Showing posts with label bookstores. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bookstores. Show all posts

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The death of browsing

Mark Savitz describes and details us in a Slate article about his job as a used book seller; this is not, though, the work of someone who maintains a store front, nor the work of  a local library selling off their excess holdings at a bargain price. Savitz is a professional, as he describes, going through dozens of volumes at time with a scanner hooked up to a PDA advice that, in turn, searches for the book information on various Internet data bases and , in turn, gives him an idea as to how quickly he can turn a particular book, and how much he can mark it up in the process. This is not someone you want to be next to the next time you enter one of the diminishing ranks of used bookstores. The manner, as I've seen, is brusque and professional and , it seems, hoarding,after a fashion.

The change in the business model was expected among book lovers at some deep seated level, but I pretty much concur with the "elderly man"'s that Mark Savitz is an asshole. As informative as the description of his scanning equipment, use of Internet data bases, pricing schedules and work routine were, his article has the reek of a jittery self-defense; he wants us to understand him as a man in desperate times trying to squeak out a living , that he's aware that he's among the bottom feeders in the ailing book trade, that we should understand the reasons for his plight and trust he'll again return to the ranks of normal readership.

It doesn't wash, and Savitz's facile defense/apology of his practice doesn't reduce the psychic stink he and his scanner bring to the sales he shows up to. Browsing the stacks at used book stores was one of my absolute pleasures, and relishing my purchases afterwards an absolute joy. Rubbing elbows with the likes of impatient opportunists like Savitz and his like has soured the experience; that I consider nearly unforgivable.

Friday, July 31, 2009

WAHRENBROCK'S BOOK HOUSE, RIP: A Letter from Dennis Wills

Wahrenbrock's Book House, a literary resource in San Diego for decades, has suddenly closed it's doors forever. Information about the reason for the abrupt closure is scant, and the loss of this store leaves a significant gap in San Diego's reading and cultural life. Bookseller Dennis Wills, owner of D.G.Wills Books , was a good friend of the esteemed late owner Chuck Valverde and wrote this letter to all who've loved and found solace in Wahrenbrock's crowded stacks, finding the odd, the unusual, the rare, the crucial book they had in mind when they entered the store. Dennis expresses as well as anyone can the gravity of the loss:

To whom it may concern:

I have just learned that Wahrenbrock's Book House will close. While I remain unaware of any pertinent details which may have led to such a decision, I heartily implore any powers that be to reconsider the grave and momentous implications of such a decision. Sylvia Beach, publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses and owner of the renowned Shakespeare and Company in Paris, the most famous bookstore in the world at the time, was compelled to close down the store in the 1940s only because occupying German soldiers threatened to confiscate their inventory.

While Vernon Wahrenbrock may have founded Wahrenbrock's Book House in San Diego in 1935, for two generations booksellers and book buyers from around the world have come to know this flagship bookshop repository in this part of the United States as entirely a reflection of the work and the personality of Chuck Valverde and his very able colleague Jan Tonnesen. While Chuck is no longer with us in person, his legacy continues onward as reflected by the vast holdings of inventory available to the many thousands of gentle book lovers who seek out Wahrenbrock's from throughout the world, but also from the thousands of arcane and unusual items listed on the internet. To deny the book public throughout the world access to these vast holdings would be a terrible tragedy.

I sincerely hope and implore that some transitional equation may be created that will allow the legacy of Chuck Valverde to continue. The loss not only to the world but especially to the countless thousands of San Diegans who frequent Wahrenbrock's constantly is inestimable and unimaginable.


Dennis G. Wills
D.G.Wills Books
La Jolla Cultural Society

Monday, April 6, 2009

What's killing bookstores are cheapskates and dead beats

Ron Silliman kindly provides his readers with a frequent list of links to other blogs and online publications that he's found interesting, and part of his dutiful attention is dedicated to bringing us the unfolding stories involved in the demise of independent bookstores. Resilient as these venues are, they seem caught in an inevitable movement of cultural shift-- bookstores are no longer the community centers one would go to purchase books and in turn have purchase in the larger discussion that strengthens a democracy. On line purchases are just cheaper, and in the change of national habit , customers are willing to wait so they can recieve a discount. This is a tide that threatens to swamp the big stores too, with Borders and Barnes and Nobel struggling to keep their cash registers humming. Last week I walked into the downtown Borders in San Diego and wondered if I'd walked into an oversized living room; the cash registers were idle much of the time, but the store was full, seemingly peopled by freeloaders sitting in chairs with stacks of books piled at their feet. What was appearent was that very few of those books would be purchased and the books in turn would be dog eared, bent , battered and otherwise made less than pristine. The staff, in turn, seemed as though they could give a flat fuck about the state of the store; sections were out of order. Vain as I am, I wanted to yell at someone.

Charles Taylor published published an essay in 2005 in The New York Times where he asks , point blank, when did bookstores get turned into “flophouses”. His set of choicely- phrased gripes concern the way in which huge chain stores like Barnes and Noble have created atmospheres that encourage the derelicts in the population to turn bookstores into living rooms, much to the disadvantage of browsers who’d like to find a book to read and, perchance, purchase. I understand Taylor’s misgivings about bookstores being turned into playpens for the lonely, the trendy and the socially inept, and I've seen every sin of self-absorption he's described and decried.

My principle beef is with those who treat the bookstore as if it were a library, a place to either sit and read from the shelf in stages, dog-earing and chafing the item beyond saleability (pages bent down, spines cracked, covers creased and curled), or for those researching whatever complex and vaguely outlined project they've set for themselves. This second example is especially loathsome, since these folks, students with no money more often than not, appear with their backpacks and spend some time in three or four sections, taking books here and there, and then settle in someplace, usually an aisle, sitting on the floor, books open and turned upside down, with the ersatz scholars copying whole paragraphs from texts they have no intention of buying.

