Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Black Swan spreads Its wings.

I'm trying to figure out just how damaging the coronavirus outbreak will be to business.

On one hand, I've got examples of past "panics" or Black Swan events where business dropped off radically--such as the invasion of Kuwait. (Ironically, 9/11 wasn't as bad, maybe because Bush urged people to spend money as a patriotic duty...)

On the other hand, I know that most people don't think THEY'LL be the ones who get sick.

But I'm pretty sure this is different, because it's an epidemic, because of the scary news.

Seems most likely to me that people will hunker down, that they'll just stay home. Since my business is so dependent on tourism, that could mean a major hit during Spring Break, which isn't far away. So perhaps the prudent thing to do is to stop buying stuff now.

It doesn't matter how good your inventory is if people aren't coming in. 

But if I cut too much, I'll guarantee that there will be a downturn in business.

The answer, of course, it to moderate my spending. I've been very aggressive buying books, trying new titles, expanding categories. Which seems like the right thing to do when books sales are increasing by 125%. But I can moderate this to simply replacing the best-sellers and ordering the best new sellers. Not as satisfying, but does the job.

Same with games and graphic novels. Keep the store well stocked, but stop experimenting.

Of course, if the shit really hits the fan, no amount of cutting costs will cover the shortfall. But then, we'll all be in the same boat. Allowances will need to be made by landlords and suppliers.

Ironically, it's the first time I can see a negative to being in a high rent district. I've always maintained that moving away from a high-rent district is a mistake because the loss in foot traffic will be far more severe than the money you save on cheaper rent. For the first time, I can see how having a low rent might be an advantage during emergencies.

Then again, living for emergencies is a pretty stupid way to live. Yes, they come along, but if you live your life in fear of Black Swans, you may as well stay home.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

I so want to steal a story.

When Linda and I owned the Bookmark, we'd get in some weird tomes, some of which I took home. One was entitled: "The Real Bohemia: A Sociological and Psychological Study of the 'Beats.'"
It was written in 1961 and it's unintentionally hilarious. It treats the "Beats" as if they are from outer space, a completely alien culture. It was written in the narrow window of time between the Beats and the arrival of the Beatles and the complete transformation of our culture. It's the equivalent of reading "The Forest People," by Colin Turnbull, or Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa.

It's a book version of "Reefer Madness," a couple of square scientists trying to figure out what this strange new species of humans are about and coming to extreme conclusions.

I kept the book as a curiosity.

But I recently had an idea for a book about gnomes--only my gnomes aren't cute and quaint, but dirty, nasty, and anti-social. They've recently come out of hiding and are all around us, though making no attempt to integrate with human culture.

They are basically an analog for the homeless--dumpster diving, begging on street corners, yelling curse words at passersby.

 I pulled out "The Real Bohemia" and started typing it, substituting "Gnomes" every time the authors used "Beats" and it's hilarious. (Actually, it might make an even funnier book if I substituted "Hipster" for "Beatnik."

Entitled: "The Unknown Gnome: A Sociological and Psychological Study of the Fairda."

I mean, it really, really works as a satire. But damned if I can figure out a way to do it without plagerism. I mean, I could start from scratch and try to imitate it, but it works so much better with their dry, unintentionally square commentary.

Yeah, but I'm pretty sure I can't use it. Dammit.

I looked up copyright, and open domain isn't as far away as I thought: 70 years, which means I'd have to wait 11 more years. By which time, if I'm still around, I'll probably have forgotten all about it.  Heh.

At worse, I can try to imitate the tone for the chapter headings. In fact, that's probably what I'll do.  I still like the basic idea of the book.
Suddenly, the thought of writing a book is daunting.

But the real question is, not whether I can write another book--I can do that--but whether I want to challenge my capabilities.

But what challenging my capabilities really means is--do I want to challenge my frustrations? Because when I attempt to do more than what is possible, I'm pretty much insuring that I'll fall short.

The novel as a Platonic Ideal.

I've taken a break from writing. I mean, I'm more or less doodling right now, keeping myself in the game, but I haven't committed. Writing an entire book has suddenly become daunting.

