Monday, October 09, 2006

Books: Why Do I Love These People?

"Why Do I Love These People?" is the most recent book from novelist turned social commentator Po Bronson.

After writing two excellent satirical novels ("Bombardiers", an absurdist comedy about bond trading, and "The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest", a novel of Silicon Valley that appears a bit dated because it centers around the concept of a Java-based network computer) and a trifle of a bubble-era survey of the Valley ("The Nudist on the Late Shift"), Bronson made an abrupt shift into writing about the big questions in life.

I did not read his best-selling "What Should I Do With My Life?" (though I admire the chutzpah of the title!), but recently picked up "Why Do I Love These People?", which is his examination of family.

Bronson rips apart the common tendency of Americans to believe that the institution of the "Leave It To Beaver" family endured for countless eons until the hippie 60s, disco 70s, greedy 80s, and grungy 90s. With careful statistics, he shows that on most measures, family is as strong as ever, and in many ways, is stronger than during the mythical "golden age" of authoritarian parenting, unwanted pregnancy, and repression.

He illustrates his points with 20 tales of successful families that managed to overcome tragedy, circumstance, and their own stupidity and stubbornness to find some kind of working love. The stories include abandonment, death, and hardship as well as redemption, love, and understanding.

It is a masterpiece. I found it hard to put down, and ended up devouring it in less than two days (pretty tough, given my busy schedule!).

One of my conventional summaries is impossible. Just take my word for it, and read this book.

P.S. Don't be turned off by the mixed reviews on Amazon. These books are polarizing because of their emotionally sensitive topics. Either you believe in what Bronson is trying to do, or you think he's a namby-pamby girlie man who churns out "huggy-lovey-touchy-feely sugar-coated" garbage (an actual quote from an Amazon review--I'd hate to think of what they'd have to say about Mitch Albom!).

Quote Of The Day: Making Mistakes

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent in doing nothing."

--George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Indie Bookstores, Part XXII

Since Ben is busy in Japan, I'll have to pick up the slack.

One of the more interesting business conundrums is that of the independent bookstore. The indie bookstore is threatened on all sides--giant chains like Barnes and Noble blanket the landscape. Discounters like Wal-Mart offer books at extremely low prices. And of course, there's Amazon and a host of online booksellers.

The last time this subject came up, it sparked a lively debate. For the lazy, I'll post the heart of my own commentary below:

The indie bookstore exists to reflect the personality and biases of its owner. In other words, it judges its own success on non-economic factors. So it is not surprising that in optimizing for non-economic factors, it finds itself unable to compete economically with the capitalistic superstores.

Making money selling books is hard enough. If you priortize things other than making money, what are the chances you'll actually succeed in turning a profit?

What book lovers want from their indie bookstores is not selection or prices, but an experience. In many ways, a good bookstore is like a fine restaurant. It may not serve as many varieties of food as a Vegas buffet, but you'll probably place a far higher value on the experience.

The problem is that indie bookstores deliver experiences, but make their money selling books.

The solution is to find a way for indie bookstores to make their money off the experience that they deliver.

Therein lies an interesting business proposition. There is a market for non-commercial, "authentic" experiences. But how do you tap that market without ruining the authenticity?

I'm not sure of the answer, but there may be ways to re-engineer the indie bookstore. Charge membership fees. Partner with complementors that do have a way to make money (like coffee shops). Set up shop as a book expert with a virtual store, by showing people interesting books and then ordering them for the customer online.

Once you define the problem differently than "why can't indie bookstores compete with superstores," a whole array of possibilities opens up.

Lo and behold, the AP recently ran this story on how independent booksellers are dealing with the realities of the Internet age.

And what are they doing?

But Brent is also part of a growing number of independent bookstore owners refusing to give up. He's closing his store this month but plans to reopen as a discount book store. Others are luring customers by putting in cafes or opening specialty shops that cater to a specific audience, like mystery lovers. Some are following the lead of public television and selling memberships. Or they're being saved by investors who can't bear the idea of losing these local institutions.

There may be life in the indie bookstores yet.