Saturday, May 30, 2015

Why Bookstores matter

At the moment, the bookstore I work at is having a slight crisis.

Really, it's been having a series of slight crises for the past couple of years, interspersed with moments of calm; the 90 day notice to leave our original site; the summer of moving 300,000 books to a new location; the build-out of that new location, which basically needed new wiring, heating, floors, drywall, and practically everything else; and then the struggle to get the place back up and running efficiently and to find its place in its new community. My job can be stressful, but we're never lacking for something to do. It also manages to fun despite everything (or perhaps because of everything), on a level I've never known employment do in my forty-odd years.

Me, ringing up a customer. Note the large coffee.
We're actually making money at this point, or at least, making enough money to cover our running costs and make sure we can replace the books on the shelves as they rapidly go out the door. Business is brisk, and we're in a location where new customers are finding us all the time. But some of the costs of moving and getting acclimated to the new location have caught up with us, and the owner realised we needed to come up with $10,000 by the end of June or there was a risk we might have to close our doors.

I personally think we're past that point now. We launched an Indiegogo campaign, and through our supporters there we've raised almost $4,000 in just over a week. Unprompted, we had a group of local children who ran a lemonade stand for an afternoon to fundraise for us, and raised a staggering $1,704. We've been featured throughout the local news, and seen an awful lot of new customers coming through the doors. We're not out of the woods yet, but we're getting there. Things certainly seem a lot more optimistic.

Our heroes.
Simply trying to raise funds has made us aware of something though. Just by being a for-profit business that's asking for money, you notice a certain undercurrent in some quarters. Some people feel that a business should sink or swim on its own merits, and if you're not able to survive on the profits you make, darwinism should kick in and you should go out of business.

Not everyone thinks like this, of course, but the sentiment still comes up. If you're not making money, why should I support you? This got us to thinking. Why should you?

Yes, we're a business. All bookstores are. We have bills to pay, roofs to keep over our heads. But bookstores are much more than that. We sell books, and in many people's eyes, that would be reason enough for us to be around. That's not our sole contribution, however. It might not even be our primary one.

Even in the 18 months we've been in Maplewood, we've become an integral part of the community there. The store is a meeting point, a community hangout, a place for artists and authors and readers to come and meet one another, to chat and exchange ideas. We sat down and realised we're involved in so many local projects, nonprofit foundations, and other things beyond count.

Then we realised, that's not good enough. To make a point, we sat down and counted the things beyond count. Here's a list of what we came up with overnight, and we've probably missed far too many great causes and charities off it:

  • The Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition
  • Stray Rescue and Tenth Life Animal Rescue
  • The 7th Grade Poetry Foundation
  • ALIVE (Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments)
  • The Covering House for survivors of sex trafficking
  • Canterbury Workshop
  • Edgewood Children's Home
  • St. Patrick's Center
  • Dutchtown Better Blocks pop up bookstore 
  • Ferguson Public Library
  • Painting for Peace in Ferguson
  • Black Lives Matter Forum
  • Summer Reading programs - Maplewood, Richmond Heights, Webster Groves, St. Louis Public Library, Parkway
  • Earth dance 
  • Go Local St Louis
  • 1000 Books Campaign
  • Books for Haiti, Better World Books
  • Heroin Awareness and Support Foundation
  • Girls on the Run
  • Our sister organization Second Chapter Center 
  • Webster Groves Adventure Club
  • The Romance Writers of St Louis
  • Sisters in Crime
  • The St Louis Poetry Foundation
  • The St Louis Literary. Consortium
  • The Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis
  • STL 250 cake lovers
  • The Improv Shop
7th Grade Poetry Foundation Weekend
These are just the ones we've been involved in since our move. And of course, on a weekly basis, we host numerous artists, musicians, writers, book clubs, poets, and theater groups.

Harpist Terri Langerak
This is the what we're running the crowdsourcing campaign for. Not to simply pay our bills, or line our pockets, but to be able to keep paying back some of the fantastic causes out there. This is what Amazon and Barnes & Noble can't replace if we closed.

We're not special in this. This is the sort of thing your average independent bookstore does, Constantly, regularly, and without even considering how much it is they're doing.

So support us if you can. Donate to our campaign if you have a few dollars spare. Come by the store, and pick up a book. Come see some of the events we run. And if you're not local to us, do the same thing for your own local indie bookstore.

We'll repay you a thousand times over.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rumours of my death etc. etc.

Almost two years since I posted anything here. Wow. Tch.

