Monday, September 10, 2018

Turinng the NHL Into a Two-Tier League

For fun, let's imagine restructuring the NHL into two-tiers, sort of like professional soccer leagues around the world. There would be a Premier League (or Prince of Wales division, see what I did there.) and a Second League (or Adams division). Reorganizing the league this way would greatly reduce the number of “meaningless games” during the regular season and reduce the value of “tanking,” while producing more potentially exciting games and more interesting interactions between the teams, and, give the league a structure for incorporating all the expansion they're desperate to do. You'll see how all of that could happen as I get in to the details.

First, some basics.

36 teams, 18 in the Prince of Wales Division and 18 in the Adams Division. Each division would be divided into an East and West conference of 9 teams each. (This will also work just fine with a 32 team league, though the playoff structure would have to be redone.) Only the teams in the Prince of Wales (or Adams, doesn't really matter to me what the premier division is called) will be eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup (more on the playoff structure soon). (Obviously, the Adams division will have it's own playoffs, again more on that later.) All the teams will play every other team in the league at least once, but no team will play any team in the other division more than twice. (With the extra game being for “natural rivalries” between teams in different divisions, say, going from this year, Calgary and Edmonton.) In theory, once this is in place, you could keep adding teams as much as you want. Just keep the PoW at 18 and stick as many expansion teams as you want the Adams division and adjust the playoff structure accordingly. In theory, you could even add another tier if you wanted to.

The draft lottery would work essentially the same as it does now, with the entire league drafting together, so the last place team in the Adams would have the best chance at the first pick. Trades could also happen between divisions (more on that later.) Every team makes the playoffs within its division with one exception (more on that later). There will be a system of relegation and promotion (more on that later). That's pretty much the basics.

Let's get into the weeds.

Let's start hashing things out by getting the League up to 36 teams and dividing them into the two divisions. The league has 31 teams at the moment, so we'll need five more to get there. Here are the cities that I think should get teams: Seattle (since it seams like they're going to get one anyway), Quebec City and Hartford (since they already had teams), Hamilton (since there has been some momentum around a team in Hamilton for years now, but for some reason we care about what the Sabers think), and...

a team owned by the NHL located in some city that wins some crazy-ass year long competition. Does Montreal have room for a second team? (Maybe.) Does Boston? (No.) Could somewhere small, but with hockey history like Saskatoon (birth place of Gordie Howe) make a case? Is there another Las Vegas hiding somewhere? (Branson?) PEI? Madison? A team shared by the Dakotas? Lake Superior? New England? And if, after some reasonable amount of time (5 years, let's say), that city, can't support an NHL hockey team, well, they just hold the contest again. The operations of the team would be independent of the NHL, but the NHL could potentially use it as a kind of ambassador team. Moving it around North America (or beyond), and trying out new things (ticket packages, carbon neutral arenas, municipal stakes a la the Green Bay Packers). Maybe this makes it hard to keep top talent and compete, but, well somebody's got to be last and if somebody's got to be last it might as well be a team that is also doing interesting things for the game of hockey.

Once we have all the teams we'll need to divide them into the two divisions. So, the PoW division would be composed of the original 6, plus the next 12 teams with the highest total of regulation and overtime wins over the last, say, five seasons. Yes, this means that an undeserving team or two might get bumped for an original-6 team that's had a bad run of late, but I honestly can't imagine starting out with any number of original six teams without a shot at the Stanley Cup. If they play their way into regulation after the league has been reorganized, well, that's on them. (Every redemption story, starts with a fall.)

The long term wins total, as opposed to say, the end of season ranking, is a way to reward long term success and prevent a good franchise that just happens to be going through a rebuilding year or two from being relegated and a bad franchise that happens to get a few good bounces down the stretch from being promoted.

With the divisions and conferences set, the regular season plays as it does now, with the scheduling exception described above. Oh, and while I've got you: 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime win, 1 point for an overtime loss, and...1.5 points for a shootout win.

The first thing one might object to, to this current structure is there isn't really a playoff race. Every team will end up in some form of playoff, either for the Stanley Cup or whatever the Adams division trophy is called. (The Kenora Cup, perhaps.) The only thing the regular season will decide, in terms of the specific season, is the seeding going into the playoffs. But that seeding will be significant and whether a franchise is safely in the PoW or in jeopardy of being relegated will be determined by their seeding. Let's see how that works.

First of all, the top seeds in the Adams East & West conferences will play the 9th seeds in the PoW East & West conferences in a one game playoff. We could have both games played on the same day, maybe a Sunday, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. This essentially creates a hockey holiday, in which pretty much all hockey fans are watching both games and both games are absolutely vital for both teams. Think of how much money the bars in Canada would make on this day. Think of the parties. Think of how much fun that would be, to be with a group of neutrals and just pick a team to root for. Think of the parties the winning teams' fans throw. Think of the parties the losing teams' fans throw! The NHL could even throw a whole bunch of weird and awkward ceremonies all over the place and it would still be about as much fun as you can possibly have as a hockey fan.

The winners of these one-game playoffs, face the 8th seeds in the PoW East and West conferences in a best of five series. The winner of that series enters the official Stanley Cup Playoffs as the 8th seed. Depending on the situation, what happens in those playoff games and in that series, could have huge implications for the teams involved, but I'll get into the more when I get to relegation and promotion. And then it's a regular 8 team playoff. 1 plays 8, 2 plays 7 and so forth.

