Thanksgiving Dairies: The Confession

Thanksgiving 2011 was a bright sunny day with temperatures in the high 60s. While waiting for the  feast to be ready, Jay and the kids set up Ben’s ping pong table in the driveway and had a fight-to-the-death tournament amid ankle-deep mulberry and maple tree leaves. Ben missed the tournament because he and his dad went to a matinee.  When he returned, I had a rare pause in the kitchen so I challenged him to a game.

We were well into it when I heard a car pull up in our alley. Normally, this means someone is dumping a crapload of trash.  Often this is an illegal dump of some landlord cleaning out eviction property somewhere no where near us and I am stuck with moving the big pieces–broken furniture, big plastic children’s toys, heaps of clothing, all someone’s now former life–out of the way, then collecting the garbage from the split bags and stuffing them back into the dumpsters.  It is as depressing as it is annoying. Someone’s home is literally being thrown away. I often wonder where they went and what it is like when you have no resources and all your carefully collected belongings–the kids’ Big Wheel found at a thrift shop, the velour couch bought on time from Rent-to- Own, the end tables, the mattress and box springs are now lying split and broken in a filthy alley because you couldn’t make rent.

But I also feel a sense of rage towards the person, usually a slum-lord who thinks it is ok to dump all this stuff in back of my house.  Se when I hear a car pull up, I’m out there in a flash.

This time it was a rumbley old sedan and its backseat was filled with what looked like trash.  The dumpster lid was propped open and it seemed most of its contents had been removed to the alley.  Where is the person, I thought. The motor is running. Where did they go? Then a small, 20-something white woman stood up from where she had been foraging, inside the dumpster.  She was neatly  dressed and her bare hands were grubby with trash handling. She was barely a head taller than the dumpster.  She had some metal thing in one hand.

“I’m just looking for scrap metal,” she said.  “Ok,” I said, looking clearly unhappy with her.  “I can leave if you want,” she offered.  “No, go ahead.”And I went back in the yard to grumble about how I was now going to have to pick up all this trash again. I did not even wonder why this young woman would be searching for scrap on Thanksgiving. I even went in the house and complained loudly to my family who were assembled in the living room and deep into a program on television,  about how annoying the dumpsters are because I had just cleaned up the alley the day before an now I would have to do it again. Some of them look up at me blankly, but no one responded. They are used to my hot-headed declarations.

“Apparently, not only do I have to clean up after everyone I know, I now have to clean up after everyone I don’t know, ” I whined to Ben as we went back outside to think about our ping pong game.   The Parker House rolls were cooling in the pan, the dressing and potatoes were ready to go. The turkey and supplemental breast (I wanted leftovers) were roasting in the oven and the house was filled with that wonderful all-is-good smell.

Ben and I decided to go back out to the alley to make sure she wasn’t going to dump everything and drive away.  “I’ll clean everything up,” she told me when I told her I always have to clean up the alley and would really appreciate it if she didn’t dump stuff everywhere.  “I’m just searching for scrap metal. I lost my job and my daughter and I are being evicted tomorrow and I just want to be sure I have something for her to eat,” she said.  “See,” she said, pointing to a small pile of metal things she had already foraged. “I’m going to take all of this, it won’t be here, I won’t make a mess, I’m just trying to find some scrap metal so I can get something to eat for my daughter. But I can go if I’m bothering you.”

I had an incredibly uncharitable thought about drug addictions, and mentally noted that there was no child in the car. It was  like someone from Fox Network had a set up a small office in my brain and was spewing its toxic waste into my polluted thought-stream. But she was so small and fresh-scrubbed for a dumpster diver, she could have been my daughter if I had had one. I mumbled something about it being ok and Ben and I went back in the yard.

“Well that was depressing,” I said to Ben. “What do you think about seeing if the turkey breast is cooked yet and giving it to her?”  “Sure,” said Ben. Ben would give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it. From the moment he was old enough to hand things to you, he was sharing. If he has $10 in his pocket to buy movie candy, he’ll come home with nothing, not because he bought $10 of snacks for himself but because he bought $10 of snacks for whomever he was with who didn’t have enough money to buy a soda. He doesn’t make a big deal of it and wouldn’t even mention these extraordinary acts of charity if I didn’t grill him about where is the money, or what happened to whatever toy it is that is missing.  He is a good influence on me.

