Friday, January 30, 2009


When listening to rap music (as I have been wont* to do as of late), you've got to come ready to hear boasts and brags about all manner of things. Clothes, jewelry, cars, jail time, body counts, bedroom conquests, mad skills that are capable of paying bills, etc. Sometimes this is good:

"Yo, I speak at schools a lot cause they say I'm intelligent
No, it's cause I'm dope, if I was wack I'd be irrelevant"*2

Sometimes it's good and terrible:

"Don't try to treat me like I ain't famous
My apologies, are you into astrology
Cause um, I'm tryin' to make it to Uranus"*3

More often than good or terrible, these boasts are tired. There's only so much you can say about how good you are, how good you have it, how good you can sex it up right. Particularly out of style and downright inappropriate are the money boasts. In today's economy, people aren't trying to hear how much money someone else has*4. In the months to come, the true revolutionary MCs will play up their shrewdness and frugality*5. I'd like to offer a helping hand in the form of recession-proof rap boasts*6:

Ain't got no love for Seamus,
This life I live is nuts,
Turns out that I'm so famous,
Get discounts on my haircuts

I appeal to your honey,
And you know I'm gonna,
She'll travel in style,
I'll call a cab if I wanna

Go 'head and call your boys,
You makin' all that noise,
I got the Pennysaver,
Found a discount on Ben 10 toys

Zirconia on my hand,
Sterling silver 'round my neck
Switch to the store brand,
Savin' up my rebate check

Cash put you up on that mountain,
But just now I ain't got any,
Yesterday, dove in a fountain,
Found three quarters and a penny

Girl, I'll treat you right,
Hop into my Saab,
Eat McDonald's tonight,
Then go look for a job (sing-song: In the mornin')

While you catalog shop,
Spendin' all that cash,
I'm at the co-op,
In the used menswear stash

Got a money market account,
I play it conservative,
The return isn't great,
But the stability's superlative*7

Note: If you're someone who came back to this blog after reading my previous post and expected a similar level of discourse, I have failed you.

* Wont is a word I have never heard in a rap song.

*2 Talib Kweli "Beautiful Struggle"

*3 Kanye West (guesting with Jadakiss) "Gettin' It In"

*4 See my previous post, and the lives of everyone you know who wasn't in Forbes magazine this year.

*5 The term 'shrugality' is ready for the streets.

*6 NOT recession-proof rap BOATS; buying a boat right now is ridiculous unless you plan to live on it.

*7 Yes, this is what I did just now instead of looking for a job. Why do you ask?

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Few, The Proud, The Unemployed

Well, the other shoe dropped last night. As of March 31st, 2009, the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops will be closing. Among a crowd of almost all of their employees the announcement was made that the current climate is finally too much for Milwaukee's oldest and easily best-loved family-owned bookstore chain.

The Iron Horse of Independent Book Selling

I could say that I'm still processing the information, but that's not true. One thing I pride myself on is my ability to ingest and compartmentalize bad news like nobody's business. I've had enough practice in my twenty-seven years that this is old hat. In fact, this isn't even the first time I've been in a closing bookstore. Before coming aboard at Schwartz, I closed out a Barnes & Noble store, but I must say that this is different. While there were some coworkers at B&N who I enjoyed spending time with, my crew at the Downer Avenue Schwartz has been, to a person, the finest staff ever assembled for the purpose of book selling.

I have shared passion and excitement with each of them, but also worry and doubt. This group is not a collection of retail workers who happened to land a job in a book shop. We are intelligent readers (and in most cases writers) who honestly sought out the independence and alternative nature that this company has been known for since its inception. Some of us even started a book blog in an effort to increase that sense of community beyond the walls of our store. If you've never been, please go be. The Inside Flap.

What does it mean when the closing of a family-owned company, eighty plus years old, is met with acceptance? With words like 'inevitable', 'foreseen', and 'expected'? To my mind, it's just a fulfillment of the harsh reality that convenience trumps principle most often in this world. When you can cruise for your books, and you have no stake in community, why wouldn't you?

Here's my last-ditch effort on behalf of the myth of independent bricks and mortar. Given the choice, do you want to be an individual? Do you want to feel a sense of exploration and validation where you find your entertainment? Do you want to be able to carry on a five minute conversation that doesn't include stating your 'customer loyalty' number? Don't you want to use those minutes of your day hearing why a book is good rather than shuffling up to a register with one of the same twenty books that people all over the country are shuffling up to registers with? Do you realize that your independent booksellers are in most cases geniuses? These are people with deep convictions borne of extreme familiarity and a broad range of knowledge. These are people who care that their fellow thinking human beings have new synapses fire off in recognition of previously unheard ideas. These are people who can't wait to tell you about some guy who lives in Brazil writing words that speak to universal questions of the self. People who can recommend to you a poet beyond the canon of high school and college who deserves recognition that will never come in a large enough scale. They are not algorithms on a web page parroting best-seller lists. They are not wage slaves pushing the company's pet moneymakers or loss leaders.

