Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Sexism and Bookselling, with a post script on phone requests

Yesterday I was sitting behind the desk doing the mysterious things booksellers do behind desks and a man walks in. He is a reader. You can tell because he immediately engaged another employee in conversation and had a peculiar request. He wanted historical fiction that gave one a perspective that one hadn’t thought of before. So the (female) employee proceeds to tell him about 5 or 6 books, in-depth accounts of what the book is about and how it meets his requirements. He doesn’t go for them. She asks me, (I’m a woman), I give him a good, detailed description of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a review I’ll get to eventually). Nope. He didn’t want that either. The other employee takes him to another shelf and tells the customer that her husband read it and liked it. He buys that one.

Really? Really. After spending probably fifteen minutes with this man giving him detailed descriptions of books, he goes with the one a man picked, without even knowing what it was about. It was not as if the other books chose were “woman” books, they were all about war and adventure and man-stuff. He just wanted to read what a man read. Plain and simple.

Now, how am I supposed to sell to that kind of person? I promise you it is a type of person. Should I just say, “(male name) liked this one a lot” and not even give my opinion or any kind of sales pitch? How do you “learn” to sell to those kinds of customers? I cannot unmake my gender and because I cannot, I cannot sell to certain people (at least I can’t sell anything I care about).

Another question. Is it his fault? Do I blame him or blame the common wisdom that most readers are women and that women don’t read the same books or the same way as men do? Ultimately, he bought a book so I shouldn’t be upset. But how can I learn from that experience, could I have done something that would have changed it? I doubt it. And to save the ruminating, Reader, I blame him.  To be honest, an encounter like that just reinforces my misanthropy, especially those afflicted with gender myopia.

The other strange thing that happened was this: a woman calls asking if we are the college bookstore, I say no, she says oh and hangs up. She calls back and asks me for the number to the college bookstore which I say I don’t have. She then asks. me. to. look. it. up. for.  her. And of course, I do. But I was just flabbergasted. Who does that? Who asks someone to look up a number for them?

Another phone conversation, though not really a request but an extravagant example of the asshole sub-species. I’ll skip to the end. He says “I don’t mean to complain but everytime I call y’all, you never have what I want and I have to drive all the way to the other end of town”. I tell him that we have a quick distribution system to make up for any lack of books we have and can get books in a couple of days. He responds “So can Amazon, thank you, bye”. All I could say was “Yeah,” in the bitchiest tone I could muster. I wanted to say “Thanks for supporting your local economy, but don’t wonder when the roads are fucked and there’s no one to pick up the trash.” Or more succinctly, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”

It’s one thing to go to another bookstore or order your books online; but it is quite another to tell an employee of an independent that they don’t have the book and that Amazon is better than they are. That’s just plain rude and a bad example of a human being. But this is what passes for humanity in the cutthroat bookselling business. I swear, indie booksellers have to go out with switchblades up our sleeves for protection against attackers who want to deep discount books.

On Returning a Book to Your Local Independent Bookstore

About two hours ago, a woman, her husband, and her daughter (the only one of the trio who lives locally) came in and bought two very commercially available books, Dan Brown’s new crap-ton of bad writing tome The Lost Symbol and Mitch Albom’s self-help is still hip Have a Little Faith. When she was standing at the counter, she shared with me the fact that she could get these books cheaper and that someone named Alice would send her the book in the mail. She waivered, she wafted, she flitted and scrunched up her brow, and slapped the money on the counter. I was proud of her, she realized the importance of supporting a locally-owned business (even if it wasn’t hers and was her daughters’s community). I almost snapped at her husband when he said, “this sale must make your bookstore day” to me. I thought, yeah, you and all the other sales today. Jerk. But hey, mission accomplished, they bought the books.

Wrong. She brought them back, asking for a refund because she could get them 50% cheaper somewhere else.  I wanted to tell her she could go on Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Target.com, Sears.com, etc. etc. and get it for $8.98, but then she would have no soul. After all that worrying, hemming and hawing, she brought them back. I was really disappointed.