So I've been asking myself -- what am I trying to accomplish? I've been asking myself that from the beginning, and I've never had a clear answer. It usually comes down to whether I want sales or good reviews or to simply satisfy myself, or some combination thereof.

But all along I've had the concept of the "good book." The Platonic Ideal. The book that exists in my head.

So the question right now is--and this has also been there from the beginning; do I reach this Platonic Ideal of the "good book" through intuition or intellect?

Of course, the answer is, and always has been, both. The Platonic Ideal of the Duncan McGeary book requires everything I have, put together in just the right way, with just the right combination of elements. 

So then question becomes--is it possible to write this book? And do I have enough time to do it?

I'll never know the answer.  I can only try.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

A matter of inches. More books!

I have opened 5 different stores, I've doubled the space of 2 stores, I've done a pop-up store.

I've closed 3 stores. The last store I closed--Redmond--I had to pretty much do it myself, leveraging and lifting more than I should. I literally gave myself a hernia. (There are only so many times you can ask people to help you--same goes for asking friends to buy your books...) Linda's store was bought as is--though the new owners pretty much changed everything. I ended up buying back the bookcases, which--again--was almost the same as closing a store.

In other words, it's a lot of work.

I'm very happy with my downtown store, except that I've been out of room for years now. I waited for decades for downtown to take off like it has. We are doing well with the tourists, especially with new books and graphic novels.

So the focus has been on buying product than I can actually fit into my store. Mostly, this means the product has to be stackable--such as games, books, jigsaw puzzles, that kind of thing. I have wall space above the seven foot range which is suitable for toys--probably only suitable for toys.

So the mix is pretty good.

Anyway, the point of this is that I'm scrounging for space. Inches of space. Yesterday I started a little renovation I've had in mind for awhile now. I'm replacing the two used bookcases with bookcases suitable for new books. (We are done with used books.)

Originally, I thought that's all I would do, which would have been work enough. Boxing up all the books, carrying the bookcases downstairs, bringing new bookcases up, putting everything in order. But yesterday I realized that I could squeeze a few more inches out of it.

I have two sizes of bookcases. One size is three inches wider than the other.

I decided to replace four of the smaller bookcases, for a 18 extra linear inches per case; a grand total of 72 inches of linear space. It's a lot of work for just a few inches of shelves, but every inch counts. My store is completely packed, from top to bottom.

As it happened, an outward display in the store fell down on a kid who was trying to climb it the other day. Sabrina took the fixture downstairs. Rather than risk that happening again, I decided to put another bookcase in its place.

The end result is that I have equivalent of four new bookcases.

One is going toward expanding our mystery section. Two are going to be dedicated to non-fiction books. And one is going to be used for graphic novels and art books.

Every time I do this kind of ergonomic reorganization, I swear I've reached the limit. But there always seems to be another inch or two to be found if I think about it long enough.

Hopefully, there will never be an earthquake, because we'd be buried.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

So this isn't working.

Waiting for inspiration.

If I want to keep writing, I'm going to have to set a daily goal. It doesn't have to be 1500 to 2000 words like it was during my prime; maybe 500 words, something like that.

There have been moments when the words have come--but they've almost always been at inconvenient times; late at night as I'm falling asleep or on the drive to Bend going to work, that kind of thing. Which--if I give into to urge--means either insomnia or being late for work.

I sort of knew this going in, but I was hoping for the best.

The thing is, writing books had finally become a JOB. Which, you know, it isn't. I mean, I earn my income elsewhere. I want good selling books, but that isn't the main goal.

But the problem I started having was, I knew that could plunk down another book every four or five months or so--but that's just what it would be: Plunking Down a Book. I wanted to try something new.

I'm still contemplating this dilemma, before I commit to a disciplined schedule again. But clearly, my magnum opus is never going to be written waiting for inspiration.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

90% drop in book sales in China.

I read the headline in passing, not knowing I was going to write this, so it may be it's just the province in China. Still it's a timely reminder of what could happen.

There have been several instances of gigantic sales drops over the last 40 years. Some are systemic, such as the collapses of bubbles or steep recessions.

