Tuesday, August 31, 2010

First Do No Harm

I’ve been tempted to return to my Starbucks job for the health insurance, which cost me $30 a month (I heard it’s $52 right now, but I’m not sure). Before Starbucks, there was Borders, Cheesecake Factory, and Bennigan’s. Corporations might be the reason our economy is unbalanced, but they love to throw health insurance your way on the cheap.

Books & Books offers health benefits to full-time employees, and to certain folks labeled part-time who average enough hours to qualify. We use a local HMO, Florida Health Partnership. Because FHP's rates increase every year, our insurance payments have increased every year. Books & Books matches our monthly contribution, but without a raise to compensate, my take home pay keeps diminishing.

The most recent hike just happened. If I stop the insurance, I’m looking at an extra $2,490.54 a year. This merits serious consideration.

How can you not have insurance?

If I was going for my yearly checkups, I might care. But my doctor was in partnership with another doctor on the beach. FHP included Beach Doctor on the list of approved Primary Care Physicians, but not my doctor. When the partnership dissolved, so did my yearly visits.

I'm a biker, remember? It’s much easier catching a ride to a house party on SOBE than a doctor’s visit. If I’m not getting checked up, I’m flushing money down the toilet.

Yes, but what if Something Happens?

Well, something did. Geico covered the bills because it was a Motor Vehicle Accident, plus I had FHP to back them up. Well, la-dee-frickin’-da. Once I left the hospital, I made follow-up appointments for specific dates and times. Those follow-ups consisted of showing up at nine and taking a number like it was a deli. It was 3pm before I looked around and realized I’d been looking at the same faces all day. I didn’t take a number with other folks scheduled for nine; everyone scheduled on that day, insured and uninsured alike, took a number and waited.

Oh, those payments really came in handy while I was sitting on hard plastic for seven hours with a fractured pelvis, sacrum, and ribs.

If something catastrophic happens (and having just finished Portnoy’s Complaint I really want to write “God forbid”), a hospital will treat you. So what if you can’t pay?

For several years, my ex-wife had three different forms of insurance. No matter how many times, or to how many different people, we gave information on our primary, secondary, and tertiary accounts, hospitals still smacked us with thousands of dollars in bills (my ex is a transplant patient; it took a phone call to the Miami Herald to finally stop the nonsense; don't tell me newspapers are irrelevant). When situations arose where folks saw thousands in unpaid hospital bills on our credit report, we were told time and again that, “we look at medical bills differently” than other debt.

Who cares if my credit rating sucks? If I want to buy a house, or a car? Twice this summer I’ve eaten beans two meals a day to stretch my funds until the next paycheck. I don’t see myself pulling my new vehicle into a home I own any time soon.

Carl Hiaasen wrote that the human body rarely offers up any good surprises past the age of forty. As I approach forty, regular check-ups will become more important. I know this. Of course I won’t cancel my health insurance; I’m just worried about supporting someone besides me and looking for extra income.

As far as the accident, even if hospital debt is “different,” getting demands for payment in the mail is still stressful. I have to balance the couple hundred I paid for a helicopter ride, prescription co-pays, and a walker (“For patient’s comfort” so not covered, never mind that I couldn’t walk without it) vs. the $30k I would have owed for the hospital stay.

Still, I look at that $95.79 I could be saving from my paycheck and think there’s the month I wanted to spend in Italy for my fortieth birthday, there’s the cushion I’m supposed to have for emergencies, there’s my robot butler.

France is looking better every day.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't Bother Me, I'm . . . Thinking

Apparently Stephin Merritt, the creative force behind the Magnetic Fields doesn’t use “um” or “er” when pausing during speech to indicate that he’s not done talking; he just pauses while he thinks.

I do that, too. I didn’t realize it was unusual.

While you're thinking about that, think about The Heat Lightning.

If the progression of my "forced to read" series seems off, it's because The Forever War was supposed to be the last part.

Oh, well.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Sun Always Shines at Books & Books

The other day I watched a browser shouldering an oversized backpack ask Carroll where the bathroom is, which is a question we at Books & Books answer fifty two hundred times a day. Oddly, he waved his magazine at her when he asked. Well, not his magazine, a magazine we sell, one of those oversized, glossy, foreign photo mags.

“I ask for the bathroom because I’m going to read this while I rectally birth a brown baby,” his wave said. “Furthermore, not only do I have no shame in this act, there's no way I'm buying this magazine.”

