About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

this little piggy went to the cinema

Wherein I will do a wrap on movies I've seen in recent months without blogging about.

Pinky:  Pride & Glory,  seen Saturday afternoon Nov. 8, 2008 at the AMC Courthouse 8, Aud. #7.  1.5 slithy toads.  This is the kind of movie I've been going to less as I cut back some from 5 or 10 years ago on the number of movies I make time to see.  It had gotten mediocre reviews, and it has been awaiting release for a year, but I decided I should nonetheless see it because (a) it stars Edward Norton, whose generally impressed from Primal Fear on thru and usually makes good choices in the movies he makes and if not good ones then interesting and (b) co-stars Colin Farrell, another actor who is often interesting in his choices if not always good.  Alas, this was not an interesting choice for either of them.  Raise your hands if you've seen as movie about corrupt cop, loving wife, conflicted family, father figure on force, etc. etc. etc.  This is that movie.  I'm not sure why these two actors were attracted to the script, and they're pretty much the only interesting things about.

Ring Finger:  Changeling, seen Saturday afternoon Nov. 8, 2008, at the AMC Courthouse 8, Aud. #8.  2.5 slithy toads.  This is the other Clint Eastwood movie, or the other Angelina Jolie movie, or the other John Malkovich movie, or something like that.  It's based on a true story from the earlier years of the century,  when the LAPD was under attack and was happy to have reunited a mother with her missing son.  The fact that the mother didn't think the boy she was given was hers was not welcome news.  Jolie's performance was described alternately as a tour de force by some critics and a monstrous bit of overacting or dis-acting or mis-acting by others.  The movie as a whole was brilliant or too long, best for its willingness to look at the large context of things or worst for spending a half hour after the resolution of the underlying mystery of the boy to the aftershocks of the case in LA.  And to me, I guess the biggest sin is that I just don't care about the debates. I liked the movie well enough, but I can't muster any passion for arguing any side of it.  It's a better movie than Eastwood's other 2008 release, Gran Turino, but at least Gran Turino inspires some passion in me for undercutting it, while the best I can do ith Changeling is give a giant ambivalent "meh" and a lukewarm recommendation.  It's not as good as the other Angelina Jolie movie of 2008, Wanted, which is a ton u fun.  I mentioned in that post how I left with a smile on my face, and I still have one.

Middle Finger:  Valkyrie.  Seen Saturday afternoon January 24, 2009 at the AMC Empire 25, Aud. #8.  2 Slithy Toad.  Like Changeling, this leaves me with deep ambivalence.  Changeling was flat in my heart but at least had a little life on the screen while Valkyrie is flat in both places and garners half a toad less.  I've always been a Tom Cruise fun, at least since Top Gun, and there's nothing wrong with his performance but also nothing exciting about it.  Or really much of anything else in the movie.  It was interesting to see the mechanics of the aborted coup in Berlin.  Meh.

Index Finger:  Defiance.  Seen Saturday evening January 24, 2009 at Clearview's Ziegfeld.  4 slithy toads.  I'd been kind of eager to see Valkyrie, being that I'm a big Tom Cruise fan and a real Xmas event release and etc., I'd even tried seeing it a couple weeks before I actually did but gave up because the line at the box office was just too too long.  I ended up not caring so much for it at all. I was terribly ambivalent about seeing Defiance, but I've decided to give it my highest rating.  I'm not totally sure it deserves, part of me wants to knock it down to a 3.5, but to be honest I can't think of a good reason for deducting any points.  Why the ambivalence about seeing it?  A lot of that has to do with Edward Zwick.  His Blood Diamond was a pleasant surprise, much livelier and interesting than the all-over-map reviews would have suggested, and Courage Under Fire was a delightful pleasant surprise to see when it was sneak previewing at the Uptown in DC, but as a rule I've found his movies like Glory and The Last Sumarai to be worthy but not necessarily good.  And it was playing at the Ziegfeld, which I love and resent because it outlasted the superior Loews Astor Plaza as the only single-screen movie-going palace in New York City.  But at the end of the day, I decided I should give the movie some Ziegfeld points and be sure if I was seeing it to see it there, and I did get kind of a buzz when I walked in to see that there were actually going to be 400 or maybe even 500 people in the theatre's 1100 seats instead of 20 or 60.  And once the movie begin, it caught me up in its spell.  It's based on the true story of 3 brothers, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schrieber and Jamie Bell,  who managed to keep a community of Jews safe in the Belarussian forests for several years during World War II, ultimately saving over 1000 lives from the Holocaust.  It's full of many of the usual "based on true story" things where you're wondering just how much is true and how much Hollywood; did the Liev brother really come to the rescue like the calvary in a Western the way it's depicted here?  But since it isn't yet another sports movie or underdog tale I was willing to cut it a little more slack for helping to bring a different chapter of the WW2 story to wider prominence.  It's made with the zestiness of Blood Diamond instead of the worthiness of Last Samurai.  David Denby's otherwise very favorable review in The New Yorker singled out the James Newton Howard score for special oppobrium, but I didn't mind it at all.  Well, I did, but for personal reasons that the lushly orchestrated violin-focused score here was a little too reminiscent of his score for The Village, which was the last movie to play the Astor Plaza, so I'm sitting trying to enjoy this movie in the Ziegfeld and the score just keeps dragging me back to my sad memories of the last picture show at my beloved Astor Plaza.  It's very well acted by all three leads, and if maybe not so much by the supporting cast I'm willing to say it's not so much the acting as the Hollywood-ese of the scripting.  When you're caught up in something, a book or a film or a TV show or a whatever, when you're really really really caught up in it, you can overlook things.  And when you're not you can pick nits.  This is one of those movies that caught me up in its spell, that succeeded at doing what a movie like this is supposed to do, that's probably the best Holocaust movie since Schindler's List, that had be on the edge of my seat wondering how some of the events would play out and then leaning back teary-eyed, and it gets my highest rating.

