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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.

Friday, September 16, 2011

the mournful dirge

Wrote this email to someone I know who worked at a Florida Borders...

Sorry didn't return your call, at a weekend long wedding with two days in office and to catch up on sleep before heading to St. Louis for Bouchercon where I am now.

Very sad. My last Borders visit last Sunday to Middletown NY between the wedding and the town I grew up in. I really wanted to be the last customer St a Borders as I was at 1003, but no way for it to happen,  Four of the StL stores already closed, two were going to close on Thursday but one shut a day early and the other as I kind of expected said "we may close in 15 minutes, we may close in 45," and i couldn't hire a car to take me ten miles into Illinois, wait around for who knows how long and in the process blow off the stuff I and to do at the convention.

Even though there was nothing to be done about it, I will feel like a loved one passed away without me getting to the bedside.

Then I go to the downtown Left Bank Books, it has one non-Charlaine JABberwocky book on shelves, typically indie it isn't Way of Kings or Warded Man or some other book someone may want to read but an obscure book that will be selling 7 copies a week on Bookscan if that once the liquidations are over.  There is no other trade bookstore for some four miles, the closest with any selection, i.e., a big BN, is further away than that.  Walked by Subterranean Books, the other major StL indie last night after it had closed, looked in and realized it wouldn't be worth another special trip to that neighborhood to actually walk into the store because it would be depressingly similar to the Left Bank experience downtown.

And speaking of Barnes & Noble, I can barely bring myself to walk in to one any longer. I go in, the first thing I see are the Nook covers. The boring BN corporateness, their strangely curated selection where they have long had the poorer selection of books/authors of mine not being carried by both chains, their ugly octagons with books buried on a shelf eight inches up from the floor, all of these things I could happily endure when I knew there was something better somewhere and that the BN I was just passing through.

But I will have a job, you leave the Dolphin with an uncertain destination, and I hope there will be some better next step ahead.  For you, for the other people gutting it out to the end for the hourly paycheck, while the bankruptcy court OKs $125K bonuses for Mike and the gang.   

My stock certificate is being framed, I overpaid for the store directory from base of escalator at #582, and purchased for $15 a "borders is 150k books, magazines, CDs, videos" framed poster with a big B on it from #592.  Once upon a time it was what the poster said, in another day or two it will be a memory.  If you find your way to NYC someday, we will have a cold something or other and reflect in front of my shrine.

Will give a ring when I am back home, and in the meantime you know my thoughts and wishes are with you.

oh, the entire sf/ f section at the downtown Left Bank is 96-ish titles n

Monday, September 12, 2011

Shame No More

Well, most of the obituaries I've read have neglected to mention Cliff Robertson's finest role, as Shame on the Batman TV show in the 1960s. I loved this show, it always saddens me when a Special Guest Villain passes the scene.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Mandatory Lawbreaking

So I am at a hotel in Matamoras, PA, off of I-84, in a shopping area on a  multi-lane shopping strip, around a half mile from the old downtown where the same road is an old-fashioned two-lane main street. I want to walk downtown to buy a newspaper.  Now, in the tradition of bad car-centered development, the sidewalk ends at the edge of the old downtown. The extension of the highway has a nice wide shoulder and isn't unsafe to walk on, per se, but it is clear nobody thought anyone might ever want to walk from downtown to shop at the K-Mart. No sidewalk, no crosswalk, no walk signals, not a single thing about the road is designed with a second of thought for the pedestrian.  In fact, at the stoplights there are signs going all four ways that forbid pedestrian crossings in any direction.  (Or would, except that the red cross-hatch has faded off many of the signs) Unless there is some secret unmarked back way, there is no legal way for a pedestrian to get from here to there.  This isn't about pedestrian safety. This is about city officials realizing they are idiots who are going to have people die on their streets because they haven't done a single thing to make them walkable, and hoping that by forbidding all pedestrian crossings at any intersection that they can get out of liability in the inevitable lawsuits.  Shameful

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11 plus 10

There is an adage that says "just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.". For most of the past ten years my general belief is that this is something that Osama bin Laden should have heeded.

I think Al Qaeda could've done serious damage to the US military and to US interests, the death of a thousand cuts with dozens of operations like the USS Cole or the Dar es Salaam embassy bombing, and people in the US just wouldn't have cared very much or for very long.  Militarily, 9/11 was a mistake. Bin Laden became a marked man. His organization was tossed from it's safe haven in Afghanistan. Countless leaders of the organization have been killed. Neither 9/11 nor 7/7 nor 3/11 have led to the death of NYC or London or Madrid. People still work in tall buildings and ride the Tube and commute to work.