I want to point out one other benefit to this playoff structure: ta da! We have created a bye-week at the end of the season for seeds 1-7. One of the things no one really acknowledges about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that, often, it's the good team that happens to be healthiest that wins. A bye-week doesn't solve all of the health problems that can impact the results of the playoffs but it mitigates them, at least a little bit. Every 1-7 team will have a week to give their legs a chance to rest, to recover from small injuries, to get their goalies off their feet a little bit. And since there will be hockey going on during that time, it's not like it would be dead time for the league or the fans.

And how about the difference between the 7th seed and the 8th seed? Significant games indeed.

Most of the new significance, though, will come from the relegation and promotion system, so let's do that now.
First of all, the Stanley cup winner is protected from relegation for two years. (Success should be rewarded.) Conference champs will be protected for one year. (So, you know, they can finally all touch the conference trophies.)

If an Adams Division team wins its way into the Stanley playoffs, it is promoted to PoW and the 9th seed of the PoW is relegated to the Adams. Now the difference between the 8th and 9th seed in the PoW conferences is massive. Furthermore, in the Adams division, the difference between 1 & 2 is huge, as 2 doesn't even get a shot at promotion. But wait, there's more.

As above, the Stanley Cup winner is protected from relegation for two years. So they are not eligible for relegation, even if they end up 9th in their conference, and even if they lose that one game playoff. If that happens, the 8th seed is made eligible for relegation. If they lose that subsequent playoff series, they are relegated instead. So, if a Stanley Cup winner struggles at the beginning of the season, the significance between 7 & 8 is huge (on top of the significance of the by-week), as the 8th seed could become eligible for relegation. But, also from above, it is possible for a PoW conference to have two teams protected from relegation in the same season; the Stanley Cup champ from two seasons ago, and the conference champion from the preceding season.

What happens if they're both terrible? And the 1 seed from the Adams beats them both. We can't have that team play the 7th place team to settle the relegation issue, as that would wreck the playoff structure. So in that (most likely) rare case, if the Adams team wins more total playoff games than the 7th seed PoW team, they are promoted and the 7th PoW team is relegated. This means, that not only is difference between 6 & 7 significant, but, we could find ourselves with two playoff series where 4-1 is significantly different from 4-0. We could also see (again highly unlikely) a conference final in which the winner is protected from relegation for one year and goes on to the Stanley Cup finals and the loser is relegated.

So, now, through this system two-tiered system, there is a huge difference between the 9th and 8th place teams in the PoW, as moving up to 8th most of the time protects you from being relegated, and there is a huge difference between 8th and 7th because the 7th place team dodges that extra playoff series and is even more likely to be safe from relegation than the 8th seed, and, in rare years when two protected teams are bad, the difference between 7th and 6th is now everything.

In the Adams division, teams that would normally be churning through their season without a shot at either the playoffs or the top draft choice, will have something to play for as the difference between 2nd and 1st will also be huge. The 2nd place team, settles for playing for the Kenora Cup (look it up!) and the first place team gets a shot at promotion.

The primary goal of this reorganization of the NHL is the create more meaningful games over the course of the season and the playoffs, and so we could see a last week of the season or even last day of the season, in which massive rewards are played for, and playoff wins that are significant even in playoff series losses. Sure, there might still be some tanking, but that would only be at the bottom of the Adams division. And you know what, that's fine. They're the bottom of the Adams division.

As you can see, promotion is actually pretty difficult to achieve. You could have a team do well for several seasons, and just choke in the one-game playoff. Likewise, you could have a team hanging out in 9th place for awhile, getting saved from relegation over and over again by 8th place teams. Or who knows what else could happen? So, I'm also totally on board with the idea of a semi-regular reassessment of the tiers, maybe every five or six years, in which some quorum of significant members of the league (owners, managers, coaches, players, scouts, journalists, etc.) get together and, through some formalized and transparent process, consider promoting and relegating teams outside of this structure.

For the most part, trades and the salary cap would work in the exact same way they do now. (However that is.) There would be trade deadlines and trades could happen across divisions. Free agency would work the same way, though, of course, Adams division teams would have a tougher time signing top name players, but, for the most part, things would look the same. But I would introduce one wrinkle, specifically around “rental” players.

A “rental” period would be open sometime after the formal trade deadline, but, only trades between the divisions would be allowed. This would give PoW teams a chance to stock up for the playoffs AND give good players stuck on Adams division teams an extra chance to end up in the playoffs. But let's add another wrinkle. PoW would be able to include “cash considerations” in their trade, however, that cash paid to the Adams division team would count against their cap for the year. (Who knows, maybe that's how it works already. I certainly don't understand all the cap rules and well, I'm not going to look it up.) But it will be different for the Adams team.

The Adams team would tag that as cap-free salary and as long as they apply it to players salaries it is excluded from cap considerations until it is “spent.” Here's how that would work. Say a PoW team sends a prospect and $10 million in cash to an Adams team. The Adams team could then use that money to bump up the salary of a youngish top-pair defenseman approaching the end of his contract by $5 million a year for two years. Or if they think they can play themselves into promotion with one big free agent signing, they can pay someone an extra $10 million the next year without any cap consequences. You could actually see a smart GM in the Adams division, draft well for a couple of years, make a couple of “rental” trades every year for a few years and end up with enough cap free salary to build a promotion team in one off-season. The important thing about this, is it provides a way for Adams divisions teams to compensate for the natural disadvantage they have in signing free agents.

It should also be noted, “rental” players wouldn't just be for teams looking to stock up for a serious Cup run. It could also be for teams trying to jump up to 8, 7, or 6. More teams would have motivations to make some kind of play near the end of the season to protect their place in the PoW and so more of these deals would happen, redistributing a fair amount of wealth downward.

