, with free parking, which has lots more books. There is a used book store on Cambridge Street, closer to where I live. I don't go in there often, but it's there, and the parking is free--limited, but free. And the mass transit situation for me is laughable (there are buses I can walk to get, which will drive past me or not stop long enough at the strip mall a mile away for me to get from inside the supermarket to the bus in bad weather before the bus departs, and then if I have succeeded in getting on it (which has never happened yet southbound) change to the Burlington bus...., or I can walk further to get to the Burlington bus route terminus and stand around and wait most of an hour for it, and take it to a subway station, where I can get on a subway train or trolley and eventually get into Boston.... or drive north three miles, and wait for a train, which goes into North Station an hour later, and take the subway....

I've barely been into Cambridge and its bookstores in recent years. It's a slightly closer than Boston, has similar driving and parking issues -- second though, driving in Cambridge is worse in a number of ways, than in Boston, and getting there is more of a PITA, even though as the straight line distance is close. I remember when Wordworth was a two story bookstore, not one, and full of books and records, I remember when Reading International existed, and there was a Paperback Booksmith across the street from Wordworht, and, there was -parking- nearby, that was free or at least inexpensive and available. But, that was long ago. It was also before Cambridge decided to get even more car-unfriendly that it had been.

An old college friend of mine, who was living in Arlington, which adjoins Cambridge, decided that Cambridge has made itself too inconvenient for car-users (he was working out near Hascom Air Force Base outside of route 128) to get into to get to bookstores, and he abandoned going in there to buy books, too.

Access, convenience, and book selection, are all considerations. AVH was inconvenient for non-urbanites to get to, expensive to get to (if one needs a car for one's daily work and grocery shopping, the car usage costs are marginal to drive to a bookstore in a suburban location), and with a much more limited selection of current books than a large Barnes & Noble or Borders. Access is also an issue--Boston store hours tend to be shorter than suburban store hours, and even when they aren't, the access situation can still be nasty. Lots of people who live in Boston, don;'t work there, while other people come in at night to go to restaurants. When I was working for MITRE I had a manager who lived in the Back Bay in Boston, he said that parking tickets were a factor of life in Boston--that is, there are more cars there owned by residents than on-street parking for, and so residents would park illegally. He and his car were out of Boston during the workday, and in Boston on nights and weekends. The traffic shift is impressive--the on-street parking doesn't stay empty very long.

Bottom line -- unless someone lives in Boston or Cambridge or close-in in e.g. Newton and is carless, it's really easier and less expensive and less nervewracking and a whole lot more convenient to go bookshopping outside of Boston and Cambridge.

Boston and Cambridge do have the captive college student population, more than 100,000 in Boston proper alone, but even there, there are questions of supply and demand. Anime Boston closed down registration at 4000 people at noon on Saturday last year--that's the anime market. Arisia and Boskone combined don't pull that many people, ignoring the overlap. There are general bookstores in Boston. I know they're there, but these days I mostly only go into Boston for things like Arisia and Boskone and such, I don't go in there as a matter of course for book buying.

I didn;t mention New England Mobile Book Fair, in Newton. It's further away from me than Boston is, but it's where I've done most of my book buying. It's an independent store, and has new new books and remaindered books rooms. It has free parking (theme...). It has YA hardcovers -- the Barnes & Noble has them also, but only dependably since becoming a -large- store.

I've occasionally visited Pandemonium over the years, but getting into that part of Cambridge, even ignoring the finding affordable parking question, is a major PITA and nervewracking, and mostly just not worth the time, effort, and bother.

I'm sad to hear that OCH is closing, on the other hand, negative income businesses are generally -not- a good thing, and not reasonable for ordinary mortals with concerns about paying for food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc., to engage in. It sounds like the reality check would best have been invoked and applied long ere now on it. [aka, Tom, you IDIOT!!!] [I'm a bit edgy just now about people's well-being, having heard the tragic news about Katherine Lawrence.]

#133 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 06:10 AM:

Nerdycellist, yes, that's just what I'm talking about. For what it's worth, thanks from a distant potential customer for having toughed it out for so long.

What bugs me is that shafting one's workers is now apparently what investors expect. There's a recent story on The Wall Street Journal Online about how some analysts have downgraded Costco as an investment because they pay their workers a living wage and give reasonable benefits, especially in relation to Wal-Mart. Ah, the race to the bottom.

Brooks: I haven't gone to Feldman's since, um, since it was the previous bookstore on that site. Not sure why, really. Will remedy that immediately.

#134 ::: Alice Keezer ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 01:31 PM:

My only reason for heading into Boston was because it had things I couldn't find at home. Home was roughly an hour and a half drive from Boston, or an hour drive to the first open garage and another hour on the T. It was an infrequent trip, but I ALWAYS took the T into Boston. Driving in Boston is . . . well, suicidal. Even if you know precisely where you're going, the cutting-off, the tailgating, the beeping if you don't jump a light all contribute to one very frazzled and possibly shaken person climbing out of that car. I drive THROUGH Boston - never in. That's what the T is for. And the T lends itself to much more interesting people-watching.

As for Anime Boston (you've hit upon a subject of interest), it sold out last year, and this year, preregistration sold out, too. As of February 20th, according to their website. They're putting it in a larger facility next year. And their guests aren't even all that great.

#135 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 02:29 PM:

And then the stores have a tendency to close at 5 or 6 PM

This drives me crazy.

Granted, most days of the week I have a couple of hours before 5 or 6 when I could do my shopping. But that's when everybody else is shopping. And how much traffic do stores get during the midafternoon? Wouldn't it be better to close down for a siesta and reopen at 3pm, then stay open a bit later so people could actually manage to stop by? Most people I know don't buy books the way they buy other things. They want to browse around and see what there is; the shopping is as important as the purchse.

#136 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 03:23 PM:

David - The dragon didn't have a curse on it, as far as I know. I suppose you'd have to ask Darkhawk (Heather Nicoll) to be certain, though, since it was a gift to her.

Julia - Yes, Future Fantasy. That was it, indeed.

#137 ::: Madeline ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 03:34 PM:

I'm terribly confused by shops that close at 5, too. If we (for example) garden, are we supposed to be unemployed? Does everyone else know some trick of bilocation that I missed? Is the secret to ditch work and not feel guilty, so you can browse as long as you like?

Why not open at 11AM and close at 8PM?

#138 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 04:22 PM:

Ayse/Paula: Re stores closing at 5 or 6 p.m., yes, that is a pain in the butt. Paula, you make it clear why that happens in Boston, although you'd think stores would stay open just a wee bit later to accommodate people shopping right after work. Ayse, the best rationale I can figure for our local shops that close that early is that they get sufficient business during the lunch rush. At least I hope they do.

Dan: Colleen's comments about Gaia were telling in the light of her repeated assertions that Borders and Amazon aren't the real reasons independent bookstores close. I guess only good businesspeople get to ask for help. If a bad, undeserving businessperson asks for help, and gets it, that's wrong; if that business therefore survives to sell tomorrow, that's probably worse, eh?

My space 'n' lighting paragraph arose from people's side comments, as a separate issue I brought up after responding to Colleen -- you know, new material & synthesis. About ambiance: while reading this thread I realized how much of an outlier I must be (not among the readers of this thread, but among the general population). When I go to a used-book store, I go for the content. By me, chairs suitable for giving books a quick once-over are much appreciated, but not required. From past experience I expect mustiness (see someone's earlier comment about telling the age of a book by its smell), rather compressed aisles (so many books, so little space), and low lighting (not required of a used-book store, but extremely common). Other intrepid bookstore divers of my aquaintance openly talk about the thrill of the hunt. They brag about burrowing through stacks of dusty manuscripts in the back of a store to unearth a good-condition collection of Regency glees and catches. That's my crowd, and my set of expectations. Would these expectations work for 99 percent of the population? Probably not. I'm looking forward to my safari at Feldman's in Menlo Park. The bastards might surprise me with wide, brightly-lit aisles, though. What's the fun in that?

Re stores smelling of cat urine: No, thank you, I would not like to make a snide comment about that. Feel free to play through.

#139 ::: Joy Rothke ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 04:34 PM:

Madeleine:

I had an almost identical experience trying to buy romances at the Chestnut Street [SF] Books Inc. I was told "people around here don't read those sort of books."

Re cats, I'm allergic and don't really appreciate them in a store in which I want to linger.

#140 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 04:41 PM:
Dan: Colleen's comments about Gaia were telling in the light of her repeated assertions that Borders and Amazon aren't the real reasons independent bookstores close. I guess only good businesspeople get to ask for help. If a bad, undeserving businessperson asks for help, and gets it, that's wrong; if that business therefore survives to sell tomorrow, that's probably worse, eh?
Hmmm... nope, I still have no idea what you mean. The first part of your paragraph has no obvious connection to the second part, and you still seem to be responding to a very odd reading of what Colleen said, rather than her actual words.
#141 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 08:54 PM:

With the caveat that I live on the other coast and have never been to AVH:

Their letter makes me a little clearer on part of the reason they didn't get customers.

In a small, independent business where the owners are often the public face, if the owners are jerks, people don't come back. Period. Many independent bookstore owners, or at least managers, seem to be the book version of the stereotypical arrogant sommelier at an expensive restaurant. You know: the guy who is sure that he knows more about the product (wine, or in this case, books) than you ever will, and will sneer at your choice of anything other than what he, himself, considers to be the cream of the crop.

I don't have much interest in handing over money to people who roll their eyes at customers who don't appreciate literature, or who believe that enjoyment of books ought to be limited to the Elect, not cast before the masses like pearls before swine.

#142 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 10:14 PM:

To be fair, I don't recall seeing any attitude like that from AVH staffers the few times that I was in there. I don't have an reason to dislike the place, I just don't see the fact that it's closing as a crime against literature, or anything.

#143 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 10:27 PM:

As I say, I haven't been there, so I defer to your opinion of the place--just that such attitudes do tend to leak through, and perhaps that's one factor in AVH's demise.

I don't know if Michael Powell is a jerk or not, but it doesn't matter when I shop at Powell's; I don't encounter him. If Powell's were a very small niche bookstore, I might, and then his personality would color my opinion of the bookstore.

#144 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 10:30 PM:

Paula's statements about shop hours in Boston weren't accurate even 30 years ago; when Boston was much more of a backwater town, shops were still open late one night in every week. Now she's much less correct; I note AVH's webpage says 10-8 Mon-Sat -- and evening parking is still not great but much cheaper: $9 from 4pm 2 blocks away (And I sympathize with the street improvements affecting their rent, but how much did they gain by having a Tower (later Virgin) Records megastore half a block away? Damfino; I'm not that much of a used-bookstore haunter any more, and when I was in that area (1-2x/yr) I never seemed to have time to visit.) Boston is also somewhat extreme in layout; it was the first city to have a circumferential highway, which trashed the old radial structures. (Inside rte 128, it's still a lot easier to go into and out of the city center than to go a similar distance orbiting around the center.)

Pandemonium (principal SF bookstore for greater Boston) is in Harvard Square, which is still \the/ place for kids of various physical ages to hang out. I don't know how long that will hold with the increasing yuppification; Davis Square (two stops further out on the subway) is cheaper and less plastic, but not (yet) as developed (and there are still plenty of cheap places in Harvard Square; with ~10,000 students right there, it will probably have good traffic for a long time). But it isn't easy to get around (e.g., find cheap parking) for people who are just coming in from the burbs instead of coming back from moving out, and even I haven't been to Pandemonium in 9 months -- it's just at the end of too many roads instead of on the way from a job that moved to the burbs 13 years ago, two choruses, .... Getting in was a lot easier when I was bicycling to work, or going to Harvard's night school.

So AVH is probably worse off than specialty stores in many other cities (cf observations that the SF & Berkeley stores are mostly surviving while the further-out stores aren't) -- not because of what they're whining about, but that doesn't make the impersonal forces less painful.

#145 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 28, 2004, 11:52 PM:

OCH chose to be open from noon to 7 weekdays, 11 to 7 Sat, noon to 6 Sun. We played with other hours at various times. While we'd occasionally get a few customers later, mostly traffic dies when the sun sets in Berkeley. That was our measured experience. Now, the later customers often spent enough money to make it worth it (but nowhere near always!) -- is it right to stay open for them? A hard call.

Paula, in regards to idiocy -- I've always been an idiot in terms of thinking that community is more important than profit. And I intend to continue doing that. I'm just thinking I can do more of that if I start earning money _at this point_ rather than keeping on with losing it. OCH has done more good than I will ever know. I've only got to look at the faces of those who hear we're closing to see that. And maybe, if I'm lucky, what I choose to do in moving on will have the same effect.

Now, where are those windmills?

#146 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 12:26 AM:

Chip, you -live- in Boston, not downtown, true, but your legal residence is in the City of Boston.

I wrote that the stores -tend- to close early in Boston, not that all stores do.

8 PM is still earlier than most of the around and beyond 128 bookstores -- Borders and Barnes & Noble stay open until 11 PM, and the workers often to chase people out (according to a friend who's been a Borders employee for more than a decade). Perhaps the Barnes & Noble/Borders stores in Boston stay open than late, I don't know. I dion't know the hours of the B&N in the Prudential Center Mall near the Sheraton Hotel, the only time I've been in it ever was during Boskone after Boskone moved back to Boston.

