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I'll Believe It When I See It

  • Posted on: 17 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

People have been coming up to me lately with concern in their eyes. They all want to know what my thoughts are about the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos. The answer is not so simple. On the one hand, I probably ought to make a full confession-I don't care for Jeff Bezos. I'm sure he has many nice qualities (I liked, for example, the fact that he coughed up a million dollars or so to support gay marriage in his home state of Washington, although a million dollars to him is probably the equivalent of a cup of coffee to the rest of us), but overall, what I know about his business practices suggest a general lack of compassion toward employees and certainly (oh, let's be generous) a laissez faire attitude toward old fashion bricks and mortar booksellers like myself. Even though his wife is a novelist, he doesn't seem to care that his take-no-prisoners, pay no sales tax and sell-below-cost techniques have devastated many of the ma-and-pa shops across the country. He calls his approach "customer-centric," although most of his customers presumably live in communities with main streets that are being slowly boarded up because of his tactics.

That said, I am not against change per se, and it may well be that the Washington Post, a great newspaper by anyone's lights, could stand a make-over if it's going to prosper in this brave new century we are entering. I don't know. I have no fondness for Rupert Murdoch either, and he seems to have enabled the Wall Street Journal and other papers to do all right. Murdoch, of course, comes from a newspaper background, and Bezos does not. To his credit, Bezos has said that he will leave editorial policy in the hands of the editors, but there is no physical or legal firewall between the owner of a newspaper and his employees, and I really have to wonder how it would sit with him if a Post reporter ever dared to write an uncomplimentary story about Amazon. I mean, think about it: if you owned a company, and one of your workers started mouthing off, how long would he/she last? And then, you have to ask, what happens to freedom of the press?

What Jeff Bezos buys with his money is his business, of course, and at the moment what he seems to want to buy with the Post is influence, or at least a seat at the table. Nothing wrong with that, according to the Supreme Court. Also, not much we can do, even it it was wrong.

What I can say emphatically about this deal is, it makes me nervous. Jeff Bezos is doing just fine with his empire; he could easily keep on evolving until, someday in the not too distant future Amazon morphs into "we-will-sell-you-everything.com." The truth is he didn't need to buy the Washington Post, even if it was cheap; there are plenty of other business opportunities. And the Washington Post is not a diaper company or a toy company or farming implements firm. It's a newspaper, and a newspaper is different. A newspaper's mission is to tell us the truth. Maybe I'm just being hopelessly nostalgic, but I wish someone else had come forward, someone smart, decent, understanding. Someone you could trust. Bill Moyers maybe. Or Mr. Rogers, if he weren't dead. That's the sort of guy I'd pick. For now, about all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and wait for the newspaper to land on our doorstep. God only knows what it'll look like.

On the Road with Gia Coturri

  • Posted on: 16 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

A few days ago, one of our vaunted employees, Gia Coturri, left our happy home and started driving across America in search of her new life in graduate school. Actually, we describe all our employees as "vaunted," so I guess I am not revealing much by calling her that. Anyway, she gave her notice, hopped in her old beat up Toyota (or whatever it is) and made her getaway. We were sad, naturally, because, while no one is irreplaceable, Gia was startlingly bright, cheerful, and ever busy, which possibly made her seem more efficient than she really was, but probably not.

She promised to stay in touch, and true to her word, we have received three missives thusfar: one, a postcard featuring Reno lit up at night, which she describes as "very flat, but rather lovely in its own way." She also thought it strange to be staying at a casino, you know, seeing people wandering around with drinks in their hands, smoking cigarettes. Personally, I think that is exactly what one would expect to see in a gambling den like Reno, but then Gia is young and perhaps not as worldly as moi. Next she sent us a letter from Park City, Utah, with a map of downtown Park City enclosed. One of the big pluses of historic Park City, so says the map, is that it is home to not one, but three public parking structures that enable you to park your car for free. Park City also has a FREE bus system (capitalization is theirs, not my own) that operates every day of the year from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. all around town and beyond. (Gia didn't comment on this most salient fact, which I took as proof that she never left the confines of her car except perhaps to sleep. She did say, by way of dismissal, that Park City was simply a beautiful vacation spot for rich people. I guess rich people are just automatically entitled to free public transportation, something we all may have to get used to.)

The last postcard from Gia came yesterday from the great state of Wyoming. It was a photograph of bison cavorting in a field, although Gia claims she did not see a single bison the whole time she was there. Of course it was raining the whole time she was there, and one can only pray that she still has a decent set of windshield wipers on that rattletrap of hers, so maybe that explains the lack of bison.