Furthermore, the fact that inter-division trading exists and that there will be some incentive for Adams division teams to trade their players in rental deals, means that Adams division players, along with playing for the success of their teams, will also, essentially, always be trying out for the PoW division. Even if your particular team doesn't have the combined talent to do anything more than languish in the bottom of the division, you don't have to. You can play your way into the PoW division and perhaps right on to a Stanley Cup contender.

The Adams division will also have a playoffs, which, I think, will be great for everyone. More hockey, with more significance. Maybe there's a fan base somewhere that just needs to see playoff hockey to get excited. Maybe there's a player who will thrive in that environment but never gets the chance because he's on a shitty team. The NHL is good at trophies, so why not have another. (The Kenora Cup. I made up this whole thing, so I can name the trophy.)

The Kenora Cup playoff structure will be the inverse of the Stanley Cup playoff. If the number one seed in the division plays its way into the Stanley Cup playoffs (one-game playoff, plus best of five series) it has essentially moved out of the Adams division, meaning that its conference will now have eight teams in it and a good old fashioned 8-team playoff will start. If the number one seed does not advance into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the 8th and 9th seeds in the conference will play a best of five series to become the 8th seed and then we'll be back to the regular 8 team playoff structure.

And there you have it. More significant games. More playoff hockey. More story lines. New rivalries. More fan bases will have the opportunity to celebrate a kind of success. Better teams will play each other more often. More games with playoff implications would happen. There'd probably be more trades at the deadline. And the league can keep adding teams as long as they want without potentially compromising any of that. And we get a hockey holiday. It may be an impossible dream, but it's a good dream.

Also, 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime win, 1 point for an overtime loss, 1.5 points for a shootout win. Think about it.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sean Spicer at BEA

The Trump administration's first, definitive step towards authoritarianism was so quick, so small, so...stupid, that I think most of us missed it. Maybe we were still reeling from Trump's “American Carnage” inauguration speech or from the images of this obvious con artist standing next to President Obama or from the failure to trigger any of the constitutional mechanisms that would have prevented his inauguration or from the fact of his presidency at all or from the trauma of election night. Maybe we were thinking about how stupid we were to send money to Jill Stein for that recount. Maybe we were expecting the administration to at least try to pretend for an entire fucking day that this was going to be a real presidency with a real President. Maybe we were thinking about the Women's March, or planning our activism, or maybe, we were just expecting something else, something bigger, something more calculated, something closer to the Muslim ban, or at least something less...stupid.

On January 21, 2017, Sean Spicer, in his first official act as Press Secretary for the President of the United States of America, lied to our fucking faces. He lied about an objective truth. He lied about what we could see with our fucking eyes. He lied not for some kind diplomatic or strategic reason, not in an attempt to keep us safe from some kind of threat, or to forward some kind of policy they believed justified being dishonest with the American public. He lied to assuage the ego of a narcissist.

And nothing happened. He and the administration were criticized in the press of course, mocked in certain corners of the media, but no one involved in that obvious, profoundly stupid lie suffered any negative consequences. One of them is still president and one of them is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In some ways, the inaugural crowd-size lie was a test. Would Congressional Republicans let the President obviously lie to the American people? Would Congressional Republicans allow the institution of the Presidency and the institution of Congress be radically diminished as institutions of society and governance? Would Congressional Republicans do anything more than pay the occasional lip service to the idea of objective truth and rule of law? If they are not willing to stand up to the administration over matters of arithmetic, and say, demand Sean Spicer resign or demand the President issue a retraction, or censure the President, or ask if someone who is willing to lie to the American people about what the American people just saw with their own eyes should have nuclear codes, would they be willing to stand up to lies with more ambiguity or lies that help them advance their agenda?

We, of course, know the answer to all of these questions. Sean Spicer tested Congress and Republicans with an obvious lie and they failed the test. Sean Spicer was told to lie to the American public and he did, without batting an eyelash. And in doing so, Sean Spicer is directly complicit in the current existential threat to American democracy.

Now he wants to “set the record straight” with a new book. Which, to me, translates to, “now I want to make a ton of money on being directly complicit in the current existential threat to American democracy, while trying to extract myself from the dumpster fire that is the Trump administration by claiming I had 'concerns' or that I 'voiced objections.'” Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has regrets, everyone does things they wish they hadn't done. I think we can accept that and accept that you don't get a fucking take-backsie on abetting the rise of fascism. I mean, it's not like there was any ambiguity here. If Spicer truly believed that lying to the American people is bad (and yes, I understand that spin is a Press Secretary's job) he would have refused to call Trump's inauguration the largest in history and then would have either resigned or been fired if Trump pressed him on it. Instead, he said it, stayed at his job, kept lying to the public, and now Aunt Lydia archetype Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies with breathtaking ease.

Obviously, don't buy Sean Spicer's book. But, if you're reading this blog, I doubt you were planning on it anyway. So why am I spending my time on Sean Spicer when I could be doing, well, anything else?

Sean Spicer is going to kick off promotion for his cynical-money-grab-masquerading-as-a-redemption-tour at Book Expo America, the annual gathering of the publishing industry. Or, to put this another way: a fascist collaborator is going to shill his book at BEA.

