|Superstore Returns Rate Information Released
||[Apr. 1st, 2011|01:56 pm]
From Publishers Weekly, March 25, 2011:|
"In another filing yesterday, Borders submitted a motion to return pre-petition merchandise for post-petition credit. In it, Borders notes that as their financial difficulties increased, vendors refused to accept trade credit or returns. The retailer, which pre-bankruptcy returned 31% of its merchandise annually for credit, has attempted to have publishers ship books under normal terms with limited success."
While I have been saying for years that superstore chains return twice as many books to publishers as independent booksellers do, chain-store employees I know have been objecting to my statements.
In fact, over the years several highly placed chain-store employees have informed me that it is only new titles that are heavily overbought. Backlist titles, they say, generate very few returns because the sophistication of superstore computer systems ensures that correct quantities are ordered.
Now here is a report from Borders that has emerged in the midst of their legal proceedings, stating clearly that they have traditionally returned 31% of purchases, in toto. That is more than double the 15% industry average that independent booksellers have reported for many years.
Had publishers refused to process the excessive orders from Borders all these years, publishers would be in much less trouble today -- because Borders would not have been able to carry so much publisher debt.
In addition, publishers could have kept prices for books lower all these years, since they wouldn't have had to absorb the costs of disposing of the excessive returns from superstores.
Perhaps the implosion of Borders will finally provide an opportunity for publishers to review their openness to tolerating huge levels of returns from Barnes & Noble.
|The Borders Lesson: Sell Low to Sell Out High
||[Feb. 22nd, 2011|12:34 am]
We were knee-deep in planning our own independent bookstore. It would be a community gathering-place, a center of literary life, a crazy dream we’d make real. But in a Boston hotel conference room, after the first day of the 1984 American Booksellers Association’s school—a day spent sharing plans and fantasies with 60 other prospective booksellers, guided by four accomplished bookstore owners—my partner had a question for the association’s Education Director. “Why don’t you open a bookstore yourself?”
“Because there’s no return on investment,” the Education Director replied.
It was a straightforward, depressing response, and I have learned over the years that thousands of experienced independent bookstore owners will concur with that former ABA staffer. Indeed, there’s no question that if you operate a socially responsible community bookstore focused on passionately selling marvelous new trade print books, you’ll probably get a poor return on capital and your chance of ultimately selling your business for a profit is minimal. A more likely outcome is that after years of dedicated bookselling you will lose your original investment when you close your store down. Your only return on investment will be the pride you take in the work you have done and the gratitude of your former customers. (The exception is when bookstore owners buy their buildings and the value of this real estate grows.) If you’re not prepared to accept the reality that there’s no return on investment in the bookstore business, it’s unwise to launch your own bookstore. Every year, more than a billion dollars worth of books are sold by bookstore owners who know they are sacrificing return on investment in order to benefit society.
And yet, if there’s truly little possibility for return on investment for owners in the trade bookselling business, how could Tom and Louis Borders have sold the Ann Arbor, Michigan bookstore company they founded in 1973 for $126 million to K-Mart Corporation in 1991? How could Len Riggio, creator of the modern Barnes & Noble company, have gone from a single college bookstore in 1965 to a personal net worth of more than a billion dollars today? How could Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos have made so much money in the past fifteen years that he can afford to dabble in the space tourism business?
The U.S. new-book market has been stuck at about $24 billion for many years, so what’s been the business secret of these highly profitable booksellers? (It obviously wasn’t selling more books to more readers; instead according to Nielsen Bookscan readers’ choices are getting less diverse.)
The big booksellers have specialized in leveraging the customer traffic that promoting low-margin new books attracts to then sell products and services that in some manner do provide decent return on investment. Then when their popular companies’ perceived value has been high, these owners have sold part or all of their ownership stakes to outsiders.
It’s the loss-leader approach: hyping low prices on some products to sell different products and services—and then company shares—high.
For instance, both Borders and Barnes & Noble have made lots of profit on high-margin publishers overstock discount books (authors earn no royalties on these; that’s partly why they’re cheap). B&N has supplemented that with proprietary books they publish themselves (similarly: few author royalties paid).
B&N and Amazon have earned great profits from publishers’ promotional payments (this payola is a secret; readers believe these companies’ featured books are selected for quality and popularity).
For years Borders sold inventory management services to other bookstores; the company could then use data they collected to open bookstores that competed with stores they’d once serviced.
Amazon has done well with brokerage fees and commissions charged to used-book sellers (somehow these fees just go up and up and up), while keeping costs low by evading sales taxes (too bad for communities that utilize sales taxes to fund local services).
