Posts Tagged ‘Mendocino Cafe’

The Amazon Paradox

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

oasis-tales-conjuror

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

“Surrealism to me is reality.” John Lennon

My books are for sale on Amazon. New and used. So are my music CDs. My books and music are downloadable from Amazon, and that includes audio books of my work narrated by yours truly. Do I feel like a rat and an enemy of local bookstores and local music stores? No, because with the exception of a few extremely local bookstores where I am personally known to the proprietors, my books are not available in any local bookstores in America or even in the few remaining chain bookstores, and that is also true of my music. This is also true for the vast majority of writers and musicians (those who produce books and albums) in this country. Without Amazon and a few other online sites, most writers and musicians would have nowhere, practically speaking, to sell their work.

Ironically, local independent bookstores with their extremely limited shelf space carry almost entirely mainstream corporate product (i.e. imitative junk) because that is what most people buy. Amazon, on the other hand, has unlimited shelf space and carries everybody’s books and music, including works by the most esoteric poets and writers and musicians in the world, works no one else will carry. Amazon has also been a fantastic boon to used booksellers, many of whom were going out of business before Amazon provided a way for those used bookstores to reach millions of people who otherwise would never have known about them.

Before the advent of Amazon, many well-meaning people believed that shopping at chain bookstores would bring about the demise of local bookstores. However, my first five novels were only (albeit briefly) available in chain bookstores and not in local independent bookstores because the chains had shelf space for less known and less mainstream books and the independent stores only carried what the New York Times said was worth buying. If you don’t know it already, the New York Times only reviews and touts books published by their major advertisers, the giant corporate publishers, which are wholly owned subsidiaries of huge multinational corporations. Local bookstores thirty years ago, and local bookstores today, carry books, with very few exceptions, that get reviewed in mainstream newspapers and magazines owned by huge corporations who also happen to publish nearly all the books that get reviewed and advertised in America.

You see the problem. We are told to support our local bookstores in their selling of corporate product because…why? Doing so pays the salaries of a few local bookstore clerks? If local independent bookstores primarily sold books published by independent publishers, that would be a different matter, but if they did that they would immediately go out of business because most people, including hip savvy happening people, only buy books and music they’ve heard about through the corporate media, which includes National Public Radio and The New Yorker, and don’t kid yourself that NPR and The New Yorker aren’t corporate bullhorns.

What if, just for the sake of discussion, Amazon did exactly what it does, except Amazon employees were treated humanely, paid handsomely, given fabulous benefits and fat pensions, and worked in environmentally marvelous solar electric facilities sending forth goods in recycled biodegradable organic packaging material transported by environmentally fabulous systems of purveyance? Would it then no longer be a sin to shop at Amazon? Less of a sin? Is it how Amazon does what it does or what Amazon does that makes them so awful-seeming?

To sum up a prevalent notion of reality shared by way too many people who should know better: if you can’t get a gigantic corporation to publish your books and spend tons of money getting those books reviewed and advertised and distributed to local indie bookstores, you should just stop writing. And stop recording music, too. Just make a living some other way. Don’t even try to be an artist unless you can be immensely successful and have articles written about you in The New Yorker. To do otherwise is unfair to small businesses. Got it?

Am I a pimp for Amazon? Nay. I buy almost nothing from them. I walk everywhere and drive very little. My carbon footprint is a few toe indentations compared to the average American. Still, I struggle with the paradox of knowing that my books, the ones recently published and the ones long out-of-print, have lives (in the sense of being available to people) almost entirely because of Amazon. Nor were my books readily available before Amazon. Prior to the advent of Amazon, if someone asked where they could get a copy of one of my books, I would say, “Well, if you have a stupendous and well-endowed library system or access to the greatest used bookstores on earth, you might find a few of them.” Now all my books are readily available from independent used booksellers availing themselves of Amazon’s organizational system to sell their goods. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Could it be better? Of course. By the way, I don’t make a cent from the sales of used copies of my books and I make almost nothing from the sales of my new books, but I’m still happy that people have easy access to my work.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

This just in. The National Library of Norway is planning to digitize all the books in Norwegian by the mid 2020’s (hundreds of thousands of books). This will mean that if your IP (Internet Protocol) address proves your computer is in Norway, you will be able to access all the Norwegian books ever published, even those still under copyright, for free. The article did not say how publishers and authors are to be compensated for their work under this plan, but Norway is wealthy and socialist, with a highly literate population, so I imagine Norwegian writers will not be dissuaded from continuing to write because of this mass digitization.

