"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Liquidation sales started today at the 399 bookstores owned by Borders. Some $700 million in merchandise is expected to be sold at a steep discount as the once-mighty bookseller says goodbye.
There was a time when the arrival of a mega-retailer like Borders — which started as an independent in the college town of Ann Arbor, Mich. — caused consternation in communities and great dismay among independent booksellers. While Borders couldn’t compete on hand-selling great books to customers they’d known for years, the indies couldn’t always compete with the lower prices, the coffee shops, the late-night hours. Doubtless, some of the booksellers and their employees who lost their livelihoods when Borders came to town and their shops closed are feeling a sense of schadenfreude.
But Borders also brought its stores to communities where there might not have been a long-standing independent. For many people, and for many writers, a Borders could be a shining cultural center off the highway.
Before heading over to check out the liquidation sales, we polled a variety of authors — newcomers and veterans, prize-winners and best-sellers — about their Borders memories and their thoughts about the future of book buying.
Borders was incredibly good to me when I published “The Magician’s Assistant” in 1997. They adopted that book and got behind it in every way possible: promotional discounts, store readings, newsletters. I went out to Ann Arbor several times for parties and corporate dinners and I have many memories of the people being so kind to me. They were all readers; they all wanted to talk about the characters. I drew a picture of a rabbit in everyone’s copy. It seems impossible now to think of that many people getting behind my third book when the first one didn’t do so well and the second one did terribly.
I never lost my appreciation for Borders. Our Borders in Nashville closed several months ago. It was a good store with terrible parking. Vanderbilt and Barnes & Noble are taking over the space for the school bookstore. In the meantime, I’m opening a little independent with a former Random House sales rep, Karen Hayes. As the 30,000-square-foot superstores go by-the-by, I still think there’s a place for a little independent. Right? Check in with me next year.
I grew up in the tiny village of Cooperstown, N.Y., where there were precisely two places to buy new books: the grocery store, which had all of your sexy and bloody stuff; and Augur’s Books, which slowly replaced most of their bookshelves with baseball jewelry and signed balls until a tiny but beautifully curated collection remained. Beyond that, there was the annual library book sale, where you could get an 1890s “Daniel Deronda” and complete Modern Library collections of Sir Walter Scott with squished insects inside.
When I first came to a blockbuster bookstore — bright, cool, caffeinated, filled with endless quantities of books that smelled clean and had no silverfish running out of them — it seemed not unlike my idea of heaven. The truth is I love bookstores, any bookstores. I’m terribly sad when an indie goes out of business, but I’ve never fully understood the rage against big chain bookstores, because I’ve found that, more likely than not, they’re staffed by smart, passionate, well-read book lovers. It breaks my heart that these people will now be out of jobs.
As a citizen, it’s cause for mourning, because you worry about people eating and paying rent; as a writer, it’s also scary because we need all the solvent book-readers we can possibly get. It seems to me that we should reserve our fury about this for the virtual bookstores who don’t love teachers or firemen or roads or municipal water supplies or feeding hungry children at least one good meal a day in school. You know, all the things that make civilization more sturdy, and all the things that are supposed to be paid for by taxes — which aforementioned virtual bookstores somehow believe they’re above.
And it also seems that it’s time to pounce on my long-held dream of opening up an indie in Gainesville, Fla., where I live now. I mean: We have a huge research university, a strong DIY culture, and even an annual punk music festival. But we don’t have a good new-books indie bookstore? Travesty! I hope that others around the country will also be inspired, and that the likelihood of their acting on these dreams will be far more likely than mine.
I think there’s a very simple way to judge a bookstore, and that’s by the quality of the books on its shelves. The truth is that I’ve only known three Borders branches well — in Ann Arbor, in Madison, Wis., and in Gainesville, Fla., — but at each of them, I’ve discovered books I grew to love, and not just best-sellers, either, but strange little small press books: “In the Forest of Forgetting” by Theodora Goss, “I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing” by Lucia Perillo, “Written Lives” by Javier Marias.
Each of the cities I mention has also recently lost a venerable local independent: Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, Canterbury in Madison, and Goerings in Gainesville. I’ve been saddened to see them close their doors, too. It seems obvious to me that the loss of any bookstore, whether it’s a chain store or an independent, is a blow to the community of readers who support it.
Undoubtedly it’s a reflection of my fixations that the first questions I ask about any city I visit is, “Where are the bookstores, and are they any good?” My hometown, Little Rock, Ark., has one surviving chain bookseller, a Barnes and Noble, and one surviving independent, WordsWorth Books and Company. Should either of them shut down, I’m certain I’ll feel that my own life has been diminished — and not simply my professional life, my writing life, but my life as an adventurous reader, an explorer of sorts, hungry for the company of like-minded people.