Thumb:  Revolutionary Road, seen Sunday morning/afternoon January 25, 2009 at the AMC Empire 25, Aud. #13.  One slithy toad.  Pleasant surprise, that management moved some movies around overnight so this was playing on a bigger screen on Sunday than it had been when I was at the same theatre for Valkyrie the day before.  Not a surprise, that I didn't really like the movie, though my reasons for not liking it ended up being somewhat different than I had anticipated.  From the coming attraction, I'd had the idea that this was going to be another Douglas Sirk melodrama look-alike, totally superfluous for traveling in the tracks of any number of other movies like that such as the 2002 release Far From Heaven.  So the good news is that this was aiming much higher than that, but the bad news is that it's one of those serious movies that pretty much drowns in its own pompousness and silliness.  Kate Winslet getting a Golden Globe for this?  It's like giving Best Actor to John Lovitz's Master Thespian, only here it's a thespianette in high heels.  Conceptually, why do you want to take the two great lovers from the wonderful Titanic and then put them back together as miserable lovers in a marriage so completely and totally failed that you can't understand why they ever got married in the first place?  Why give the couple two children who are then so conspicuously absent or conveniently present throughout the entire movie to the point that I thought it was a laugh line when Leonardo diCaprio says how nice it is to have a day without the kids when I've spent half the movie thinking they sure do spend an awful lot of time playing with the next door neighbors or doing community service after school or hiding in the basement or something?  Why name the movie after the street but then never put the house on that street within the context of the street as a whole?  There's one scene when Leonardo storms off and we see Kate in the door of the house and I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for a long shot which would show Kate and the house and the street and tie it all up in a nice visual bow, but after all that waiting we finally get only a medium shot that shows Kate in the door of the house from a bit of a difference but still with the house in isolation.  It's pompous, it's unpleasant, it's a shame.  If I might be overrating Defiance it's possible I'm underrating this, but I don't think so.  Because there's so much talent in this misguided movie that the opportunity cost of the movie is much higher.

With these five reviews I think I've covered pretty much all of the remainder of the fall/winter crop to date.  And reviewed the lion's share of the movies I've seen since commencing the blog almost a year ago.  I'd still like to do a more detailed post on Towelhead, but I feel as if I've done enough of the spadework that I can think in the days ahead about talking some about my thoughts on the Oscar nominations and otherwise summing up the 2008 film year.

& then there were none

The Washington Post Book World section is being shuttered, with book reviews to be spread into the Style and Outlook sections on Sunday for a net 25% reduction in coverage.

Since the Washington Post Book World covered genre fiction on a regular basis which the NY Times does not (well, mysteries up the gazoo but not sf/fantasy) this is not a happy making time.

In fact, overall page for page Book World had far more reviews of interest than the NY Times Book Review, which I often flip through without finding a single review of interest to me.  This is not a new thing, by the way.  It's been that way for all 30 years I've been reading the Times Book Review.

So to me, for all practical purposes, the US is now left with 0 stand-alone book sections I'd care to read.  The SF Chronicle still hangs on with one, but the SF Chronicle is otherwise a rag like most papers in the US have become in recent years, so who cares about that.

Further, the Washington Post "made" Elizabeth Moon's SPEED OF DARK by giving it a feature review in the Book World section, and was probably along with the Times the only paper that could have done so.  With all due respect to SF Site and Sci Fi Chick and Pat's and all the other internet review sites  I pay attention to, there isn't anything on the internet and probably not even any combination or aggregation of all the everythings in the world of internet review sites that can compensate.

If any of you know Martina...

Sometimes even smart people can sound very dumb.  Last night during the Tennis Channel's coverage of the Australian Open, Martina Navratilova was bemoaning "oh why do they do it this way" that the winners of the women's quarters being played one day would have to come back out on one day's rest for a next match while some of the men got an extra day of rest, implying some sinister sexism at work.  Well, there might be be lots of sexism in the world, but can you let Martina know that this isn't it.  A Grand Slam tennis tourney lasts 14 days.   The women play their final in Day 13.  The men on Day 14.  And the start of play is broken for both over Day 1 and Day 2.  So if you start on day 2, you play on day 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, so of course at the end the women in that part of the draw will have to not get 2 days rest, and a man who started on day 1 would get an extra day off.  If you played both finals on Day 14, that would be disrespectful of the women.  If you played only women on the odd days and men on the even days, I think that would defeat the whole idea of everyone playing together.  The only viable approach to solving this problem that could work would be to alternate the days for the mens and women's finals each year, which would involve overcoming only tradition.  However, since the men play best of 5 and the women best of 3 it doesn't seem unreasonable that some men might benefit from an extra day of rest and some women suffer from one day less, and during the rest of the year at the non-Grand Slam tournaments everyone plays best of 3 on consecutive days (quarters Fri, semis Sat, finals Sun) so the unusual thing about the Grand Slam is the luxury of all those extra days, not the one time if the tournament runs on schedule that you have "only" one day of rest.  So if any of you out there have an e-mail for Martina, feel free to send her a link to this post.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Stealth Mode

So the Post Office quietly raised its prices for what it calls "Shipping Services" on the 18th, Express & Priority Mail and the like, but not for first class mail which will go up in May.  And I do mean "quietly."  I mean, I'm in the Post Office three days a week and don't think I saw a sign or notice or anything anyplace.

I hate the fact that they do it in stealth mode.  That's just plain wrong to me.

Aside from that, because real world wise most businesses don't make a big deal about raising prices, shrinking your half gallon of ice cream or your Skippy peanut butter jar to a few ounces less, it gets more and more transactionally expensive to market books by clients in the foreign and translation markets.  Now, the costs of these foreign mailings are charged to clients as a disbursement, so at the end of the day on a lot of this I don't care.  But I'm a nice guy and very conscientous of the fiduciary obligation I have to my clients not to spend their money frivolously.  So as prices go up, how aggressive do I start to be on hard/soft books about holding off the big foreign rights marketing push for the paperback?  You can't do this every time, but if you're in book #5 of a series and there's a market where nobody has yet to buy book #1, let alone #2/3/4, does it matter if I send my sub-agent the paperback in 2010 instead of the hardcover in 2009?  But then that means I still have to sit on the hardcover copies just in case and then do something with 18 hardcovers a year later when the paperback comes out?  Do we start to use those pain-in-the-neck M-Bags where you walk to the Post Office with a big sack full of books that you can send cheaper by the pound than a Flat Rate Priority Box, which is in turn cheaper if you can fill the sucker up than to send all of those books individually?  Do we click'n'ship and spend more of our time printing postage here to save a couple of dollars than when the Post Office can spend a little more time while I stand at the counter reading a book or newspaper?

And there's a recurring theme thru almost all of this, which is that as a general rule all of the things I might do to minimize the disbursement hurt to my clients end up being more work for me.  It isn't so much that the cost is less, as that it gets transferred.  