New England Mobile Book Fair is open to 6 PM or 7 PM most days, and 9 PM or so on Wednesday or Thursday I think. During the Christmas Shopping Season it's open later. For a year or two I was working a few blocks away from the place, and -that- was extremely damaging to the wallet. It's some blocks east of 128 off Needham Street and a couple blocks from route 9, so while getting to it involves -some- traffic, it's nowhere near like trying to drive around into in or Boston. And having its own parking lot means that when walking about with four bags of books, one doesn't have to walk blocks loaded down with bags of books.

Tom: 30+ years is a long, long, long time.

#147 ::: Alice Bentley ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 02:23 AM:

When my shop, The Stars Our Destination, started to face serious difficulties, I identified five major influences, and a host of minor ones. None of them were Those Evil Rotters Out To Get Us. A sort of outline version of my spiel, roughly in order of affect...

- Location: the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago has tripled in population, and quadrupled in housing costs. The new occupants have neither the time or money for leisure pursuits like reading, and the suburban customers could no longer force their way through the crowds and traffic to reach us. Property tax and rent for the storefront rose accordingly.

- Changes in supply: Major (i. e. NY) publishers used to provide close to 90% of my sales. Changes in ownership lead to drastically cut lines or dropping out completely.

- Changes in supply, the sequel: Small publishers expanded logarithmically. You would think this would be a good thing! But with widely varying quality (even within an imprint), higher retail per book (often MUCH higher), no sales staff to speak of and (even worse) only rudimentary accounting, these were very much more expensive to stock.

- Non-booksellers entering bookselling: By which I mean people and companies whose expenses and livelyhood are not derived from bookselling, even though that's their major activity. Amazon wouldn't last three months if they had to pay their bills just on the books they've sold. Same for some of the chains. Same for many of the used book sellers on the internet. This doesn't make them evil, but it IS a significant change in who is selling books and why.

- Distractions: Ten years ago it was unusual to have a VCR. Five years ago not many people were on the internet. Console game systems alone account for a pile of time that used to be spent reading. These are all good things, but they're going to affect how many books people want.

I could both continue and elaborate, and I guess I will later this week somewhere on my website (under construction, like so many others), but that's the main points as I see 'em.

#148 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 02:42 AM:

Alice Bentley wrote:
>When my shop, The Stars Our Destination, started to face serious difficulties, I identified five major influences

What about the move from... damn... the lively hip retail area starting with a 'B' where the shop used to be? I spent a couple of months in Chicago, and one of the first things I did was head up there to find The Stars My Destination. What I found instead was a) by far my favourite bit of Chicago and b) a "we've just moved" sign on your door.

I did get to the shop eventually, but found the new destination harder to reach and less interesting. It was a nice shop though - I had a very good time in the secondhand section.

#149 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 02:51 AM:

The discussion of specialty bookselling reminded me of a curious event here some time back. Warning: this is more in the line of a Fortean mystery than a proper story.

I was leaving the skyway system via a building lobby I didn't often pass through, and noticed a bookstore. Or, well, a bookstore-like storefront. It was stocked entirely with copies of a single work, a management book by somebody I'd never heard of; they were in dumps and wall racks, labeled "Fiction" and "Adventure" and so on. The place was dimly lit, but not open.

Now, this was at a time when it seemed that anyone who owned a white collar could get a management book published -- it was just after the success of local nonentity Harvey Mackay, if you recall that. It seemed pretty obvious that this was a promotional stunt -- the building was mostly vacant and the space, even at street level, was probably cheap, especially to someone able to move out on a moment's notice.

I went by occasionally after that, and never saw the place open for business; I suspect it never was (that would have incurred the considerable costs of retailing). Finally, after about a year and a half, the building was torn down (it's since been replaced, by a tower without street-level retail).

I'm sorry I don't remember the title or author. I do recall thinking that, if this was the guy's idea of a brilliant promotional gimmick, I had a swell bridge he could get a piece of.

#150 ::: Alice Bentley ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 09:20 AM:

Steve Taylor asked:
> What about the move from... damn... the lively hip retail area
> starting with a 'B' where the shop used to be?

That move was the result of the changes, not the incursion.

Between the fall of 1999 and the summer of 2000, I lost approx. 65% of my business. It wasn't all at once, just one soft week followed by an even softer one. But as the trend continued, and the months passed by, I more-quickly-than-I-would-have-expected became unable to keep up with the invoices, then the payroll, then the rent. Frequent author signings (thanks guys!), advertising support from publishers, and active enthusiasm from the community all helped to lessen the blow, but it was like trying to hold back the tide.

The move from Belmont to Evanston was in lieu of closing. We knew we were still providing a worthwhile and appreciated service. But unless things suddenly changed again (unlikely, see previous posting) we were no longer a viable business doing what had worked well for over twelve years.

A careful perusal of the numbers indicated that if we restructured our priorities a bit (not stocking *everything* in print, dropping initial orders to quicker sell-through and use reorders to restock), we could keep the crucial core going in a smaller storefront. Diligent and increasingly agitated searching turned up not one single open spot in Chicago that was 1) close to the desired size, 2) near public transportation (required not just for customers but for me and my staff) and 3) somewhere in the vicinity of parking. As I spread the search wider, I found the Evanston location which met all the criteria, even though it was quite a leap from the old stomping grounds.

Looking back now, I see that it would probably have been better to have closed then, instead of moving. But we weren't THAT far from making the numbers work, and if the next three years hadn't been followed with, well, what we all know has followed, I think the shop would still be a going concern today.

Indeed, DreamHaven Books, who bought out both The Stars Our Destination and the much older Weinberg Books, is doing fine. They have a stable location and a more diversified inventory as well as a great long term staff.

I loved selling books, especially speculative fiction books, but I love many other things as well, and now I'll have the time to do some of them. Like, say, reading the occasional weblog.

#151 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 09:59 AM:

Dan --

The big brighly lit thing, well, I'm not sure about that this equals good store. We have an enormous store in NYC here, the B&N at Union Square, and although it is indeed big and brightly lit, an awful lot of the floor space is devoted to things other than books. On the first floor, 50% of the square footage is CD & DVDs. On the second floor, it's okay, mostly books, but the third floor is 30% Starbucks and the 4th floor is 50% empty space for readings.I'd rather have more books in my bookstore. :-)

But I don't want to have to walk through a fire hazard to find things, either. I never go the The Strand here in New York City because the aisles are too narrow, the stock is in bad shape and is completely unorganized, and the entire place feels like a deathtrap. Not my idea of a fun time browsing.

Vanessa --

GAIA didn't ask customers to buy more; they asked customers to write them checks to help them pay their bills. There's a big difference. Them when the store finally closed, one of the owners publicly blamed the city of Berkeley and it's residents for not supporting a "community center that had given so much back to the city." Among booksellers in the Bay Area -- all of whom were having their own difficulties with paying rents when the dot-com boom caused rents to skyrocket -- Gaia's tactics were mostly considered tacky, and by the end even a lot of their fellow booksellers didn't support them.

As far as Bay Area bookstores, yes I mentioned a lot in the East Bay and San Francisco, because they just happened to pop into my head. The fact is, however, that The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the two places in the United States with the highest concentration of bookstores [the other being the Seattle area]. The Bay Area is pretty spread out, so perhaps your perception is that there aren't very many bookstores, but you may just need to get out more to other parts of the Bay. In San Francisco alone, there are 44 registered NCIBA member bookstores [as of January]. That doesn't include all the chains or some used bookstores or any of the stores who for some reason chose not to become a member of the NCIBA. In the North Bay [not including the coast up past Gualala] there are about 38 registered member bookstores, again not including the chains, a few used bookstores and some who just choose not to join. You have to admit, the SF Bay Area is a book lover's dream.

Tom --

I've been into The Other Change of Hobbit quite frequently, and what you mentioned above seems true: after the sun goes down [or after regular 9-5 business hours] the foot traffic is kind of dead. There is no reason to stay open. Similarly, Stacey's in SF closes [I think] at 7:00 for the same reason -- the financial district is dead after 6:00.

I wanted to ask you if you thought that some people might have frequented the store less due to the sharp rise in homeless population in Berkeley the last few years? I know that when I worked at Stacey's this was a very big problem. As community minded as you'd like to be, it's hard to be polite when you're cleaning human feces off the front door every morning when you open the store. I know that Andy Ross has had similar problems with the Cody's location on Telegraph and the folks at the Booksmith on Haight in SF probably have the worst probems dealing with this. Just curious.

#152 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 10:37 AM:

Nerdycellist --

Love your handle, first of all.

Second, I think you may have hit the nail on the head as to what a hidden reason for the decline of many bookstores [both independents and chains] -- they don't pay worth squat. The first indie bookstore I ever worked in [Central Park Books in San Mateo, long since out of business] I got paid $3.95 a hour to manage the staff, buy frontlist and backlist, buy food products for our cafe, pull returns, do some bookkeeping to help the office staff, hire, fire, open at 7:00 AM [for food deliveries], close at 11:00 PM [because of the inevitable staff shortage] and then come in and do it all over again the next day. I did this for four years. Either I really loved books or I was some kind of sucker...or both. I got marginal health benefits, no paid vacation and no overtime. But I loved my job.

The second indie I worked at was Printer's Inc, which had excellent staff benefits: great medical & dental [I'd never had dental before! It was fabulous!] But they also paid very badly, not because they were cheap, but because most bookstores run on a very slim margin of profit and in general pay poorly.

Printer's Inc also got into a bit of trouble about not paying overtime and one of the store employees took them to task over it at whatever state agency regulates that. It was done mostly out of ignorance of the very complicated overtime laws, not malice but it cost the store a lot of money.

This is something that quite a few independents run into at one time or another. Green Apple Books in San Francisco was the worst offender I can think of, and an employee there I know filed some sort of lawsuit that got most of the workers who were there about a year of back overtime pay. [In fact, if I remember correctly, Green Apple had a general employee revolt, tried to unionize and ended up buying the store out from under the guy who owned it. Now it's supposed to be a pretty good place to work.]

Stacey's in SF is unionized [the longshoreman's union of all things!!!] so they paid better than most, starting at about $7.50 or so an hour. But it's still hard to live in San Francisco on $7.50 an hour, ya know?

The jist of my rambling here is that in the old days, bookselling used to be considered an honorable profession, and folks who loved books might see opening a bookstore as a viable profession. Booksellers stayed for along time at bookstores, they acquired a wealth of knowlegde and trained other booksellers to be good book people. But more and more these days, for most folks, it's a stopping point on the way to a better paying job somewhere else. It's a shame really.

#153 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 11:33 AM:

nerdycellist wrote she did once pee on my (wonderful, unique thrift store find) wool coat, which I had to toss, because you can't get cat pee out of anything.

That's not true.
I have successfully gotten cat pee out of a wool cloak. There are now enzyme-based cleaners specifically designed to break down animal urine stains from fabric and upholstery. I don't have the product names on the tip of my tongue, but if you want I can send them to you (or post them here).

I was blessed with a cat who will truly never be a library or bookstore cat -- she eats paper when she's upset. Chewing the corners off books probably does bad things to resale value...

#154 ::: Alice Bentley ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 11:37 AM:

Collen asked Tom [about closing early in the evening]:

> I wanted to ask you if you thought that some people might have frequented
> the store less due to the sharp rise in homeless population in Berkeley the last few years?

My experiences in Chicago may not relate - but we saw VERY few sales later than about 6:30 pm even though we were open until 9 pm or 10 pm. A few browsers, and now and then a late evening big-stack-of-books, but mostly if anyone came in it was people waiting for the next movie to start, or for their dinner reservation.

I stayed open late anyway because early morning and late evening were the only times I could get the mountainous volumes of paperwork done, and as long as I was there, I was willing to sell more books.

The sales after 6:00 pm would not have covered even one minimum wage employee (and I paid better than that), but I wasn't being paid, so that's all right. And this is in a neighborhood with a very active nightlife, with scads of people around as potential browsers.

Plinking an earlier thread: one of several reasons why we didn't have a store cat (or dog) is that Lisa (wife of initial partner Greg) is fabulously allergic. And I know she's not the only one.

#155 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 11:40 AM:

Lis -- My cat Stinkyboy also shreds paper to get my attention. He successfully destroyed about the first seven chapters of a Graham Joyce novel I was reading before I woke up and stopped him.

What is the deal with that? :-)

#156 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 12:36 PM:

Alice Bentley -

I was mightily sorry to hear about The Stars Our Destination's decline in fortunes. A martial-artist friend of mine used to stop in whenever he was in Chicago for a conference, and spoke highly of it, and often brought back wonderful things. (Once he brought me back a pristine copy of Thomas Ligotti's The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein, which can't be had for love or money or dark magic these days. That book was a key inspiration for me to write the song "Good Tom-Go-Lightly," eventually earning me a note of thanks and praise from Tom himself, which I still get out and look at when I'm having a day of Doubting the Work. So, thanks.)

#157 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 12:45 PM:

colleen, at least at the big chains, one of the gap-fillers for employee wages is the employee discount. Now, if you are already in a low wage bracket, and you love to read, this is a fantastic deal: instead of getting $8/hr to flip burgers, you get $8/hr to sell books, plus you get a ginormous discount on the books you would have bought anyway, and access to freebies like promotional copies.

But after a while it dawns on you that you are, essentially, getting paid in books. This is fine if your other expenses are low (say, if you're still young enough to be living at home, or are a college student with loans paying for the dorm room anyway). Otherwise, there's little reason to stay.

