Monday, March 9, 2009

Managed Care

Working in bookstores for more than twenty years, I've worked for many managers, various owners, assorted types, good and bad, used and new, as it were. I've managed two or three stores myself, though I'm happy now to leave all that to others. The owners I will likewise leave for another day, but the managers deserve a nod just now. Their task is thankless frankly, involving as it usually does everything from negotiating terms with vendors, to inventing unbudgeted display, organizing and supervising inventories, staff, and stock, scheduling bohemians and temps, accepting more complaints than compliments, from customers and clerks alike; book-buyers and booksellers both being a notoriously willful and articulate lot. The managers of bookstores, at least of the surviving Independents, are seldom seen as being the good business persons they've usually become not from training or formal education, but most often from necessity, unlooked-for promotion, and the want of self-interest that ought otherwise to have long since sent them, acquired skills and collected readers' copies in tow, off after better respected and better paying jobs elsewhere, in more stable and less complicated enterprises. At heart, the managers of independent bookstores are booksellers still, but with less time to do the things that brought them into the business: read, buy, recommend and sell books. Instead they spend their working lives in pursuit of stray invoices, lost shipments, employees unreturned from lunch. They serve on the dour but dogged committees of our trade associations, staying at increasingly less respectable hotels, eating cold lunches at conference-tables, listening to presentations they have heard before, predictions dire, or of unwarranted optimism, and plot strategies to stem the tide of retail corporate piracy, Internet subliteracy, cultural indifference, health care costs, shrinking budgets and staffing and margins, and the ever expanding vacancy of once familiar landmarks. The one constant, in my time, in the working lives of bookstore managers has been change, and often the only tools they have had to address these changes have been enthusiasm, tradition, association and the stubborn determination to not let standards of service and selection be sacrificed to unrecognizable and ever-lower bottom-lines.

My first manager in a bookstore, the redoubtable Ms. G., hired me to work in the basement of Stacey's, with little on my resume to give her anything but pause. My experience, such as it was, was minimal, my education incomplete. At twenty three or four, I was an unprepossessing chit of a boy, still new to the big city, chatty, undisciplined, but wild-eyed to work in so awesome a bookstore. Gods know what I said to secure a job. Doubtless staffing considerations played a larger part than I did in the decision, though in those far off days, resumes came into bookstores as bees did to poppy fields. Ms. G. herself, so far as I know, is a bookseller still, though not at Stacey's for some years -- the last I saw her was in a documentary about yet another Bay Area bookstore now gone. When I met her, she was a young woman yet, though not, I'm ashamed to say, to my then callow self. To me she seemed a cheerful, adult sort of person, not so much maternal as reminiscent of favorite teachers still fresh in my memory of school; short, amply made, and possessing likewise an obvious and ample intellectual and a bright spirit, with an open and forgiving countenance, framed by an unruly cloud of loose hair. She wore a uniform of sorts I was to recognize eventually as typical to women of her generation in the trade: sensible shoes, a denim jumper, an apron when called for, pens and pencils tucked wherever they might be misplaced most easily; behind her ears, knotted in her hair, pocketed, and clipped to her clothes.

Her last question to me in our interview was, "What do you know about computers?"

"Nothing." (It was 1986)

"Perfect. You'll be working in Technical Books, with computers, you'll pick it up."

Ms. G., like many booksellers, never allowed disqualifications to cloud resolution.

I hadn't worked for her very long when I had to go and tell her I planned to be gone for a week or more, as there was an opportunity for me to join friends in Washington, DC, to march on Ronald Reagan, (inconveniently enough, he would not be home when it came to it, but still, a good and empowering time was had by all.) I certainly hadn't worked long enough to have vacation time. I did not know but what I would be told not to bother returning to the bookstore if I chose to go off marching for my rights. Ms. G.'s response, less than half way through my nervously prepared speech, was not to pepper me not with the expected questions as to my seriousness about my new job, but instead to shower me with advice about how best to get arrested, "go limp," make bail, "call me, if you need to," and to be sure to wear comfortable shoes, without laces though, as these would probably be taken from me by the cops. "Don't let 'em separate you from the group, Brad. That's always bad. Have fun. Let us know how it goes."

A friend recently reminded me of how carefully Ms. G. arranged for coverage in the store during her own planned arrest for civil disobedience. I don't recall the cause, though I'm sure it was a worthy one.