& then when I'm done thinking about the joys of stealth rate increases at the Post Office, I can ponder instead the 16% increase in the health insurance premiums come the March bill, which will bring the monthly bill for just two employees to $1000 each.  I don't usually talk politics on the blog, but I've got to make very clear that the current health system in this country cannot stand.  I take on a new employee, and the insurance alone is now $6000.  I'm a really nice guy, but that's the kind of thing that makes you think interns, part-timers, throwing clients overboard, anything and everything you can possibly do before you add another full-time warm body with benefits to the staff roster.  I'm unabashedly liberal on the solution, which has to ultimately be government run single-payer health care.  Market based solutions don't work, because we really can't go "oh, I'm having a heart attack, so let me quickly go on-line and compare all of my local doctors and hospitals and find the one that has the best results for dealing with heart attacks."  Please!  If you need -- and I mean NEED because the old one stopped working -- a new refrigerator, as opposed to buying one as part of a remodel or something, you're hardly going to go around to six places to comparison shop while your food is melting, and a lot of the time you can't do that with your health care either.  There's also the conservative approach that tries to incentivize people to use less health care through health savings accounts or by jacking up the co-pays or otherwise transferring costs to an employee, or eliminating the tax deduction to my business so I'll shop around for the Best Insurance Plan and not have some Cadillac Insurance Plan for my office when we should all be taking the Kia Rio Insurance Plan.  Some of this kind of thing might be possible if you're a big company and can have a dedicated person doing this kind of thing, but in a small business that means taking a lot of time and then maybe getting the insurance cost down by a small amount.  And even though I have health insurance, I still dread any and every little piece of interaction I have with the health care system.  The system is broken, it needs to be fixed, and market-based won't do it.

I'm essentially powerless to do much about our dysfunctional health care system, so I'll spend idle minutes musing on the true eternal questions of life -- to Click 'n' Ship to save $2 to my clients on the costs of mailing that Priority Mail Flat Rate box of books, or not to save.  At least those questions I feel I have some control over answering.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Science Fiction Role Models

Role Models.  Seen Sunday afternoon November 9, 2008 at the AMC Hoffman Center 22, Auditorium #2, 3 slithy toads

This film ... well, it might come as a surprise to hear somebody say this, but it should probably take its place in the science fiction pantheon with Galaxy Quest, and I'm rather tempted to give it a spot on my Hugo nominating ballot.  Certainly, if you're a friend of the science fiction community you'd danged well better find your way to this on video when it's released on March 10.  Just like Galaxy Quest, it's oft times hilarious.  In the same way that Galaxy Quest kind of made it OK to be a Trekkie, kind of mainstreamed the whole idea of worshiping science fiction on TV, Role Models mainstreams Live Action Role Playing, or LARP, which is at least as marginalized to those like me who are strong literary sf fans but is still very much a part of the sci-fi continuum.  I'd like our community to recognize, acknowledge, appreciate.

In its bare outlines, the plot of Role Models is kind of a snoozer.  Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play salesman for an energy drink who specialize in school visits, Scott in a mascot outfit that would be embarrassing to wear even in the green room for a masquerade at WorldCon.  Rudd is the straight man who pitches the drink in nice togs, and when he has a very bad day the two of them are forced to join a Big Brother type organization as community service.  Scott is given a very typical Hollywood bad black kid, while Rudd is given a child of white suburbia who finds his greatest joy in LARP, which his parents try to ignore when they're not actively trying to discourage.  If you've seen a movie you can probably write the outline for the rest of this one.  The guys will bond with the boys, but the parents and the supervisor won't understand what they're doing, and everyone will be forced apart due to their Tragic Flaws but only temporarily as everyone will eventually See The Light en route to the Happy Ending.

Maybe I should like this movie less than I did.  It's not all that long ago that I was saying of Gran Turino that I wasn't willing to give it extra credit for taking a blah story and dressing it up with lots of ethnic stereotypes that were supposed to be safe because it was Clint Eastwood saying them.  Is it any different with Role Models, which takes this kind of boring story that we could all write and dresses it up with a gleeful explosion of curse words and scatology?  I'm saying that it is.  There's almost a certain irony to the full-throttled gleefulness with which Role Models undermines the exact thing it personifies.  Co-writer (with Rudd) and director David Wain has a background with The Daily Show and various comic troupes and MadTV, while Rudd has done serious drama and rank comedy and theatre of all shapes and sizes, and they're able in their script to attack the cliches with, of all things, sophistication.

And then there's the LARP.  I don't like LARP, I don't understand it, I don't get it.  But I'm a science fiction geek at heart, and somehow or other I've lucked into a job where I've been able to take my inner sf geek and turn it into a career and ultimately into a pretty rewarding and lucrative one.  By editing sf/fantasy novels, and hanging out with sf/fantasy authors, and riding elevators in fancy hotels with people speaking Klingon while dressed in their best Barrayaran.  How cool is that!  And now here's a movie that throws the f-bomb at just about every corny "mixed-pair" buddy movie cliche it can think of while treating LARP -- LARP, for goodness sake! -- with the utmost respect and admiration.  There's strong, and then there's LARP strong!

I wish I'd done this post two months ago when the specific reviews were fresh in my mind, but it's my definite recollection that at least some reviewers (Joe Morgenstern in the Wall St. Journal I'm thinking as foremost among them) were driven to distraction by the whole LARP thing.  Oh, such a nice story, but then they start playing this, this, This GAME!, and I just don't care or understand or whatever.  Well, I was laughing my head off for good chunks of the movie, and almost in spite of myself when they started to find redemption through LARP-ing, that inner geek in me wanted to extend the olive branch to all those weird people doing weird LARP demonstrations on the lawn at Stony Brook during I-Con.

On video on March 10.  Add it to your NetFlix queue, make an appointment with your RedBox, but see it.  (Except, like, if you don't like foul language do I need to explicity say like it isn't clear enough in the review, that you might find a little much of it here.)

The worst part of the movie is probably the failed romantic relationship Rudd has, the kind of Hollywood-type thing the studio wants in order to help the film appeal to another "quadrant."  (Hollywood likes "four quadrant" films which will appeal to boys and girls and men and women up to age 49.)   The best part of the movie is pretty much everything else. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Death of a Kindle

So my Kindle died completely after being taken out in the cold last week.  I'm not sure the Sony Reader would be any better.  They are honest in their documentation (i.e., honest in that "buried in the PDF owner guide you get only after you've purchased it" kind of way that Amazon also is) in giving the operational temp for the PS 700 as forty-one degrees, which is more in line with when I started to see my Kindle start to misbehave, so I'm not sure their screen will do any better if it's in your briefcase while you wait ten minutes for a cab at the airport on a cold day.  I'm pasting below the letter I am mailing today to the heads of Amazon and the E Ink corporation in Cambridge that makes the electronic ink "guts" for the Kindle and Sony Reader.

The bottom line on all of this is that if you are thinking of buying one of these things you need to be aware that your outdoor use -- i.e., the whole "portable" thing -- might be limited for as much as six months of the year if you live north of the Mason Dixon line and in or east of the Sierras/Rockies etc.  And regardless of where you live, you may not be able to take your Kindle or Reader out of your house in December, January and February because even a 10-minute wait for a cab at JFK or Logan just might kill it.

