KGO reports on the city of Berkeley’s plan to improve conditions along Telegraph Avenue near campus.
And, in a footnote, serious investors interested in preserving the Telegraph location of Cody’s, please email me. (Sorry to be vague about it.)
KGO reports on the city of Berkeley’s plan to improve conditions along Telegraph Avenue near campus.
And, in a footnote, serious investors interested in preserving the Telegraph location of Cody’s, please email me. (Sorry to be vague about it.)
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.
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 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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
Apparently, I’m the last person to read this conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons. In my favorite part, Gladwell and Simmons talk about what makes greatness and why Phil Mickelson will never beat Tiger Woods:
Gladwell: As for your (very kind) question about my writing, I’m not sure I can answer that either, except to say that I really love writing, in a totally uncomplicated way. When I was in high school, I ran track and in the beginning I thought of training as a kind of necessary evil on the way to racing. But then, the more I ran, the more I realized that what I loved was running, and it didn’t much matter to me whether it came in the training form or the racing form. I feel the same way about writing. I’m happy writing anywhere and under any circumstances and in fact I’m now to the point where I’m suspicious of people who don’t love what they do in the same way. I was watching golf, before Christmas, and the announcer said of Phil Mickelson that the tournament was the first time he’d picked up a golf club in five weeks. Assuming that’s true, isn’t that profoundly weird? How can you be one of the top two or three golfers of your generation and go five weeks without doing the thing you love? Did Mickelson also not have sex with his wife for five weeks? Did he give up chocolate for five weeks? Is this some weird golfer’s version of Lent that I’m unaware of? They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I’ve always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky. And surely it’s the explanation as well for why Mickelson will never be Tiger Woods.
Simmons: On Mickelson and Sports Lent, I remember watching one of those 20/20-Dateline-type pieces about him once, and he was adamant about remaining a family man, taking breaks from golf and never letting the sport consume him … and I remember thinking to myself, “Right now Tiger is watching this and thinking, ‘I got him. Cross Phil off the list. This guy will never pass me.'” The great ones aren’t just great, they enjoy what they’re doing —
I enjoyed Michael Silverblatt’s recent interview of DFW on KCRW’s Bookworm. Foster Wallace talks about the essays in his new book, directly addressing his readers, and just general journalistic honesty taken to the extreme.
NPR reports on a speech that Sandra Day O’Connor gave at Georgetown University on Thursday in which she took on Republican criticisms of the judicial system, saying they could lead to—gasp!—dictatorship!
William Easterly has a piece in Monday’s Washington Post about the failure of development aid to help Africa. I’m just finishing Easterly’s previous book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, which is very compelling. This article, however, is a little over the top in its efforts to provoke. Easterly writes:
The West’s focus on sensational tragedies obscures the achievements of people such as Patrick Awuah and Robert Keter, who are succeeding even against tremendous odds. Economic development in Africa will depend — as it has elsewhere and throughout the history of the modern world — on the success of private-sector entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and African political reformers. It will not depend on the activities of patronizing, bureaucratic, unaccountable and poorly informed outsiders.
Check out this heated exchange in the Post that Easterly’s review of Jeffrey Sachs’s book produced last year.
Ted Koppel has an excellent op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times today about the increasing manner in which network news caters to the desires of advertisers.
Most television news programs are therefore designed to satisfy the perceived appetites of our audiences. That may be not only acceptable but unavoidable in entertainment; in news, however, it is the journalists who should be telling their viewers what is important, not the other way around.
The accusation that television news has a political agenda misses the point. Right now, the main agenda is to give people what they want. It is not partisanship but profitability that shapes what you see.
Reaching across the entire spectrum of American television viewers is precisely the broadcast networks’ greatest strength. By focusing only on key demographics, by choosing to ignore their total viewership, they have surrendered their greatest advantage.
I managed to miss posting the link to this interview with Jonathan Lethem, which is required reading for everyone who cares about literature or art or anything, or, well, just anyone.
Nicholas Kristof reviews two new books about genocide in Sudan in the current New York Review of Books. The highlights:
You expect that from time to time, a government may attack some part of its own people, but you might hope that by the twenty-first century the world would react. Alas, that hasn’t happened. Indeed, the Armenian genocide of 1915 arguably provoked greater popular outrage in America at the time than the Darfur genocide does today.
