Books

Kakutani slams Pynchon and the return of the dot-com boom

After her glowing review of Dave Eggers’s new book, Michiko Kakutani finds fault in Thomas Pynchon’s inability to create one true character in his new novel, Against the Day. She writes:

Whereas Mr. Pynchon’s last novel, the stunning “Mason & Dixon,” demonstrated a new psychological depth, depicting its two heroes as full-fledged human beings, not merely as pawns in the author’s philosophical chess game, the people in “Against the Day” are little more than stick figure cartoons.

In the Times Sunday Book Review, Liesl Schillinger’s sprawling review calls Against the Day Pynchon’s “funniest, and argurably most accessible novel.”

Elsewhere in the Times, Katie Hafner uses the example of Reid Hoffman to portray the return of the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley, where, she writes:

Envy may be a sin in some books, but it is a powerful driving force in Silicon Valley, where technical achievements are admired but financial payoffs are the ultimate form of recognition. And now that the YouTube purchase has amplified talk of a second dot-com boom, many high-tech entrepreneurs — successful and not so successful — are examining their lives as measured against upstarts who have made it bigger.

New Dave Eggers, or Kakutani gives a positive review!

Michiko Kakutani gave Dave Eggers’s new novel What Is the What a glowing review in the New York Times today. She calls the book, which I am currently reading,

a startling act of literary ventriloquism that recounts the harrowing story of a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, while reminding us just how eloquently the author can write about loss and mortality and sorrow.

A devastating and humane account of one man’s survival against terrible odds, the book is flawed by an odd decision on Mr. Eggers’s part to fictionalize Mr. Deng’s story — a curious choice, especially in the wake of the uproar over James Frey’s fictionalized memoir earlier this year. But while we start out wondering what is real and what is not, it is a testament to the power of Mr. Deng’s experiences and Mr. Eggers’s ability to convey their essence in visceral terms that we gradually forget these schematics of composition.

I find it rather amusing that she’s criticizing Eggers for having branded the book as a novel even after he’s explained that decision here and here.

Paul Auster on why he writes

In Paul Auster’s acceptance speech for Spain’s Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters, the author expresses one of my favorite themes–that art and literature and writing are at once useless and redemptive, important and inconsequential, and above all, inevtiable.

This need to make, to create, to invent is, no doubt, a fundamental human impulse. But to what end? What purpose does art, in particular the art of fiction, serve in what we call the real world? None that I can think of – at least not in any practical sense. A book has never put food in the stomach of a hungry child. A book has never stopped a bullet from entering a murder victim’s body. A book has never prevented a bomb from falling on innocent civilians in the midst of war.

….

In other words, art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

I cannot agree more with Auster’s conclusion to his speech:

I have spent my life in conversations with people I have never seen, with people I will never know and I hope to continue until the day I stop breathing.

It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted.

Microfinance, Zidane, and Adam Gopnik

Connie Bruck’s article in the October 30th New Yorker describes the current conflict in the microfinance industry between the old guard of microfinance lenders–typified by the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus–whose goal is to lift people out of poverty and a new generation that is focused on making money (and economic empowerment of the poor). Bruck cites eBay founder Pierre Omidyar as the embodiment of this class. Omidyar recently gave $100 million to his alma mater, Tufts University, on the condition that they invest it in microfinance.

“For us, it’s not just about alleviating poverty; it’s about economic self-empowerment.” Omidyar told me that in the two years or so since he became involved in microfinance he had not visited a microfinance institution or met a borrower. Just the opposite of Yunus’s entry into microfinance: Yunus left theory behind to listen to the poor, and Omidyar seems to rely largely on theory. Omidyar sees himself as an agent of global change—in this case, the commercialization of the microfinance sector. Hence his insistence that his hundred-million-dollar gift to Tufts be invested in ways that will promote that commercialization.

Bruck goes on to describe the rift in the microfinance industry in similar terms after recounting the suicides of women borrowers in India’s Andhra Pradesh. (It’s suspected that their inability to repay their loans caused them to commit suicide. Institutions in Andhra Pradesh have since lowered their interest rates from around 30% to as low as 11%.)

Opposing sides in the commercialization debate drew different lessons from the episode. For Yunus’s allies, it demonstrates how the emphasis on profit can blind lenders to social values; the other side worries that rates lowered for political rather than economic reasons probably aren’t sustainable. What nearly everyone can agree on, though, is that it is a reminder of the dangers facing this immature and rapidly growing field.

