Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Tipping Point?

Years ago, when I worked at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (gone but not forgotten) in Marin County, we were amused, or bemused, by the arrival of a fax machine in our office, and the first message that came through: "Greetings Technophobes" (from the smart-aleck husband of an employee) Little did we know how ubiquitous faxes would become, or what a wonderful source of opportunities they would turn out to be. Need stock tips? Insurance? A vacation home? A fortune in South African diamonds? All available to you courtesy of your humble telecommunications device.

But there's one type of offer that is (I presume) sent only to bookstores. For years now, bookstores everywhere have been receiving, always by fax, bogus special orders for large quantities of books. I don't know exactly how the scam is supposed to work, because I don't know anyone who's ever fallen for it. I guess the idea is that you send them the books, and then somehow they cheat you out of payment--by using a stolen or otherwise invalid credit card, probably.

Of course, it's not impossible that someone might actually order books this way. But there are a few tipoffs that alert wary booksellers. One, the text of the fax tends to be illiterate: "Hello, pls do special order 30 pieces of below book title for me now..." Two, the fax usually comes from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, raising the question of why the sender couldn't find a bookseller in his hometown. And three, the book ordered is always--always--My Life by Bill Clinton. (The only explanation I can come up with for this is the fact that a copy of Bubba's tome can be increased in value a hundredfold simply by forging his signature in it.)

I've come to feel kindly toward these faxes--they're an amusing diversion, and a chance for us grizzled veterans to show up quicker-moving but more gullible newbies. They're like four-leaf clovers or shooting stars or long-necked Buds... a gentle, nostalgic reminder of the quirkiness of the universe.

But the most recent one I received breaks the pattern. I suspect it means that a new order has arrived, one that may not be welcomed by all of us.

"Upon receipts of this fax messages kindly forwarded the quotes for 30 copies of each of the two book belowed now and I do want to know if you can special order 30 copies of each within one to two business days and if yes kindly advise ASAP:

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama"

Hillary, I think we need to talk...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Not a Beach Read

I've been saying for years--decades, now that I think about it, ever since I first read Angels back in the 80s sometime--that Denis Johnson would win a National Book Award some day. Now, at least, he's been nominated, and if the critical babble is any indication (and I admit, it often isn't) his new novel, Tree of Smoke, is the early favorite. I haven't read it yet, it's one of those formidable books that you don't want to start until you can give it your full attention, and from readers I've talked to it's a harrowing experience. Which is good! When a writer with the original vision and poetic skill of Denis Johnson takes on a subject like the Vietnam War, arguably the Big Enchilada for writers of his generation, you should not expect a light and breezy beach read.

More on Tree of Smoke soon...

Saturday, September 01, 2007

When They Bring the Forklifts into the Fiction Section, It's Time for the Booksellers to Leave

So our bookstore is finally getting its long-awaited remodeling. We've been talking about this for YEARS, but something always came up--new stores to open, mostly. Our company president is definitely a pro at construction projects, but you can't do a lot of them at the same time. When the opportunity to open a new store comes along, as it has pretty regularly the last few years (Mountain View, Burlingame, Alameda, Disney, Opera Plaza...), the remodels just get pushed back. And pushed back... I'm not sure exactly how long it's been, but I do know we're now on our fourth manager since the subject first came up.

Anyway, it's exciting and also kind of horrifying. We've gotten some of the new fixtures already--beautiful blond wood ones to replace the horrid old grey metal things with gaps at the back where books would fall through. The tree in front of the store has come down, since we're moving the storefront out a few feet to be flush with the rest of the buildings on the block. We'll be getting non-hideous lighting, some form of ventilation, and tables and bookcases that can be rolled out of the way for author events. Should be awesome.

The preparations for the construction have been... interesting... since none of us really understands how it's going to work. (OK, maybe that's just me--my excuse is that I was on vacation.) Some of the books have been boxed up and sent away, others banished to the basement, others wrapped up in plastic like day-old sandwiches. Office shelves have been stripped bare. Huge collections of garbage have been generated--dead computers, mangled calendar racks, stripped paperback books, damaged toys. The pricey plush animals that we sell have been bundled up in plastic bags and stashed in a corner of the basement like so many murdered boarders.