#158 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 02:24 PM:

Colleen -- see previous comment about swabbing piss out of the doorway most mornings. It wasn't the cat I was talking about. Not to mention the blind obstreperous homeless person who hangs out right in front of our door and seems to cause people to move on quite quickly rather than stopping who sometimes pisses in the garbage can. Most of the homeless in the area are reasonable, a few aren't, and I don't really want to blame them.

#159 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 29, 2004, 05:06 PM:

Tom....eeeeeew! [Holding her nose.] 'Nuff said.

#160 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 03:14 AM:

Colleen, it's very kind of you to illustrate my points for me. Regarding Gaia "just asking customers to write checks for them," isn't that what other areas of business call "investors," or "angels" or "community donations"? But since they weren't good businesspeople by your lights, they must have forfeited the right to use that strategy.

And regarding the distribution of bookstores in the Bay Area, I gotta tell ya that there's nothing funnier than having you tell me, in the middle of a thread about the problems facing small independent bookstores and the winnowing of their ranks, that I'm just not driving far enough to buy my books and I need to get out more.

Especially since you're throwing around the names of local bookstores and saying you worked there, so you must know the distances involved. Yep, if there are fewer bookstores in the South Bay, the solution is to visit Sonoma County 100 miles north. Note to self: make money fast by starting Book Buyer's Distance Driving Bootcamp.

#161 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 07:55 AM:

Easy, there. We are all honest men of good will.

#162 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 09:02 AM:

Vanessa --

You seem to have some sort of personal problem with me that I'm not privy to, and I don't feel like taking your bait. I don't know you, and you have no reason to personally attack me, so I'll chalk it up to your having a bad couple of days.

And I agree that if you don't feel like exploring the Bay Area to check out the hundreds of bookstores that ARE still in business, that is certainly your privilege.

The point of Teresa's initial post was that it is easier for some indie bookstores to point the fingers at everyone else in the world except themselves when they go out of business.

In particular they point their fingers at big chains and at major publishers, and more likely than not, they then go on to pronounce the forthcoming doom of bookselling and publishing in general.

There have been several booksellers on this thread besides myself -- indeed, several who have actually lost their businesses -- who have pointed out that this automatic assumption is simply **not valid**.

#163 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 09:24 AM:
Colleen, it's very kind of you to illustrate my points for me. Regarding Gaia "just asking customers to write checks for them," isn't that what other areas of business call "investors," or "angels" or "community donations"? But since they weren't good businesspeople by your lights, they must have forfeited the right to use that strategy.

To be an investor, you have to get a piece of the business for your money. Did Gaia provide this? It doesn't sound like it. And "other areas of business" do not generally ask for outright donations - non-profit organizations do, but that's a different story.

#164 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 09:43 AM:

Dan --

No, Gaia was offering no stock, or business shares, only that squishy feeling of goodness that one gets when one hands over wads of cash to the very needy. :-)

I see a big difference in this and what Ruminator tried to do in Minneapolis, where they actually attempted to offer shares of the business to the general public to help get them out of their financial difficulties. It was very innovative, but ultimately did not work.

#165 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 11:05 AM:

There's also a great deal of difference between "investors" and "angels" or "community donations". The former actually own your business. The latter two are generally found helping non-profits, community organizations, or charities--not for-profit businesses.

What part of the South Bay are we talking about, anyway? If I want to make a long drive to find a bookstore, that's Borders you're talking. Indie bookstores are actually closer to me.

#166 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 11:31 AM:

Lis -

Thanks for the info on enzyme cleaners and cat piss. I shall remember that next time I can have a cat. At the time of the offending incident, I had no idea (or time, or money, being a full-time student and part-time bookstore employee) it was at all possible.

And Colleen, I was always very aware of the teeny profit margins to be had in books. I wish I had been around for the Golden Age, when people could make a living in the respectable position of bookselling. I've heard the same about waiters; they used to pay a decent(ish) wage before the tips, not expect you to make all your money through the tips.

As an aside, one of the main reasons I stopped working at bookstores (besides lousy pay) was that I was tired of cleaning feces of bathroom walls.

#167 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 11:40 AM:

nerdycellist & Lis:

An enzyme product called "Nature's Miracle" has gotten us unstained and unsmelly through puppyhood, animal barf, etc. You can find it at Petsmart (and probably other pet shops.

#168 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 12:19 PM:

Nerdycellist --

Human waste on the walls was actually a fairly common occurrence at the first two of bookstores I worked at, Central Park Books and Printer's Inc. Not sure why. Once, at Stacey's, we even had one fellow who even came in and urinated on our history section. It was unreal.

I agree, however, that the minumum wages paid to any bookstore employee isn't enough to ask them to clean doo-doo off the bathroom walls.

[The 35% discount was always a nice little perk, though, doo-doo walls or no.]

#169 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 02:14 PM:

Colleen, I don't have a personal problem with you (we've never met, to my knowledge; I haven't knowingly seen your writing before this). I haven't "had a bad couple of days." Rather, I disagree with you, and increasingly with your style of discourse.

I have never, if you check my comments (this is what I meant about your not reading me well), made any automatic assumptions that Borders, B&N, and Amazon (that is, online shopping and chains in general) are the sole factors in a small bookstore's demise. I do, however, continue to insist that they are *big* factors. See #3 in Alice Bentley's list of factors, for example. The weight of online shopping and chain bookstores as a factor varies from place to place. I've centered my comments on my own neighborhood, based on what I have seen and heard, including what my local booksellers, papers, and city council have said. After consideration, I find your contention that bad business sense is the real reason my local stores closed to be insufficiently supported.

To repeat a paragraph I typed to you somewhere in the middle of this thread, "But to attempt to shift the blame for bookstore closings onto individual management -- 'rarely have I actually seen a bookstore closing that can be blamed solely on the opening of a nearby chain' -- strikes me as both technically correct yet ideologically filtered." Of *course* there's hardly ever just one reason.

From what I've read here, I gather it's your axiomatic position that a profit-making enterprise may only utilize a particular set of avenues to right itself in case of difficulty. I don't share your axioms -- even a badly-run business gets to ask for help from its community. [Note that I don't defend any subsequent whining if that call doesn't work.] Dan, whether or not it's generally done is immaterial.

I am no-kidding offended by your condescending attempt to recast my comments about the disappearance of my local small bookstores into a supposed unwillingness to look beyond my city's boundaries. "If you don't feel like exploring the Bay Area," my sainted aunt Fanny.

Teresa, for what it's worth, I did check my previous last paragraph with my roommate. "Hey, listen to this, is it too sarcastic?" I asked. He replied, "Well, aren't you writing that in TNH's weblog?" Beat, beat, beat. Then we simultaneously said, "So that's okay then."

#170 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 02:33 PM:

John M. Ford: Surely there's an SF story lurking in that mysterious storefront with its single business title on display.

To borrow a line from Don Simpson, maybe it was an insufficiently disguised attempt at an alien management takeover.

#171 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2004, 04:06 PM:

Lis-- There are now enzyme-based cleaners specifically designed to break down animal urine stains from fabric and upholstery.

Science is amazing.

Does that include rabbit urine? 'Cause I've got this carpet...

#172 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 12:32 AM:

And here's another reason I'll miss the store:

It's midafternoon, quiet, and this older (60s, I'd guess) man comes in. After looking around a bit, he asks about Sam Moskowitz and books on the history of SF. I dig, not finding anything; he mentions he slept on a couch at Moskowitz's back in the 50s, when he was one of the organizers of OkLaCons. We chat more: he was the publisher of the East Village Other, and was amazed when I immediately connected that with the Gothic Blimp Works. He's just survived an operation to remove a large benign growth from his colon (and his gallbladder, with 1.7cm stones in it). He thinks he's got an extra 20 years on his life and now wants to finish some of the books he started writing years ago. He's already got a book out on CIA mind-control techniques (and we talk about CIA connections). And when I Googled on him I found one of the old Scientology fanzines talking about him. Oh yeah -- he's into hypnosis and told me a wonderful story about Milton Erickson and the CIA (same about Leary and Huxley). Very matter of fact, very pleasant -- his stories sure sounded true to me. His name: Walter Bowart.

It's almost like having had the pleasure of introducing Whit Diffie to Avedon Carol.

#173 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 01:02 AM:

Aw, I don't have any cool books related personage stories! I did have a favorite character at S&Co - he may still be around the Upper West Side, but I am hampered in not recalling his actual name. He was an older (around 60's-ish) white-haired gentleman who bore a striking resemblance to Harlan Ellison. He often wore a kimono. We called him "The Mayor". Anytime there was an election, he'd request we post some photocopies of his publicity/platform flier. (This was usually verbose and single-spaced, the only issue I particularly remember was the making all of Manhattan closed to traffic, except for rickshaws).

He was completely lucid, articulate, and (usually) harmless, if somewhat odd. Once he came in and demanded to see the store manager, so he could set up a reading. He was going to read from his manuscript on longevity. The key was to keep having sex, apparantly.

Sometimes he would come into the store shouting political slogans, the most frequent of which was "Eat the rich, the son-of-a-bitch!" we would ask him to quiet down, and usually he would, or he'd leave post-haste. B&N had banned him outright, but we tolerated him so long as he didn't bug the other patrons. My favorite slogan was "Liberation, not Masturbation!" When confronted by an assistant manager, who rather than overreacting and yelling at him to get out, asked "What exactly is wrong with masturbation?" The Mayor quieted down and thoughtfully admitted that there was nothing wrong with it, it just rhymed.

The one time I got very angry with him was an evening I spent most of my shift outside watching the tables of bargain books. The Mayor stopped by to say "hi", and then started reading the fliers for the AIDS Walk in our window. He began muttering something that I couldn't quite make out until he opened the door and got louder, finally shouting "Cocksuckers! Cocksuckers!! COCKSUCKERS!!!" at the top of his lungs. The manager had angry words with him and he slunk off, not returning for a few weeks.

Then there was Sam, a profoundly autistic gentleman who would come into the store and turn around books that upset him. One day, every face-out or display of a red book was facing in by the end of the shift. Swastikas also upset him. At some point, we thought he was doing it at random, but the manager pointed out that all of the books had "dick", often as a name, and at least once as part of the word "dictator".

That was the best place to work for an acting student! And no public bathrooms, so no poo on the walls!

#174 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 09:35 AM:

When I worked at Printer's Inc in Palo Alto, we had a -- for want of a better word -- colorful character who used to hang around the store pretty much from opening to closing. His name was Emmett, and I believe that he was schizophrenic. From what we eventually pieced together about him, he had once been a medical student at Stanford before his first symptoms appeared. Anyway, Emmett used to believe that he was the deposed king of a far-away kingdom that could only be reached via special "vector" points within our store. When he found a vector point, he would stand in front of it for hours at a time, moving his arms in different directions [he looked for all the world as though he were vogueing, to be honest] and chanting.

Unfortunately, his vector points were often in inconvenient spots, like the swinging doors in back that led to our shipping receiving area, or in front of the bathroom door, or near the cash register.

One day, his vector points were found to be behind our front door. There were posters and things taped to the inside of the door so it was easy to miss Emmett if you were opening the door [which opened inward on the right hand side] so customers were banging poor Emmett in the head for about thrirty minutes until one of our floor managers, Stuart, decided to intervene. He tried to reason with Emmett that he was getting hurt standing in front of that particular door, and perhaps he should look for a different vector point to enter his kingdom. Emmett said he didn't mind getting hurt, and that was the only vector point working today. Stuart thought it over for a minute, and said -- very seriously -- "Emmett, I think maybe the customers might feel bad about hitting you with the door and you don't want to make the customers feel bad, right?" That did the trick, and Emmett wandered off to find another vector point.

I often wonder what happened to Emmett when Printers Inc closed. After all, without the store being there, he had no way to get back to his kingdom.

#175 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 12:27 PM:

It's a Books Inc now, so perhaps he could try again? Unless he actually did find his vector point and is now happily in his kingdom.

I worked for a few months at the Tower Books across town, and am somewhat surprised that I never encountered any of the customers who acquire monikers. (You know--Purple Hat Lady, That Creepy Old Guy, etc.) A friend of mine who works at a used bookstore in Palo Alto has these kinds of stories every day.

About the only odd thing was that the erotica section was always a mess. Always. I'd straighten it up once a day, and by the end of the shift it would be a mess.

#176 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 12:58 PM:

I'm still annoyed I wasn't in the store the day Whoopi Goldberg came in....

#177 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 01:15 PM:

Whoopi's a SF/F fan? Cool.

My biggest celeb sighting at a bookstore was Bruce Springsteen, way the hell back in 1984.

Alastaire Cooke used to frequent Stacey's in San Francisco quite often. [Of course, every time he came in, someone would say "I thought he was dead."]

And when I worked for brief hellish three months at Green Apple Books, Anton Lavey used to come into the place and creep everyone out. He really DID look like he does in pictures.

#178 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 01:20 PM:

even a badly-run business gets to ask for help from its community.

Really? And what do badly-run businesses actually give to their communities? It can't be jobs, because if there were a well-run business in their place, the community would be getting those jobs, and probably more of them. Not to mention more sales tax money, and improved foot traffic to other stores.

The thing that irritated me about the GAIA begging was the feeling of entitlement they had. Asking for investors is one thing, but asking for a handout? They might as well stand with a cup on Telegraph. It would save on rent, too.

Speaking of rent, that's been the overriding factor in the demise of my favourite bookstores. A neighborhood gentrifies, and the rents go way up, and suddenly a bookstore that was making a decent profit starts to break even, then fall into the red. The bigger stores opening up are just a symptom of the gentrification.