The turkey breast was nowhere near done. I grabbed a grocery bag and Ben and I cleaned out the cabinet of anything that looked vaguely nourishing.  But I was unable to face her. I didn’t want to hear her absolve me of my moral failing.  I didn’t want to be absolved.  I didn’t think I should be allowed to feel better for anything. I had not only been callous and heartless on this most symbolic day of sharing, but I had announced this heartlessness in front of my entire family, most especially Ben.  It was Ben who took the groceries  to her.  He then, without prompting, retrieved the giant bag of aluminum cans he had collected and gave her that as well. He told me she had thanked us as said God bless.  It went without saying that we weren’t in the mood for ping pong anymore.

Ben and I didn’t speak of the donation to anyone else. For all they knew, I had left it at complaining about poor pitiful me for having to clean up the alley. They hadn’t noticed our cabinet clean-out.  I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want anyone to think better of me for doing what I should have done without hesitation.  Even writing this and posting it seems suspect. Why not confine these personal upbraidings to my journal and not run the risk of someone telling me what a good person I am?

In truth, I process most things out loud. In truth, I need an audience.  In truth, I need someone to approve of me. And maybe putting this out there will lead to someone thinking less of me. A punishment, as it were.  My admission of human smallness.  I have never had to forage in a dumpster unless I wanted to retrieve a cool piece of furniture that I then repurposed.  And almost always, those retrievals were things that sat alongside the dumpster. I have never actually gotten into a dumpster, and certainly never because I was trying to feed my family.

Thanksgiving dinner went off well. In less than thirty minutes, about 20 hours of cooking  became 5 or 6 small left-over containers. I have some critiques of the final hour that I will record for next year: don’t cook the dressing  so long, you’ll break someone’s tooth. It’s nice to have a couple of classic items on the menu that aren’t pimped out with fancy sauces and exotic spices. English powdered mustard is still mustard and some people will find it too spicy. Make more cranberries because apparently, word is getting out that they are good.  Let people help.  Don’t forget the appetizers. And most of all, don’t let your culinary skills go to your head. Because after all, the real blessing to be thankful for is that we could feed eight people we love well under our own roof one more year.


Thanksgiving Diaries, 23 November, 2011

I have finally learned how to make a pie crust.

Ok,  I have had absolutely no time to perform my annual Thanksgiving rituals involving manic cooking this year. I have barely finished even the most basic of preps. Thanks to my lovely bulldog, Bruno, who decided that 5:15 am was a perfectly fine time to get up today, I am a walking zombie. I have before me a full shift of prep tonight alone. I have already had to make the pepita/pecan/candied ginger/brown butter cake topping twice because a moment’s inattention filled the kitchen with the decidedly unsavory smell of burnt butter. Why do I do this you may ask? Why do I decide on a menu that must all be from scratch, that must involve a variety of pre-preparations of broths, brines, and sauces?  I do it because I persist in loving the process. I persist in loving my family this way, although some of them may think it is a strange love that leads me to dissolve in tears of weariness barely 48 hours before “the big day.”

Fine. Be that as it may.

Today as I wandered the grocery store aisles at 6:30 am, unable to actually focus on what my list in hand said, and frequently backtracking for an item I walked right by, I thought of something in local writer Jeff Ricker’s just published first novel, Detours.The narrator was talking about his just deceased mother and how she hated the music that was played in stores, how she didn’t want to shop to someone else’s personal soundtrack. It was a great detail that made his character come to life so to speak. At the moment I was haunting Schnucks, the music was tending toward Karen Carpenter and I wondered whose soundtrack I was in. I wondered also, how I would be remembered. She told us she loved to cook for us but the way she brandished that chef’s knife, we would back away slowly, smiling and nodding.

