April 11, 2016

Scorched Earth – Bathroom Bills and Boycott in North Carolina

maxresdefaultWell, I’m in a fix. Last month, North Carolina passed a law that requires transgender people to use public bathrooms according to the gender they were assigned at birth. This isn’t a shocker, and North Carolina isn’t by itself.  Nearly 200 anti-lgbt laws have been introduced in many states since January including in my own state of Missouri. North Carolina  isn’t even the first to introduce a “bathroom bill” nor are the citizens of North Carolina more bigoted than citizens of any other state – but they are the first in this current volley of activism against lgbt rights to be boycotted by Bruce Springsteen.

mainsignI’m not gonna lie. When I read that, I felt vindicated for spending my adolescence idolizing The Boss and learning all the lyrics to every song on the Born in the USA cassette tape my best friend had in her basement, my ear close to the jam box speaker. I wanted to be Bruce. After I transitioned from female to male I realized I couldn’t pull off his look, hard as I tried, but damn I felt validated.  I felt SEEN, actually seen by Bruce!
And I’m no stranger to protest. I’m no stranger to activism. I’m all about boycott when it targets obscene abuse of power.  There are few things more satisfying in a David v Goliath battle than the support of the masses – a revolution built by the common man and the miracle of social change by the will of the people. It’s intoxicating.


And just so we’re clear – bathroom bills such as this would require me to use the women’s restroom.

For this wave of revolution to be in support of me and my transgender brothers and sisters – well, that just brings tears to my eyes.  I’ve been denied healthcare, neglected in hospitals, insulted and verbally assaulted, laughed at, ignored, and yes – chased out of bathrooms (then followed to my car afterward).  People in my own queer community have mocked my identity right in front of me. Out loud. Being transgender isn’t a fad or a phase or a fashion statement. It’s dangerous.  People act like bathroom bills are about protecting innocent young women from predators, but what they’re really about is isolating the “other” and publicly shaming and shunning them. The violence that happens in a public restroom with a trans person in it happens to the trans person.

The other part of my identity is my role as an independent bookseller, and therein lies the struggle. When I saw this open letter from 269 children’s book authors and illustrators I thought, “Oh my god – my industry -MY PEOPLE support me.” They in no uncertain terms condemned this hateful legislation and stated they would boycott NC too.

And then my spirits crashed.

Here’s an excerpt. “…But you have our word that we will never abandon our thousands and thousands of readers in North Carolina. We stand with those who share our guiding principles and fundamental beliefs of equality, inclusion,and fair treatment. Thus, we will continue to visit your schools and libraries. ” (bold and italics mine)

What this means in reality is that they’re boycotting independent bookstores located in North Carolina. According to Malaprop’s Bookstore in North Carolina, Sherman Alexie was the first to cancel an event with them.  I love Sherman Alexie almost as much as I love Bruce, but I have to speak truth – cancelling appearances with independent bookstore because of the bathroom bill while keeping appearances at schools and libraries is wrong.


While I wholeheartedly support pretty much any tactic to fight these regressive, hateful laws that target trans people, Malaprop’s are the good guys. They’re a lot like Left Bank Books in that they’re a progressive independent bookstore in a conservative state. Sometimes it’s necessary when protesting to be sure you’re not throwing away the good with the bad. Scorched earth just leaves ash.

When I made this point on Facebook I got pushback. “Boycott all or nothing.” “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the common good.” “Entire forests can grow from the ash.”

Like I said, revolution is intoxicating.

But if I may, let me suggest this – I get sacrifice for greater good, but why sacrifice an ally who actively works toward the same goal? What other allies would we sacrifice? And then, once allies are sacrificed, what is the greater good?

concertBruce Springsteen cancelled a show at the Greensboro Coliseum, which is “one of the most actively booked facilities in the country hosting more than 1,100 events on an annual basis” according to their website – that’s 22,000 seats filled 1100 times a year – which means over 20 million tickets and untold ticket revenue that has not paid for gender neutral bathrooms, hasn’t hosted talks about the issue and hasn’t used that considerable clout to persuade their home state to treat trans people fairly.

malaprops_bookstore_cafe_logo_040716Malaprop’s, by contrast, uses a yearly revenue of at most .2% of that venue’s revenue to do all of those things and more – and the authors who are cancelling are still going to North Carolina – they’re just skipping the bookstores in favor of libraries and schools.