All three companies have sold lots of high-margin non-book items—in fact Amazon sells more non-book items than books, though they retain their customers by hyping their high-status image as a bookselling company.
Big-league booksellers are today plunging into digital bookselling because in the constricted marketplace of the no-growth book industry they preside over, they must innovate to compete with one another to continue generating the consumer traffic that will ultimately be converted to some other form of profit-making enterprise.
At Borders, amid management turmoil over the past decade, business innovation slowed. The company was created in 1973 by book-lovers, and the Borders brothers’ original commitment to books attracted scads of customers from whom the company could earn profit in creative ways. But the thrill is long gone for former Borders customers. Its 90s-era business plan served for a decade (music sales were key)—and in particular the company succeeded in destroying many independent bookseller competitors, keeping the marketplace constrained to its own advantage—but Borders then failed to invent new profit-making techniques once music CD sales slowed with the arrival of digital downloading.
Still the Borders brothers themselves did earn a great return on their initial investment, and this year’s Borders bankruptcy should serve as a reminder that money-minded owners can indeed generate personal wealth in the bookstore business, if that is their objective. They can take a lesson from Tom and Louis Borders: get out while the getting’s good. Don’t just sell low; sell out high.
Andy Laties has launched five bookselling companies in the past thirty years. In 1987 he won the Women’s National Book Association’s Pannell Award for his innovative community outreach work at The Children’s Bookstore in Chicago. After ten years as an American Booksellers Association School instructor, Andy wrote Rebel Bookseller: How To Improvise Your Own Indie Store And Beat Back The Chains, published by Vox Pop, which won the 2006 Independent Publisher Award for best book about writing and publishing; a revised and expanded edition entitled Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Stand For Everything You Want To Fight For, From Free Speech To Buying Local To Building Community is due out in July 2011 from Seven Stories Press. Andy holds a Masters degree from the School of Community Economic Development at Southern New Hampshire University. He co-founded and still manages the museum shop at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, which Parents Choice called “the very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world.”
|Barnes & Noble Shows Its Hand
||[Jan. 20th, 2011|03:46 pm]
1) Last year Barnes & Noble superstores sharply reduced book inventories and ramped up sidelines.|
2) A few weeks ago Len Riggio of B&N complained that if publishers offer Borders extended terms in order to help stave off a Borders bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble should get these special terms too.
3) Today, Barnes & Noble fired many long-time national book-buyers.
What do these steps mean?
Back in the early 80s, American Bookseller Magazine published an article in which Barnes & Noble reported that by reducing the number of different titles in its children’s book section and facing the remaining titles out, it was able to cause profits to jump sharply.
I’ve experienced this in my own stores, and in my children’s book-fair company. If you have a solid lock on your customer base, the most profitable thing to do is reduce title diversity and face most of the remaining (bestselling) titles out. By concentrating on selling more of what’s selling, you reduce your operating costs and get better discounts from suppliers.
B&N is returning to that discovery of theirs from the early 80s, and applying it to the entire storefront bookselling operation. That's because since Borders has been put on hold by lots of publishers, it’s safe for Barnes & Noble to cut back on the number of different titles stocked: there can be no unfavorable inventory-depth comparison by customers of B&N to Borders.
Why maintain a full staff of specialty book-buyers in New York if your new buying strategy is to use your (incipient) monopoly on national shelf-space to force publishers to pay for access to the (upcoming) bestsellers-only, face-out space in your stores?
No more will publishers be able to simply assume that B&N will be open to stocking “just any” high quality book that has a known readership. Publishers had better get used to ponying up lots more promotional money to get their books into B&N. (Where every book in the store will be a FEATURED book.)
Even worse for publishers, if Borders DOES end up getting special terms from publishers to help avert a bankruptcy, then Barnes & Noble will not WAIT to be offered those same terms. B&N’s “request” for equal treatment from publishers is actually a warning. B&N will simply TAKE extra time to pay publishers: this will be the way they retaliate against publishers for helping save Borders. No publisher will be able to stop this, since no publisher will be able to stand up to B&N, with Borders on the ropes. Publishers will need B&N’s newly constricted shelf space more than ever!
There is only one solution for publishers to this dilemma, and it’s not eBooks (which will always be a market that is subject to intense bestselleritis, since an online selling environment tends to cause readers 1) to be acutely aware of what other readers are reading most, and then, 2) to choose principally from among these most popular books).
The solution to regain a marketplace where great diversity of titles are on display is for publishers to join in the upcoming push for more indie bookstore openings all over the country.
