Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Three Vectors Concerning the Soul of a City

It is easy to be hard on a place when you first arrive. There is a subtle effect, not quite a "culture shock," but a bit more than "new kid in the class." It gives everything an odd and uncomfortable tone. You feel like you don't belong. You are the stranger.

Reminds me of when I was staying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just off Harvard Square, on a wall facing the cafe that I frequented, there was this beautiful graffiti slogan: "Xenophobes Go Home!"

Personally, I thrive on this. I am always suspicious of anything that makes me feel more "comfortable." I figure it is when you start to relax, stop questioning, "go with the flow," that you start to die. Odysseus on Aiaa, Circe's Island, forgetting about Ithaca as his men degenerate into pigs. Or Dorothy and crew in the Poppy Fields. One minute you are all happy and dreamy, the next minute the sky is full of Flying Monkees.

I have been living in Bellingham now just over three months. I like the place a lot. Of course, it's has the problems of any 21st century city. But somehow these problems seem - and I hate to use this word in the context of Bellingham - but, yes, more subdued, low-key. There have been a few issues where I have expected glaring oversight or obvious neglect only to discover that there were people in Bellingham that "were on it." (Recent issues with the water quality in Lake Whatcom are a case in point.) I get the sense that there is a core group of concerned individuals and practical organizations that are looking out for the "Soul of the City." Coming from Austin where the prevailing attitude is that "someone is probably taking care of it," this is more than a little reassuring.

The three items below are old news to anyone who lives here, but I just recently stumbled upon them. Two of them I was aware of - they made national news - but did not register that they happened here in Bellingham. I'm hesitant to say it like this but they make me proud to live here.

  • June 2004 - From Library Journal (emphasis mine): a patron of the Whatcom County Library System, Bellingham, WA, borrowed a copy of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (Prima, 2001) by Yossef Bodansky, a former senior consultant for the U.S. Departments of Defense and State. In the margins of the book, the patron saw a handwritten note stating, "If the things I'm doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God."

    The patron called the FBI. An FBI agent asked the library for further information on the borrowers of the book; library attorney Deborra Garrett said a subpoena was needed. The library then received a subpoena to appear before a grand jury.

    The quote, Garrett determined after an online search, came from Bin Laden himself. The subpoena asked the library to disclose the names and addresses of anyone who had borrowed the book since 2001, said library director Joan Airoldi. Resisting, the library filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

    The library argued that previous borrower information is retained for only 90 days (longer only if there's an unresolved fine); also, the library contracts with the Bellingham Public Library to maintain its database, and the Bellingham library was not served with a subpoena. Moreover, the library argued that there was no "substantial connection"—as required for such an investigation—between writing a quote from Bin Laden in a book and any act of terrorism.

    On July 15, the U.S. Attorney withdrew the subpoena, noting that the library did not have custody of the data sought. Is the case continuing? Emily Langlie, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, said that Department of Justice policy "is not to comment on an ongoing investigation or completion of investigations." While the library was initially asked not to discuss the matter—there was no official gag order, since the case was not brought under the USA PATRIOT Act—Airoldi said both she and the library board believe the issue should be made public.

    "The person who read this thought possibly someone was plotting something," Airoldi said. And what might the writer have been doing? "Who's to say?" she mused. "They could've been writing a research paper. It seems that every copy [of that book] we get has writing in it." Borrower records are now kept only for a week.

    • January 1995 - From the New York Times (emphasis mine): Two decades after Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court defined obscenity by saying, simply, "I know it when I see it," a pair of Washington shopkeepers will stand trial for seeing satire where prosecutors saw smut.

      Ira Stohl, the owner of The Newsstand, a magazine shop and coffee bar here, and the shop's manager, Kristena Hjelsand, are scheduled for trial Jan. 22 in Whatcom County Superior Court, charged with selling an issue of the alternative magazine Answer Me, that graphically discussed rape. The shopkeepers say they were given an odd choice: either submit to arrest or promise to never sell Answer Me or anything like it in the future.

      After deciding they could not make that pledge, Mr. Stohl, 45, and Ms. Hjelsand, 25, were charged with one felony count each of promoting pornography, a violation of state obscenity laws. Both have pleaded not guilty, saying that their First Amendment rights have been violated and that The Newsstand carries too many publications to screen in advance. If convicted they face a maximum of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

      "How can I read all 5,000 magazines to make sure somebody, somewhere doesn't think something's obscene?" Mr. Stohl said one morning at the store, a gathering spot for this college town's intellectuals. "And how do I know what obscenity is anyway?"

