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.

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 11, 2012

The Apathy and the Ecstasy

I started my job at Left Bank Books when I was 29 years old – two days after interviewing with owners Kris Kleindienst and Barry Leibman in a borrowed shirt a size too big which I kept tucking in and untucking in the minutes before my interview, trying to decide which way made me look more attractive as a job candidate.  Should I look more business-like?  Tucked.  Or should I look like the ubercool booksellers at the counter?  Untucked.

My terror about the interview lessened as I talked to them about the store.  It’s history and traditions sang to me a siren song tuned specifically to my desires.  We talked, planned and joked through the interview and I knew I was a goner.

Then my terror returned at the end of the interview when I was asked to take the “Bookstore Quiz” – a two page short answer test on titles, authors and the finer points of shelving books.  I froze, and despite having completed an independent study of all of Virginia Woolf’s writing the year before, I could not summon one single title she had written.

When I handed my test back to Kris, I mumbled something about how sorry I was to have wasted their time.  I was hired before I left the building.

We are now ten years past my Left Bank beginning, and I own this dream with Kris.  In those years I have seen writers succeed and fail, publishers rise and fall, bookstores open and close.  The book survives because it is necessary to our democracy.  Access to it is necessary to our democracy.

I tell you this story because I want you to know what my career means to me, and what the notion of independent bookselling means not just to me, but to many thousands of others.

And to ask you a favor.

Right now, the department of justice is proceeding with an antitrust lawsuit against several publishers and Apple over e-books.  I summed this up on my last post here: https://jareksteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/feed-the-monster/

Part of the court’s process is that they have to allow for public comment on this issue.  The deadline for this is June 25 – a mere two weeks from now – and even one letter from you (yes you family, friends and customers) will make a difference.

The lawsuit (encouraged in large part by Amazon) says that publishers shouldn’t be able to set the prices on the e-books they publish.  They say this is “price fixing.”

Amazon wants to be able to continue their war against independent booksellers (and lots of other indie businesses) by selling ebooks at a fraction of their cost as a loss leader so they can sell you other products.

The publishers, hundreds of bookstores, and many, many authors and readers want the opportunity to offer these books too – something that becomes impossible when a massive giant sabotages the rest of the industry, creating its own largely tax-free monopoly.

Books – even e-books- aren’t free to produce.  The artist’s work is worth something.  The editor’s work is worth something.  The publicist’s work is worth something.  The bookseller’s work is worth something.  If publishers can’t set a price on their own product to cover these costs, parasites like Amazon can devalue literature until no-one will be able to afford to produce it, and no-one without the money to buy a Kindle will be able to access what is produced.

That is very dangerous.

The enemies of a fair marketplace are betting on public ignorance and apathy here.  If you zone out, click away and forget this, they will be very happy.  But there is a clear right and wrong.  A free market depends on a healthy and vibrant marketplace with plenty of competitors to check and balance each other.  If this lawsuit is successful, only one business will win the right to tell you what to read, and your choices will disappear.

You don’t need to be a bookseller to care about this.

Please write a letter – even if it’s only a few sentences telling the Department of Justice and the Judges that this lawsuit, if successful, will only benefit one corporate giant – which is the opposite of how it’s intended – and send it here:

John Read
Chief, Litigation III Section
Antitrust Division
U.S. Department of Justice
450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000
Washington, DC 20530

Then send it here:


Then to be sure your voice is heard, send a copy to dan@bookweb.org (the American Booksellers Association).

For more information, go here:


Your grateful bookseller,

Jarek Steele

February 6, 2012

Publishing for one is publishing for all – a word about IndieBound’s new policy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 11:28 am
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Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

In one of those deals that are reminiscent of Robert Johnson’s midnight deal at the crossroad, Houghton Mifflin announced that it would publish Amazon Publishing’s books via its new “New Harvest” imprint, thereby adding more dubious credibility to the Walmart of the internet.  It may not seem like a huge deal to the ordinary reader, but consider this:

When Kris tried to order a book published by a major publisher in bulk quantity for a customer a couple of weeks ago, she looked at Amazon to see what kind of competition we had.  This is not uncommon.  People look there to see what they “should” be charged and then ask us to match it without knowing that Amazon sells many books below the cost of what we actually pay for it.  (I say “we” meaning real bookstores who don’t get the deals Amazon gets.  My proof?  An actual Amazon invoice from a major publisher that was misdelivered to us recently listing an additional two percent discount for them that we don’t get, but I digress.)  Anyway, Kris looked on Amazon and then called customer service at said big publisher and asked if we could get the same deal as Amazon so we could sell the book at a competitive price.  Not only were we told that Amazon doesn’t get special deals from them, the “customer service” rep told her to order it from, you guessed it, Amazon.

Yes, the publisher actually directed one of its customers to order one of their products from its competitor.  This is sort of like Foot Locker calling up Nike and being directed to order their next shipment of running shoes from Payless.  I’m sure the folks at this publishing house don’t see us as actual competition for Amazon.  After all, we are David to the Amazon Goliath.  We won’t be stocking New Harvest titles, but will this paper cut make a difference to the Mighty One?  Yeah, right.

And yet…

Today, in a very proud moment, I opened an e-mail from IndieBound (the folks that host and manage the vast e-commerce database for most indie bookstores in the country) that announced its new policy:

While Amazon is seeking to distribute its print catalog through conventional means, it seems that they are simultaneously pursuing a strategy of locking in ebook exclusives which other retailers are not allowed to sell.  IndieCommerce believes that this is wrong, and that any book title for sale should be available to all retailers in the same formats and on the same basis.  So, IndieCommerce has made a decision not to list these titles for sale through IndieCommerce sites.

 This means that the American Booksellers Association is calling Amazon on its shady business practices.  Sure, Left Bank Books can “not sell” Amazon… er, I mean “New Harvest, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin” titles.  Who would care?  But this is a definite step in the right direction.

Left unchecked and unregulated the monopolization of the bookselling industry will not “introduce as many authors to as many readers as possible” as Larry Kirshbaum suggests.  It will, instead, stamp out, delete and destroy the efforts of other publishers, bookstores and authors who want to “introduce” their own favorites that might just have come from somewhere else.  It will also fool readers into thinking they have a choice, when really all roads lead back to Bezos.  It’s corporate greed clothed in fake populism.

Exclusivity is the enemy of democracy.  It is anathema to fair play.

One small voice drowns in the cacophony of bullies, but a chorus of independent voices – some small, some big, some new, some old rising together in a crescendo is a beautifully loud thing.  Today, I’m proud of our organization, who is listening and responding to the needs of its members.

Well done.

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