Ok, maybe I do bite off more than I can chew sometimes. But I would be bored to another kind of tears if I didn’t have a challenge. This year’s Thanksgiving challenge feels olympic to me.  I worked longer hours and some of them were on my sacred Wednesday off. I had to juggle the bad timing of payday with shopping for items I usually need the week before. Our house is still in recovery from the exterior paint job we did this October. We still have yet to dust some surfaces for the first time even though we created an enormous amount of paint dust everywhere. And now family is coming. They will be able to write their names on the dining room window sill. I would advise against using the 3 second rule if you drop your dinner roll on the floor. And truthfully, I am going to have to bar anyone over the age of 20 from the bedroom currently belonging to the nephew. It’s heart-stopping and not in a good way.

But as I say, I have a strange way of saying I love you. And I do. I love them all. Ferociously. Tenaciously. With all of my heart, the heart that misses the family of my childhood: especially my wonderful maternal grandmother whose roasting pan will hold this year’s turkey and whose silverplate I will lovingly set the table with; and my mother, my dear dear mother who knew the right way to do everything and whose voice I still sometimes hear correcting me as I chop garlic with her knives or mash potatoes her way. These two women are at the heart of everything I do in the kitchen. And cooking with them in my heart and their kitchen ware in my hands is how I stay connected both to them and to the family I have made.  But sometimes, when I grow weary, and women do grow weary, the voice of my paternal grandmother creeps in just a little bit.

Let me tell you a story. My paternal grandmother was a slightly bitter–scratch that–exceedingly bitter, Polish woman from a gigantic family that emigrated to Chicago a long time ago. When I knew her, she lived with her third husband at the motel they built and ran for 25 years in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. My step grandfather was a very pleasant and agreeable fellow who emigrated from the German part of Switzerland a long time ago. We didn’t spend much time there because I suspect she and my mother were not the best of friends. My mother once called her a woman who didn’t like other women. It seemed the harshest of criticisms, even to me at the tender age of 14. Years passed and I grew up and made visits of my own to Eureka Springs. One particular visit many years back I came to breakfast at my grandparents with my then partner, Sue Hyde. My grandmother encouraged us to cook our own eggs because, “you’ll cook them how you like them.” So Sue tended to some easy over eggs while my grandmother waited to cook her husband’s eggs. “That’s the right way to do it,” she told Sue. “WIth a low temperature so you don’t ruin the eggs.”  Sue served us up and it was my grandmother’s turn at the stove. She immediately flipped the burner to high and proceeded to completely immolate my grandfather’s eggs, which she served without comment, and he ate without comment.

What kind of love was that, I wonder?

That is who I thought about when I tossed the first round of cake topping and started anew. I have already had a semi-traditional Thanksgiving meltdown, so theoretically, the only way is up. (No meltdown can compare to my award-winning performance some years ago when, at the exact moment that I should be stirring broth into my gravy roux, I was standing in the shower sobbing. But that’s another story for another time.)

No, I am ready for this Thanksgiving, even if it isn’t exactly going according to plan. Really, what matters more, that I have every last menu item ready for the food stylist, or that there is a more or less guarantee that in about 24 hours from now, a group of people I love so much it makes my heart burst will be sitting around my table laughing and eating. For this, I will be thankful.

And, as promised in a recent facebook post, here is the menu:


Thanksgiving 2011

Roast Turkey

Brought to you by Harr Family Farms,  brined and roasted per Alton Brown’s recipe

Mashed IdahoPotatoes

The classic method, made lighter with the addition of homemade chicken broth.

Turkey Gravy

This item is the Thanksgiving necessity that often brings down timid cooks. We make it according to the master, B. Ann, using a broth made from stewing turkey parts in housemade chicken broth.

Roasted Garlic and Shallot Sauce

A lighter alternative to turkey gravy that makes those second and third helpings seem totally doable. The rather simple name belies the lovely complexity and unexpected rich taste of this sauce.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Sage

Sweet potatoes were called for. Today we served them cubed and gently roasted with fresh sage from our garden. Sage that cares little for the changing seasons and kindly makes itself available nearly the year ‘round.

Pole Beans with Miso and Almonds

Normally, it’s green beans. Often, they are cooked to within an inch of their lives in a can of mushroom soup. Not this time! Our friends at Kruse Farms inIllinoishad fresh picked pole beans at the market. We’ve dressed them up for the party in a Japanese-inspired sauce.