I always said I didn't want this blog to turn into Livejournal, and be a series of posts about how little I've posted of late and promising to post more, along with a few random excuses, but it has to be said the last eighteen months have been a bit of a bastard.

Getting kicked out of my workplace was fun. By which I don't mean fired, which would have been a cakewalk in comparison, but our bookstore being evicted from the 19th century house its inhabited since the mid 1980s so that it can be demolished and some kind of storage facility built. Another dramatic example of the drive to improve that particular stretch of historic Route 66. The knocking down of historical buildings I'm not going to bang on about too much here; I've already done my stint on TV news, and made my share of near-slanderous accusations of criminal misconduct. I'm pretty much over that by this point.

Also, looking back at the post previous to this one in 2012, I can't really say anything that wouldn't just be farcical.

Which leaves the nitty gritty of the joys of physically moving an entire bookstore over the course of several months. Books sound remarkably easy to move about - the entire point of the format is their portability. When you have approximately 300,000 of them, however, it gets a bit Herculean. Stick 25 hardcovers in a box, and you've got a 50 lb box to haul about. In the middle of the summer. Into a truck trailer with absolutely no ventilation. Do that a thousand times, and you've about half-filled the trailer. Now finish filling that one and fill three or four more. The very last week involved hiring a moving company who sent about 15 employees to finish everything off and unload at the other end; even though this is what they do for a living, they all had "why does God hate us so much" expressions before the end. I imagine half of them have quit their jobs since and just walk the earth, living on whatever nature provides.

This all being said, from the bookshop's point of view, we've moved from a down at heels, slowly sinking into the ground neighborhood where people living 100 yards away weren't even aware there'd been a store there for 30 years, to a prosperous and up and coming neighborhood where's there are heaps of little startup businesses and ridiculous amounts of foot traffic wandering past (and into) our door every day of the week. It's all very prosperous and hipster-ish around there, and it's probably the best move we'll ever make.

On a similar note, about six months ago Kit and I were awoken by a knocking on our door, which turned out to be the police. They were checking everyone had vacated the apparently condemned building we were living in prior to boarding it up, and were somewhat surprised to find out that the landlord hadn't bothered to inform anyone. 'Not informed' is probably a gross understatement for a man who was taking down any condemnation notices pinned to the door with a surprising amount of speed for someone who normally hobbles around on a walking stick.

So in the middle of moving and building out a new workplace, we had to pack and move our entire apartment inside of a week. This was in many ways easier that moving the store. Considerably less books were involved, and boxes weighed a mere 20 lb, or even less. I could almost juggle them, they were so laughably light. We also had the distinct advantage that anything we didn't particularly want to keep, we simply left behind, often in a huge pile on the floor. There was an unspoken, but strongly implied message of fuck you and your slum building in whatever we left there.

Three days into packing, we get a messenger from the landlord asking if we have our rent for this month yet. Howls of derisive laughter filled the building, and scared birds out of nearby trees.

We live in a house now. A house that's ten minutes walk away from my job. I have an actual garden, with a lawn and trees. A garden which I've not spent an awful lot of time in, given we're in Missouri and it's midsummer, but I expect the autumn to be nice. It's a tiny house by American standards, but would be somewhere around "incredibly spacious retirement bungalow" on the British scale of things. The kitchen alone is bigger than some places I've lived over the years.

The house also has incredible luxuries like hot and cold running water, by which I mean we can have either hot or cold water come out of the taps when we wish, as opposed to the water which ran down the walls of the apartment whether we wanted it to or not. Not to mention a lack of hot and cold running cockroaches. Plus novel things like bathrooms with lights in them, and mailboxes where things can be left without being public domain.

On July 4th, which is apparently some kind of holiday celebrating the British, the neighbours let many fireworks off. They waited until it got dark before starting, and were done before 11pm. No-one felt compelled to add small-arms fire to the celebration. This is a startlingly different approach to our old neighborhood, which felt like living on the Gaza Strip every holiday.

And this is basically much of why I haven't been blogging much. Life has been dramatically improving in every way possible, but only through a long and painful process of explosive deconstruction. Things haven't quite entirely settled down, but they've subsided to the point where I don't get home and just want to go to bed.

It's not the entire reason why I haven't been blogging, but more on that in the next entry.

Monday, November 19, 2012

It's been a funny old month

Behold the majesty.
It came as something as a surprise, while I was waiting for my bus connection, that the book store I'm now working at is smack on Route 66. Indeed, about 75% of the commute to work runs right along it.