      But the Whatcom County prosecutor, David S. McEachran, who brought the charges, said the rape issue of Answer Me, was unacceptable to the majority of Bellingham's 20,000 citizens. He cited the issue of Answer Me that features stories of a rape from the rapist's perspective, a fictional account of a man torturing a girl with Down syndrome, photographs of decapitated crime victims and a pull-out section called "The Rape Game."

      "I told them they couldn't sell it or anything like it," Mr. McEachran said in an interview. "Look at the publication. It's disgusting." As to the constitutionality of his action, he said only, "No comment."

      The arrests have been a hot topic for nearly a year in this town, nestled between Mount Baker and Puget Sound, while raising volatile issues of free speech and prior restraint. The case has also put feminist groups on the defensive and free speech activists in the spotlight.

      Katy Casey, the executive director of the Whatcom County Women's Crisis Center, said: "It's not just offensive, it's destructive. It relates a glorified violence to sex. This magazine normalizes something we don't think is normal."

      "I believe in the First Amendment," she added, "but this is dangerous."

      But First Amendment lawyers nationwide rendered a different verdict. Elizabeth Schneider, a professor of women's law at Brooklyn Law School, said, "There's a ton of case law saying what this prosecutor has done is simply wrong."

      Charles F. Hinkle, a constitutional lawyer in Portland, added: "As disgusting as the publication is, it's probably protected. You cannot suppress speech that might incite violence unless the danger is imminent. You can't ban the Bible just because it might be used to crucify a man."

      Jim and Debbie Goad of Portland, Ore., who publish Answer Me, say it is designed to shock. But rather than glorify violence, Mr. Goad said, the disputed issue of the magazine tried to offer as grisly a portrait of depravity as possible to underscore the horror of rape. "We present rape in all its ugliness," Mr. Goad said.

      The magazine is described by its owners as having "a National Lampoon-style sensibility fused with a snuff-film esthetic" that takes a satirical approach to a different topic in each issue. An upcoming issue will address race, Mr. Goad said.

      Arguing that the magazine is far from titillating but rather scathing political and social satire, Ms. Hjelsand said Answer Me "lays down in brutal detail how sick and violent the world is; I certainly don't feel it's a how-to magazine."

      Neither do the more than 3,000 Bellinghamites who signed a petition asking the prosecutor to drop the charges against The Newsstand.

      Those charges were born of an incident last January in which, Mr. Stohl said, an English major at Western Washington University here threatened a student boycott of The Newsstand unless its owners yanked the publication. The merchants did not budge. But when a criminal complaint was filed by the Women's Crisis Center -- to which the student had also complained -- and the case was referred to local prosecutors, the shop's owners stopped selling Answer Me. In its place, they erected a shrine, of sorts, to free speech: a copy of the magazine bound in chains and a padlock, with a sign that reads "not for sale." The shrine is still in place and includes newspaper articles reporting on the case.

      On Feb. 7, The Newsstand owners were ordered by Mr. McEachran to dismantle the shrine and to promise not to sell Answer Me or anything as salacious ever again. They refused, citing the First Amendment.

      "We have no political agenda," said Mr. Stohl, a Brooklyn native who opened the shop five years ago. "We just want to run our business," which comprises mostly specialized publications like Al-Ahram, an Egyptian weekly; On Our Backs, a lesbian magazine; Hothead Paisan, an alternative comic book; Bird Watcher's Digest; Svenska Dagblabet, a Swedish daily, and Women and Guns.

      On Feb. 14, The Newsstand's lawyer, Breean Beggs, filed a complaint in Federal court charging that Mr. McEachran had violated the civil rights of Mr. Stohl and Ms. Hjelsand. Two days later, Mr. Stohl and Ms. Hjelsand gave themselves up at the county jail.

      These days, as the case meanders through the court system, habitues of The Newsstand wonder if any of their favorite periodicals will come under attack next.

      "The Newsstand is the focal point of my daily life," said Ted Rosen, a television repairman who publishes his own magazine called Smelly Hamster, a left-leaning grab bag of political writings.

      "It gives me access to a world I can't get to otherwise from Bellingham," Mr. Rosen said.