But some occur because of Black Swan events. The one that Linda and I both remember is the invasion of Kuwait. For some reason, this one had outsized effects. No business for weeks. It more or less was the final coffin to our Sisters store.

9/11 didn't have as big effect. I hate to credit him, but Bush's call for people to keep spending must have helped.

Anyway, there is always a chance of something like this happening, and if you don't have reserves, it can do you in.

Just another reason not to get overextended.
Last year, we were a little unlucky in the first part of the year (though the rest of the year was good). There was a steep dropoff in sales in the last ten days in January, and then the absolute snow disaster of February.

This year, we didn't have the dropoff, and so far February has been decent. Plus the budget seems to be mostly under control. Partly, I think, because we aren't adding new product lines presently. We are simply resupplying, plus a little new, plus a little discounted.

We got a little lucky in the last week in that sales were better than normal just as some bills came due.

Usually there are spot shortages, but for some reason the sales are pretty smooth across the board. The only thing we sold out of was D & D miniatures. Everything else is stocked in the 80% to 100% range.

It's fun to see the store performing well after all these years.

In fact, we've been busy enough that I haven't been able to effectuate the changes I wanted to make. I'll probably try to do those in my next two working sessions. 

We are going to double sales on new books again this month. This is almost entirely due to my coming back to work and figuring out a consistent ordering pattern. (Once a week for new books, order on Sunday, receive on Tuesday. Twice a month for liquidations.)

I think it's just a matter of keeping up, for now.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

I'm not saying it's easy...

...but it seems to me that new books are a much easier product to carry than comics. For a number of reasons, but this morning it occurred to me that one good reason is that with books I can actually wait to see if a title is a hit before I order it. Not only that, but I have a couple of hundred years worth of titles that have proven track records.

With comics? It's a guess, and if I don't order them upfront, I don't get them at all. Graphic novels improve the odds--the hit series can be collected that way. But as a full-service comic shop, we have to order any significant comic title up to months in advance, with limited information, and no ability to return unsold copies.

Not that I return new books. I've decided that the discipline of ordering only what I think will sell should be applied to any product.

Books are now my best selling category--if I split comics and graphic novels into two categories. Comics and graphic novels are still my most important product, accounting for roughly half of all sales, but new books, games, and toys are a good solid other half, and I can adjust my orders accordingly.

I've kept the store completely stocked during the last couple months--something I've never accomplished before. Usually by the time I pay off all the end of the year bills, my store is somewhat depleted of product and the money to restock. I've always been aggressive about restocking, willing to go into debt to be paid off in the summer, but this is the first year I've stayed stocked from day one and also stayed even in my accounts.

I'm happy with the mix of product, and I don't feel like a major reinvestment in something new is needed--also one of the first times in my career that this has happened. Now I'm just trying to make what I've got better on an incremental basis. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

All my favorite detectives are getting old.

I turned to thrillers for my main reading diet in the 80s. I sampled a ton of them and eventually settled on a coterie of writers whose every book I read. I've kept that up until this day.

From literary, like John Le Carre, James Ellroy, and James Lee Burke to fast, simple reads, like Lee Child and John Sandford, and everything in-between. Daniel Silva, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Thomas Perry, Stephen Hunter. (I'm aware they're all men--I liked early Nevada Barr, Patricia Cornwell, and others, but eventually lost interest. I never could get into the smart ass detectives, male or female. Just as I can no longer stand James Ellroy's style or John Le Carre existentialist angst.)

There is usually a bonanza of new books to read in January and February--novels that came out at Christmas and are finally available used.

I'm currently reading the latest Bobby Lee Swagger book, by Stephen Hunter. Swagger is an old man now, with a hip replacement. The gun fetish is a little much--gun porn.

But it occurred to me that all these old detective/spies/cops are getting old. Connelly's Bosch is retired, picking up odd cold cases. All these old guys are finding it hard to get around and chase the bad guys. My favorite current thriller writer, Thomas Perry, has somewhat avoided this by writing diverse characters. Then again, one of his latest books is called, "The Old Man."