The most feasible option is to convert [African Union Forces] into a “blue-hat” UN force and add to them UN and NATO forces. The US could easily enforce a no-fly zone in Darfur by using the nearby Chadian air base in Abeché. Then it could make a strong effort to arrange for tribal conferences—the traditional method of conflict settlement in Darfur—and there is reason to hope that such conferences could work to achieve peace. The Arab tribes have been hurt by the war as well, and the tribal elders are much more willing to negotiate than the Sudan government and the rebel leaders who are the parties to the current peace negotiations.
Some organizations, like Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, have also produced a series of excellent reports on Darfur—underscoring that this time the nations of the world know exactly what they are turning away from and cannot claim ignorance.
Once again, the international response has been to debate whether the word “genocide” is really appropriate, to point out that the situation is immensely complex, to shrug that it’s horrifying but that there’s nothing much we can do. The slogan “Never Again” is being transformed into “One More Time.”
Perhaps, the media should devote less coverage to James Frey and more to Sudan? Or at least to J.T. LeRoy, whose work and fabrications are far more impressive than Frey’s.
All this should be balanced by a little levity: The Worst Job Ever.
The Times has some interesting articles in today’s paper beginning with an article on the increasing use of privacy software and internet anonymizers:
A few reasons exist for the surge, which is hard to measure – it is nearly impossible to track how many people have made themselves invisible online. People who want to continue to swap music via the Internet but fear lawsuits brought by the recording industry want to hide their identity. Some people wish to describe personal experiences that could land them in jail. And some Web authors share their thoughts about repressive regimes and face government reprisal if they are caught.
Additionally, Kate Hafner has an analysis of the government’s subpoenas of search engine companies and how internet users have been responding. She writes:
The government has been more aggressive recently in its efforts to obtain data on Internet activity, invoking the fight against terrorism and the prosecution of online crime. A surveillance program in which the National Security Agency intercepted certain international phone calls and e-mail in the United States without court-approved warrants prompted an outcry among civil libertarians. And under the antiterrorism USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has demanded records on library patrons’ Internet use.
Those actions have put some Internet users on edge, as they confront the complications and contradictions of online life.
Adam Liptak writes that the subpoena really has nothing to do with the privacy of Google’s users:
the case itself, according to people involved in it and scholars who are following it, has almost nothing to do with privacy. It will turn, instead, on serious but relatively routine questions about trade secrets and civil procedure.
Google, who has thus far resisted the government’s subpoena and request for information, is launching a Chinese version of its web services at Google.cn.
Google is citing a number of reasons for resisting the government’s subpoena, including concern about trade secrets and the burden of compliance. While it does not directly assert that surrendering the data would expose personal information, it has told the government that “one can envision scenarios where queries alone could reveal identifying information about a specific Google user, which is another outcome that Google cannot accept.”
Google’s new Chinese platform, which will not allow users to create personal links with Google e-mail or blog sites, will comply with Chinese law and censor information deemed inappropriate or illegal by the Chinese authorities. This approach might help the company navigate the legal thickets that competitors have encountered in China.
Foreign companies say they must abide by Chinese laws and pass personal information about users on to the Chinese government. In one case two years ago, Yahoo provided information that helped the government convict a Chinese journalist, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, on charges of leaking state secrets to a foreign Web site.
Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has grown to the fourth largest in the world.
Stanford has been making various podcasts available for download on iTunes. Among their offerings are podcasts from Tobias Wolff, Ann Packer, Michael Chabon, and others.
Mario Lemieux retired from the NHL today, saying, “I can no longer play at the level that I was accustomed to in the past and that has been very, very frustrating to me.”
Jonathan Yardley remembers John Gregory Dunne in Sunday’s Washington Post. He likens Dunne to my favorite author:
In certain respects, the American writer whom Dunne most resembles is his fellow Irishman and fellow (lapsed) Catholic, F. Scott Fitzgerald. To be sure, Fitzgerald was an outsider who wanted in, while Dunne liked the outside just fine, thank you, but each of them cast a cool eye on American crudity and kitsch, and each found something to admire in the American who longed to move from corruption to respectability. Dunne’s relatively neglected novel Playland is his riff on The Great Gatsby , its narrator Jack Broderick is his Nick Carraway, and its repentant mobster Jake King is his Jay Gatsby.
Yardley had previously reviewed Didion’s memoir here.