Gia is an avid fan of our weekly email blasts and we at Readers' Books would just like her to know that whatever ditch or dive or cow pasture she's currently stuck in, we're looking forward to her next postcard. We love road trips, it turns out, particularly the vicarious kind.

 Andy 

What we're reading

  • Posted on: 14 August 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Whenever a customer comes up to the desk and asks Andy what he's reading right now he always says "Oh we read months ahead--what I'm reading now won't be in the store for a long time." This is somewhat true: we do get advance readers copies and we do try to read ahead--however--the books eventually become available, and often we go back and dive into a classic or at least something that has actually been around a while.

A case in point-- Thea has just finished reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which came out ten years ago. Of course she read it in anticipation of the release in September of Maddaddam, the final book in the trilogy. She strongly suggests you start the first two now so you will be ready been the final volume arrives...and you won't get it if you don't read the first one!

I've just finished Archangel by Andrea Barrett--a gem of a book. I always contend that I don't like like short stories, but if they are written by Barrett I'll make a major exception to that rule. The four stories are all slightly connected, long enough to give a solid sense of character, time and place and so beautifully constructed that they beg to be read out loud.

Yvette has just finished Catherine Schine's Fin and Lady, a novel about a young boy who goes to live with his twenty-something sister in Greenwich Village, after the death of his parents. It's questionable who is parenting who as they navigate the sixties and learn how to be a family.

And last but not least, Andy would like to put in a plug for Curtis Settenfeld's Sisterland, an odd but compelling story of two twins, both of whom are psychic but deal with their gift in different ways.

Are you up for a swap meet?

  • Posted on: 27 July 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Some of us had a heck of a good time with Kevin West at the Friday Farmer's Market last week. In fact we had so much fun that we invited Kevin to come back in September (Friday the 13th) to do it again. His book Saving the Seasons has a wealth of good ideas about how to can and preserve all of the wonderful produce in the markets right now.

With that in mind--we wondered if you canners and picklers out there would
be interested in doing some trading after Kevin's next appearance.
After the market we would assemble in the Reading Garden and trade our
extra jars of jams and chutneys--one for one. Sort of like a Christmas
cookie exchange--everyone brings 3-5 jars and trades for what they don't
make themselves. Could be really fun--but it also requires some
advance planning.
And you'll want to start making some extra jars right now.

Shoot us an email if you think you'd like to do an exchange and if there is enough interest we'll start to put it together.

A Word to the Wise

  • Posted on: 27 July 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Many
years ago, when I was a young man, I had a great gig teaching English
in Japan. Even though they are an island nation and far, far away from
the English-speaking world, the Japanese like to latch on to Western
habits; young girls would sometimes on a Sunday
afternoon put on crinolines and dance in the park to the sounds of
Buddy Holly, while their male counterparts varoomed around on
motorcycles in the manner of James Dean. Others (older men in berets,
generally) would spend evenings in overpriced coffee houses listening to
Miles Davis records. They think of themselves as cosmopolitan, in other
words, and learning to converse in English is one of those hip
obsessions many folks there have. There are English clubs and private
classes in conversational English, and of course, virtually every child
is put into an after-school English school (they call them juku) where
they spend hour after hour reciting all manner of trivial sentences:
What is your favorite fruit? My favorite fruit is apple. My favorite
fruit is cherry. My favorite fruit is lemon. (One kid actually said
that.)

We
don't seem to do a lot of that around here. Maybe we don't feel the
need because, after all, pretty much everyone speaks English, don't
they? And English is already the corporate language of the planet, so
let's just sit back and wait for the mountain to come to Mohammed, so to
speak. Well, as someone who loves languages, loves the lilt and flow
and subtle meanings of words, I have to say that I find this notion
disturbing.

English is a fine language, mind you, but there are so many
other beautiful tongues, with so much poetry and wisdom to impart to us,
we're surely doing ourselves a disservice by our self-centered
disinterest. And as a practical matter, it's just plain stupid. Given
the way our demographics are changing in California it's only a matter
of years (maybe months) before street signs in Spanish and Chinese are
on an equal footing with English ones.

I guess what I'm saying is, it's way past high time we joined
the rest of the civilized world and started learning their
languages--not because we're inevitably doomed to be overrun by Chinese
business moguls, not because the Latino population is destined to
outproduce us "baby-wise," but just because there are only so many
resources here to go around, and the spaces between us on this globe are
growing smaller and smaller; like it or not, we're all part of the same
crumbling neighborhood now, and neighbors need to understand one
another.