Two ideas spawned from this encounter. One, how do you explain the advantages of spending money in a local community when the customer doesn’t live in the community? They don’t benefit in any way from money kept in the local economy. They’re on vacay, and it’s all on a budget. This is one I’ve been working my head round for a while, since 40% of our customers are tourists. I’ve still yet to have an answer. Though, it may be related to my second idea.

Two,  there has been a price war between the major online retailers to discount the most popular books coming out this holiday season (it has even been covered on NPR).  James Patterson, Barbara Kingsolver, et al are watching as the prices of their books drop to below $10, some places as low as $8.98. Many analysts are saying that this will have a direct effect on independents and that independents will not be able to compete with these deep discounts. Yesterday, on NPR, an analyst made the point that if deep discounting becomes the norm, the value of books will go down, and independents will go out of business and we will see more of what happened today with my lovely little out-of-towners.

It is true that books are costing more these days. Even a few months ago, a hardcover book was anywhere from $22.99 to $24.99, maybe $26.99 if it was a biggie. Now, they are $26.99 to $29.99, and $32.99 for a biggie. Where did this come from? It came from the large chains (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million) who need to deep discount in order to stay competitive. However, they can’t make any money off $23-24 books so they negotiate with publishers to have a higher price and they still offer 40% discounts. Most people don’t pay attention to how much they’re paying if they’re getting a discount. So, you have bookstore chains driving up the actual price of the book and online retailers discounting the books until they’re cheaper than what it cost to make them. And then you have the independents, riding the wake between the huge barge out on the water and crashing on the beach, trying to stay afloat.

If publishers lose money, they will publish less authors. (It is already to the point that most publishers don’t take chances on new authors.) If there are less authors then there are fewer books, fewer books, less dissemination of knowledge, and eventually the extinction of printed books. I know this is a fatalist view and a little extreme, but things could change very radically while we’re all on Amazon searching for a good deal.

However, as I said before it’s not only the consumers who are to blame. The chains and discount stores made buying cheap the norm and now it is expected and in fact, engineered. To the chain bookstores, who have large web presences as well as brick and mortar stores, it doesn’t matter if a customer buys a printed book or an e-book anymore. They don’t need to drive people to their stores, they only need the sale.

We are in quite a conundrum here. It is so much more complicated than telling people “buying local helps support the local economy”. Because they may not live in this local economy, and if they buy all their products online or at other chains, what do they care if a locally-owned independent goes out of business? They buy all their things from faceless chains and discount stores.

So what do we do? We do smile, we don’t say “sure, no problem” when they bring it back. We look at them in the face, conveying the message, “I am judging you for your bad decision.” But we can’t say anything without offending someone, because as you have seen, the truth is offensive.

Who Didn’t Win the Booker, but I Read Anyway, Part Two

As I mentioned above, I also read The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, a previous Booker winner for Possession. This one took a lot longer to read, but was very enjoyable. One thing you need to remember about Byatt, there is a LOT of detail. Everything, in this case, ceramic pots and vessels, and German ventriloquist plays, gets the described down to the smallest piece. It’s like she’s showing you what an amazing writer she is, and she is, it’s not a criticism. Generally, the book looks at the Wellwood family’s life from the late 1800’s to the onset of World War I . Olive is a published children’s book writer who also writes a book for each of her five children. She and her husband Humphrey are Fabians and “progressive”, they have five children, of whom we really get to know only two. They put on Midsummer’s plays with progressive Germans who are also their son’s tutors before they go up to Oxbridge. Humphrey has a brother Basil whose family is much more straight-laced and Basil’s wife favors her Germanic heritage a little too much (as time will show). They have two children who are good friends with the hippie Wellwoods. Got it? Here’s where it gets tricky. There are two other families tied up in the tragedy that is to become the Wellwoods and World War I. The Cains, whose patriarch is Major Prosper Cain, a retired general who oversees what will become the Victoria and Albert Museum (I suppose you can see the next connection coming). Cain has two children, a boy who is almost definitely homosexual, and a girl that is good friends with Dorothy Wellwood (of the Hippie Wellwoods). There’s that connection to the Wellwoods, in addition to the fact that they all run in the same circles and participate in each other’s Midsummer cabals. Then, the Fludds. Benedict Fludd is a genius potter who is prone to fits of madness, screaming into the sea and often trying to drown himself. He has a quiet wife and three listless children, though one breaks free and works at a bank in London under the tutelage of Basil Wellwood (of the Anal Wellwoods). Following still?