It can get silly, like Lee Child constantly trying to find ways to get Reacher in the thick of things, or Gabriel Allon being an active agent though he's now in charge of everything. In fact, all these guys have either reached the pinnacle of their career--and therefore have the Star Trek problem of having the leader of the whole enterprise (heh) doing away missions, or have washed out of the department and therefore have no access to the procedures--which is a problem in a procedural novel.

So this would be the downside of having a franchise character. Eventually they age out.

Just as I have apparently aged out. What's alarming is that I haven't been able to replace these "old" standbys with new writers. Were the 80s a Golden Age for these kinds of books, or have I just missed the boat? I know I try new writers all the time, but almost none of them fit the bill. Most I find either adequate or bad or gimmicky. (Gimmicky seems to be the new thriller model...)

Eventually, I'm going to need to find good replacements for these guys--or switch genres again. I've always read SF, and a bit of fantasy, occasional horror, some non-fiction, and the occasional literary novel (less and less of those, because--my God, most of them are boring.)

The fact that I haven't really liked most of the SF award winners from the past decade is probably just me getting old and not getting into the swing of things.

It's my own fault--and somewhat alarming to realize that I've become so predictable in my tastes.

Friday, February 14, 2020

15 millions books in print and nothing to read.

Started watching a documentary about Internet Cats last night.

It was exhausting. Everyone doing everything they can to get their 15 minutes of fame.

What's obvious is that the real successes came early and by accident--by luck, pretty much. The people who came along later and tried to cash in on the craze mostly failed. But even if they succeeded, the pursuit of the venal was just too dispiriting to watch.

I turned to Linda about 10 minutes in and said, "Had enough?"

"More than enough."

I think the thing that was most exhausting was the knowledge that the same thing is happening with indie writers. There were those who came early and caught on, and then there's everyone else. The occasional lucky or skilled media manipulator and the even more occasional genius--and everyone else.

I perhaps have a more jaundiced view than most because I also own a bookstore. I check the book liquidation lists every day. Hundreds and thousands of Young Adult series that look good on the surface but have gone nowhere. Hundreds and thousands of literary novels. Hundreds and thousands of genre books. Most of them being presented as if they are the "next" Harry Potter or Hunger Games or whatever the latest success has been.

"Where the Crawdads Sing" is going to spawn a million copycats.

15 million books in print--and not a drop to drink.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Drinking and writing.

There's a lot of literature on the subject, but I can only tell you my own experiences.

Way back in the mid-70s, when I was struggling to write my first books, I was drinking fairly often. I used alcohol to get me going. I seemed to need it to loosen my creative juices and to still my doubts. I'd spend time in a drunken haze thinking up wild ideas. I used the promise of a few glasses of wine or beer to sit my butt in a chair and write.

It seemed to help. It seemed to me that I had insights and clarity, in vino veritas. I suspect those first books wouldn't have been written without alcohol.

In hindsight I can see the drawbacks. I can see that many of the dysfunctional habits I developed can be traced to being soused. The biggest problems I had were the constant changing of narrative in mid-stream, the incessant starting over, and the obsessive rewriting.

Then I married a teetotaler, bought a bookstore, had two stepkids. I needed to stay sharp during the day, I found myself losing my temper more often after I drank (strangely, not so much while I was drinking. I'm mostly a happy drunk.)

I didn't stop drinking overnight. I never felt that I had huge problems with drinking, it's just that the benefit/cost ratio changed. The benefit of feeling loose wasn't enough to overcome cost of sleep disruption, stomach upset, and psychological dislocation.

I never made a decision to stop drinking. I still haven't. I'll probably drink some night in the future and won't feel guilty about it. But the habit just sort of petered to a stop.

So after a 25 year hiatus, I came back to writing with a vengeance. I figured that drinking would be part of the process, but something different happened. The benefit/cost ratio proved to be way out of whack. I didn't seem to have many insights, it didn't seem to help me concentrate, and the damage done to my body and mind seemed excessive.

So then I thought I'd save alcohol for moments when I was stuck or undecided.

That didn't seem to work either.

Meanwhile, I wrote a bunch of books stone-cold sober. I proved that I could do it, and there didn't seem to be any drawback.