Chestnut Stuffing with Dates

Back by popular demand, this is now the Kleindienst/Steele/Mooney family classic. Well, it’s Jo Anna’s favorite so that makes it the family classic.  We hand roast the chestnuts, painfully peel them, and bring them together with the rest of the stuff. Sorry, we are too lazy to make the bread for the stuffing. We outsource that part.

Cranberry Sauce with Pears and Ginger

We don’t really care if no one likes this. We will happily eat it in the days to come. We will mix it in yogurt. We will pour it on ice cream. We will stand in front of the refrigerator and eat it out of the Tupperware with a spoon.

Parker House Rolls

Another family classic back by popular demand. We don’t speak of the butter that gave up its life so that we may partake of this sinful (Sorry, recipe provider Father Dominic) indulgence.

Après le Repas Principal

(Sounds fancier in French)


Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake

This is the real reason we eat Thanksgiving dinner. Words cannot describe this cake. Everyone who needs to, may request a moment alone.

Apple Pie

By the time you read this, we will have mastered, or at least passably faked, our way through the Alton Brown pie dough.

Jo Anna’s Peanut Butter Pie

Another family classic. In case your annual calorie intake has fallen short, eat one piece and call Jo in the morning.

Barbara Grier, 1933-2011

I read this morning that Barbara Grier passed away yesterday. She was 78 and leaves behind her partner of 40 years, Donna McBride, and an inestimably significant legacy in the publishing world. Barbara Grier almost single-handedly created the genre of lesbian fiction. He publishing house, Naiad Press, was responsible for hundreds if not thousands, of books by lesbian authors. They were mostly entertainments–romances and mysteries–but they cast lesbians at the center of the story and lesbian lives as the driver of their plots. In the nearly three decades Barbara published writers like Katherine Forrest (Curious Wine is the bestselling lesbian novel of all time), Karen Kallmaker, Sarah Aldridge, Ann Bannon, Lee Lynch, Sarah Schulman, are but a handful of the writers who benefited from being in the Naiad stable. When she and her partner Donna retired in 1997, Barbara made sure that the women who now run Bella Books were ready to step in and carry on. That we can count on a steady stream of lesbian novels to be published every year is almost totally due to Barbara’s unwavering, rock-solid, in-your-face, unapologetic, absolute commitment to making this happen. At Left Bank Books, we sold hundreds of Naiad titles. We had some customers who would buy nearly everything they published. One customer had a standing order with us and came in monthly for her fix. For a while, St. Louis lesbians had their pick of stores: The Women’s Eye Bookstore and Our World Too and Left Bank Books from which to get their Naiad fix. But for many more years, before and after those other wonderful stores existed, Left Bank Books was the only place in St. Louis you could find Naiad’s titles. I had so many quintessentially Barbara conversations with Barbara over the years. She would call to tell me about the latest “bestseller” she was about to send me. “You’re going to need at least a hundred. Lesbians are going to be knocking down your doors for this. You might need security the morning it goes on sale.” She would be completely serious. She would tell me something like this about her new book several times a year. She completely believed in what she was doing. Barbara didn’t mince words. If we were a little late in getting a payment to her, she would discuss breaking kneecaps. My business partner, Barry Leibman, would grimace and hand the phone to me when Barbara called to collect. I always managed to smooth the way, Barbara the butch warming to my femme ministrations. We were in this together. We were part of this vast network that Barbara had so much to do with—lesbian booksellers and readers and writers and publishers making our own culture where the mainstream continued to ignore our existence, save for the odd Rita Mae Brown title or two. (And Rita Mae Brown didn’t get mainstream attention until the long-gone lesbian publisher Daughters Press published Rubyfruit Jungle first and made it into a bestseller). Barbara knew that the novels she published were sometimes formulaic, she also knew that there were thousands of lesbians out there who would pluck down their lunch money for a book in which the formula included lesbians. She was completely dedicated to making a cultural space by and for lesbians. Sometimes she appeared to misstep, as when she published the nonfiction anthology, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, in 1985. While it was a smash hit with lesbians, a cause for outrage among conservatives, it was the fact that she sold an excerpt to Penthouse Forum that caught the most criticism from her otherwise loyal base. Lesbians didn’t want their sexual laundry shared so obviously with a nonlesbian readership. But she stood her ground. If lesbians could make money, Barbara was all for it. Left Bank hosted an event with co-authors Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan. I can barely remember it today, but I know Barbara’s business decision dominated the conversation that should have been about the lives of the women inside the book. I loved Barbara. I loved her brash, confident attitude. I loved her complete belief in lesbians. I loved flirting with her at Lambda Literary Award Ceremonies every year. (with complete respect always to Donna) I was super proud that she hailed from Kansas City—proving for the umpteenth time that all important developments in lgbt culture were not invented in San Francisco or New York. I am, we are, forever in her debt for her meticulous lifelong work in archiving the written words of lesbians far beyond what Naiad published. Barbara was one of the few women still among us whose lives connected the early days of modern lesbian identity—in 1956 with her work on The Ladder, the first lesbian periodical with a circulation that capped under 5,000—to the end of the 20th century, when you merely have to press a button to see lesbian content on your computer. Not one lesbian writer, editor, publisher, reader, or bookseller would be what we are today without Barbara Grier, whether we realize it or not. I will miss you terribly Barbara.