In the 80s, 3,000 indie bookstores opened in just seven years. With the current collapse of shelf-space at Borders and Barnes & Noble (and with last year's closing of 700 Walden and Dalton mall bookstores), the time is right. Publishers must take part. Their businesses are at stake.
|Publishers Must Avoid eBook Dominance by Barnes & Noble
||[Jul. 22nd, 2010|08:35 pm]
Many years ago, when Len Riggio and Barnes & Noble used $275 million of Michael Milken's junk bonds and bought B. Dalton's 779 stores, which controlled one billion dollars of bookstore market share, Riggio promised the publishing industry that he'd maintain the B. Dalton company as a separate operating entity from the Barnes & Noble chain. |
From The New York Times, 1986:
“Mr. Riggio, whose 35 Barnes & Noble stores are situated mostly in the New York City area, said that he would continue to operate the two chains independently…He specifically said that Barnes & Noble would continue to sell only discount books, and that B. Dalton…would continue to sell the major portion of its wide selection of stock at full price…When one bookseller buys another…there is concern within the industry that the combination will restrict the number of authors that appear on bookshelves, and industry insiders expressed those concerns over the purchase of B. Dalton. Though all stores carry the same best-selling books, their stock of midlist books—the industry term for lesser-known [new] titles—differs from one chain to another. If one buying office begins to buy for both B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble, those insiders say, the variety of books available to consumers in the market could be reduced….Mr. Riggio insisted that the purchase of B. Dalton was not ‘connected’ to his strategy at Barnes & Noble. The ‘center of gravity’ for B. Dalton, he said, ‘will remain in Minneapolis; B&N’s will remain in New York.’”—Lisa Belkin, “Discounter Purchases B. Dalton: Barnes & Noble Adds 779 Units To Book Realm,” New York Times (November 27, 1986): D1.
Instead, today there are no B. Daltons in the country; they have been steadily closed down over the past 24 years. Wherever Barnes & Noble stores opened, B. Dalton stores were closed.
In those years, B&N also bought the Doubleday bookstore chain: twenty stores that were subsequently closed down. B&N bought Bookstop and closed all the stores.... And so we see that this is the Barnes & Noble technique. Get access to someone else's money (for instance, in the 80s and early 90s by running up huge debts to publishing houses, selling the books those publishers provided, then taking a very long time to pay the publishers for the sold books), and use the cash so obtained to take more and more bookstore competitors out of the market, by acquiring these competitors and shutting them down.
...And then...turn on the people who provided the money to do this (the big publishers) -- and manipulate these publishers to act in a manner that's unprofitable for them, by dictating what they should publish....or by making publishers pay for in-store display.
Blogger report from an educational program in 2009 with B&N buyers:
"As the morning progressed, it quickly became clear that book buyers have a lot of control over what publishers publish. Not only do the buyers get the final say on whether a book appears in their store, Edward and Sallye emphasized that they may influence a book’s packaging (from the cover design to its trim size), price, publication date, and even store category and placement. From this standpoint, it appears that publishers are far from having the upper hand in their relationships with book buyers."
Publishers Weekly report from 1994:
"Among the examples of illegal practices mentioned in the suit…was Barnes & Noble’s ‘bestseller pricing’ system which requires publishers to pay for their titles to be discounted as bestsellers—even though [sic] may never be true bestsellers—by having them pay fees of at least $18,000, terms that are not available to independents. To illustrate the financial effect of the illegal policies, ABA’s [Executive Director Bernie] Rath noted that Barnes & Noble had said in 1993 that publishers had paid it $11 million in coop money, substantially more than the chain’s profits….”—John Mutter and Maureen O’Brien, “ABA Sues Five Publishers,” Publishers Weekly ABA Show Daily (May 28, 1994): 1.
So much is well understood inside the book industry. B&N is a big bossy bully. We knew that. Publishers have to publish with B&N in mind (and the books so published get sold through all channels). Publishers have to pay B&N to get the books thus created also displayed in decent spots in-store.
Len Riggio did not tell the truth in 1986 about his plans for the future of his company's relationship with publishers. He planned to use his control of the market in order to manipulate publishers, and he proceeded to do this very quickly.
Well, how should we read stories about Barnes & Noble's big plans for the future? Should we believe anything they say? Should we assume they have the interests of publishers, authors or readers at heart? Whose interests are they really serving?
From a recent investor conference call, as reported in Publishers Weekly:
"[Mitchell] Klipper said the children's department continues to be the fastest growing area at the stores, and that over the summer B&N will roll out its educational toys and games and school departments to 400 stores...."
"Klipper didn't deny there will be fewer bookstores in the country, but both he and Riggio said B&N will be the beneficiary of the consolidation.... Riggio agreed that the number of traditional bookstores will be consolidated, he said given B&N's strong numbers he expects B&N "to be the ones doing the consolidating."