I still harbor a hope that one night I'll have an epiphany while soused that will elevate whatever I'm writing--but so far, that hasn't come close to happening, so I'm not going there.  

The dilettante's approach to writing.

I read over a few months worth of blog posts yesterday (which shows I have time on my hands.) I noticed that I had 3 or 4 either starts or outlines of viable story lines. A couple of which I'd already forgotten.

This is the way much of the 25 year hiatus went. I'd get an idea, jot it down or write a page or two, and then forget about it. Sometimes I'd get as far as a few chapters.

It took me five years of writing and rewriting to get my first book written. When Star Axe was accepted by Tower Books way back in 1979, my Dad challenged me to replicate the achievement and he'd buy me a new typewriter--one of the new-fangled Smith-Corona daisy wheels. Top of the market back then. I'd already started Snowcastles by then and it was quickly accepted.

Anyway, I've never lacked ideas. Whether they're good ideas is a whole 'nother question. There's the old saying that everyone has one good book in them. (Maybe...but not everyone can write it.)

I'm sort of proud of the diversity of my efforts. I haven't followed the same formula, that's for sure. Maybe to the detriment of my so-called "career."

I actually feel kind of sorry for authors like Lee Child or Robert Crais, who have to write the same book 30 times. (I'm sure they're crying all the way to the bank.)

Coming up with ideas and letting them hang there is a dilettante's approach to writing. Dare I say that is what happens to most people who "want" to be a writer? Ultimately, it's very frustrating and unfulfilling.

The last story I tried to write, "Ruby Red and the Robots," wasn't finished. Followed by all these ideas that have gone nowhere.

I seem to have settled into the No Man's Land of the dilettante-ism all of a sudden. It seems to be part of a cycle. Even as I was writing heavily for the last six years, I knew that the time would come.

Interestingly, the difference between this fallow period and others is that I'm not drinking. I think I used to try to substitute discipline for alcohol. Not that that worked very well.

So I'm trying to figure out the path forward. Like I said, I'm not sure that just writing another book under the same regime will do me any good. Something has to change, I'm just not sure what.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Spending time with siblings can be a bit of a reality check.

Betsy and Susie were home for a few days and we spent a couple of evenings together. It's always interesting to check my memory of our childhood with theirs. My memory more or less sucks. I don't remember much. There are also the shifting experiences that each sibling had. Susie, the youngest, undoubtedly had a completely different experience than Mike, the oldest.

Linda and I have been watching "Evil" on TV. The family has four little girls who all talk at the same time. It's a maddening cacophony.

"That's not how it works," I told Linda, who was much younger than her siblings, almost an only child. We have that somewhat in common in that I was a middle child, in-between a couple of close couples of siblings as well as there being a 4 year gap between me and my sister Tina.

"What happens is that things shake out, that there is a priority of attention. When Mike and Tina were home, I couldn't get a word in edgewise. When they were gone, Betsy probably became the most vocal. I was probably quieter, and I think, so was Susie."

Anyway, much of the dysfunction in our family came earlier, and probably became less severe as time went on.

I've also always maintained that each of us McGeary kids married spouses who had much less fucked up notions about money. I think we also married people who had much more even tempers (which was probably just about anyone.)

Now what I may say about the "temper" issue may sound bad, but I've come to the conclusion that there was a positive side to it.

Basically, we all had volcanic tempers that could erupt and become a full-blown firefight.

But here's the thing. It was usually over fast, and no one ever held a grudge. It was just accepted that it was blowing off steam. It was so accepted that I don't think we thought it abnormal. There would be a huge fight in the morning, and by afternoon everyone would have forgotten about it.

Venture into the work-a-day world, and we find out that venting steam doesn't work too well. People tend to take it personally, and they don't tend to forget it. I also think each of our spouses had to make accommodations to us McGeary fireballs.

But here's the thing. We McGeary kids have never had any kinds of estrangements. We simply don't hold grudges. I'm not sure that letting out our grievances in one eruption and then forgetting it is the worst way to do things. At least, among us--who are accustomed to such behavior and understand it.

