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Yo Heave Ho

  • Posted on: 28 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

I've written so many of these essays now that I honestly can't remember if I've talked about this before. Probably so, but I don't care, surely it's worth another shot. Anyway, I want to speak about what we do at Readers' Books, and what I mean by that is not the lofty, civilizing tasks we engage in, like saving the planet and, with the help of literature, lifting our dispirited selves out of the primordial muck; that's all fine and good, and no one in his right mind could argue against it. No, the work I'm talking about, the real work, is far more mundane. What we do, day in and day out at Readers' Books, quite frankly, is schlep. To "schlep" is a Yiddish word. It means to tote or drag or haul, and if you know anything at all about the book trade, you know that, next to bricks, books are perhaps the heaviest things in the world; also, that we schlep them relentlessly.

My dad was a master schlepper. During his time here he dutifully unpacked the books, checked them in, processed the returns, and hauled them in boxes-twenty, thirty, forty pounds each, to the post office. He did this for years and never took a penny in wages. That kind of worker is hard to find, let me tell you. We were impressed, so impressed in fact, that we once bought him an honorific sweat shirt with the words, FIELD MARSHALL IN CHARGE OF SHIPPING & RECEIVING, which is really just a fancy way of saying CHIEF SCHLEPPER. It didn't fit (too tight around the chest) but my dad was a sport and wore it anyway.

Today I schlepped some twelve boxes of books to the post office. A few of them were books that people had ordered and needed sent. One was to someone in prison. Sending books to folks in prison can be problematic: on the one hand you're dealing with a captive audience; they have to pay for the book in advance and they're unlikely to be dissatisfied, no matter what you send them. On the other hand, the wardens at prisons sometimes act like Roman emperors. We've had books refused at prisons for no ostensible reason. And I once got a call from some clearly deranged cop in a high security lock up in Oklahoma who threatened to have me arrested for sending an inmate a book on Buddhist meditation. Did I know that books could contain knives or drugs? What were you thinking, boy? But that's another story. Most of the books I hauled up to the counter were returns, titles we'd taken a chance on, titles that no one in Sonoma had bought, worthy products whose authors had labored over for umpteen years, only to have them gather dust and eventually schlepped into oblivion.

I used to fret over this process. The hopeful receiving which inevitably leads, after a few short months, to the gloom of return. In between we are supposed to sell these things, to talk them up, give them the gift of life, to make them seem essential to your well-being. Some of them are, of course, but only if you take the time and trouble to read them. And time is what no one has much of anymore.

Before we settled on Readers' Books as the store name my favorite choice was Schleppers. I thought that kind of summed up what we do, but my wife, who is wiser than I will ever be, just shook her head. No one will understand, she said. I guess she's right. Big ideas are not my long suit. Give me a thirty pound box any day.


Show Me the Money

  • Posted on: 18 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

The other day I read a newspaper article about a small publisher in Santa Rosa who is being sued by an author who claimed that her reputation was tarnished because the publisher allowed 260 typos to be printed in the final version of her book. God knows, publishers, like everyone else, make mistakes now and then, but what irked the budding author, Terri Bruce, was that she caught those 260 typos when she reviewed the final proof and alerted the publisher, Damnation Books, to that fact. She pointed them out and demanded they be fixed, and damn if Damnation did nothing about it. Now her book, with all its multitude of mistakes, is in print for the whole world to see. She has been made to look stupid and incompetent, which she feels naturally, she is not. And worse still, she's been publically and gratuitously humiliated, which, any woman, from Hester Prynne to Carrie, knows is a punishable offense.

We probably ought to leave aside the fact that Ms. Bruce's novel, Hereafter, is a dark tale about a 36-year old bar-hopping woman who dies in a drunken car crash and struggles mightily in her afterlife. Okay, let's just say it's not my cup of tea to begin with, but then I am not Damnation Books, am I.

What's interesting here is that with the many calamities that have befallen the publishing world recently, you'd think they could at least still remember how to spell and punctuate and such. They used to care, after all. Up until the middle of the last century, publishing, like horse breeding, was considered a gentleman's profession. There were folks out there willing to take a new author under his or her wing and nurture them along, knowing full well they probably wouldn't make a dime from the first three novels. They were people of culture, but also people of faith. They believed in the value of good writing. What's happened over time, however, is that publishing, like the rest of corporate life, has largely forgotten its mission. These days it's often not so much about putting out good books that people will want to read, it's about the buzz, the movie tie-in, the merchandising, and of course, somewhere in that land of smoke and mirrors, it's about the money. One sure way to make money in publishing, they've discovered, is to fire your workers-editors, proof-readers, anyone who looks ancillary, just show them the exit. The problem though, with this approach, is that while to the stock brokers on Wall Street your bottom line looks better and better, eventually the products you're churning out look worse. One poor editor cannot do it all, it turns out, and spell check can't work miracles. Inevitably, then, stuff falls through the cracks. Mistakes are made, and voila!-Terri Bruce is suing Damnation Books. I'm not saying Damnation is innocent (how innocent can you be, with a name like that?), but the real problem here is not one company's incompetence, it's the incompetent logic of capitalism everywhere.