But, meanwhile over at The Eric Carle Museum (inside of which I operate an independent children's bookstore), according to Publishers Weekly:
"The symbolism was not lost at this past Tuesday’s meeting of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, held at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., that Ken Geist, v-p and editorial director of Orchard Books and Scholastic Press Picture Books, and author of the picture book The Three Little Fish, should choose this setting to ask independent booksellers to get behind picture books. “I’m not finishing this year until we move the needle and sell more picture books,” said Geist, who added that he was not speaking on behalf of Scholastic. “I’m here to talk about what we can do collectively to raise the profile of picture books.”
And, WHY was Ken Geist so worried about the future of children's picture books?? Why was he begging of all people those legendary weaklings, the indie bookstore owners, to strive to save the picture book...?
As indie bookseller Josie Leavitt reported on her PW blogpost about the same presentation:
"One statement Ken [Geist] made that chilled me was that Barnes and Noble, in their store redesign, has removed the picture book back wall from its stores. Instead there are activity books and some picture books mixed in. No longer is there an unbroken expanse of picture books; the message that sends is enormous. If parents only see activity books or media tie-in books, then that’s what they’ll buy."
So -- if the children's book section is the fastest growing section of the B&N stores, as stated in the investors' conference call, AND B&N is now dramatically backing away from children's picture books and replacing these with activity books and educational toys.....well....what is the truth? Are they HAPPY with their children's book sales....or, not??
When B&N talks, should anyone listen to what they say?
Let's put this all together. Barnes & Noble has a history as a so-called consolidator, meaning that they specialize in controlling the marketplace by constricting it. They REMOVE bookstores, they REMOVE sales opportunities. Then, panicked publishers pay when B&N says pay, publishers publish what B&N says they should publish.
That is: Barnes & Noble has an abusive relationship with publishers. With every move B&N makes to tighten a noose around publishers' necks, by "consolidating" the market, publishers make nice ever more energetically.
So the risk is that publishers will enter the eBook market with their eyes on Barnes & Noble...doing things the B&N way. ...that publishers will pay fees for placement on B&N's website, pay fees for write-ups in B&N e-newsletters, pay for display of images, chapters, pay, pay, pay to access the market they see B&N as providing.
But I wonder. With Ken Geist asking indie booksellers to help.... Is it possible that in this industry cycle, publishers will not be fooled again?
Is it possible that as B&N plays its consolidating game, closing stores, reducing shelf space for real books (bringing in toys) -- THIS time publishers will stop running from the bully, and instead stand their ground and look the bully in the eye?
What could publishers do to end their abusive co-dependence on Barnes & Noble? Are they simply going to play along whenever Barnes & Noble sets up a new system of rules and regulations? As the new eBook market emerges, and Barnes & Noble endeavors to corner that market -- will publishers permit this?
From the investors call, as reported in Publishers Weekly:
"Riggio and other executives, including CEO William Lynch, also stressed that B&N already has a larger share of the e-book market (20%) than it does of the bricks-and-mortar store market (17%). Lynch said given the investment necessary to sell a large number of e-books, he believes the e-book market will be dominated by only three or four players."
Will publishers let this stand? Or will publishers ensure that eBooks are available for resale by a very wide variety of retailers? Will they ensure B&N cannot corner this market? It is for publishers to decide....and should they once again permit B&N to control their fate, then once again, they will pay the price, suffering editorial-unit dismemberment, corporate takeover, downsizing....
And it's not necessary. Publishers, stand firm against Barnes & Noble this time! Work with indie booksellers to ensure you maintain your freedom to make your own publishing decisions. The eBook market belongs to the publishers. You can keep it that way.
|Superstores Down; Indies Down Too?
||[Jul. 20th, 2010|09:37 pm]
Yesterday's entry made it into the national specialty media: |
Today, I engaged in further conversation on Mike Shatzkin's blog:
Here's the relevant excerpt:
"Andy didn't quite interpret me right. He think I said Barnes & Noble is
going down. I think B&N (assuming their new management doesn't screw it up)
will be the last bookstores standing (except for a tiny number of hardy
indies.) I think times have already proven demonstrably more difficult for
indies (writ large; there are always exceptions) than for chains."
"I agree that there will always be some chainstores around. If you recall however, just a few years ago Barnes & Noble announced that their existing 500 superstores would soon become 1,000, nationwide. At that time I was predicting that their superstore model would collapse. Unless I am mistaken, you are also saying now that their business model, trumpeted so aggressively a decade ago, is now on the rack, and that they will soon be closing many superstores. Nationally there are perhaps 1,100 superstores [run by various chainstore companies] right now. I assume that you agree that a significant reduction in that number does vindicate my prediction five years ago that "superstores are going down". Here's my analysis (and the part I was playing) from that time:
"Superstores *are *going down. But where are the indies compared to the time
when you made that prediction 5 years ago versus where is B&N? That's the
point I was addressing."