One boycott makes a statement by interrupting an obscene flow of cash and making a point to thousands of people by interrupting their plans. The other destroys an ally that is making every good faith effort to be the change the state seeks. It would be like boycotting MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, the coffeehouse at the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement in St. Louis, because of racism in Missouri courts.

None of our states are innocent of bigotry against transgender people. In 2015, more transgender people were murdered than in any other year on record. In fact, I can’t think of a single place where I can, even 12 years into my transition, relax in my body. Protest is necessary. Revolution is necessary.  But we must support the allies who support us.  We cannot allow them to be swept up as collateral damage in our quest for social justice – especially when the goal we seek is a more humane world for the underdog.

August 11, 2015

A Matter of Words – Losing a Customer and Opening a Conversation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 6:20 pm
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday, we received an anonymous letter in response to this window display commemorating the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting:


There was no return address, and it wasn’t signed.  It was a very short message on a note card telling us that we had lost a customer.  In it, the person said we stoked the flames of enmity between races and promoted division.  The person asked us why we insisted upon doing that.

It’s hard to know how to respond.  What I want to do is call up the customer and chat.  I want to take him or her out for coffee and talk about what those three words mean and why I and our store feel compelled to repeat them in a window along a busy street in what seems to some to be an act of ill will.

There is no way to do that in this case so allow me to publicly answer this letter in hopes that it reaches the person who wrote it or those who agree with its sentiments.

In all honesty, the window makes me nervous.  I come to work every day with the news of protests in our city rattling around in my head.  I worry (justifiably it seems) that we’ll lose customers. I worry that some great books aren’t getting space in that window. I worry that those who sympathize with the message will think we’re trying to cash in on a civil rights movement.

I worry a lot about a lot of things.

I’m a 42 year-old white transgender man. My family’s white. Most of my friends are white. I married two white people and gave birth to a white son. I come from a long line of white people, most of whom had white kids, white friends, white spouses and lived in the middle of America in and around a small town whose largest structure is a metal cross erected along one of the two interstates that bisect it.

Race wasn’t much of a topic of discussion in my life, in that town, in that family – mostly because there were so many white people around us, and it would be easy (and comfortable) if we used that lack of awareness of racial politics to say we weren’t racist.  After all, I didn’t beat anyone up because of their race. My dad didn’t forbid me or my sisters from dating Black people. We all went to church and promised to love one another as God loved us.  We were kind to our neighbors (most of the time) and worked hard.  Worked all the time. Worked and wondered if it would be enough.  Worked even though we knew it probably wasn’t enough. We didn’t set out to hurt anyone.

We’re nice people, and when you’re a nice person, it surprises and hurts when you think you’ve walked a good path and then you’re confronted with evidence that you’ve injured someone. You feel that your character has been attacked, and when you feel attacked, the natural thing to do is defend yourself. You point to all of the evidence that you are a good person.  A peaceful person.

You use your arguments to defeat this attack.

You have black friends, black family members, black co-workers, black heroes.  You don’t need to be told about racism or white privilege. In fact, you might think this whole movement just stirs the pot and creates more trouble than it solves.  It makes people angry and falls on deaf ears. Why, you may ask, do we insist upon bringing it up time and again?

Here’s why.

  • Because even though I can point to the exact moment I heard my mother use the word bitch for the first time, I don’t actually remember the first time I heard the word nigger.  I don’t remember not knowing what it meant and who it was meant for.
  • Because that word was (and still is in some places) commonly used as a prefix for words when the action or status was incompetent, unreliable or sinister – __rig, __knock, __rich __lover.
  • Because the lone Black kid in third grade only lasted a year before his family moved away.
  • Because I can sing the theme songs to Family Ties, the Brady Bunch, the Andy Griffith Show, MASH, the Facts of Life, Friends, Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger and probably hundreds more tv shows beloved to me that featured white families, white friends, white struggles and the occasional black character, but I have to struggle to remember the handful of tv shows featuring people of color.
  • Because when a group of black women attended our church for one reason or another when I was a kid, the occasion was so momentous that a photo of them sitting on our couch in our trailer still lives in the family photo album 35 years later.
  • Because I had a very real, very enlightening conversation with my brown skinned son as recently as this week about his hurt feelings on account of close (white) family members remarking on his (black) friends and (public) school.
  • Because after about 20 years of actively trying to unlearn all of the above, I still make mental corrections, and know that those white people who grew up around me, raised me, were raised by me and wandered in and out of my life do it too even if (especially if?) they are making an effort to be white allies.