Tom Bissell, author of, most recently, “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter”:
Borders hails from my home state, Michigan, and I’ve always felt attached to it for that reason, insofar as anyone can feel attached to a company that goes übernational. Maybe that was Borders’ mistake; maybe all bookstores should be local bookstores. We’re selling books pretty well in this country; what we’re doing less well is figuring out what appropriate expectations in that endeavor now are. What I do know is that I find the prospect of the next 10 years very unnerving, both as a writer and a reader, and it seems so sad that of all the chains to go down first, it had to be Borders.
Several times in the late 1990s I went on long drives with my then-girlfriend-now-wife to Ann Arbor. We drifted like lost children through the warrens of Borders, the original store, the big one. I had zero experience with big bookshops and walking into that Borders was like walking into the World’s Fair — one sensed strains of possibility were drifting between the shelves. I read the first 20 pages of “Lolita” (for the first time!) in that store. I saw McSweeney’s (the one that was a box with lots of little booklets inside) for the first time in that store. I destroyed my checking account in that place.
Five or six years later, just before “About Grace” came out, my editor flew in from New York, and I flew in from somewhere, and together we went to have dinner in Ann Arbor with the book buyers for Borders. These were booksellers who had made it big, and they were sweet, smart people who could talk about Anne Rice and Amy Hempel over crab cakes. One had the sense they had been to a lot of dinners like that one. My editor and I had the weird job of trying to convince them that my big, strange book was something they should pay attention to. I tried bad jokes; my editor tried cigarettes. I left wondering: How did three or four people in Michigan get the power to determine how many copies of a novel go to a bookshop in Anchorage and how many go to a store in Fort Lauderdale?
What does the demise of Borders mean? It means we lose a few more dazzling temples to the written word. It means more good people lose their jobs. And it means — one can hope — that there’s more room in the meadow for some upstart saplings. Keats was right: “There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music.”
Jim Shepard, author of, most recently, “You Think That’s Bad”:
Most writers like myself, who’ve been happier with reviews than sales figures, have been much better treated over the years by independent booksellers than by the chain stores. But even so, the closing of Borders is bad news for everyone, given that it’s yet more evidence of readership itself shrinking everywhere. And without reading, our chance to educate ourselves and operate in our own best interests, as part of both a larger and smaller community, atrophies to the point of disappearance.
Eleanor Henderson, a uthor of “Ten Thousand Saints”:
The first time I set foot in a Borders bookstore was around the year 2000, when the chain opened a massive two-story storefront on Church Street in downtown Burlington, Vt. I was going to college in a tiny town 45 minutes away, and nearly every weekend, I would drive to Burlington with my then-boyfriend/now-husband and spend the day strolling up and down the pedestrian street. Since usually it was zero degrees outside, and since usually we didn’t have any money, we ended up spending most of our hours in Borders, browsing through the acres and acres of books and magazines and music.
I don’t remember if the city of Burlington put up a cry of protest when Borders came to town — Vermont, land of no billboards, is a famous fighter of the box store — or what the impact was on other local booksellers. My boyfriend and I did spend a fair amount of time in the sweet and faithful used bookstore down the street, Crow Bookshop, as well as the lovely Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury. The books that the Vermont Bookshop didn’t have on its few shelves the store was happy to order for us. But going to Borders was an experience; it was an evening; it offered all the childhood joys of roaming a museum-size library. And it brought me closer to literature I wouldn’t have accessed easily elsewhere. I bought Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America” there, and Poets & Writers, and a special edition of the Paris Review. That I could sip an overpriced soy latte while also admiring the eye-catching aisles of bookmarks, gift bags, Christmas cards and Monet-inspired address books was a bonus for this culture- and commerce-starved college girl.
Back in February, in the course of the same week, two bookstores in Ithaca, N.Y., announced they would be closing their doors: Borders, the center of our shopping-mall experience, where my 3-year-old son loved to park himself on the carpet to paw through board books, and Buffalo Street Books, the 30-year-old independent bookstore downtown. Within weeks, the city of Ithaca rallied together to save Buffalo by selling shares and turning it into a cooperative. The space that was Borders now retails thousands of square feet of flax clothing. The box stores may have killed downtowns, but now the Internet is killing the box stores. I’m not blameless in this little murder; I too have succumbed occasionally to super-saver shipping and one-click check-out. And while, as a new author with a fresh understanding of the importance of the indies, I now support our co-op with an annual subscription, I regret the passing of the brightly lit behemoth that provided me with good books and strong caffeine at a time when I needed both.