Here is what I would like to see happen. BEA should drop him from the programming. (Maybe send event director Brien McDonald an email to that effect. They should issue a statement that they were wrong to invite him or to accept Regnery's proposal for the above delineated reasons and they should give that space to an author from a marginalized community or a community directly impacted by the Trump administration. Sean Spicer's presence does not “welcome a conservative perspective,” or “reflect a commitment to free speech,” or whatever other bullshit defense they'll offer for giving a platform to someone who assisted the rise of fascism by lying to the American people. Short of that, (which I honestly don't think will happen) I think booksellers, publishers, authors, readers, and everyone else in the book world at BEA, should come together and empty the trade show floor during his event. Ideally, the meeting rooms should be empty, the booths should be empty, the other signings happening at the same time should stop, and the ABA lounge should be empty. (Ideally, this should be an ABA-endorsed practice, but I wouldn't hold my breath on that.) If you're an author who is scheduled to sign during his event, you should demand to be rescheduled. If you have a competing event on a different stage, you should demand to be rescheduled. (Maybe that would help increase the chances of option 1 happening.) The silence that descends upon the floor as Spicer's event starts should be the loudest statement made at BEA. Short of that, his specific event should be empty. Not only should every single seat set out for an audience be empty, but there also shouldn't be any journalists covering his event either. Sean Spicer does not deserve our attention. Perhaps, if we can't do that, it's best to make sure enough willing people attend to shout him down, so he never actually gets to pretend he should make money off of his complicity. What would twenty plus people shouting “How big was the crowd?!” throughout his event accomplish?

I'm going to be honest. I'm not an organizer, so I don't have the skills to help facilitate any of that. So far, the best I've come up with is that booksellers should gather at the entrances to the floor during his event, but there are also workshops going on, and meetings with publishers and an event called “Publicist speed dating” which I'm even signed up for.

At the very least, I don't want the book world to just shrug its shoulders. It's one thing for a fascist collaborator to try to make money by writing a book, and it's one thing for a publisher to try to make money by publishing that book, (And Regnery is a primary actor in the great conservative con) but it's something else entirely for that publisher and that fascist collaborator to center that book at the industry's biggest event and it's something else entirely for the industry to let that fascist collaborator use its platform. The book world might not be able to stop this, but that doesn't mean we have to accept it.

So, if you're reading this and you are an organizer and you'd like to help, reach out to me in the comments or on twitter (@InOrderofImport) and let's see if we can make something happen. Reach out even if you're not an organizer but hope something organized can be pulled together. If you're reading this and you're attending BEA in some capacity, maybe publicly commit to leaving the floor during Spicer's event and to convincing your friends and colleagues to join you. We don't have to commit to some huge, well-organized gesture to make a point. (Would #BEAEmptyFloor be useful?) At the very least commit to not attending his event and to convincing your friends and colleagues to join you as well. If we can't de-platform him, maybe we can at least de-audience him. (#LonelySpicey?)

There are times when I think we've got this. That the barricades are stressed but holding. That the blue wave will hit in November and crass survivalism will force Republicans to finally untether themselves from Trump. There are times when I think we'll use this trauma to break through longstanding barriers to true social, political, and economic progress, and in a decade or so, we'll end up with universal healthcare, an end to mass incarceration, a meaningful climate change strategy, massive campaign finance and corruption reform and, I don't know, maybe even a livable wage. There are other times when I think Republicans are going to roll out some kind of October surprise, they'll martial voter suppression forces and techniques in ways we are not preparing for, and their existing gerrymandering will protect them enough for them to consolidate power and finish their decades long process of turning America into a neo-feudalist state run by wealthy white oligarchs.

But the former won't happen on its own. And if the later is going to happen, well, then it will happen despite our best efforts. In the grand scheme of things, de-platforming Sean Spicer from a publishing industry event will be a relatively small victory. But all big victories are made up of small victories, just like all big lies are made up of small lies. And if there's a choice between doing nothing and failing and doing something and failing, I'm going to do something.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

And Now I Own (1/9 of 1/2 of) a Bookstore

I could never save enough from my wages to buy Porter Square Books. Thanks to abysmal failure that is Republican economic policy that demolished the American middle class, I'm not sure even the nine employees involved in the recent purchase combined could have put together enough capital to secure a small business loan on just what we could save from our pay. There would have been options of course when it came time for David and Dina to retire. There's crowdsourcing (which I imagine would have been successful). And some of us might have partners and other family members who would be willing to help and maybe there would be some applicable government loans available for small businesses, but, on our salaries and wages alone it would never have been possible.

This is, in part, because bookstores, especially new bookstores, are relatively expensive to buy, even more especially in relation to their profit margin. Books are expensive, you don't really finance the purchase of an entire store the way bookstores finance purchases of books from publishers, and the profit margins of even successful bookstores mean that business loans of any significant size will take a long time to pay off. (I remember the day when the founders of PSB finally had the liens taken off of their personal homes and they would have gotten credit from publishers for their initial inventory.) But, really, as above, the Republican economic model has guaranteed most Americans have much less buying power than they used to, more of that is spent on housing, healthcare and education than it used to, and the economy is subject to recessions in ways it wasn't before we put one of those classic Hollywood conservatives in the White House. Honestly, I don't know if there is any industry in America where the wages are high enough for an employee to save up to buy the business they've spent their lives working for.

From about 1998 (or maybe even 1996) to about 2011 or 2012, independent bookstores were struggling for survival. There were a couple of times, especially around the recessions of 2001 and 2008, when it looked like independent bookstores were going to vanish completely. The wage stagnation above hurt book sales and put downward pressure on the price of books (meaning that books aren't really priced high enough to support all the people working to produce and sell them), a problem only exacerbated by the recessions. The deep discounting at first Borders and Barnes and Noble and later Amazon hurt independent bookstores even more. That Amazon was able finance predatory pricing through stock sales, tax avoidance, atrocious labor practices, straight-up losing money for a decade, and pressure on vendors while improving and developing their sales infrastructure, including Prime and their ebooks monopoly, only put independent bookstores at a greater disadvantage. But, many of us figured that shit out.

