Monthly Archives: October 2008

Reluctant Capitalists

Gerry Dongaghy, the Backlist Tsar of Powell’s Books, sent me a care package the other day, a kind of arsenal of support for the beginning publisher.  Among other items found as I dove into the seemingly bottomless box:  a publishing trends newsletter, way too expensive for me to consider actually subscribing to (very thoughtful, Gerry, thanks), two DVDs made as support materials for books (something I’m obviously interested in, since we do a lot of in house DVD making around here), a copy of BOOK FORUM (which I have to get a subscription to, I see), a really terrific nuts and bolts book about publishing, and a postcard advertising the Pope’s cologne (I don’t think that had anything to do with publishing, but it does show that Gerry’s on the same page with the rest of us here at EAP).

Best of all — well, best of all was the nuts ‘n’ bolts book, which is truly helpful — but most fascinating was a sociological study of attitudes toward bookselling in the US:  RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS.  The thesis of the book is that the cultural and economic battle between independent, community bookstores and the big box corporate superstores shines a light on a too little explored question:  i.e.  what is the purpose of economic activity?  Is it really, as our dominant story says, and as every schoolchild can tell you by rote, to maximize profit?  Is the responsibility of the individual consumer, therefore, to guard her/his interests jealously, always making sure to get the best possible deal, while the responsibility of the seller is to make as much profit as possible?  That, anyone can tell you, is how the free market works.  And that is supposed to be for the good of all.

However, as the author points out, if this was completely true, then the big box stores, with their greater convenience and their marked down prices, should have wiped the floor with the small, independent, community embedded bookstores.  Yet that hasn’t happened.  In some places, the independents are growing.  Why?

Laura Miller, the sociologist who wrote RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS, points out that bookselling, and book publishing (and book writing, too, of course), are areas where one can see that the purpose of economic activity is not necessarily to maximize profit.  As she points out, independent booksellers and independent book publishers don’t make much profit.  More than that, they know they’re not going to make much profit — sometimes they know they’re not going to make any profit at all.  What’s more, even the people who purchase books from them assume that these groups are not in it to make much profit.,  And the consumers who recognize this actually question their own buying habits, and will frequently go against what, under classical theory, should be their own best interests.  Instead of buying cheap, they buy dear — instead of going to a big box store that provides deep discounts on books, a lot of people will consciously decide to go to a community bookstore that can’t afford to.

Now why is that?

Naturally, if we were all little computer generated models, this wouldn’t be happening.  We would behave ‘rationally’ at all times.  And yet we don’t.

Or rather, I would argue — and this is why Miller’s book is so interesting, because it’s a great attempt to start asking other questions than the old tired one of how do we maximize profit — our concept here of ‘rationality’ is too limited.  For example, why should it be more rational to choose having lots of money over a better quality of life?  Anyone can look around and see for themselves that if you have a decent income, a clean environment, good neighbors and warm community relations, family involvement, good food and health, that this is better than any amount of cash you might be offered in its place.  At least, I would hope anyone would be able to see that.

On second thought, though, not everyone can see that.  People get fooled.  They get fooled by the abstract idea.  A million dollars a year is obviously of more value than, say, the fifty thousand dollars a year that might provide the comfortable life.  Million is more than fifty thousand.  Therefore it’s better.

Of course, it’s not better.  It’s just more.  The two concepts are different.  More is not necessarily better.  You can prove that one right there in your every day life, every minute of your every day life.  Are five cups of bad coffee in the morning better than one perfect cup?  No way.  Are five lovers better than one loved husband (come to think of it, I would guess even a bad husband would be less trouble than the lovers)?  Are twelve children better than the one child you have and love?  Of course not.  But why one thing is better than another is impossible to quantify.  You just know it is.  You can’t prove it mathematically.  Which tends to promote anxiety — the lack of our control over our own feelings.  I think that’s why we get so anxious when we try to talk about feelings in any meaningful way.

So what Miller points out is that there is a dimension of feeling, of meaning, in economic activity which we tend to overlook, but which shows up quite plainly in the bookselling arena.  There are feelings involved here, and feelings trump the idea of abstract advantage.  People sell books and independently publish them, and write them, most often, too, are thinking about the economic activity involved.  Of course they are. How could they not be?  Everybody’s got to live, and to live you have to be part of an economic structure:  that’s part of being a human.  But they are not thinking ONLY of economic activity.  They are thinking about meaning, and what gives meaning to our lives, and that to participate in forming meaning, and relationships that both convey that meaning and ARE the meaning itself simultaneously (and what a mind bender that is), that that is the most worthwhile kind of activity.  And it’s activity where it’s worth taking a cut in pay.

Now of course there are plenty of other areas where, in theory at least, meaning trumps economic activity.  Religious activity springs to mind — although not the activity of large religious organizations, which are, to my mind, the big box stores of the spiritual life.  But take the Catholic Worker.  The people in the Catholic Worker movement actually refuse to participate in traditional economic life.  In that they’re quite radical.  And then there’s the ideal of the starving artist, who also traditionally refuses, out of principle.

