Monday, February 21, 2011

Bookstores without Borders

Almost three years ago.  Do you remember the Summer of 2008?  Bush was President.  China hosted the Summer Olympics.  And - our Economy imploded.  My coworkers and I in Ye Olde Bookshoppe had it worse than some retailers because we were suddenly being poked by a pitchfork with two tines.  Not only did the Economy start doing its best Shrinky Dink impersonation, but a Borders opened down the street from us.  At the exact same time.

Borders.  I'm conflicted.  They're bankrupt now, you know, that, yes?  As of last Wednesday.  But in '08?  Though showing signs of wear and tear, they were still a behemoth.  That first week they opened, a young man walked into our store and sought me out.  Are you Nick? he asked as he thrust his hand out for a shake.

Yes, I said.

The manager? he asked, still shaking my hand.

Yes, I said again.  How may I help you?

Wanted to introduce myself, he said.  I work at the Borders that just opened.

He let that sink in, like he was Santa Anna and I a beleaguered Jim Bowie holed up in the Alamo.

Well, it was nice knowing you, he said, before marching out, La Cucaracha no doubt playing in his head.

When I told Michael - owner and President of the fine collection of bookstores of which I am a part - about this exchange, Michael smiled and said, Don't worry.  When they write the history, you'll be the last one standing.

Michael reminded me of our exchange on Wednesday morning.  He said, You remember what I told you, right?

It was my turn to just smile.

We happened to be having our monthly manager's meeting on the day that Borders declared it was headed into Chapter 11, and I'll admit, I brought YouTube up on my phone and played Taps at the start of our meeting, and that provoked some hooting and hollering.

Still, I'm conflicted.  I said that, right?  Borders is a bookstore, after all.

I mean, it's not like when A Clean Well Lighted Place turned out the lights, or when Cody's locked its doors for the last time, or when Stacey's bid adieu - when those good bookstores shuffled off this mortal coil, the heartache was more real because they were fellow independents and the light everywhere dimmed.  Everywhere.

Bookstores - look, I know.  I've got a horse in this race.  I manage a bookstore - of course I worry when the canaries in my particular coalmine start to go quiet.  So, taking into account that fact, that I have a material interest in the discussion, I do feel - have always felt - that bookstores are different.

There was a Stacey's at Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto when I was a kid, up there on the second floor.  It lured me inside anytime I accompanied my mom on a shopping trip.  I can picture the Sci Fi/Fantasy Section - about a third of the way down the wall on the right.  This was more than 30 years ago - when I was heavy into Fantasy - but I can see it in my mind's eye like it was yesterday.  I remember dipping into the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for the first time while standing near that bookshelved wall.  I coveted a hardcover, slipcased edition of the Lord of the Rings that they carried - a boxed set that would end up wrapped for me under the Christmas tree that year.

Stacey's followed me like a good friend - after we moved to Palo Alto when Karen started Law School, we were delighted to find Stacey's waiting for us.  And then when we moved to San Francisco after Karen graduated - there was Stacey's again, down on Market Street.

The very next year, though, in 1994, Borders and Waldenbooks joined forces - and like a tidal wave of orcs, they swept across the land, mercilessly engulfing independent bookstores.

Ashes to ashes, Stacey's.  RIP, The Bookstore in Modesto.  Ah, Charlotte's Web, we hardly knew ye.

The age of the Indies was over, everyone intoned, the time of the Orc had come

Again - this was tragic because we're talking about bookstores and, damn it all, bookstores are important.  You don't need a curator for toilet paper.  You don't need a personality behind the cola collection in the 7-Eleven on the corner.  Bookstores are something else.  Well, Good bookstores, at least.  And when you walk into a Good bookstore, when you feel the presence of guiding hands that have chosen the offerings with's different than walking into Walmart, all right?

It wasn't the guy selling Twinkies that published Ginsberg's Howl.  It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, through his store, City Lights.  And it was Ferlinghetti who was brought to trial on obscenity charges - charges that he defended and refuted before winning the case when the Judge determined that Howl, indeed, was socially important.

