Monthly Archives: December 2015

Bookstores Will Close

Everyone says it is so sad that bookstores close, that independently-owned bookstores close. Why do they close? People blame Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or people who don’t read. Bookstores do not close for these reasons. There have always been competitors, and people who choose not to read. Bookstores close for many reasons, mostly having to do with profitability. The product is low margin, and even with the aid of a brisk returns system, the local bookseller cannot set their own price on the product, really. The profit margins are just too tight. The amount of stock on the shelf is very high. The establishment has to maintain that stock, pay taxes on it, track it, deal with theft, damage, and other forms of shrink. Without higher profit margins, nobody comes out ahead. And, where would the margin come from? Everyone is getting squeezed, these days. The publishers are moving hard towards digital, where heavy readers can consume text as if they were webpages. The distributors are locked in a death grip with their warehousing and shipping partners, where margins are always tight and the price of petrol makes everything crazy. The actual bookstore must handle all the usual suspects of retail – location, customer service, shrink – while maintaining profit on a product where just to put it on the shelf – not even counting the cost of staff and electricity and credit card processing – the profit will be about 30-35% at best. Without high volume, it is not feasible, as a business. It is a luxury good for an educated population. In regions with robust literacy, with disposable income, and with a dense enough population, it is possible if rents remain low. Yet, all of those factors contribute to high rents, no? Wealthy, educated, dense populations tend to be high rent.

Ergo, it is a systemic shift. That few bookstores will cling on to life are nothing if not outliers of a larger system, each carving a unique niche. Systemically speaking, I don’t see how it is possible to run a profitable business as a bookstore over the next twenty years. I suspect we will see a high rate of decline in all booksellers, all over the world.

I don’t think anyone is to blame. I think framing the discussion that way, as I see all the time, is a mistake. Instead of mourning what we have lost, and seeking blame, what do we build instead?

The independent bookstore provided a unique hub for a community’s intellectual growth, a backdrop of the imagination of that town or city, and a place where people “felt” like brilliance and wonder and knowledge was waiting on the shelf to be acquired, and inserted into a brain. It was the kind of place to linger on a Sunday afternoon, a place of peace and ideation. The thing most webstores have not succeeded at creating is a sense of community. They are often as soulless as a search button, with no one waiting on hand to offer personalized recommendations, and no one and nothing really providing a sense of space on the site, a place of discussion, a place to meet people, a place to be and to be proud of being.

Build me a better bookstore, internet. Build me that communal space, that brilliant space.

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Examine Extensions of Masculine Identity for Flawed Reason, or Gun Ownership is NOT Macho.

There are certain trends in society that I suspect of exceptional psychological and physical damage to individuals and communities. First among these is tribalism, or the frightening notion that some people are part of a group worthy of respect and other people are not part of that same group worthy of respect. We are all stuck on the same planet, after all. There is no reasonable way to act when theologians and philosophers have already instructed us to act according to the idea of how one wishes to be treated, or as if a veil of anonymity has descended upon us all and we must behave as if we could be behaving against anyone including people we love and ourselves, or something like that. But, yes, tribalism is bad. It manifests in myriad terrible ways. One of the offshoots of tribalism that forms a category of its own relates to the expression of power structures within a tribe: masculinity, we call it. This tribal wall is built up around the women-folk, and manly men must defend the wall against the outsiders who will come and take the women, irregardless of the wills and desires of the actual women. They are, after all, expected to be grateful for the macho, manly men standing on that metaphoric wall.

There’s a story I heard from a Spanish woman who works with Mexican immagrants set in Mexico, in cartel country where machismo is a way of life. A family of Mexican-Americans went south to be with their extended family in Mexico to celebrate a beautiful daughter’s quincenera. Elsewhere in the restaurant, the cartel showed up across the room. At some point in the night, the cartel came over to the family, looked them over and said “I’ll take that one,” referring to the 15-year-old girl. Her father said “Over my dead body,” and the cartel was perfectly fine with that, and gunned him down. The woman’s mother tried to hold on to her daughter, but she was warned about the fate of her husband. There was nothing anyone could do. The poor girl was found in pieces a month later, after suffering unimaginable horrors. The police, naturally, did nothing.

Now, in some fantasy world, grown men in our own country, who claim to be responsible gun owners and in full mastery of their reason, imagine owning firearms for personal defense, and imagine opening fire on the cartel to somehow protect their family from a crowd of wicked men, also well-armed. Maybe if every man and woman in the family was armed, some shootout would commence to protect the poor girl? Outgun the cartel, guns blazing, and run to the border, right? This is the plan? The survivors of the terrible event say something else. They say they would never return to Mexico, never. They weep. They weep.

And, the reality of gun laws suggest the father in that restaurant was likely killed with a gun from America. Mexican cartels are said to get most of their guns from the US. Our lax gun laws make it fairly simple for guns to be purchased legally in the US and smuggled over the border. Gun culture is a machismo culture. In the world of the cartels, where machismo is a rule of law, the power achieved through violence lifts individuals up above the tribe, into the realm of cheifs and godkings. The scarcity and rampant segregation between those who have money and power, and those who struggle to make even a modest living, creates the boundary that young men seek to cross when they join up with cartels. To end the violence of the cartels, end the resource scarcity that drives their recruitment, their power over others to corrupt and control and act with impunity against the law.