At the beginning of the book, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood find a young man from the Potteries in the deep recesses of the soon-to-be V&A.  Philip, the young boy they find, is apprenticed to Benedict Fludd and all of their lives continue to intertwine, twist, begin and end. All this explanation was only to help you see how complex the relationships of the book are, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t figure out in the course of it all.  I think it really does reflect the kinds of relationships we have in reality. The different stages of knowing a person: recognizing a face, acquaintance, having coffee, spending a day, spending the night, seeing someone every other day, every other week, etc.  I don’t think that most books address that complexity.

In addition to that complexity, Byatt presents an idyllic, rural world that is shattered by so many things. Lies, cover-ups, willful delusions, refusing to grow up, growing up too fast, larger social movements that rock society at its core, and of course, the War. The scope of this book is massive, yet also a microcosm. It is general, yet so specific. You do feel as though you know these people. It is not that there is too much here, it is that there is too little. These are fully realized individuals who do exciting things, some that work and some that don’t, but that really makes them all the more human.

Review: Who Didn’t Win the Booker but I read anyway, Part One

Why not start with a big one? In anticipation of the 2009 Booker winner, which was announced last week, I began reading every book on the shortlist that was available in the States. Being that it is a British literary fiction prize, I was only able to read two of them: A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. (I did, by the way, read William Trevor’s Love and Summer, which was longlisted but did not make the cut; sad, that.) In case, you were wondering (though who does after the winner is announced), the others were The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, Summertime by J.M Coetzee, The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

The Quickening Maze and The Glass Room did not, and currently do not, have U.S. publication dates, so I didn’t get to read those. I absolutely refuse to read anything new by Coetzee because everything he writes is about an aging writer named James Coetzee, or something or another. I don’t like self-congratulatory writers.

First, I read Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, my first interaction with her. Her novel takes place after World War II in Warwickshire at the decaying and decrepit mansion, Hundreds Hall. It is told from the perspective of a doctor who attempts to rationalize all the strange little happenings that go one there. This perspective lends itself to the early 19th century detective novels and reminds me distinctly of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The doctor goes to investigate a sick servant, sticks around for the rest of the book, falls in love with the daughter of the owner, she falls out of love with him, everyone goes crazy, the end. But the interesting thing and perhaps what the entire novel hinges on is: Waters is never explicit about whether what drove this family to madness was in fact a genetic deformity passed down or caused by the loss of money and prestige; or a mischevious moving into homicidal little demon/ghost/daemon/sprite/spirit, etc., etc. This is the brilliance of her writing. She asks you, do you believe the doctor? Even though he’s a prat, indecisive, and unsympathetic? Or do you believe the crazy people who talk of ghosts that haunt the hall and seek to impart mental and physical destruction on its inhabitiants? Tricky.

Most of the reviews I read were by British critics and reviewers and they seemed to comment mostly on the particular condition of the aristocracy living in post-World War II society, what they lost, how they dealt or didn’t deal with this immense change to their society. I guess I didn’t really pick up on that, being that I’m not British, and did not live through that era, or studied it in any way.

I really enjoyed The Little Stranger  but I believe, along with some of the judges, it was a little too sensational. A ghost story winning the Booker, not that I’ve seen. If anything, it’s made me want to go back and read her others, they’ve got lesbians I heard.