Perhaps my best memory of the woman was how well she did during the great Barry Manilow crisis. Booked for only one appearance on the west coast to promote, as I recall, a memoir of a kind, the recording star arrived in our alley in a stretch-limo, to avoid the hundreds of adoring fans, some from as far away as Hawaii, at least one couple having cut their honeymoon short in order to be in the presence. Sadly, we'd had a bomb threat a bit earlier, necessitating bomb-sniffing-dogs and a building clearance by the San Francisco P. D. By the time of the star's arrival, calm of a kind had been restored, yet he would not get out of the car. Ms. G., well over four feet tall, took it upon herself to buck the timid fellow up, at one point crawling directly onto the broad back-seat of the limo, to try and if not pull him out, at least by example to show him true courage. I remember the soles of her sensible shoes, framed by the limo door. All to no avail. The star returned to his firmament, the fans wept for the newspaper photographers, the staff giggled nervously behind our hands, and Ms. G., as I recall, went out for a drink. No Malilove in the bookstore that day.

I had not been with that company terribly long before I was offered the opportunity to manage a small branch store, only blocks from the flagship. This more humble location had been opened, not in a fit of optimism as so many branches were in those comparatively halcyon days in the trade, but for fear of losing the lease on the established location. The lease was renewed after long negotiation, but by then, the lease on the redundant store was already going. It was to the unnecessary second store I went. This meant answering to a higher, if not much taller, authority than Ms. G.

R. was a compact little bearded man of middle years and considerably less cheerful demeanor than my previous boss. He was the company's man, supervising the operation of what was in those days, a small local chain of bookstores. Of these, the one I managed was the least. I'm sure he'd had to approve my nomination to the post, though I don't quite remember being interviewed by him, and within a very brief time, I do not doubt he came very much to rue my promotion. We were never to be the very best of friends or to have the happiest of working relationships. We were both of us stubborn, opinionated, male. I would work for the man, in one capacity and another, for nearly twelve years, sometimes quite closely, and in all that time I don't know that we ever understood one another very well. I judged him parsimonious, narrow, intemperate, mean. What he made of me he was barely able to articulate without resort to a kind of red-faced, spluttering rage, admirably controlled -- he never actually struck or even fired me -- that I'm sure I contributed mightily to the chest-pains that eventually sent him to a doctor, a better diet and a new bachelor's existence after years of marriage. But perhaps I presume too much importance in his life. I was, after all but one among many of his trials.

On reflection, I must give the man belated thanks. He taught me much, showed unquestionable, even extraordinary patience with me, showing me how to keep accounts, how to hire and fire without resort to either fainting or overly extended "lunches" after. R. taught me something of the discipline he had to maintain personally in order to operate a business populated, traditionally and to this day by eccentrics, dreamers and the overly sensitive. He toughened me up, a bit. That he was every bit as devoted to books as he was to the business was an idea given little credence by his employees. It was easier for us to dismiss him as Philistine than allow for the possibility that his job was impossible without at least himself being the adult at the table. He answered to distant and usually disinterested bosses, had to watch the money all the more closely so that we might spend it as improvidently as we did, was seldom allowed any expression of his own, quite scholarly taste in history, for instance.

The two most telling encounters we had, master and man, were both of them crises, though the first was aesthetic and largely of my own instigation, and the other was an actual earthquake. Being in an unwanted and by then burdensome "extra" store, I was subject to much that was second hand; bought for as something of an afterthought, supplied from my larger and better neighbor, equipped with what was not needed elsewhere. The Christmas decorations of which I was provided the use were all of them old, tatty and tired. I decided, my first Holiday Season in charge of the little place, to gussy them up a little. When I was done with them, I thought the effect quite spectacular; silver and brass and black, everything spray-painted, tinseled and belled, made chic, I thought, in a way old green plastic wreaths and flat red velvet bows might otherwise never have been. My display windows, wrapped in gold and silver papers, tied up in miles of of black satin ribbon, scattered with inexpensive potpourri, looked to me the very model of urbane festivity. Not so to R. But what could he do? The money was spent, the traditional decorations, to his mind, made funereal and ugly, he could only bluster, before storming away, "Next year! Next year, sir, no BLACK!!!"

When a devastating earthquake caused nothing but chaos and horror all around us but left both stores if not untouched, at least standing, R. showed himself as something of a hero. His first and only concern was the safety of his staff and their families, and only after establishing the fact of this did be busy himself, without rest for days thereafter, in protecting and restoring the business. The night of the day when the quake had hit, he walked to my store, helped me board up the broken window, threatened to sit with a shotgun across his lap in case of looting, reassured, re-established, restored both confidence and security to me and mine and all the other people for whom he felt himself responsible. He was a magnificent presence that day. When he sent me home, he smiled, even laughed, when I told him, as I was sure he would be only too pleased to know, my black Christmas decorations had survived in the basement, unharmed. What a good and patient man.