But I know one thing--it doesn't work when you're a boss, and it took me a long, long time to learn to adjust my behavior. I didn't always succeed, though I hope and believe that over the years I've gotten better with each new wave of employees.

It also doesn't work with spouses and friends who tend to see such temper tantrums as the end of the world.

Like I said, I think because of my middle of the family position, I became much more of a loner than the rest of my siblings, so I often missed out on what was going on. So talking to Bets and Sue is always revealing, mostly in a reassuring way.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

It's been exactly a year since my heart attack. It affected me in ways I wouldn't have predicted. I feel less motivated to accomplish anything than I did before. I'm actually exercising less. I managed to lose 20 pounds, but most of that happened before the event.

I've gone back to working at the store 3 days a week and I'm enjoying that.

But it is obviously affecting my writing. Driving to the store yesterday, I had an entire scene come to me, but I was busy driving. Some of the scene is still in my head, but I'm not feeling motivated enough to write it down.

I'd have thought I'd be more inspired to go traveling, see a little of the world. Instead, I just feel like staying home. There is a bit of existential angst there--like, what's the point of anything? Why does it matter?

I'm not depressed, I don't think. I remember what that felt like, and this isn't it. I'm more zen than upset, but everything has a tinge of the temporary. Nothing lasts, nothing will be remembered.

On the other hand, I'm probably more relaxed. I'm falling back into old habits. I'm reading more. I'm listening to music more. I'm contemplating the quiet more.

I was aware intellectually of my mortality, but I don't think I felt it. Still, I'll always remember the helicopter trip to St. Charles and how at peace I was with everything. I wasn't scared. It was what it was. (Sure, I was hopped up on morphine, but I prefer to believe that I was accepting of my fate.)

I've been very lucky. There was a time in my mid-twenties when I felt everything was hopeless. I had no prospects, no friends; I was a bit of a charity case for my family. So having come out of that feels like a huge accomplishment. Marrying Linda, knowing Todd and Toby, running a business for 40 years, writing 30 books. I'm grateful for it all.

I've never understood ambition. I just don't have that drive. I just want a little peace and quiet, and hopefully some security. A best friend and wife, and friends/acquaintances through the store and writing. I'm going to try to "enjoy every sandwich."

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Inspiration writes a page or two.

Since I've taken a break from writing, I've been feeling the creative wellspring refilling. It manifests itself in images and words and dreams and ideas.

That, in itself, is not enough to get anything accomplished. In a sense, my creative energy was being charged during my 25 year hiatus, and when I finally let loose, it came out in a torrent that lasted for five or six years.

I once again find myself having small ideas, which I sit down to write. I've had the title, "An Unknown Gnome," in my head for many years. Just liked the sound of it. So yesterday I got an idea of what that title meant and wrote a page.

That's basically what inspiration does. Inspiration alone writes a page or two. To develop that idea requires more effort.

As a writer, I run into people all the time who talk about wanting to write a book. I think I have the answer to that: writing a book is like any other kind of project. You have to put in the time and work. Simple as that.

Most of us have to work at something. So take that something and apply it to writing, and that's what it takes. But for most of us, that "work" is our day job, what we do to survive. Personally, I wasn't able to do my day job and also spend the same amount of time and energy on writing a book. I know there are people who can do that, but not me.

When I came back to writing, I just wanted to finish one book. It was a struggle and that book still isn't finished to my satisfaction. I sat down and wrote a second book, and again, it came up short. But toward the end of that second book, I sort of recaptured the feeling I had writing Snowcastles and Icetowers, and wrote Freedy Filkins in a hurry.

After that, there was no stopping me.

But I did have to bear down on each story, with an inner commandment--Thou shalt finish every story you start, good, bad, or indifferent.

In other words, it takes a commitment to be diligent and to follow through. I look inside myself and I seem to be lacking that discipline right now. Everything else is still there--the desire and the ideas. But the thought of writing a book is enough to tire me before I start.

I have a number of completed books that just require polishing, so I'm going to diligently work at that. It's at least a valuable an activity as writing another book from scratch--maybe more so. I'm still indulging my creative urges, just in a more haphazard, random way.

Which probably means I'll have a bunch of one or two page beginnings for a while yet.