On Monday morning we were there at 6:30 putting on the final touches. After a mad rush to get 50 boxes of salebooks processed and onto a truck, we wandered out onto the sales floor. Workmen who didn't speak English were trooping into the store, carrying boards and power saws and strangely shaped pieces of sheet metal. Guys who did speak English were holding clipboards and talking urgently on cell phones. Two little red forklifts rolled into the store and headed for the fiction section.

We walked out the front door and headed up the street for donuts.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Et tu, Laura?

A fascinating tidbit I found in Publishers Weekly:

HarperCollins said today that it has acquired world rights to a children's book--as yet untitled--written by First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna.

Set in a school, the book depicts a mischievous boy who likes to do everything but read.

My title suggestion: Furious George.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter continued

Well, the book gods were kind. Out of about six hundred copies we've sold (the first printing was twelve million copies, of which nine million sold the first weekend--oy!), only nine defective copies have come back to us so far. As the books were packed ten to a carton, my guess is we just had one bad carton, and that tenth book is still out there. Slow reader, maybe.

Or maybe he or she is thinking that, like the famous upside-down postage stamp that sold at auction for millions of dollars, that defective Harry Potter is going to be worth a fortune.

Could be right.

The bidding starts at $60. Get 'em while they last.

Bad to the Bone

Every year we do a Tour de France window display at the bookstore, with a few Lance Armstrong books, a Michelin guide or two, my favorite cycling novel (more on that later), a stray Campagnolo part or two from my closet, and a whiteboard that I update every day with race results. Mainly we do it because I'm a bike geek, but it's also true that our neighborhood is big on bike racing. Even now, in the post-Lance era, people still tell us that they follow the race in our front window.

Of course, this Tour has been a rough one for cycling fans--Alexandre Vinokourov, the pre-race favorite, thrown out for doping, and his whole team for good measure; then Michael Rasmussen, the actual leader, fired by his team (for doping-related lies) just when he had all but clinched the yellow jersey; and a number of small fry ejected as well. I had to get out the red marker and cross Vino and Rasmussen ("The Chicken") off my leader board.

You hear some people saying "The Tour is dead." But that's bullshit. As rider Christian Vande Velde put it, "Cycling will always be a beautiful sport no matter how many people disgrace it." The transition to clean competition will be tough, but cycling at least is being forced to tackle the challenge while other sports are still in denial.

Now it's true, doping is a venerable tradition in cycling. The French champion Jacques Anquetil, a five-time Tour winner, when asked if he'd ever doped, replied "Only when it was absolutely necessary;" and when asked how often that was, said "Almost all the time." And when Englishman Tom Simpson died from amphetamine use on a Tour stage, a statue was erected to honor the event. Little mixed message there?

The doping thing, as I see it, fits in with a certain masochistic strain in cycling. It's just not a feel-good sport. You'll frequently hear riders talk about races, or even training rides, in terms of "suffering" and "pain." The covers of cycling magazines typically feature the hero of the day sweating and grimacing as though his limbs were being torn off. And of course, it's common to see riders crash in a race, then ride on with broken bones or with blood streaming off their body. If sports were Shakespeare plays, cycling would be King Lear or Hamlet.

It's this dark and twisted spirit that animates my favorite bike racing novel, Bad to the Bone by James Waddington. (OK, there aren't a ton of bike racing novels to choose from, but still.) Told in a cheerfully snarky voice (think Nick Hornby on exogenous testosterone), the book is laced with authentic detail--you can tell that Waddington's gotten a close-up view of cycling's underbelly. But it's also wildly imaginative, almost surreal in places, a nightmare vision of the drug-sodden lunacy of the Tour de France.

Waddington keeps the reader enjoyably off-balance: it's a farce, it's horror, it's a mystery... but whichever, absorbing fun. There's a Spanish rider who suddenly, inexplicably, has awesome form; a more than sinister team manager with a suitcase full of something very nasty; a mutilated corpse or two, riders murdered in scenes fraught with Christian symbolism; a philosophical, borderline incompetent police detective; and a gut-wrenching, mindbendingly improbable finish.