Speaking of Muhammad Yunus, he recently invited Zinedine Zidane to Bangladesh for the opening of the Grameen Danone Food Factory in Bogra on November 6-7. The factory is a joint venture between the Grameen Bank and France’s Danone. Zidane has long endorsed Danone’s products, and it was rumored this past summer that he will join the company’s board.

Meanwhile, Zidane: Un Portrait du 21ème Siècle has been receiving more attention, including this profile of filmmaker Douglas Gordon in the Times of London. Today, I heard the soundtrack to the film by Lanarkshire’s Mogwai for the first time. I had never listened to Mogwai before, but their work on this soundtrack reminds me strangely of Japancakes. Scotsman has an interesting interview with the band’s Stuart Braithwaite and Gordon, in which the latter compares Zidane’s red card and ejection at the end of the film to a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you know what is going to happen, you can see them [the Villarreal players] niggling; there are a couple of wee instants where you can see the fuse has been lit. When you know what the ending is, not to sound pretentious, it’s like Shakespearean drama. It’s like Macbeth at the end – you can start to pick up his descent into madness. I think he is a bit of a Macbeth figure, actually.

After Italy beat France in the World Cup Final this summer, Adam Gopnik wrote a Talk of the Town Piece about Zidane for the New Yorker. In it, he locates the fascination with Zidane in his ultimate unpredictability and inscrutability. He closes with a description of his son, Luke,

“An eleven-year-old New Yorker, a passionate supporter of Les Bleus, had been playing each of the French World Cup games over and over on his Nintendo Gamecube FIFA game and—with spooky accuracy—had been using the aggregate scores to predict the outcomes of games not yet played. But nothing in the video game could have led one pixel-constructed figure to turn around, succumb to an irrational animal urge, and bash another pixel-constructed figure in the chest. “It just never happened in the Gamecube,” he said afterward, bewildered. An inexplicable human act was the one thing you couldn’t program.That reminder may have been, in its way, the saving grace of this curious fall.

I had lunch with Gopnik last Thursday at Google, and in addition to being a really, really smart, cool, personable guy, he too is a big fan of EA Sports’ FIFA Soccer series. I’m anxiously looking forward to Tuesday’s Halloween release of FIFA ’07 for Xbox 360, which just looks amazing.

Gopnik read as part of the Authors@Google series I work on, and I’ll post a link to the video of his talk once we get it online. He wrote about the experience of speaking at Google for an online Q&A on NewYorker.com.

I got to go to the Google campus, outside San Francisco, and speak to the Google-ites. Google headquarters turns out to be enormous, far bigger than I could have imagined, and looks a bit like a cross between the school in “High School Musical” and that spooky village from the old “Prisoner” television series. An amazing monitor in the reception area displays current searches from all over the world, and I went in some slight fear that they would deliver to the visiting speaker, as a well-meaning but terrifying prize, a list of his last two years of searches. (“ ‘Swedish models’? Oh, yeah, so I did. . . . Well, I was searching for, you know, certain Ikea appliances. For my wife.”) But my hosts were serious and extremely literary. Over a talk, and then lunch from a fine (and free) cafeteria, where I piled my plate with vegetarian specialties, I had a chance to talk with the hyper-brilliant, hyper-earnest, amazingly young, and—significantly, for a field that has long skewed so awkwardly male—female hosts. To my surprise, they defended the notion of the continuing necessity of the book far more eloquently than I could, and insisted, to a degree that almost convinced an author who sees his children starving as everything goes on the Web, that the online reading audience will only feed the appetite for the bookstore book, as snacks encourage meals. And all of them so student-like! To adapt Lincoln Steffens: I have seen the future, and it is school.

I’ll post more on Gopnik’s new book soon.

*Update*
Here are a number of pictures of Zidane playing in an exhibition game between a pair of under-16 teams in Dhaka during his visit to Bangladesh.

Here is a low quality video of the game:

The BBC also has a story about Zidane’s visit, whcih can be found here.

Zidane in Bangladesh

With sadness: Gotham Book Mart in trouble

It looks like Gotham Book Mart in New York is in trouble once again. This is my favorite store in the country, and I hope something can be done to keep the store open.

From the New York Times story today:

In the last six months, the owners of the building have moved to evict the store and its owner, Andreas Brown. Friends of Mr. Brown’s say the building’s owners were only trying to help Gotham get on its feet. They say that Mr. Brown, who hoped to buy the building eventually, fell behind on his $51,000 monthly rent, and owes at least $500,000 in rent, taxes, interest and other fees.

