Before the literary world was taken over by iPads, Kindles and Nooks, I would go to bookstores all the time. I probably went two or three times a week — no exaggeration — and sometimes, like when I was finishing my book about Buck O’Neil, I went even more. Now, I don’t go very often. To be honest, I don’t go at all. It’s too easy to buy books electronically from a recliner. It’s too easy to have a book delivered (with free shipping). I keep saying that I will start going to bookstores again, but I don’t know that I will. Times change. The world changes.
But this week, I did go to a bookstore and wandered around. And this is what I thought about.
Here’s something I’ve noticed: Every bargain books section in every bookstore in the country has an entire shelf dedicated to bird watching. Illustrated Birds of North America. A Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic’s Field Guide of Birds. And, of course, The Complete Guide to Birds of the World, which, if you think about it, should really be everything you need.*
*Complete Guides are another specialty of bargain book sections. In the next row, there’s a bargain book called “The Complete History of the World.” It’s only $9.99. I don’t know why book stores don’t just put that book right in front of the store… and eliminate every other superfluous non-fiction book in the store.
Back to birds: I admit that I’m not especially interested in identifying birds. The only bird I ever really wanted to identify was the one that kept swooping down and threatening to attack me while I was trying to mow my lawn a couple of years ago … and that was only for the police report. But I know that there are many people who enjoy identifying birds, studying them, watching them and so on. My question is this: Why are these books always in the bargain section? The big book store owners — Robert Barnes, Charlotte Noble, Frank Borders, Sally Booksamillion — have certainly done numerous studies that suggest these bird books sell best when situated in a bargain book section and slapped with a “$5.99” sticker.
But why? Are there really people who are impulse buying these bulky, coffee-table books about birds? Are there really bird watchers who had looked hard at A Field Guide to the Birds of North America at full price and almost bought it but then decided: “Nah, I’ll wait for it to go on sale?” Were these books EVER at full price?
I’ve come up with two theories about why there are always bird books in bargain sections:
1. The big book sellers have come to realize from their data that bird watchers are, by their nature, the sorts of people who walk through the bargain sections of book stores.
2. The big book sellers know that the people who are buying these books are people looking to stock their waiting room tables … and they’re happy to buy impressive-looking bird books at discount prices.
* * *
Ricky Martin has an autobiography out. It is called “Me.” I wonder how he came up with that title. I wonder what title finished second.
I posed this question to the people of Twitter. My favorite was a response from brilliant reader Nelson. He figured the runner-up title was: “Book.”
* * *
The thing that constantly strikes me as I walk through bookstores is that every book in there, every single one, was published with the dream of selling many, many copies. All the mysteries with vaguely the same looking cover, all the books that will help you grow your money, the books with 1,001 dirty jokes (these would include John Updike’s novels), the books about how Democrats and/or Republicans are trying to destroy your way of life, the books about true crimes that seem so strange they could be fiction, the books about fictional crimes that feel so real they could be true, the sports books about baseball in the 1950s or how to shoot 80, the guide books marketed to self-aware idiots and dummies, the quirky history books, the books by once famous people (Roseannarchy?), the novels with grand ambitions, the novels with someone who looks like Fabio on the cover, the graphic novels, the children’s books, the books about the future and all the books that tell you how to be a better parent/gardner/investor/photographer/iPad user/sports fan/Jersey Shore viewer … all of them were published because someone out there believed that people would buy them.
As someone vaguely resembling an author, I feel for these books. As I walk through bookstores, I fight constant urges to buy books I would never read … I just want to help them out, spring them from book jail. I will rearrange books so that an ambitious novel that took a half a lifetime to complete or a deep history of philosophical thought will not find itself stuck next to “Britney Speaks Heart To Heart.” I turn some of my favorite books so that their cover shows and I hope that cover might be enough to stop some a hurried shopper — not unlike the way Claudette Colbert stopped a car by showing some leg in “It Happened One Night.”
The books that strike the most emotion in me are the ones I find in the wrong section. There are only two possibilities: One that the book was misfiled, which I find is unlikely. The second is that the book was almost bought. Some buyer had this book about Mark Twain or The History of Salt or The Pint Man or a book about the great Buck O’Neil and decided at the last minute to abandon it in the computer books section or in the section with all of the fancy journals that people buy as gifts.
The idea of these books almost being bought and then abandoned always leaves me surprisingly sad.
* * *
Mitt Romney has a new book called “No Apology.” I was not aware that people were demanding apologies from Mitt Romney, but apparently he will not give them the satisfaction.