My white family, my white friends, white son, white ex lovers are all, each and every one, lovable.

Yes, we’ve loved each other.  Yes, we’re good friends.  We’re compassionate, funny, smart, daring, hard-working and loyal. And we did all of that in a country where we get credit for being all of those things and doing all of those things and know that those things make our lives valuable.  We are privileged to be able to apply for a job, go to college, drive, shop, run through the park, own a firearm, barbecue, apply for a driver’s license, throw a party, swim and be angry in public without representing all white people when we do it.  We don’t have to be the BEST athlete, the RICHEST musician, the MOST POWERFUL leader in the free world, the SMARTEST student in the class to justify our place in sports, music, politics and school.

We live ordinary lives and occasionally some of us do extraordinary things, and our lives matter and our right to our dignity is hard coded into our social pact. The pedigree of all of those things is present and unspoken.

As my partner, Kris said – White privilege is really permission to be ordinary.

These are privileges might’ve refused if we had been asked, privileges we don’t feel like we have, resent having, or resent having to defend ourselves because of.  But those privileges are still ours.  We’re stuck with them.

What I wish I could convey – white person to white person – is that Black Lives Matter does not mean White People are Bad.  It never did.  Saying someone matters does not mean that nobody else matters.  It just says to someone who feels invisible, “I see you and I value you.”

ferg1As a business owner, there is nothing more awful than losing support. It’s scary to think that the livelihoods of the 15 people on staff here can be jeopardized, but we have to be true to the values of this store and its commitment to our community.  Kris and I wouldn’t respect ourselves if we didn’t.

I only hope that when this former customer tells his or her friends why they don’t shop here anymore, that even the loss of their business will prompt a deep discussion between them and their family and friends about race in this city.

To the person who wrote to us – 

I hope that you’ll see the ways we’ve tried to promote constructive discussions about race – our ongoing Ferguson Reading Group, our event with Carol Swartout Klein for her book Painting for Peace in Ferguson, our event with Leah Gunning Francis for her book Ferguson and Faith, the Listen. Talk. Learn. session we hosted with Diversity Awareness Partnership.

I want you to know that our door, hearts and arms are open to you and all others always.

If you do make the switch to Amazon I hope that you’ll keep reading.  As my departing book recommendation to you, I suggest you order Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  For more reading, try our Black Lives Matter Reading List.

We love St. Louis and the rich and various communities and cultures that make up our town.  If we insist on anything, we insist that St. Louis keeps moving, however painfully, toward a better future.

IMAG1260_2Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful week.

Best regards,

Jarek Steele

Co-Owner, Left Bank Books

June 3, 2015

The Bare Minimum – a Small Business Perspective on $15 Per Hour

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 9:37 am
Tags: , , , ,

I don’t pay my employees enough.  That’s hard to admit.

I mean, I don’t cross picket lines, I’m a patient driver, I garden vegetables and work in my wood shop, I love animals and people, and I can get along with just about anyone.  I’m a good guy.  And my staff are not just employees to me. I see their talents, their struggles, their hopes and dreams – their lives mean something to me.  They are my friends.

They’re no slouches, either. Among us we have published writers, artists, aspiring lawyers, career booksellers, political activists, bartenders, actors and photographers.  My store is not a place one goes to wash out – it’s a place one goes to click in.

Still, I know they (we) struggle. I’ve only managed to bring the starting salary about .75 above minimum plus free health insurance, book credit, bonuses at the end of the year and an atonal cacophony of booksellers singing happy birthday for each person once a year. It’s enough to make most happy, but not enough to make anyone comfortable.  It’s not even enough to make most people solvent, and it bothers me.

I’ve had an Excel file titled “Payroll Increase Worksheet” active on my desktop for years.  A few times a month I open it and stare at it, willing it into fruition.  I saw a headline today that our mayor wants to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020, so I opened my worksheet again.