"Indies are down from about 1600 members of ABA to about 1450 members of ABA. We seem to be losing 100 stores per year and gaining 100 stores per year. My premise is that indies will begin their rebound as superstores begin to close in significant numbers because laid-off superstore managers and workers will in some cases open stores (in many cases probably underwritten by local real estate interests attempting to restrain drops in property values associated with the closing of book superstores). That is: superstores in many cases were incented and recruited by city fathers. Their departure means the city fathers will again work through chambers of commerce and other local business groups to facilitate the presence of local bookstores. It's good for neighborhoods. That's my guess, as of five+ years ago, and I think it's happening here and there right now, and will accelerate. I want to express again my appreciation for the time you are taking to have this conversation."
"It's an interesting theory, Andy. I still doubt it, but we'll see where it goes."
"I see that the numbers I just quoted in fact say that indie store ABA member numbers have declined 10% in the past five years, which I think is correct. Sorry if I made the incorrect statement that indie numbers aren't declining at all any more. However, the rate of decline is pretty slow compared to the disaster of the 90s when we dropped from 5,000 to 2,000 in seven years. To conclude this thought (I am standing at a small bookstore cash register on a very busy day today!!) -- chain bookstore HAVE lost very big, in the sense that Dalton and Walden are defunct. Over the past five years those two chains lost about 800 stores. It's true that's not the superstore sector of the chainstore business, but I was right that chainstores would be in trouble over this period. You are right that as yet, my prediction of an upswing in indie store numbers has not materialized though."
|Publishing Industry Legend Says Superstore Chains Are Going Down
||[Jul. 15th, 2010|06:03 pm]
For the past several days I've been vociferously commenting on a fascinating blogpost. Industry expert Mike Shatzkin believes that the rapid rise of eBooks will depress print-book sales so much that chain storefronts will not be able to continue to operate profitably. He thinks that a very large number of superstore locations will close. He is principally concerned about this because he thinks that the major publishing companies will be seriously damaged. However in a number of exchanges with him, in the comments section of his blog, I was able to elicit the opinion that unusual, quirky, creative and talented independent booksellers might be able to continue to operate bookstores during the coming eBook revolution, even if the large general bookstore corporations were in dire straits.|
My conclusion here is fairly obvious. I won the war!
Or, okay, we, the indies, won the war.
Some may say, "You didn't win the war--Amazon.com and Apple and Google won the war."
I disagree. I have been fighting the bookstore chains since 1985. So, if I have been fighting them, and if the chains go kerplunk, then, clearly, I won.
Thank you very much!
Here is Mike's blogpost. His blogging software isn't built to withstand the number of comments I have made to the post -- in some places my comments are displayed one word wide and dozens of words deep!!
I feel great!
|Vox Pop, Sander, and Me -- Chapter 4
||[Dec. 4th, 2009|09:52 pm]
More jolly tales from the saga of Vox Pop! Enjoy. --Andy Laties|
When he released me from his embrace, Shelly Drobny reached into the air, strained upwards with his fingers, grasped something invisible, and shouted, “You’ve got the brass ring!”
The plan was a million dollars to begin with; more when we’d launched at least three new storefronts. The money would come in two-hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar tranches. Locations should be college-towns in markets where Air America Radio had broadcast affiliates. In fact, Vox Pop was to be the public face of Air America in dozens of towns being served by the progressive talk-radio network founded by Shelly and Anita Drobny a few years before.
I had driven in from Amherst on this October 2005 evening expecting a first conversation on this subject, but Sander Hicks’s friendship with the Drobnys was further along than I’d realized. I’d first met them at Vox Pop back in June, just prior to the BEA convention, when Shelly had done a book signing of his memoir Road To Air America. I hadn’t realized that in the meantime he’d agreed to have Vox Pop issue the paperback edition of the book.
Drobny was evidently impressed with Sander’s political and media activism, and with Vox Pop’s business plan and first year’s activity. Our first book, American Assassination: The Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone, published back in November of 2004, had sold through its entire two-thousand copy print-run in one month. Our second title, Sander’s own book, The Big Wedding: 9/11, The Conspiracy and The Cover-Up, had also sold through its entire print-run—twenty-five hundred copies—in one month. My book Rebel Bookseller had only sold one-thousand copies at first, but the reorders were still coming, and we’d gotten a starred review in Publishers Weekly. In addition, on that evening in October, just before dinner with the Drobnys, I watched Sander demonstrate our Instabook machine. It was quite an intriguing device, popping out a paperback book in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, I personally knew a bit too much back-story after a year of Instabook wrangling to be relaxed during a session of promoting the virtues of in-house book printing. The miraculous machine had a propensity for embarrassing breakdowns. Sander was lucky this time though, and the Instabook performed on cue.