However, part of bin Laden's calculus was different, and while I believe 9/11 was a military mistake NY Al Qaeda, the organization has had immense success.

Many of you may not believe this, but there was a time not too long ago when you could just walk into an office building without having to wait on line, show ID, pose for a picture, wait for your visitor pass to print out. There was a time when you could comfortably get to the airport 45 minutes or even a half hour before your flight. There was a time when you could breeze in to a baseball game without wondering why the Mets allow an iPad but the Yankees do not, why the Yankees allow a factory sealed one liter water bottle but the Mets only 20 oz, and why some teams won't allow your completely empty bottle in for filling at a water fountain when it is exactly the same as the 20 oz factory sealed bottle that is emptied out just the other side of the turnstile.  And in all of those instances we are giving up our liberty and hours of our lives, little bits and little infringements at a time.

There was a time when torture was torture.

And all of these things cost not only time but money. The TSA costs money, the guards that check your bags at the ballpark and your IDs in the office lobby cost money.

And that is just in the private sector. The government has spent a huge amount of money building a counterterrorism security infrastructure.

And getting us to do all of this was part of the bin Laden calculus.

So in one sense, the terrorists have won, they've gotten us to spend so much of our treasure taxing ourselves in time and dollars to attempt to win a war that can never entirely be run.

And still, 9/11 was a mistake.

If the western world collapses as a result of the erosion of our values and bank accounts since 9/11, it isn't a caliphate that will come next to pick up the pieces.  China, maybe; caliphate, no.

And a lot of what's happened might have happened with a stream of Dar es Salaams. US embassies would have become fortified and closed to the world, and other damage done to our standing and reputation. Was the extra damage from the sheer enormity of 9/11 worth that so few of its planners might be around to enjoy when the Chinese can finally conquer a depleted and degraded American empire?

Oh -- we manage to be so resilient in the face of every gun massacre of which the US had many. Why have we been so unresilient to the Richard Reids of the world?

And a confession -- deep down I am kind of happy circumstances have me away from NYC for most of 9-11-11.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ten Years Later

The Borders at the World Trade Center opened in 1995. I'm told it might not have been very profitable on account of the size of the rent, but it was the company's first store in Manhattan, an important presence for a publicly traded company just a few blocks from Wall Street, and Borders made money in those days. There are worse things than if your face to the world is a store with huge throngs of shoppers selling tons and tons of books.

Lower Manhattan wasn't in the beaten path for me, but because Borders World Trade was such a bustling and prosperous store that sold so many copies of so many books by so many JABberwocky clients it was a store that I liked to visit at least every several weeks. Even if it meant making a special trip, it was a pleasant destination. And on a beautiful day, what better really than take the occasional walk through Greenpoint and Williamsburg, over the Williamsburg Bridge, down East Broadway through Chinatown, down Park Row beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and past City Hall, and around 1:40 after leaving my apartment I was there.

Tuesday September 11, 2001 was a beautiful late summer day. The sky as blue and near to cloudless as you might like, the temperature perfect, and I hadn't been to Borders World Trade in several weeks, can't remember if it was early August or late July, but it had been a while. So the plan for the day was pretty simple, to try and escape from the office a little bit early if I could (and in those days, I could almost always escape from the office a little bit early and not worry anyone would miss me), be out the door by 4PM or 5PM and I'd have that nice walk with the setting sun looming behind the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan as I headed over the Williamsburg Bridge, and have a long overdue visit to the Borders.

Those plans changed.

There was an e-mail from Elizabeth Moon, mentioning this plane that had flown into the World Trade Center.

Like most people, my first thought was that some guy in a Cessna had lost his bearings and had an accident.

I sat in front of the TV for a while. Wondering what was going to happen. It wasn't a Cessna. It was a pretty big fire. It was 1000 feet in the air, and is there any way to fight that besides letting it burn itself out?

And then however many minutes it was after I turned on the television, there was that puff of smoke and then it cleared, and there weren't twin towers any more. And then there weren't any towers at all.

And then I went back to work, kind of.

Denial, distraction, avoidance, whatever the mental state was that was there, I couldn't do much but try and bull my way through whatever happened.

I went out to cast my vote in the mayoral primary NYC was having that day. I shouldn't have bothered, the primary was called off not long thereafter.