As Becky and I ate cake at the children’s computer, Oversized Backpack passed us en route to the men’s room.

I’m not one to care what accompanies someone into the bathroom. I’ve had people breath, “You brought that book into the bathroom?” in tones suggesting I just farted on their sandwich. Well, yes. My hair was in there with me, while we’re on the subject. My shirt, pants, and shoes, too. What’s your point?

When I worked at Borders, we often found issues of Maxim or Inked in the men’s room with pages stuck together. I didn’t really expect Backpack to give himself a treat to the magazine, but the idea that someone would sit on a toilet with a magazine he didn’t own skeeved me out. When you purchase something, there’s a reasonable expectation that a stranger didn’t leaf through it while he dropped his intestinal children off at the pool.

I think I just made a case for online book purchasing. Although come to think of it, I’ve been in the country's second-largest warehouse for online book purchases. They have employees. And toilets. Just sayin’.

Anyhoo, Books & Books in the Gables is a giant U:

Employees travel back and forth between the entrances all the time. As Backpack left, Carroll was crossing the bar area. Backpack caught her eye.

“What?” he demanded.

Carroll was taken aback. “Nothing,” she said, going about her business. Backpack followed her, repeatedly asking, “What? What is your problem? What?”

Carroll decided he needed something besides her assurances that there was not a problem. Noticing he didn’t have the magazine, she asked if he’d left it in the men’s room.

“Ah, there it is,” Backpack said. “You make me feel like a criminal.”

Some back-and-forth followed. Backpack made a point of getting in Carroll’s space, using his physicality for emphasis. “This is a bookstore, lady. People take things and put them anywhere. You have to expect that. You make me feel like a criminal.”

Carroll was a stewardess for decades. She’s been on planes hijacked to Cuba. Twice. She’s had a gun to her head. Nice try, Backpack.

“Sir, I don’t have a problem. If there’s a problem, it’s your guilty conscious.”

“No, the problem is that you are a bitch,” Backpack yelled.

“You can’t talk to me like that, Sir.”

“I’ll talk to you however I want.”

“I need to ask you to leave.”

“You can’t kick me out for browsing, this is a fucking bookstore.”

“I’m not kicking you out for browsing, I’m kicking you out for cursing.”

By this time, the bookstore was on pause. Employees and customers alike stood and watched the show. The man demanded her name and the manager’s name and promised to call. Carroll gave her full name, spelled it, and invited him to do his worst. She told him she’d call the police if he didn’t leave.

“Call whoever the fuck you want, I don’t care. Is there a manager here right now?”

Tucci might not be much of a manager, but he counts money and certainly looks the part. Tucci listened while backpack spilled his story of unjust persecution. Maybe it’s me, but if I thought someone was accusing me of thievery (which we weren't, just assholery), I’d open my giant backpack to prove my innocence. Borders also taught me that the folks causing the biggest stink are usually the ones robbing you, or covering for someone else who’s robbing you.

“Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“That behavior certainly sounds inappropriate, Sir,” Tucci said, “but I wouldn’t want to comment without speaking to my employee.”

“I can tell by your tone of voice that you don’t care, and you’re not going to do shit,” Backpack said. He opened the door and delivered his parting shot; “You can shove this fucking bookstore up your ass.”

I spoke with Carroll about it afterwards, intimating that the man didn't know who he was messing with because of her past experience as a hijack victim.

“Actually,” she said, “having a gun to your head is easier than this.”

Believe it or not.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Algonquin's a Delight

Algonquin Night began in the courtyard of Books & Books and ended in the Library (also known as “The Cowboy Room,” for reasons no more fathomable, for it has neither books nor saddles) at John Martin’s just past the Colombian Consulate, a bracket of booze which left booksellers and booklovers alike buzzed and boisterous.

Gotta get this alliteration thing under control. My doctor has me on a hormone regimen and a strict diet. I’m assured it won’t last long.

The tasting in honor of The Wine Trials was actually just a taste, a finger’s width of three different champagnes. Well, sparkling whites, anyway. When co-authors Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch determined the winner by a show of hands, we found out two of the grapes were not French. The overwhelming crowd favorite was a $9 wine from California, beating out my choice, the $15 bottle from Italy. I didn’t get to taste the Perrier-Jouet at $60 a bottle, but I’m confident my snooty pallet would have found it, even if the group of eighty-plus voted it dead last.