So for many stores, the long term problem they face is no longer survival but succession. Given the desire to keep independent bookstores open in general and guarantee that one's own community has an independent bookstore, and the basic economic reality above, how do bookstore owners make sure their stores pass on to committed, talented, and capable new owners? How do they make sure they don't end up just hoping for an angel investor to come in from the tech or finance worlds?

Even though David and Dina aren't retiring any time soon, they wanted a plan for succession. They didn't want to find themselves just hoping the right person could come along to make sure Porter Square Books stayed open and vibrant in Porter Square. They wanted to make sure that the committed, talented, and capable people who were already contributing to the store's success would be able to buy the store when they retired. Their solution is actually pretty simple and replicable. (more on that later.) Essentially, they loaned nine management-level booksellers the money to buy 50% of the store (at the value Dina and David originally purchased it for) and we will pay back that loan on a ten-year schedule from the profits we are now entitled to as partial owners. In some ways it's kind of like a car loan from the dealership. You get to drive the car home, even though you still owe most of its cost to the dealer itself. This deal is structured to have as little impact on our taxes as possible and, if the bookstore does well over those years, should leave us with a little extra cash after the loan payment. The financial needs of a bookstore (or any retail) in an economy in which the majority of sales happen in one quarter and the general fragility and fluctuation of yearly profits, make it essentially impossible to commit the level of cash in salaries and wages necessary for an employee to save up to purchase a store, but by redistributing the profit when it's there at the end, David and Dina can pass that money on without risking the cash-flow and stability of the store itself. And by creating what is essentially a low-interest small business loan with favorable terms they made the purchase affordable, given projected profits.

I should note, this isn't just altruism on David and Dina's part. Sure, they take home a dramatically lower percentage of the yearly profits and forfeit some of the money an outright sale would generate, but, they also save themselves the cost of retraining management-level employees and protect a substantial amount of the bookstore's institutional knowledge. They saw in their years since buying the store, a staff with a...uh...unique set of skills that contributed to the store's profitability and they found a way to protect that set of skills that keeps the store financially secure in both the short and long term. Furthermore, a big part of how independent bookstores succeed is through the relationships booksellers develop with readers over time. Any time a long term bookseller leaves, for whatever reason, and is replaced, it takes some time for the store to make up the sales lost because that particular bookseller isn't there any more to talk to particular readers. By giving us a financial reason to stay, David and Dina have saved themselves the cost of staff turnover and protected institutional knowledge and by connecting those finances to store profitability they have given us an extra reason to work for the success of the store. It's hard to know anything like this for sure, but there is a chance that, even with their generosity, they might make out ahead in the end. I know, it's a shocking, perhaps even revolutionary economic idea that if you invest in the people who generate the profit for your business in a way that also communicates how you value them, they will continue to generate profit for you instead of leaving in three years for the first available promotion at another business. Why, you could almost create and sustain an entire middle class on that principle.

Not every bookstore will be able to ensure succession this way. The current owners would have to be clear enough from debt that they could afford to redistribute a percentage of the profits. There has to be enough appropriate employees to bear whatever new tax burden might be created. The store also needs to be profitable enough so those profits can cover the loan. Of course, there are also lots of different ways to apply the idea of “low-interest loan paid off through a share of the profits.” You could sell a quarter instead of a half of the store. You could change the time frame of the loan. You could create optional escrow accounts for all employees almost like a store based social security. You could do a similar loan-profit-repayment but for the full value of the store when you retire.

But, looking at the bigger world for a moment, imagine if, instead of building a fucking personal space program and continuing to avoid taxes, Jeff Bezos established a similar profit sharing model for Amazon workers at the management level. Sure, he founded Amazon and lead it to it's present behemouthness, but eventually he is going to retire as well. Why not transition it to a partial worker-owned business? (Well, we know the answer to that: it's stock value would tank because, even though more people would make more money, it's quarterly profit margin would end up shrinking, but more on that later.) Imagine if the Waltons did that. Imagine if the Koch brothers did that. Imagine if Bill Gates did that. Imagine if we had a business model that understood and respected all the contributions made by all employees at all levels and not one that saw non-ownership, non-executive staff as just expensive overhead. Imagine if our business decisions were guided, at least in part, by relationships with the community as a whole. Imagine if quarterly profits were, I don't know, just one part of how we assess a business's success. Imagine if the primary question of business (both large and small) was “How do we continue to have a positive impact on our community while making a profit?” instead of “How can we make as much money as possible as quickly as possible and stash it in the Cayman Islands so future generations never ever ever get a chance to enjoy the social progress lead by large scale federal investment in infrastructure, research and development, and a financial safety net that gave us the opportunity to make all of this money today, and wouldn't be cool if I got to Mars before that Musk guy did so I could somehow trademark or patent or claim ownership over the idea of colonization and teraforming before any legal precedents are set, making me even more like the 'mayor' of one of those late 1800s company towns, yeah, Bezosville Mars with Oxygen Prime?” Sorry, got a little lost there.

The point is, the biggest challenges of our economy, from wage stagnation, to the rising cost of living, to climate change, to the damage done to minds and bodies by decades of 40-60 hour work weeks, are only challenges because certain powerful aspects of our economy have prioritized short-term personal profit over everything. (More on this soon.) Once you open up the goals to include say, long-term health of the business, or maintaining your quality of service to your community, or whatever it is, a lot more options for how to run the business, and how to solve problems like retaining talent and succession open up.