Though only a little more improbable than this year's race.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Defective Hallows Part I

It all went surprisingly well. Our Potter Party planners shopped like crazy people, lettered signs in silver paint, made elf wine, and strung a line of golden snitches across the bookstore; the sales clerks heroically didn't call in sick; the kids showed up in their black robes and nerdy glasses; upper management (despite lingering back injuries) hauled umpteen boxes of books up the stairs.

Unpleasant incidents were few. A couple of customers tried to bribe us to get their books ahead of the publisher's draconian 12:00:01 a.m. on-sale time. There was some confusion over whether one gentleman had ordered the CD version of the book or the cassette version. Some slutty little witches showed up, doing marketing for a Harry Potter game that you play on your cell phone. A dispute arose over the proper color of elf wine.

But then it was time to sell books. Or in the case of people who'd prepaid, to hand out books. At midnight, the line for prepaids stretched the length of the store. Three minutes later, the line was gone, a slight breeze ruffled the crepe paper decorations, and we had a pile of empty white cartons at the information desk. The other line, for procrastinators and spur-of-the moment types ("Hey, honey, look, they're selling the Harry Potter book!"), straggled haphazardly out the front door onto the sidewalk. I'm sure we didn't sell as many books as some other stores, but it was certainly more than we're accustomed to selling after midnight on a Friday night. Our last customer was a uniformed SFPD officer who tapped on the door at a few minutes to one.

Saturday morning a new line had formed outside the door by the time we opened. Sales varied from brisk to crazed all day long. We started to worry about running out of books. The kids book buyer from corporate told us to keep our shirts on and she'd take care of us. I couldn't get the count to come out right, but I found another fifty books, so we knew we were at least going to make it through Saturday. At about eight p.m., three hours from closing, we passed our sales goal for the week (with one day left to go!) Very sweet. I threw some printouts in my bookbag and got ready to head home.

That's when the call came. One of our staff members. She'd bought three copies of the book the night before. All of them, she reported, were missing pages 675-706. Not torn or cut out, not blank, just missing, absent, not there. WTF?

Well, it happens. Publishers make mistakes. When the previous Harry Potter book came out, someone up in Canada or somewhere found some that were printed upside down. Flukey, weird, maybe a collector's item, but not so unusual really. Still... I remembered now that I'd seen a copy at the sales counter with a note in it--"Damaged."

Not, in fact, damaged. Defective. (I have not ever been able to get this distinction across to everyone in the store.) Publisher defective. Missing pages 675-706.

At this point, belatedly I'm sure you'll agree, the full implications struck me. We'd sold hundreds of these books. How many of them had this nasty, almost certainly fatal birth defect? (The story I heard later was that our staff member's brother read one of the defective copies through from cover to cover without noticing the thirty missing pages, but surely that's not right.) More importantly, how long would it take our customers to reach the Big Freaking Gap, and how long after that before they headed back to the bookstore? Gruesome possibility--if enough of them brought the book back the next day, could we actually go into the red for that day--and sink back UNDER our weekly sales goal?

Too embarrassing to contemplate.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Iraq and the Other George

If you only read one book about the Middle East, it should be A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. The public conversation about the Iraq war, and the problems of the wider region, seldom covers anything that happened before Sept. 11, 2001 (or, at a stretch, the First Gulf War.) But in fact, today's troubles have their roots in the First World War and the peace imposed by the European powers at its end. Fromkin traces the lineage of the conflicts with great clarity and surprising verve.

It's a complex narrative, full of epic characters (Lawrence of Arabia; Winston Churchill; Feisal and Ibn Saud, the rivals for the throne of Arabia; David Lloyd George, the ruthlessly imperialistic British prime minister; Woodrow Wilson; Chaim Weizmann and the other founders of the state of Israel; the French prime minister Clemenceau; Gertrude Bell, the godmother of Iraq) and cataclysmic themes (the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rising conflict between Arabs and Jews, the betrayal of Arab nationalism by the European powers). But suffice it to say that in redrawing the map of the Middle East to suit their own purposes, with little understanding of or regard for the desires of its inhabitants, the British and French lit long-burning fuses throughout the area. Fromkin is calm and deft in pointing out the results of their hubris, and it's a lesson that could have been useful; this is the book George W. Bush should have read before he invaded Iraq.