I have found more than one person copying pages with their cell phone cameras, an interesting method of shop lifting. We considered banning cell phone use inside the store, but were convinced by the less soured staff that such devices were the sort of thing that had to be tolerated; whine as we might, we're not in the business of telling customers what they can't do. All the same, it grates , and it greys the hair.There is nothing more exasperating than the wounded-animal look these peculiar sorts give you when we remind them (really!) that they're in a bookstore, not a library. One girl who'd been feverishly copying passages from an expensive philosophy book from a pricey university publisher actually asked me this:

"You mean you don't want me to take notes?"
"No. These books are for sale..."

“For sale?”


“Just let me finish this one thing I started to write….” Her voice took on the squeaking whine of noisy plumbing.

“This isn’t a negotiation. Put your pen away. Do you want to buy this book?”

“Do you have it used?”


She was sitting in a graceless lotus position on the floor, holding the book open on her lapso that the binding continued to crack. I leaned over and took the book from her, closing it and smoothing the front and back covers with my hands. I only wish I had a snapshot of the clueless, uncomprehending expression she had on her face as her mouth gaped open and her eyes quite literally filmed over as if trying to grasp something as abstract as the idea that we were a store and needed to sell books. Sell books, not rent them, exchange them, lend them out, let you read them to a grimy pulp, photocopy them, borrow them or any other form of exchange that falls outside the boundary of a simple cash or credit card transaction.

Less attractive are the world travelers who have the money to take vacations in far flung corners and exotic niches of the globe, yet who are so miserly in their preparation that they won't purchase travel guides but will instead spend up to an hour in your store copying airline and hotel information from a current book onto index cards. There is an industry term for this sort of clientele. Here it is in the form of an inside joke. A cranky bookseller goes up to a young wannabe hipster who'd been lingering long and uselessly in the poetry section and say to him

"Young man, you remind me Jack Kerouac....”
The young poser's eyes widen at the apparent praise.
"Really," he says breathlessly.
"Yup," says the cranky bookseller,"you're both dead beats."

Friday, December 19, 2008

A bad job

One hears often enough that it must be great to work in a bookstore, and I say, well yeah, sure, it's a living and it covers my expenses and pleasures, but it isn't always peaches and gravy. Here is an experience that nearly persuaded me to try another line of work.

It was the George Herbert Walker recession of the nineties and I was working at Crown Books in La Jolla , California, a slave wage job in a mediocre , short-changing, cheapskate corporation situated in a much-monied community of neurotic retirees living off the wealth of dead parents who, for all their money and skin color, were town full of high maintenance leeches who delighted in demanding anal-inspection attention for all the mere sums they actually spent. Crown Books, in turn, was the worst managed companies I'd ever worked for, seemingly operating on a fear-based business plan; cheap books for customers, sure, but the downside of that outweighed the pittance one saved at the register. No store credits, no special orders, no Books In Print, no selection, refunds mailed to you in the form of a check from Landover, MA. within three to four weeks. The customer service manual for Crown, some of us joked, was one page and only had one word, that term being NO.

I suppose I ought to mention that deliveries came through the front door, usually thirty boxes of remainders, and that they had to be received in the center of the sales floor; ahhh, nothing like trying to cross-count book stacks against a packing slip while retired corporate executives badgered you about the good old days that were never in fact extant, or while the thieving likes of slacking teens recycled moribund cliches while they helped themselves and their backpacks to Penthouse Magazines, in plain view of passing parents and their brat kids.

It wasn't a pretty picture; Crown was the 7-11 of bookstores--you bought what they had or you could go fuck yourself for all any of us oppressed clerks could care. The worst of it all, though, was the store manager, Jennifer, a probable speed freak, skinny, wiry, anti-social, snarky like old drone deprived of her game shows, always beginning projects and not finishing: she overslept one morning and I arrived on time, finding the front door still locked up and stacks of boxes containing books, dumped by the warehouse driver. I called the district manager for Crown, a mirthless drudge named Miriam, and promptly got myself chewed out. I stopped her rant--I called her at home, after all--and told that none of this was my fault and just how do you suppose we get the store opened and the inventory inside, off the sidewalk? Ms.M seemed annoyed that I was more interested in getting the store's inventory secured than in subjecting myself to her mewling list of droning complaints about how about a bunch of selfish, rotten assholes the La Jolla was. Miriam, shall we say, was neither the sharpest tine on the fork. She was, in fact, a dim bulb, clueless to any event thing outside her sphere of short-sighted references. I'd call her obtuse, but I wouldn't want to offend the genuinely obtuse among us.

She gave me Jennifer's phone number, and I called, and a scratchy voice grunted and gasped and swore like a mother fucker until saying, three throat clearings later, that she'd be at the store in twenty minutes.

Jennifer showed up an hour later, not smiling, looking more burned out than a junkie's spoon. We said not three words during the shift when the phone rang. It was Miriam for Jennifer. All I could make out from the aisle where I was receiving books was Jennifer giving faint protest and then inevitable submission to her boss's blowtorching. No mam, yes ma-me, but I was only...yes man, yes I do...yes I will...yes mam, yes mam, yes, I do apprec---no mam, no...
At closing Jennifer took me aside and handed me a yellow sheet, telling to sign it. It was a written warning, something she'd gotten in the habit of issuing me; this , coming from the manager of a store that had burned through five store managers in six months. I gave it back to her.

"Take my name off the schedule" I said, "I don't work here anymore...."