I went to the UPS depot with a box of books to send. I shouldn't have bothered. UPS had summoned its trucks back, they were rushing into the yard, they were pulling the gates shut.

I went to the Post Office. The Post Office was open. But a little bit down at the end of the block, you could see the sidewalk on Queens Boulevard full of people who'd walked over the Queensboro Bridge and were now walking however many miles they needed to walk in order to get home. Forest Hills was another five miles away, Kew Garden was six. It was one of those eerie sights you think you might see only in the movies.

I had lunch. I did have the TV on in the kitchen but I didn't sit perched in front of the TV for the rest of the day. One of the things I've learned is that there isn't much to gain watching the telly in times like this. Comes from hours of watching after Challenger, waiting for that NASA press conference that kept getting pushed back and pushed back, and you realize for all the time you're spending watching you're watching for hours and hours and there isn't any actual news.

I called Elizabeth Moon, and we discussed some revisions to her novel The Speed of Dark.

That night, it was hard to sleep. The next day, it was hard to concentrate on anything, to do any work at all. The mind was someplace else.

My synagogue had a memorial service that night. I walked into Manhattan over the Queensboro Bridge. You could look south toward Ground Zero, and how could you not, really. The winds were blowing most of the stuff from Ground Zero some other direction, but there was a smell in the air all over the city. Burnt metal, burnt flesh, burnt something. I don't know what it was, I don't like to think of what it was, I don't want to be reminded of it. But it was everywhere. It felt weird walking into Manhattan, but it felt weird not to, like whatever it was that happened yesterday it was necessary to still be doing something like what I often did. And Manhattan was, of course, eerie. Quiet, empty. I stopped by the Whole Foods in Manhattan (back then, there was still just the one in Chelsea) after the service, it was open and it felt good to buy something there even though they had signs up that they'd be closing early, that they might not have some things because they hadn't gotten any deliveries that day, but it was open and it was good.

The #7 train was running. And of course it was a weird ride back, especially as we headed out of Grand Central and under the East River. Everyone was looking at one another. What were you doing on the subway on this evening?

Those of you who know me know I have a puckish sense of humor. It was gone for the next three weeks. Nothing really seemed funny. There was this pit in stomach instead. Every time I was in Manhattan. Coming back on the LIRR from my annual September bookstore rounds of Long Island, sitting on the train heading back into NYC and kind of not wanting to do it.

Looking at some of the pictures from 9/11, New York Magazine has some in their current issue, I realize just how well I've managed to suppress some of the imagery of the day. Not my memories of the day, I don't talk about them or think about them very much, but I can always summon those images quickly, always there right below the surface, never far away and always a part of me. But the images of the twisted steel, the haunted faces, the people racing up Broadway, the jumpers, all of those things that were part of the day, but not of my part in it.

I can still give a guided tour of the Borders that was there. Head off the E train, past the newsstand, turn right in the World Trade Center concourse (some of the tiling of the section between the subway and the concourse survived), I think it's closed off now while they rebuild the PATH station, but will be back) and there was the small lower level entrance a little bit down, up the escalator to the main level by the main entrance doors at Church and Vecsey. Main cash wrap at the north end of the main level. The mystery, romance and horror lined up on the shelves there. A few steps up to the entrance into 5 World Trade Center, this was where you had your displays of new books. In the southwest corner of this main level was where you had your sf/fantasy, the new hardcovers and trade paperbacks wrapped around a column, three sections of low shelving for the mass markets, full of backstock all the time. Shel, one of the booksellers, had some old sf/f covers that he hung up in the section, they'd be part of that smell I could smell. He ended up at the White Plains store. The magazines were also on the ground floor, near the escalator up, which led into the cafe. After one of those walks to the store to meet up with a friend, it's that cafe where my friend and his wife were sitting, and I could kind of tell by that morning sickness look on her face before he said anything that they were expecting. The music was off to one side, this store had a smaller music section than most stores of that vintage. And then a long, narrow upper level with the non-fiction categories spread each side of an aisle that led back to a relatively small children's department at the far end. The store is gone ten years now, but I can still take you there.

So I didn't visit the Borders at the World Trade Center on September 11.

In fact, it was another six months before I went to Lower Manhattan at all. Shortly before I left for London Book Fair in March of 2002, I kind of forced myself to go down to Lower Manhattan, for every reason and for no reason at all. To walk by Ground Zero. To look west down Fulton Street, to this wonderful view of the World Financial Center that was never supposed to exist. To stand near the corner of Church and Vecsey.

As once upon a time, they were.