It has never been easy for artists to make livings from their art, and for millennia now in the so-called advanced societies virtually every artist we’ve ever heard of was beholden to some king or prince or wealthy merchant or powerful editor or rich person to subsidize the making and dissemination of those famous artists’ art. Is this a bad thing? Is selling books and music and artistic creations on Amazon (because there is nowhere else to sell such things) any worse than beseeching (or having sex with) a powerful duke or prince so the big idiot will commission a sonata so you can pay your rent and buy food? Is getting in bed with Amazon worse than playing footsy (or having sex) with a Medici or two so they’ll pay you to sculpt David out of marble and paint the Sistine Chapel? You tell me.

When I published my first novel in 1978, I was invited to join the Author’s Guild, an esteemed organization that claimed at that time to represent some seven thousand American authors published by major publishers. I joined because my literary agent said it was a good idea, but I eventually resigned because the Author’s Guild was forever asking members for money to help writers from other countries while doing nothing to help American writers, including and especially their own guild members. However, before I resigned, I took part in a survey with my seven thousand fellow members of the Author’s Guild, and the results were that less than one-quarter of one per cent of the seven thousand writers surveyed made even a minimalist living from their writing. Some vibrant culture we’ve got, huh?

“Take away the paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.” Soren Kierkegaard

I am now publishing books at Zo, Mendocino’s finest and only copy shop. This does not preclude future offers from daring, creative, prescient publishers who wish to publish my work, but from now on the first editions of my novels will be Zo Editions, unless Zo goes out of business before I cease to produce books. My first venture, the novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, launched in November, has now sold thirty-one copies, and as of copy #28 my design and manufacturing costs have been covered, which means the last three copies I sold (through my web site) have brought me massive profit, easily enough to take Marcia out for lunch at the Mendocino Café, if we share one of the less expensive entrées and two large glasses of water, hold the bubbles.

My publishing experiment proves (to me) there are three kinds of people. By far the largest number of the three kinds are those who react with contempt and pity and varying degrees of disgust when they hear of my comb-bound individually hand-numbered and signed publishing venture, the second largest number are those who smile and say “Neato!” when they hear of my new old way of bringing out my fiction, and the smallest number are those who don’t hesitate to say, “I’ll buy one,” and they do.

The sad and undeniable truth is that most people in our society do not consider writing fiction or composing music or drawing or painting or any kind of art making to be real work. Ours is essentially an anti-artist culture, which is why most people need those corporate stamps of approval before they will believe something has value. Talk about a paradox. The Amazon Paradox is an easy ten-piece jigsaw puzzle for small children compared to the paradox of why so many seemingly intelligent people still believe the corporate media communicates anything other than advertisements for the products of huge corporations, and only by accident and once in a blue moon allows something so subversive as original art to reach a large audience.

Mendocino the Great

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

 

Yes, arguments can be made that Mendocino is an over-priced tourist destination/trap, but having lived here for three and a half years now, I would like to give you eight good reasons why I think Mendocino is every bit as great as Fort Bragg.

1. Does the post office in your town play (loudly) the San Francisco Giants’ day games on the radio for all the world to hear? Do the postal employees in your town’s post office frequently stop mid-transaction to wait and see what happens on the next key pitch of the Giants’ game? The Mendocino post office does and her employees do.

So I’m mailing a couple packages and Sheila types in a zip code and says, “I read your rant in the AVA about the Giants before the Dodgers swept us, and after they swept us I had to admit we’re a minor league team yet again.” Then we launched into simultaneous commentaries on Bochy suffering from Dusty Bakeritis (a malady characterized by leaving a pitcher in the game long after he has proven himself incapable of getting anyone out) when he left Howrie in after he’d been severely shellacked by the Dodgers. And all the while the line of postal customers is growing longer and longer, but we don’t care because we have to finish hammering home this crucial point about the Giants. Is that a great post office, or what?

2. I go from the post office to Corners and pay for my ultra-fresh organic purchases (and a brilliantly fresh Boontberry cookie) with exact change, for which the clerk rewards me by striking a tiny gong hanging above the cash register (a custom of the collective) and the old former church reverberates with the sweet sound of perfection, however fleetingly. What a great store!

3. The big winds of late have brought down hundreds of eucalyptus branches in the vacant lot across the street from the Mendocino Café. I park our old pickup next to the lot and gather a few weeks worth of perfectly-seasoned kindling, which makes starting the morning and evening fires a snap. What a great vacant lot!