I’ve heard people get angry that someone working at McDonald’s would make more than some teachers do now with a wage increase.

I’ve seen Facebook posts about forcing these huge corporations with mountains of cash to be decent to their workers.

We argue over worth – who deserves which wage, what job merits more than another and accuse each other of greed and laziness. It’s an argument rooted in the insecurity that we’ll somehow be left behind, that our hard work won’t be deemed as worthy as the next.

Nobody wants to be conned. Nobody wants to be left holding the bag.

I’m not the kind of guy who thinks $15 per hour is out of line for a minimum wage for anyone. In fact, I think the minimum wage should be tied to the rising cost of living. I think of many of my relatives (and myself in past jobs) making the minimum and know that standing at a fry vat doesn’t seem glamourous or heroic unless you know that the person standing there supports kids or parents or sisters and brothers by serving you your extra value meal. Why don’t they deserve a fair wage? What have they done wrong?

And yet, when I think of giving an across the board raise of nearly 45% in my own business, my stomach clinches. Before you encourage me to take less home, I’ll tell you that I’ve had only two raises since I became an owner. I’ve been with the store 13 years.

Before you tell me I shouldn’t be in business if I don’t want to pay a living wage, I’ll tell you that I’ve struggled deeply with that, and almost agreed with it until I realized that I was falling into the same trap as the argument I described above – that somehow my job of keeping a worthy cultural institution afloat was somehow greedy if I struggled with payroll. It’s something I know well from my own life- poverty shaming- and it’s cruel.

So I have a dilemma that I don’t think I can solve here, but let me just talk this through.

Here’s how the math works in small businesses like mine:

  • A hardcover book retails at about $25.
  • I pay the publisher $13.75 for that book.
  • The remaining $11.25 is used to pay the rent, electricity, gas, insurance, payroll, licenses, advertising and other business costs.
  • Many people buy paperbacks, which retail at about $15 per book. $8.25 of each book goes to the publisher.
  • Most independent bookstores operate on a net profit of about 2% (or .50 of that hardcover book and .30 of that paperback).

Yes, it’s tight.

I won’t publish the finances of my store, (although my staff gets a full report every month), but here’s an image of a payroll calculator created by the American Booksellers Association to illustrate what increases to payroll do to a store’s income. (Note, these aren’t actual figures from my store.)

Hypothetical budget before increase.

Hypothetical budget before increase.

Hypothetical budget after increase.

Hypothetical budget after increase.

So here’s the dilemma:

We can’t raise the prices of books the way a restaurant can raise the prices of hamburgers.  My hands are tied there. In fact, in the age of Amazon, people want a discount.

We work on a pretty tight budget and have an excellent relationship with our landlord.  Our credit is good. Our relationships with our community are excellent.  We do over 250 literary events per year – more than anyone else in the city – and we’re open 7 days per week. We sell to businesses, schools, churches and other places.

Business is good, and we need all 15 full and part-time people on our staff plus two working owners.

I’m the master of making shoestring budgets work, and I’m willing – ready – to give my employees the salary they deserve.  


The question is how we can raise the minimum wage to meet the cost of living and keep businesses like mine afloat.  After all, nobody gets paid if there’s no business.

A Few Thoughts:

In order to make this work, we’ll have to be sane about how to do it and make the playing field a bit more level.