Thus the dinner meeting was the culmination of months of courtship, and its outcome augured well for Vox Pop’s ambitious growth plan.
We’d opened the storefront one year before, in November of 2004, and our mix of musical performance, open mikes, political debates and book-signings--along with Holley’s café development and book-buying and Sander and Holley’s engaged, personable presence in the store--had quickly elicited a pleased neighborhood following. It turned out that people had been waiting for us: The Village Voice informed the city that we were straight out of Greenwich Village in the 60s. The New York Times reported that our arrival in Ditmas Park meant real estate values would soon be climbing. Sander and Holley had taken the apartment upstairs from the café, and with the arrival of their son in April, they looked the model young entrepreneurial success story.
Unfortunately our café product mix was rather inexpensive, we didn’t have very much seating, and there wasn’t enough space for a robust book inventory to be displayed. Monthly sales were at less than half break-even levels. Sander and Holley soon realized they would need a more extensive menu to satisfy their patrons and earn adequate income, but with no space for a kitchen this was problematic. Vox Pop applied for a beer and wine license, increased its selection of prepared-food items, and struggled with the mounting pile of bills.
Vox Pop had launched with very little capital. I had encouraged this: my mantra was, “You can’t get yourself out of trouble until you get into trouble.” I felt that when people saw how great we were, we’d find funding somehow. The first actual funders, perhaps unsurprisingly, though, were family and friends. Holley’s family, primarily, and Sander’s friends.
In particular, though, I was quite intrigued at Sander’s ability to convince our customers to buy stock in the company. When it came time for Rebel Bookseller to go to the printer, for instance, it was a neighbor who provided the six thousand dollars to buy three thousand copies.
Not that all of the neighbors were so happy about our presence. At the firehouse down the block some firemen referred to us as “commie coffee” and refused to patronize us. Apparently Sander’s activism in the 9/11 Truth Movement was perceived as unpatriotic. I told him our slogan should be “9/11, 24/7” in honor of the prominent display of 9/11 literature near the front door. Of course, he’d done serious, original research, traveling around the country to interview a variety of unusual individuals and learn their disturbing stories, so I never questioned his learning or his passion on the subject. And the success of his book showed that many others felt the same way about the importance of unveiling the entire story behind the 9/11 disaster.
After Shelly Drobny’s momentous announcement of impending venture investment, Sander and I began to wrestle with the operational implications. How would Vox Pop manage a rapid expansion? I felt that our successful public relations work in New York City meant we had to launch our first round of expansion in the region, even though the Drobnys had expressed an interest in college-towns around the country. As a compromise, we pinpointed collegiate neighborhoods: Greenwich Village, for New York University, and The Bronx, for Fordham University. Sander made appointments with real estate brokers and we spent several days together location-hunting. By January 2006, with little by way of follow-up contact from the Drobnys, we concluded that we might be able to elicit the first promised two-hundred-fifty thousand dollars by committing to a high-profile location in Greenwich Village. Village Comics, a longstanding bookstore on Sullivan Street one block from NYU, was closing down. Their twenty-one-hundred square foot storefront seemed perfect for a bookstore-café. The rent was high at seven thousand dollars per month, but I felt such a hot location with a full program of special events could earn enough to justify it.
We were heavy into negotiations with the landlord and needed cash to seal the deal. Sander tried to put Shelly Drobny on the spot. The bad news came: Air America Radio was suddenly in financial turmoil and the Drobnys were not liquid. Their Vox Pop investment would need to be postponed.
Our Greenwich Village deal was abandoned.
Meanwhile, we’d heard that the owners of a record-store and café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn wanted out, and were looking for someone to assume ownership. They were open to creative financing. Sander and I went over there one evening. The place was packed. It looked appealing, but the fixturing was restaurant-like and we worried that the space could not be configured for concerts or book-signings. As we browsed the CD racks in the attached record-store, the clerk asked Sander, “Are you the guy in that movie?”
“Horns and Halos? Yes, that’s me.”
The clerk straightened up a bit. “You’re Sander Hicks? That movie was awesome!”
We walked out of the store, and I said, “People recognize you in the street? You should run for office!” He gave me a sidelong glance.
