Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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December 13, 2010
New York, N.Y.

Almost seven years ago, before we were married, my wife Deirdre bought a little house in a rural and scenic area of New York State known as the Catskills. During summers, and sometimes winters, and many weekends, we are part-time residents of a tiny hamlet in the northwest corner of Sullivan County, about a two-hour drive from our regular home in New York City.

Soon after Deirdre bought the house, Hamish & Henry Booksellers opened in the neighboring hamlet. It's a classic small-town independent bookstore, owned and run by Sue and Jeff, and named after two of their cats. I blogged about the bookstore with a photo of their billboard four years ago. Here's the more recent billboard that you can see while driving west beyond Liberty on Route 17:

Hamish & Henry is not the only bookstore in Sullivan County. A Literacy Center in Monticello sells donated books to raise money. But Hamish & Henry is the only seller of new books in Sullivan County, and certainly the only bookstore that is so firmly imprinted with its owners' personalities. Sue is always up-to-date on the latest novels, and I recently discovered that Jeff had ordered a book and put it on the shelves knowing that I would be helpless to resist it!

From almost the beginning, Hamish & Henry became the center of the Sullivan County literary world, and an extremely important part of our social life. Through Hamish & Henry we met several other area writers — such as Ian Williams, the author of Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 and Nina Burleigh, most recently the author of Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. The bookstore frequently hosted readings and signings. Recent author appearances have included Mark Jacobson, author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans.

One summer Deirdre started a series of "open mic" readings at Hamish & Henry, attracting area poets and memoirists, and we've also been participating in the bookstore's WonkyTonk book group, featuring not novels but works of non-fiction, often politically tinged, including histories such as Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration and biographies like Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right

It is hard to imagine Sullivan County without Hamish & Henry, yet we must. As a result of steadily declining sales, Hamish & Henry will be closing its doors in March. The problem is partially due to the Bush recession, but obviously the long-term issue is the increasing popularity of ebook readers and a corresponding distribution mechanism that bypasses the traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore.

No one can be surprised at this development, least of all Sue and Jeff, who have owned their share of Kindles and iPads. Nor is there anyone specifically to blame. The eliimination of bookstores is a result of the fabled Invisible Hand of economics. The problem is — the Invisible Hand doesn't always do what's right or what's beneficial. The Invisible Hand is sometimes a slap in the face.

Almost everyone who loves books also loves bookstores. We know the pleasures of browsing shelves, of fingering the volumes, of reading a paragraph or a page or much more. We have experienced book serendipity — the discovery of an author we'd never heard of, or an unfamiliar book by a familiar author, or a title that suddenly seems like the most interesting subject on earth. We chat with the owners and the workers, and we soak up the culture of the written word.

But all of this doesn't matter if purchasing an electronic edition of a book is easier and cheaper than going to the bookstore, and that has certainly happened. Add a little more convenience — for example, I have recently enjoyed comfortably reading a book on the sharp display of my Windows Phone, which I can carry around in my pocket — and the Invisible Hand sweeps bookstores into a mass grave.

But what takes the place of the bookstore? Do we now gather around a public Nook to talk about books? Do we meet in the nearby pizza parlor for public readings? Do we now leave it to Amazon to recommend what books we must read rather than chatting with other human beings?

If only the Invisible Hand could talk! If only it could tell us how to replace what it has destroyed!


This may be anecdotal , but at my son's high school the book club is alive and doing well. The club is growing by allowing the students to openly discuss the books. It's a book club, not a electronic reader club.

Some of the students even have taken to hang out at book stores after school. Unfortunately the stores are part of a national chain, but the Half-Price store does have a nice local feel to it.

Take heart the love of books still seems to be growing.

— Bill, Mon, 13 Dec 2010 14:55:02 -0500

Sorry. You're on your own. You'll just have to try things until something works.

Are there any pubs in the area?

BobW, Mon, 13 Dec 2010 14:55:34 -0500

I too have struggled to find meaningful community, even here in the metropolis of Los Angeles.

The only place that has offered modicum of satisfaction is the Middle Eastern Restaurant down the street.

But, meeting is never random.