  • If the minimum wage in St. Louis is higher than it is a mile away in University City, new (and existing) small businesses would find it hard to justify a higher cost of doing business in the city. My mandatory minimum wage would be higher than every single other bookstore in the area. How’s that for an unlevel playing field? Yes, I’ll stick with my city. I love it. But my city needs to stick with me and work with me to make this attainable.
  • The increase needs to be gradual.  Adding $162,240 per year to a tight budget like above would be catastrophic.  We have to have time to adapt.
  • Make other fixed expenses easier to reach.  Give tax and other incentives to landlords to rent to locally owned independent businesses at reasonable rates.
  • Reduce fees and taxes for small businesses like ours so we can use that money toward payroll.
  • DON’T provide tax incentives and rebates to huge out of town corporations to come to our city/state and displace existing local businesses.
  • Collect sales tax from Amazon and other online retailers.  It isn’t a new tax. In fact, we pay it every month, but out of state retailers don’t have to – which is not only supremely unfair, it doesn’t make any sense.  According to Caroline Bruckner of Kogod School of Business at American University, if every state including Missouri collected the sales tax they were due, the revenue from online sales would be 20 Billion dollars a year.  It would not only level the playing field for businesses like mine, it would generate tons of income for things like schools, roads and community development. More on that subject can be found here.
  • This next part is simple, but key – shop here.  If people are making more money, that money needs to be spent locally. Local businesses return more then three times as much money to the local economy than chain stores. And believe me, Amazon doesn’t care about replacing the bridge on Kingshighway, and they definitely won’t bring your favorite author to town so you can meet them.
  • (added 6/10/15) Take into consideration the entire benefits package.  My store offers free health insurance including health, vision and dental, up to three weeks vacation plus one week of sick time per year. Investing in our staff’s health and well being creates a return that benefits everyone involved. Less stress on the worker, more productivity from healthy employees and better morale overall. Maybe instead of looking at a strict cash minimum, credit could be given for the value of the entire benefits package.

It comes down to this – It’s not too much to ask to raise the minimum wage. It’s not too much to ask of our society to protect and support its workers. It’s not too much to ask of our community to support its small businesses. It’s not too much to ask to respect both sides of this issue and come up with a good plan that works for us all.

We’re smart people. We can figure this out.

We have to.

February 28, 2014

Chasing Gillian – A critique of Adam by Ariel Schrag

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 11:34 am

Is it Level?

Well, this is problematic.  I don’t have anything against Ariel Schrag, per say like I do Norah Vincent  (the reasons for which I could describe at length). Schrag is a talented writer.   Adam  opens with a crushingly awkward and awesome scene where Adam, the 17-year-old protagonist tries to make out with a pretty girl in her bedroom while she IMs her other friends.  It sucked me in, I’ll admit.  When I picked the Advance Reading Copy off of a pile in my hallway to break my reading slump, I thought I was in for a light young adult novel – and it is, really – teenage protagonist, absent adults, adventure to new city, first-time sex.  Plus the blurb on the front was written by none other than Alison Bechdel , I mean holy crap, I love pretty much everything she’s done.

Synopsis:  Adam, socially awkward, 17 year old…

View original post 670 more words

September 26, 2013

A Small Business Response to Obamacare

Left Bank Books pays 100% of our full-time employees’ health insurance premium.

I’d like you to let that sink in for a moment, because this fact is one of the reasons I decided to become an owner of this St. Louis institution.  

I’ll also let you in on another secret – by the end of this year, my bookstore will have paid $270,550 over the past five years for health insurance.  Our group is (obviously) small; an average of 12 people are enrolled.  Each bookseller’s premium averages out to about $415 per month.  We each have a $5000 deductible.

To put that into perspective, the average paperback retails at about $15.  We pay about $8.25 to the publisher, leaving us $6.75 to pay all other expenses (rent, payroll, electricity and, yes, health insurance).  That means that we have had to sell 40,082 paperbacks at full cost to pay for health insurance alone since 2009.  

The message being blasted from the rooftops of opponents of Obamacare this week is that those figures I just gave you are precisely why Obamacare is unfair – that it will put a burden on individuals and small businesses like mine, and force us to increase what we spend on Health Care.  They don’t want you to know that many small businesses like mine actually think that having health insurance is an important aspect of having a functional, happier, healthier, more productive employee.

In fact, the state of Missouri rejected the whole idea, forcing the federal government to manage the healthcare exchange here and went one step further and forbid “navigators” from even helping anyone obtain insurance from the federal exchange.  That means that not only are our state’s citizens on our own, but the public servants who we pay with our taxes cannot even talk to us about this.

I’ve got to say, I’ve been worried.  That’s what happens when information is censored before it reaches you. When the only message you hear is the one that frightens you, the impulse can be to dig in and resist.  But now some actual facts are making it into this debate.  I found this chart this morning on CNNMoney:

The Obamacare premiums will cost less than predicted, according to data released Wednesday by the Obama administration.

Take a look at the middle set of figures.  The monthly premium for someone in Missouri is $220 – $195 per month less than what we currently pay.

Granted, I haven’t seen the policy or what the deductible will be.  Granted, this set of figures applies to individuals, not small businesses on the SHOP Exchange.  Granted, my company has bigger battles on its horizon as Amazon sucks the economy into its vortex.

