Archives for category: Books + Bookstores

I get panicky when there aren’t any books in the house, which probably sounds like a humble-brag until you realize how dangerous this can be.

The first thing I did when the last box of books was packed in Berkeley was march out the door and straight to Pegasus an indie bookstore down the street. I intended to get one book. One book could fit in my purse, and I knew exactly the book I wanted needed. And we know this is a lie because it was about a week ago, and I can’t remember which book it was, only that I didn’t find it. Which was okay because I came out with a stack of six books instead. Six books could fit in the moving truck between the seats under the junk food and energy drinks…

You can see where this is going.

One of the books I picked up was The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron. I was attracted to the name that sounded a little bit like a koan. What is the sound of paper? Is it like the sound of one hand clapping? Is it the sound of infinite possibility? Is it the sound of silence?

The name of the author sounded familiar, but it wasn’t until I got home and read the back of the book that I remembered that I have a history with a Julia Cameron book.

When I was first starting grad school, I was desperate to prove to myself that I was a Real Writer, so I went out and got a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way because all the writers I knew swore by it. The Artist’s Way is billed as 12 Steps for writers, but for me it felt like a straight jacket. I struggled to keep up with the practices that she claimed every writer must do, pushed myself to do them for months, eventually I gave the book to someone I thought was more hardcore than I was, and tried not to feel like a miserable failure. Until I found another group of writers who swore all writing books were bunk, and I felt better for a little while.

Looking back on it I know that structure was the last thing I needed. I wish someone had told me not to worry about it. To play. To enjoy covering my hands in the ink from cheap fountain pens and making terrible messes on the page. A writer writes, and if writing doesn’t happen it’s not the death knell of creativity. Something else, something wonderful will present itself.

That was four years ago, but when I opened The Sound of Paper, I did so hesitantly. I’m further along than I was, but I still struggle to do the things that Every Writer Must Do. I do not write a thousand words a day. My process is seasonal. If I have a muse, she’s prone to incredible mood swings. There are weeks when I do nothing but write. I come up from the page like a mermaid flopping up on dry land, and there are long periods of time when the only writing I can do is in my journal. I’m still young. Maybe I will settle into writing a thousand words a day when I’m as seasoned as my heros are now, but right now my practice is unsteady and inconsistent.

Four years ago, I was desperate to prove myself. When I picked up The Sound of Paper, being a writer was a much more entrenched part of my identity, and I needed someone to tell me that being a writer doesn’t dissolve when the pen stops moving. I needed to know that there were still writerly things to do when I was dry and discouraged.

The Sound of Paper begins with a brief passage introducing three practices: 3 pages of journaling every morning, 2-3 short walks a week, and some kind of adventure every week.

They are the same practices that she prescribes in The Artist’s Way, but when I read them this time I almost cried because it felt so kind. I can’t write a thousand usable words every day, but I can go for a walk in the park. I can whine at my journal. I can go for an adventure. The advice felt a bit like hearing a knock at the door and expecting a drill sergeant to tear you out of the house and send you to run laps around the block and finding instead a neighbor with a casserole who sends you back to bed.

Books–and I think this goes for advice, too–are like medicine.  There is medicine that puts you to sleep and medicine that wakes you up. It suppresses some things and aggravates other things. There are books that will save your life one year and be completely meaningless to you the next.

How do you know which is which? Sometimes, you know, like I did with The Sound of Paper, but I think most of the time you try things and guess and try not to poison yourself and hope that someday, eventually you’ll know better.

exterior view of Brattle Bookshop in Boston

Photo Credit: Brattle Bookshop by Francisco Seoane Perez

When we lived in Boston, the Hacker worked a couple of blocks over from the Brattle Bookshop. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the Peabody sisters or the significance of this bookshop, and I was just as likely to wander across the street to Windsor Button (now closed) to look at bamboo knitting needles and wool yarn as I was to visit Brattle.