When my first novel came out last month, I was proud to give the first reading of my tour at that Borders on Church Street. When the other bookstores in Burlington didn’t return my publicist’s calls, Borders welcomed me on short notice, and its staff gave me a kind reception — eager, it seemed, to hold on to the last of its patrons, holding out hope that they might make a good thing last.
Maile Meloy , author of “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It,” among other books:
My favorite tiny independent bookstore just closed, and I’m still in mourning. I took my stepmother there because she’d been listening to NPR while driving across the country, and she heard about a book she wanted to read. She couldn’t remember the name of the author or the title of the book, and she couldn’t remember what show she was listening to or what state she’d been in, and she couldn’t even remember what the book was about. I put her in front of the store’s owner, who guessed what it was and found it instantly. That’s what we’re losing with these stores — a knowledge of books that borders on the psychic, and also someone to hand us books we don’t yet know we want. Those books that everyone doesn’t already know about are losing passionate champions.
Erica Jong, a uthor of “Fear of Flying” and editor of the new “Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex”:
I’ve always thought that bookstores were meant to be small and curatorial and in touch with their readers. The issue is how to make this model work financially. Large bookstores, which put so many of the small ones out of business, are now struggling as well. Can we reimagine the bookstore in a way that enables it to compete with online discounters? The best bookstores are meeting places, cafes, places where you get good advice about books and life. If I had a bookstore, I would have a fortuneteller there, matching up books and people. I would also have a psychologist and several excellent writers advising would-be writers. I would definitely encourage dogs. Who can write without a dog?
Dan Menaker, author of, most recently, “A Good Talk,” and longtime Random House editor:
I’ve visited many wonderful Borders stores, especially in the Northeast, and I’m very sorry that they’re going out of business. Any diminution of retail book outlets seems to me sad, and this chain has been with us for decades. The closing of its shutters reflects not only what many think has been poor management but also, clearly, the dramatic rise in e-book sales, for which stores are not necessary and prices are often cheaper. (Full disclosure: I am a consultant for Barnes & Noble.) B&N is doing what I think is a very smart job of combining its retail outlets with its growing e-presence, especially in coordinating its e-reader usage with in-store marketing and sales. But it remains to be seen what will happen to those bricks and that mortar. Only good things, I hope.
Of course, in many respects for serious readers (I’d irresponsibly say there are about 500,000 in this country) nothing can ever beat or will ever replace true independent bookstores with a knowledgeable staff and often almost curatorial management. Some — maybe even a decent number — will survive, I believe. But overall, I think none of us really know where bookselling will land over the next five to 10 years. The dust and the dust jackets are way up in the air and will take a long time to settle. When we’ve been immersed in a certain kind of cultural history — in this case “book books,” which have been with us for 500 or 600 years — we tend to think of it or want it to be permanent. It can’t be and it isn’t. By just widening the lens of our historical cameras, we can see that 500 or 600 years isn’t really long at all.
Right now, the best metaphor I can think of for publishing, writing, agenting and bookselling is the Wild West. Greater order will come along eventually, but at present that world seems to me to be in an inchoate scramble. Will Amazon become a publisher? It already is, to some extent. Will publishers be superseded? For the most part, I think so, at least in their traditional business roles. Will agents continue to have a function? This one is the easiest question to answer: Yes. Most writers cannot contractually and financially fend very well for themselves, no matter what the format. Will e-piracy affect publishing and bookselling as it has the music business? No question about it, seems to me — another reason it’s so hard to conjure with what will happen to the industry. Stealing a book from Borders is one thing. Making it available illicitly on the Internet is quite another. And writers can’t fill stadiums the way rock and pop stars can and thus don’t have a chance at those kinds of replacement revenues.
Book-length texts will survive — though generally trade books have been getting a little shorter, seems to me. The e-reader diet, one might call it. Right now we are living through a stupendous cultural transition in our life of letters. That life will perdure, even if perhaps with shorter and more fragmented readers’ attention spans. Human beings will always need a) stories and b) detailed information in text form, as long as there are human beings and until those texts and that information can be directly implanted in our cortexes without archaic symbols — print or pixels — like these.
It’s a real shame to see one more bookseller go. Borders was very supportive of all sorts of writers. Still, I remain stubbornly positive about the publishing industry.
“No one reads!” How many times have I heard that? Yet I see people reading all the time, everywhere I go. I recently wrote an article about books and writing, and my computer nearly exploded with responses. People are fiercely passionate about reading, now more than ever.
This is not the time for writers to despair. This is the time for us to put the earplugs in, get off the Internet, and work even harder to write books the world cannot go without.