But I can’t help but be hopeful today.  Even if the deductible is high, it can’t be higher than the ridiculous amount we’re responsible for now.  Plus, the rates for small businesses are bound to be just as good as individual rates.  As for Amazon, that’s a whole other subject about which I’ve been very vocal.  If you’re interested, you can look at ABA CEO Oren Teicher’s August 8 letter to the members of the organization.  He sums it up nicely.

I’ll write again after October 1, when I’m able to have a look at the exchange, but for now, for this small business in the reddest of all red states – count me in.

June 22, 2013

I’m Sorry Y’all

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 8:44 am


Dear Paula Deen,

I know you are having a BAD WEEK.  First, you get inexplicably outed by the National Enquirer for remarks that you think are perfectly ok. Remarks about people of color especially.  And then somehow, everyone gets all up in your business about it. These remarks, incidentally, display a deeply imbedded racism so obviously part of your cultural dna that you seem to be more confused than sorry.  You were so confused you were a no-show on the Today Show this morning.   Now the media, while simultaneously enjoying this moment of deep-fried dirt, can also put you on the “black”-list. Sorry Paula. That’s what it’s called.

Lawyer: Have you ever used the N-word yourself?
Deen: Yes, of course.

As if this weren’t enough, someone told you to make a You Tube video to apologize. Not your best recorded moment, I must say. You seemed, well bewildered to find yourself sitting…

View original post 1,155 more words

March 28, 2013

Goodbye Goodreads – How Amazon will ruin a Good thing.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 7:49 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Perky snapshot of the happy couple gripping their departing souls.

I saw the news first in a series of notifications that Facebook sent me on my phone alerting me that people were commenting on a post I had made on the Left Bank Books page.  I hadn’t actually made a post today, so imagine my surprise that we were getting so much attention!

After struggling to find the actual post on my phone for a few panicked minutes I resorted to firing up ye olde laptop, and there it was, the offending status.

Apparently while I was away from the switch today, one of my alert co-workers posted the news that only comes as a shock to those who think Amazon or Goodreads gives one flying.. well, you know.. about stupid little things like diversity, independence and healthy competition in the book industry.  Goodreads sold out to Amazon.


After a couple of seconds of scrolling through my friends’ statuses, I found the link to Goodreads announcement promising “exciting news” complete with a perky picture of Otis and Elizabeth, founders of Goodreads, clutching Kindles with Goodreads stickers on them.

I scanned the message and found the usual blather about being able to “touch millions of people” and blah blah blah.  Then in the second paragraph I just had to stop for a second.  “We truly could not think of a more perfect partner for Goodreads as we both share a love of books and an appreciation for the authors who write them.”

Here’s my message for Goodreads –

Really, Goodreads?  You’ve forsaken all the other opportunities to partner with independent bookstores, Kobo, even Barnes & Noble & the Nook?  How about iPad?  Also, who at Amazon has a love of books or authors?

And who, for the love of all that is good in the world, will FINALLY notice and successfully challenge Amazon’s blatant attempts – and dare I say it, success – at monopolizing an entire industry?

I’ve had my issues with Goodreads before, and truthfully I’ve been way too preoccupied with running my own bookstore to spend much time reviewing books for free for a company who will then use those reviews to sell books somewhere else.  Back when I started my Goodreads account, I noticed that you couldn’t remove the Amazon link from the places to buy the books, but I did settle with including Indiebound and my bookstore among them.  Heck, I even started a Goodreads account for the store and encouraged – yes, that’s right Otis and Elizabeth, encouraged – the booksellers who work with me to review books there so that we could feature those reviews in their staff pick pages on our website to, you know, sell books.  We actually talked about it at staff meetings there for a while, looking for ways to better incorporate Goodreads into our ways of recommending books because you had a pretty cool idea.

I’ve now deleted all the accounts to which I have administrative access.