Dinners, Fires and Knives: Whether or Not to Try This at Home

If you cook this meal you will feel like you put your fingers in a pencil sharpener. Especially if you use your mandolin to make the perfect ¼ inch thick crescent moon slices of red potatoes called for in the Goody Girl Championship Potatoes recipe in Guy Fieri Food. Fieri is the spiky-haired dude on The Food Network who travels around eating spectacular diner food on his show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” His first book includes his stop at St. Louis’s own Iron Barley.

Left Bank Books hosted a booksigning with Guy when he was in St. Louis recently with his Guy Fieri Food Road Show.  I spent the better part of an afternoon taking copies of his book out of dazzled fans’ hands, opening them to the right page and handing them off to “Stretch.” Stretch is a sculptor and the owner of Grinder’s, a Kansas City-based “dive” featured on Guy’s show. Stretch handed the opened books off to Guy and ushered the star-blinded fans to his side for a photo. Guy stood right where rocker Sammy Hagar had signed a month before. Turns out they are friends and one of Guy’s recipes in the new book was developed for Sammy. Small world.

Later that day, Stretch would be on stage at the Touhill with Guy where he would roll out a “blender” the size of a washing machine that he welded together from spare parts, including garbage disposals. He and Guy could not pass around the gallons of finished product because the Touhill prohibits drinking and eating in its auditorium. Not a great place for this show, which depends on people getting progressively drunker and rowdier throughout the evening. It’s literally a three-ring circus of food demo-ing, music and drink mixing, and in the right venue, a fair amount of food and drink flinging. I would have loved this show more at say, a state fair.

Guy grew up on a hog farm. His tour was sponsored by The Pork Council. My meat-eating extends to chicken.  But I got a book signed anyway for my foodie 13-year-old and cracked it open Saturday to have a go.

Advice to the adventurous: when you are going to try a pork recipe after basically never having cooked a pig-based product past bacon, don’t start with Guy’s “Summer Grilled Pork.”

First of all, Guy doesn’t go into a lot of detail in his book about technique so if you aren’t pretty sure of yourself you might wind up with half the ingredients in the bowl wondering if you should have blanched, roasted, or peeled something first. To accompany the pork, I made Guy’s Kale with Roasted Beets and Bacon (didn’t use the bacon), and the aforementioned Goody Girl potato salad, again with bacon-didn’t-use-the-bacon. Beets bleed all over you, perhaps a blessing since I was already bleeding from the tragic mandolin accident earlier. Guy should perhaps mention that food gloves might come in handy here, especially if you plan on entertaining later.

But back to the pork. Buy four 1-inch boneless pork loins. Then take them home and, in the words of Ysma on The Emperor’s New Groove (funniest family movie ever), “Smash them with a hammer.”  Ok, not a hammer, too small, but something that will be strong enough to mash out the flesh from 1 inch to ¼ inch. After spending about 20 minutes pounding away with the back of my ice cream scoop, I gave up, got out the cast iron skillet, and banged on those hapless pieces of porcine matter like I was a steel-driving man.  I almost got them to ¼ inch, I’m going to say it was more like 3/8ths. You will not need to go to the gym for a few days after performing this procedure.  Maybe to the chiropractor instead. Or to a course in anger management.