I first see the Mitt Romney book in the “New Releases” section with all the other new books that have grand hopes of gracing the New York Times best-seller list. Later, I see “No Apology” again … in the bargain books section. Here it is selling for $5.98. This feels like some sort of grand mistake, but apparently it is not because there are a half dozen there, all marked down. It is, the first straight to bargain section book I can ever remember.
Maybe the title refers to the publisher’s official stance about people who paid full price.
* * *
The only logical reaction when you walk into the diet section of a bookstore is to appreciate that there are many, many ways to lose weight in only 60 days. And there are many more being devised while I write these words. By Tuesday, there will be at least a half dozen new ways.
I’ve actually read a few diet books, both because I am overweight and also I’ve long been preparing for the bestseller I plan to write someday soon: “The Sportswriters Diet.”
The amazing thing to me about diet books is how viciously they attack other diet books. I’ve read all the David Sedaris books, and not once do I recall him writing a sentence like: “Other humor writers will tell you that boogers are funny. They are entirely wrong. For the first seven chapters, I will show you the scientific evidence why booger jokes do not have any effect on the section of the brain that attends to humor.”
But sentences like this FLOOD the diet books. What everybody else is telling you is ALL WRONG. … THEY tell you to cut down on carbs/fat/protein/caffeine/cheese/breakfast cereals with cartoon characters on the front … THEY tell you to exercise until you puke, until you throw up, until you vomit, until you lose consciousness … THEY tell you to cook with olive oil or not to cook with olive oil, to count calories but don’t calorie count, to avoid all sources of carbs without losing healthy carbs though there are no healthy carbs … but WE will tell you why all the stuff THEY tell you inevitably and inexorably will make you gain 50 pounds and hate your family.
It is not easy to lose weight. I know this. We all know this. I’m in the midst of another weight loss program right now, and I’m in those heady days when I’m losing weight and feeling good about things and imagining the After Photo. But I’ve been here before, many of us have been here before … there’s a lot of time between now and the After Photo. And it seems to me that the millions of diet book authors might come to some kind of consensus that would help those of us. Calories? Carbs? Fat? Fiber? What the heck should we do?
And stop yelling at us.
* * *
How much weight did Gandhi lose during his 21-day hunger strike?
* * *
I love the section of “staff recommendations.” I remember someone in the business once telling me that the big bookstores will fake those recommendations — that they will tell staffers which books to pick. I’ve since been told that this isn’t true. I don’t have an leaning on the subject. I have noticed that the staff recommendations at bookstores across the country tend to be very similar. The recommendations always seem to include one Toni Morrison book, one classic by Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, a Bukowski, Burroughs or Palahniuk (recommended by the store rebel), a recent translation, and an Oprah book club selection. This doesn’t have to be planned. This could be because people who work in bookstores tend to have similar tastes.
I remember at one bookstore — in Arizona, I’m pretty sure –someone on the staff recommended The Bible. I thought that was great, and I wondered if anyone saw that and thought: “Well, I haven’t heard too much about this book, but I’ll buy it based on the recommendation.”
* * *
One thing I learned after writing my books is that you have no chance to sell any quantity of books in the big bookstores unless those books are placed on a table in front of the store. It’s called placement, I guess, and it’s extremely important. Books that never get on one of those front tables are apparently doomed, and so publishers will do many things to get their books placed in front — on the “New Arrivals” table, on the “Stuff We’re Reading” table, on the “Critically Acclaimed” table, on the “Dean Koontz” table.*
*Damn, Dean Koontz has written a lot of books. So have Janet Daily, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Robert Ludlum … I feel like such a writing pretender.
I have little doubt that the “front of the store table” theory is based on countless amounts of sound research. And the theory itself seems sound. You would expect that people looking to browse for books are likely to stay near the front of the store and see what new and interesting books have been put out for them.
I bring all this up because once again I’m in the front of the store looking at the books on the front tables … and NOBODY ELSE is here. The bookstore is actually pretty jammed. People are milling around the fiction, the diet books, they are wandering through the kids section, there is one or two people in every aisle and a bunch in the history section. But nobody is up here with me browsing through the new books.
I have no idea what it means. But it is something I have noticed before. I actually like looking at the new books tables, seeing what’s out there, what the publishing houses are pushing, what member of the Jackson family has decided to write a new book, what political commentator has decided to lash out, what new thing authors think I’m doing wrong now … but I almost never run into anyone else looking at these books. I almost never see anyone actually buy these front table books.
I’m sure that this is just selective memory … I have no doubt that people do most of their shopping on the front tables, and that the only way to really sell a book is to have it in front of the store where people can find it, and I desperately hope that my next book will get the place of honor on that very first table in the front of the store, the one usually reserved for books about why the sitting president is evil, books about why the sitting president in misunderstood, or vampires.
