Wednesday, September 21, 2011

7:03 - 7:37

After I wrote this, I discovered that Troy Davis had indeed won a reprieve. I was joyous, celebratory. How could this story not have a happy ending after all? How, after all the pleas, all the recanted testimony, all the petitions, the statements, the *proof* that the State of George had not proved its case, could Troy Davis still be murdered? The Supreme Court had a week to decide.

It took them four hours. Troy Davis had an extra four hours of life on this earth. I am sad for all the families involved, sad for Georgia, sad for my country.

I'm publishing this blog post even though it doesn't account for those four extra hours. It is, after all, about my own feelings. I cannot possibly imagine what Troy Davis must have been going through during his four hours of exhilaration, of giddy hope and final despair.

His dying statement was that he was innocent.

I look at the clock. It's three minutes after seven. This means, more likely than not, that a man named Troy Davis has just been murdered on Georgia's Death Row. There have been many protests, many calls for clemency, but they've fallen on deaf ears. Once the death machine gets going, it becomes a steamroller, inexorably pushing aside everything in its path to get to its one and only destination: the death of a human being. The execution process is engineered to be a kind of sleek machine, disengaged as much as possible  from human involvement, going ahead seemingly of its own accord.

In this case, a rare thing happened. There was an attempt by prison staff to go on strike, to call in sick, to do anything they could possibly do to derail the machinery of death. I doubt that this worked; the machinery is too well oiled.

It's now 7:11. Mr. Davis's heart will have been checked to make sure it has stopped beating.

And the State of Georgia has now officially murdered another  human being.

This time it's a little bit different, though. Troy Davis was almost certainly innocent of the crime he has just paid for with his life. There was no physical evidence at the scene, and he was convicted on the testimony of eyewitnesses. The peculiar thing about eyewitness testimony is that so many people think it's the most reliable sort of evidence, when in fact it's one of the least. 
In fact, seven of the nine eyewitnesses recanted their original testimony. Of the remaining two, one is under suspicion himself for this crime.
I will never understand the death penalty. I can only see it as state-sanctioned murder which brings no justice, no solace, no closure. The dead remain dead, and one more is added to their number. 

Troy Davis has almost certainly just been murdered in cold blood. It was an act that was premeditated and perpetrated with extreme malice, hatred, and cruelty.. Who will take responsibility? Who will admit to making sure that death machine did its horrific job? 

Until the death penalty is abolished in every state in this land, filled as it is with decent, kind, loving people, we all must take responsibility. Possibly,  just possibly, the death of Mr. Davis will start us on the road away from mechanized murder and toward a more humane justice system. 

Perhaps there was a miracle that I missed while I was writing this. Perhaps Troy Davis is alive and well and hugging his family.. If such a miracle has happened, I will make an addendum to this little essay. But I doubt I'll have anything to add besides the fact that now the time is 7:37 and, for some of us, life goes on.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Once again it's the anniversary of 9/11 and once again the speeches are being made, the beloved dead memorialized through moving testimonials and continued devotion. The United States will undergo its ongoing grieving process, the grieving process that seemingly never allows itself respite or rest, or even reflection.

And yes, I acknowledge that 9/11 was a terrible day, and a terrible tragedy, and the lives that were lost were precious and irrecoverable. These irreplaceable human beings will always be mourned and missed by their countrymen, their families, their friends, and sweethearts. 

But goddammit, let us also acknowledge that every single day people all over the world are in danger of being bombed, being shot, being terrorized, being killed. And their lives are precious too, every single one of them.
We can honor the dead, but we can also do our best to honor the living by trying to make this a better world to live in. 

In the United States we can enact legislation so that our children can grow up healthy and well-educated . We can guarantee that the poor and elderly will find resources to help them live meaningful lives. We can and must learn to acknowledge the reality of global climate change and endow the research necessary to do something about it while there's still time.

We must learn the path of diplomacy in world affairs. This old earth cannot continue the old ways of war and carnage. We must think of ourselves as fellow human beings, not warring tribes.

I truly believe a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives on 9/ll would be to make a sincere start toward making our country, and our planet, a better place to live.
Don't ever be fooled into thinking you can't make a difference. We can all start where we are, in our own communities. We can elect local officials to work for us, and we can hold them responsible for their actions. Heck, if there isn't anybody worth voting for in your community, run for office yourself. Work like you were living in the early days of a better future.

Remember that the President of this country is not a king; he does not issue fiats. Laws come from the legislative branch, and we are the ones who elect those legislators. If they don't act responsibly, if they do not act in the interests of their constituency, we can make it very clear to them that they have lost our support. Make your voice heard, and it will join with other voices until all our voices cannot be ignored.