I knew, notionally, that the 'main street of America' ran through St Louis, but it was a little jarring when I realised I was actually standing on the bloody thing. Jarring because, well, you can see why in the picture. It's not exactly the Highway to Heaven. It's not quite what I was expecting from the likes of what Nat King Cole was singing about.

I imagine, given the hundreds of miles the route runs, there's much more scenic bits of it than this particular piece of urban wasteland; being on Grand Station's doorstep, an area famed for being an unsightly boil on the arse of the city, it's never going to look fantastic. And indeed, once the bus rolls into Maplewood and the like, it starts looking a bit better. But only by a slight amount, I'm afraid.

The stores along Manchester seem to be doing a lot better than other places I've seen. There's a lot of bars, coffee shops, and surprising sounding enterprises: A 'genuine' British/Irish Pub, which I haven't been inside so I'll reserve judgement. A Mongolian restaurant. A drive-through sushi kiosk. But there's also a lot of those stores that I think of as 'boundary shops', existing on the very boundary conditions that barely allow them to stay in business. These tend to exist slightly outside the urban center of cities, but not quite before you get into the suburbs. They all appear to have been there a very, very long time, but you can't quite imagine when there was a massive demand for their products. Every city I've lived in has had these; picture frame stores, dental plate wholesalers, foam rubber cushion purveyors. They all seem so unlikely to do a brisk trade that I've been convinced for years that many of them are CIA or MI6 fronts, and all manner of shenanigans is going on through that door behind the counter.

But the overall impression the area gives the impression that it's clinging to edge of survival, that these stores are slowly being eroded away by the huge shopping malls and online businesses. The stores are certainly game, and some of them do seem to be doing well, but it's a friendly, cornershop style environment which very people seem to want any more.  It feels like a place that's somehow existed past its time, that these stores are still around past the point where there's any major demand for them. Much, perhaps, like Route 66 itself.

State of the art.
There seems to be a lot of this about. I saw with a certain melancholy a few weeks ago that the BBC have finally shut down Ceefax, which was something of a surprise as I was under the impression no-one had so much as glanced at it since about 1995. For anyone born past that point, or who isn't a Briton, Ceefax was a digital service broadcast alongside terrestrial TV signals. A TV capable of receiving the data (which was pretty much every British television made past 1980) could flop this info straight onto your screen. It was a very early cousin of the world wide web, in some ways: You could check the weather forecast, plan holidays, catch up on the news, and so on and so forth. All in glorious four colour, eight bit graphics. It also provided subtitles for most TV shows. It was clunky, it consisted of a few hundred pages a day maximum, and there certainly wasn't any user input or any way to make your own pages. But it worked, and people used it.

Or at least, I imagine they used to use it. Now that the Internet is everywhere, especially now its in your pocket on your phone, I can't imagine anyone has used Ceefax in over a decade. The web is quicker, more diverse, more data-dense, and far prettier to look at.  Shutting it down makes sense, and yet... I can't help feeling we're losing something. Something we no longer want, or need, but it's still lost. I doubt there'll be any campaigns to save Teletext and Ceefax from the scrapheap anywhere, and that really just makes me realise all the more that the world has moved on. For the better in many ways, but it's still moving.

All this sounds like it's leading up to describing the place I now work, and I have to admit, I was expecting a second hand bookstore to be something that would be on the edge of extinction. I can't remember the last time I bought a book, an actual paper book. Part of that was packing up my belongings and moving to the US; I didn't really want to be weighed down with hundreds more books. Another major factor is living in an apartment where there's not a whole lot of room. But a lot of it is to do with Amazon, and eBooks.

I was way ahead of the wave with eBooks; I was reading them before there was anything notionally like an eReader. I used PDAs, I used sub-notebooks like the Psion, I used cellphones, I used anything with a screen that'd fit in a pocket. Nowadays, eReaders and tablets are everywhere. The days when people would ask what the hell I was looking at on the bus are long gone. Paperless editions are actually starting to outsell hardcopy books. With that in mind, I did expect the store to be in the process of slow decline.

Despite everything, though, it's not. Or at least not nearly as much as you'd expect. The owner is concerned as to what might happen in the next few years, but right now, people come into the store. New customers, to my eternal amusement, has a severe case of "TARDIS face" when they enter, the exact face people pull on Doctor Who when they enter that police box for the first time; the store is far, far bigger on the inside than it has any right to be, and every horizontal surface available is packed to the ceiling with books. And they buy the books. They buy them, and they come back for more. There are people that have been coming there for nearly thirty years, and it's pretty much the oldest and biggest store of its kind in the area. And books ship out every day to far corners of the world, from online ordering.