And, ok sure. Kindle is the Kleenex of e-readers.  And, alright yes, you’ll reach a crap-load of readers, but here’s the bigger picture – and yes there is a bigger picture than Amazon:

You just turned your back on another, more interesting crap-load of readers who use Kobo and Nook and have zero interest in Amazon’s app, Kindle or other godforsaken tool.  And this particular crap-load of readers actually spend more money per e-book, and have stronger loyalty to libraries, independent stores and other bricks and mortar stores – an attitude which, incidentally, nurtures books and reading in a way that selling your reader information to the biggest of all Big Brothers just doesn’t do.  I’ll spare you the speech about supporting local economies, because I do realize it’s too much to ask to call the world around you to your attention on this, your “emotional day” when you feel like a “college graduate.”  I’m so very happy for you that you’ve graduated from the low rent, unwashed masses of independent readers, sellers, writers and publishers who actually built, with the suggestions, recommendations and conversations, the empire you just sold.

p.s. – It doesn’t soften the blow when you mention job offerings.  It just sounds the bell that means you’re going to hire people to accumulate more of our, scratch that, their data to sell.

Anyway, to riff off the Goodreads message:

I’m not excited about this for three reasons:

1. With the reach and resources of Amazon, Goodreads can introduce more readers to our vibrant community of book lovers and create an even better experience for our members and create a more generic and cold experience for your members.

2. Our members have been asking us to bring the Goodreads experience to an e-reader for a long time. Now we’re looking forward to bringing Goodreads to the most popular e-reader in the world, Kindle, and further reinventing what reading can be blowing the opportunity to bring the Goodreads experience to ALL e-readers and tablets in the world.

3. Amazon supports us continuing to grow our vision as an independent entity (so they won’t have to underwrite your operating expenses), under the Goodreads brand (so they can get around monopoly regulations) and with our unique culture (which will gradually be colonized and then assimilated to the Amazon culture, whereupon your brand will disappear and Amazon will take what you’ve given them and watch you fail with glee.)

I’ve reached the end of my interest in this particular subject for the evening.  I’ll drink a toast to your “graduation” when I open my Schlafly Pale Ale.

October 30, 2012

Operation Book Deployment: The Penguin Random House Juggernaut

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:20 am
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Tonight I’m watching Sandy stomp her way inland from the East Coast, infiltrating tunnels, flooding subways, soaking parks and attracting Anderson Cooper and his doppelgangers to the flooded streets like dogs to the cat litter box.

It’s hard not to draw the parallel to the other news taking shape relatively quietly under the noise of the election and stormageddon that Penguin and Random House, two of the biggest, most bloated publishers in the world will merge creating a publishing Superstorm of their very own.

The New York Times article about this is a must read. Especially this little gem where they report Penguin Random House will “invest in books and in new ways of deploying them.” (apparently we deploy books like unmanned drones now) “This could include digital platforms for selling books directly to consumers… as well as new digital formats.” [italics and sarcasm mine] Awesome. Now bookstores can compete against publishers AND Amazon. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t want to destroy bookselling? Anyone?

Let’s just dial it back a tick and take a good look at what’s going on here, shall we?

The United States Department of (in)Justice looked up from their Kindles briefly to side with Amazon on the Agency Model lawsuit – a decision that was as patently ridiculous as the Seahawks/Packers Replacement Ref call – and the heads of virtually every major publisher in the world looked at each other, held up their stock trade orders high above their heads and said in unison “SELL.”

Why?  Because the Agency Model allowed the publishers and bookstores to combat the rape of the the bookselling industry by Amazon.  Now that the assault is legitimized by the government, publishing is trying to find a way to shut that whole thing down.

What do you do when your company has no control over its profit margin and is being willfully undercut by it’s main customer?  If you own an independent bookstore, you call that a normal day.  If you’re a corporate giant like Penguin, you merge with another more powerful giant so that you have bargaining power.

But what does this mean for the other 99%?  The authors, the booksellers, the readers?  It means less competition.  For everything.  And that, my friend, is bad news for everyone.