I regret it now, but at the time this decision was mostly practical. Brattle was genius at pricing books and (I was convinced) knowing exactly what I was thinking and how much cash I had in my pocket, and if I wasn’t careful, I’d find myself meeting the Hacker on Park Street with a pile of books that was impossible for one person to carry. Which wouldn’t have been so bad except that we lived in Brighton, almost at the end of the B line, and so I’d sheepishly ask the Hacker to carry most of the books standing (because getting a seat on the B line at that hour was a miracle worth celebrating) on that bouncy train all the way home.

a view from the floor of a T train in Boston

Photo Credit: From the Floor by walkinboston

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This morning I read an post by Michael O. Church about economic and social development called The Great Discouragement, and how to escape it
The post is about changing paradigms and the ways of thinking that work best in each one:

Each of these ages has a certain mentality that prospers in it, and that characterizes successful leadership in such a time. In the agrarian era, the world was approximately zero-sum, and the only way for a person to become rich was to enslave others and capture their labor, or kill them and take their resources. In the early industrial era, growth became real, but not fast enough to accommodate peoples’ material ambitions, creating a sense of continuing necessity for hierarchy, intimidation, and injustice in the working world. In a truly technological era (which we have not yet entered) the work will be so meaningful and rewarding (materially and subjectively) that such control structures won’t be necessary.

Church’s post is sketch of society as a whole, but it got me thinking about old world thinking and indie bookstores.

Indie Bookstores in the Age of Amazon

If you’re already familiar with the laments about the death of the indie bookstores, you can skip this section.
If you’re not familiar with the world of bookselling, here’s a quick summary:
Ever since Amazon came on the scene, things have been difficult for physical bookstores. First, Amazon offered the convenience of shopping for books in your underwear. Then they built a selection that was impossible for local stores to compete with. Then Amazon started paying 45% of the cover price of new books to publishers when other booksellers paid 60% while making it exceedingly easy for customers to sell their used books, as well. They have done all of this at incredible speed, are getting faster all the time, and may soon eliminate the one advantage that local bookstores still have: the ability to have a book in your hands on the same day you decide to buy it.
With an opponent like this, physical bookstores aren’t doing very well. Even major booksellers with giant stores and robust websites are struggling to compete. Until last year, two major bookstores were still hanging on: Barnes and Noble and Borders. Then Borders filed for bankruptcy and shut down all their stores. Now that Amazon won a legal battle with five major publishers and gained the right to sell books at a loss, the future isn’t looking so great for Barnes and Noble, either.
This is the world-wide war between bookselling giants, but a nearly invisible struggle is happening at the local level. In Berkeley, the legendary Cody’s, which survived being bombed in the 1989 for their support of Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, closed their doors in 2008. In New York, Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers closed a couple of months ago, and after a battle with the landlords over rent increases St. Mark’s is asking the community to help them stay afloat. In Portland, even the great Powell’s was forced to lay off employees last year. 
With stories like these, it’s no wonder it’s generally assumed that independent bookstores will soon go the way of the dodo bird, but I don’t think that’s the only option.

 