Speaking of asking for handouts, the filth problem is why I stopped shopping in downtown Berkeley years ago. I love the bookstores on Telegraph, but having to fight through stinking masses of people, having to get around the recreational homeless, and having to ignore people yelling at me when I don't give them my money is just too much to put up with even for an afternoon spent in the comforting arms of Moe's. Shattuck is not any better; if anything, it's worse for the businesses trying to make it work there because of all the deserted sidewalks with only a few stinky, schizophrenic homeless people muttering in the doorways of stores. After dark it becomes even more menacing.

#179 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 01:22 PM:

colleen, Alastaire Cooke is now dead. As of yesterday. He was 95 IIRC.

#180 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 01:24 PM:

Xopher --

Open mouth, insert foot. Alastair Cooke is dead? Well, I guess Stacey's employees won't be asking that question any longer.

Bummer.

#181 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 01:43 PM:

Ayse --

Rents in the SF Bay Area might be one of the biggest factors. One of the many things that led to Printers Inc closing in Palo Alto was that their landlord, Stanford University, gave them a very large rent increase. Their reasoning for this was that the University claimed they had to pay for sizable earthquake repairs to the building in 1989. [By the way, bookstores and earthquakes -- really bad mixture.] They may have ened up selling the building. I don't remember what happened.

I agree that the recreational [or as I called them, "habitual homeless"] were also a big problem in the Bay Area. As I mentioned earlier in a post to Tom, I think that Telegraph and Shattuck have it worst, but parts of San Francisco are pretty hard to get through. I always worry that the Booksmith on Haight will close simply because customers no longer feel like braving the hordes of weekend homeless kids in from Orinda [My frequent response to their asking for cash: "How much was that tattoo? And that one? And that one?" It usually shuts them up], camped out on the sidewalk hitting residents up for cash, or the leftover sixty-something flower-power pseudo-hippies selling dope.

[And before everone here gets all PC about the homeless, you need to understand: in The San Francisco Bay Area, there are the actual homeless -- people who are genuinely down on their luck, out of work, etc or the thousands of schizophrenics that were released from myriad mental institutions during Reagan's tenure as governor. *And there are a LOT of actual homeless!* But the troublemakers usually come from the habitual homeless population. These are the folks who came for the summer of '68 and never left, and all those who followed after them. They are mostly stoned, always jobless, always disrespectful of people and property and they're a huge drain on the economy of the area. Frankly if it were up to me I'd give them all a boot into the Pacific Ocean, and pave People's Park. But perhaps I'm just cranky today.]

#182 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 04:49 PM:

I know someone who calls those people "trustafarians." I don't know if that's fair or reasonable, but it's funny.

#183 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 04:57 PM:

Wasn't it '67?

And Tim, I've heard that term, but it referred to young people with too much money and too little sense. They don't hit you up for money, they're too busy finding out where the next rave is, so they can drop another thou on X.

#184 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 05:10 PM:

And having known someone who went through a few years of homelessness -- it's nowhere near as simple as that, colleen.

#185 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 05:30 PM:

Tom --

I'm talking about folks who had a choice, and chose to be homeless, or pseudo-homeless. It's a bizarre concept to me to choose this lifestyle out of laziness or to affect some sort of stance against the system, when there are so people out there who did not have that choice and -- in the case of the many mentally ill folks out there -- will *never* have that choice.

The Sixties are over; these people needed to go get a life long ago.

As someone who grew up in a family that was desperately poor, and yes -- for a brief time homeless as well -- I find it utterly mind-boggling that there are people who would choose to live this way.


#186 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 06:31 PM:

And how can you tell the actual homeless from the Homeless By Choice? Do you perform a quick needs assessment followed up by an on-the-spot psychological evaluation?

I hereby propose Wagner's Law: Use of the phrase "This may not be Politically Correct, but-- ", or some variant, is simply another way of saying, "I don't know what I'm talking about but I'm about to pull an opinion out of my ass anyway."

And the 60s sure ARE over. The 60s were a time of increased tolerance for non-majority ethnic groups and lifestyles, along with relaxed drug laws. Now we have the largest prison population in the developed world, and we got that way with our modern drug laws! USA! Number one! Woo-hoo!

Also, the 60s was a period when national politicians dragged us into a bloody and pointless jungle war to further their own petty political ambitions. Now, it's in the desert, so that's, like, completely different too.

#187 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 08:43 PM:

Ayse: What do badly-run bookstores give back to their communities? (Wishing there were a wider array of emoticons so I could have a visual to display my puzzlement at the question.) Uh, let's see. This varies from store to store, of course, but the roster could include any combination of these: casual meeting places, sometimes actual meeting rooms for community groups, author signings (and subsequent conversations with authors &/or fellow book enthusiasts), bulletin boards for various intellectual & political enthusiasms/housing/local businesses, food/drink, information from the bookstore staff, information from the books themselves, and the occasional comfy chair. I'm probably missing something.

In other words, the stuff that "community" usually refers to, beyond foot traffic and sales tax. I really did think this went without saying; have we all been talking past each other unknowingly?

Anyway, both well-run and badly-run bookstores offer the above. Even if the badly-run bookstore doesn't offer them for quite as long.

I mean the following in a completely non-cynical, non-nasty, no intentional overtones way: it's interesting to compare and contrast the discussion regarding the homeless with the discussion about the business of bookstores.

#188 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 08:49 PM:

And how can you tell the actual homeless from the Homeless By Choice?

I can usually tell because the recreationally homeless have stuff that has value. Like the kids on Telegraph sitting around begging for money and occasionally calling their friends on their cell phones.

It's pretty clear to me that the guy who hasn't washed in years, has two teeth left, and is wandering around muttering to himself about tentacles is not there because he wants to live in the idyllic wonderland that is the fairy stories told about the 60's.

The 60s were a time of increased tolerance for non-majority ethnic groups and lifestyles

If the attitudes of modern-day hippies are anything to go by, they were also a time of *intolerance* of majority ethnic groups and lifestyles. So you get people who talk about how much they love diversity in the community, which translates to anything non-whitebread American. A nice way to compartmentalize the token non-white into never guite being fully part of the community. Hey, I'm just here to provide diversity! Shall I cook you some of the native foods of my people so you don't have to eat macaroni and cheese?

And then there's the unending fallacy of the cleansing and purifying effects of poverty -- a belief you can only hold if you're so rich you can't even see how rich you are. God, was I ever glad to move out of Berkeley.

#189 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 09:02 PM:

Ayse: What do badly-run bookstores give back to their communities? ...[list deleted]

Anyway, both well-run and badly-run bookstores offer the above. Even if the badly-run bookstore doesn't offer them for quite as long.

The question is not "what does a business offer to its community?" It's "what does a failing business offer to its community that a thriving business in the same space would not offer?" I would have thought that to be fairly clear from context.

I don't see any reason to bail out people who are bad at doing business, refuse to acknowledge it, or refuse to do anything about it, when the community and I would be better served by the bad business being replaced by a better business. Besides, if the owners are so bad at dealing with the business end of things, giving them money isn't going to help in the long term. It's just going to delay the inevitable.

#190 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 10:02 PM:

Tom--From everything I've read, Walter Bowart was indeed an amazingly odd character (and by no means universally loved). Probably most of what he said was basically true.

#191 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 10:52 PM:

I can usually tell because the recreationally homeless have stuff that has value. Like the kids on Telegraph sitting around begging for money and occasionally calling their friends on their cell phones.

I'm outraged by this. [It takes all my respect for TNH's place not to swear right now.]
I know someone who was homeless for nearly a year, and was frequently dismissed, even by shelter staff, because she did prioritize her limited funds differently than others and thus may have superficially looked better than the more stereotypical homeless. Yes, she had a cellphone (one of those debit-card deals) because it helped her navigate thru the system with social workers and doctors and such. It wasn't a luxury -- she did without many other things in order to keep it.

http://being_homeless.livejournal.com: Read about her experiences before dismissing people like her so easily. She is not "recreationally homeless" -- she was quite legitimately homeless, and you are being prejudiced.

I'm trying to find some specific posts by her about this kind of lookism; when I do, I'll post them.

#192 ::: Ian Osmond ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 10:53 PM:

Like the kids on Telegraph sitting around begging for money and occasionally calling their friends on their cell phones.

How does your job contact you if you are homeless and you don't have a cell phone?

A few things that smart homeless people have, because they're dead cheap, and are absolutely necessary if you want to ever get OUT of homelessness:

1) Cell phone, so that current and potential employers can contact you. Is also a safety issue. Also allows you to contact social workers, and have them contact you.

2) Used laptop, to maintain files, update resume', &tc.

3) Internet account of some form -- using libraries is okay, but it is better to have WiFi on your laptop, in order to be able to use the Web for job searches, and search for aid that may be available to you.

#193 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 11:09 PM:

Just found the post by Crystal I was looking for regarding Ayce's image of the "recreationally homeless":

You know what? I'm starting to realize why I took off from the shelters... every place I go I get the same thing from someone: an attitude because I don't look or act homeless. Okay. Here it's that lady that told me to get a life last night. I just went to the kitchen and she was rude to me again. She rudely told me I come from a totaly different class and called me the rich kid. I asked her why she said that because I was offended. "You look different." She stated. So? Okay am I supposed to look homeless or something? She accused me of being homeless 'for fun and experience' and told me that I know nothing about what its really like or the streets. I told her that I do know what its like, that I've been homeless since February I've stayed in 10 shelters, on the streets, and that I was homeless last year to. She says its my fault.

My fault? So who is she to decide that because I look like I'm from a different class that it must be my fault that I'm homeless? Hmmmmmm. okay. they clothes I'm wearing might look nice, but in actuality I've been wearing the same exact clothes every day since Tuesday- a pair of cordoroys and a plain whit shirt with a harvard hoodie. I've washed them almost every day and put my scrubs on while I was doing laundry. It's the only warm clothes I have since my winter clothes seem to have disappeared. I got them last year for Christmas. I barely wore them so they are basically brand new. Of course I look nice. And my Harvard Hoodie? well, I don't have a coat, so its all I have for now. The shoes I've had this week were ones Josie found for me in donation bins since mine broke. The socks? Yeah this is gross but I've been wearing the same socks for the past 3 days. I washed them in the sink the other night, and yesterday I turned them inside out since I had no place to wash them. (my socks disappeared too. I bought a few pairs yesterday though). I'm wearing a hat. I've worn it every day since my hair is a mess underneath (I lost my comb, and my winter hat). The hat looks nice cuz I washed it Friday. I've had it for 2 years and wear it all the time. I just wash it when it gets dirty.

So because I look decent I must be from a different class. Well, a lot of the women here have jobs and make more money that I do. I'm at poverty level. My income so far this year is less than $2,500. I don't buy lots of stuff. Just practical things. Things that will last. I take care of my belongings and don't ruin my clothes. Thats why they look nice. I take care of myself too. Even though I'm homeless, my hygine hasn't gone out the window. I shower daily, I try to look decent. After all, I do volunteer. It's hard at times going to the childrens hospital and trying to figure out what to wear. I only have a few sets of clothes. its easier that way I don't have to carry a lot going shelter to shelter. Or have to keep track of it all.

Why do people have to judge me for being young and homeless? do they think homeless youth think it's a game? I'm not in it for the experience. I'm working as hard as I can to get out of it. I hate people accusing me of thinking it's a game. Especially if they just met me. There is no game when you have to go every day to try and get a bed and get turned away and have no place to go. There is no game when you are cold and hungry and shking and its raining out and there is no dry place to sit til the shelter opens 8 hours later. There is no game in having to bounce place to place because you are sober and priority is given to those who aren't. There is no game in sleeping on the streets when its 41 degrees out. There is no game in worrying about where you will sleep each night because you go to school and the shelter curfews are earlier than when your class lets out. How can so many people look at me and hear the phrase I'm homeless and then they assume they know everything about me based on my looks??? They have no clue what I've been through the past few months- or years. You can't judge anyones situation by their looks.<snip>Everyone spends their money here differently. I spend mine on school (MassRehab never pulled through), food, storage units, a cellphone and internet, and save most of my SSDI while others spend theirs on cigarettes, clothes, gadgets movies etc. The $30 some of these women spend on cigarettes in a week I put towards internet for a month. They money they spent on movies and lottery tickets I put towards school. I think long term. I try to spend my money in ways it will help my future, not satisfy my present wants. I'm no richer than they are. I just spendmy money differently is all.

I really wish we could get rid of the classism, racism, ageism, and homophobia from the shelters. It would make it a much easier place to stay- especially in tight quarters. :(
Crystal is an amazingly impressive young woman. Here's her biography and another post on the economies of healthy breakfasts when homeless

I feel really offended by the cavalier dismissal of homeless youth just because they don't fit some stereotype of age and hygiene. I ask you to read Crystal's blog and reconsider your attitudes.

#194 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 11:12 PM:

Just found the post by Crystal I was looking for regarding Ayce's image of the "recreationally homeless":

You know what? I'm starting to realize why I took off from the shelters... every place I go I get the same thing from someone: an attitude because I don't look or act homeless. Okay. Here it's that lady that told me to get a life last night. I just went to the kitchen and she was rude to me again. She rudely told me I come from a totaly different class and called me the rich kid. I asked her why she said that because I was offended. "You look different." She stated. So? Okay am I supposed to look homeless or something? She accused me of being homeless 'for fun and experience' and told me that I know nothing about what its really like or the streets. I told her that I do know what its like, that I've been homeless since February I've stayed in 10 shelters, on the streets, and that I was homeless last year to. She says its my fault.