Can we agree that time has been on Ferlinghetti's side and has ratified that decision?

Or on the other coast, Frances Serloff flaunted the law when she, at the Gotham Book Mart, sold copies of banned books like Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Sold the books knowing full well that she was breaking the law.

God bless her.

Oh ho, you may be saying.  Old news!  Who cares?  That was all then, this is now.

It would be pretty to think so, wouldn't it?

You do know, yes, what the Patriot Act did?  For our purposes, let us only talk about Section 215 of the Act.  It allows our Big Brothers and Big Sisters to go to your friendly neighborhood bookstore or to the library that you frequent and make that bookstore or that library tell Big Brother and Big Sister what it is you've been reading.  I imagine it would go something like this:

The story you are about to read is true.  Not even the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

There's a knock at Ye Olde Bookshoppe.  BOOKSELLER answers.

I understand Nick Petrulakis works here.

Bookseller covers mouth with hand, aghast.

Yes.  Yes he does.  But how did you know?

Secret Agent Man pushes into Ye Olde Bookshoppe.

I'll ask the questions.  My information indicates that Mr. Petrulakis (also for our purposes, "Mr. Petrulakis" shall be me) bought the Anarchist Cookbook.  And The Survival Chemist.  And The Construction of Secret Hiding Places.  All from this establishment.  Is that true?

It's true.  Yes, yes it's true.

Bookseller points at self.

All of it!  All true!  Since I'm Nick, I'll rat myself out.  Ok?  I did it.  I bought those books.  For research!  For research, I tell you.  I'm writing the Great American Novel.  It was part of a character study.

Sir, that's immaterial.  I'm here for proof.  To that end, I have an Order for the purchase records of Mr. Petrulakis.  The Order can't be challenged.  Also, you can't tell anyone you've received this Order.  That would be verboten.  Under the law.

But this isn't Russia!  This is the United States of America!  I got rights!  I got rights!


Rights?  Your rights and my own have been slashed under the Patriot Act (a piece of legislation named by the grandson of George Orwell)  (ok, I made that up) but you and I don't care because it couldn't happen to you.  Couldn't happen to me, right?

Funny thing is, even if it did happen to me, I couldn't tell you about it.  Remember?  Verboten. 

So...let's not argue about the fact that the government has the right to demand to know WHAT YOU'VE BEEN READING.  Or, um, what you've been CHECKING OUT AT THE LIBRARY.  After all, this is all in the good fight against Terrorism.  Yeah, yeah, Big Brother and Big Sister had to change the law (see Section 215, above) to get their way, but let us not forget - WMD's?  Mission Accomplished?  You haven't forgotten, have you?  You promised.

In light of all that, it's absolutely fine that I have to divulge your buying records when they come calling.

Really - it's fine.  Or so the government thinks.

We don't.

In 2005, The Campaign for Reader Privacy was begun by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and the PEN American Center.  We all felt you should, you know, be able to buy books without the threat of having your reading list scrutinized by a Secret Agent Man.

I know, I know, silly booksellers.  We're all a bunch of Commie, clove smoking, tattooed ne'er-do-wells.  Only trying to subvert your constitutional rights.

Actually, it's the opposite.  To promote that fact, I'm designing bumper stickers.  The first will read:  I'll give you my book when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Ok already.  I'll stop.  And I'm not saying that I wear a cape.  If I did, I'd look as goofy as Seth Rogan's Green Hornet.  What I am saying is, bookstores are important.  They provide a place where you can come and discover new ideas, new voices.  Some subversive, some not.  What we offer, with any luck, is a place where you're treated with respect.  Where you can spoil yourself with that beach-read you're embarrassed to admit you've been waiting for.  Where you can catch up on the words of the ideologues from the left and the right.

You want a copy of the Constitution?  I've got it at the front register.  We've sold more than 500.  It's such a little document, you wouldn't think it would cause so much trouble.