Four Bookstores, Four Approaches to the Same Problem

As a resident of Berkeley, I have the privilege of living within walking distance of nine independent bookstores, and every month or two, it seems, I find out about another one.
I have no idea how well these bookstores are doing. I’m certain they don’t have it easy, but they’re alive, and sometimes they’re even kind of crowded. 
How can my neighborhood support nine bookstores when most places can’t even support a Barnes and Noble?
The presence of the University of California probably helps, but they can’t be the only reason my neighborhood is able to support so many bookstores. Before I moved to Berkeley, I lived in Boston, which has dozens of universities and six months of perfect book reading terrible weather. While it has its share of indie bookstores, it’s nothing like Berkeley’s*.
Berkeley’s anti-chain store, pro-local businesses ethic certainly helps. Bay Area residents are used to paying more for rent and food than almost anywhere else in the country, and in Berkeley it’s a lot easier to pay more for a book than you’d pay on Amazon when you can reassure yourself with the fact that you probably would have paid more for it in San Francisco.
Culture, academics, rivalry, all of these things help local bookstores in Berkeley, but I think the biggest reason most of these bookstores are doing so well is that they’re not just selling books. Each one is selling something else, and every single one has a slightly different approach.
Let’s look at four examples:
1.)  Generic Bargain Bookseller
Though they aren’t the largest bookseller in Berkeley, Generic Bargain Bookseller comes pretty close. Their main selling point is a big selection of used paperbacks for incredibly low prices. Their prices are so low that they may even compete with Amazon, if you count shipping. I have been known to leave the store with three paperbacks for under $10. 
While this model seems to be working out well for them, you’ll notice that I haven’t given the name of this bookstore. My reason is this: If I had to pick a bookstore that represented the old model of bookselling, I would choose the Generic Bargain Bookseller. They are able to compete with Amazon only because Amazon still doesn’t offer same-day shipping in the Bay Area, they are convenient to public transportation, and they are able to compete with Amazon on price. 
That’s great news for now, but it’s only a matter of time before Amazon eliminates their speed advantage, and I can only hope that the masses killing time before their train or bus arrives can keep Generic Bargain Bookseller afloat.
2.)  Niche Bookseller
Not far from Generic Bargain Bookseller is Fantastic Comics. Fantastic Comics is new to the neighborhood, and it is located on a block that has traditionally not been especially kind to businesses that appeal to their niche, but they are beloved and approach the business of bookselling differently than their neighbor.
Yelp Review
When you walk into Generic Bargain Bookseller’s store, you’re greeted by a sign demanding that you leave big bags at the counter in big letters. It’s an unpleasant experience (especially if you’re carrying a company laptop), but given Generic Bargain Bookseller’s business model, it makes sense. Generic Bargain Bookseller’s business is selling books as cheaply as possible, so loss prevention is one of its biggest concerns.
Compared to Generic Bargain Bookseller, the selection at Fantastic Comics is tiny, but Fantastic Comics is not primarily in the business of selling books as cheaply as possible. Their business is supporting a small community (i.e. comics readers), and everything about the store reflects this. When you walk in, you aren’t greeted by the loss prevention system. You are greeted by a person, whose job is not only to sell books but act as a liaison between the customer and the world of comic books. As such, they attract customers who aren’t just interested in buying books. Their customers are enthusiasts who are looking for a rare title, newbies who are looking for someone to help them find their way into the community, and regulars who want to feel like they are part of a community. Bookstores like Fantastic Comics not only sell books but also expertise, education, and a sense of belonging.
One benefit of running a bookstore according to this model is that you are offering something that doesn’t play to Amazon’s strengths. No matter how many author discussions Amazon has, they will never be able to replicate the experience of walking into a physical space and seeing the look of recognition on the clerk’s face. No matter how good their recommendations algorithm is, Amazon will never have the human intuition that says, “I have a feeling this book is for you.”
Another benefit is that a single community can support as many bookstores run according to this model as there are subcultures and niche interests. Berkeley, in addition to Fantastic Comics, supports The Other Change of Hobbit (sci-fi/fantasy), Mrs. Dalloway’s (“literary and gardening arts,” Virginia Woolf has a “shelf of her own”), and Revolution Books (name says it all).
3.) Community Bookstore
On Telegraph Ave. in an area that has suffered ever since a fire in an apartment building decimated nearly an entire city block, is another type of bookstore, Moe’s Books
Moe’s rivals Generic Bargain Bookseller in size and selection, but what makes Moe’s different isn’t the number of floors or rare finds, it’s something far more difficult to quantify.
Every bookstore in Berkeley is a reflection of the community in one sense or another, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to stay afloat, but Moe’s takes this to another level. After I moved back to Berkeley after spending a year in Mountain View, one of the first things I did was visit Moe’s. I did this because I missed bookstores like this living in strip mall land, but I also did it because I knew that a year is a long time, and I wanted to know how things had changed while I was gone. 
In the same way that Fantastic Books is a gateway to the comics branch of fandom, Moe’s offers visitors the chance to take the cultural temperature of Berkeley. When I returned to the city, I was able to tell that there was more of an interest in poetry because books that I had struggled to find for my MFA program were suddenly on the shelves. When Occupy was in full swing, it was notable that the philosophy section pivoted from emphasis on Derrida and Foucault to books with a revolutionary flair. 
One of the advantages of running a bookstore according to this model is that, in addition to a collection curated to reflect community interest (and thus more likely to have something you’re interested in), booksellers of this type rise and fall according to their standing in the local trust economy. As long as they keep listening and stay willing to express the mind of the community, the community in turns looks to them for the same reason individuals look to books, to reflect the community back to itself, helping the community to articulate its own mind before it finds words of its own.
4.) Personal Bookstore
All of these stores are close to me, but Pegasus Books is the closest of all. On a busy day, I might pass it several times, and it’s the first place I go when I want to browse.
At first glance, Pegasus looks like Generic Bargain Bookseller with a fantastic zine section, but now that I’ve been a regular for close to a year, I’ve come to realize that what sets Pegasus apart isn’t just its DIY attitude but an approach to community that is entirely different than Moe’s. 
Moe’s primary relationship with the community of Berkeley is one of reflection. By curating the selection and choosing which authors do readings there, they are a force in steering the conversation, but they will maintain the relationship that they have with the community only as long as they stay in the city-wide conversation.
Pegasus is also engaged in a conversation that is unlikely to happen in the exact same way outside of Berkeley. There’s a robust section on urban gardening. The history section leans toward social justice. The magazine section contains like Fence and The Paris Review as well as Bust and Wired. But this isn’t Berkeley talking to itself, it is a group of individuals inviting the community to try books they have enjoyed.
Visitors can see this in bookmarks that are stuck in the most prominently displayed books. A call back to the Employees Recommend shelf at video rental stores, each bookmark contains a review from one of the employees of the store, reflecting that individual’s preference and, taken together articulating the store’s own particular taste.
People with a literary bent are likely to have many of the same interactions at Pegasus that comic book readers have at Fantastic Comics. Recommendations and inventory at Fantastic Comics are likely to be influenced by the individual tastes of the employees, but what makes Pegasus special is the smallness of the conversation. Fantastic Comics offers personal service in conversation with the world-wide comics community. Pegasus is just personal.