Grown men imagine protecting their families from dangerous criminals, and likely imagine their gun as a tool to defend against cartels, tyrrany, etc. No amount of guns in one man’s possession would stop the might of the organized cartels and their shadow governments from descending upon those that offend their machismo and tribal rule of law. Grown men with deadly weaponry, in our own country, live in a world where the zombie apocalypse looms in the imagination, and all reality of hunting for survival and protecting the family from actual monsters of the last century – bears, cougars, deer eating the crops needed for survival, raiders of any skin color come to take the cattle and the women and the land – are lost. We simply do not live in a world as dangerous as the ones that came before, when guns were a necessery tool, because our natural environments have been so denuded and stripped and pushed away. Our monsters are zombie Obamas now. Our old monsters of tribalism still remain, and grown men live in bunkers surrounded by guns, imagining urban communities that will creep out into their pristine wilderness at any moment, bringing drugs and crime, as if that’s even a realistic thing that happens. In fact, more of these gun owners will be killed by accidental violence and suicide than will ever use their gun in home defense.

The facts do not bear out the idea that people will protect their families with their guns. I am often amazed at what a homeowner would kill a man, over, also. I have met men who think an appropriate thing to do would be to kill an attempted mugger, seeking fancy shoes. I simply don’t understand why shoes are worth killing a man over, either to take or to defend. I don’t see how pulling a gun on a dangerous criminal is somehow going to make the situation less dangerous. Much easier and safer to do what he says, I should hope. I don’t understand why confronting a criminal in my house with a weapon is a good idea, either. I have a dog that would bark and charge. I wouldn’t even want my dog to confront a criminal in my house. Instead, I would think the thing to do is barricade into a room as best as we can and call the police. If someone manages to steal a TV or a computer or something, I can replace that. I cannot replace my life, my dog’s life. Rationally, the police are supposed to fulfill that role in civilized society to maintain the rule of order and law, and to do a better job than I ever could, with my trembling hands in the dark.

Machismo culture suggests that I need to be a man and defend my house. When there is a spider or a roach, I am expected to thwart it. When there is a bump in the night, I am expected to go and investigate. When I set aside the mindset of machismo and question how to actually prevent these terrible situations, not just survive the occasional crisis, I think of the small scale tactics like making sure my house is clean with sealed entrypoints, so it is hard for vermin to enter. I think of well-lit windows and doors, visible to my neighbors. (I have chopped down junipers to make this so, in fact.) I think of reducing the number of guns in the hands of men, in particular, because men commit most of the violent gun crimes. I think about how often grandmothers go on killing sprees, and how grandmothers can’t overpower dangerous men except, perhaps, with a gun. I think about how our culture teaches boys to be tough, and not to express their emotions, and to fight, on occasion, in the schoolyard over points of honor. I think how so many people don’t have enough in this world, or their only path to enough and more than enough that seems realistic is unspeakable violence. I think about starvation, and what I would do if my children were starving. I think about how to solve the problem of not enough, first, and to solve the problem of machismo, first, to create a system.

I think about lots of things that boil down to this: Without tribes, there is no wall to defend against other tribes. There is no need for manly men to stand upon the wall. And, without tribalism, there are no “big cheifs” who command the most stuff and the most desirable young women. When there is plenty, it is for all. When there is not enough, everyone sacrifices for the benefit of all. What use is a gun in that kind of world?

I do not believe gun control is a realistic goal for two reasons. First, we decided that allowing children to be gunned down in an elementary school by a man shooting hundreds of bullets per second is enough. Second, the technology is changing very quickly, and already home modifications are capable of turning legal firearms into semi-automatic weaponry and worse. One could construct all manner of terrible things from home, from advanced weaponry out of 3D printers and repair parts, to flimsy and horrifying shrapnel bombs that require less technical skill than changing a garbage disposal.

First, we must change the idea that drives the need, and that means ending gun culture, machismo, and the fear that drives so much pain and misery in this world. Second, we end tribalism, and end the way some tribes have more than others, so not even grandmothers need to carry guns against the angry and desperate young men in the night.

It’s a tall order, but I suspect it is the only one that will work, long term, when guns only become harder to stop, and easier to use on a large scale.

On the short term, whenever anyone posts a picture of themselves with their gun, ridicule them. Shame them. Let them know that they do not look manly, and that they do not look tough or strong. The fear that drives ownership of large weaponry does not make anyone tough. Make guns the things that grandmas own and carry and shoot. Guns are not the tools of men, but little, wrinkly women. Ask them if their mom let them hold her gun, because guns are for little, old ladies, and real men don’t need a gun to be strong, to be tough, to save their world.

Gun culture, in America, is a symptom of a macho mind, caught in cycles of creeping fear and imaginary heroism. Machismo is a dead road to a dead society in a world being pillaged and destroyed by men who own and take and command and control. With the end of scarcity, the end of gross inequality, the end of fear, the end of the possession of women by men, we might see the end of large scale gun violence.

It looks like it will take a very long time.

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