Bob Reselman, Mon, 13 Dec 2010 17:45:33 -0500

A sad and unfortunately too frequent occurrence. Books are one of the greatest sources of pleasure for so many people. If only readers/buyers would learn to assign value to their local independent bookstore, what it brings to their community and the jobs and income it keeps in their community.

Yeah, is cheap, it's convenient...but we all will eventually have pay the price for turning to the big boxes and megalithic online booksellers.

Robin K. Blum, Mon, 13 Dec 2010 18:09:53 -0500

Next thing you know, we'll be playing games using computers instead of buying physical decks of cards. We might play games with others over the internet instead of moving chess pieces on a physical table. We might send snapshots to friends without visiting a bricks and mortar post office -- and might even not have to pay postage for them to get smashed or lost in the mail instead of delivered. We might listen to music without visiting a concert hall. We might pay rent without handing a lump of gold to our landlord.

Though it is a bit sad when the cats' store in the Catskills is killed by a computer's mouse.

— ftp://pub, Mon, 13 Dec 2010 22:56:54 -0500

People get books for free these days - - information wants to be free + creative destruction --> the music, movie, print, software and news industries have canibalized themselves.

Surely, you mean the Obama recession?

— Josh, Tue, 14 Dec 2010 02:07:04 -0500

> information wants to be free

Surely in this age of information, everyone must know that Stewart Brand actually said the following:

    On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

I got the full quote from the Wikipedia entry on "Information wants to be free", which also contains other variations.

It's necessary to deal with both halves of this paradox. Otherwise you're just being lazy. — Charles

"It's necessary to deal with both halves of this paradox."

Not really. Some sellers want to charge high prices for information and some sellers want to charge low prices for information. Unlike the kind of fraudulent capitalism that led to the Great Recession, this kind of competitive capitalism is genuine. Sellers who charge low prices, if they can survive, win.

— ftp://pub, Tue, 14 Dec 2010 18:51:32 -0500

I think the Invisible Hand says Starbucks. Answers the loss of independent book stores with a chain of coffee houses!

Don't get me wrong - I prefer the independent bookstore myself though I only shop at those that carry used books.

Charles Feduke, Mon, 20 Dec 2010 14:41:06 -0500

Josh, I believe he meant the "Servants of Wall Street" recession. That includes both of the most recent occupants of the White House.

Beyond that political note, I gave up on most bookstores long ago, when they quit carrying anything but huge piles of best-sellers that I don't want to read. Used bookstores are mostly no better, just the books from last year or the year before instead of the current ones.

I've also experienced the "I'm a stranger" side of those nice little neighborhood bookstores. Generally, that means that I get ignored so that the clerk/owner can chat with their (cool) friends even though I just want to give them money. Don't underestimate the unfriendliness to new people that a cozy-for-regulars environment can create.

While I used to love bookstores, Amazon brings me what I want, cheaper, with a better selection, and with no shipping charges.

— Eric Johnson, Tue, 21 Dec 2010 17:00:13 -0500

Sorry but i disagree , when I go to a small bookstores mostly people though seems polite and gentle usually remain distance. When I try to break the ice mostly every one reacts in snobbish way.

After this behavior for years,I decided to buy books from store but don't even talk to people there and read books at home, really loss of community as I am vivid reader of books and have a huge collection and willing to share with polite people.

— Kiran, Mon, 3 Jan 2011 01:38:41 -0500

I this is not just about a simple bookstore anecdotic fall. I prefer to read this story as a parabola.

It's just the story of a changing world.

Who'd prefer a dead world where everything is staying at the same place forever ?

Some changes are pleasant, some others not. These are the "both sides" we have to deal with from milennia, the yin and the yang.

That's ok, some change are always the same... But do not blame Bush nor Obama (yes, you can blame Bush, it is a bad example), they are just puppets in the hand of those who really drive the world, the few 5% people who own 95% of wealth. We do not vote for them. Their term never stops. Our democracies are a lure. That's the real problem of this world.

And unfortunately (because voting should be the right way to change things in a democrcy) the only people who can change the world are pirates because they do not respect the rules of this game like most of us are doing, like sheeps.

Stopping to play the game is the only way to change the world and paradoxically ... to avoid the fall of all little bookstores...

Never forget : a revolution is never politically correct!

— Olivier, Sat, 29 Jan 2011 02:13:31 -0500

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