After you have repaired your worktable from the assault, you lay out a big piece foil, arrange a sheet made from slices of thick bacon and then lay the pork loins on top. Add some cream cheese, roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts and then roll it like a gigantic maki roll.  Grill this massive foiled burrito “for 7 to 8 minutes on each of the four sides,” Guy writes.  No temperature mentioned.  When the time came to turn it onto its folded edge, as I feared, bacon grease came pouring out and four foot high flames leapt upwards towards Ameren’s lines and a conveniently dead branch on the maple tree. I don’t think you can squirt water on a grease fire on a gas grill.

Shortly before this part of the preparation, our dinner guest, Kathleen Finneran, author of the beautiful memoir, The Tender Land, had arrived, and theoretically, I was supposed to be visiting.  But Jay kept her company in the living room. And anyone who’s been to dinner more than once at our house knows about my No Fly Zone in the kitchen.

As I contemplated my next move, Jay called from the house to see if I could find our advanced copy of Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante to loan to Kathleen. It’s a great read written from the perspective of a retired female orthopedic surgeon who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. It has a murder in it and the narration makes it absolutely un-put-downable. It comes out July 5.

“Not a good time,” I called from the flaming grill.  Long-handled tongs came in very handy here as I could not even approach the lid of the grill to close it, my solution to the fire being to ignore it.  “Do you need any help out there,” Jay or Kathleen called to me from their safe confidence that I knew what I was doing. “No, I’m ok,” I replied. Not really, I thought, but perhaps what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

When the time comes, you are supposed to open the grill, take the foil off the bacon-wrapped pork loaf, and “crisp the bacon” on the grill, while basting it with the honey mustard sauce you have prepared in the meantime. But instead, I was trepidatiously peeling soot-blackened foil from $40 of groceries. I discovered that far from need to crisp the bacon, I would need to call in a forensics specialist in fire events to verify that the charcoal crusted loaf was indeed covered in bacon. Good thing Kathleen is a good friend, I thought.

Kathleen and Jay swear to me that my rendition of Guy Fieri’s Summer Grilled Pork was really good and had seconds and thirds, eating the immolated bacon along with the delicate interior. Later, back from working the Shirley Strawberry/Lyah Leflore event, Jay’s sister gobbled it down, too. I’m not planning to try this again unless someone else bangs the pork (ok, off-color joke), and I have a way to prevent another oil spill.

Remember the potatoes alluded to in the opening of this story?  Goody Girl potatoes are adapted by Guy for his book. Not sure what he brought to the recipe. But it is sinfully and undeniably delicious, probably because of the stick of butter, cup of grated cheddar cheese, and sour cream involved. Don’t eat this if you care about cholesterol. The really cool part of this recipe is that you boil the potatoes in crab boil, which imparts a fabulous bouquet of slightly exotic taste to the little spuds. I stood over the pot sampling their undressed little selves for several minutes to be sure I wanted to serve them to Kathleen or just hoard them aside for later. I will definitely try this potato boiling technique again even if I don’t use them in this recipe. Which, by the way, is supposed to be a warm potato salad, and involve some bacon (of course), but I chose to spread it in a casserole like scalloped potatoes and keep it warm in the oven while I put the finished touches on my fire-fighting lesson in the backyard.

Guy’s kale is not much different than mine, except that he uses apple cider vinegar and I use soy sauce. We agree on lots of slivered garlic. The roasted beets stirred into Guy’s kale is wonderful, but again, my mandolin-shaved, charcoal-blackened and beet reddened digits were a reminder as to why people who can afford it hire caterers.  Plus, you don’t need the bacon in the kale. Already I was serving an entire pound of bacon, 4 pork loins, and a stick of butter to basically two people. It’s just too Paula Deen for my tastes even if I’m not eating most of it.