Sadly, I have no good answer for this, except to maybe fall back on the words of Bob Dylan-- "Money doesn't talk," he said, "it screams."


Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow

  • Posted on: 7 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

My dear old mom, who grew up in Savannah way back when, had many colorful-and occasionally off-colorful-- expressions. One of them was, "You can't be in two places with one behind." I always liked that. It seemed so spot on, you know, so Zen. And it surfaced again in my brain the other day when I learned that Senator John McCain was caught on camera quietly playing poker on some electronic device while in the midst of important hearings on Syria. McCain, to his credit, just shrugged it off, saying basically that not only was he not paying attention to government matters, but as to the poker game, he lost.

Now the Senator from Arizona is a smart (if somewhat impulsive) man and he can no doubt walk and chew gum at the same time. In fact, it might even be beneficial that he was multi-tasking while weighing in from time to time on going to war; I mean, what's the difference between a dozen Tomahawk missiles slamming into Damascus and say, trying to draw an inside straight? Not so much. You're just hoping to predict the odds, after all, trusting your gut and going forward. Think of it another way: If McCain weren't playing poker, if he was listening intently to the generals and the Secretary of State, he might very well get excited; he might want to up the ante-hit'em with everything we've got now, don't wait, then send in the Marines. Whole war could be over in fifteen minutes.

The beauty of today's world is that so many of us are busy multi-tasking-- texting, talking and staring into computer screens while we try our best to drive, eat breakfast, make love, pay the mortgage, whatever. I say "beauty" because doing two or three or ten things at once makes us necessarily slow down, and if we just pause for even a moment, we actually do take time to smell the roses. Of course it is also the horror of today's world, because so few of us seem able to focus on doing a single thing well. When my mom said "you can't be in two places with one behind," my initial, and admittedly juvenile response was "unless you're half-assed."

Now I'm not so sure. It may be that our species is at one of those rare evolutionary tipping points. With the aid of computers and the internet, we may be about to launch a whole new human being. Call it Mankind 2.0, because there's no doubt in my mind that something has changed. We've clearly come down from our perches in the trees. We're no longer just those slow moving, grubby little hunters and gatherers of yesteryear. Fire? Forget about it. We're way beyond the invention of fire. A whole new landscape awaits us. If you ask me, I say consider someone like Senator McCain if you want to know what tomorrow will look like. We have only to embrace it. Now, cut the cards.


To the Ramparts with Captain Underpants

  • Posted on: 5 September 2013
  • By: readersbooks

It's September again, which signals a lot of things to a lot of people. Back to school, and the Jewish New Years festivities (although, let's be honest, we don't really get all that festive..."fastive" is more like it). For booksellers, September traditionally means we're sailing into Banned Books Week, a time to reflect on Americans' time-honored propensity for shooting the messenger.


Turns out, there's a whole New York Public Library's worth of books that some folks have found objectionable at one time or another. After almost a quarter of a century, you'd think I'd know most of the offending titles by heart, but when I checked recently, I found a bunch of books that struck me as just plain bizarre. Beyond the usual suspects--Henry Miller, William Burroughs, James Joyce--beyond the Harry Potter books, which some fundamentalists deem satanic, beyond Fifty Shades of Grey, which, in this age of internet porn is about as racy as Sesame Street, there are a host of unredeemable books you've probably never imagined.


Consider, for example, the ever popular Captain Underpants. This is a series of cartoon books for youngsters, aged 4-8, wherein irreverent subjects like going to the potty, nose picking, nudity, pie throwing, giving people wedgies, and other silliness is discussed at length. Anyone who has ever raised a child through those years knows good and well that that's what interests them, that's what makes them laugh, and that's what they love to read about. In fact, the only adults who might complain about such things are those who've never had children, or perhaps are so stuck in the mud they won't ever admit to picking their nose.


There are other books, too, that surprise and dismay. Would you believe that The Glass Castle is on the list? The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, is a wonderful memoir about someone going through an absolutely horrific childhood and yet somehow emerging triumphant. Her parents are well-meaning but lost in their dreams, so lost they often lose sight of their children and how to care for them. But more than their errors, it's a book about resilience, which is a quality all of us should be storing up in vast quantities. I can't figure who would object to this story; I mean, if you hated this book, you probably would be down on the life of Lincoln, too. He wasn't exactly raised at the Ritz, either.


The list of banned books is extensive, but the good news is that while these books are sometimes pulled from shelves, they ultimately find their way into the public sphere. Many of them are best sellers, and many are required reading for high school and college. Just as the Chinese couldn't stop the nomadic invaders by building a wall, neither can prudes and other self-righteous types stop the spread of books and ideas. That's why Banned Books Week is worth remembering. That's why we do what we do.           