Whether he fell behind because he lost momentum during the difficult transition after the move from the old building or because — as some friends say — he devoted his money to his first love, buying more books, and to paying his employees rather than his rent, the Gotham is fighting for its life once again.
….
What is clear is that a judge has authorized a city marshal to seize hundreds of thousands of items worth, perhaps, millions of dollars; that the store is closed, though employees are still allowed inside; and that Mr. Brown, who is 73, is no longer living there.

Mr. Brown’s lawyer, Lawrence D. Bernfeld, said yesterday that the current owner of the building, listed in real estate records only as 16 East 46th Street Property L.L.C., was willing, for just a brief time, to entertain offers to sell the building at below-market price to a new owner who would continue renting to the Gotham. “Should such a contract go forward, enlightened capitalism will be at work,” Mr. Bernfeld said.

I spoke with Andreas in the spring of 2005 for a story and posted previously on this blog about my love for his store.

Indies Under Fire screening September 30

Kepler’s is sponsoring a screening of the film Indies Under Fire about the decline of independent bookstores in America. The screening will take place at 7:30 pm on September 30 at 700 Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park.

If the film’s trailer is a good indication of its actual content, it looks like the documentary is yet another sentimental, corporate-bashing look at indie bookstores that refuses to do the hard work of pointing a critical eye at indies themselves and asking why the independent bookselling business has been stagnant and so incredibly slow to innovate or pioneer new business practices over the past few decades.

Kristof on Easterly, Sachs, et al

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has an article in the current New York Review of Books that reviews four fairly new books on development aid. He devotes most of his coverage to Bill Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden. I read Easterly’s previous book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, and found it to be a rather good summary of development history and theory over the past 50 years or so. However, Easterly now seems more concerned about taking down the whole movement behind development aid (and especially Jeffrey Sachs). Kristof writes:

Professor Easterly devotes his book to hacking away, with considerable satisfaction, at Sachs and the entire humanitarian approach taken by the UN. Frankly, I find that satisfaction off-putting, because Sachs’s evangelism for aid has saved countless lives in the developing world by raising money to provide drinkable water, distribute mosquito nets to protect against malaria, improve methods of raising crops, and much else.

Kristof goes on to differentiate himself from Easterly on the issue of military intervention in developing countries:

If Easterly is generally sensible, there’s one matter where I think he’s catastrophically wrong. That is his hostility toward military intervention. It’s true tha in the past, military interventions have often been foolish and ended up hurting the people we claimed to be helping. The long American proxy war in Angola was disaster for everyone. But it’s also true that the single most essential prerequisite for economic development is security: no one will invest in a shop or factory if it is likely to be burned down soon. And insecurity is immensely contagious

The Western failure to intervene early in Rwanda allowed the genocide in 1994 that claimed perhaps 800,000 lives. But that was only the beginning. That chaos in turn infected Burundi and especially Congo, which collapsed into civil war. Some 4.1 million people have died because of the Congo war, mostly from hunger and disease, making it the most lethal conflict since World War II.

Something similar happened in West Africa. Upheavals in Liberia were allowed to fester and spread to Sierra Leone and then Ivory Coast; and now Guinea may be on the precipice as well. Because nobody was concerned to stop the killings in Darfur when they began in 2003, the genocide there is now spreading to Chad as well, and even to the Central African Republic.

So one of the most crucial kinds of foreign aid is simply security. And when we have provided that kind of aid, it has made a huge difference. The most successful single thing the US ever did in Asia, for example, was probably Truman’s decision in 1950, after the Korean War began, to send the Seventh Fleet to protect Taiwan. Otherwise China would very likely have invaded Taiwan sometime in the 1950s, hundreds of thousands would have died, and Taiwan wouldn’t have existed as a free economy in the 1980s and 1990s to provide both an economic model and investment for the Chinese mainland. The cost to the US of that deployment was negligible, and the benefit to the world was enormous.