And most simply, but perhaps most importantly of all, every single day we can either make the world a slightly better place, or a slightly worse place, by our own individual actions. We each set off our own ripple effect. We can be kind, or we can be mean-spirited. We can empathize, or we can despise. We can fight stupidity or we can settle into apathy.

We can honor the dead, but we can also do our best to honor the living by trying to make this a better world to live in, in any way we can - in every way we can.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

That Ol' Black Liquid Got Me In Its Spell ...

There are a few phrases that ensure I will read no further in a novel, no matter the $7.99 I paid for it in eager anticipation of a few hours of delightful escape. One of them is "You just don't get it, do you?" Another is "the black liquid" in reference to coffee. This invariably follows the hero ordering, pouring, or contemplating a cup of coffee. Having established that there is a cup of coffee in close proximity to the protagonist, the author then adds, "He drank the black liquid," " He gulped the black liquid," "He sipped the black liquid," etc.

Look, I know he has a cup of coffee in front of him; I assume he's going to drink it. I also know that a good cup of coffee is, if not exactly black, at least dark in color.  The phrase used is *always*  "the black liquid" and appears often enough in novels to make me believe there's some deranged high school creative writing teacher at large in the land, racing from class to class, telling all his students that describing coffee as "the black liquid" will give their stories a touch of class. Or maybe that by describing the liquid as "black" the writer will also establish the hard-boiledness of his protagonist or the noirness of his story.

It won't. In fact, it drives at least one reader crazy. Look, you writers out there -- if you're going to be redundant, at least be creative about it. Details are fine; just make them telling details. And if you can't tell the difference, well, you just don't get it, do you?

Sunday, April 24, 2011


The Valley Advocate's annual "Best of the Valley" issue has once again  come out with no category for used bookstores. Used records/CDs? Yes. Independent (new) bookstores? Yes. Comic book stores? Yes. Specifically ADULT bookstores? Yes. Used clothing stores? Yes. But no category for used bookstoresAnd you know what? I'm kind of pissed off about it.
No category for used bookstores in an area whose used/rare bookstores have been singled out twice by the New York Times and which has its own chapter in the current edition of the Lonely Planet New England Trips devoted solely to its (guess what?) wealth of unique, vibrant used/rare bookstores. These are hard times for small businesses, and bookstores especially are on tight budgets these days. Most of us keep going for the love of books, and this is why the Valley continues to have so many remarkable bookstores as a resource and a source of pride.
I wouldn't care that much about the recommendations of a giveaway newspaper, except for the fact that people actually read the Advocate and take the Advocate's advice. There is a constant flow of newcomers to the Valley and the Advocate is often the first thing they pick up. It's free and it's full of entertainment listings and area events. And advertising; let's not forget the advertising.
By the way, there used to be a used bookstores category, back in the days when a few of the Valley bookstores did run ads. But the cost of an ad campaign in the Advocate is incredibly expensive for a bookstore on a budget. I know I can't afford it, what with such fripperies as mortgage and utility bills to take care of, and many of my bookselling compatriots can't afford it either.
For a while, though, the Advocate sent ad reps even to me, the humblest of booksellers. The last Advocate ad rep who came in I actually challenged about the curious correlation between their advertisers and the businesses that wound up in the "Best of the Valley" results year after year. She vehemently denied any such hanky panky, a look of utter horror on her face.  
For some reason, the ad reps eventually stopped coming. And "Used Bookstores" ended as a category in the "Best of the Valley" issues around the same time.
In an era when reading should be encouraged and books cherished, used bookstores offer not only good value for money but out-of-print books that can be found nowhere else (not even via Kindle download). Each used bookstore in the Valley has its own personality and its own spirit. Used bookstores offer endless adventures for curious minds. Too bad the Advocate does not consider any of us  worthy of "Best of the Valley" consideration.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Music in the Bookstore

The first bookstore I ever worked in was very old-school in a lot of ways. Although the owner wore baggy old jeans and a torn tee shirt, had hair down to his waistline and was bushily bearded, he would stand for nothing other than classical music as the soundtrack of his rare book shop. Of course, "rare" is stretching it a bit. Like most used & rare bookstores, he had his share of old paperbacks, outdated diet books, and other 20th century detritus (in fact, he taught me as much what NOT to stock as otherwise). Oh, but  he did strive towards his own vision of what an antiquarian bookstore should be.