  1. If more of the big boys merge (MPS, Hachette, HarperCollins, etc.) authors will have even fewer places to shop their books, meaning they’ll get paid less.  Meaning they won’t be able to even make the modest living they do now.
  2. Which leads us to consequence number two – readers won’t enjoy as many new releases.  Not only will authors get squeezed out of the game, the types of books that get published will represent a narrower and narrower range.  If there are only 2 or 3 big publishers, who is going to take a chance on the next Kurt Vonnegut?  Who is going to stick with the next Gillian Flynn through a couple smaller releases before the big “Gone Girl” break?  More importantly, who will represent the infinitely important books to marginalized people (think Stone Butch Blues to an entire generation of working class Butch Lesbians and Gender Queer people.)
  3. How can I put this?  Bookselling isn’t generic retail, folks. It’s specific.  Sure, you can scroll through endless lists for recommendations, but you need a real, live person to tell you if those recommendations (often paid for by the publicist or publisher) are bogus or on the mark.  Really, if you love cats, poetry and humor, an algorithm might not direct you to I Could Pee On This – but I would.    And that sells books.  I mean, I know I’ve talked about a lot here, but isn’t selling books the point?  Readers don’t want to be “deployed” to.  They want to talk to someone they trust.

I haven’t even touched on the cash flow nightmare owing only a few gigantic vendors would cause for hundreds of bookstores, or the jobs that will be lost when this merger deems the additional sales reps, credit reps, editors, publicists and eventually entire imprints “redundant.”

The only (and I do mean only) tiny, infinitesimal scrap of light this trend allows through the gathering clouds is the small hope that Amazon and its unregulated Monopoly could possibly have to actually participate in the economy rather than suck it dry.

But that is a very small consolation prize.  Like getting an ice cream cone after watching your house burn down.  For the record, I’m requesting chocolate.  With sprinkles.  And a waffle cone at the very least.

September 10, 2012

Bookstore Makeover Post #4 – Paint

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 6:20 pm

For those of you who know Kris and me well enough, it will come as no surprise to you that we warmed up to the bookstore makeover by making the impulsive decision to rebuild the back porch stairway on our house using lumber we reclaimed from other parts of our deck.

It’s sort of like stretching out before the big marathon.

(and then I built a drawer cabinet and wheels for the bottom of a pantry for our kitchen)

Ok fine, we’re out of our minds and are incapable of relaxing on our days off.

But we did get the go ahead from our new friends at Paz & Associates to buy some paint.  We decided to go with Sherwin Williams because

a. we had a coupon and

b. my sister Julie works at their distribution center in Effingham, IL, so it’s not exactly local, but it does support my hometown.

As it stands now, the color scheme is “Saguaro,” “Camelback,” and “Sassy Green” with an accent wall for our new kids’ section of “Reflecting Pool.”  Our Sherwin Williams sales person found all of these names ridiculous and slightly obscene as did we, but the colors do look pretty great.

Now, if we can just make them look good on the walls…

August 29, 2012

Bookstore Makeover Post #3: Overwrought Iron

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 4:36 pm

If you’ve ever met me, you already know that I err on the side of anxiety most of the time.  It should come as no surprise to you that I’m now sitting, surrounded by intelligent, talented booksellers who are devoted to this store and would undoubtedly pitch in with their two cents, and I can’t pick out a light fixture without peeling away several layers of uncertainty.

Maybe I should explain.

Donna, Mark and the fine folks at Paz and Associates are busily working on the master plan for our bookstore makeover, the details of which will be revealed to us very shortly.  Donna called today to ask one simple question – which light fixture do you like for the area over your stairs?  Perhaps she knows me better than I thought she did, because she initially asked for Kris.  It was only because Kris was making a Kakao Chocolate run (for the store, of course…) that the call got passed to me.  After chatting for a minute or two, Donna emailed me with the spectacular drawing of what the stairs will look like.

The new stairway

Pretty cool, huh?!

And then asked me to make a design decision today: Which light should we use over the stairs?  Umm…

I think this has all gone sideways because I have 4 designs from which to choose.  I’ve narrowed them to two designs:

Option 1

Option 2

Option 2: Simple, elegant. Sort of masculine, like me (sometimes).

I have juggled several gray hairs’ worth of debt today and have slogged through payroll and a portion of budgeting that makes my nervous tic rear its head.  I’ve even read and passed along information about the ABA’s new deal with Kobo to sell e-books and e-readers and have corresponded with other industry people about said change.

Yet, here I sit, stymied by lighting.  Paralyzed by curves in the wrought iron.  Needless to say, when Kris gets back with the chocolate, I’ll be sifting through the bag for my sea salt caramels while she effortlessly makes a decision, after which I will breath a sigh of relief before taking another stab at those numbers.

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