Artforum covers Zidane: un Portrait du 21e Siècle

Zinedine Zidane: un Portrait de 21e Siecle

Zidane appears on the cover of the current issue of Artforum. The issue contains essays by Tim Griffin and Michael Fried on Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: un Portrait du 21e Siècle. Fried, who situates the film in the modernist tradition of photography, writes:

. . . the viewer’s conviction of the great athlete’s total engagement in the match is not thereby undermined. Instead, the film lays bare a hitherto unthematized relationship between absorption and beholding—more precisely, between the persuasive representation of absorption and the apparent consciousness of being beheld—in the context of art, a relationship that is no longer simply one of opposition or complementarity but that allows a sliding and indeed an overlap that would have seemed unimaginable to Diderot. . . .

And not only does Zidane lay bare this new relationship, it goes on to explore it . . . . Zidane’s inspired investigation of its protagonist’s capacity for absorption under conditions of maximum exposure to being viewed, as well as of the modified and shifting meaning of absorption itself under such conditions, makes it, if not quite a modernist film, at the very least a film that is of the greatest interest to anyone egaged by these and related topics.

Meanwhile, Griffin concludes his essay by returning to Zidane’s inscrutability:

. . . audiences leave the theater with the inevitable realization that Zidane, whether images, symbol, or hero—all real aspects of his being—is also a man we can’t pretend to know at all. Of course, that is his appeal.

For those interested in the film, a new, so-called “art,” version of it is being released soon. And, as previously posted, here’s a link to the film’s trailer.

Daniel Mendelsohn on the 9/11 films

Daniel Mendelsohn is right in form in his review of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Peter Greengrass’s United 93 in the New York Review of Books.

The pretty much exclusive emphasis thus far on the “good”—the heroism and the bravery of ordinary Americans—in these entertainments is noteworthy, because it reminds you of the unwillingness to grapple with and acknowledge the larger issues, the larger causes and effects that culminated in what happened on September 11, which has characterized much of the national response to this pivotal trauma. That both films, like so much we have seen on various screens over the past five years, clothe their fictions and their editorializing in the pious garment of reverence for authentic reality—a pose that will elicit tears, if not serious thinking—should be cause for alarm rather than applause.

That 9/11 is necessarily treated with reverence and solemnity without question has bothered me on nearly every occasion on which the subject has been publicly raised over the past five years. I remember being at Ground Zero on the second anniversary of 9/11 when the girl the picture below was surrounded by a screaming mob who proceeded to tear up her sign. That people continue to limit the scope of the discussion surrounding 9/11 in the name of respect and nationalism is, of course, contrary to the very values of free speech, dissent, and critical thought that made our country in the first place.

9-11 Girl with Sign

Susan Sontag is King Kong

The New York Times Magazine published today a series of selections from Susan Sontag’s journals that she kept during the 1950s and 60s. FSG is going to publish the first volume of her journals in 2008. Here are a few gems from the NYTM excerpt:

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual daily life but rather–in many cases offers an alternative to it.
….
It’s corrupting to write with the intent to moralize, to elevate people’s moral standards.

Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness. A good writer.

Why is writing important? Mainly out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say.
….
The only kind of writer I could be is the kind who exposes himself. . . .To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name. To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself. . .and makes his books out of that meeting and that violence.
….
There is no stasis. To stand still is to fall away from the truth; the inner life dims and flickers, starts to go out, as soon as one tries to hold fast. It’s like trying to make this breath serve for the next one, or making today’s dinner do the work of next Wednesday’s as well.. . .Truth rides the arrow of time.
….
I write to define myself — an act of self-creation — part of process of becoming — in a dialogue with myself, with writers I admire living and dead, with ideal readers
….
I want to be able to be alone, to find it nourishing — not just a waiting.
….
Art = a way of getting in touch with one’s own insanity.
….
one doesn’t learn from experience–because the substance of things is always changing
….
I’m not “saying something.” I’m allowing “something” to have a voice, an independent existence (an existence independent of me).
….
Self-expression is a limiting idea, limiting if it’s central. (Art as self-expression is very limiting.) From self-expression one can never arrive at an authentic, a genuine, not merely expediential, justification for courtesy.
….
One of my strongest and most fully employed emotions: contempt. Contempt for others, contempt for myself.
….
My mind = King Kong. Aggressive, tears people to pieces. I keep it locked up most of the time–and bite my nails.
….
The only people who should interest themselves in an art (or several arts) are those who practice it — or have — or aspire to. The whole idea of an “audience” is wrong. The artist’s audience is his peers.

Cody’s Books acquired by Japanese bookseller

Japanese bookseller and publisher Yohan, Inc., has acquired Cody’s Books. Yohan is the largest distributor of English-language books in Japan. Cody’s, which closed its Telegraph Avenue store in July, has locations on Fourth Street in Berkeley and on Stockton in San Francisco.