Which brings to mind an old Yiddish proverb: Sleep faster, we need the pillows. This sounds a lot better in the original, of course. But how would you know?

Andy

Adios, Reva

  • Posted on: 20 July 2013
  • By: readersbooks

We all knew this was coming, that there would be an announcement, simple and to the point: our dear friend, loyal customer, and devoted booster, Reva Metzger, had died at last. She'd been ill for a while, and there was no good prognosis, no light at the end of the tunnel. All we could do was wait and hope that when it happened, she would die peacefully and without pain. I wish I could say I was relieved to hear that she slipped away from us in just such a fashion-no muss, no fuss-that her death was "easy" as those things go. But there's a selfish part of me that yearns for her to stick around.

Reva was a fighter for seemingly lost causes, a do-gooder in the best sense of that word, a woman who, although she herself was possibly the most disorganized person on the planet, could still manage to pull together individuals and groups from all over town and cajole them into getting the job done. It was Reva who came to us in the depths of the last recession and said, I don't want Readers' Books to disappear. What can I do to help? It was Reva and her army of friends who launched the big fund-raising drive that built the Reading Garden that graces our store today with its spectacular flower bed and fountain, Reva who fronted the initial money and got the ball rolling. The Reading Garden, in case you don't know, is-- beside the books and our staff-- one of the crown jewels of this place: last week it was the site of Mara Unger's clay class, and Roger and Diana Rhoten's summer performance camp will be in and out all this week for face painting, juggling and magic lessons. We've used it for book talks, poetry and play readings, jazz concerts, and of course, Random Acts, our monthly venture into the unknown land of the open mic.

What I'm trying to say is that we owe a lot to Reva Metzger, that just one caring and determined visionary can make an enormous difference in the lives of us all. I know we get lots of praise from our customers for what a great store we have, that this is always the first place they stop at when they come to town, that Sonoma wouldn't be the same without us, etc. And I appreciate those sentiments, I do. But what really makes this town special is the people who live here, the givers-- the quiet, steadfast, unsung heroes like Reva.

Reva Metzger had the purest of hearts. In fact, she was all heart.

Andy 

Play It Again, Sam

  • Posted on: 13 July 2013
  • By: readersbooks

Maybe because I've played guitar for over half a century, or because I like to bang out tunes on the piano, or maybe just because I care, I've always been uber conscious about what kinds of music wafts across our bookstore. You might not think that music matters much in retail, that music, or worse, Musak, is everywhere nowadays, so why bother. It's true, you can hardly walk through any mall of any major city and not be accosted by Wayne Newton or Kenny G or some gloppy rendition of a Beatles tune. And you might be so saturated by this aural soup by now that you've turned it all off; you no longer even think about it. Or, if you do think about it, you think it's just background and means, well, nothing.

Well, you'd be wrong. Music, to my ears anyway, means plenty. I've spent untold hours of my waking day and night trying to remember the chorus from "In a Sentimental Mood" or "Alone Together." And often when I'm driving my car I'm also busy trying to work out the chord changes of one song or another. So yes, you could say I'm a little obsessive about music.

That said, I'm going to go out on a very short limb and argue that what one hears in a particular retail environment (a bookstore, for example) has a significant effect on one's experience and well being. Years ago, I was given a CD from the movie of "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," which was based, of course on Oscar Hijuelos' eponymous novel. I slid it into our CD player, pushed the start button and waited. A series of sprightly, very Cuban, mambos came on. Shortly thereafter, a middle aged lady walked in the door. She stopped, startled perhaps by the trumpets and the syncopated drumming, made a face that could only signify confusion, turned on her heel and walked out. Needless to say, I took the CD off straight away and replaced it with Mozart.

Not everyone wants to listen to a never ending string of string quartets in a bookstore, naturally; like successful restaurants everywhere, you have to mix the menu up now and then to keep it interesting. But there are boundaries, things you cannot do and still stay in business. You cannot, for instance, play rap music or other such pounding and often salacious stuff-at least not in a bookstore where people come to think and explore and wonder about the universe. Neither is it a good idea to have too many protracted periods of silence. That causes nervousness and stultification-very bad. And while there are some staff members here who squirm at the idea of Edith Piaf or Bob Dylan, those artists are clearly within the canon; they work at a romantic, sub-atomic level, they help us summon specific memories from odd places in our brains. I have to say I am always amazed by what books some people want to buy after hearing "Non Je Ne Regrette Rien" or "Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More."

I'm sure there's a lot more science on this topic, and it would probably be smart to read up on it, see if I could somehow, you know, get an angle on what really works. I'm not going to do that, however. Me, I just know what I like.

Andy

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