Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Rising Damp

I have a meeting to go to tomorrow morning. I admit, I am not much inclined to regret the meetings I've missed. There was a time, now far off, when, given the chance to sit for an hour at work, whatever the discussion carried on around me, I was thrilled by the novelty, but now I sit a good part of every day, a fact evidenced by my wide and warty squat. Given a choice nowadays, I would just as soon sit at the Used Books Desk, a toad content just to be out of the water and dry, and count on the regular and even sometimes welcome interruption of my meditations by sellers, coworkers, customers, and anxious seekers after the rest rooms. To retire to the comparative quiet of higher ground in the less public interior of the store, to sit at a conference table under threat of spreadsheets, agendas, flip-charts, and discussions of inventories, projected sales, alterations of the floor plan, and all such like weighty matters, puts me at risk. I do not begrudge the time. I'm not really bored by such talk. I actually enjoy meetings. I just wish my mouth wasn't so big.

I am not so shy of expressing an opinion, at a meeting or otherwise. Some wiser souls are. Bless them. They are content to sit. I never can tell if they listen, but they seem to. I never can seem to stay quiet, try as I might. Opinions I have, and so long as I need not substantiate them with numbers, I have all the confidence in my voice of the untrained but natural tenor at a baseball game. That is the problem. I can sing, but I'm unable to harmonize. I do not blend.

I am deeply envious of those that can. All of my working life, I have confidently answered when asked, contributed when called on, said my piece and then some. I do not brag of this. It is a fault that ought by now to have been corrected, if not by experience, from the supposedly edifying effects of which I would seem to be immune, then by the more than twenty years of gentle coaching by my dear A., himself not just the survivor of, but once, in his prime, the very master of the business meeting. A.'s storied career in, as he still describes it, "a government job," took him from the work-floor to the conference room well before we met. By the time I attached myself permanently, A. was already a man of some responsibility in The United States Postal Service. He is the veteran of many a "restructuring," lived through and even rose by means of many a committee, planning session and regional and or national conference. He learned from seminars and willingly undertook training. He has not only the intelligence and instinct for this sort of thing, he has also the endurance, good manners and tough-minded, thick-skinned, durability of the true manager and bureaucrat. I use that last noun advisedly and with genuine admiration, as his example has shown me that it is just such much maligned swimmers in the brackish waters of government who are most responsible for, in his case, the mail getting through, but also for keeping the lights on, the buses running and all the rest of what we call daily life in these United States. (When Rome fell, it was not the glory of Empire Romans missed, it was running water. "Remember who can get you what you need," A. tells me. )

As someone who understands the actual operations of business and bureaucracy, A. has tried to tutor me in not only the language of compromise, but also in the politic of meetings. Get yourself onto the agenda. Agree whenever and wherever possible, without concession, even or specially when not required to do so, as this shows you are listening and an encouraging sort. Phrase what you can as a question. Address individuals rather than the group. Some of this I've actually tried and A. is, as always, right.

"Be nice," he says to me.

And I have improved. It has been some time since I made anyone cry at a meeting. Some of what I hoped might be and thought ought to be done has happened, because I listened to my sage and savvy husband. So, come the morning, I will try.

Meanwhile, I ruminate.

The book business has changed radically while I've been in it, and is changing still, and at a rate of acceleration that has left most of us dizzy and fretful, some of us even frantic, myself sometimes included. This is not an atmosphere in which the bookish thrive. We tend to the contemplative and cozy. We are all about the slower pace of pages turned in reflection. We all of us, booksellers, at least at my rate of pay, keep a treasured fantasy; of reading for a living, or rather, making a living despite doing little else, a cat prowling somewhere nearby, like-minded souls begging our pardon for interrupting us to pay. I don't know anyone who does this. I know many booksellers, I've met many cats in many bookshops, but I can't imagine that even the cats nowadays don't worry now and then about their next meal. I think this dream of the quite little bookshop largely myth, or at the very least quaintly antique. My own hope is that bookselling may at least see me into my retirement, but I no longer have any illusions as to how hard we will all have to work to see the business last even so long as that.