My fault? So who is she to decide that because I look like I'm from a different class that it must be my fault that I'm homeless? Hmmmmmm. okay. they clothes I'm wearing might look nice, but in actuality I've been wearing the same exact clothes every day since Tuesday- a pair of cordoroys and a plain whit shirt with a harvard hoodie. I've washed them almost every day and put my scrubs on while I was doing laundry. It's the only warm clothes I have since my winter clothes seem to have disappeared. I got them last year for Christmas. I barely wore them so they are basically brand new. Of course I look nice. And my Harvard Hoodie? well, I don't have a coat, so its all I have for now. The shoes I've had this week were ones Josie found for me in donation bins since mine broke. The socks? Yeah this is gross but I've been wearing the same socks for the past 3 days. I washed them in the sink the other night, and yesterday I turned them inside out since I had no place to wash them. (my socks disappeared too. I bought a few pairs yesterday though). I'm wearing a hat. I've worn it every day since my hair is a mess underneath (I lost my comb, and my winter hat). The hat looks nice cuz I washed it Friday. I've had it for 2 years and wear it all the time. I just wash it when it gets dirty.

So because I look decent I must be from a different class. Well, a lot of the women here have jobs and make more money that I do. I'm at poverty level. My income so far this year is less than $2,500. I don't buy lots of stuff. Just practical things. Things that will last. I take care of my belongings and don't ruin my clothes. Thats why they look nice. I take care of myself too. Even though I'm homeless, my hygine hasn't gone out the window. I shower daily, I try to look decent. After all, I do volunteer. It's hard at times going to the childrens hospital and trying to figure out what to wear. I only have a few sets of clothes. its easier that way I don't have to carry a lot going shelter to shelter. Or have to keep track of it all.

Why do people have to judge me for being young and homeless? do they think homeless youth think it's a game? I'm not in it for the experience. I'm working as hard as I can to get out of it. I hate people accusing me of thinking it's a game. Especially if they just met me. There is no game when you have to go every day to try and get a bed and get turned away and have no place to go. There is no game when you are cold and hungry and shking and its raining out and there is no dry place to sit til the shelter opens 8 hours later. There is no game in having to bounce place to place because you are sober and priority is given to those who aren't. There is no game in sleeping on the streets when its 41 degrees out. There is no game in worrying about where you will sleep each night because you go to school and the shelter curfews are earlier than when your class lets out. How can so many people look at me and hear the phrase I'm homeless and then they assume they know everything about me based on my looks??? They have no clue what I've been through the past few months- or years. You can't judge anyones situation by their looks.
<snip
Everyone spends their money here differently. I spend mine on school (MassRehab never pulled through), food, storage units, a cellphone and internet, and save most of my SSDI while others spend theirs on cigarettes, clothes, gadgets movies etc. The $30 some of these women spend on cigarettes in a week I put towards internet for a month. They money they spent on movies and lottery tickets I put towards school. I think long term. I try to spend my money in ways it will help my future, not satisfy my present wants. I'm no richer than they are. I just spendmy money differently is all.

I really wish we could get rid of the classism, racism, ageism, and homophobia from the shelters. It would make it a much easier place to stay- especially in tight quarters. :(
Crystal is an amazingly impressive young woman. Here's her biography and another post on the economies of healthy breakfasts when homeless

I feel really offended by the cavalier dismissal of homeless youth just because they don't fit some stereotype of age and hygiene. I ask you to read Crystal's blog and reconsider your attitudes.

#195 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 11:55 PM:

I feel really offended by the cavalier dismissal of homeless youth just because they don't fit some stereotype of age and hygiene. I ask you to read Crystal's blog and reconsider your attitudes.

Yes, of course. I will read her blog and reconsider my... what did you call me? oh, yes: prejudiced attitudes. I will humble myself at your oh-so-perfect perception of the world, the one where there is perfect black and white, and I'm clearly in the wrong and you are ever so clearly in the right.

Except that I know what I'm talking about, and you don't, because you didn't read what I wrote before you lashed out. I'm not talking about somebody who is seeking out help and needs a cell phone and internet access and use of a shower to try to get on her feet again. I've been that person, thank you very much, and I don't need to read a fricking blog in order to "sympathize" with somebody whose experience you think I don't understand because you completely missed the context of a statement I made.

I'm talking about somebody who clearly has no desire to work to earn money, who has no reason other than lack of inclination for not working, who indeed thinks they should be given money by other people, because that's how mommy and daddy raised them. This is somebody who is capable of having a job but instead is sitting on the sidewalk in Telegraph Avenue, begging for money and smoking a joint and talking about how property is, like, totally facist, man, and in the mean time sporting a $400 camera phone and $300 custom Doc Martens. This is somebody who yells "fucking bitch!" at me, when I say "no, thanks" to giving them another handout, as I try to walk by. This is a person who I later see charging a bunch of clothes on a credit card at the store down the street where I can't afford to shop.

This is not somebody who is one of the legitimate homeless. This is a member of that despicable class of people known as the recreationally homeless, and the worst sin on their shoulders is that they make people think that you can't be clean and homeless without being a poseur.

And my name is spelled AySe. It's not too hard to difficult. Only one more letter than "Lis."

#196 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: March 31, 2004, 11:56 PM:

I hereby propose Wagner's Law: Use of the phrase "This may not be Politically Correct, but-- ", or some variant, is simply another way of saying, "I don't know what I'm talking about but I'm about to pull an opinion out of my ass anyway."

More accurately, it's a way to fend off any criticism by pre-labelling potential critics as the dreaded Politically Correct.

#197 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 12:17 AM:

Perhaps "politically correct" is the new "commie."

#198 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 12:21 AM:

you didn't read what I wrote before you lashed out. I'm not talking about somebody who is seeking out help and needs a cell phone and internet access and use of a shower to try to get on her feet again. ... you completely missed the context of a statement I made.

I just reread all your previous statements in this thread mentioning the homeless (1,2). Until you redefined/clarified your meaning in your most recent post, I still don't see anything in your previous descriptions of the so-called "recreational homeless" that wouldn't apply to Crystal.

Sorry, but the context you claim I missed wasn't there. Maybe you should be a little clearer in the future.

#199 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 12:51 AM:

I just reread all your previous statements in this thread mentioning the homeless (1,2). Until you redefined/clarified your meaning in your most recent post, I still don't see anything in your previous descriptions of the so-called "recreational homeless" that wouldn't apply to Crystal.

I would have thought that the mention of Telegraph Ave. would have been sufficient to set apart the RH from people who are not sitting around begging for handouts and chatting with their friends on their cell phones. I realize not everybody here is in on the Berkeley scene, but I would have expected a reasonable person to do a web search to see the situation in context before slinging insults.

Especially in light of the context of my posts, which was a discussion of the impact of homeless people (the recreational and the mentally ill) on local businesses. It's about following the progress of a conversation, not about bursting in and calling somebody on a statement taken out of context and misinterpreted in order to make them sound as awful as possible.

#200 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 03:07 AM:

(Stepping around the homelessness minefield for the moment)

Ayse: Hmn, I'm not with you that "what does a failing business offer to its community that a thriving business in the same space would not offer?" is the question. Too many variables hidden in that sentence.

To start with, we've clearly got at least two overlapping definitions of community floating around this thread: community1 - the people for whom the bookstore is important in the senses I touched on with that excised list, and with whom the bookstore has bonds of good will, and community2 - the store's surroundings, including nearby business owners, the city tax coffers, and people who might nip in and buy a book every once in a while for bored convenience's sake but don't care much whether the storefront sells books or cardigans. And of course in practice the two groups overlap.

As to bailing out businesses, my answer would be different in each case you mention, if I'm part of the bookstore's community1. Bad at doing business? Assuming store staff and I are on good enough terms that I've heard about this or figured it out on my own, I might ask what's up. Is this naïvety or ignorance (potentially solvable) or pigheadedness (screw 'em)? If I had ideas or networking possibilities, I'd offer them. If the business problems stemmed from temporary acute cash problems (e.g., catastrophic equipment failure, physical plant losses that insurance refused to cover, and yes, even bills), I might put in a few bucks if they passed the hat.

Refuses to acknowledge it? Depends on their attitude, probably shop there in sorrow while I can. Refuses to do anything about it? Depends on their attitude, probably shop there less or not at all.

Now, if I were part of community2 and in a position where the store's fate interested me, I'd still try to winkle out whether enough of community1 existed to make it worth helping them get past solvable business problems.

Other considerations abound, e.g., is it better to have a marginal bookstore or a thriving druggie biker bar in your neighborhood?

#201 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 03:17 AM:

I see I was unclear in the "bailing out businesses" paragraph -- I meant I might chip in for bills if the business were simultaneously laboring under *other* catastrophic/solvable difficulties.

#202 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 09:06 AM:

Ayse --

Except that I know what I'm talking about, and you don't, because you didn't read what I wrote before you lashed out. I'm not talking about somebody who is seeking out help and needs a cell phone and internet access and use of a shower to try to get on her feet again. I've been that person, thank you very much, and I don't need to read a fricking blog in order to "sympathize" with somebody whose experience you think I don't understand because you completely missed the context of a statement I made.

I'm talking about somebody who clearly has no desire to work to earn money, who has no reason other than lack of inclination for not working, who indeed thinks they should be given money by other people, because that's how mommy and daddy raised them. This is somebody who is capable of having a job but instead is sitting on the sidewalk in Telegraph Avenue, begging for money and smoking a joint and talking about how property is, like, totally facist, man, and in the mean time sporting a $400 camera phone and $300 custom Doc Martens. This is somebody who yells "fucking bitch!" at me, when I say "no, thanks" to giving them another handout, as I try to walk by. This is a person who I later see charging a bunch of clothes on a credit card at the store down the street where I can't afford to shop.

Rock on! I couldn't have said it better myself.

There IS a difference, and when you're someone who actually DOES work for a living, making $6.00 an hour and working two jobs and sharing an apartment with five people so you have enough money to keep a roof over your head but still be able to give your mom money every month because she is on a fixed income and the cost of her meds and her rent and her food every month exceed what Social Security deems it is possible for disabled elderly person to live on, well, you get a real hair up your ass about being asked for money in the street by kids sporting $2000 in tattoos and $300 shows.

#203 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 09:47 AM:

[Grump; accidentally lost my initial response]
you get a real hair up your ass about being asked for money in the street by kids sporting $2000 in tattoos and $300 shows

Just because somebody was well-off before becoming homeless doesn't mean they aren't genuinely needy now. According to many statistics, 25-40% of homeless teens identify as gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgendered. They aren't runaways -- in many cases, they are throwaways.

Once somebody has a tattoo, they can't sell it back for money. Even if the shoes are worth what you estimate (if they weren't already secondhand donations from somebody else, they were probably among their preexisting possessions before becoming homeless), how much could they conceivably get for them and what would that buy in return?

Somebody donated a laptop to Crystal for her schoolwork and blogging. And people have criticized her that the laptop is a luxury she should sell for living expenses. Extremely optimistically, it might've been worth a couple hundred bucks. That wouldn't come anywhere close to security-deposit/rent/utilities for even one month around here, even with roommates. And since those are recurring expenses, it would still leave her high-and-dry the following month.

I don't know if you care, but here's an essay Crystal wrote about panhandling that I found fascinating and entertaining.

How are street youth supposed to get a job when they have no address or phone number to put on a job application? How would someone want to hire them if they smell and are dirty from staying outside? What employer wants these kids dragging all their bedrolls and backpacks to work every day? They would rather hire someone they feel is 'stable, clean, and reliable' than a kid with no home and dirty clothes. Some of these kids have no work history. It's tough finding a job that will pay well enough to be able to afford an apartment. But then if something happens and they lose that job, they are right back on the streets. It's a cycle that is hard to break. It's hard to get a job without stability, but you can't get stability without a job...
I'm sorry you've got it rough, and keeping a roof over your head at minimum wage is impressive. And you don't have to give to those who are asking. And sure, there may be some scammers out there. [In Judaism, the Talmud considers it a good thing that some people who ask for charity may not actually need it. The existence of frauds diminishes our liability for failing to give to all who ask.*] But conversely, that doesn't mean that all who ask, even those who look or sound well off, aren't legitimate.

#204 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 10:22 AM:

How are street youth supposed to get a job when they have no address or phone number to put on a job application? How would someone want to hire them if they smell and are dirty from staying outside? What employer wants these kids dragging all their bedrolls and backpacks to work every day?

There exist numerous programs to help people (especially kids) get off the streets. Including, but not limited to, shelters that will provide a stable mailing address that appears to be a street address, phone mail services (which are much cheaper than cell phones), post office box services, charities that offer free professional clothing and help with grooming for job interviews, shelters that offer help with job placement, and charities that are devoted to getting people into jobs. The local unions offer apprenticeship programs that are paid, and come with locker space for personal effects during the day. These are all heavily advertised in the shelters and around People's Park, so it's not that nobody can find them. Most of the people who don't take advantage of them don't do so because they either can't (they have mental problems) or won't.

For kids who are under 18, the system gets more complicated, because it tends to want to send them back to their parents or legal guardians, especially when the "abuse" the kid is running away from is on the order of "won't let me skip school and smoke pot all day."