Mr. Jeff Bezos

Amazon.com, Inc.

1200 12th Ave. S., #1200

Seattle, WA  98144-2734


Dear Mr. Bezos:


I am extremely disappointed with the inability of the Amazon Kindle to handle cold weather.  I feel very strongly that you need to encourage your partners at E Ink Corporation whom I am copying on this letter to develop a technology that is more robust in colder weather.  More important, I think your marketing of the Kindle needs to be much clearer in stating that the device will be impaired at temperatures below 45F, and will break down, die and become a paperweight below 25F.


I first noticed as far back as October that my Kindle started to suffer functional impairment in the low 40s.  After twenty minutes outside, the Kindle would refresh with both pages visible for a brief period of time instead of cleanly flashing from one page to the next.  Once it warmed back up indoors, functioning returned to normal.  Since my assistant has a Sony Reader, I’ve been able to compare his PRS-700 specs which are at least honest in saying that their device functions from 41-95 degrees while the Kindle documentation claims a 32 degree minimum operating temperature which I would not consider to be correct.  E Ink has to do better.  A portable reading device should be portable and usable at lower temperatures.


In any event, I found out only after I purchased my Kindle that it wasn’t like my cell phone or an iPod and that I was going to have to have more old-fashioned paper reading for almost half the year to deal with outdoor reading in normal NYC temperatures from late October to late April.  


So come November, I stopped use of my Kindle outdoors during colder days.  This was a real and unexpected limitation on my ability to use the device.


But then I found out when I had my Kindle in my backpack while on a long walk during a wintry evening that the battery became so chilled that it wouldn’t take a full charge for two days.  It was cold, but not as cold as the Kindle’s alleged storage temperature of 14 degrees.  So then I realized the hard way that I would have to keep the Kindle in the part of the backpack that was up against my back instead of in the organizer pocket that was most exposed to the cold weather.  Again, this is a serious limitation on the Kindle’s usability that I find out only after I’ve purchased the machine.


And then last Thursday I took the Kindle with me on a family trip to Hartford on the coldest day of the year.  I tried very hard to tend to the Kindle’s needs.  I didn’t read it outdoors.  I tried to keep it in the warm part of my backpack while waiting for a bus from downtown to my hotel or walking a bit to the hotel.  I believe I may have had it in a pants pocket for a 5-minute walk each way from my hotel to an old-fashioned book store when the temperature may have been near the 14 degree storage temperature.  Maybe I shouldn’t have.  I went to turn on my Kindle that night in the hotel and could tell even before  I turned it on that something was wrong.  It wasn’t dust in the pointer window on the right of the Kindle but rather the dead remnants of the pointer, and the Kindle screen was no longer usable or functioning.


Yes, it was very cold.  But you know what?  It gets cold in the United States for large parts of the year.  Here in NYC we’ve had 12 days in the past month when the low temperature has been within ten degrees plus or minus of your storage temperature.   It’s been weeks that the high temperature’s been at or below the 40 degree mark when the Kindle stops working well or the Sony Reader would say not work at all.


Another Kindle owner came up to me at the the theatre on the 11th, temps between 26 and 32 in NYC, and told me she’d left hers in the car.  What if she’d left her Kindle in the car during a show a few days later when the high temp was only 18?


What if somebody came out into the cold at LaGuardia last Thursday and had a five minute wait for a cab while their Kindle was in a pocket or carry-on?


What if somebody came out of their office in Chicago last week with a Kindle in their attache and was waiting several minutes for the El?  The average January low in Chicago of 18 is perilously close to a safe storage temperature for the Kindle.


Or was on the platform in Braintree waiting for the red line to Boston with a Kindle in their pocketbook?


Seattle is much more temperate, but even there the past week the Kindle would be off limits or impaired for use to your own employees waiting for Sound Transit at the Bellevue Transit Center to whisk them downtown because the morning temp woulds be in the low 40s. 


I’m glad that Amazon will be sending me a replacement Kindle, but I’m not much glad beyond that.  It’s common sense that you don’t use electronic devices in the rain, but it isn’t intuitive that the Kindle won’t function correctly below 45.  It’s certainly not intuitive that you take the Kindle at your own risk from your home to the office or on a five minute walk to the gym if it’s one of those cold days that we get a few of each year in New York City and much more often than that in other parts of the country -- Minot, Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, Detroit.


Now that I’ve had a Kindle, I don’t want to go back to being without, but I am extremely upset that I wasn’t able to make an informed decision on buying an expensive gadget that can be used on only a limited basis for as much as 6 months during the year when the temperate might dip into the low 40s or below, and might die if I put into my gym bag on a bitter cold day just to take five minutes from my apartment to the gym.


All best wishes,




JOSHUA BILMES



cc:  Russell J. Wilcox, E Ink Corporation

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Family Affair

I spent this past weekend at the bar mitzvah of nephew #4, who is named after my uncle, Matthew Suffness.  

It was a bittersweet occasion for me.  My only niece is named for my maternal grandmother, whom we loved very much but who passed when I was only a child, not so young as to have no memories of her at all but certainly when I was young enough that the memories are just childhood ones.  My uncle Matt, on the other hand, died when I was an adult, and died far too early in life at the age of 52.  He and his wife Rita didn't have a family of their own, but he loved his nieces and nephews very very much, and we were all so happy when he was able to join us for a family occasion.  He was so much fun to be around that it's almost embarrassing to say it was really only after he passed that I came to realize how accomplished he was professionally, to the extent that the American Society of Pharmacognosy came to name one of their awards after him.  He was known particularly for his work on the cancer drug Taxol.  I remember his noogies and his dirges, his skill at Scrabble (a strong science background certainly helps when it comes to laying down some of the more obscure biochemistry terms), Thanksgivings at his house in Silver Spring, overnighting at his first apartment in Silver Spring before the Auto Train ride down to Disneyworld in 1977 (I still have the Eeyore I got on that trip).  It was uncle Matt who dropped me off at the Metro stop in Bethesda with instructions on how to visit the Borders on Rockville Pike which was my first-ever visit to a Borders other than the one in Ann Arbor and the first step on my journey to visiting 197 of them; store #10 later moved across the street to the mall but this map locates the Anthropologie that occupies that historical site in my life.  It would have been on a visit to Uncle Matt's that I first did that crazy thing of saying I'd rather walk the mile from his house to the Silver Spring Metro stop than wait for the Ride-On bus, and I now befuddle people with that walking preference of mine on a regular basis.  