The press release announcing the sale does not disclose the terms of the deal and is, generally, rather vague about Yohan’s interest in the Berkeley-based Cody’s:

Cody’s will retain both its Fourth Street store in Berkeley and its Union Square store in San Francisco, its extensive author appearance program, its school, library, and corporate book services, and its expert staff. Ross will remain president of Cody’s Books, and Leslie Berkler will become vice-president, focusing on store operations, as well as rapidly growing off-site programs including book fairs, schools, libraries, and corporate sales. Cody’s will operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Yohan.

Cody’s, founded by Fred and Pat Cody in 1956, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Andy Ross acquired the business in 1977, and then opened a second Berkeley store in 1997 and a downtown San Francisco store in 2005. The flagship Telegraph Avenue store in Berkeley was closed earlier this year due to declining sales. Ross notes, “With Yohan’s support, Cody’s will continue to be both an essential voice in the community while exploring a number of growth opportunities around the corner and across the globe.”

Hiroshi Kagawa, CEO of Yohan, says, “I’ve loved Cody’s ever since I first visited the store in 1983.” Founded in 1953, Yohan is the largest distributor of English-language books and magazines in Japan. It owns 18 bookstores in Japan, including the art and design-focused Aoyama Book Center, as well as the publisher IBC Publishing. “It is our ultimate mission to promote culture and communications worldwide,” says Kagawa. Yohan also owns Berkeley’s Stone Bridge Press, run by Kagawa’s longtime friend and colleague Peter Goodman. “Hiroshi loves books,” says Goodman. “Yohan and Cody’s share a sensibility that venerates the written word.”

Kepler’s selling books online again

Kepler’s is selling books online for the first time since the store closed in August 2005. However, it appears that the store is using the same BookSense template that is used by many other independent bookstores to create a sort of token online presence. Why it took them a year to put up a site that is nearly identical to the one the store had before it closed is beyond me. One of the major problems with the BookSense sites is their lack of metadata, including reviews and reader comments.

Weekend Round-up

The Contra Costa Times summarizes and laments the state of independent bookstores in the Bay Area. In their article, a local writer, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, is quoted as saying, “A bookseller like Cody’s or Book Passage doesn’t just participate in the scene. They help create it. They are actually generating the literary culture. They’re not just serving it, and that’s very, very different.”

This, unfortunately, seems to me the exact opposite of what Kepler’s is doing these days with their market research, trying to find out what customers want so the store can be everything to everyone. The consequence, of course, is that they still have yet to establish a clear voice in the literary landscape. What does Kepler’s stand for–i.e. what kind of books does it stand for? I’ve been shopping there for a decade, and I have no idea.

Some out of town news:

Tattered Cover in Dever has moved to a refurbished theater.

In developments reminiscent of what happened with Kepler’s last year, Brazos Bookstore in Houston has been bought and will not close.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco is Closing

ACWLP in San Francisco will be closing as soon as the store can liquidate its inventory. The store’s owner, Neal Sofman, has posted the following message on the store’s website:

Dear Esteemed Customers and Friends,

We deeply regret to announce that we will be closing A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books as soon as we can liquidate our inventory.

Beginning Friday, June 16th we will be selling our stock at 20% off regular price.

Our hours will change to 11am until 7 pm beginning Monday, June 19 th .

We thank you all for the wonderful support you have provided A Clean Well-Lighted Place. It has been our great pleasure to work with you and be part of the same community over the years.

Many will ask why this is happening. The reasons are many and complex. The simple answer is that the book buying market has moved on, either geographically or culturally.

Thank you for your many years of support. We had a great run. We will miss you.

Neal Sofman

Owner

Meeting to Save Cody’s on June 8

As reported in the Oakland Tribune and elsewhere, the Berkeley City Council has approved a plan to revitalize Telegraph Avenue. This action seems to be largely in response to the impending closure of Cody’s.

However, David Lazarus expresses skepticism about the City Council’s plan in the San Francisco Chronicle. Lazarus suggests that the City Council is only working on a short-term fix, and he proposes the more radical idea of transforming the four-block stretch of Telegraph near UC Berkeley into a pedestrian mall.

Andy Ross has been in talking with investors interested in saving the store. If you are a qualified potential investor, please email me.