      Bellingham residents can go elsewhere, however, for indisputable pornography. Great Northern Books, just two blocks away with its unabashedly hard-core trade, does not sell Answer Me. "It's sad," said Ross Rowell, the store's proprietor, musing about The Newsstand's woes. "But I guess I should just be thankful that the county's not after me."

      From The National Coalition Against Censorship: In a stunning rebuke to overzealous prosecutors, the owner and manager of Bellingham, Washington's Newstand store were awarded $1.3 million for prior restraint and for retaliatory prosecution by a U.S. District Court in Seattle. The judgment was awarded to Ira Stohl and Kristina Hjelsand, who had been charged with obscenity for selling a 'zine called Answer Me! and found not guilty by a jury. In awarding the judgment in the Newstand's counter-suit, the district court jury found that Whatcom County had violated Stohl and Hjelsand's First Amendment rights, caused emotional suffering, and damaged their business.

      • May 1989 - From The Daily Gazette (emphasis mine): A recent case in point was Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., where feminist activist Nikki Craft has been campaigning to remove the current issue of Esquire, with its cover package on "The Secret Life of the American Wife," which includes such material as "Your Wife: An Owner's Manual."

        In late May, Village Books owner Chuck Robinson said, Craft entered the store and tore up four copies of the magazine. Village had her arrested, and Craft, now in jail, won't post bond until the bookstore capitulates and sends the offending issue back to Esquire.

        Robinson, who says he has since been visited be zealous Craft partisans, allowed as how Esquire might have "a few things that don't seem to be quite in tune with the '90s," but even though the ideas are offensive to many people, "they are nonetheless ideas." If suppressing objectionable material amounts to "civil disobedience," as Craft has claimed, Robinson said, "Mr. Thoreau, Mr. Gandhi and Dr. King ... are rolling over in their graves."

        Saturday, March 13, 2010

        Village Books: A Safe, Clean and Well-Lit Place


        It has taken me a little while to come around to Village Books. An archetypal bookstore, for me, is something along the lines of Henderson's: shelves packed, floor to ceiling, with spined-in books, orderly piles on the floor. With certain primary subjects, say biographies of Lincoln, well represented and, surrounding, packed constellations of secondary, tertiary, quaternary related texts. Depth and breadth. It looks like this:

        Henderson's Books

        Village Books looks nothing like Henderson's. It is a safe, clean and well-lit place. There are plenty of places to sit. (Last time I was there, a sign in the windows encouraged people to come in sit, read and even sleep for a while.) It is staffed with knowledgeable, friendly and helpful people. They will happily look up anything you ask for on the computer. If they do not have it, they will order it for you. There is a cafe upstairs, access to a restaurant downstairs, just beyond: a congenial area reserved for author signings and readings. Down there also is the "revolutionary" Espresso Print-On-Demand Book Machine.

        Every section in the store has a representative selection of texts. But it is clear that what is there, is there to be sold. There is not much "dead weight" on their shelves. I should add that it is nice to see that they also sell a lot of used or marked down books mixed in with the new at reduced prices.

        Many local authors are well represented. Local artists are displayed on the walls. They have book signings several times during the week. They are at the forefront of new technology. E-Book cards are scattered appropriately around the store, next to copies of the physical book. (One imagines that soon the books might disappear altogether.)

        The Village Books website is state of the art. They are plugged into Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube. There is a Village Books Blog, a Village Books Radio Show, and several active Village Books Reading Groups.

        The admirable motto of Village Books is: "Building Community One Book at a Time." And they back that up with fundraisers and sponsoring charitable events. Village Books is not a "chain" or "corporate" bookstore. They are proudly independent, belonging to IndieBound, a national organization of independent booksellers started by the American Booksellers Association.

        Village Books is not just a bookstore, it is an integrated aspect of the community around it, Fairhaven, and the larger city of Bellingham. Village Books is, without any doubt, one of the most upstanding and responsible bookstores in Washington.


        With all of that in mind, I should add that Village Books is not one of my favorite bookstores in the area. It seems too safe of a place to me, reflecting in many aspects these same admirable qualities of the surrounding community of Fairhaven.

        On a recent afternoon in Seattle, I went to two bookstores, Left Bank Books and Elliott Bay Books. Each from different ends of the Aesthetics of Bookstores Spectrum, they vividly indicate what Village Books is missing: Edge. Like the edges of an original object that won't fit into any round or square hole. Again, these are my sensibilities, but I want a bookstore to challenge me, to get in my face sometimes, to provoke and irritate me, to surprise me, most of all... astonish me.