I usually have a good memory for movies, and I'm rather annoyed with myself that I can't remember the movie I saw during my last visit with Uncle Matt.  It was a caper film of some sort, and if someone told me the name I'm sure I'd know what it was. That would have been in the early-mid 1990s, and we saw it at the P&G Flower Cinema.  At the time, we were all optimistic that he was winning his valiant struggle against leukemia and starting to resume normal life after a bone marrow transplant.  Unfortunately, we were wrong.  Matt was gone much sooner after our outing to the Flower than I would ever have thought.  My nephew Matthew was born some seven months after my uncle Matt passed, and my brother said in his remarks at the Bar Mitzvah that there was never any question on what name to give him.

Like my uncle Matt, I don't have a family of my own.  In different ways, I take a lot of pride in the accomplishment of my clients and in my own niece and nephews.  Interestingly, my nephew Matthew has kind of joined the two, as he's currently taken to fencing in a way that would do the characters in The Speed of Dark proud.  And he's starting as he grows into his adolescence to show some of my uncle's quick-wittedness.  So I was very happy to be at my nephew's bar mitzvah, with my entire family together for a few hours, including my Aunt Rita, as we celebrated my nephew and in the process remembered the memory of her husband and my uncle.  But the weekend reminded me how much I miss my uncle.  I'd love my nephew every bit as much if it hadn't been so easy to know what name he would be given.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Death of Khan

1982.  It is the weekend of my senior class trip, and on Friday we go off to Great Adventure theme park in New Jersey.  We get back very late at night, and on Saturday morning I am woken up all too early to join my younger brother and parents in driving down to Paramus to see Star Trek 2:  The Wrath of Khan.

We went to see it at the RKO Stanley Warner Route 4 Paramus Quad.  If you really want to know more about the history of the theatre click the link, but at that point in time it had a huge huge huge huge main downstairs screen in its original building, which was added on to before then added on to later and then the original main screens cut up a bit, but even at its death a couple years ago as a tenplex the main screen at 2/3 of its original size was awfully danged big.  We would drive down, 1:15 in good traffic which rarely there was, to see big new movies on that big screen in glorious 70mm.  The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan were the two best of them, and I have lots of fond memories of the Paramus Quad.

Star Trek 2 is a great movie.  It's incredible fun from beginning to end, and Ricardo Montalban's performance as Khan was a hoot.  And I say that in the very best and nicest and most wonderful sense of the word.  It's a movie that holds up.  I saw it again on a big screen at the Loews Jersey not all that long ago with a pretty decent crowd, and I was in love with it as a fortysomething every bit as much as a teenager on his senior class tip weekend.

Ricardo Montalban, you will be missed.  Or as Khan might say "I shall avenge you!"

Sunday, January 11, 2009

District Affairs

I go down to Washington DC fairly often, often doing the same things over and over again though trying at some level to always experience something new on each trip, even if it's walking down a different block.

On my latest visit I decided I wanted to try very very hard to do some things recommended to me by the Washington Post.

So I went to get cupcakes at Georgetown Cupcake.  Now, this whole cupcake craze has me a little befuddled.  Illogically, because I think it's crazy to pay in the neighborhood of $3 for a little cupcake.  Why do I say that's illogical?  Because we all have things we're willing to indulge in.  I pay $6.50 every so often for a slice of Juniors Cheesecake, so why not pay $3 for a cupcake.  But logically, because Juniors is really good stuff (I think so, most people I've introduced it to think so, or have sent as a gift).   But most of these cupcakes are pretty dreary, and paying so much money for a bad cupcake?  Like this little place in Sunnyside that opened up near me recently, and I tried one of their expensive cupcakes and it was so godawful dry and bad and ugh ugh ugh.  

But I was willing to give this Georgetown Cupcake a try because when the Washington Post did a whole series of cupcake reviews in the fall they actually admitted time and again over the course of the reviews that the emperor had no clothes, that most of the cupcakes they were trying weren't very good.  Neither place very good in week #1.  Week #2, one of the places "no better than grade school cafeteria."   Hence, when they concluded the series by rating Georgetown Cupcake as the best, I was willing to give them some credence, and so I happily waited on line to try some of them.  I ended up getting six cupcakes, which with tax cost $16.50.  Each a different flavor.  As things turned out I ended up carrying them with me to dinner, then to the train station, then home, and some of them toppled over a bit even though they give a very good box which does hold the cupcakes well in more normal transport, but they were more than good enough even so for me to concur that if you want to indulge in a cupcake this is a very good place to do it.  I liked the chocolate mint quite a bit, banana pudding not bad at all, red velvet much better than average.  Chocolate #3 was a little bit disappointing but wasn't one of the fresher by the time I got around to it.  Bottom line, the cakes were moist and yummy, and the icings were flavorful without being icky sweet.  

For the record, here in NYC the cupcakes at Magnolia, Billys and Buttercup are among those that leave me feeling cold.  Sage has a decent ersatz Hostess cupcake, the Little Pie Co. has a nice cream filled chocolate if eaten at room temperature (I also like Juniors best at room temp), and some Crumbs like the grasshopper are OK, but I think from now on I'll save myself for when I can do Georgetown Cupcake.

Dinner that night, cupcakes in tow, was at Ray's Hellburger, which the Washington Post liked quite a bit and put in their fall magazine listing as one of the best restaurants in DC.  Well, thank you Tom Sietsema!  This is one yummy hamburger.  I got a pepper encrusted burger cooked medium with some swiss cheese atop.  It was big and juicy, moderately but not overly messy.  Like the review says the bun was a little overmatched, but it was a good bun with some real texture and substance to it.  The surroundings are not luxurious.  You order at the counter then sit down and wait a few minutes for the burger to be delivered.  You might be sitting in close surroundings to somebody else.  I had my bags and cupcakes because my next stop was Union Station, and I had to kind of fight my way through the ordering crowd to get to the bathroom.  But if you want a good, no frills, eating experience when you're in DC. Rays Hellburger is well worthwhile.

If you want a bit of a walking tour, Rays is at the downhill side of the very walkable very pleasant Clarendon corridor.  Now that the B. Dalton won't be there any more I'm not sure if it makes sense to start a walk at the far end by Ballston Commons.  But certainly you can get off at Clarendon, enjoy the little park and admire historic theatres in the CVS window and think on the very good Delhi Club for some other meal someday, walk downhill to the upscale shopping mall, browse at the Barnes & Noble, check e-mail at the Apple Store, pick up some vino at Whole Foods, down a little further past the Arlington County courthouse and the AMC, then eventually go down Wilson a little bit further to Rays.  Have good burger, having built up nice appetite.  Then continue down Wilson to Rosslyn, walk over the scenic and glorious Key Bridge into Georgetown, with wonderful views in abundance, and then just a few short blocks to Georgetown Cupcake.  It's only 1.3 miles according to Mapquest from Hellburger to Georgetown Cupcake, downhill, (burn more calories by having cupcake first then going to burger), and my that would be good.  The problem with the Clarendon corridor is that it gives too many good choices.  If you eat at Ray's you can't eat at Whole Foods, if you go to Georgetown Cupcake who'll have an appetite for a slice of Linda's Fudge Cake at Cheesecake Factory, if you go to Delhi Club there's no chili at Hard Times.  