On June 8 at 7pm, there will be a community meeting in Berkeley to discuss the prospects of saving Cody’s. The meeting location is still to be determined. We will post any updates as they become available. Andy Ross will attend, and I encourage everyone to do the same.

Do Bookstores Have a Future?

Paul Collins asks this question in his Village Voice article, which is essentially a review of Laura J. Miller’s new book, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption.

Collins writes,

Today’s field, though, may not be the future’s. Superstores live and die by generous zoning, massive inventory, co-op money, and deep discounts. Zoning laws may stiffen, return policies change, or price controls curtail loss-leader strategies. All these possibilities, however unlikely, have precedents; indeed, it was the owner of Nantucket Bookworks who last month spearheaded a chain store ban in that island’s downtown. Ultimately, though, the greatest vulnerability of chains may be their muscle-bound nature. If print-on-demand technology, though still poky and faintly disreputable, ever achieves the availability and quality of traditional books, the need for overstock returns, remainders, and huge retail spaces may evaporate.

The anti-independent argument

Tyler Cowen has an article in Slate that makes the case against independent bookstores. I, of course, disagree with him on multiple counts, but his argument is well worth reading. Cowen seems to write from the vantage point of someone who has little interest in small titles or publishing houses. I’m willing to bet that his assertion that “if you’re looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore” isn’t based on personal experience with a niche interest.

What’s disturbing about the essay, though, is that Cowen blindly accepts the decreasing attention span of Americans.

It was easy to finish Tolstoy’s War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips. As a result, we tend to consume ideas in smaller bits, a proposition that (in another context) economists labeled the “Alchian and Allen theorem.” Long, serious novels are less culturally central than they were 100 years ago. Blogs are on the rise, and most readers prefer the ones with the shorter posts. Our greater access to books also means that each book has less time to prove itself. A small percentage of the books published account for a large share of the profits, thus setting off a race to track reader demand.

Somehow, people still read War and Peace and Anna Karenina and even some long books published in the last 50 years: The Recognitions, Infinite Jest, and Gravity’s Rainbow to name a few. Perhaps, Mr. Cohen isn’t aware of this. Cohen seems all too willing to accept current trends; perhaps, it’s because he isn’t actually a reader because readers, serious readers, are defined by their willingness to question what is normally accepted, to stand in opposition to the zeitgeist and say, “Everyone thinks this is good, but it’s kind of bad” or the inverse.

Of course, Cohen is correct in his implication that if independent bookstores are reacting to the cultural climate rather than creating it, they will most certainly be doomed.

There is the possibility that Cohen actually has read Tolstoy and Pynchon and Foster Wallace, and he’s just making big generalizations for the sake of being provocative. If so, it’s a shame because writing, as anyone who’s ever read those authors knows, can express deep moral ambiguities and raise difficult questions that go unresolved. In other words, it can do so much more than Cohen demonstrates in his essay.

Chances of saving Cody’s?

Many people have asked me about this subject over the past couple days because of my involvement in saving Kepler’s. However, there seem to me significant differences in the situations of each store. In the campaign to reopen Kepler’s, the major objectives were to a) raise capital b) renegotiate the store’s lease and c) implement a new business plan. The objective for Cody’s to reopen seems to be a complete revolution of the business climate on Telegraph Avenue where sales for many establishments have dropped off over the past 10 years and the city of Berkeley has done little to revive the area. For Andy Ross or supporters of Cody’s to bear that burden seems like an impossibility.

According to our sources, Ross is not open to the possibility of outside investment in Cody’s to keep the Telegraph store open. (The money raised by outside investors and Clark Kepler’s receptiveness to them allowed Kepler’s to reopen.) He is, however, willing to listen to offers on the space on the corner of Parker and Telegraph, as he has control of its lease.

Cody’s on Telegraph is Closing

Cody’s Books on Telegraph in Berkeley will be closing on July 10 after being open there for 43 years. According to owner Andy Ross, the Telegraph store has lost over $1 million and its sales have declined by two-thirds since 1990. Cody’s stores on Fourth Street in Berkeley and Stockton Street in San Francisco will remain open.

In the press today, the owner of a Great Good Place for Books in Montclair was quoted as saying, “I can’t believe it. It’s a real indication that the climate of independent bookselling is really changing in the Bay Area. The fact that something we considered a mainstay will no longer be there—to me it’s saying good-bye to a friend. It’s like a death.”

It all sounds rather similar to the reaction that Kepler’s closing produced last summer.