But then again, the prices on Amazon are so cheap. Why, you can save six whole dollars on that twenty dollar book. All it costs in return is the erosion of individuality and the closing of four bookstores (today; more to come) filled with a resource that you don't miss until it's gone.

So, there's no way you can stop this. There's no wand to wave and keep my bookshop open. What there is, however, is the choice (losing substance daily) to support the worthwhile endeavor of community and dialogue. I'd ask that every time you see a book for sale online, you question why the reviewer doesn't have a link to BookSense (a collection of independent booksellers in America). When an author says "You can get my book on Amazon.", ask them where else you can get it. Ask them if they plan on going on a book tour sponsored by Amazon. Ask them what other books their latest is bundled with on a website that tracks sales but not content or style.

What will I do now? Well, I hear piracy in back en vogue, and I have always wanted to replace my left hand with a hook. If retail can be escaped after an adult life work history of eight years of uninterrupted book selling, then I'll claw my way to something else (hook hand or not). I know I won't be going back to The Evil Empire (that's the retail outlet based out of NY that's corporate with a capital B&N). I've been spoiled by the ease and humanity of Schwartz, and can't go back to being a cog. I can write, but writing doesn't pay bills at this point. For me, I see a stopgap sweeping floors in a warehouse. Don't feel bad. It's honest work, and I'm not a careerist who needs to be defined by his work. There is an attractive aspect to leaving work on the job and keeping my passions at home, pure and joyous. This is the economy we've been left by our benevolent dictator, and I can survive it. That said, if any publishing types are reading this and want to pay me a ridiculous amount of money to pontificate, I still have seven minutes left on my prepaid cell phone. Hit me up.

I must thank Carol Grossmeyer, owner and driving spirit of the shops for her tireless dedication to the ideal and the process of book selling. My hat is off to her for continuing the stewardship of a dream embodied by her late husband David and his father before him. Eighty years of struggle ensures that this company sets the standard for all others looking to swim against the tide. If you are looking for an example to follow, look no further.

Let's end for now with a list of the finest booksellers I know. All of the names on this list are diamonds waiting to be set in your rings, CEOs.

Doug James
Joe Lisberg
Conrad Silverberg
Stacie Williams
Carl Hoffman
Jay Johnson
Sarah Marine
Jordan Gower
Bayard Godsave
Myra Poe
Drew Blanchard

I remain Justin Riley, book lover.

The Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue, when it was still a game and money hadn't made it a business. Or the 1927 New York Yankees (aka Murderer's Row). It's one of those two.

(Edited to add:)

Bookselling was and is for me a cultural and political expression, an expression of progressive change, of challenge to oppressive authority, of a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community.

-A. David Schwartz (July 15, 1938 - June 7, 2004)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Wisdom Of Crowds......Of Two

My almost six months old daughter has figured out that magic word: 'Mama'. She now uses it (almost exclusively in my presence) whenever she wants comfort or to register a complaint. She drags the second syllable out just long enough to sound urgent, but not so long as to annoy.

To mark this august occasion, I thought I'd present some of the wisdom and linguistic tactics she will be learning from her almost five years old brother in the years to come.

The Dairy Children
"I want milk!"
"I want cheese."

1) The 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel's 'Messiah' should be sung as "Halle-yua! Halle-yua, Halle-yua!"

2) Sesame Street takes place in 'Yew Nork'.

3) Asking 'Are you proud of me?' after farting is hilarious, and doesn't ever get old.

4) Whenever you don't get what you want, crib your arguments from teen television shows.

Neil: "Did you bring me anything, Dad?"
Me: "Nope. Not today. Sorry, buddy."
Neil (immediately): "You're not the only person in the world! I'm here, too!"
Me: "I don't know what that means."

5) If Dad ever expresses annoyance in regards to a song, it is a weakness to be exploited. Strike hard and often, barraging him with the tune at every opportunity. To get you started, try the "I like to move it, move it" song they used in 'Madagascar' and most of the songs featured in the Shrek movies.

6) 'Please' and 'Thank You' are often necessary in getting what you want, but don't 'give away the store'. Every time Dad has to remind you to say them, he will feel a little more like an authoritarian codger.