This vision included a certain odd snobbery in the realm of music. My boss would tolerate nothing other than Mozart, Bach, Purcell, and other established masters of polite strains and stately processionals. Rowdy sorts like Mahler and Stravinsky were not welcome, although occasionally Beethoven was given a chance during particularly slow periods. I'm not sure whether my boss actually preferred this music personally, or just thought it was more conducive to browsing by the book-buying public (which, in this case, actually consisted more of punkish students than the highbrow, monocle-wearing types my boss longed for).

My second boss mostly adhered to the same policy of classical music only. He relented a bit, though, on the weekends, when he was known to allow Broadway show tunes and even folk music. Still, we did have to maintain a certain decorum in our choices. Joan Baez, yes; Phil Ochs, never.

I've always told people that one of the main reasons I wanted my own bookshop after many years of working for others is the ability to choose my own music. Of course, officially the music is just for my ears anyway because of  right-of-use issues. But I can't help it if the music wafts from my office into the adjoining book rooms, can I?  Anyway, in my own shop I cut loose with a vengeance, playing everything from rhythm 'n' blues to the Bonzo Dog Band and Cab Calloway. We have actually had people dancing the Lindy in the aisles and have been told more than once by toe-tapping customers that we play the best music they've ever heard in any kind of bookstore, rare & rarefied or not.

And, strange as it may seem, we even like to play classical music from time to time.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Technology and Reading

I've been reading a lot about the e-reader Kindle lately. You've  heard of it. It's available from and lets you read text on a screen. After many years of trying unsuccessful to sell the book-reading public on such a device, Kindle has finally seemed to have won the battle. The corporate salesmen have succeeded in mediating even our reading, of making us believe we need to make even reading a technological event. 

You all should watch a documentary I just saw called "I Need that Record." It's a sad, yet inspiring, elegiac account of the disappearance of independent record stores in the US, with commentary from some very perceptive people in the music industry. What people miss about record stores is not the ability to get a record *immediately* but the ability to browse through a collection of records carefully chosen by someone who cares about music. 

Record stores are eccentric spaces where you might find the most marvelous things fortuitously, things you maybe weren't even looking for in the first place or had never even heard of.  Independent bookstores create those same kinds of spaces, especially bookstores that carry offbeat, unusual, out-of-print stuff that you won't find on Amazon, via Kindle or not.

Don't get me wrong. I do see the point of e-readers if all you do is read trendy bestsellers & trashy novels. But if you want to have a real personal library with some depth and permanence, a library that is a reflection of your individuality and your curiosity, I suggest you find space in your home for some bookshelves. Books last for generations, e-readers are nothing more than plastic junk which will be replaced when the corporate gods decide what the Next Big Thing is that they want you to spend your money on. There's already a Kindle 2.0; I'm sure you'll be needing to keep replacing this mechanism periodically in order to keep up with the Joneses. Right now a Kindle is $139 a pop, plus whatever groovy case & "accessories" you want to add. How many used (i.e., recycled) books could you buy with this money? Quite a few, and probably for less than their Kindle counterparts.

These e-readers, along with their downloaded text (which you don't own, by the way, in the same way you own a book), will wind up in the landfills of the world. I have a vision of people hundreds of years from now trying to figure out this civilization and having nothing to go on but indecipherable pieces of plastic. But the corporate coffers must be filled, and they apparently have found a whole lot of true believers.

It's the same situation as WalMart putting the mom & pop shops out of business. And it's nothing to be proud of or happy about. It's a sad state of affairs that the little shops with real personality & love and passion for books are going away, like lights going out one by one across the American landscape.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

No Longer Among the Missing

Okay, so I haven't written here for a while. It was getting to the point where I thought, eh -- this thing will wind up floating around in dead cyberspace like so many others.

But then I read by chance in an old Dickens journal that he, like the rest of us, had trouble managing even a diary. Dickens! The guy who could come up with novels and articles and Christmas specials and correspondence and just about anything else at the drop of a hat, and at length -- Dickens had trouble keeping up a simple diary.

So I refuse to feel ashamed or embarrassed. I shall persevere.

The problem with some of us who write these things, I think, is that we believe we have to come up with deathless prose and profound insights every day of the week. That, of course, is impossible. Even Tolstoy must have had his silly days.

All I really need to do is write what's important to me on any given day. It might turn out to be important to someone else, too. Whether it's a book or a song or a feeling or an experience.

A lot has happened in the past several months, both in the nation and in my own little bookseller's life. Take a look at my Facebook postings and you'll see what I mean.

But this isn't Facebook. This is something else -- my own little nook where you're invited to come in and visit any time.