Stepping even further from there book world, there is this weird idea that gets repeated a lot. In some ways, it's the basis for our entire economy and now (thank you Republicans) large swaths of our government and society. It's one of those ideas that can be casually expressed in conversation and just as casually accepted. It often goes something like this, “Hey, man, people are just really selfish and there's nothing you can do about that.” Of course, there is some truth to that. I have been selfish in my life, as have you, and pretty much everyone else. But if you take a step back and look at how people interact with each other, it's pretty clear that, for the most part, selfishness isn't what drives the vast majority of us the majority of the time. From independent bookstores, to Little Leagues, to parades, to acts of generosity after every single tragedy, to the fact that almost no one shoplifts, it's clear that people, even though we can all be selfish at times, are driven by community. David and Dina's succession plan is just another example of this fundamental fact of human life. The vast majority of us, the vast majority of time, want to have good relationships with the people around us (even the strangers) and are perfectly willing to take home less personal profit to do so. I bring this up because the idea that “everyone is greedy and selfish” is a very convenient idea if you, in fact, are greedy and selfish and don't want anyone to get in your way. Too often, we let a lot of bad shit happen in our economy and our world because we have been convinced, despite the evidence we experience every single day, that humans are inherently greedy. Listen to who says this and when. Don't accept it.

So, now I own a part of a bookstore. In terms of my day-to-day life and work, this doesn't have a huge impact. I was already selling as many books as I could not just because it made sure the payroll was met, but because I think selling books is important to my community. I'll still push readers towards challenging works, works in translation, works from under-represented identities and communities and I'll still help you find the perfect airplane read (which is The Long Ships, though in a conversation with another bookseller, Signs Preceding the End of the World is actually a pretty solid airplane read, you just have to read it again a week later for the full impact.) or wordless picture book, or YA novel with a lot of feelings (like The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue and Dairy Queen) or, you know, “just a good read,” (uhh, can you tell me any more, no, OK, umm, Shadow of the Wind, I guess). But now I get to do that with, essentially, a pension fund, (one that is probably a lot more stable than anything in the stock market) the opportunity to eventually help shape the bookstore around a new vision (if it needs reshaping), and a model for making sure PSB endures when it's my turn to retire.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Are Independent Bookstores Recession Proof?

In 2017, sales were up at independent bookstores. Again. More stores are opening than closing. More stores are finding new owners or new locations. Stores are thinking less about survival and more about succession. It's damn near impossible to leave Winter Institute, the annual educational, social, and celebratory conference for booksellers without feeling rejuvenated, without feeling that the best days are yet to come, without feeling as though this network of passionate, creative, thoughtful, intelligent, and empathetic people is invincible, without feeling as though books in general and the role booksellers play specifically, is saving the world. This isn't just the afterglow of a great party (though it certainly is some of that). The sales and growth numbers don't lie. And beyond the numbers, bookstores are taking active roles in their communities in new and important ways while working on improving the flaws and weaknesses (whitenesses) in their own industry. There are data; emotional, anecdotal, and numerical that suggest independent bookselling has never been as strong as it is today and is only going to get stronger for the foreseeable future.


Furthermore, bookstores are uniquely positioned to combat the rise of American fascism. Everything about Trump and the Republican party; the disregard of science, the fundamental lack of curiosity, the fundamental lack of empathy, the pathological lying, the fear of the other, the use of rhetorical tricks to avoid actually defending their terrible fucking ideas, the fragmentation of society, and the deferral to authority is combated in some way by books and literature and reading and the people who connect those books to the readers in their community. Even beyond books, bookstores offer the safe community space, the ability to be quiet for a minute, the chance to know that humans have been through worse and survived because you can look at the books from that time, that can rejuvenate one's energy for the struggle. And that's before considering the active work that independent bookstores are doing in the community. With reading series, author events, book clubs, and displays, independent bookstores are both nodes of resistance against Trump in particular and loci for the general strengthening of our social and civic institutions. We now know what happens when we drift away from the type of community independent bookstores support. It's hard to imagine us going backwards any time soon.


Furthermore, it isn't just Trump and this particular incarnation of fascism. Even before Trump the lies of late-capitalism like the promise of convenience at all costs, the seduction of low prices, the safety and primacy of the nuclear family unit, were starting to erode. People who had been raised on screens were turning to books to escape them. The ebook revolution that was supposed to be the end of bookstores didn't happen. The algorithms that were supposed to remove all the guesswork of buying books were shown to be woefully inadequate. Even as it seems like all shopping is moving online, more and more people are re-discovering the value of talking to a human being before spending their money. Or maybe not spending their money. Because that's the other thing about bookstores that is something of an antidote to the emotional grinder of late-capitalism: it's OK if you don't buy a book every time you browse, every time you meet for coffee, even every time you get recommendations or conversations from booksellers. Maybe it's part of why no one makes a lot of money in books, but in a bookstore you are a human being who might buy a book, not always and only a potential purchase that must be “off-ramped” or “funneled” and “captured.” Which is not to say we don't need to sell you books, but that there is always more to your interaction at a bookstore than the purchase. As the crimes of Amazon continue apace, as the country and young people in particular become more progressive politically and more critical of late-capitalism, and as we continue to rediscover the value of community beyond our nuclear family and beyond our circle of friends, independent bookstores are poised to capitalize on those changes in ways maybe no other industry (except for maybe craft brewing) can.