* * *
They closed down the coffee shop in the bookstore where I’m walking. This upsets me. I can only remember one time in the last two or three years when I ordered coffee in a book store, and that was in Los Angeles when I was trying to kill an hour because I had arrived some place WAY early. This seems to me one of the dangers of living in Los Angeles, by the way. There is no telling how long it will take you to get through traffic, and so it seems to me you will always find yourself very early or very late.
In any case, drinking coffee in bookstores is not really a part of my life … but I like knowing that I can. And more, I like the smell of coffee, and the murmur of conversation, and the variety of people you see sitting at tables. The bookstore feels a bit dead to me without all that, with that corner of the store having gone dark.
* * *
The checkout line in bookstores alway seems to end about 20 feet away from the actual cashiers and their registers. You have to stand at this distance for reasons I do not quite know, and then you have to wait for them to point at you and go: “Next person in line,” like they are bakers and you are ordering wanting to order a cake. And when they do finally grant you an audience, you get to stagger that final 20 feet past a startling array of oddball items — artsy magazines, writers’ journals, Monopoly games featuring streets in your hometown, videos of movies that came out 17 years ago, Harry Potter candy, more bargain books (“The Complete History of Rock ‘N Roll”), fancy bookmarks, maybe a couple of current best sellers, a few in season books (“For Valentine’s Day put the spark back in your love life”), and, most of all, tiny pocket books.
I always stop to look at the pocket books. They fascinate me. I fully understand why people make them, and why people buy them. They make for great little gifts. You have pocket books for parents … for siblings .. for teachers … for Star Wars fans … for people who like knock knock jokes … for bird lovers … for cat lovers … for dog lovers … for sports lovers … for love lovers … for people who like to quote The Wire … for pretty much every single person you know. It’s manipulative, sure, but when we buy gifts aren’t we sometimes looking for something a little bit manipulative. “Hey, I really don’t know you at all, but I remember you once telling me you liked Mini Coopers. Well here’s a little book with a whole bunch of photos of Mini Coopers.”
What fascinates me, though, is not the concept of pocket books but the idea of actually reading one once you leave the story, Sure, it’s easy to read in the store … you pull it out, open it up, flip through it. But how would you actually read one of these at home? Are you really going to climb into a recliner, lean back, and pull out a book roughly half the size of a regulation box of Good & Plenty? Are you going to turn the pages, one by one, laugh at a little joke, then turn to the next itty-bitty page? And where will you keep the book when you’re done? Can you have a tiny little bookshelf with a bunch of these books, a miniature library of pocket books — not unlike Seinfeld’s closet of socks on those little hangers that they’re sold on?
I always expect — but almost never get — any real interaction with the checkout person at one of the big book stores. Sometimes, they will recognize me or my name, which is not my favorite thing but it’s fine and anyway that’s not the kind of interaction mean. What I mean is that they will almost never say something like “Oh, I read this book and loved it,” or “If you like this book you should read this book” or even “Oh, I’ve really been meaning to get to this book I’ve heard great things.” I will get this often at my favorite Independent bookstores, like Rainy Day Books in Kansas City, but not at the big ones. They will cash out the book, ask if I have a rewards card, spend way too long trying to find my rewards card on the computer, and then ask if I want a bag.
I don’t know why I expect more. When I buy stuff at Target, I never expect — but often get — a cashier who wants to tell me how good the movie is that I’m getting or that the shampoo I’m buying made her boyfriend’s hair turn a little green. I don’t expect supermarket people to review my bread choices, and I don’t expect the Best Buy person to tell me that the new Radiohead sounds just like the old Radiohead, or whatever.
Still, there’s something strangely disappointing about not getting any reaction at all to buying books at a store. I can’t exactly say why. Maybe it’s because I still think of books as magical, as something that connect us. If you saw the same movie that I saw, well, big deal. Shell out $10 or $15 or $20 or whatever it costs to see a movie in a town near you, and you see the movie. You saw The King’s Speech, I saw The King’s Speech, we both liked it, whatever. Neither of us worked too hard.
You go into a store and buy Bruce Springsteen, Cee Lo Green, REM, Postal Service, Ella Fitzgerald, David Wilcox and the Gaslight Anthem just like I would … that’s great, we obviously share musical tastes, but that’s not a relationship. There’s no commitment. We just like some of the same sounds.