My other DC item to review quickly was the production of Grey Gardens at the Studio Theatre.  This was the classic Studio production for me to see, something I'd kind of wanted to see when it was on Broadway but never quite got around to, so the DC production becomes a last chance at a theatre that I know will generally do a good job of things.  The production was solid enough with the lead played by someone with lots of Broadway experience and another role filled by one of the cast members from the Studio's superb stunningly good wish-it-were-still-running production of Jerry Springer the Opera, but it's not a very good musical alas.  It's based on a documentary about some Onassis relatives living in squalor at the eponymous estate on Long Island.  The first act is set earlier in the 20th century when Grey Gardens is still a place to be seen.  Joe Kennedy is courting the ladies.  All very frilly but not very thrilling.  I don't care about these people at all.  The second act gets a little more interesting with some nicely staged numbers with the entire company and one particularly interesting song called Jerry Likes My Corn that is an ode to the handyman who's willing to help out the crazy ladies in Grey Gardens, but one bad act followed by one mildly interesting one doesn't make for a good night at the theatre to me.  So One Slithy Toad for this production, seen at the evening performance on Sunday January 1, 2009.  Interestingly enough, Peter Marks, the critic for the Washington Post seems to feel the same way that the production is much better in the second act than the first, and I guess overall liked much more than I since his capsule review gave it the "recommended" star.  But shouldn't he have genuinely liked both acts before he recommends it, instead of giving that little star to something that even he seems to say has some first act issues?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Compare & Contrast

So I did a little reading on the Sony Reader we got for Eddie.

With the Calibre software that Charles Stross suggested to me way back when, we are as yet experiencing no problems in putting files on to the Sony Reader for Eddie to read.  However, I'm told it prefers to eat RTF, and since most people send Word, Eddie has to convert the .doc to .rtf and then Calibre along to the Sony Reader.

With the touch screen atop of it, I am finding a lot more of a glare problem with the Sony Reader than I do with the Kindle.  Eddie doesn't seem to be bothered by this, but it bothers me a lot.

You run your finger along the touch screen either left to right or right to left to turn the pages back or forward, and then at the bottom there are two small buttons to do the same.  Reading on the Kindle, you have to teach yourself not to press down on the sides because there is too much forward/backward button.  If you don't put your Kindle to sleep while putting the case on or other things like that it will advance 68 pages without you wanting it to.  On the Reader, there maybe isn't enough forward/backward so you have to learn to hold the reader in a way that you can get your finger on to the screen, and then do the screen thing right, more left/right than up/down etc. so that it will be gracious enough to respond to your stroke and turn the page.  What happens when you finger the screen in which direction is a user setting you can change so you can decide if moving left to right with your finger or right to left turns the pages forward or backward, and this is very good for lefty/righty issues.  This ends up being a wash between the two reading devices for me.  I like the touch screen a lot, I like having forward/back buttons someplace other than just small at the bottom a lot.  Each of them requires the human being to adjust to the machine.

The page refreshing on the new Reader is distinctly faster than on the Kindle.  I didn't realize how much of a small wait there was on the Kindle until I'd read on the Reader.  

However, if I want to change the font size on the Kindle it adjusts instantly.  If I want to change on the new Reader you need to wait a while for it to reformat.  If you only read in one font size, advantage Reader, if you read in more than one font size, advantage Kindle.  I do change the font size on the Kindle a lot as I read indoors and outdoors and in different levels of ambient light. 

I hated the font on this new version of the Reader.  It was wispy, and in equivalent light settings I had to put the Reader on a larger font size so I could use it, which meant I had to turn pages more often.

The Kindle abandons the idea of pages in favor of locations.  The location of a particular paragraph is the same no matter how big or small you read it.  But if I relay the notes to an author I have to explain "this has 8400 locations, 4200 is the halfway point, etc."  The Reader does use page numbers, and it takes notes like "page 150 of 663."  What's nice is that I don't need to tell an author that this is just before the quarter mark of the manuscript.  What's not nice is that if I then change the font, the next note might be taken on "page 136 of 500" or on "page 222 of 800."  If you as an author got notes from us, which of these would you prefer?  To have to always remember to divide by 8400 if I gave that as the total # of locations, or to look closely at each note to see what page it is in reference to an ever-changing total?  I'm not sure.  I am sure that if you had a manuscript with notes from multiple readers using different font sizes that your agent could put a note on "page 150 of 300" and your editor a note on "page 200 of 400," and these would both reference the same line and yet have two very completely different page #s.  If we all read it on the Kindle, all the notes would be "location 4200" out of 8400.

I felt as if I would be more accurate in typing my notes with the Reader's touch screen, but only with a lot more effort.  i.e., I could type a note on my Kindle keypad while walking across the 59th St. Bridge (and I've done this) and I could just keep on walking at the pace I was walking and there would be typos but the note would be readable.  I probably wouldn't get more or less accurate short of hunting and pecking.  With the Reader's touchscreen keypad, if I didn't slow down the note would probably be gibberish, but if I did type very carefully I would probably make fewer errors.  It's a little easier on the Kindle to begin typing a note someplace, though I'm not hugely fond of either interface.  The Kindle appears to allow you to access more symbols for use in your notes; somewhat cumbersomely but they're there, while with the Reader you have fewer symbols more easily accessed.  

So make of all of this what you will.   Eddie was clearly much more taken with the Sony Reader than with the Kindle and seems to be enjoying it after a week of use.  I was instinctively drawn to the Kindle moreso than to the Reader.  After a practical examination of a lot of pros and cons as outlined above, I don't think either has a huge advantage and your preference might decide on how you intend to use it.  I will say that I would be very happy with a next generation Kindle.  The glare issue and weaker-looking font on the Reader are distinct minuses for me.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Gran Interviewer

Gran Turino, seen Saturday evening January 3, 2009 at the Regal Gallery Place, Washington DC, Aud. #14, 2.5 slithy toads

Frost/Nixon, seen Sunday afternoon January 2, 2009 at the AMC Uptown (single screen), Washington DC, 3 sllithy toads

Fifteen years ago for the holiday season a fine movie called A Perfect World, starring Kevin Costner and directed by  Clint Eastwood came upon this world.  It followed Unforgiven.  The critical reception was at the time rather unforgiving.  I haven't seen it in a long long time.  Here in NYC, Film Forum has done its umpteenth Sturges revival since I moved to NYC so we can all see Morgan Creek once more, yet nobody wants to show us A Perfect World.  Well, why not try and find that on video instead of seeing Eastwood's somewhat overrated Gran Turino.