The Advantages of Being a Mouse in an Elephant’s Room

Amazon is at the top of the book selling business. It is nearly impossible to compete with them in cost, convenience, and selection. This competitive advantage has given them the power to muscle themselves into an ever bigger size and, seemingly, infinite advantage, like an elephant in a room of full of mice.
But there are ways in which Amazon is at a distinct disadvantage against small businesses. Amazon can solicit reviews from millions of people all over the world, but, as anyone who has tried to buy a book from Amazon reviews knows, Amazon’s system is unable to reproduce the personal attention of a Fantastic Comics employee or account for all of the different perspectives and cultural differences. A reader considering a controversial book on Amazon, such as 50 Shades of Grey, is forced to choose between a five-star review system that is simplistic at best or wading through hundreds of reviews that reflect the cultural biases and ideologies of reviewers they have never met. 
It is this element of the personal that makes Amazon a loser in the trust economy. They might be able to say what is popular world-wide from minute to minute, but they are too big to listen to the nuanced conversations happening at the local level. Even if they mine their data and refine their trends down to the neighborhood level, they have locked themselves into a game that values speed over all else, making them unable to move slowly enough to have the kind of impact that Moe’s changing the tone of their philosophy section has in the city of Berkeley.

It is tone more than anything else that gives local stores a distinct advantage over Amazon. However “personalized” their results, Amazon is a monolith with a million masks and the same face underneath, a face that can greet you when you walk in the door but will never give more than a painted smile.
*Them’s fightin’ words, I know. Prove me wrong, Bostonians!