John Lanchester asks, “Is Google a good thing?” in the London Review of Books and concludes:
The best historical analogy for where Google is today probably comes from the time when the railroads were being built. Everyone knew that trains and railways would change the world, but no one predicted the invention of suburbs. Google, and the increased flow of information on which it rides and from which it benefits, is the railway. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the first suburbs.
Amy Tan will be reading at Kepler’s on Tuesday, January 24 at 7:30 pm. This is the only event that has been announced so far for the winter literary season. I’m wondering where all the other events are. There are many authors with books coming out in the next few months that we’re interested in: Colson Whitehead, William Easterly, Frances Mayes, Amartya Sen, Lawrence Weschler. Will Kepler’s get any of these authors to do in-store events? We’ll see.
Turkey has dropped its charges against novelist Orhan Pamuk for “insulting the Turkish identity” by making reference to the Armenian genocide in an interview he gave to Das Magazine in 2005.
Kepler’s has yet to name the fifth member of its Board of Directors. In a letter to the editor of the San Jose Mercury on September 21, I called for Kepler’s to name a local author to the board:
Monday’s announcement of a patron’s circle of investors and a board of directors in the effort to save Kepler’s Books is a welcomed one. However, I was disappointed when I learned the makeup of the board of directors. Kepler’s undoubtedly needs a group to oversee its business operations, and the named members of the board are obviously qualified to do this and committed to the store. However, readers and writers are the people who make a bookstore, and Kepler’s should allocate at least one seat on its board to someone with a purely literary interest in the store–say, a local author or teacher.
Money and marketing expertise may allow Kepler’s to reopen, but what will make it survive and succeed are the people who get hooked on the store and its books and then bring their friends who end up doing the same. For this to happen, Kepler’s will need to remake itself to thrive both literally and literarily.
This, apparently, isn’t going to happen.
Kepler’s has a nice little pamphlet with its holiday gift picks. However, a wildly disproportionate number of these picks are nonfiction or popular fiction. With literary fiction making up less than 4% of the books sold in this country, it the responsibility of pushing fiction titles falls squarely on the shoulders on independent bookstores. There was no shortage of excellent literary fiction titles this year, with new books from Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Francine Prose. Although Kepler’s has always had good table fiction, their register display seems to contain an increasing number of nonfiction and popular fiction titles. The only work of literary fiction I recall from my weekend visit is Zadie Smith’s excellent novel On Beauty.
Kepler’s is having an after-Thanksgiving sale this weekend (November 25-27) with all books in its Holiday Showcase–about 500 new releases–discounted by 20%. Start your shopping.
Kepler’s will be putting on a series of readings around town on Thursday, November 3. Here is the lineup:
Jerome Karabel, UC Berkeley professor and author of numerous articles on higher education and social inequality, introduces his new book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – 5:30 p.m. at Kepler’s, free admission
Tobias Wolff, Stanford professor and author of numerous books, including: Old School – 7:30 p.m. at Menlo College Dining Hall, free admission
Barry Eisler, Menlo Park author of the award-winning Rain thriller series, featuring “natural causes” assassin John Rain – 7:30 p.m. at Menlo Park City Council Chambers, free admission
Ann Packer, national award-winning northern California author of The Dive from Clausen‘s Pier – 7:30 p.m. at Trellis Restaurant, Menlo Park (dessert served), limited to 40 guests, free admission
Dinner/Author Event with Palo Alto’s Firoozeh Dumas, the author of Funny in Farsi, A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America, who will discuss the food, culture, and insightful experiences of growing up Iranian in America. – 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. at private residence. Hors d’oeuvres and Persian dinner will be served. Limited to 40 guests. Members: $85 per person. Public/Non-Members: $125 per person. For reservations call (650) 462-5501 Mon – Fri, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
John Doerr, well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist and board member at Amazon, interestingly is listed among those who contributed $25,000 or more to reopen Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park.
Menlo Park is the location of his venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and he lives just up the road in Woodside.
It is noteworthy because Kepler’s said it went out of business in August because of lost sales to big chains and online merchants like Amazon.com.
Of course, anybody supporting one doesn’t necessarily need to be against the other: “For example, I shop at both Amazon and Kepler’s at times. They serve different purposes,” said Mike Masnick, co-author of the Techdirt blog at www.techdirt.com.