On the other hand, in this area, the police are quite understanding about throwaways and abuse situations, and if the kid wants to get off the streets, they will help with foster families because they want kids off the streets (kids on the streets usually equals drug dealing or prostitution or both, with the kid in "victim" role). Yes, you take a chance that the foster situation is not going to be horrible, but a kid needs to be in school and needs to be in the system as much as possible if he's not going to live on the street his whole (short) life.

#205 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 10:42 AM:

Tim Walters: Perhaps "politically correct" is the new "commie."

Actually, "terrorist" is the new "commie."

Also, "commie" is the new "commie." Or, rather, "Communist" and "Socialist" are words that get bandied around a lot in political discussions with neocons, who seem to inhabit a universe where those two political philosophies are thriving. Apparently, neocons can't even go to the supermarket without having to elbow through crowds of Wobblies singing the Internationale. Arise, ye prisoners of starvation, yes, yes, very good, but I just want to buy some whole wheat bread, please.

#206 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 11:45 AM:

Ayse, I haven't been involved in this whole homeless discussion, but I have to say that Telegraph Ave conveyed nothing at all to me. Didn't even tell me, by itself, what city you were talking about. Nor did it incline me to search the web to find out more.

And while I'm glad the system is relatively kid-friendly where you are, it isn't everywhere, notably in New York City. Legitimately homeless (runaway, throwaway, or pushaway) street kids will do well to avoid the police here, and the shelters are a nightmare. I guess Hetrick-Martin is part of the system, and they do good work, but homeless youth often have a deep distrust of adults.

None of which excuses the sort of behavior you describe. If someone asked me for money on the street one day and charged at a pricy store the next, I'd call the police on the theory that s/he probably lifted the credit card from a tourist; if it WAS hir credit card, s/he still deserves to be hassled by the cops, doesn't s/he?

On the other side of "you can't tell by looking," there are several scam artists I know by sight in the city. One of them hangs out at the train station and claims to have just been mugged. She wears a nice skirt suit, albeit a mussed one; sometimes she wears one high-heeled shoe; she "just needs enough for a ticket to (city in Long Island)." The first time any given person sees her, she seems genuine; the second time, you know she's scamming.

I've also heard that there are people who dress up in dirty rags and look all pathetic, but who actually make quite a pile in the mendicant biz, but I suspect they're just an urban legend.

#207 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 01:56 PM:

Xopher,

There is the Sherlock Holmes story, " The Man with the Twisted Lip"

Is that what you were thinking of?

#208 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 02:46 PM:

Xopher ---

It's probably a little confusing coming into the end of this conversation [which, gee whiz, is about as far from Theresa's original posting about whiny booksellers as possible] --- Ayse and I were initially discussing homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is why maybe the Telegraph Avenue reference didn't make sense. Sorry about that!

And as far as being able to tell the difference, yes, I think when you live and work in the same area, and see the same homeless and fake-homeless persons over and over and over again, you get to know who's BSing you. For instance, there is one guy in San Francisco, young good-looking guy who dresses very nicely, who comes up to strangers and claims to be part of a NCAA team for a small college. His story is usually along the lines of "I hurt myself during a game, and got left behind and now that I'm well enough to travel I don't have the funds to go home. I have no family and friends and just want a bus ticket to go home."

He's pretty darned convincing, until you notice him pulling the same routine over like a three-month span. Please!

As far as the people you mentioned at the bottom of your post, the ones who dress up in dirty rags and look pathetic, I used to believe that this was an urban legend until I moved to New York. One day I was going to a doctor's appointment on 60th & Madison [which for those of you who don't know New York is kind of an upscale shopping area]. I noticed a man with no legs dressed in rags sort of plopped down on the corner, begging for cash. I think I kind of wondered at the time how a man with no legs and no wheelchair that I could see had actually GOTTEN himself to that corner but I was late for my appointment so it went out of my head. On the way back to the subway after the appointment, however, I was very surprised to see a big SUV pull up in front of the legless beggar, a guy get out, pick him up and put him in the front seat. Then he reached into the backseat and picked up another seemingless homeless beggar with no legs and put him in the spot where the first guy had been. The they sort of rehearsed a -- for want of a better phrase -- begging routine. It was fascinating.

The guy in the front seat meanwhile, was busily changing his shirt, exchanging his really stinky rags for a rather snazzy mock turtleneck that sort of looked like it came stright from J-Crew.

I remember that I started laughing out loud at some point. I couldn't decide if I was really pissed off, or was grudgingly admiring these guys for their ingenuity. :-) [And hey, did this guy go out LOOKING for legless homeless men? How did he recruit these guys?]

Tim --

I guess I don't always equate political-correctness with common sense. I have met too many people in my day who spout a belief or idea only because the majority of their friends feel the same way. I prefer to think for myself and have my own opinions even if they differ from those of my friends and colleagues.

I know that most of my friends -- and probably a good deal of folks up here on the board -- don't believe in the death penalty. Myself, I'm not so sure it's such a bad thing. Perhaps the way it's carried out is a bad thing, and perhaps the way that it is distributed amongst the population could be more fair -- I don't know. But hey, when I read about someone like that freak in Milwaukee who was routinely killing and eating young boys, well, I gotta tell you that have no problem with allowing the state to take someone like that out back and pumping a bullet into his head. Problem solved. Permanently. But that's just my opinion.

Similarly, when folks living and working in a major metropolitan area finally decide they're fed-up with being asked to be tolerant of a homeless population that defecates in their doorways, or attacks them with paving stones, or screams at them for not giving out money when they been asked for the hundreth straight time, well, it doesn't make these folks bad people. Doesn't mean they don't feel some sort of empathy. It just makes them honest people who are fed-up and trying to live their lives without being harrassed all the time.

I know that when I lived in San Francisco, I was gradually worn down by having confrontations with the homeless every single day. In the morning, to leave my apartment, I would have to have an argument that nearly always threatened to turn physical to get the homeless guy who camped on my stoop to move in order for me to pass and leave for work. In the end, I started pouring water on the stoop at night, so it would pool up and keep the stairs wet so that the guy would stop sleeping there. Was it cruel of me? Maybe. I don't really care. I sure felt safer after that, though.

I was hit up for money, or screamed at by crazy people an average of forty times a day. At work, we'd have to clean the feces off our front and back doors every morning. I was physically attacked by one crazy homeless woman who decided that she didn't like the color green I was wearing. I had a beer bottle thrown at me by another when I said -- politely -- that I didn't have any spare change. I was menaced at outdoor ATMs by homeless men. I was threatened while leaving work late at night by three particularly nasty homeless guys who hung around our front door. And I just got plain sick of it.

I knew that some of the folks I encountered every day couldn't help what happened to them. I knew that some of them weren't responsible for their own actions. But you know what? In the end, I am not a social worker, nor do I want to be. I am an ordinary person trying to get through my day as best I can without hurting others or myself.

You can think that's as callous as you like, but I would bet you that there are an awful lot more people that agree with me than might admit publicly to their "PC" friends.

#209 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 03:35 PM:

Colleen,

All of that is fine with me (I agree with some, disagree with some), but I don't understand what it has to do with my dislike of people using "politically correct" as an epithet.

There isn't some central bureau where people check in to get the PC party line. There are just people with opinions. Some of those opinions are received rather than derived, but that's no more true of liberals than of conservatives.

Beginning one's argument with "I know this isn't PC, but..." is either bragging about what a rebel one is, or signalling that one isn't really quite comfortable with the position one is about to take. I'll do my best to evaluate it on its merits anyway, but why bother with such an annoying rhetorical tic?

Much worse is when someone's response to a left-wing idea is "Oh, you're just being PC." That's the usage I had in mind when I said it was the new "commie" (although I take Mitch's point--I guess it's the old new "commie").

#210 ::: PopeJoan ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 03:52 PM:

AVH closing IS sad, although at this point is does seem as it never came out of its death throes since the move. Before the move it was a different store, one straight from the imagination of what a used book store should look like, with shelves covering every wall from floor to high ceiling. I found a copy of The Worm Ourobouros there. Things like that you could go in expecting to find, although it was always more of a miss if you were seeking almost-current books. The staff were always pleasant and intelligent without ever being overbearing towards or over-suspicious of the customers. It was an eminently enjoyable way to lose an hour or two without even trying.

Unfortunately, the retail neighborhood has changed around it, and even though I live just the two blocks away, I've only just made it into the new location last week. It is surrounded by chic shoe and minute fashion boutiques now. Stylish salons and a day spa. This is not the crowd that wanders into dusty looking old bookstores, and there is no longer enough draw to the street for people who long for dusty, creaky floored bookshops. I honestly can't imagine Amazon playing into AVH's demise, as books you buy on Amazon aren't why you went into AVH, and vice-versa, but as a city dweller dependent on public transportation (and in reality, if you're in Boston, you're a pedestrian. Boston isn't a drivable city. Or parkable), I can tell you that if a certain store is the only reason I would go to a particular location, I don't go to that store much. It just becomes too much. You want to go places where you can take care of several things in the immediate area, such a Harvard Square, where there are three good general bookstores, several coffee shops, good stationary stores, two magazine kiosks that handle international periodicals, etc., etc. -you get the idea. It's a whole experience.

It used to be that on a Sunday afternoon you could walk down Newbury St. and wander not only into AVH for secondhand treasure hunts, but also into a huge Waterstone's some few blocks further down, or Harvard Bookstore Cafe, or even Paperback Booksmith over on Boylston St., depending on how far back you want to wander back in time. There were little cafes you could stop at that didn't demand a full meal commitment, but instead let you rest your feet, ogle your purchases over a cool drink and discuss where you wanted to go next. My point being that used bookstores are retail as experiences rather than on-demand retail, and they need suitable street companions to pull their kind of people around. Restaurants on a busy street full of restaurants tend to do better than the lone restaurant in any particular location. Clusters are crucial.

And for all those arguing that there are plenty of bookstores in Boston, I will correct you and say there are plenty of bookstores in Cambridge. Or Somerville even. But not in Boston anymore. Boston used to be a publishing town, but now we can't even support a decent independent bookstore. We have a huge B&N a block away from a huge Borders right in Downtown Crossing, but other than that where are our bookstores? A new huge B&N recently opened up in the Pudential Center (an office complex tower/mall) and another B&N in BU's college store in Kenmore Sq. Three B&N's doesn't make much of an arguement for the health of Boston Bookstores to me.

I will miss AVH, but in truth, it was lost to me already.

#211 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 04:07 PM:

Tom --

My apologies; I didn't read your post clearly. For me, the term "politcially correct" has always meant something derogatory. To me, it describes a particular kind of mindset, the mindset of those people who would automatically protest your right to say something that does not hold with his or her [usually liberal] political views at the time. Coming from the Berkeley Area, you surely must have experienced this on more than one occasion.

I have heard other terms [one, "granola crunchies" that I kind of think is funny] but PC is the one that seems to fit the best for me. I consider myself liberal, and my voting record would hold up to that, but I certainly wouldn't consider myself PC. I wouldn't consider the majority of the people on this board to be PC either, to be honest.

And there are instances of perceived PC-ness that border on being hilarious, you must admit. Folks who want to use the "term that is considered most appropriate" -- ie, Indian or Native American? My PC friends say Native American and correct me when I say Indian. My Hopi friend, however, calls himself an Indian.

At work recently, we had an extremely silly version of this same thing happen: we had a new young writer who happened to be black and happened to be Canadian. But the editors and sales people were stumbling all over themselves not to say the word "black" so they kept saying "Afro-American" -- I then pointed out that the young man in question was actually Canadian, so then they started calling him Afro-Canadian. [Okay, technically, he could be called Afro-American, or more precisely, Afro-North American but this sounds even sillier...] But then they decided Afro-Canadian sounded odd, so they said "Canadian writer of color." When I was talking to the writer later on the phone, and relating this story, which he found very amusing, he said "Why didn't they just say black?" [My question exactly.]

#212 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 04:08 PM:

Yipes ! Typo! Like I don't use the preview function enough...

Tim, I meant Tim, not Tom. Sorry about that!

Christ, I need more coffee.

#213 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 04:25 PM:

PopeJoan, head another block or two to Kenmore Square and check out Commonwealth Books. I discovered it recently and while it's not AVH (though neither is AVH, from what I've been hearing), I was quite impressed.

#214 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 04:42 PM:

Colleen -

Your post on PC language run amok reminded me of the furor over Renee Cox's "Yo Mama's Last Supper," a photograph where the artist depicted herself as Jesus Christ. It caused the usual furor within the religious community, but the comment that made me say, "HUH?" was this one: ...It's just that African-Americans are invisible, especially in Renaissance art...

Taking her statement literally, to the best of my knowledge there were no African-Americans in existence when Renaissance art was being produced. There were barely any "European-Americans" at that time (were there any depictions of Americans of any type in Renaissance art?). SF/F aside, it's hard to portray that which doesn't exist.

#215 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 05:01 PM:

Xopher: On the other side of "you can't tell by looking," there are several scam artists I know by sight in the city. One of them hangs out at the train station and claims to have just been mugged. She wears a nice skirt suit, albeit a mussed one; sometimes she wears one high-heeled shoe; she "just needs enough for a ticket to (city in Long Island)." The first time any given person sees her, she seems genuine; the second time, you know she's scamming.

What a coincidence - I was just IMing about scams and con jobs with Teresa yesterday, and I mentioned that this particular scam was pretty commonplace in New York about 10-12 years ago.