4. Speaking of the Mendocino Café. Talk about good food and friendly people. They even have entrees one might call quasi-reasonable in price. We recently met a friend there for her birthday. She had her five-year old granddaughter in tow. No problem. The Mendocino Café has a kids’ menu that offers, among other things, grilled cheese sandwiches. What a great café!

5. I stop at Big River Beach to take my afternoon constitutional on the vast sand flat exposed at low tides. As I’m zipping up my parka to protect myself from the chill air powered by a fierce offshore breeze, a shiny black Mercedes pulls up beside my eucalyptus-laden pickup. A young woman hops out. Gracefully. She would probably win any Angelina Jolie look-alike contest she entered, and I do a double take to make sure she is not actually Angelina. She’s wearing black short shorts, a black belly shirt, a skimpy silver windbreaker, and a black baseball cap (not the Giants, alas.) She brings forth a fluffy white poodle, winks at me (truly), and then saunters down onto the sand with her dog following.

I, Nanook of Mendocino, stride into the wind wondering why Angelina’s twin isn’t freezing to death. When I’m way out on the flats singing to the waves (the perfect place to practice without scaring or offending anyone) I turn to look back upriver, and way in the distance I espy the beautiful young woman striding toward the swollen river. She is now wearing only a diminutive bikini. Without hesitation, she dives into the icy torrent, her poodle barking enthusiastically, and swims out about thirty feet, swims back to shore, gets out and runs away in the direction of her car.

A half-hour later, wind-whipped and cold, I return to my truck. The young woman, now fully clothed, is sitting in her Mercedes reading a book and, drum roll, smoking a cigar. Talk about a great town beach.

6. The next day I’m in the hardware section of Harvest Market, formerly known as Mendoza’s, trying to solve a problem with a defective part I got with the car top box I bought from Sears. The guy helping me spends at least twenty minutes trying all sort of things to help me, consults with two other guys, and in the end we come up with a workable solution that costs me all of thirty-five cents. I celebrate by buying a very reasonably priced organic wine (for cooking) and an organic 73% dark chocolate candy bar. What a great hardware grocery store.

7. I pick up my mail and walk across the street to the Mendocino Market (deli) to buy a Rosie chicken. (You probably think all I do is shop and eat and walk on the beach, but you can ask my wife and she’ll tell you I’m always working on something.) I am invariably greeted by name when I enter the market, and if they are not terribly busy, the quality of my day is inquired about. This alone would make the place great, but the sandwiches here are not just good, they are really good, and reasonably priced. The soup de jour is always excellent, the fish is fresh and locally caught, and they feature an excellent selection of wonderful wines, most of which I cannot in good conscience afford except on extra special occasions. But it is the clientele and the particular sort of milling around that goes on in the Mendocino Market that makes the place stellar. I have had some really good political, philosophical, and meteorological discussions whilst awaiting my ham on rye or waiting to point out which of the pieces of snapper I crave for the evening meal. And when the high school kids come down the hill on their lunch break, and the market fills up with teens in search of nourishment, the conversations to be heard are, like, oh my God, so awesome.

So I’m waiting to order some chicken parts, and while I wait, an apology is made to me for having to wait (can you believe it?) and I reply, “Oh, I’m in no hurry.”

The woman ahead of me (waiting for her soup) laughs self-consciously and says, “I’m always in a hurry. This is my second day of vacation and I still can’t stop hurrying, though I have nothing to hurry about.”

“It can take years to stop hurrying,” I said, thinking of my ongoing transition from city life to life in the country. “But it’s so good for us to slow down.” And then I sighed, having reminded myself to slow down, because I, too, had nothing to be hurrying about.

The woman sighed, too, reflexively mirroring me, and her shoulders dropped about three inches, and she said, “You are so right. I just…wow…forgot how not to hurry. I’ve gotta make some big changes in my life. I really do.”

Is that a great little market or what?

8. I put my Rosie chicken parts (we’re dark meat people) in my cooler, leave my truck unlocked because I’ve decided to wait until someone steals something from my truck before I succumb to my old city habits of locking everything and living in fear of being robbed, and I walk down to the Presbyterian parking lot and from there down the trail to the edge of the cliff overlooking the mouth of Big River, and as gulls and osprey and ravens and vultures circle in the blue above me, I put in two good hours on my novel, write a couple long letters, and draw a pleasing picture of a naturally bonsai pine tree that appears to be growing out of solid stone. And not another person appears in my view shed for the entire two hours. Is that a great town park or what?

 

Todd’s newest novel is Under the Table Books, and his web site is Underthetablebooks.com.