Not all of us can be Lawrence Ferlinghetti and launch a movement.  But you know what?  Firefighters spend great swaths of time waiting.  Only a fool would begrudge them that, because they're there, just in case.  And booksellers?  Everyday, we're here just in case, too.  As a meeting place where conversations can occur, where opinions can be trafficked - not behind some anonymous posting in the cloud, but face to face.  Everyday, making sure that you can get your hands on what you want.  Your neighbor might not agree with your selection, but at least you're allowed to make up your own mind.

We employ people who live where you live.  We give back to our communities, every day.  You tell us what you want, we provide it.

Some of us have fought the good fight, thumbing noses at the censors who say No.  Others have fallen in love with an author and helped to launch a career.  Or we're just tracking down that book you heard about on the radio.  I may think Palin is an idiot, or that Al Franken is a buffoon, but if you want their books, I'll ensure you get them.

I think we call that being in the service of a free exchange of ideas.

The problem is - when any bookseller falls, your choices are diminished.  If you're happy going to Costco and having your book selection limited to the 10 titles they've decided you should buy - if you're thrilled that Amazon can get it to you at a discount, and that's the most important thing determining where and what you buy - then we have nothing to talk about.

If, however, you want to be able to ask for help.  If, however, you need a donation for your school/church/synagogue (try that at Amazon).  If, however, you're fond of choice and don't want to be confined to the Top Ten of someone else - then you know what?

You need to patronize the shops in your neighborhood.  Barbara, across the street at Daisy's, was telling me about the looky-lou who told her that she loves browsing the wares Barbara offers.  She'd never think of buying anything, but she does like to look.

Folks - Daisy's isn't a museum.  Bookstores aren't museums.  And if they were, we'd at least charge you to come in.  You thrive when we thrive.  So if you like the shop, support it.  Crass though this may be, "support" means spending money.

Borders.  I got a little bit away from the bankrupt Borders, which is what made me sit up and take notice.  Another bookstore, gone.  More booksellers out of work.

I won't write their history.  I'll leave that to the smarter, the better informed.  They'll be able to tell you about the bad business practices, about the fact that the very size of Borders hindered its ability - like the T. Rex of old - to dodge the meteors as they started falling from the sky.

Do I wish the jerk from Borders who came into my store with the intention of throwing dirt into my grave was still there?  Closing down his shop for good while we're here to serve another day?  Sure.  Along with some of my partners in crime:  Mrs. Dalloways.  Rakestraw.  Diesel.  A Great Good Place.  Laurel Bookstore.  Alexander's.  Booksmith.  West Portal.  Modern Times.  Green Apple.  Bookshop Santa Cruz.  Book Passage.  Pendragon.  Pegasus. . .

We take no pleasure, I assure you, in seeing your alternatives - our alternatives - narrowed and reduced.  Again.  Because that just means the light is dimming.  Again.

Do me a favor.  Read a book.  See a movie.  Listen to a song.  Pay for the privilege and be thankful  the opportunity is there to be had.

All this pontificating is hard work.  I need a drink.  First round's on me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sweet Caroline

Everybody's trying to raise money for schools, right?  We in Alameda are no different.  Karen and I moved here because of the schools, but now?  It's a long story, but Alameda schools will soon be worse off than many, and forward thinking citizens have been trying to get parcel taxes passed to stave off Armageddon (I know, I know.  You hate parcel taxes.  I'm selfish, ok?  And I want good schools for my kids and I want good schools to keep my property value up.  Now please admit that the only reason you're against Parcel Taxes is because you're selfish, too.  Please.  Just do that and then go away.  I'm selfish, you're selfish.  Let's agree on that.)

Anyway.  In Alameda, we call it Measure A.  The good people behind the measure held a fundraiser.  There was a bar downstairs, music upstairs, and a Silent Auction someplace else.  I had a fine feeling about this piece of art that was being Silently Auctioned, and Karen needed some art for her new office, so I suggested we throw half our tickets into that pot.