But why the example of bookselling is so interesting is because that is an area where someone who is not called to a ‘heroic’ (or extreme, maybe, depending on what you want to call it) stance, someone who is just humbly a part of the human race along with the rest of us, where that person can wrestle with the issue of how to balance finding and passing on meaning while still participating in the human market that’s existed for about as long as human history.

Because the questions are opening up, these days.  The story, that we’re all pursuing our own rational self interest, the story that Ayn Rand told, that Alan Greenspan so happily enshrined in our financial systems, the story that a lot of us out here (the ones who, from birth, never particularly cared about how much money we made as long as we weren’t starving to death or otherwise trapped) never found satisfying, never found real, never found to be a part of our own experience — that story is breaking up, and showing an opportunity of transformation into something new, something closer to our real experience.

I find that quite exciting.  And much truer to my own experience.  So now we’ll see how EAP does — if it can pursue that search for meaning without being starved out of the game.

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On the Road with EAP

Just got home from a tour of the Pacific Northwest, which, since it is where me and the husband live most of the time, we’ve both been really curious about…but somehow never found the time or the reason to explore, being too frantically busy getting on planes to go to Europe or Latin America or who knows where.

But I’m starting this small publishing business, and I’ve got a firm belief in regionalism being at least one of the answers to the many things spiraling out of control these days, and also a firm belief in the concept that if we don’t hang together we will certainly hang separately.  So when Alex — who has come to love the place more and more almost in spite of himself (after years of taking me to one place on the planet after another and saying, “Isn’t this great?” and me saying back, “Yeah, great — but not as great as Oregon,” finally one year, he looked around some place — I don’t remember where…Tokyo?  Veracruz?  Edinburgh? — and said, “This is nice.  But not as nice as Oregon.”), when Alex worked out a tour for his film Searchers 2.0 that took in a bunch of the independent cinemas of the Pacific Northwest, I thought it was a great excuse for me to tag along and find out what was going on with independent booksellers around.

A few names from our new Consortium Pacific Northwest sales rep, Bob Harrison, and I was off.  And you know what?  It turns out that the independent booksellers in the Pacific Northwest are a particularly vigorous bunch, obviously not just holding ground but gaining it, against all expectation, too, when you think about what the media image is:  booksellers in retreat in the face of the Giants, booksellers freaking out because of Amazon.com, etc.  Instead, what I found was that the bookstores I visited — Grassroots in Corvallis, Powell’s in Portland, Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books, and (maybe most surprising and even impressive of all) Bellingham’s Village Books — were real centers of their towns, stable and creative, buzzing with energy.

This kind of depressed Alex, who said, “They’re obviously doing better than the cinemas,” all of which were manned and womanned by some terrific people, and most of which seemed to be hanging on by their charming and well meaning fingernails.

I said I thought it might be because what was happening to independent cinema now was what had happened to independent booksellers and publishers in the last ten years — years that were merciless on the independent book scene, when a lot of really hardworking and terrific places went belly up.  The places that are left seem to be powering forward now, making alliances, working at being not just sales outlets but community cultural centers as well (and in the case of Powell’s, the community is pretty much world wide).

Powell’s, of course, is the Ur-bookstore, the archetypal one that all members of the species dream of as the place to browse.  And Powell’s, let me tell you, is an authentic blast.  A city in itself, used and new books cheek to jowl, you have to have a map to get around.  There’s a cafe — there may be a couple of cafes, come to think of it — there’s a committed and stable work force who absolutely love what they do, and there is a feel to the place that makes you glad to be a book person.  What I mean is:  there are people FILLING the store at all hours of the day and night.  I know because I stayed a block away, and checked.  They’re all reading books.  They’re all talking about books.  And they all look pretty happy to be doing it, too.

The plan was to have one drink or two with a couple of guys from Powell’s — Gerry Donaghy, who assured me well into the evening that he doesn’t drink at first meeting generally, and Kevin Sampsell, who joined in after a long day of Heading Literary Events — and the unaccustomed head I had the next morning tells me we may have gone a tiny joyous bit over the one or two drink limit (I definitely remember Gerry, at the end of the evening, kindly taking us down the road to show us a park where we could walk our dogs, and I’ve had an email from him since, so I know he got home okay — Portland has terrific public transport, so you don’t even need to worry about those you’ve enticed of an evening).  Gerry’s card says he’s the Backlist Tsar of Powell’s, and while I have no clear idea what that is, I like the sound of it.  Mainly, I liked sitting on the sidewalk outside a restaurant with a bunch of people and our dogs, talking about books with a bunch of people who actually like them.  There’s stuff happening in Portland.  There’s definitely stuff happening in Portland.  I mean, Kevin Sampsell is Powell’s small press guy, and he doesn’t just commune with small presses, he IS one, too.  FUTURE TENSE PRESS.  Check it out.