Furthermore, something changed when Borders closed. Before that it was easy, despite all the other closures, to assume that there would always be bookstores. Sure, maybe indie bookstores wouldn't survive, but there would always be Barnes & Noble and Borders if we need a present on the way to the party. But then Borders wasn't. And then it was clear that if something wasn't done, bricks and mortar bookselling would die. Borders owed publishers millions of dollars when it finally went bankrupt and I've always wondered what the landscape of bookselling would look like if publishers had spread that credit around to the hundreds of independent bookstores that were struggling with the predatory pricing of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon, who were trying to change their model to adapt to online sales and who just needed to get to the next holiday season or the one after that to make those changes and be newly sustainable. I don't think I'm alone in asking that question. I think a lot of people with power at publishers asked that question. So the relationship between independent bookstores and publishers changed and publishers in general started to see independent bookstores not just as one, rather small, sales channel, but as partners in the grand project of books and literature. Independent bookstores drive discovery. Independent bookstores incubate writers. Independent bookstores support the small and independent publishers that often incubate writers and publishing professionals. Independent bookstores celebrate risk. Independent bookstores sustain the conversation around books. And independent bookstores create sales that end up at Amazon. When Borders revealed that a world without bookstores was possible, publishers changed their relationship in real and tangible ways, to treat independent bookstores like partners, making the entire industry more sustainable.


Furthermore, we're really fucking good at selling books now. There might have been a time when all a bookstore needed to thrive was a halfway decent buyer and the right neighborhood. But that won't fly anymore. We need to offer our community and our customers more than what they can find online. And we do. All the time. Both in person and online. Sure not every store has had to make the same adaptations to our economic reality and no store is perfect, but I'm pretty confident that you could walk into damn near any independent bookstore in the country and walk out with a book you didn't know you needed. Taken together, just about everything points to an industry that has figured out how to thrive.


But books are not rent. They are not healthcare. They are not student loans that are immune to bankruptcy. They are not car payments or gas money. As vital as they are to many of us, they are still not as vital as food. I've seen others try to inject a note of caution in all this optimism around growing sales, because, maybe those sales are only growing because the economy is. Though, for all the reasons stated above, I don't think it's just general economic growth behind the growth of independent bookstores, when the economy collapses next, who will have enough money after dealing with the necessities to buy books? Who will cut down on their coffee? Their beer? Who will drop Netflix? Who will find ways to trim their phone bill, their gas bill, their electricity bill? Some will. Many will. Enough to continue the growth we've seen over the last few years? Enough to sustain the level we've reached through this growth? Enough to sustain a viable industry through to the recovery? Are independent bookstores recession proof?

I don't have an answer to this question. The recessions of 2001 and 2008 took their toll, but bookstores were able to survive. And we're stronger now than we were then, but every recession is different and, maybe I'm just being cynical, I think the next one is likely to be catastrophic. (I mean what happens when almost an entire generation gets slammed with double-digit unemployment AND cannot disburse a bunch of their debt through bankruptcy? How does an economy recover from that?) Could we survive that?

I like to offer answers in these posts, not as some kind of final say on the topic, but as a starting point for further conversation, with the assumption that by discussing said offered answer we can find our way to a better one. But, perhaps it's best to conclude this with a different question, one that contains the optimism I think we all rightly feel with a rational concern for what we could face. So...

How do we make independent bookstores recession proof?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reading is Resistance: Translation as Transhumance

Translation as Transhumance. That second word in the title. “Transhumance.” It seduced me from the moment I saw a picture of the cover on Twitter. I tried to deduce what “transhumance” meant from its component parts but I was wrong and only more invested in the book. I eventually reviewed it for the Los Angeles Review of Books, but found Gansell's memoir of her vocation as a translator had a much bigger impact on me than could be communicated in a review. It gave me new language for describing my relationship with works in translation. It gave me a new perspective on American English and an insight into its potential power. And, of course, because we read with our daily lives, it illuminated the political power of translation in the face of our growing fascism.

At some point in my bookselling career, I read one of those articles that talks about how little work in translation Americans read, how many Americans can go through their entire education and almost entire lives without reading a book written in another language. As a bookseller, I saw this as an opportunity to do some good in the world, to use my place in the community to move the needle a bit, and to help, in my own very small way, broaden the spectrum of reading for the American public. So, I committed to reading more translation, reading translation with more intention, and recommending more books in translation both through staff picks and in conversations.

In doing so, I learned of the joy of being baffled. It is a strange joy, one that you rarely encounter in your daily life, but one that is important nonetheless. Perhaps it is a joy unique to art, unique to moments we enter with intention. It happens in moments when I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the book, absolutely no idea how to interpret an idea or image or sentence, when I am thrown off the train of my own thoughts. Most of the time we read to understand, but there is real power in reading when you can't. Because when you encounter something another person made that is unfathomable to you, you also encounter the fact that you, as a person, are capable of creating the unfathomable. You are shifted and in the parallax between your new perspective and your standard perspective an entire world opens up. Gansel approaches this unsettling opening of perspective in a number of different ways over the course of her book, but saying a work “...allows us to see the familiar in the foreign, the foreign in the familiar, and thus to create a sanctuary where you are no longer foreign but someone who is learning.” is the best articulation I've read of reading works in translation. By baffling us, we are reminded that we spend our lives as students of the world.

In some ways, it can be easy to understand that sense of being baffled, that sense of being unsettled, that encounter with the unfathomable as an abstract, intellectual experience, one more relevant to the mechanisms of understanding, than understanding itself. Because it is an experience of intellectual difficulty, we're tempted to put it in the same mental space as the papers we wrote in college and distant from the political and emotional experiences of out daily lives. But that is to miss one point of being baffled and being unsettled. Or, as Gansel puts it: “I remember clearly how, one morning as the snows were melting, as I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand from the other. That was probably my most essential lesson in translation.” Empathy, that building block of community and society, is rooted in the ability to displace your self, to de-center your self, to know at a fundamental level, that, from a different perspective, you are the other. Reading works in translation, especially those that are unfathomable to you, might be the easiest way to create that displacement and confront your own otherness.