It makes me a little sad and also a little scared; it’s never good when something so big — and therefore big to our business — as Borders is in this kind of trouble. And I have personal reasons to feel blue — Borders was always kind to my books, which meant a lot, especially when I was starting out. Now, I love independent bookstores, most of all and of course (what book lover doesn’t?). Powell’s, Tattered Cover, Elliott Bay, the Boswell Books Co. in Milwaukee — these are special places. And I’ve had a really good relationship with, and have a soft spot for, Barnes & Noble — which has done a much better job than Borders, it seems. So those places strike me as irreplaceable. But Borders being liquidated is upsetting — not least for its 11,000 employees, of course. Publishing will survive. There’s no doubt about that. But this is sad.
Every day for months I’ve gone by the Borders at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue and wondered how much longer it would be there. After we lost our Upper West Side Barnes & Noble last January — if an opera house, a ballet company and two concert halls could survive at Lincoln Center, the heart of New York culture, why couldn’t a bookstore? A year, two years, I thought, yet somehow the chain’s bankruptcy doesn’t seem premature, however ignominious. No bids! It was inevitable — what else could the emergence of the e-book have portended if not the disappearance of “the book”?
As a publisher, I had a visceral feel for the consequences of this massively transformative event. It was only a year or two ago that our beautiful books would arrive at the office in their boxes, and as we lifted them out and held them in our hands, there was always a palpable — and I mean this in the literal sense — sensation of having achieved something real. All those months and years of commissioning the book, urging it along, eliciting it from (more often, prying it out of the hands of) the author, editing it, revising it, copy-editing it, designing the cover, presenting the book to the sales reps, writing the jacket and catalog copy, soliciting blurbs — and in a more general sense, working at a job that paid little and offered little prestige … after all that labor, here was the result. It had all been worthwhile.
Now they arrive and we wonder what to do with them.
It’s like sending an email without an address. Where would it go? The last step is missing. Yes, we have Barnes & Noble (not for a whole lot longer, I predict); and yes, we have independent bookstores (fewer and fewer, less and less viable). We have Amazon (and it’s a good thing, too). The big question, though, is: Can books survive as a largely virtual experience? Doesn’t their very existence as a form of communication, a great technology, depend on their being physically present? I used to think so; now I’m not so sure.
As new e-book platforms proliferate (the Nook, the Vook, the Droid, the Ipad), readers aren’t disappearing; they’re adapting. They are buying — so far the evidence is only anecdotal — more books, if only because they can. Talk about an impulse buy — type in a name, push a button, and it arrives in 60 seconds (actually more like 10 seconds; Kindle is just being conservative). The ease of the transaction encourages the book consumer in the false belief that all these books will actually be read; when you can’t see the pile of books by the bedside, you’re not so intimidated by it. And the fact is, books are getting shorter. Our attention span has been severely attenuated by the information overload. The e-book is better suited to this length. And with print-on-demand, the end of the returns system, which is killing the industry, is at hand. Consumers will become more tolerant of rising book prices in e-book form. Meanwhile, the quality of resolution and color and facility of page-turning and underlining and marking places and other activities and features that we cherish in the physical book will become enhanced. Finally, there is always AbeBooks — the greatest virtual store ever. So it’s not over ’til it’s over. The fat lady has not sung.
Borders was a wonderful chain. It had great taste; it was interesting. I love all bookstores — all sorts and all kinds — and I’m happy in them; I grew up loving bookstores, so the loss of any bookstore is sad, and the fact that bookstores are threatened is just upsetting.
But getting angry or upset about these changes that are so obviously taking place is almost a fruitless activity. The important thing is that people still seem to love to read — and of course, writers will never stop writing. It’s always been hard for books to find their audience; it’s never been a problem utterly solved by the business. The fewer bookstores there are, of course, the fewer ways there are to solve the problem.
I just don’t think these things — what direction things take, and why they take that direction — are ever as predictable as everybody thinks. Everyone thought people were going to stop going to the movies, because there were DVDs — that movie theaters would be over. And movie theaters aren’t over. So I don’t know exactly where this leads or what direction it takes.
I remember when Dutton’s closed in L.A. a couple of years ago — it was just like having a friend die. That’s what happens if you lose Borders. You feel like your friend’s not there anymore; it’s a personal feeling of loss. Now that we’re losing more and more opportunities to buy books — to browse, to hang out. But maybe someone will invent some sort of wonderful thing, some place where everyone goes to read books. As someone who has a book coming out, I refuse to be negative in any way about this.
David Daley is the editor-in-chief of SalonMore David Daley.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)