I was lucky in my managers then, as I happen to be lucky in my managers now. The difference I suppose is that now I know it.


  1. Unfortunately, Barbara George died in March of 2004. A web page on her life is at

    I've just sent links to your blog to what I think is her husband's e-mail address.

  2. Thank you so much, Brad, for a lovely reminiscence of Barbara George, my wife of 32 years.

    As Sharon noted in her comment, Barb passed away five years ago -- the anniversary was just last week, as a matter of fact.

    Barb remained in the book business for quite a long time. She worked as a sales rep for Avon Books, a job which she never found as satisfying as being in a store. Her co-workers were always her real pleasure.

    She also served as administrative director of Hesperian Foundation, which published "Where There is No Doctor," a self-help medical guide for people in developing countries. She and I smuggled several dozen copies into El Salvador during the war years there (1980s)-- it was one of her proudest moments in the book business.

    She ended her bookstore career as manager of Printers Inc. in Palo Alto. When that store succumbed to the travails of independents, Barb decided her years as a bookseller were done -- she absolutely refused to work for a chain. When she passed away, she was the administrator of the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto.

    Our son Sean has maintained his Mom's tradition -- he works at Books Inc in their Burlingame store, after beginning his career at Printers Inc. I had no idea bookselling has a genetic factor!

    The civil disobedience arrest that you mention was from a protest at the Livermore nuclear weapons lab. It's how we spent our wedding anniversary that year -- in separate cells, of course.

    In the tradition of her Irish ancestry, Barb was an avid story teller and she had many favorite stories about Stacey's that she shared time and again over the years. Foremost amongst these was the Great Barry Manilow Crisis -- I'm delighted you chose that story and she would be, too. I can still see the disdainful sneer on her face whenever she would mention the great man's name, followed quickly by her robust laugh. I must have heard that story 40 times!

    Barb's memorial service was attended by some 400 people, a charming and eclectic mix of activists and booksellers and bookseller-activists.

    Thanks again, Brad, for remembering Barb this way.

    Paul George

    P.S. - From the San Jose Mercury News. The bookstore mentioned near the end is, of course, Stacey's:


    Section: Local
    Edition: Morning Final
    Page: 6B
    S.L. WYKES, Mercury News
    Memo: Obituary

    Barbara Dougherty George's heart was so big, it embraced the world.

    After almost 30 years in the Bay Area as a political activist, bookstore manager, church secretary and giver of wise advice, her death last Saturday from a brain hemorrhage has left her friends in shock. She was 52.

    Mrs. George was a vivid and energetic part of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center. Her husband, Paul, was its director, but Mrs. George, who shared his desire to improve a less-than-peaceful world, pitched in as a volunteer, on advisory committees and on the center's board.

    She spent evenings and weekends and summers, too, volunteering in the United States and in Central America, to try ''to make a difference for the better of the world,'' said a longtime friend and the center's board president, Steffy Reader.

    And she did it, her friends say, with modest but confident determination, creatively reasoned solutions to difficult problems and a personal style so welcoming ''you always felt it was like being at home when you were with her,'' her friend Christy Rock said.

    Mrs. George was straightforward and genuine and didn't try to hide her ''gutsy, rumbling laugh,'' Rock said. Each year, said longtime friend Steve Rock, she would replant her pocket-size garden with annuals for the joy of ''creating some beauty in the world.''

    Mrs. George met her husband when they were freshmen at American University in Washington, D.C. They married two years later and didn't finish school. ''We were young and in love and wanted to be together,'' he said.

    They had a son and built a strong partnership in their marriage, Reader said, that ''supported their activism and gave them a life besides.''

    Mrs. George, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, treasured her Irish heritage, loved its music and Roddy Doyle's novels about Ireland's working class. Mrs. George's father was a truck driver and union steward, which influenced her ideas about how to manage people. Once, while working at a San Francisco bookstore, Mrs. George stepped in to help workers negotiate a contract.

    ''She was,'' said peace center board member Max Bollock, ''a peach.''

  3. Thank you, Sharon, for adding this.

    And thank you, so very much, Paul, for this marvelous memorial to my friend, and first good manager, Ms. G. I loved her, as clearly so many others did as well. The news of her untimely death shocks me more than I can express. (The Irish in me wishes I could sing a proper lament, or at least get drunk and punch some bastard responsible for Hanford, in her blessed memory.)

    "I'll miss her the more, now she's with the angels," as my grandmother might have said.