February 28, 2014

Chasing Gillian – A critique of Adam by Ariel Schrag

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

Originally posted on 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…

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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

Originally posted on kriskleindienst:

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 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
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

August 22, 2012

Bookstore Makeover Post #2: From Here to There

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 6:47 pm

Kris and I had a long meeting this morning, most of the contents of which I will spare you, but the thing about it I’ve been chewing on for most of the day is the internal struggle we have with staying true to our literary, progressive, queer, sometimes marginalized, sometimes vilified, sometimes celebrated, sometimes ignored roots while facing forward – leaning into the future.

This struggle rears its head pretty often, as expected in a store that is 43 years old and hopes to live longer.  In the decade that I’ve worked here I’ve sometimes felt like I’ve crammed for a quiz, taken it and have somehow fallen short, but most of the time I feel a bone-deep kinship with this store and all of it’s history – both the celebrated parts (Hilary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, opening Downtown and creating a nonprofit are just a few) and the parts we wish we could forget (the onslaught of the chains, the crushing pressure of Amazon, the lean, hard months when payroll is an accomplishment).

This makeover, this gift from our new friends at Paz & Associates, is thrilling.  They really get us and our mission and want to celebrate the best of who we are.  To be the best of who we are requires looking at the mistakes we’ve made head-on, square in the eye and correcting them.  It also requires dreaming of new ways of doing things.


Let there be light!

After our meeting this morning, I bought a light fixture.

Ok, there’s not a whole lot of light coming from it now, but just wait.  The main feature is that it will bring in some of the historical wrought iron detail from the outside of the building into the store, which I think is pretty cool.

I might have jumped the gun a bit because when I excitedly emailed everyone and told them I had done it the words “plan isn’t quite finished yet” were uttered, so maybe I should slow down.

Anyway, I got to ye olde Central West End, carried in my fixture to several oohs and ahhs of the booksellers on duty and made a trip down the street to Fellenz’s, where I took many measurements of various railings, fixtures and other architectural features.  More on that later – ahem – after we have a plan.

After getting some feedback on my last post, we brought up the need for more seating, which will undoubtedly be part of the grand scheme.

We’re also thinking through how best to do author events in a newly configured space, and how to make the front entrance less overwhelming and cluttered.

You can rest assured, though, the bones and spirit and history of the store will stay intact.  It’s our job to act as the keepers of that spirit and tradition and use it as our compass to guide us into the next 43 years on the corner of Euclid and McPherson.

August 20, 2012

Bookstore Makeover!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 4:25 pm

In a twist of fate that somewhat resembles reality TV, our beloved bookstore has won a bookstore makeover by Paz and Associates as they celebrate 20 years in business.  True to indie bookselling form, the budget is minuscule and “re-purposing” will take on a whole new meaning.

Left Bank Books – Central West End

We’ve been drawing, redrawing, haggling, scraping, saving, arguing and planning for a remodel of our store in the CWE for several years now.  We even made an ill-fated stab at it a couple of years ago by trying in vain to bring all the new books upstairs and make the basement – ahem – lower level used books only.

As I said, it was ill-fated.

The bookshelves downstairs must have procreated many years ago and begat many new bookshelves that grew to sizes that are impossible to extricate from the premises without a hacksaw.

We stumbled.  We grew tired.  We moved on.

Until now.

The view from the front door.

The first thing we need to address is the stairs.  “What?” you may be saying, “I didn’t know you had a downstairs and I’ve been shopping at your store for 15 years!”

Yes.  That’s exactly the problem.  Last year, I made a giant sign to hang above the stairs that says “More Books Downstairs” with a gigantic arrow on it pointing, well, down the stairs.

The thing that happens now:

“What sign?” says the former owner of the store when he came to visit.  Sigh.

The second thing we want to change is the children’s section.

“Wait!” you say, “I love that children’s section.  Don’t lay a finger on it!”

To that I say this:

The children’s section

Books  should not be shelved on the floor.  Also, standing in this section with no place to turn around inspires panicky feelings in my stomach.

We’ll come up with a cool solution for this, too.

The trick will be to manage all this before the start of the holiday season (and around our event with Tony La Russa).

Yeah.  There’s that panicky feeling again.  Stay tuned for more updates as we go!

July 25, 2012

From the Department of Just This

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:20 am

I was eight when Ronald Reagan was first elected president.  I knew nothing of politics then and frequently wish that I didn’t have to pay attention now.  My first inkling that guys who didn’t wear clip-on ties (and who would probably only visit the dirt road and trailer I called home on some press conference about poverty eradication) actually influenced what happened to me was when my dad got laid off from Merz Sheet Metal.  It was right after Reagan busted the airline strike and deregulated the industry setting the stage for a cascade of deregulation that has birthed companies that are too big to fail and corporations that are considered people.  Did the government directly cause my family’s financial woes? No.  As always, things were more complicated than that.  But the climate made it nearly impossible for Dad to find work.

By the time I was ten, the sound of Reagan’s voice made me sick to my stomach.

Odd, you may say.  This blog is usually about the book selling industry, chock full of railing against Amazon.  Why am I sifting through the ruminations of some middle Illinois hick’s childhood?

Indulge me a while longer.  I promise to get to the point.

I’ve been sitting with the DOJ’s decision about the “anti-trust” lawsuit brought against some in the publishing industry feeling an eerily familiar feeling.  I couldn’t quite place it at first.  Sure, there was disappointment.  Anger.  A touch of bitter resignation and despair.  After all, I was one of the over 800 people who sent public comment letters rationally explaining why creating a diverse marketplace was actually good for consumers and that the success of this lawsuit would only benefit one company – Amazon.  When fellow book lovers and I were unceremoniously dismissed and ignored because we actually know something about the industry and have a hand in keeping it healthy, I had a right to feel kind of pissed off.

Also dubious is the no-bid contract with the state department for a gajillion Kindles.  It’s all so cozy, isn’t it?  So very sewn up.  Finished.  Decided before it was asked.  Yes, I’m angry as both a citizen and a business owner.  I’m almost speechless looking at the blatant, immoral and possibly illegal disregard for the other side of this argument in favor of short-sighted politics.

But there was that other thing.  Something akin to a bruise.  An old one.  Yellowed and spread out over time, sure, but still vaguely painful.  A reminder of earlier flailing against immovable walls.

It’s the eight year old in me who believes in the better angels of our nature and the power of the underdog only to find myself shoved firmly back on the front porch of our trailer drinking Mountain Dew out of the glass bottle, petting one of the dozen cats all named Kitty, knowing life couldn’t be any bigger than my yard because success is against the rules.

Do I sound heartbroken?  It’s because I sort of am.  Nobody likes to watch the other team spike the ball.  But tomorrow will come, and when it does it will come to this:  

Booksellers: No one will help us.  There is no protection.  We are the architects of our own redemption.  If it’s against the rules for us to expand outside our own yards, we must make our yards better.  If the administration-backed mega monopolizer wants to step on us, we must penetrate its boot and become the annoying sharp tack.

Readers:  Love is essential, but it doesn’t pay the bills.  You have to buy local, too.

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