Gran Turino isn't bad. 2.5 toads is a mild recommendation, and I enjoyed seeing it, and I didn't fall asleep even though I was seeing it at the end of a long day when I'd walked around ten miles and schlepped to many bookstores, but it's not as good as all the fuss makes it out to be.  Eastwood is a 70-something guy living in Detroit, wife's just passed away, doesn't get along well with the kids or the grandkids or the in-laws.  Particularly hates all the Hmong (ethnic Asian group) that have moved into the nabe.  But he slowly finds himself warming to the boy who lives next door, who might be too smart for his own good in a culture where he's told by the girl who lives next door that the girls go to school and the boys to jail as a result of local gang activity.  When Eastwood tries to save the boys from the gangs, their interest slowly escalates, so what s Clint going to do about this?

Of course the 70-something Clint can't really do some of the things that he became famous for half his lifetime ago in the Dirty Harry movies, so these questions have resonance with Eastwood starring which they might not have with someone else in the role.  In that way, this is a good match of the material (a screenplay by Nick Schenk from a story by Dave Johannson).   Most of the pleasure in the movie comes from watching the Eastwood making the kinds of ethnic references that we aren't supposed to make any more, so are we enjoying this movie or are we enjoying the fact that we can watch Eastwood use that language in a movie and get away with it?

I'm not willing to give the movie extra credit for being a little bit naughty and risque with the ethnic language.  I'm not willing to overlook some of the weaknesses of the underlying material.  In particular, could we not have had a minute or two of screen time to tell us why the gang had particular interest in this particular kid?  The remark about how all the guys go to jail implies that maybe the gang tries to recruit all the boys, but then adding two lines to say that's specifically the case here wouldn't hurt. Were there no choices in action that could have kept the situation from escalating?  This isn't explored at all.  There's a subplot about the local priest trying to get Eastwood to confession at the request of his late wife, and one of the things Eastwood will admit to is not having done right by his relationship with his own children, but that doesn't make it any easier to buy what the ending says about his ability to find a do-over via the boy next door.

Maybe I'm going half  a toad too low in rebellion against all of the reviews that are praising so lavishly, but ultimately I think this will be seen as a decent coda to Eastwood's career but not very much more than that.

This was my first time seeing a movie at the Regal Gallery Place, which is a nice 14-screen stadium seating multiplex in downtown DC.  Auditoriums #1-7 are smaller, as few as 105 seats and going up to maybe 150.    Auditorim #14 was around 230 seats, and quite nice.  The screen was a little large for the space, so the sweet spot for viewing would really be only the last 2 or 3 rows, and the 100 seats in front of the aisle are very close to the screen, but it's nice.  This was one of the smaller screens in #s 8-14, a few of which have 300 seats and some of the others 250.

I went to see Frost/Nixon largely because it was playing at the Uptown, a large and wonderful big curved single screen movie theatre in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of DC.  I love to see movies there for the experience of it, and like any of these single screen theatres, or like each visit to a B. Dalton, you wonder if it might be your last.

Frost/Nixon is like Doubt based on a recently successful Broadway play, this one revolving around the David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon in the 1970s.  I saw the play and fell asleep for most of it.  The movie is I think better because it's able to take advantage a little bit more of the ability to leave the confines of the stage behind and go out into the world.  Footage of the LA beach, or of Frost's Australian TV shows, or of calling from a pay phone at an airport.  It retains the leads from the Broadway play, the fantastic Frank Langella and the equally good Michael Sheen (very good as Tony Blair in The Queen, now putting his gloss on another Brit in David Frost).  It still can't escape the essential boredom when it gets around to recreating the David Frost interviews on the stage or screen.  It's TV without the TV, so even though I fell asleep less during the play, only once in the middle toward the start of the interview recreations, I must say it was an unusually deep sleep for me during a movie.  When I was awoken by the phone ringing for one of the most famous parts of the play, an imagined late night call from Nixon to Frost, I was startled and thought I was in my hotel room and needed to find the phone on the table next to the bed.  Usually I doze off much more lightly during a film.  One review I read said this was a better adaptation of  a lesser play, and I think I'd agree.  I'm giving this the same toad ranking as I did Doubt.  I'm not sure I should, I'm tempted to give this the same 2.5 toads as Gran Turino, but...

In any event, it's in Panavision widescreen, and it was unfolding over the entire bigged curved screen at the Uptown, and I was reveling in the majesty of the moving picture.  If you are in DC, and if there's a movie you vaguely even maybe half want just a little bit to see at the Uptown, go and experience this theatre while you can.  It's right atop the Cleveland Park station on the Red Line, close to the national zoo, nice eating in the neighborhood.  I love after a movie to walk down Connecticut Ave. to Dupont Circle, past the zoo and over the bridge over Rock Creek which is just a magnificent place to stand and admire the view and think upon the world.  If you're young and energetic, start out at Dupont Circle and walk 2 miles uptown and uphill to the uptown, but there's something to be said for doing it in reverse so you've got that downhill thing going.  I love the Uptown!

Sole Survivor

When I first started going to the Washington, DC area on a regular basis in 1993/94, (and I've been at least once a year and often twice or more during the 15 years since, often on a long weekend visiting 30 or more bookstores).  the DC area was a major, major market for B. Dalton.  Union Station, Shops @ National in downtown, a Scribner in the Fashion Center mall, 2 in Crystal City, one in the Springfield Mall, the Montgomery Mall, the Ballston Commons, the Chevy Chase Pavilion, 18th & K St., Lake Forest, and more.  Within another week or two, not a single one of those original B. Dalton locations will remain.  The sole surviving Dalton outlet will be in Union Station, and that store wasn't there in 1993.  The current light-filled large space is a kind of Cadillac of B. Dalton stores that replaced a very very small shoebox in the center of the mall. 

The last of those Dalton locations from 1993 to close its doors is the Ballston Commons location, which is having a going out of business sale at the moment.  

Its indicative of the changes in the shopping landscape, both in general and for books in particular, during the past 15 years.

