Monday, February 28, 2011


Kevin Coolidge

New, used, or borrowed: I’ve always loved books. The smell and texture of a pulp era treasure, or the bright, glossy cover of a New York Times bestseller, I love books and I love the hunt – browsing shelves, finding an old favorite, a new title, or an interesting topic, in the dark corner of a second hand store, the bright aisle of a supermarket, or from a table made by throwing a board over two sawhorses. There are many places to buy books, but time flows differently in a bookstore. I love a good bookstore, but are bookstores going out of print?

Borders, the big box bookstore, has filed for bankruptcy. Does this mean the end of the bookstore? The story of Borders began in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the early 1970’s, founded by two brothers, Tom and Louis Borders. Borders started with just a meager supply of used books. In 1975, the brothers bought the stock of Wahr’s, a bookstore closing its doors after 80 years, at which point Borders moved to larger quarters, and a new chapter began.

As Borders spread nationwide, many smaller independent bookstores were closing. Borders offered more choices at better prices, and in the early 90’s was bought by Kmart, who owned the mall-based bookstore chain Waldenbooks. Kmart hoped that the senior management of Borders could help the floundering Waldenbooks, but many of the senior management left. Kmart, facing its own problems and pressure from stockholders, spun off a new structured stock selloff, forming the Borders-Walden Group, which later was renamed Borders Group.

Borders had grown from a cozy little independent into a cold, box store behemoth. No longer a community based bookseller, but a corporation that sold books, Borders became a corporation that sought to conquer the bookselling market, and yet failed to see where the market was going. What did Borders do wrong?

Borders expanded too quickly, and failed to adapt to the digital marketplace, but where it really failed was reading the writing on the wall. Certainly, there are more entertainment and education resources today than even two years ago. More movies, more DVDs, eBooks, iPads, ipods, eReaders, video streaming over the internet, and more books than any caffeinated consumer could ever hope to read. Really good books, books that keep you up at night turning pages, are not as quite as common as the publishers want you to think. Many bestselling books are rushed into print to take advantage of a literary trend. Publishers hope that if you buy one book on teenage vampires, that you will buy twenty, but all you really wanted was a really good story.

I don’t think the story of the bookstore is over, but I do think the era of the big box bookstore has come to a close. I don’t know what books without Borders is going to look like. Borders is seeking chapter 11, and owes millions to publishers. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t bought a book from Borders in years, if you are a book lover; you are going to feel this. This collapse of empire will affect the publishing landscape with a ripple effect that has yet to be felt.

Borders and big box stores belonged to an era when book retailing was a big enough business to dominate, but you have to sell a lot of books to keep the lights on, and there’s just not as much money in it anymore. The story of the book is not over, but maybe it’s time to go back to start a new chapter, shopping for books in stores that let cats wander through the store, and booksellers that know the community and their readers, and maybe they won’t even serve coffee…

Big Box Bookstores? Or Community minded booksellers? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column? Visit our blog at and catch up on your reading. Hobo says a real bookstore has a personality, and preferably a cat. For a book with a personality, check out Hobo’s book, “Hobo Finds a Home”, a children’s book about a cat who wanted more out of life.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Kevin Coolidge

It’s cold and quiet, the dead of winter. Life consists of trying to keep warm, shoveling snow, and waiting for spring. It’s pretty boring, and that’s the good news. Your teachers, your parents, and the media have been conspiring against you. The good news is that life is bigger, more exciting, and more interesting that you were taught to believe. The bad news? Life is going to kill you.

There are some facts that are just too terrifying to teach in school. Unfortunately, there’s a book called You Might Be a Zombie from the editors of that is more than happy to educate you. You will find answers to questions you didn’t even know you should be asking. Questions like, why is humanity doomed? What five popular brands did the Nazis give us? And is a zombie apocalypse really possible???

The bad news is that the police officer harassing you really was abusing his authority. The good news is according to research, if the roles were reversed, you’d likely be a brownshirt too. Turns out that fear of repercussion is all that keeps us from torturing other human beings.

You may have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment: a newspaper article asked for volunteers for the experiment. After tests to evaluate health and mental stability, twenty-four were chosen and divided into twelve guards and twelve prisoners. The goal was to test how captivity affects subjects put into positions of authority and submission.

It took less than one day for the subjects to abuse their authority. On day two, the prisoners rioted. The guards saw this as a good excuse to make prisoners sleep naked on concrete, restrict bathroom use, and make prisoners clean toilets with their bare hands. Keep in mind the entire experiment was voluntary and no one asked to be let out of the experiment.

The good news is that most of the natural disasters that Hollywood worries over are grossly exaggerated. The bad news is that nature is full of ticking time bombs quietly waiting to explode, and you’ve probably never heard of most of them.

People worry that the San Andreas Fault will shake Los Angeles right off the continental shelf. What you should be worrying about is the New Madrid Seismic Zone that stretches from Illinois to Alabama. In an earthquake, coastal towns are actually better off, as a portion of the seismic activity gets dissipated out to sea. No such luck for the landlocked inhabitants living in the New Madrid’s million square mile zone.