In even my moments of darkest pessimism, I am convinced still of the value of what we do. I have never doubted the value of books. To books I owe not just my livelihood but my life. And I allow myself, most days, to think that what I know of books, and of readers, and of the business of selling books will be enough to see me out of this world if not rich, then certainly well fed. But I am increasingly convinced that the survival of the book business is dependent on our willingness to engage with this new culture, this supposedly "post literate" society that rises up around us like a flood, threatening if not to swamp independent bookstores like the one in which I work, then at least to erode and damage what is best in such places and make of them something unrecognizable, something ugly and empty, hollowed out but for the clutter of rescued treasures, irrelevant. I begin to believe that we must recognize the movement around us and find a way to accommodate it, rather than waste our resources in just resisting it. Time seems to be moving faster now than it did. Perhaps I'm just slower, but hopefully not so slow as to stand by dumb and watch what I love go under. Without losing sight, as booksellers, of our fundamentally retrograde belief in the ultimate superiority of the printed book, I think even we might still be brought to understand something of new technology and still recognize that any and all of what is new may just be, for us, the means of doing what we do in a different way. Books are our business. I think that is worth remembering. If we must print our own books, so be it. If the books we sell must be used as well as new, remainders and reprints, both high end and low, rather than "front-list" and "back-list" of yesteryear, then we are still booksellers, whatever the change in our stock, vocabulary and terms of business. Our business is to sell books. We are not antiquarians, warehousemen, librarians or "information providers," but neither are we in the business of selling just so much interchangeable, reducible "product." I think that is worth remembering too.

I feel powerfully that we must be willing to democratize not just our inventories, but our process, our promotion, and our priorities, utilizing the same flexibility and creativity now required of us all in our schedules, assignments and accommodation of the unfamiliar, and in a like spirit, adapt the business to new methods, nurture experimentation, exploit the eccentricities and weird specialization to which we booksellers seem, as a class, uniquely prone. We must, I think, accept change without insisting that it must be done without undue disquiet to ourselves, that it be entirely external to our habits, gentle to our vanity, respectful of position, custom and usage. I think the day is not far off when we must face the fact that we can not continue to sell books while still ordering new books as we always have done, answerable only to the taste and discretion of our buyers, shelving books just where they have always been, insisting on established practice as somehow being perfectly compatible with radical innovation, protecting not our traditions, but our individual bit of higher ground.

I think we'd better learn to swim.

Books are not at issue, much as we like to bemoan their fate in this new and supposedly "paperless" world -- a laughably savage joke when every computer comes with a printer -- but bookselling as a means of making one's living is increasingly precarious, and I can not see how we are to continue doing it without being willing to challenge not the value of books, of owning and selling books, but to challenge not just some, but all of the assumptions of how we do this. I think we must stop climbing over one another, stop grabbing hold of one another in blind desperation and pulling ourselves down rather than holding one another up, and concentrate our energies hereafter not so much on just staying afloat, but moving. I think this means we will have to worry less about the discipline of the crew and the chain of command, about the rules of salvage, the looming pirates and the circling sharks, and more about putting our energies to better use, staying close, relying on one another. I don't think we can afford anymore to spend quite so much time treading water while we argue about who is meant to be in charge of what, or who is responsible for our predicament, at least among ourselves, and that we must stop worrying quite so much as we do about just the exclusivity of our privileges, who has which responsibility, what qualifications or training, the right to claim a special expertise or be addressed by title.

But then, that is the kind of useless talk that makes me a pain-in-the-ass at most meetings and does no one, specially me, any good. So you see? See how easy that was, once I got started? And with no provocation, just a little nervous tension about what I understand will be tomorrow's agenda, and off I went as if I was rehearsing a sermon instead of trying to gather my thoughts for a potentially productive meeting with people I actually like and respect, a meeting moreover to which I am actually rather looking forward. Thank the Gods I have A.

"What could you possibly hope to accomplish by saying anything remotely like that?"

Right again.

AS he will remind me shortly, I'm damned lucky to have a job, and to have such an understanding and indulgent management, who, despite past experience, are still willing to try to get some kind of practical use out of me, and something other than opinions and metaphors high, wide and insufferable, in answer to the simplest question. Good people. Damned lucky I am to work with them. Lucky also to have so many good, less bellicose coworkers willing to give me warning looks, elbows and kicks when such grandiosity begins to cloud my arguments. People still willing to listen to me on the rare occasion when I do have something useful to contribute.

Okay. Enough. I think I'm ready to go to a meeting now. Kick me as needed. I'll be good with that. I've got something I want to say though, just here, while I can:

Beware the rising damp.

All I'm sayin'.

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