The Wine Trials came about from blind taste-tests of wines from $1.50 to $150.00 a bottle, and suggests the best 150 wines under $15. Soft-spoken and articulate, Robin explained that even as professionals, he and Alexis were as susceptible to wine snobbery as anyone else. If you’re told this is an amazing selection from a vineyard that’s been producing glorious wines for centuries, that the grape was destroyed in a storm and there are only eight bottles in existence, that the wine was prayed into bottles by angels rather than casketed, you’re going to taste it differently than one purchased while filling your gas tank at the Food Mart.

“When you really taste wine, the experience becomes as much about what you bring to it as the wine itself,” Robin said. “We’re trying to encourage you to have that kind of experience with every bottle you drink.”

Oenophiles spoke; The Wine Trials was our best-selling title of the night.

Brock Clarke was as intelligent and witty as his novels, which is saying something. His Q&A session wooed several booksellers to the Brock Club, and copies of his short story collections Carrying the Torch and What We Won’t Do were snatched up. Unfortunately, we sold out of his first Algonquin title, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England. I didn’t want to be accused of over-ordering my favorites, so I just quadrupled what we sold at last year’s Algonquin Night. Clearly, not enough.

I despise when we sell out of a title at an event. If I’d ordered twenty Arsonist's Guides instead of twelve, or ten Breakfast with Buddhas instead of five, would we have made another $70, or $140? Did some customers leave disappointed, or simply choose a different title?  I suppose sell-outs are better than the alternative, but they leave me brooding.

Algonquin’s head of marketing, Craig Popelars, is   infused with wit, charm, and legendary storytelling ability.  He calls to mind Kevin Costner circa Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.  Craig and (oft-mentioned-at-Sweet) Akimbo sang an A Capella version of Starlight Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight,” lyrics slightly altered to suit the bookish occasion.  Unfortunately, Craig cut his recommendations short in deference to the heat inside and the beer waiting outside (in honor of Robin Goldstein and Seamus Campbell’s The Beer Trials).  I could’ve listened all night long, and I think most bibliophile in the audience would agree.

We sold more books than I expected, but not as many as I’d hoped. I wanted to grab every person leaving empty-handed and shake them. Enjoy that presentation, did you? Want there to be an Algonquin Night III? Then buy a freakin’ book!

If you missed Brock Clarke, he’ll be back in the fall, when Exley officially comes out. In the meantime, Books & Books has signed copies.  But if you prefer waiting two months to see what the book goes for on Amazon, fuck right off.  Excuse me, I meant, feel free.  As long as the story gets read, right?

At Algonquin, story is everything.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Calculate the Cost

An aged fellow came into Books & Books on Wednesday to buy a copy of Michael Lewis's Big Short. He told bookseller, part-time intelligence officer, art, photography, and architecture aficionado, and all-around gentleman George Henry that he had called earlier to put the book on hold.

The aged fellow hadn’t, which happens more than you might think. People call a different Books & Books, or the Barnes & Noble down the street, then come to the Gables and say they just spoke to so-and-so, so-and-so being a Beach employee or someone we’ve never heard of.

Being the senior bookseller that he is, GH was unfazed. He pulled Big Short from the bestseller shelf and handed it to the customer.

“Alright, what are you going to charge me for this thing?”

One moment. If you have a book nearby, I’d like you to take a look at it. If it’s hardcover, open the front cover and look at the upper corner of the dustjacket. If it’s paperback, look above the barcode. See that? That’s what we in the book biz call a “price.” This “price” is determined by the publisher, and printed on the book for all the world to see. Discounts publishers offer are negotiable, but the price does not change.

When you order a bottle of Samuel Adams in Miami, Seven Seas will charge you $3.50, Books & Books will charge you $5, most restaurants will charge you $6-$7, and snoot bars and clubs will charge you $8-$10. If the label said, Brewer * Patriot * $4.00, would you pay $10 at the Shelborne?

Unlike every other retail business, prices of new books are not determined by demand (apart from a few artisan lines once their limited runs sell out). If they were, we would’ve charged $100 a pop for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Back to our aged fellow, asking GH what he was going to charge for a book marked $27.95.

“My son just bought this book on Amazon for…”

I’ve been relegated to the buying office, where all my customer contact is by phone or email, because if you mention Amazon to me in my bookstore, you get slapped. In the face.