In 1993 the Ballston Commons was a pretty solid mall.  Over those 15 years, like a lot of malls, its gone downhill.  In 2009, it almost seems as if there are only 2 kinds of shopping mall left, the upscale thriving one that's ritzy enough for an Apple Store, and the decaying kind where the major chains have long since decamped in favor of tawdry clothing retailers and 99 cent stores.  How did these things happen?  Ballston Commons is at one end of the very walkable Clarendon corridor in Arlington, VA surrounded by office buildings and hotels and apartments for rich DC types.  The mall has a Panera that must get some upscale lunch trade.  But... the Regal Cinemas in the mall is more easily entered via the parking garage than by walking in from the street, which doesn't help the stores in the mall.  The same probably for the ice-skating rink.  Two miles away you've got more upscale new shopping in Clarendon and a ritzy outdoor promenade mall that does have an Apple Store and a B&N superstore.  It's hard to blame the B. Dalton for not thriving as its surroundings in the mall got worse and worse and worse.

Sadly, the Lake Forest mall which once had 3 bookstores, a Dalton, a Doubleday and a Walden, is also going downhill, as is the Springfield Mall that used to have both a Dalton and a Walden.  Each mall still has a Walden in it, but the decaying surroundings of each mall don't bode well for whether either of those can long survive.

When I first visited these malls 10 or 15 years ago, there was no hint of what was to come.  I couldn't have told you then that these malls would be dead while the Montgomery Mall and While Flint are not.

Besides that major change in the overall shopping environment, with malls giving way to power centers and lifestyle centers and whatever, there's also the superstore revolution.

In 1993, the superstore era was still in its infancy.  Borders was opening stores with double-digit store #s, #85 across the street from the Fashion Center and #50 a block from the 18th & K Dalton.  B&N was only just starting to emphasize the B&N superstores over the Dalton/Doubleday/Scribner locations they had purchased in the late 1980s.

And so it goes...

Are we now on the cusp of another retail revolution as even these superstores start to lose out to e-books?

As the years went by, I would go to the bigger B. Dalton in Crystal City and check if the smaller one was still there before walking to the far end of the mall.  I kept expecting the Ballston Commons store to close, and in fact thought it was going to do so a year ago because its shelves started to look depleted.  The Montgomery Mall store was having its Last Days sale 2 years ago when I visited with Brandon Sanderson.  One by one by one they've gone.  It was so exciting when I was in high school to have a B. Dalton open in the Orange Plaza Mall, and Dalton was always very good to sf/fantasy and maybe even more so than Walden in its heyday.  The Orange Plaza Mall store long closed, that mall redeveloped, the Lariats in the newer Galleria at Crystal Run was sold to Waldenbooks, and then the Waldenbooks closed in favor of a Borders location in the mall.  Drip by drip you hardly notice the changes, but now that the last of the B. Dalton that existed in DC in 1993 is going going and almost gone, you notice how the world has changed.

Many other Dalton locations appear to be closing to start the New Year, including one in the Bristol Mall  in Virginia, and in the Foothills Mall in Colorado, the Embarcadero in San Francisco, at the Parmatown Mall in the Cleveland area, one in the State College area of PA if I can tell right from Twitter and this blog post, the one in downtown LA that I walked by on my LA trip in September,  and several others like Alton Square in Illinois  (which also lost its Waldenbooks in 2008, going from 2 bookstores to 0) closed in spring 2008.  And probably more; in the DC area nobody notices or cares when a Dalton goes bye-bye in a decaying shopping mall and you can Google away without finding articles on all of them.

Better Late Than Never

I recommended in the spring that Borders give the boot to CEO George L. Jones.  Well, today, after a dismal holiday season that saw same store sales plummet, it finally happened.  I wish it had happened sooner.  I've always tried to give Jones credit for some of the good things he did on his watch, like actively trying to fix the mall stores and pulling the plug on the costly store remodels that weren't accomplishing much.  The new concept store he rolled out is an interesting vision in some ways but it will be hard to get a read on its success.  And in the fall, Borders was much better positioned with Sookie Stackhouse books than B&N.  But...  you can't surprise the world as he did in March with the news that your company is running out of cash.  His efforts to streamline inventory have been a disaster.  Right now for all of the Charlaine Harris books they are selling a signification fraction of stores aren't slotted to carry the entire Lily Bard series.  The company is finally rolling out a major upgrade on its in-store employee software called Borders Atlas after 25 years with Alta Vista Title Look-Up.  But the sluggishness of their supply chain and replenishment systems compared to B&N has yet to be addressed in any major way.

But hey, become a Borders Rewards member, because those 40% off coupons are coming fast and furious.  And shop at Borders if you will, because we need a counterweight to B&N in the business, and Borders is the only choice we've got for that.  Books a Million isn't in the same league.

I don't know what to expect from the new guy, but I'm glad there's finally some change at the top.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2 down...

So one Borders in Sacramento, CA is closing.  The employees found out when the signage package about the closing arrived to be put in the windows.  And now I see that store #97 in Gaithersburg, MD is closing as well.  The first time I visited the Gaithersburg store I walked out around 5 miles from the Shady Grove Metro stop, but later discovered that there were quick buses I could take.  Over the years, the store suffered from very inept management.  The receiving room was very slow so books were frequently not put out until after the first couple weeks on sale, thus costing sales.  The shelves were messy.  In recent years they hybridized the sf section shelving in such a way that it didn't have any usable backstock, so the shelves were always too crowded, and then they would go through and do store-initiated returns to clear up space, so they were frequently without books they were supposed to have.  It got to the point that I'd only stop by at that store because those buses then went 5 miles further out to a Borders in Germantown that grew in leaps and bounds.  When it first opened it was one of the stores that was skipped for books like the mass market of GUARDS OF HAVEN by Simon Green or CODE OF CONDUCT by Kristine Smith, but its business took off until it became a major sf/fantasy store for Borders while the Gaithersburg store withered away.  I'm not going to miss store #97, but does it make sense to take the Ride-On just to visit #384?  Do I still stop in the nabe to vist the Waldenbooks that continues to exist in the Lake Forest Mall across the street?  Philosophically I should be sad that Borders #97 is closed after 13 years, but isn't there a saying "good riddance to bad garbage?"  I feel bad for the employees who might have been doing their best, but I hope that the GM(s) who helped to mismanage the store into the trash heap of history won't be given new assignments.  Of course, the way the world works any hard-working employees will probably be put into the trash heap of history while the managers get to go on and ruin some other store.

Let me know if you hear of any other stores that are closing.  This article on a store closing in Cincinnati suggests that there are 5 scheduled to close in January, with stores in Santa Monica, CA, and  Tempe, AZ rounding out the list.  Santa Monica is the other that I've visited, and in its heyday it was quite successful.  I wonder if that's a lease expiring with more rent than a bookstore can pay?  If there are only 5 shuttering I'd consider that better than I'd predicted, but it remains to be seen if any post-holiday assessments will lead to more in March.