A few days later I opened an email. Sander was being encouraged by friends to run for Governor of New York on the Green Party ticket.
|Vox Pop, Sander, and Me -- Chapter 2
||[Nov. 30th, 2009|09:21 pm]
Here is another chapter of the forthcoming book.|
Vox Pop, Sander, and Me -- Chapter 2
Mid-sentence the photographer across the street entered my awareness. How long had he been standing there? Sunglasses, khaki jacket, muscular, bulky camera, snapping photos of me? Me and Holley, rather, chatting about our big plans.
The Vox Pop lease had been signed. It was September 2004 and I’d come down to Brooklyn for my third visit with Sander and Holley. We’d driven to Williamsburg to wander through cafes and discuss what we liked and where we’d innovate. Now, sitting on the bench outside a used-bookstore/café, Holley and I had been immersed in a detailed exploration of the business strategy.
When had the photographer taken up his post? Directly across the street, surely he’d been there for at least five minutes I now realized. I thought about my Eric Carle Museum logo t-shirt. Surely it wasn’t me he was following.
“Holley, how long has that guy been taking pictures of us?”
She laughed. “You just noticed him? Half an hour at least.”
Holley had been among tens of thousands of protestors the day before at the Republican National Convention. She’d been held overnight at a former chemical warehouse dubbed Guantanamo on the Hudson, along with hundreds of other anti-Iraq-war activists: elderly priests, children, pregnant women. Some had received chemical burns or touched asbestos or slept in oil patches on the concrete. “The craziest thing is we were following their route between plastic netting strips down the sidewalk when they wrapped the plastic around us all and took everyone away.” Holley gestured at the photographer, who was looking at us over the top of his camera. “They don’t even care if you know what they’re doing. Look at him. He just wants to intimidate us.”
For me, having driven in from Amherst with my wife and daughter for a fun day in New York filled with business planning and shopping, this experience was disorienting. The idea that hostility toward a protestor at the RNC would extend to assigning a cop to follow her around after her release from illegal overnight detention--nonsensical.
One of the first things that Holley’s boyfriend Sander Hicks and I had established during our email exchange eight months before was that we shared some rather unorthodox views of how the world worked and how it should be lived in. We both agreed with Gandhi that life should be a succession of experiments with truth: it was important to align your actions with your ideals. However, this might mean coming into conflict with people who seemed to be living by received wisdom or blind dogmatism. Although most people thought of Sander Hicks as a leftist, in fact he’d been vocal in opposition to any party line, and had even been voted out of the International Socialist Organization in 1997. Both Sander and I had been businessmen for years, and neither of us had much patience for knee-jerk anti-business attitudes among people active in social change movements. My own recourse was to remind my radical friends that Emma Goldman had once owned an ice-cream store, and William Godwin was a bookstore owner and publisher. The problem I saw wasn’t with marketplaces, but rather capital accumulation among particular market participants unrelated to the real purposes of that market, creating what Fernand Braudel called anti-markets. This was how monopoly power worked: one player used a chunk of capital to under-price all competitors, driving them out of business and raising prices once the field was clear.
Beyond our shared bias in favor of business as a form of social activism, Sander and I had a more specific point of agreement. We both felt the Bush presidency had been stolen at the voting booth in 2000, and we were worried about a repeat of that electoral theft, come November 2004. Vox Pop, founded during this election year, was designed in part as a politically-oriented investment opportunity attractive to anti-Bush activists by virtue of our business’s intent to express political ideas and foster debate.
Finally, Sander and I had discovered we shared a complete disbelief in the official narratives about the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I watched on TV as the towers fell, I concluded that like the Iran/Contra affair, this was a black ops action involving elements of the American power system. I felt that just as Ronald Reagan had not been informed of exactly what was being done in the 1980s, so the inexperienced George W. Bush surely had not himself been told about the attacks, but this was only to ensure his deniability, positioning him to state that he’d known nothing about it. The intent of the attacks was obvious: they’d be used as an excuse to launch wars wherever the Bush Administration and its handlers wished. In the ensuing chaos, resource prices would be raised, fortunes would be assembled, and another generation of American youth would be trained and indoctrinated in the science of imperial warfare, helping ensure the competent and lucrative perpetuation of the military/industrial state.