GH, on the other hand, is a professional. He calmly explained what Amazon’s margin is versus ours. The guy didn’t care; he brought up free market, democracy, his service to the country, etc. etc. GH said he was a republican, too, with a family chocked full of veterans. The man was not impressed. GH determined there was really nothing to be done for the man, because the price he wanted to pay was less than it cost us to buy the book from the publisher. GH told him to go into Starbucks and barter for a latte and see how far he got. Just kidding! But GH did offer to buy the man’s book for him.

According to Upton Sinclair, “It’s impossible to make a man understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”

Okay, so putting myself in the old party’s shoes… we’re trying to get him to pay full price for something he could get cheaper almost anywhere else. In this economy, if it’s not signed, and it’s not exclusive, how long can we expect to get away with that?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sweet and the Heat

I find it odd that The Heat Lightning invites readers to visit Sweet, and here I am inviting Sweet readers back to The Heat Lightning.

Worlds are colliding, creating a virtual vortex which threatens to engulf all casual readers into its maw.

On the plus side, I get to post another fun book picture.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Money Didn't Matter Yesterday

One of my mother’s favorite stories is how I told my kindergarten teacher my parents were old, “Like seventy.” The teacher assumed I was being raised by my grandparents, until my mother’s first classroom visit.

“Wow, you look great for seventy,” the teacher laughed.

All I knew was that my parents were old, and seventy was old, so my parents were seventy. Dylan is no different. Becky is twenty seven, and he keeps saying she’s seventy two because there’s a seven in the number. I could be eighty, thirty, or sixty, whatever feels old to him that week.

He’s the same way with money.

For someone who has never cared about money, I’m thinking about it way too much lately. Making money was nice, but not nice enough to keep managing at retail chains. Maybe I don't think much of making money because I didn’t make enough. I sure didn’t save anything. Eating beans two meals a day and refusing myself purchases is one thing, but Dylan is five (well, six today).

I read about one mother who explained to her son that she would love to buy him a new video game system, but doing so would require money she didn’t have. “I’d need to work harder to make more money, and I’d have less time to spend with you. Would you like that?” The boy choose mom’s presence over the Okama Gamesphere, or whatever.

Becky and I tried to make Dylan see the connection between taking him out to lunch, and buying him toys, and taking him to Universal Studios in Orlando for his birthday, and throwing him a Star Wars-themed party on the actual day of his birthday (although now it’s Dinosaur-themed), and buying birthday gifts, and saving up for us all to live together.

Dylan promises to help. He has enough money saved to buy himself a pink mustang and me a red mustang, and Becky a Jeep, and for all of us to go to Orlando. Fifteen, maybe twenty dollars. If we buy him a toy for being angelic at work (every day in the summer is bring your child to work day at Books & Books, because what bookseller can afford daycare?), and throw him a huge party, he will pay for the trip to Universal.

He’s six and he wants the world, and what six-year-old doesn’t? Tears over not getting his way I can handle; it’s the bargaining that breaks my heart.

A few years back around Thanksgiving, my siblings and my cousins were telling stories about our shared childhood. The “toe-curler” came up, as it always does. Five of us on the floor, held in place by a blanket so thick it curled our toes, while my sister – the Princess – got the couch.

Five kids sleeping on the living room floor under a blanket.

“I think we were poor,” my cousin Shannon said, and we died laughing.

We didn’t feel poor, of course. I just need to get over it, and by “it” I mean Miami. I’ve lived here long enough that I’ve forgotten the shock of moving down and seeing how people measure their lives in toys and titles, in bank accounts and designer labels.

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be–
I had a Mother who read to me.

-Strickland Gillilan,The Reading Mother

In that sense, Dylan will be a sultan.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Quality Over Quantity?

Sorry to have anemic posts this week, folks. I just returned from a trip to Orlando with Dylan and Becky to celebrate a five-year-old about to turn six. Fun with Becky’s sister, free food at the Club Level of the Hard Rock Hotel, and free passes to Universal Studios. I was dropped off at Books & Books just in time to switch my Bibliovore t-shirt from Unshelved for a sweaty, crumpled guayabera from my luggage - the saving grace of said guayabera being its lack of smoothie wiped from Dylan’s crusted lips – splash some water on my face, and join the fun of Algonquin Night.

