miscellania

The ascendance of the local bookstore
29 Sep 2010

Bookworks1
 A few weeks back, I was invited to go on a tour of San Diego bookstores with the Southern California Independent Bookstores Association -- which is exactly as it sounds, an organization of all the indies in SoCal. About thirty of us piled on a bus and spent the day driving around the Southland, stopping in at a half-dozen bookstores en route. 

Having come from San Francisco, where there are seemingly more indies (including the great indie chain Books Inc) than B&N & Borders, I've been known to bemoan the state of independent bookstores in LA. In all of Los Angeles, there are roughly ten (or so) indies: Skylight, Vromans, Book Soup, Diesel, Stories, and a handful of specialty stores. And yet, even as Barnes & Noble is battling to stay in business, these bookstores are actually thriving. Sure, Duttons closed its doors a few years back, but Skylight, Diesel and Vroman's have all done well enough in the last few years to expand.

The tour of the Southland was equally uplifting. There were bookstores that had been around for years and were thriving (Warwicks in San Diego, Book Works in Del Mar), and also some brand new ones, including Pages in Manhattan Beach -- which, despite just opening this year, is already about to open a second branch in Redondo Beach. 

The optimist in me likes to think that, perhaps, with the superstore bookstores suffering, the tide is turning back towards independents. Superstores (for the most part) don't offer much that you can't also get at Amazon.com (without having to look for parking). They are functional and comprehensive and great for discounts but absolutely impersonal. An independent bookstore, on the other hand, often has personalized charm -- like the displays of obsolete technology at Book Works (pictured above) -- and a staff that not only reads (which, sadly, the staff at superstores don't always do) but that thrives on giving recommendations. One bookseller at Laguna Beach Books told me that she'd hand-sold 500 copies of an otherwise obscure novel that she loved. Her store is blanketed with little hand-written cards recommending books, and the customers flock there for her opinions

Then there are the community events. Book Works, which specializes in science books, has a science lecture series, weekly events for kids, and free live music on Friday nights, and a whole host of book clubs -- despite being smaller than the check-out aisle at your average B&N. These are places where you would actually want to hang out on a Friday night, rather than just grabbing your Eat Pray Love for 50% off and racing next door to Bed Bath & Beyond.

It's telling to me that B&N's newest endeavor is going to be selling personalized teddy bears. Because, you know, nothing says "Call Me Ishmael" like a stuffed plush toy. Still, even though B&N is struggling financially, I certainly don't hope B&N goes out of business - fewer bookstores is bad news for everyone, including the indies. But I do hope that those customers who used to shop at the Lincoln Center B&N, which is now closing, will now to go to the fantastic indie McNally Jackson instead.

And let's also hope that the rise of the ebook doesn't drive the independents out of business altogether. But that's another story for another day.

When content has no value anymore....
26 Jul 2010

... What will happen to the creative class? Music is being given away for free, filmmakers have to fund their own movies, authors are watching the value of a book drop from $25.99 to $9.99 or less, journalists are getting paid $15 for an article. Eventually, no one is going to be able to make a living making art -- or anything vaguely like it -- at all.

Read more of my thoughts on this in the editorial that I wrote for Huffington Post, decrying the trend of devaluing "content." 

Look at me journalism
2 Jun 2010

The cover story in CJR this month is by Moe Tkacik (formerly of the Gawker empire), who describes her journey from earnest (if inexperienced) investigative journalist to jaded confessional blogger. This is her take on what's happened to journalism in the last decade: 

 When the Internet forced journalism to compete economically after years of monopoly, journalism panicked and adopted some of the worst examples of the nothing-based economy, in which success depends on the continued infantilization of both supply and demand. At the same time, journalism clung to its myths of objectivity and detachment, using them to dismiss the emerging blogger threat as something unserious and fundamentally parasitic, even as it produced a steady stream of obsessive but sneering trend stories on the blogosphere.

I find this an interesting assessment of the state of journalism today. What she doesn't really address, and what I find even more depressing, is that the Internet exposed the public's voracious consumption for gossip and opinion in all forms, essentially decimating "real" journalism. No wonder the blog has risen triumphant.

 The vast majority of the journalists I know who have lost their jobs as reporters and columnists at newspapers & magazines (online or other) -- jobs they lost because of the tanking economy and the dismal finances of the media -- have typically ended up at blogs making a fraction of what they used to make for work that is half as serious as what they used to do.  The film critic does TV recaps, the investigative reporter writes short news items about entertainment industry scandals, the feature writer writes opinion pieces for her own web site, the essayist twitters because no one will pay to publish his pieces anymore. 