Labor Day Sales on Selected Used Books

  • Posted on: 31 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

In honor of Labor Day, we are not going out on strike, nor are we locking our workers out, nor are we closing. What we are doing is having a Half Off Sale on selected used books, which we will place on a table out front for your convenience (also, so you don't confuse regular used books with used books on sale, although either way, you're gonna make out like a bandit).

I Yearn for the Hootenannies of Yesteryear

  • Posted on: 31 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Many moons ago, oh, I'd say half a century at least, there was a band of folksingers on TV called the Limelighters-witty, funny folks who sang a tune about world affairs that still resonates: "The whole world is festering with unhappy souls, the French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles; Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much." These days, the countries may have changed, but the enmity is still palpable.

Take, for example, the Middle East (Please, somebody, anybody, take it). Here the Syrian government has been involved in a civil war that's killed over 100,000 of its own people and is pitting Sunni against Shia, Al Qaeda against Hezbollah, and a dozen other factions in between.  The Syrian regime has now apparently taken to using nerve gas, something verboten in the international community, a red line that cannot be tolerated. Other countries, however, tolerate it just fine. The Russians and the Chinese don't appear to be bothered. And the Iranians, who just happen to be Syria's best bud, are not about to abandon them, even though Iran suffered horrible gas attacks during its last war with Iraq. You'd think  they'd have some qualms, but no. Somehow it's the United States that feels it must act. With or without UN authorization, we're about to launch cruise missiles into that country to "send a message" to President Assad.  (Things are moving so quickly that by the time you read this those missiles may have already done their work).  Leave aside for a moment the fact that the US is war weary and only 9% of Americans favor another military intervention. And leave aside also that our military is not in business to simply send messages; no, they would much prefer to either stay out completely or go in to win (whatever that means). And what will be the net effect of such a strike? Hard to tell.  The Syrians and Iranians are already declaring that they will strike Israel in retaliation, which on its face, makes no sense at all, but not much in that region ever does, does it. Our government says it doesn't intend by whatever action it embarks on to tilt the playing field toward the rebels, but of course when you fire a whole bunch of missiles at Syrian tanks and airfields that's just what you're doing. 

We don't want to take sides, because, in this case, there is no one to root for. Nor do we want to appear to be a paper tiger. I don't envy President Obama's current predicament-anything he does has tremendous downsides, and that includes doing nothing. The truth is, Syria is now just a more violent version of Egypt, another miserable place where we're left standing on the sidelines. We don't care for the Muslim Brotherhood, and yet they were fairly elected. We don't care for the Egyptian military's coup, and yet they stand for stability and the people are behind them.

The lesson I take away from all this is that democracy is inherently a very fragile creature, at least in the beginning, and not something easily transplanted from one bed to another. Also, that we Americans never seem to handle nuance well. We know what we know and we believe what we believe. And sometimes this makes us look naïve in a world where cynicism is king.


Pastures of Plenty

  • Posted on: 26 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Today I read an interesting article in the Press Democrat which says that the top priority of the vintners at this year's Sonoma County Wine Auction will be to improve literacy. This annual event raises gobs of money for many charitable groups, of course, and this is not the only year they have focused their attentions on the importance of reading. But it's worth talking about. First, let's be clear, the reasons for illiteracy are many and varied: children who come from homes where no one speaks English, for example, or children who come from broken homes, or homes too poor to ever buy a book, or teachers whose classes are too big to spend enough individual time with struggling students to get them reading on their own, or schools whose budgets have been so stripped of funds they end up "teaching to the test" and spending little or no time on the basics. The good news is that you can alleviate a great many of these difficulties with money. So hurrah for the vintners and their efforts.

To me, however, what this is really about has less to do with money and more with class. The people in the wine industry (and I know many of them personally) are, by and large, a wonderful group of folks. They are big dreamers, big readers, big book buyers, and, with very few exceptions, supportive of progressive causes. And literacy among the children of Sonoma Valley should be one of their priorities. Why? Because the children we're talking about are basically children of immigrants (legal or otherwise), and those immigrants are the backbone of this place. I pass them every morning on my way to work. Without those immigrants working in the field--let's be honest-- there would be no wine industry, no Mcmansions with stone walls and rose trellises and gardens of lavender, no fancy tasting rooms, no merlot, no cabernet sauvignon, no pinot noir, nada.

You could argue without the least bit of cynicism that it's in the wine makers' interests to better the reading scores of children. Those children will grow up someday, after all. Some of them will go to work here in the wine business; most of them will make their homes here and buy wine from time to time. And the wine business, much like the book business, depends on an educated middle class with disposable income.

Over the last generation the middle class in America, and certainly here in California, has been systematically hammered down, almost to the point of extinction. But now at last, things seem to be on the mend, and this wine auction, with its emphasis on literacy, is, to my mind, another very good sign of things to come.