Long story short, Karen won the art and it hangs now on the wall behind her desk.  Looks great.  But...these words weren't going to be about the art.  Heck, they're not even about Measure A (though you should vote for A if you can.  I'm planning to vote early and often).  It's about Nick and Sharon and Neil Diamond.

I said there was music upstairs, right?  I should be able to remember who the bands were, but I don't.  They were all fab, I do remember that.  But, um, the bar downstairs?  The Corona was extra cold, the lime wedges shoved down the Corona necks were wonderfully citrusy, and my story is that it was the quality of the cerveza - not its quantity - that may have pushed the names of the bands out of my mind.

But the music was great.

Late that night - close to when they were going to kick us out of the upstairs at Rhythmix, down the stairs and out the front door - it was late when He appeared onstage in all his shiny, sunglassed glory.  White shirt with a lot of sparkles, collar tips hanging way down to here.  It wasn't really Neil, I mean his voice left some to be desired, but his attitude?  That was all Diamond.

Karen and I had been joking earlier that you could tell the age of the parents who were there, upstairs, by how loudly they responded to the songs that were being covered.  Eighties?  That was for the old parents - right in our wheelhouse.  The next Gen screamed loudest for the Grunge ditties and Ska.  There were some real young whippersnappers, and they responded to songs that I hadn't heard.

I didn't think those songs were all that, but that's just me all over.

The funny thing?  Everybody responds to Neil.  Yeah, you might not think you would - but there's a test.  I was telling Nick about the test when Neil took the stage.  Nick and Sharon are in the Ska generation.  Younger.  But they don't hold it against us.

It's easy to tell that Nick's younger because he remembers each of the Neil Diamond songs that were sung, sung blue that night.  Four of the five or six were favorites of his and he could count them down on his fingers easy, I'd betcha.

But I don't bet.  Unless it's a sure thing.

Anyway.  Karen was sipping bad white wine, I had my cold Corona, and Neil just took over.  Whenever I hear Neil Diamond I think about Delaney's.  Great bar in the Marina.  Well, it was great when Tim Delaney owned it.  Delaney was a star receiver at San Diego State and for the WFL.  Years later he ran a terrific bar.  It happened to be next to the bookstore that I managed, and I happened to befriend the bartenders, and they happened to keep my frosty glass of soda refilled throughout the day.

Tim - I owe you for a lot of Diet Coke.

One night after work, a group of us went next door to Delaney's for adult beverages.  I was there, and so was Ladd, and Craig, and Phil.  Ladd was 6'4'' - at least - good looking to boot.  Marina Bunnies loved Ladd.  Craig was older than Ladd, and not as tall.  Phil was young.  An artist.  He's at Lucas now, chasing Skywalker.  Ladd's designing chairs.  Craig's off to LA, following his music muse.

That night, though, we were all booksellers relaxing after a closing shift.  Craig, after a beer, started grilling Ladd about how to close the deal.

I don't get it, Craig kept saying.  These beautiful women come into the store, but it's awkward.  You can't hit on them - and here he shot me a look, assuring me that he wouldn't make a customer feel uncomfortable in the store - that would be wrong.  But where else am I going to meet someone?  I'm in the store more than anywhere else.  You - he shot this at Ladd - you don't seem to have any problem, no one feels uncomfortable when you're selling them a book.  How do you do that?

And Ladd just smiled.  Well, he said, you can't ask anyone for their number.  Someone - and Ladd here smiled at me - might not approve.  But you could comment on the book as you slide it in their bag.  You could say, I've heard good things about Bridget Jones.  When you finish, you should let me know what you thought.

And then Ladd sipped beer.  And Craig just stared.  And then the grilling continued.  Craig throwing out different scenarios.  Ladd casually tossing off lines that fit each occasion.  Not that Ladd used these lines, mind you.  He was just answering questions.


The four of us were sitting at a table that would comfortably seat three.  And the table next to us was empty until this group of seven or eight frat guys took it over.  They were probably visiting from Berkeley.  Loud, the way frat guys can be loud.  Not offensive, just a lot of guys in a small space taking up a lot of room and drinking more than - perhaps - they should.