No wonder it's become a "look at me" media economy -- when you're already sinking not only into unemployment and poverty, burnishing your "voice" and "brand" may seem like the best shot at avoiding invisibility and irrelevance altogether.

That said, there are plenty of interesting new endeavors that I find inspiring, places where the Net hasn't destroyed journalism but is enabling it - like the new Bay Area Citizen, which is taking over where the SF Chronicle has failed; or the  non-profit journalism endeavor ProPublica, which works with bigger institutions to fund serious investigative reporting.

Still, whenever I talked to my journalist friends, the reports I hear are grim. I feel fortunate to have started a second career as an author: I can still do journalism when I feel like it (or need to be), but I'm not dependent on it the way I was before. I can remain at least slightly detached from the struggles of an industry that I still love, but no longer rely on for financial or emotional fulfillment. 

Whither the Withering Theater Audience?
17 May 2010

Bengal_tiger_at_the_baghdad_zoo_homepage_01

Over the weekend, I went to a play called "Benghal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" -- which, clunky title notwithstanding, is a Pulitzer-nominated play by the same playwright who did The Laramie Project. It's an astonishing good play, which has been getting rave reviews from every critic in the country (the New York Times called it "boldly imagined, harrowing and surprisingly funny"). This production was playing at the Mark Taper in Performing Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles, which is perhaps the most prominent theater in the city. I went on a Friday night - prime theater going time. 

And yet the theater was maybe two-thirds full.

You would think that the fact that I live in a city where you can't spit without hitting an actor would mean that I live in a fantastic city for theater. And yet when I tell people that I go to the theater (Benghal Tiger was the third I've seen this year) people give me a perplexed look, as if I just told them I went buffalo hunting or dabbled in pogo jumping. I recently did a quick survey of my friends -- all highly literate types, most of whom are in some way involved in creative industries, the kind of people that should be going to plays -- and none of them had seen a play recently.

It's not that Los Angeles doesn't have some good theater -- there are some great productions that come here, with high-wattage actors (I recently saw Martin Sheen in "The Subject Was Roses" and Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in "Oleanna"). Sure, I've gone to my fair share of bad plays over the years -- generally, the LA equivalent of off-off-off Broadway productions at tiny theaters -- but more often than not the plays that I've seen have been cast with incredibly good actors and are at least interesting. We have the Pantages theater, which gets all the big musicals, and a fair number of top-quality theater troupes. But there's not a lot of high-profile productions going on at any time -- it's not like New York, where on any given night you can choose between a fistful of Tony-winning plays and productions starring Cate Blanchett and free Shakespeare in the Park and massive musical extravaganzas that have been running for three decades.

Since the problem is not a lack of talent -- LA, obviously, is crawling with underemployed actors and directors and playwrights -- I'm guessing the problem is the lack of demand. If even a Pulitzer nominated play can't fill a theater, who can? Is the audience just aging out of existence? On Friday night, the audience was dominated by the expected NPR-tote-bag-carrying-gray-hairs, although there were also a decent number of people under 40. But considering how young and hip and funny this play was - there was vulgarity and masturbation jokes and a gold-plated toilet seat and a tiger debating God's existence - I was pretty surprised that there wasn't a more contemporary crowd. In New York, the theater would have been packed to the gills with tastemakers.

I wonder whether the barrier to entry for the younger demographic is the cost (our tickets were $45), or the convenience (a lot of the theaters are in out-of-the-way areas, like downtown), or the lack of good promotion (the main way to find out about local theater is to read the LA Times, which, sadly, no one really does).  But I also suspect there's a lot of inertia involved: In a city so dominated by movies, everyone hits the cinema on Friday night instead. It's easy, comparatively cheap, and you can dish about ScarJo's catsuits in "Iron Man 2" with all your friends who saw it too. Whereas if you tell people you went to see a play and you'll bring the dinner conversation to a grinding halt. 

Maybe there's a thriving theater scene here that I don't know about, where plays sell out instantly and audiences are packed every night of the week. I hope there is, because otherwise the theater scene in Los Angeles is on shaky ground as the audiences ages right out of their seats and into the senior citizen homes.

Opportunities I missed
10 May 2010

Gmail
In the process of redesigning my Web site, my esteemed designer recently created a gmail email account for me. The email address he chose for me (which I won't publish here, so as to avoid spam bots) is long and unwieldy and involves two period and three words. I looked at it and remembered the day, so many years ago, when I received an invitation to beta-test gmail. I could, at that point, have been janelle@gmail.com. Instead, I thought to myself "why do I need a gmail account when I've got a perfectly good email account of my own?" and passed.

How silly I was.