But to read a book … it’s an effort. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes understanding. And if you read all the way through The Power Broker, and found it rewarding and fascinating, we are probably pretty similar in some ways. If you read Then We Came To The End, and loved it, we are probably pretty similar in some ways. If you find yourself almost daily diving into some new place in Bill James New Historical Abstract and just reading happily, we are probably pretty similar in some ways.
Connection. That seems to be the thing that books can offer that is a little bit different from anything else … a way to bridge that gap, a way to cut the space between us. Sometimes when I’m in a bookstore, I will see someone I don’t know looking at a book I loved, and I want to run over and shout: “You don’t know me but please buy that book! I don’t know you, but if you are the kind of person I hope you will love it!”
Of course I don’t ever do that. And nobody ever does that to me. Not even the person at the checkout counter.
* * *
One thing the checkout counter person does ask is if I want to buy a book for a child. I’m not entirely sure of the particulars of this program — I’m not sure if she is asking me to buy a book for a single child, or for a school, or for some kind of organization like “Reading Is Fundamental” that hands out books to children.
If I could buy a book for every child it would be the beautiful children’s book “Some Dogs Do” by Jez Alborough. It is a book about a dog name Sid who finds out one day that when he gets really happy he can fly. He announces this at school, where all the other dogs mock him and call him a liar and laugh at him. He finds himself depressed, until he comes home and finds a secret. And, finally, there are the beautiful final words.
Do dogs fly?
Is it true?
Some dogs don’t.
And some dogs do.
I love that book for so many reasons … but mostly I love it because it’s about the power of imagination. And this happens to be the same reason I love bookstores.
* * *
I was in this very bookstore once when Buck O’Neil called me. This was in the last few months of Buck’s life, and it was also in the last few months of me writing my book about Buck. I had not written a book before, and I had no idea how to do it. I still don’t, but I knew even less then. So I would go to bookstore five or six nights a week, and just wander around, try to soak it all in. I would pick up books and read first paragraphs. I would read last paragraphs. I would try to feel what form my book should take. I don’t know know that I figured it out, but I think I learned a lot trying.
In any case, I remember everything very specifically about the night Buck called. I had just walked out of the sports section, and I was wandering over to fiction when my phone buzzed. I don’t think Buck ever called me on my cell before … I can remember being surprised he even knew my cell phone number.
He had called mostly to ask a favor. A couple of days before, there had been an election to add Negro League players and contributors into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The committee essentially was given free reign to add as many people as they wanted, and they took advantage of their freedom by adding an astounding 17 people. It was a free-for-all. All of the 17 were dead, long dead, decades dead. And more or less the one viable person they did not add was probably the one person the Hall of Fame wanted honored when they put together the committee in the first place: My friend Buck O’Neil.
Buck played well in the Negro Leagues, managed brilliantly in the Negro Leagues, scouted the Negro Leagues and spent more than half his life fighting to keep alive the memory of the Negro Leagues. It was a shock when he was not inducted, and, to his friends and fans, an insult. Tears mixed with fury. Buck, of course, handled it with the beautiful grace that marked his life. On the day of the inductions, he introduced the 17 new inductees and led people in song.
The favor was classic Buck. He wanted me to thank people for all the support after Hall of Fame day. He wanted them to know he never felt more loved. This was five years ago, almost to the day, and I told Buck that I would certainly let everybody know how he felt. Then there was a long pause. I was walking by the S authors in the fiction section. I remember seeing Salinger. And then Buck said this:
“You know … a few weeks ago, a guy asked me: ‘Who is that white boy who is following you around all the time?'”
I had followed Buck for a year, from New York to San Francisco, from Chicago to Houston, from Atlanta back home to Kansas City. I had heard him tell story after story — sometimes word for word — and I had heard him sing, and I had watched baseball games with him, and I had shared many meals with him (ALWAYS with desert) and I had hugged him many times. I had listened again and again to his peaceful words. I had no idea how to turn all that into a book, how to make people feel the spirit of Buck, how to make people hear the music of Buck, I had no idea. I only knew that I had to do it, that this was as important as anything I would ever write. This is why I wandered around bookstores at night.
“What did you say?” I asked Buck.
Another pause. There’s a certain light in a bookstore that I have come to love. It’s bright enough to make the words clear, but dark enough to keep your head from throbbing. I was standing still then, right next to Steinbeck’s “Winter of Our Discontent.” I remember thinking that I had not read it.
Buck said: “I told him, ‘Can’t you tell? That’s my son.'”
Five years ago. Buck died that October. You want to know why I went to the bookstore? I went for Steinbeck’s “Winter of Our Discontent.” It wasn’t there. They said they could order it, but the sad thing is that those days are gone. I can order it myself.