Or, rather, a minor variant: the con artists back then were usually girls who appeared to be about 19, dressed like respectable suburban girls come into New York for a night of clubbing. And that's what they claimed to be; they claimed to have befallen mishap and just needed $20 for bus fare to get home to New Jersey. It got so I'd be accosted by at least one of them every second or third time I came into the city.

colleen @ del rey: You can think that's as callous as you like, but I would bet you that there are an awful lot more people that agree with me than might admit publicly to their "PC" friends.

And this is why I find the label "political correctness" to be preposterous - youre are trying to put on the mantle of a brave soul willing to speak the truth in the midst of a herd of people who are unable to think for themselves.

But in fact you are espousing the death penalty, and you state you are against panhandling, especially violent and angry panhandlers. There is nothing at all dangerous about espousing these views, they would be applauded at any Republican Club in the country. They are the 21st Century equivalent of being against the Great White Shark and in favor of motherhood, apple pie and respecting the flag.

And you know what? I don't find any of your views particuarly shocking. I'm against the death penalty myself, but, jeez, I'd love to put bullets in the heads of cannibal serial killers. I know many good people who are in favor of the death penalty, and I'd rather discuss the issue with them and bring them around than call them names. And we lived in San Francisco 1993-97 and the homeless problem was certainly a factor in getting us to leave.

My apologies; I didn't read your post clearly. For me, the term "politcially correct" has always meant something derogatory. To me, it describes a particular kind of mindset, the mindset of those people who would automatically protest your right to say something that does not hold with his or her [usually liberal] political views at the time.

Um, in what way is what you are saying not derogatory? Hello?

I do not "protest your right to say something that does not hold with [my] political views." Indeed, I uphold your right to speak your views - and I exercise my right to disagree with them, in vehement terms.

The label "political correctness" assumes that conservative politics are under siege, that it is somehow dangerous to speak certain political views.

In fact, in America, it is dangerous to speak certain political views. Since 9/11, people have been beaten by police, jailed, and denied their right to air travel for speaking unpopular political views. Others have been cordoned off into small "free speech zones" while trying to stage political protests, out of the way of television cameras and journalists who might spread their message. But those people have not been conservatives.

But, you're right. I'm losing sight of what's really important. What's really important is that we don't know what to call black Canadians. Ha ha those liberals sure are a silly bunch, aren't they?!

#216 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 05:05 PM:

For me, the term "politcially correct" has always meant something derogatory.

Yes, I believe that was Tim's point. I half-joking say that "PC" really stands for "pinko commie," because it's used in exactly the same way--to disparage a perceived set of views too liberal for the epithet-hurler, without addressing whether the "PC" person really is mistaken or locked into groupthink.

As I recall it, "political correctness" was always derogatory, taken to refer to the scary, hostile far-lefties who not only believed in one set of values, but only one correct road to those values. (For example, it was not enough to despise racism; one had to support affirmative action specifically.) Failure to adopt that correct road unthinkingly meant one was either deliberately or unconsciously manifesting "Xism," a blanket term for any and all prejudice, all of which were believed to be related inextricably.

To preface an argument with "This may not be PC, but..." is just as silly as saying "I'm not a homosexual, but..." before an argument about gay-rights issues, or "Not that I'm racist or anything..." before criticizing an issue dear to the NAACP. Either your argument is sound or it isn't; what's the point of the disclaimer?

By the way, your paragraph on the death penalty made me shake my head. Not because I agree or disagree with your stance on the death penalty itself; but because you admit you don't know much about the details, yet insist it's OK to take a stance on it because It's My Opinion. God forgive me for quoting Harlan Ellison's line about everyone having the right to an informed opinion--but aren't you doing the same as the folks you label PC? Choosing an opinion even though you admittedly don't know a whole lot about the issue, but you feel a particular way and that's the end of the matter?

#217 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 05:38 PM:

I don't think PC means having views too liberal. Plenty of conservative Republicans are just as PC. Example: the whole brou-ha-ha over Janet Jackson's errant boob has suddenly made it PC to be anti-everything-to-do-with-sex-over-the-airwaves. You suddenly have broadcasters being hit with ridiculous fines by the FCC, Howard Stern being yanked off the air [yes, he's tasteless, but gee whiz, just change the station if you don't want to hear what he has to say] and a whole slew of people who are suddenlly outraged by indecency and what it is supposedly doing to our kids. If that isn't PC pack-mentality simplemindedness, I don't know what is.


I think PC means having views that are not your own, because the majority of whatevery group you align yourself with has those same views. It isn't conservative views that are under siege [and if they are, well, who cares?] but COMMON SENSE that seems to go out the window when pack mentality takes over.

I have an opinion about the death penalty because I actually do know quite a bit about it, and read about it whenever I get the chance. I read the pros, I read the cons. And I am still in favor of it for certain crimes, particularly for crimes having to do with children. And so far I have seen nothing that changes my mind on this.

In protesting my stance on the death penalty, you are making the assumption that I don't have an informed opinion. I do. It's simply a different opinion than your own. And it is just as valid as yours.

As for PC being derogatory, yes, well, hell yes, when I call someone PC, I mean it to be derogatory, just the same way as when I call someone a bonehead, I mean that to be derogatory. [And no, I am not calling YOU a bonehead.]

#218 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 06:15 PM:

Oh, and Mitch -

I think "Arab" is actually the new "commie."

Unfortunately.

#219 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 06:32 PM:

mythago - Actually, calling someone "PC" isn't equivalent to calling them a "pinko commie" in past decades.

"Commie" is strong language. "Commie" is an insult. Commies were seen as evil, an enemy whom we would probably have to fight to the death.

The equivalent to the word "PC" is "pinko," or "parlor pink," or "limousine liberal." It suggests a person who is foolish.

And you know what? For years I've had trouble articulating why I find the terms "PC" and "politically correct" offensive, and I think I've finally figured out. To call someone PC is to call them foolish. Since most of the views labelled as PC are views that I either agree with, or am sympathetic to, I am inclined to get offended at being called a fool, even indirectly.

I mean, yes, those people who want to call all black people African-Americans - even if the black people in question aren't actually Americans - are being silly, but, you know, they're trying to avoid being offensive, and what's wrong with that?

mythago: As I recall it, "political correctness" was always derogatory, taken to refer to the scary, hostile far-lefties who not only believed in one set of values, but only one correct road to those values.

I think you recall it incorrectly. Before the term got picked up by neocons, "political correctness" was a term invented on the left, and it was used lightly and tongue-in-cheek. "It may not be politically correct of me, but I'm really jonesing for a nice thick steak now," you'd say to people who were not, themselves, vegetarians and might be inclined to join you for dinner.

To preface an argument with "This may not be PC, but..." is just as silly as saying "I'm not a homosexual, but..."

And why should a person feel the need to point out that they are not a homosexual, unless that person feels that it would be bad to be mistaken for one?

Well, there is one circumstance I can think of. It's called "letting the other guy down gently." It's happened to me a couple of times, when attending parties thrown by a gay friend. Kind of awkward at first, but then I realized that the only thing worse than being hit on at a party attended by a lot of gay men would be not being hit on.

#220 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 06:49 PM:

Mitch --

Well, I certainly don't consider you foolish, nor so I know you well enough to consider you what I would consider PC.

I'm assuming that the views you hold that you say are similar to those views held by some folks might think are PC are actually well-informed views, whereas what I think of when I think "PC" is the pack mentality thing, and that drives me crazy. [Sorry for the incredibly convoluted and run-on sentence.]

Most of the people that I know that use the term PC are in fact super-leftie-liberal-vegan-superheroes, and friends of mine from bookselling [an occupation that tends to draw a lot of politically active folk, I'm thinking].

The first time I ever heard that term was working in a bookstore, in a conversation with an extremely politically active socialist, who was using it to illustrate a point about some of his friends who were agreeing with him on points during an argument because they thought they were supposed to.

And that's exactly what it has always implied to me. I'm not sure I can make it any more clear than that.

#221 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: April 01, 2004, 07:52 PM:

In protesting my stance on the death penalty

If you read carefully, I am not protesting your stance on the death penalty, and took care to say so. What cause my eyebrows to rise was your observation that "perhaps" there was some unfairness in the application of the death penalty, but you didn't know, and then followed up with an appeal to emotion (please pardon my forgetfulness of the Latin term for that fallacy).

Perhaps it was your phrasing, but it did sound as though you were saying "I don't know much about this issue, but some people oughta be put down like dogs." Which is an opinion, but not a terribly informed or persuasive one.

Before the term got picked up by neocons, "political correctness" was a term invented on the left, and it was used lightly and tongue-in-cheek.

Ah, but before THAT, it was used by liberals to refer to the subgroup of liberals who knew the One True Way and the One True Argument that was acceptable in pursuit of the Way. Methods, beliefs, or alternatives that deviated from the party line were not merely wrong, but evil, and a symptom of the dissenter's Xism.

Later this became more of a joking remark, but at the time, it was very serious, because those students wielded an enormous amount of power to the point that it affected the faculty and administration. (Eventually they made complete asses of themselves, and fractured as such groups do, and faded back into the English department where they bicker to this day. But at the time it was a big deal--remind me to tell you guys the douche story at an appropriate time.)

Eventually, of course, the paleocons picked it up with their usual childish glee. But that was afterward.

#222 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2004, 12:43 AM:

To me, it describes a particular kind of mindset, the mindset of those people who would automatically protest your right to say something that does not hold with his or her [usually liberal] political views at the time. Coming from the Berkeley Area, you surely must have experienced this on more than one occasion.

Maybe San Francisco is different, because I really don't run into that very often. I saw it more often in Northampton/Amherst 15 years ago, but I think most people are sick of it by now.

For what it's worth, I say "Indian" (because a Pomo acquaintance of mine said that's what he preferred), and no one's ever said boo. Likewise "black." A friend of mine was a bit offended when i called The Phantom Menace a "nightmare vision of the retardosphere," but she's still my friend (and it is a fairly cacophemistic phrase).

Let me put it this way: I've met more people who complain about political correctness, or who boast about their lack of it, than I have people who practice it in any kind of dogmatic way. A lot more. I'm sure some of the complaints are justified, but at least in 2004, I think the PC folks have marginalized themselves out of any position to do any damage.

Unlike their right-wing equivalents.

#223 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2004, 01:41 AM:

colleen: I'd believe in your ability to pay attention to detail a lot more if you actually could spell Teresa's name consistently.

I've been scammed by folks who played on my sympathy in exactly the way you describe. I won't pay them more than once; and if they're not any good, or I'm as broke as I've been for the last year, not even once; but ya know, you're a lot better off than most folks at this point. So am I, despite not having a reliable income for about three years. And you're not paying attention, as far as I can tell, to what other people are saying about what you _don't_ know about others.

Short cons have been around for centuries. We aren't going to get rid of them. _Trying_ to do so, completely, turns people into Republicans.

And you sound an awful lot like one to me.

#224 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2004, 02:46 AM:

On previous post, for "consistently" read "correctly".

And I've had problems remembering how to spell "Nielsen", but not "Teresa".

#225 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2004, 09:41 AM:

Tim --

Well, Phantom Menace was certainly a nightmare vision of something...

Tom --

Yes, I see misspelled Teresa's name once. However, I don't see how that makes every thing I've written suspect.

And no, not a Republican, never have been one. I'm a registered Independent and have been since about the early eighties. I mostly vote Democratic except in very local elections where I tend to vote Green.

Teresa --

I apologize for misspelling your name; it wasn't intentional. I am just a notoriously bad typist.

#226 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2004, 10:50 AM:

Tim - why did you let someone decide what word you used just because he's PostModern? (Kidding! But in these parts (Metro NYC) that's what Pomo means...it actually took me a couple of seconds to twig that it was a tribal name.)

Also, THANK YOU for the word 'cacophemistic'. It's a more precise concept than 'dysphemistic', which is also harder to pronounce.

#227 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2004, 11:00 AM:

I merely said that it applies to your attention to detail, colleen -- which is what you're (implictly) claiming is good when you talk about the homeless. And I'm not saying that everything you've said is suspect -- merely a great deal of what you've said about the homeless, which specifically relates to your attention to details about them. Many of your comments are things I agree with. Many I refuse to agree with because I choose to see the world differently.

I still say your response to the homeless is very much like the Republican response.

#228 ::: colleen @ del rey ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2004, 11:23 AM:

Tom --

You're entitled to your opinion. There are, however, a awful lot of non-Republicans in the San Francisco Bay Area who are as frustrated and fed-up with the homeless situation as I am.

#229 ::: Vanessa ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2004, 05:03 PM:

Yeah, this thread has gone on for 228 comments already, but I nevertheless have something entirely new to add. I was looking at my Borderlands email newsletter this morning, and noticed its mini-essay on the future of retail. It related so directly to this thread that I called them up and got permission to reprint it here, in its entirety. (For those of you who know the store, I spoke with Cary; the essay was written by Alan (I hope I've spelled his name correctly)).

Any glitches in line breaks come from me; I did attempt to correct them in preview, but your browser may differ.

---------------------------------------------
From The Office - Musing on the Future of Retail
---------------------------------------------

For years the news has been full of material about the way that the internet will change (and has changed) shopping habits. Within the bookselling industry, Amazon.com is the second most often mentioned cause for independent store closures (the most cited cause are the national chains, most notably Borders and Barnes and Noble). In the wake of Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop's announcement that they are closing their doors (1), I've been musing on the probable future of retail quite a bit. This musing is partly in self-defense but is also motivated by a curiosity about what the world of retail may be like in ten or twenty years.