In the eighteen years that I've been online (and I'm not exaggerating here - I had my first email address in 1992) I've missed a lot of these opportunities. Back in 1996, when the Web was in its infancy, co-workers of mine were snapping up domain names that they thought would eventually be valuable. For a $10 investment, I guy I knew sold a domain name (it was Chat.com or Shop.com or something like that) for over a million dollars. I took the same $10 and bought myself falafel and a beer. 

I didn't bother buying Google stock at $85 a share on the day that it went on the market, even though I had been using the search engine in beta testing and knew how amazing it was. How could its value possible go any higher than it is now?, I thought. Silly me. Those shares have since increased invalue many hundreds of times over. Similarly, I didn't buy Apple stock even when I knew they were about to launch a game-changing MP3 player. Oops.

Granted, I was a technology journalist and probably shouldn't have been buying tech stocks anyway (you know - conflict of interest and all those pesky journalism ethics issues). But it hurts sometimes to think of the things I missed out on, because of my own lack of foresight, overzealous penny-pinching, and plain old procrastination. With, say, Sex.com in my pocket and a hundred shares of Google, I could have made my life a lot easier than it was.

In comparison, missing out on a good gmail name seems like small potatoes. So I'll never be janelle@gmail.com - I'll live. 

At least I got to janellebrown.com first. Somewhere, out there, some other Janelle Brown is probably kicking herself.

What golden opportunities have *you* missed out on?

SoCal / NoCal freeways
3 May 2010

Highway_101
(photography by seismocat.)

I received an email from a reader recently, telling me that although she enjoyed AWEWWE, she had a problem with one aspect of it. "In chapter eight, on page 247, you write 'traffic on the 101 is light'," she wrote. " I was born and raised in Northern California and we never refer to our freeways as the 101, or the 880.  I immediately figured that you were from Los Angeles."

She's right, and I am mortified to have made the mistake. I also grew up in Northern California, and spent the first 28 years of my life driving up and down 101, taking 80 across the Bay Bridge, and cruising along scenic 280. But I've been living in Los Angeles for eight years now and clearly, I've gone native. Now I take the 10 to Santa Monica, the 101 into the Valley, and the 5 north when I go to visit my family in San Francisco (who are, of course, mortified by my new highway vernacular).

Apologies to my NoCal readers, but I actually prefer the SoCal manner of speaking when it comes to our roads. Here in Los Angeles, the highways seem to have personalities of their own. There's the stately, but precariously outdated 110; the goliath workhouse 5, with lane after lane of big rigs; the serenely quiet 2, so comparatively little-used that it feels like a secret; the 405, a parking lot that strikes fear in my heart; and the bipolar 10, a highway that is a clogged nightmare one minute, a utilitarian speedway the next, depending on the hour of the day. Not to mention the PCH, which is kind of like a virginal Disney starlet, pretty and show-offy but not going to let you get anywhere fast (just try driving to Malibu on a sunny Saturday in June). 

Highways in Los Angeles are such a part of our daily lives, I suppose we (note that I'm saying "we" now - another NoCal strike against me) feel the need to grace them with proper articles. As if we're granting them both specificity and respect: These aren't just any old highways, they are *the* 5, *the* 101, *the* 710. Local celebrities, the asphalt equivalent of *the* Helen Mirren or *the* Miley Cyrus.  Someone somewhere -- a semiotics student at UCLA? Mike Davis? -- has probably written a thesis about this.

In any case, I hope my NoCal readers will forgive me. I still consider myself a San Franciscan at heart, even if I drive the 5 to get there now.

Your local library
8 Jul 2009

Ny_public_library

Tomorrow, I drive north to San Francisco, for my last reading of the summer. This one’s at the San Francisco Main Library — my book was chosen for the “On the Same Page” citywide book club — and I’m looking forward to it tremendously.

I’ve been a library geek my entire life. When I was in grammar school, my first ever “job” was at my local library, where I spent my summer shelving books and hand-typing card catalog cards and taping up books with cellophane covers. I did not get paid for this work; I thought it was worth it just because I got first access to all the Lois Duncan and Stephen King novels.

Even now, I am an avid customer of the Los Angeles Public Library. About two-thirds of the books I read come from the library (otherwise, I’d go broke buying hardbacks), and the citywide library system here is fantastic. I can go online, search for the book I want, put a hold on it, and then the library system will locate the nearest free copy of that book and send it to my local branch (three blocks from my house). They even email me when it’s arrived.

My friends are always surprised when I talk about checking books out of the library — most seem to have last used a library sometime around college graduation. My only hope is that the recession is reviving interest in our local libraries, which (thanks to budget cuts) could use all the support they can get these days.