I went to Cody’s four or more times a week when I lived in Berkeley from 2001 until 2003, and the store will be missed. I can say that I really only went there because I lived within walking distance, not being a big fan of Telegraph, in general. I think many of the concerns raised by Andy Ross and then echoed in the Mercury News article are legitimate and not just a cop-out. Of course, I was an anomaly–a Berkeley student who bought two to five books almost every week.

Was the problem that students don’t buy books or that Cody’s was in a place that was frequented largely by students?

Press coverage of the Cody’s closure:

  • Contra Costa Times: Farewell Coming for Telgraph Landmark
  • San Francisco Chronicle: Famed Bookstore’s Last Chapter
  • Inside Bay Area: Sales Lagging, Cody’s Closing
  • The Mercury has followed up with an article about the closing and its relationship to a deteriorating Telegraph Avenue marketplace for businesses:

    The owner of iconic record store Amoeba Records said Wednesday he has no immediate plans to close his Telegraph store but didn’t rule out the possibility.

    “Our stores in Los Angeles and the Haight (in San Francisco) are doing well, despite what’s happening in the industry,” Mark Weinstein said. “But our Telegraph store is hurting. And given the political climate in this city, I don’t see that changing.”

    Likewise, the Chronicle also has an article about the decline of business on Telegraph:

    Telegraph’s image problem — the street between Parker Street and campus is often littered and dirty, and homeless youth often loiter outside businesses — is hardly new, and the city has over the years made various efforts to clean things up.

    ….

    But Telegraph Avenue is also not alone in its economic woes, with downtown businesses hurting almost as much…. The entire city has seen sales tax receipts stagnate or decline, with the notable exception of the trendy Fourth Street shopping district that has seen almost consistent growth since the 1980s, he said.

    From the blogosphere:

  • Liz Mann, who blogs in letters, writes one to Andy Ross.
  • A husband and wife lament the closure of Cody’s.
  • Kepler’s in Trouble Again?

    The San Francisco Examiner reported last week that Kepler’s may be in financial trouble once again.

    Six months after community supporters fought to bring Kepler’s Books back from the brink of bankruptcy, the bookstore is still struggling to make ends meet.
    ….
    The bookstore had one of its best Christmas seasons on record and has raised money through a new customer-membership program, but already that support is waning….

    Update: A brief piece in the San Jose Mercury dismisses the rumors about Kepler’s closing again.

    Kepler’s Member Appreciation Night

    After a brief encounter with the people at the door who refused to let me into the store, I attended Kepler’s second member appreciation night yesterday. Some of the employees presented their current book picks, and Al Jacobs gave a brief reading. People from Common Ground gave away plants. Obviously, the theme was gardening.

    The store’s chief marketing officer, Anne Banta, said that Kepler’s Q1 revenue for 2006 is down from last year. Looking around, it wasn’t particularly hard to see why. The average age of people in the audience was over 60. That is a minor exaggeration at most. Relying on an aging population as your core customer base is a big problem for a bookstore–an independent bookstore with wildly fluctuating resources. This wouldn’t be a concern if Kepler’s sold hearing aids or walkers. People may become deaf or diasbled after they retire. They do not, however, become serious readers. Research shows that most people become serious readers in childhood and adolescence. Now, the question is, what, if anything, can Kepler’s do to create and hook these people on its store?

    When I lived in New York, my two favorite stores were the Gotham Book Mart and St. Marks Bookshop. I can’t think of two more different independent bookstores in the country.

    During the two years that I shopped at Gotham, I recognized every employee who worked there, and everyone recognized me. The store itself is fairly small, and is home to a cat named Thomas (after Pynchon) and a mess of books, which includes every significant work of fiction published during the past 100 years, and basically any literary journal you can think of. If they are missing something, it’s because it recently sold. (You won’t find twenty copies of the same title that’s only going to sell two.) You might not be able to find what you’re looking for, but I’ll guarantee you that the employees can.

    The employees are largely what make this store great. (John Updike has called it his “favorite bookstore in North America.”) Although I think of myself as fairly well-read, the employees at Gotham must read about five times more than I do that because I would always walk out with books that one of them brought up during conversation and that I hadn’t even heard of when I entered the store. These people have recommendations and lots of them. Their literary prolificacy makes them trustworthy. They rave about books that haven’t even been released yet and then let you borrow the store’s advance copies to see for yourself. These people know their books, and they want to proactively share them with their customers. Did I mention that Gotham doesn’t even have a website?