        Obviously, the anarchist collective bookstore, Left Bank Books, has a lot of edge. You do not walk in there for the latest New York Times bestseller or a book to read on the beach. Left Bank Books is the sort of bookstore that is going to confront you with radical ideas and practices that will, hopefully, disturb you enough to make you want to learn more about them. Small Press publishers, zines, pamphlets, broadsides, graffiti, notes on the wall, all offer radical perspectives that challenge everything from the existence of the U.S. government to the reasons you should not eat meat or you should not eat vegetables or maybe you should not even eat at all. It is certainly not for everyone. But it is a vital part of the social fabric of a progressive city that prides itself on the intelligence and tolerance of its citizens. It is one of the most well known and respected radical bookstores in the country.

        "If you must steal books, steal from a richly stocked Corporate Bookstore."
        A note in the Anarchist Section.

        When I walked into Elliott Bay Books, there was also an edge but not in the same sense as Left Bank. At Elliott Bay, looking at the books on display, the staff recommendations, the selection and layout, and that always ineffable "whole greater than the parts" quality of a great bookstore, I felt challenged to explore beyond the authors that I was familiar with, to read something new - in the sense that Ezra Pound once implored writers to "make it new." I was aware that Elliott Bay, being in the service of a large city, was required to have the usual suspects, New York Times Bestsellers, National Book Award and other prize winners, to have displays that reflected what the publishers were trying to "push." However, although these elements were there, they were not out in front, not obvious.

        What was obvious was the character of the store, of the owners, of the buyers and employees that worked there. What was obvious was a passion for good, not just good, but for great books. The edge here was about honoring the essentials of world book culture, the canon, AND about promoting those books and authors that are redefining what the canon might be in the future.

        I always know when I am in a great bookstore because I feel like the Burgess Meredith character in that Twilight Episode, Time Enough at Last. That feeling that there is just isn't enough time to read all of these great books. Books that I hadn't even known about until I walked into Elliott Bay. It was beautiful: it astonished me.

        The writing of books, especially those books that change the world, requires its authors to get down into the boiler room of the human soul. Even on the most mundane level, the creation of a book is a difficult act. If you have doubts about this, give it a go. Authors are often outsiders, standing apart, self-consciously observing the life that everybody is happily living. They spend much of their life alone, not in this world, but in the one that they are creating on the page. If "successful," they provide a mirror in which we can better see ourselves.

        It is a profession that has notoriously taken its toll on its practitioners. Many of the greatest writers have been alcoholics, drug addicts, sociopaths, psychopaths, sexual deviants, gamblers, thieves, all of the above, other and most just certifiably insane. These are the people that have changed and will change our lives.

        As I walked away from Left Bank and Elliott Bay, I wondered what Doestoevsky, Neitzsche, Melville, Poe, Salinger or Cormac McCarthy would think about these bookstores.

        When I walk into a bookstore and feel that I am in a safe, sanitized and commodified space; where the books are treated like widget-tchotchkes, their presence on the shelves predicated by how quickly they will "turn," i.e. sell; where I notice that all the end-caps are pushing one publishing house; where the displays can be predicted by the New York Times Book Review; when I sense all of these aspects of the market, I feel like I am being treated as a tool. It doesn't matter that clerks remember my name and are courteous, kind and well-intentioned. What does matter is that I feel surrounded by the generic sameness that is endemic to every corporate bookstore in the country. I don't want to go to an independent bookstore to be insulted every way I turn by the insinuation that I do now know how to buy a book off the front page of Amazon.com.

        In the end, I imagine that everything dirty or dangerous or challenging, if it can be sold, if money can be made from it, will be sanitized, bowdlerized and neutered into comfortable commodity, made safe and palatable for the greatest number of the buying public. This is the way of the world.

        But also here at the end, I wonder about what makes the Spirit of a Place, of a Town. I wonder: if Daniel Jefferson "Dirty Dan" Harris, harpooner, smuggler, bootlegger, raucous drinker, teller of tall tales, infrequent bather and the founder of Fairhaven were alive today, where might he feel welcome to have a drink, grab a bite to eat or tell his stories? From the little I know, I imagine he might be amused at how his image has been co-opted to promote the town. But perhaps also a bit dismayed at how safe, clean and well-lit the place has become.

        Google: hours, directions, reviews
        Village Books
        Left Bank Books
        Elliott Bay Books