To sum last week up…

My closet began leaking again, but I caught it early enough to save my clothes. The landlord had re-tarred the roof by the time I returned.

The pool at the Hard Rock has speakers which let you hear music underwater, pool-side food and beverage service, a volleyball court, two hot tubs, gazebos, a fake beach area, and a 240-foot waterslide. The lowlight of the stay was seeing a Poison video, but I had their cassette tape so I can’t complain too vehemently. I rate the hotel 5 power chords out of 5, plus a glory note for the free wine bottle and birthday cake.

Becky’s sister just bought a house, and we stayed there as well. I used an allen-wrench drill bit to assemble her dining room set and shattered a chair leg. In response, Becky’s sister made me coffee and eggs. Enough said.

Not only were both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure deserted because everyone was at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but the Hard Rock room key also acts as a fast past. The Hulk, Dueling Dragons, Spiderman, Revenge of the Mummy, Jaws, Men in Black - it’s all a lot more fun when the ride lasts so much longer than the wait to climb on board. Love the world of Seuss Landing. Love the heroes of Marvel Superhero Island.

Half the people at the park at any given time were crammed into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Trying to navigate the mass of bodies was like trying to push your way through a house party to reach the keg, only this keg was all over the place. There were lines for the gift shop, for Christ’s sake. Seeing Hogsmeade, with Hogwarts looming above, is priceless. But once you’ve seen the view, don’t go through the entrance, because Universal blew it; The Wizarding World should have been its own separate park. Instead, it’s a festival of waiting.

We caught Mat Hoffman's jaw-dropping Aggro Circus at Universal. Mat Hoffman was only part of the show on video, but we ended up seeing him at breakfast the next morning, two tables away. First Watch, delicious, delicious First Watch, when are you coming to Miami?

Tuesday: Angel Face

One thing about the birthday celebration; the cool little kid we brought to Orlando to have fun with on Tuesday was replaced with a spoiled brat on Wednesday who none of us could stand.
Wednesday: Snurt Face

Becky seemed worried that I’d have doubts about us moving in now that I’ve seen the Dylan’s dark side. Really, it means he’s more comfortable around me, and he’s testing his boundaries. Or so I’m telling myself.

After one good day and one bad day, Thursday was a tug of war. At First Watch, Dylan kept hitting my arm. I asked him why, and he hit me some more. I told him if he wanted to express affection, there were much better ways of doing it. He stopped hitting me, thought about it, then stood up and gave me a big hug around the neck.

The good stuff is so worth the bad.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Algonquin Night II: Be There or Die Regretful

Abe Froman works for Edward Mckay in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The other day he told me he was disappointed he wouldn’t be in town for Algonquin Night because, “If it’s Algonquin, you pretty much know it’s going to be good.”

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill is a small press based in North Carolina which sets the tone for a lot of marketing at larger publishing houses.  Email newsletters are commonplace, but Algonquin’s is one you look forward to seeing in your inbox.  As booksellers across the country buzz about the conversational tone, humor, and solid recommendations of the Algonquin Annotations (or Workman Off the Shelf, or Workman Unbound, or whatever they want to call themselves), a the big publishing houses are attempting to mimic the format.

Booksellers may not be the brightest lot – we are rearranging the deckchairs of our favorite titles on the sinking Titanic of an outdated retail model, after all – but we can still smell bullshit.
The Big Six throw hundreds of titles at the wall and see what sticks.  They ride huge mega-sellers until they’re dead, push them for a while, then drag them another few yards.  The Algonquin philosophy is no less aggressive, but a little less frantic; they publish a few fiction titles a month, and they believe there is no backlist.

In other words, they push just as hard for Roland Merullo's 2007 Breakfast with Buddha as they do for Jay Varner’s Nothing Left to Burn which comes out in six weeks.

Algonquin is like that favorite friend or bookseller who you go to time and again because their recommendations are so great.  That and the “no backlist” rule are important parts of Algonquin’s mystique, but I think what really sets them apart is how their titles turn readers into evangelists.  Ask Darby C. about Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife.  Ask Debra L. about Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.  Ask anyone who has read Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. You’ll see a look come over her face, a shine in her eyes that says, this book took me somewhere special, and part of me never left.

Me?  I’ll rave about all three of those greats, plus Jack O’Connell's haunting, imaginative The Resurrectionist, Hillary Jordan’s mighty, stark, dazzling Mudbound, and Brock Clarke’s* microscopically precise character portrait An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England.