It was then that Neil Diamond started playing.  Sweet Caroline.  Tim always made sure there was good music in the jukebox.  Ah, Sweet Caroline.  That's a dynamite song even if no one knows what the lyrics are.  I'm asking you right now - how's it start?

No cheating.  You can't Google it.

Give up?

Where it began.
I can't begin to know it.
But then I know it's growing strong.

See, I've told you that's the song, and I've spelled out the beginning for you - but even now, it's not really registering.  If you had the music, though, like the frat guys had the music, you'd know what was coming.

Was in the spring.
And spring became the summer.

Who'd have believed you'd come along.

Ok, that's starting to tickle a little something in the back of your mind.  But like I said, if you had the music?  You'd almost be able to sing it.  Almost.

That's when I shouted out, loud enough for my table to hear - but not the table next to us - I yelled out to Ladd and Craig and Phil, because this is the surest of things, I yelled out as I reached into my pocket for a five dollar bill, I yelled out as I waved Lincoln above my head and looked at the frat guys, When it gets to the chorus that entire table's breaking into song. 

Hands, touching hands.

Ladd twirled a finger in the air and said, The entire table?  And I said, Each and every one. 

Reaching out.

So Ladd pulls out a bunch of bills from his overalls, and Phil follows suit, and the dollar bills are just raining on the table. 

Touching me.

I don't have five dollars, Craig's yelling.  Ladd looks at the frat guys, looks back at me and repeats, All of them? and I just nod so he digs for more dollars to cover Craig-- 

Touching you.

And it's irresistible.  I'm here to tell you that anyone in that situation - in a crowd, libations flowing free, music loud and everywhere, I'm here to tell you that after Neil sings 

Hands, touching hands.
Reaching out.
Touching me,
Touching you.

Anyone not on a respirator is going to shout out 

Sweet Caroline!
Good times never seemed so good!

And with all those dollar bills on the table, well, two or three more rounds were assured.

More songs came out the Juke.  Some Johnny Cash.  Maybe a little Led Zeppelin.  And at a later point that night, Ladd suddenly calls out


So without thinking I swipe my glass off the table, as does Phil - though he's an artist, he's quick - but Craig just looks over at Ladd and says

Wait, what--

And of course Craig doesn't get to finish his question because it's right then as Robert Plant's screaming out

Ramble on!

that one of the frat guys comes pinwheeling backwards, arms swinging, ass slamming into our table, Craig's beer gone, the glass shattering at his feet as the table flips then slams Bang onto the floor and the frat guy sprawled out like a scarecrow without a post to hitch himself on.

That's as good a reason as any to call it a night, so the three of us still with beer in our hands finish as seven brothers attend to one, and I'm going to tell this story to Nick.  You remember Nick, right?  We were at the event for Measure A.  His wife and mine, Janine and Brad, Edward and Annette, Natasha and Harry, Barbara, Ron, Liz - all the cool kids.

As I'm telling Nick about Neil, and Sweet Caroline - this is after our Neil has swaggered across the stage to three fabulous songs that Nick could recite for you but that I can't - it's as I'm trying to tell Nick the story about frat guys and monies wagered on vocal proclivities, it's then that our Neil, version 2011, of course begins to sing

Where it began.
I can't begin to know it.
But then I know it's growing strong.

You of course know where this is going because you just sang the song with me.  But as I'm telling Nick, Sweet Caroline starts being sung.  I mean, of course, right?  And I get the story out as quick as I can, just in time for the chorus

Sweet Caroline!
Good times never seemed so good!
I've been inclined to believe
They never would.

We're all singing, all of us, there upstairs in the dark, singing in support of schools, in support of songs with the catchiest of hooks, singing as a man in a white shirt with sparkles plays us, plays this crowd, like the vocal instrument we've become.

Good times never seemed so good.

Don't forget to vote.