Holley took these ideas for granted too, as--by 2004--did many of our friends. Still, for me, being stalked by a cop brought home a reality she’d become accustomed to since arriving in New York with Sander a few months before. After all, Sander’s activism in the New York alternative media and the 9/11 Truth Movement had picked up right where he’d left it before moving to Taos where he and Holley had met; Holley’s street-based activism was happening in parallel with Sander’s journalistic approach. Hence her lack of surprise at being followed, post-release.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised either. I did know the kind of lives Sander and Holley were leading. When my wife and I had first visited them back in July, shortly after their arrival in Brooklyn, we’d found them living rent-free in a basement apartment of a building owned by the co-founder of the radical alternative news organization INN World Report, for which Sander was working as on-air reporter and fundraiser. INN’s studio in Chinatown was the address my wife and I had first arrived at that day, but being an hour late for our appointment we were sorry to find that Sander had already left. Still, a co-owner had shown us the studios and talked us through the INN project. Free-lancers around the world did first hand reporting and submitted via FTP to the INN servers in New York. The weekly hour-long broadcast, appearing on Free Speech TV’s satellite channel on Dish Network, had the format of an ordinary television newsmagazine. The kind of facts and tone of analysis however were decidedly unusual. Whether the subject was climate change, peak oil, clandestine CIA operations, political malfeasance, or insider trading, high-quality journalism was stating simple facts. This honesty was astonishing to watch as a telecast. It was like living in an alternate universe where TV told the truth.
We’d driven from the INN studio in Manhattan over to meet Sander and Holley for the first time in their apartment in Brooklyn, and then out to lunch, where my wife had asked Sander his motivation for launching a chain of politically-oriented cafes. Sander had surprised us by earnestly launching into a disquisition on the revolutionary presence of the truth of Christ in human history. For me the Gandhian approach to this motive was more familiar, but I did know of Gandhi’s study of Christ. Although afterwards my wife expressed bafflement, I had already had the chance to become comfortable with Sander’s heterodox Catholicism: it was directly out of Ivan Illich and Dorothy Day. In an email earlier in the year I’d asked him whether he was a Liberation Theologist of the kind that got excommunicated by the pope. He’d responded in a one-word email, “Yah!”
Under the police photographer’s watchful lens, in early September, I asked Holley about her own hopes for Vox Pop. She said, “Honestly, I’m just interested in launching this café. If we can open all the others, that’s great, but for me it’s about this community.”
They’d scouted Brooklyn’s neighborhoods and storefronts for two months. I’d talked them out of a location on the edge of Park Slope that I thought was too small to successfully host performances, but when they’d taken me to a rough-seeming neighborhood south of Prospect Park called Ditmas Park, and showed me a closed video store on a Cortelyou Road block with many boarded up storefronts but lots of Asian, African and Caribbean families filling the sidewalks, I was immediately impressed with the corner building’s setback from the curb. I asked the landlord, “Do you own this sidewalk frontage?”
He nodded. “All the way out to here.”
I got excited. “So, we could punch out from the window and build an enclosed awning for exterior seating?”
“Sure, if you want to pay for heating in winter--but what kind of business is this? I thought you were opening a--bookstore?”
Sander explained, “We’re the next generation of media. We speak truth to power.”
Holley clarified, “It’s a café, too.”
The landlord was concerned. “Any cooking is a problem. There’s no space for a kitchen.”
Holley continued, “No kitchen. I’ve managed cafes. We know what we’re doing.”
The landlord was gesturing around the space. “You could rent my storefront around the corner too. They connect through the back wall by the bathroom.”
Sander said, “The ceiling is high enough to build an office loft back there.”
I added, “You could have a children’s play area underneath. And, maybe put a stage in this window?”
Sander responded, “Stage goes in the corner.”
I asked, “Is there a basement?”
The landlord answered, “Basement’s included if you want. It’s not very high.”
So, he’d just offered us a downstairs office and warehouse. Having a full basement would provide space for Sander’s media operation, including the Instabook machine we’d signed a contract for in July. At $2500 per month, this twelve-hundred square foot storefront seemed a bargain.
The landlord was concerned about references and I went to my car and pulled out a notebook of press clippings, showing him the USA Today article from 1991 with color photo of me reading to kids in The Children’s Bookstore in Chicago. “I’ve been running this kind of place for twenty years. We know how to do this.”
Sander convinced his INN World Report friend to co-sign the lease and front the security deposit, and the storefront was ours. On a busy corner in the most diverse census tract in the United States we were ready to launch what Sander Hicks and I thought of as our demonstration store, designed to impress investors with the impact we could have on a target community.
Holley Anderson had more modest ambitions: she wanted this particular café to thrive. But Holley’s vision was to be subordinated to our more ambitious one, leading to ongoing disagreements.
As for me, my key personal goal was to ensure that my novel bookselling ideas were tried, despite the fact that I was living three hours away. So my September afternoon chat with Holley strayed in and out of bookselling theory. That is: I had realized she, not I, would be the one on the ground who’d be attempting to implement the café-bookstore strategy I’d championed for Vox Pop.
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