The book industry gets criticized for gripping practices which have been in place for seventy years, for refusing to adapt to how the buying public wants to read.  Like the rest of the industry, Algonquin will need to get serious about digital formatting, but in the meantime they represent all that was right with the book business in the 1940’s.  Writers got small advances, not so much that they threatened the financial stability of the entire publishing house, but enough so the author wouldn’t starve.  The books were much more likely to make these modest advances back.  Success, even as defined by not losing money, allowed the author to publish another, to grow and develop his or her craft.

That’s why Algonquin sets the tone for publishing today.  People say, “I love John Irving” or “I loved The Historian,” they don’t say, “I love Random House” or “I love Little, Brown.”
Well, I love Algonquin.  And the more people who love them with me, the better the future of storytelling will be.

* If Brock Clarke sounds familiar, it might be because of this post, which I wrote before I knew he was coming.  Stop by Books & Books of Coral Gables Thursday at 7pm to see him present Exley, which goes on sale for the rest of the country in October.  But for you?  Thursday.  If you like a good buzz with your book, you can also catch co-authors Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch as they present The Wine Trials and The Beer Trials.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

You Have to Read it, It's a Classic

Friends chide me for never reading the classics. I have copies of Slaughter House Five and 1984 on my shelf that were purchased for me by friends who were appalled that I’d never read them. Purchased, as in, believed so strongly that I needed to read a book that they pulled out their wallets, spent their hard-earned cash, and put the books in my hand.

Okay, Moya bought me a $7.99 Vonnegut paperback at a 30% employee discount and Abe Froman handed me a stripped copy of Orwell he’d rescued from the trash, but it’s the effort which matters, the love of reading which is so strong it can’t abide someone calling himself a reader without having experienced these particular titles.

If I read everything I should’ve read if I took more English Literature in college, I’d have no time left for anything new.

Which dodges my real problem. Patton Oswalt, in the glorious, buy-it-now-if-you-haven’t-heard-it comedy concert Werewolves and Lollipops, does a bit about the Star Wars prequels. “Do you like Angelina Jolie?” George Lucas asks. “Well here’s a picture of Jon Voight's nutsack.”

“I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from,” Oswalt raves, “I just love the stuff I love.”

A few times I’ve tried to discover where the stuff I love comes from and it’s ended in tears of boredom. Akira Kurosawa's “Seven Samurai” comes to mind. The first disc was fine, but not fine enough for me to ever put the second disc in and see how it ended – particularly not after having seen so many decades of derivatives that the ending was never in doubt. The second disc sat on my TV stand for weeks before I admitted to myself I’d never watch it. Besides, I had another classic in my queue, just waiting to ship. “Dawson's Creek,” or something.

I went through a noir phase with mixed results. “The Third Man” blew my hair back, for sure, but “Laura” was only decent, and “The Big Sleep” put me to sleep. Twice.

When it comes to books, I balk at going back. Reading The Old Man and the Sea didn’t make me want to read The Sun Also Rises. I loved Pride and Prejudice, but not enough to pick up another Jane Austen. Put all the zombies and sea monsters you want in there, I still ain’t biting.

I imagine I’ll read Bleak House one day, and I’ve always planned on reading Great Expectations (although knowing everything which happens in the latter will surely dampen the reading pleasure), but… when? I could bust out a shelf of books in the time it will take me to slog through a Dickens, regardless of the fact that he’s the favorite author of two of my favorite authors (Stephen King and John Irving). Woolf? Dostoyevsky? The Great Gatsby? All gathering dust on my shelves while I read the next stunning / original / mesmerizing voice of his / her / our / generation.

It’s just no fun recommending a classic. Suggest Tolstoy (no, I haven’t read him) and it's like saying Meryl Streep is a good actress. Well, no shit. Thank God I asked you for help, bookseller. I think I'll just go home and wait for Oprah's next book club title.

Ah, but when you can sort through a glut of new titles and match one to its reader, you have power.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Amazon Enjoys Tossing Bovine Salad

A lot’s been written about the evils of bullying, hateful, baby-barbecuing Amazon (or not).  But lately they’ve been doing something more insidious, and I don’t see a single word about it.  Instead of a retailer, Amazon is becoming a wholesaler.