And once you start seeing the otherness in yourself, once you begin to imagine how you might look to those who are not conditioned by their culture to understand you, it becomes easier to see the complexity and humanity that drive your decisions, in the decisions of other people. When you internalize how you can be misunderstood, your relationship to what and who you don't understand changes. By displacing your self, you create a new space or new perspective in which it is easier to see the humanity, see the universality in the actions of other people, even if you don't understand them. Through interaction with, even celebration of, that which makes us different, that which does not cross cultures or languages, we strengthen our understanding of what does.

But, at an almost more practical level, translation is an exchange of ideas across cultures. It opens up the possibilities for how you might solve a problem or describe an experience by showing you how others solve that problem and describe that experience, often in ways and in terms you never would have imagined. It is a constant conversation about all of the options we have for being human beings on this planet; which means, it is also a constant conversation about how some systems of power, some forces in society, and some people want to limit the options you have for being a human being. Even if the different options for living that you're reading about don't feel political, are concerned more with topics that don't seem to have direct applications, it introduces you to the idea of imagining a problem from a totally different perspective. It gives you the option of at least trying to consider a problem without all of your cultural baggage lashed to your answers. Asking how someone from China or Nigeria or Iran or Mexico might solve a problem, inherently creates the idea that the American way isn't the only way and (gasp!) might not even be the best way.

Fascism, in whatever form it takes, including the one Republicans in power are working directly towards, is rooted in homogeneity, in an erasing of difference and a reduction of the scope of human life to a small set of beliefs, actions, and thoughts. Even when it is practiced at a relatively tepid level, it is based in the idea that everyone should think and believe the same things and limit themselves to essentially the same behaviors, even if it is impractical to force them to. Ultimately, contemporary Republicans (or at least those in power) think everyone should be Republican, not even in an ideological sense, but in an identity sense, in a daily lived what they wear what they eat what music they listen to way, and, barring that, they will do everything they can to ensure that only Republicans are in power. To put this a slightly different way: the primary goal of the Republican party is to ensure that only Republican solutions are adopted.

Reading in translation is, essentially, an inoculation against this virus-like homogeneity, against the idea that there is one right way to be human, against the idea that you and those like you have a monopoly on ideal humanity. With our eyes open, looking at the world, watching people do different things, solve problems in different ways, think different thoughts, and take different joys, it is obvious that homogeneity is a fraud, that fascism is a lie, and that all those who fight for it, in whatever incarnation they fight for, do so out of fear that whatever their identity is, isn't as right as they claim. But that fear is still powerful. That illusion of safety and security that homogeneity promises is still compelling. The false equivalency of sameness with community is still alluring.

Finally, as we all know from Orwell, how we think is guided, in large part, by the language we use to think with. This is why so much effort, both in good and bad faith, is put into the terms we surround political ideas with. Often, controlling how we label something, like “pro-life” for example or “fiscal conservative,” or even more recently “chain-migration” goes a long way in advancing or hindering an agenda regardless of that agenda's merit. Language and rhetoric can be used to further or hinder a cause without actually making a point about what that cause is or what that cause would do. Furthermore, history adheres to language, allowing words to carry significance and implication that have nothing to do with the idea under consideration, but can greatly impact how we react to and understand an idea or a person. There is a reason why it was effective to refer to Hilary Clinton as “shrill.” The act of translation is a direct interaction, perhaps even confrontation with that limiting force of language. By pulling meaning from one language with one set of assumptions and one set of limits on thought into another language with a different set of assumptions and a different set of limits on thought, the translator makes us aware of these mechanisms, introduces us to the limits of our own thought, and deepens our own relationship with how language functions and how we use language to converse, argue, dictate, and think. And by developing that awareness, by building the particular skills needed to make sense of words from another culture, you also develop the skills to see through propaganda and to understand the mechanism behind an act of bad faith rhetoric and to counter it.

Ultimately, fascism has a grammar. It has a system of speaking that emphasizes fear and division and curtails curiosity and exploration. It displaces the context of the discussion so somehow, instead of arguing about the merits of an idea, you're arguing about your own patriotism or how much you value your heritage. The hyper-awareness of the mechanisms of language that comes from immersing yourself in a work whose ideas came from a different grammar also gives you the tools to see and dissect the grammar of fascism. To borrow another classic image from literature, fascism is the man behind the curtain. Reading works in translation isn't going to suddenly empower you to tear down the systems of power threatening our society, but it will give you the ability to see the curtain protecting those systems from scrutiny. And seeing the curtain is the first step in tearing it down.

Translation as Transhumance is one of those books that gets bigger the more I think about it. Even for this piece, as the core ideas have expanded as I've worked on them, I've had to discard my thoughts about the potential power of our international American English, the relationship between a language and a nation, the power translation has to dissolve political borders, and Gansel's own direct use of translation as a political act. (That last part I at least discussed in the review linked above.) Every time I took a step, the distance I could travel increased. Every time I got to the top of a mountain, I saw a higher mountain ahead of me. Every opened door revealed another room filled with more doors to open. For me, literature is an act of potential. It is an ongoing testament to humanity's potential to grow, to change, and to improve and to the joy of improvement, change, and growth. Translation as Transhumance is a change to celebrate all of it, both in the type of reading it pushes us towards and the beauty it contains within itself.

Buy Translation as Transhumance from IndieBound or your local independent bookstore.