Seattle left me a little dazed, in fact, there were so many bookstores downtown, all of them bustling — not just Elliott Bay, which is like a fantasy big town bookstore, something out of a fairy tale.  Later, when I was talking this over with some people at a video store, they said that it was Seattle’s policy not to let big box stores into city neighborhoods — Barnes and Noble and Borders are exiled to the suburbs.  People in Seattle, I was told by Seattle-ites, love their neighborhoods and rarely venture out of them…so that every neighborhood NEEDS a good bookstore.  Also a good cinema, which the Grand Illusion cinema is, a jewel box of a place, around the corner from an array of cheap and great restaurants — also a pub that insisted we bring the dogs inside.  One of my heroes, Bruce Rutledge of CHIN MUSIC PRESS (devoted to making the most beautiful books imaginable, mainly about Japan, the most recent one a really good eyeopener about what’s going on in Japan these days), came to watch the movie and say hi.  And, of all people, DANBERT NOBACON of Chumbawamba.  Now, I almost hadn’t believed Alice Nutter when she told me Danbert and Laura had moved to Twisp, a tiny rural community about four hours outside of Seattle.  As Danbert himself says, “I’ve lived in three towns in my life:  Burnley, Leeds, and Twisp.”  And if you know any of those places, you know how mindboggling that is.  This made me wildly happy, to see Danbert and talk about our mutual rural problems of getting the wood in for winter, growing something more than turnips in a bad year, putting snow tires on the Subaru, etc. etc. etc.  The last time I saw him, I was miserably unhappy, producing Revengers Tragedy with too little money in a too dour English town, and he was lounging in his extra’s costume atop, I believe, a piano, while an awestruck production slavey pointed at him and whispered to a colleague “That’s DANBERT NOBACON.  He threw the bucket of water on John Prescott!”  This would mean nothing to the good people of Seattle, but it still makes me glow with admiration, and it makes me laugh, too, especially to wonder if Twisp knows what it’s got.  And there he was, sitting quietly after the film having a pint with us, looking as urban as ever, and talking about how he and Laura had just gotten this place, the kids love it, “It’s not like I thought it would be, living in America!”  And it turns out Laura crafts handmade books, too.

Next day, on the way to Bellingham, we played his new CD.  And my mind started revolving with pleasure around the fact that my concept of regionalism in the Pacific Northwest gets to include Dan and Laura, too.  I looked at THAT one from all angles, and figured maybe I was onto something here.

Even more when we got to Village Books, in the Fairhaven section of Bellingham.  A beautiful, lovingly tended, enormous light filled barn of a place.  There’s a big sign on the door that says, “DOGS WELCOME: WE HAVE TREATS INSIDE!”  Well, we didn’t quite believe them.  But then we got inside, and met Robert, who didn’t just assure us it was true, but expressed an earnest desire to meet our dogs, and I had a chat with Rem Ryals, the independent press buyer, and we ended up buying a couple of books, having lunch in the upstairs cafe with the dogs (much admired by waitresses and all passersby) at our feet, reading the Village Books magazine, which reports on the Village Books Radio Show, the Village Books Book Clubs (there seem to be half a dozen), the Village Books Authors’ Readings, the Village Books…it goes on…I mean, it leaves you breathless, anyway, it left me breathless, thinking how much care and attention goes into the whole.

Days later, coming down the Washington and Oregon coasts, and Alex and I had a lazy talk over dinner in some beach pub, and one or the other of us asked, “So what was the most memorable place?”  And both of us said, simultaneously, “That bookstore in Bellingham!”  Because, I think, it was the last thing we thought we’d find — a bookstore being the obviously prosperous heart of the community, and a bookstore that has as its first exhibit as you walk through the door a selection of “Banned Books” for sale…and upstairs, shelves dedicated to the favorite books of all the staff members.  Real books, ones you haven’t read but you’ve wondered about, eccentric choices, above all, INTERESTING, personal choices.  Come to think of it, that was what was most impressive about Village Books.  The personal stamp on it.  The obvious fact that a clearly understood set of values underlies all the choices made by the store, and that those values are benevolent, progressive, community oriented.  It was a whole package, is what I guess I’m saying.   And the package makes you feel good, like a nice Christmas morning, too.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been thinking a lot about those places, and how heartening they are — and I’ve been thinking about my publishing mentors, TWO DOLLAR RADIO, Eric and Eliza Obenauf, who keep thinking about moving their act to New York because that’s where the independent press action is.  And I’m saying now, Eric and Eliza, don’t do it!  Get out here to Portland!  We need you out here…and PDX is a shorthop skip and a jump to Manhattan any day.  Come on out, and I’ll drive up, and we’ll go to Village Books together!  And then we’ll drive back and have another drink with the guys from Powell’s…

First the Pacific Northwest…then…the world.

It could happen.

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