Wednesday, October 06, 2004

I've never envied bookstore workers their jobs, since in addition to inadequate pay & not nearly enough benefits, it's always felt as if there was a certain toxin involved in any environment dedicated to the movement of books as commodities. I spent part of this afternoon in what is very close to a utopia for poetry -- the warehouse stacks of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley -- but came away, as I have in the past, depressed rather than uplifted. This isn't a negative comment about SPD at all -- it's staff have been heroic at making poetry available for decades now. And, as is always the case, I can't step inside its facility without dropping a couple of hundred dollars.

But in addition to stacks of books that I already own, SPD has row upon row of books that frankly I'm not much interested in, or maybe was vaguely interested in in 1975, but not since. Especially sad, of course, is to see the dwindling stock of presses whoses publishers have since passed on, knowing that in many cases once these copies are gone, these books will be available only through rare book services like It's a distribution venue, of course, but at the same time SPD (or, for that matter, any of its competitors, such as Consortium) is also a kind of living museum of the written word.

SPD is not nearly as scattershot as, say, a publication like Poets & Writers, or an institution like AWP -- both of which often seem just a step behind Writers Digest in a race to the lowest common denominator. But even under the best of circumstances, there is far more poetry out there now than there was ten or twenty years ago, and it does seem at times as if there is not nearly strong enough a correlation between quality and publication. And the presses housed at SPD do a better job of making that value connection than do, say, presses like Norton or FSG.

How is one to wade through it all? I recall Anselm Hollo saying that when he worked in London in the 1950s & '60s, one could buy very close to all of the books of small press poetry available in America in that city. But one reason simply was that there wasn't so much of it. For the past 30 years, we've all suffered from two separate problems -- one being absolute quantity -- there is just so much of it -- the other being that the distribution venues for printed books in particular have dwindled, driven out of the market in part by chains, but also by the larger economics of retail in advanced industrial nations.

Possibly, just possibly, the internet will solve one of the problems, even if (and as) it makes the other one worse. It promises to make every book available from any publisher capable of direct fulfillment -- a skill like anything else that takes time & dedication -- but it may yet lead to even more titles. No use bemoaning the fact that it's not 1955 anymore -- it's time presses start to prepare for the day when intermediaries -- bookstores & distributors alike -- have simply disappeared from the equation.

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