Business could be brisker, certainly, but for what it is, it does exceedingly well. I'm hoping it's not quite ready to be put in the same category as Ceefax. Its day hasn't gone yet, whatever the next few years might bring.

And perhaps that might be said of Route 66 as well. Perhaps eventually, it might come back to something approaching its heyday. Although that might require people to do something other than want to get from A to B as efficiently and quickly as possible, or step outside to buy multiple things rather than have them all under one roof. It's not likely, but the road seems to survive in the hopes this might happen one day.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Time flies.

I wasn't going to make a fuss at first, but you can't really let something like this pass without comment. Today it's been ten years since Kit and I decided to get together.

Let me just emphasize that. Ten years. That's a quarter of my entire life. Admittedly, more of it was spent apart than I would have liked, but that's an awful lot of commitment right there. A mountain of paperwork, thousands of miles travelled, even more thousands of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of days spent working towards the goal of being here, right now.

We have our ups and downs, our arguments and upsets, but for the most part, I can only say that it seems to work very well for both of us. In fact, I'd be concerned if we never quarrelled. People who don't disagree are hiding something... ;)

Anyhow, I just wanted to say it's gone by entirely too quickly, and it doesn't seem too long a period of time. I expect to be saying the same for the next ten years, and the next, and the next. Love you, hon. Here as long as you're willing to put up with me.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quick update: Sale's over on Amazon

Sadly the book's back to a whopping $12.99 now. Honestly, had I not caught it and still wanted it, I'd be more tempted to get the multimedia edition for the extra two dollars. Anyone actually bought this? I'd be fascinated to know how much the video/audio inserts add to it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book sale: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition

This isn't a full review by any means, but it's come to my attention that the 10th anniversary kindle edition of this book is available on Amazon is available for only $1.99.

I really can't stress how excellent an author Neil Gaiman is, and this one of his best novels. I have bought family members this in hardback and stressed they had to read it, or they'd be missing out on something special. It seems as though Harper Collins have the same idea; Gaiman himself seems bemused on twitter that the publishers have set the price so low. Curiously, the non-anniversary issue is still on sale for $9.99...

Seriously, if you don't already own this, and have the slightest liking for urban fantasy stories or mythology or the like, get it now. If you have a a Nook or similar, it's apparently the same price on Barnes & Noble and other major ebook sellers. The sale might also end soon, I've seen nothing official on Amazon, but I hear rumours, so grab it while you can.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review: Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years
Back in the days before the name 'Palin' was synonymous with vice-presidential candidates apparently chosen as the result of a bet, we had Michael Palin. Michael is probably best remembered as being 'the nice polite one' from the Monty Python team, though Brits will also remember him travelling all over the place on the telly.

Turns out he's quite the diarist as well, diligently filling notebooks on an almost daily basis; by coincidence, he'd started writing them again after a lull a few weeks before the first series of Flying Circus. From there, you get a blow by blow account of the whole of the 1970s, which covers the four TV series, the first three movies, ripping yarns, his appearances on Saturday Night Live, and absolute reams on the writing and performing of all these.

Not to mention the dynamics of the Pythons. I don't know about you, but I can read all day about how, say, Pennon and McCartney hated each other, or how the four members of Queen, well, actually got along with each other really well. With the Pythons, there's definite (if very polite) camps; Cleese and Chapman writing in one very specific style, Palin, Jones and Gillian on another, with Eric Idle somewhere off on his own. There's no fisticuffs (at least not that Palin records), but you get the feel that every sketch that made it to the screen had an epic battle to get there; until all of them agreed something was funny, it didn't get done.

Interspersed with all this are entries about Palin's personal life; his marriage, the children growing up, his father's long illness. The sort things you would get, in other words, in a diary. These moments are perhaps what make the book stand out from other, drier biographies of some celebs. There's some genuinely touching moments in there. Not that Palin, perhaps one of Britain's best loved TV figures, needs to be presented in a more human light, but still...

Price? Last time I looked, ten bucks, give or take a cent or five. Probably at the high end of books I'd review, and probably only if you're a Python fan (which, if you're a big enough nerd to be reading a blog about eBook reviews, you most likely are). The sequel I refuse to buy while Gollancz insists on pricing it at $16.99, which is something like a whole dollar cheaper than an actual hardback copy of the book. They must think I was born yesterday or something.