From 1811 to 1812 a series of quakes cracked sidewalks from Missouri to Baltimore and permanently altered the course of the Mississippi River. The quake swallowed the entire town of Little Prairie, Missouri, when it liquidated the ground it was built on. It no longer exists. Consider yourself warned.

According to Shakespeare and the editors of, there are more things in heaven and earth, which are dreamt of in your philosophy. The bad news is that it just may be three-inch, Japanese giant hornet that can spray flesh-melting poison. Now which do you want to hear first???

Good News? Or Bad News? Drop me an email at For all the news that’s fit to print, or to just catch up on past columns, check out our blog at The good news is that Hobo is finished with his new book. The bad news is that its release is tied up in litigation over the estate of Gonzo, the big mean cat next door…

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wise Man's Fear

Although some would disagree, book people will tell you that sometimes it’s nice to read a book again. Reasons to re-read are numerous, and often overlapping – to indulge in the pleasure of a familiar, beloved experience, like comfort food; to obtain a new perspective on a book you read years ago; to review the material for an academic reason; to refresh your memory on the plot and characters because a new installment of a series has been published.

Re-reading a book is one thing; re-using a column is, perhaps, another. Nevertheless, I hope you will forgive me for re-visiting a book review I wrote in July 2008. This, then, is a piece of that review:

Sometimes, the superlatives aren’t enough. … I have been accused of tending towards hyberbole. I have a hard time holding myself back, though: I say “H-U-G-E!”, drawing out the letters for emphasis; I say “awesome” and “amazing” quite a bit; I also like “fantastic” and “fabulous”. As a person who loves life and feels things deeply, it’s not unusual that my descriptions would be on the dramatic end of the spectrum.

This presents a bit of a problem, on occasion, when reviewing books. I love books. It’s easy to give all kinds of books an enthusiastic thumbs-up, employing any one of my favorite words noted above. But then what to do when a truly special book comes along? How to explain that this book, this author, the writing here, set themselves apart from anything else you’ve read in a long time?

Well, is that enough build-up, or have I exceeded my exaggeration threshold once again? If you can’t hear me on this, then look at what authors Ursula LeGuin, Terry Brooks, Anne McCaffrey, and Orson Scott Card – to name just a few – have to say about Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel, The Name of the Wind. In just the short time since the first printing in hardcover in April 2007, Rothfuss has garnered praise from major newspapers all across the U.S. and Europe, as well as earning multiple-starred reviews in The New York Times, the Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and The Onion A.V. Club. Reviewers didn’t just intimate that Rothfuss was the next J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien, they crowed it from the rooftops.

Just as I reassured readers in that past review, so I must emphasize again that, even if you don’t normally read a lot of ‘epic fantasy’, you may very well “still enjoy The Name of the Wind and the books to follow in ‘The Kingkiller Chronicles.’ Rothfuss’s writing is so mature, so capable, so smooth, that it transcends genre. In the same way that Tolkien wrote his Middle Earth books inspired by the legends of Classic Literature that he taught, so too, Rothfuss’s story reads like a modern telling of the heroes of old, the story of a man who became a legend in his own time. Rothfuss’s protagonist Kvothe reminds me of a Ulysses or Achilles, or more recently of Tolkien’s Aragorn. His story is by turns sentimental and sweet, intriguing, sad and desperate, triumphant, exciting, frightening. Both plot and the telling kept me turning pages well into the night.”

At the end of my review that July, over two years ago, I encouraged readers to sink their teeth into a wonderful new book, the start of an exciting, satisfying new trilogy. My last sentence was a blasé little warning: “The only problem… [is] waiting for Rothfuss’s second installment, The Wise Man’s Fear,” which at that time was due out the following April of 2009, less than a year from my first read of The Name of the Wind and my subsequent review.

The next time I enjoy the first book by a new author as much as that, I’ll remember to bite my tongue. April of 2009 arrived, and no book from Rothfuss. Also, no news, no word from him or his publisher, nothing from the distributors. Finally, after two or three months of wondering what on earth happened, news showed up on Rothfuss’s blog. He admitted to his fans that the pressure had been incredible: for years, he was simply a creative writing professor at a small university in Wisconsin; then, suddenly, he was internationally known. True hardcover first editions of The Name of the Wind are now selling for thousands of dollars. Rothfuss and his wife were expecting their first child. Bookstores, fans, his publisher and his agent were demanding that he go on a wide book tour. The re-writes of his second book had slowed to a crawl. Rothfuss asked his fans for forgiveness and patience. The part of that appeal that won me over was how Rothfuss explained that, as a reader, he truly understood how it feels to wait on the next installment in a series you love, but that as a writer, he was not going to release this second book until it met his expectations for himself.

After another missed release date in the early summer of 2010, we are finally at the gate for the real release of The Wise Man’s Fear, on March 1, 2011. Now, of course, I will have to go back to re-read the first story of Kvothe, to see how he got to the point where the second book opens in March. Was it worth the wait? Join the legions of Rothfuss fans to find out.

Hobo assures you that it will also be worth the wait for his second book. Want to re-read other book reviews in the meantime? Check out our blog at