In case you are wondering, I grilled myself a chicken breast rubbed with a rosemary, sea salt, garlic, and olive oil paste and loved the honey mustard dressing meant for the pork. On Sunday, I nursed my digits and pined for a masseuse. But they say the best thing is to get right back on the horse so I’m planning to make pasta from scratch with a seafood sauce for dinner tonight. My kneadin’ arms need a workout.

Independent Bookstores: We’re Here, We’re Near, Get Used to Us

This year’s book industry news has been dominated by two stories: E-readers and the Chapter 11 and reorganization of Borders. Depending upon who’s speaking, the existence of either can be seen as a blessing or a curse. Many assume e-readers mark the death of books and of independent bookstores. Many also assume the death of Borders marks a second chance for the indies. Others see e-readers as another techno-boom that will play itself out eventually and the reading public will settle into its preferred reading styles, probably a blend of electronic and paper. They will source these reading options from places they trust. Many of those places will be independent bookstores and their websites.

Other others understand the demise of Borders as a drag on all of us. Smaller publishers left unpaid by Borders for the last quarter of 2010 have been seriously injured and some have gone or will go under. Larger publishers have behaved in ways I can only describe as panicked: making irrational cutbacks in staffing that result in degraded publishing (poor editing, fewer high quality “mid-list” books, worse deals for their sources, the authors) and compromised service to their showrooms, the indie bookstores. Having previously put all their eggs in the big box store basket, then shifted slightly to include the even bigger online behemoth Amazon, they now find themselves scrambling to get on the e-book bandwagon because the limited production needs and relatively high margins seem like the new black. And even as they speak glowingly of their independent bookstore partners, big publishers are boasting about their shiny new direct-to-consumer websites, as if someone in a executive office said after Borders stiffed them and Amazon started its own “publishing” business, “we don’t need no stinkin’ bookstores.”

This flawed logic overlooks the fact that the biodiverse indies are  the healthiest part of  bookselling ecosystem. We are the real Amazon, the Amazon rainforest of species, each with our own unique properties and talents. If one indie closes, chances are the cost to a major publisher will go nearly unnoticed because each of us individually is a relative speck in the accounts receivable departments of major publishers relative to an entire quarter of unpaid billables from Borders. And although I know failed indies have stiffed publishers, a larger number of them actually pay their bills before they close.

If one indie closes, another one opens somewhere.   In fact, more indie bookstores opened than closed last year. About 200 newly opened bookstores joined the American Booksellers Association last year, a number similar to the number of Borders who closed. Two hundred leaner, more focused, unique and fiscally responsible bookstores.

These stores may not possess the airport-sized square footage of the missing Borders stores, but they do have something more important: owners on the premises. People who have a stake in what they are doing punching the clock everyday.  When the person who signed a piece of paper saying he or she would be good for the debt is in the store handselling and handshaking, straightening, counting down a drawer, and working side by side with their staff, he or she is more likely to care about the outcome than a board of directors in another city whose only measurement of success is stock dividends. Owner occupied bookstores are more involved in their communities. We have to be. We have to look you in the face when we don’t get your book on time, or cut you off in traffic later for that matter. These aren’t widgets we are selling, these are collections of intellectual property, works of art that we are curating for our community. We have our livelihoods in mind to be sure, but we see our livelihoods as inextricably connected to the health of our communities overall. We pay our taxes. We buy goods and services from our neighbors. We listen.

With the advent of e-readers, we listened.  Indie bookstores brokered a deal with Google and over 200 hundred independent bookstores nationwide now offer Google e-books at competitive prices on our websites that you can download and read on any e-reading device except the one that Amazon sells.  We have definitely lost sales this year because you all got gadgets for Christmas and thought the only place you could get content was from Amazon, but we are here to tell you that you are mistaken.  And don’t hesitate if you don’t know what you are doing, bring that thing in and we’ll help you get started in e-reading. When you are fatigued from the digital experience, you can count on us to find you something made from renewable resources to read.

Yes, underneath all the doom and gloom stories the media so loves to print, independent bookstores, the tortoise in this race to nowhere, are still moving steadily along. When you need a break from the noise in the industry, stop in or surf over to our websites for an old fashioned human interaction, kind of like the ones you read about in…..books.