    Of course, the Gotham way of highly personalized customer service is not the only successful model I’ve observed in independent bookstores. About 10 minutes by subway from Gotham in the East Village is St. Marks Bookshop. This store is clean and well-lighted like Kepler’s. All the books there are on shelves, i.e. none are stacked on the floor. While Gotham closes early, St. Marks is open late. I have never seen a pet inside St. Marks. The management’s instructions to its employees can be summed up like this: “Customers know what they want. Do not talk to them. Do not approach them. Do not bother them. If they have questions, they will find you and ask.” The employees at St. Marks know their stuff, they just won’t share anything unless you ask them. The store has one of the best selections of fiction, art books, and critical theory that I have found anywhere. It does not carry self-help books, sports books, or computer books. It does not sell board games or toys. I’ve found the selection at Kepler’s increasingly disappointing, and it was not uncommon for there to be no copies of The Great Gatsby or the USA Trilogy or Pale Fire on the shelves for weeks at a time.

    I don’t think that Kepler’s will or should adopt one model or the other entirely, but there are lessons to be learned from each about how you can build a loyal customer base. Kepler’s seems to think you can do this by letting people take our PBS-style memberships that will supposedly make them feel good about supporting a local institution. I have no problem supporting Kepler’s, and would gladly write them a check if I felt like the store was moving in the right direction. However, the literary journals that once lined the shelves between the front registers and the magazine racks have been replaced by children’s games. (Again, this–all these non-book items–seem to me a bid to compete with Borders in Palo Alto, which is probably a bad move. To stock items that have higher profit margins than books is an excellent idea, but to do so at the expense of your primary product is not such a good idea.

    Moreover, in its expectation that customers–or members–treat it essentially as a non-profit, Kepler’s should adopt more of the responsibility and transparency to its members (donors) that comes with being a non-profit. Banta’s report that the store’s Q1 revenue for this year is below last year’s is vague, lacking hard numbers and unexplained. Are people buying fewer books? Fewer magazines? Is it because the store isn’t open as many hours during the week? Is it because the events have been poor?

    Oh, the events. Last night a four-page market research survey was distributed to members. On it, I ranked events as the most important thing I want improved at Kepler’s. I’m aware that the store won’t compete in selection with Stanford or Cody’s or Green Apple, but they can–or at least could–compete on the strength of their author events. Last year at this time, I was looking forward to seeing Jonathan Safran Foer, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Phil Lesh all read at Kepler’s. I have looked at this year’s events calendar, and have essentially no interest in all but maybe–just maybe–one of the events. Meanwhile, I will be attending events that I am interested in at Booksmith, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, and Cody’s.

    Of course, I should point out that my survey probably has very little value to people like Banta because I am 24 years old and spend thousands of dollars a year at independent bookstores. In other words, I am an anomaly. However, on the other hand, who better to listen to when deciding how to shape the future of Kepler’s than someone like me who is a serious reader–someone who buys and reads a large number of books; someone who has been to a lot of author events and bookstores all over the country; someone who has worked for both bookstores and book publishers–someone who cares deeply about Kepler’s? When I started this site to help save Keplers, I envisioned the store using its reopening as an opportunity to remake itself. I’m aware that not even half a year has elapsed yet since the reopening, and that to judge its progress at this point is probably unfair. However, to not judge at all would offer no chance for the improvement that I hope is still possible.

    One final note, the April issue of Inc. magazine has the first in a series of articles by Bo Burlingham about the resurrection of Kepler’s. Burlingham was at the event last night and passed out copies of the magazine to Clark Kepler, others, and me. The cover slug for the story says, “Can the Best Minds in Silicon Valley Save an Old-Economy Business?” It’s nice to be called, hyperbolically, one of the best minds in the Valley, but I would much rather have Safran Foer or Ishiguro or Eggers or Lethem reading at Kepler’s.

    Remainders

    Jane Meyer’s February article from the New Yorker about Alberto Mora’s fight against the administration regarding our country’s torture policies is required reading.

    Andrew’s blog has a hilarious post about a large number of WikiPedia entries that all came from a high school in Illinois.

    Is it surprising that the authenticity of Picasso drawings for sale at Costco has come into question?

    Vaughn pointed out this article about Michel Houellebecq’s new book.

    Here is the commencement speech that Bono gave at Harvard in 2001.