As I'm sure most of our readers know, the overall prognosis for independent retail businesses is poor. The combination of chain stores (i.e. Borders Books, Walmart, and Home Depot), bulk retailers (i.e. Costco and Sam's Club), and internet sales (i.e. Amazon) have been taking larger and larger pieces of retail sales, resulting in rashes of store closures. Consider that in 1950, chain stores captured 30% of retail sales nationwide. In 2000, chain stores accounted for 60% of sales. One sector particularly hard hit is hardware and lumber, where chain stores have gone from having 26.5% of sales in 1990 to 42% in 1997. In a similar 7 year period (1991 to 1998) the sales income for indi bookstores dropped from 32.5% of retail sales to 17%. (2) Conventional wisdom suggests that this trend will continue until the only independently owned retail business left will be in specialty fields so small that they are unprofitable for chains.

However, there is another trend taking place which, if it continues, may save independent retail. The beginnings of this can be seen in the recent troubles that Blockbuster Video and its parent company, Viacom, have been having. The short version of the story is that Viacom is unhappy with Blockbuster's slowing sales (only an 8% increase in revenue for quarters 1-3 of 2003) despite Blockbuster providing 22.5% of Viacom's revenue (for the same period) (3).

And what's being blamed for slowing the sales growth? Netflix, an internet based rental service, and WalMart (4). Leaving WalMart out of the picture for now, consider Netflix's business model. There are no rental fees nor are there late fees. However, there is a monthly membership fee of around $20. For that fee you can use any number of DVDs. But, the catch is that you can only have three DVDs at any
time. When you return one, Netflix sends you another. DVDs are mailed out to the customer and include a postage paid return envelope. It's a great system and I'm a member myself. But, it lacks the convenience of just running down to the local video store, browsing and then grabbing the movie you want.

In short, Netflix isn't going to replace my local video store (Lost Weekend Video on Valencia St., if you're keeping track). If one evening I decide that I want to go see The Wind and The Lion, I'm going to have to head down the street to get it. So, will Netflix put them out of business? If Blockbuster hasn't done it already then it's likely that Lost Weekend's business model and expenses are such that they are relatively stable. Netflix might hurt them at first but probably won't kill them.

But, will it kill Blockbuster? It might.

And, if Netflix does kill Blockbuster,what happens to Lost Weekend's business? I'm betting it will improve. Granted, Netflix is cheaper and has a bigger selection but you have to plan in advance and there's no personal interaction. Essentially what is happening is a shift in the retail equation where two very similar businesses competed head to head (Lost Weekend vs. Blockbuster) to a situation where the businesses competing are actually quite different. Lost Weekend gives you convenience, spontaneity, and a social outlet and Netflix provides low price and a different kind of convenience. My
bet is that there is room for both types of business. But is there room for Blockbuster and their demanding sales goals? I don't think so.

Though it is arguably a big step, this model can be extended to retail in general. In the past, one of the main ways that national chains have competed with independent businesses is in the area of price and selection. Because of greater buying power and other economies of scale (centralized ordering and administration, for example) national chains have been able to offer a greater selection of merchandise and lower prices than independent retailers. But, due to their size, national chains tend to be less efficient and less responsive to changes in the market. Finally, national chains tend to have much higher employee turnover and pay entry-level employees less than independent operations. As a result, customer service suffers and national chain staff are often less knowledgeable.

Finally, due to most chains being publicly traded corporations, there is a significant pressure on them to show significant sales increases every year and even every quarter. Failure to do so can result in dropping stock prices and serious financial troubles. This pressure does not exist for independent stores. If I am making a comfortable living, the only sales growth I need is enough to keep up with inflation. I might like more growth but I can plug along indefinitely with what I have. Thus far the preceding considerations have balanced in favor of national chains, hence the steady attrition in independent retail.

But increasingly now, internet retail is supplanting chain stores in the very areas where they have the advantage. Consider, an internet business has all the potential advantages of a national chain, plus it doesn't have the massive expense of maintaining large storefront locations and a huge pool of employees. Granted, internet retail offers even less customer service than chain stores and there is the pesky shipping delay. But both of those problems can be alleviated. Telephone customer service for internet retail has been, in my experience, far better than I have come to expect from chain stores. And, though delivery time for internet orders is an inconvenience, it must be balanced against the convenience of being able to shop anytime you want, day or night, and having one's purchase arrive at one's doorstep without dealing with driving to, parking at and searching around a huge store.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that internet sales will take all the business away from chain stores. But, remember why Blockbuster is in trouble -- it's not that they aren't making money, it's that they aren't making _enough_ money and more importantly, their sales growth isn't high enough. As internet sales increase those sales will come at the cost of physical retail sales. Independent stores are very familiar with ways of dealing with shrinking sales. But national chains are not and that may mean serious problems for them as internet sales grow. As internet businesses start showing the sales growth that investors want to see and chain sales slow, the money will move towards internet business. Chains may pay attention to this trend and move more and more vigorously onto the net but even this tactic clears the field for independent stores.

It's possible that some chains that deal in bulky and heavy items (lumber and other building materials, for example) may be able to retain their physical stores in the face of internet encroachment but even the high shipping costs for internet orders of these goods may be offset in lower warehousing costs and centralized shipping and logistics.

In summation, the growth of internet retail has changed the equation in a profound way. No longer are chain stores the lower price, bigger selection alternative to independents. Now they are the compromise between independents and the internet. They can't beat the prices, selection and convenience of buying on the net and they can't give the social outlet, customer service and depth of knowledge of a well run independent. As my dad used to say, "It's like all-purpose flour -- some good for everything and no good for anything".

So what happens over the next ten years? My guess is that the chain stores start to dry up, initially in areas that are marginal markets and then generally. They probably won't vanish but they'll fade. And as they do, the customers who either _want_ to get out of the house and shop or must have what-ever-it-is RIGHT NOW or just need some solid customer service will go to their only alternative -- the independent stores who have weathered the current storm.

(1) Full information at http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/

(2) The Fight for Survival by Independent Retailers (USA Today
(Magazine), July, 2000) by James R. Lowry ( http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1272/2662_129/63668115/p1/article.jhtml )

(3) A Blockbuster spinoff for Viacom? (New York Times, February 2,
2004) by Geraldine Fabrikant and Andrew Ross Sorkin ( http://www.iht.com/articles/127680.html )

(4) Video for Sale: Viacom rumored eager to spin off Blockbuster
(VisualStore on-line, February 2, 2004) by staff. ( http://www.visualstore.com/index.php/channel/39/id/7155 )

#230 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2004, 06:44 PM:

A fascinating article, although it may be overreaching; having dealt with large shipments of heavy goods, I doubt lumber et al will ever be sold over the Internet as the costs of handling low value-per-pound stuff in small units are too high. Example: if we had bought art show pegboard in Florida for Magicon instead of chartering a 48' truck to ship hangings from the Northeast, it would have cost us more to ship the pegboard north than it would have cost to pay disposal charges in Florida and buy new materials up north. Railroads still have economies of scale. I suppose a 95%--robot-powered warehouse and delivery system could overcome this, but after reading accounts of the Mohave desert robot race (12+ starters, no finishers) I'm not expecting it any time soon.

#231 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2004, 08:46 PM:

Could railways use an automated system more easily than road-based goods transport? That'd still be more bulk & long-distance than to get to the final delivery address.

Maybe it could get stuff to a place where you could pick up all your (non-perishable) orders for the week -- preferably a place you could easily get to & from by bus, train, etc with your little wheeled shopping trolley or backpack of goodies. Luckily many shopping centres here are associated with transport routes, even though you usually have to trek across carparks to get into them.

Until I was sick, I never used a "shopping cart" because I needed to know I could carry the load home. Now I need a friend to help. Admittedly, I was shopping for one or a pair, not a larger group.

Strange that you so often see one (usually female) person filling one or two "carts" for their family; you'd hope that more of the older children would come along to get an idea of what was involved in organising the supplies & paying for them - not to mention each being able to carry stuff back so you could dispense with some car trips, except for the less-frequent major heavy shops.

#232 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2004, 09:55 PM:

"Could railways use an automated system more easily than road-based goods transport?"

Well, for what? We are already at two-person crews (cabooses have been obsolete for some time for road freight, though they still have some local uses). Fully automating trains is certainly possible -- a number of rapid transit systems are capable of fully automatic operation, though there's often a live driver for a variety of reasons I won't go into here.

The biggest single problem with automating rail freight is grade crossings. Now, if the train is traveling at road speed, the driver's not going to be able to stop in time if someone parks a truck on the crossing (as happens), but at least he can pull the emergency; the support system for automatically detecting such blockages, and then applying the brakes, would be a hugely complex addition to an already expensive physical plant.

There are two main ways to reduce costs with current rail technology: speed up loading and unloading, and don't switch cars. Containers help with the first; the second requires both some rethinking and (usually) a dedicated route. Forty-odd years ago, the engineer John Kneiling proposed what he called an "integral train," which would carry goods (generally bulk) from source to user; the cars would be permanently coupled (or connected in multiples) and the train would stop only for crew changes and servicing. In the example of a coal mine and a power plant, hopper cars would be loaded on the fly by a conveyor floodloader (spillage falling through grates and going back to the loader) and the hoppers emptied over grates, again without stopping. There's a line that operates much like this: the Black Mesa & Lake Powell in Arizona, which is electrified and draws its power from the plant it serves. No, it doesn't have dining cars.

But for the most part, the technology is mature (that doesn't mean it can't be improved, but the basic mechanics are well refined) dropping carloads or containers works well, at least for customers who need that much. Breaking bulk to trucks is less efficient, but it's highly questionable whether it's less efficient (in terms of fuel, personnel, etcetera) than fifty separate trucks carrying the same load as a fifty-car train.

#233 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2004, 03:06 AM:

But, will it kill Blockbuster? It might.

It will not kill Blockbuster based on convenience, but because Blockbuster makes a great deal of money on late fees. Blockbuster has been forced to compete by offering a Netflix-style "rental pass" (X movies a month for a set fee, no late charges). It remains to be seen whether this will make up for the lost revenue from people turning in videos late.

Independents' niche will not survive if their advantages don't bring in enough customers. That is to say, if the people who go to Lost Weekend to browse and get a film Right Now aren't a large enough group, Lost Weekend will still get clobbered by Netflix. (Not to mention the stock problem. If you go to Lost Weekend and the one cool film you want is checked out, you may not spend money there at all.)

#234 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2004, 05:42 PM:

Mike, Epacris: I think you're proving my point. There are ways of doing small numbers of huge loads automatically; distribution to individual consumers is much more complex. (Consider how much labor freight ships save by handling containers instead of loose packages -- but those efficiencies require container-sized loads.) Amazon et al work because there are existing very efficient systems for small packages; these systems (UPS et al) work because the packages are small/light enough for mass handling.

Many years ago I found a filler item claiming that the newspaper had uncovered a British Airways memo proclaiming that a pole-vaulter's pole was not acceptable carry-on luggage. The thought of FedEx or UPS trying to handle a 4x8x3/4 sheet of plywood is not \quite/ as amusing as my visualization of the episode that could have prompted that memo, but it's close.

#235 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2004, 02:30 PM:

So which would be worse:

(1) Wal-Mart acquires Amazon.com?

(2) Microsoft acquires Amazon.com?

I'm about 20 miles from Inglewood, where local activists and national figures (Jesse Jackson) defeated a Wal-Mart initiative on which the Walton behemoth spent over a megabuck. If it had passed, they would have been immune to all local zoning laws and city council oversight. Coming soon to your neighborhood: "Badges? We don't need no steenkeen badges. We beat your town in a referendum!"

#236 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2004, 12:03 PM:

Anyone seen a set of the US Congressional Journal or other old political books for sale recently? Dunno where firm mentioned is located. Probably not one of the ones mentioned here as closing down. Wondering if anyone else has experienced alleged possible skullduggery in the book trade (Never could manage that one-eyebrow thing.)

www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/04/25/1082831436783.html
Death of a whistleblower
"... an extraordinary saga that saw the disposal of more than 3000 publicly owned, historic books to private dealers at discounted prices - and which culminated last month in the suicide of the bright young librarian-turned-whistleblower who reported alleged irregularities in the sales.
"The tale, of often byzantine intrigue, began seven years ago, and today, with an estimated $680,000 worth of books sold - and a further 12,000 boxed but now in limbo - it remains unresolved.
"Two detailed investigations and reports into the sales have been delivered to Parliament but have never been publicly released ..."

www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/04/26/1082831499637.html
Librarian admits he was paid by US bookseller
"... The librarian who sold $680,000 worth of books owned by the NSW Parliament to antiquarian dealers was allowed to retire before an inquiry could begin into his business dealings with the biggest second-hand book seller in America ... a whistleblower has provided to clerks of the NSW Parliament a new file of emails ..."

#237 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2004, 09:01 PM:

I'm shocked -- _shocked_ -- to find there's corruption in the rare book trade! We need an immediate investigation (pockets winnings, whilst others ignore pocketing).

#238 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2004, 09:06 PM:

Someone surely has a hotlink to share with us on the scandal that MANY rare books from the Library of Congress have already been stolen and sold, and others had color plates razored out of them and sold through crooked art dealers.

Tom Whitmore: this looks like the start of a beautiful friendship.

Someday, will the Foundation (and Second Foundation) report thefts of priceless documents traced to the Trantor Mafia?

"Round up the usual suspects!"

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