I’m not talking about the deal Andrew Wiley signed with them for exclusive rights to audio versions of his author’s books, a much-derided (and even parodied) decision which makes them a publisher, or even CreateSpace, their self-publishing arm.  I mean that sometimes at Books & Books, we have to order from the A-Word to make our customers happy.

To clarify for non-bookies, there’s a difference between a publisher and a wholesaler.  Publishers put a variety of authors into print, distributing them to bookstores, retailers, and wholesalers across the world.
Wholesalers carry a variety of publishers.  Let’s say you’re a bookstore, or a retailer that sells books, and you want to carry Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky because it rocks the socks right off your feet.  Basically, you can order it directly from the publisher for a better discount, or from a wholesaler if you need it fast.

Books & Books orders from hundreds of publishers.  Although several warehouses which were operating when I started bookstore life have closed, there are still half a dozen we order with regularly.

In February, Nicholas Sparks published Last Song in paperback on a Tuesday.  Thursday, we couldn’t get it.  Hachette (the publisher) and Ingram (the biggest wholesaler in America) were both sold out.  In fact, none of the wholesalers had it – not Baker & Taylor, not Southern Book Service, not Partners East, Partners West, or Bookazine.

Lately, this is happening more as publishers play it safe with low print runs.  Demand for a new book exceeds what they’ve printed (or an author dies, or wins a Pulitzer) and we end up waiting weeks for a reprint.  But Nicholas Sparks?  Come on.  Hachette would not be caught by surprise that a best-selling author is in demand.

Meanwhile, Amazon had plenty of Last Song in stock.  I had a choice.  I could send my neighbors’ dollars to this online retailer in the Northwest, or I could disappoint the Books & Books customers who had ordered the book.  I tasted bile in my throat when I sent Miami money 2,700 miles from my community.  To add insult to injury, we got a 42% discount and free 2-day shipping, the same terms we’d get from a wholesaler if they had it in stock.

How in holy hell do you compete with that?

Before you start shouting about free market and competition, please understand we pay publishers much more per book than Amazon, so we simply can’t offer the same discounts. Sorry.

Amazon did the same thing with S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon. The New York Times Book Review salivated over it and Amazon bought every printed copy available, effectively making themselves the exclusive distributor. This has happened with two other titles lately, but I can’t remember those titles because we didn’t actually break down and go A-word.

It’s useless, but I can't help getting all bent out of shape about giving our hard-won sales to the biggest online retailer on the planet.  When they’re so proud to buy at their local independent, how would our customers feel if they knew?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Last week I was very excited to have scheduled a date to sign my divorce papers. As a matter of fact, I was happy about it right up until the night before. Of course I also felt nervous to see Andi.

Cruising the internet a while back, I saw a video of her performing with Exit 19. The sound quality was shit, as sound on phones and digital cameras always is, but that wasn’t the problem. Even with poor sound, I would have been mesmerized if we’d still been together. With the months apart, it was like looking at a stranger.

Along with my heart, she broke my love goggles.

I once used the metaphor of an athlete being confined to a wheelchair to describe what losing Andi was like. That felt right for a while, but it doesn’t anymore. I’m up, I’m moving forward, and being with Becky is the best kind of freedom.

Now I feel happy and sad at the same damned time. There’s the person who promised to love Andi for the rest of his life, who meant it with all his heart, and who expected to die in her arms. Well, he did die. He died alone (more accurately, surrounded by friends, but not the one friend he expected to be with) and I don’t mourn his passing, but I mourn his innocence, his world view, his absolute self-assurance in matters of the heart.

Clearly, I needed to be knocked down a peg.

I miss our friendship, but looking at her fills me with sadness. The undying lover has been replaced by a man who wishes her nothing but the best, and means it with all his heart.

The home I shared with Andi in Oasis Condominiums only exists in my memory and in some great pictures, but it will never be again. While I mourn the official end of this era in my life, I’m also looking forward to what happens next. I feel pain and excitement, sadness and relief, regret and love, all jumbled together.

Becky and I have picked a place in the Gables, where our studios will share space, where Dylan can have his own room and attend an amazing school, where our family has room to grow. Like Oasis, the Gables home with Becky only exists in my mind, in pictures, and in dreams, but it’s no less real.

I still don’t have a word for all these emotions; it’s just what happens now. Close one book and open a new one. Let one thing go to pick up another. Say goodbye to the defining relationship of your life to make room for the love of your life.