Saturday, July 21, 2012

On the 5th Anniversary of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the final Harry Potter book being released. Yes, that’s right, July 21, 2007 at 12:01AM is when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released and placed into the hands of rabid fans that braved the long lines and had prepaid for the book in advance. I remember that day very well…

I was a supervisor for Borders during that time. I remember all the anticipation for the big day that started months in advance. The lanyards we wore that were dual sided, one stating that Snape was loyal, the other side declaring that he wasn’t; the phone calls that came in to confirm the release date of the book, or to take a pre-order for the book (I was even receiving phone calls on the graveyard shift in the middle of the night for several months before the release); and all the hype that built up in excitement to find out whether Harry Potter would live or die.

I had never read the Harry Potter series before or after I started working for Borders—in fact, I still haven’t read it. The hype to me seemed typical of a big series coming to an end, and Harry Potter was definitely the last big pinnacle in book sales before the death of the bookstore. When I think back to 5 years ago, it’s hard to believe how much has changed in the industry with bookstores closing down, Borders out of business, and the replacements for Harry Potter such as Twilight and The Hunger Games not even coming close to what Harry Potter raked in.

Brian the Bookseller on July 20, 2007
As the day drew closer, I remember the legal agreement we all had to sign saying we wouldn’t even touch the books, we wouldn’t reveal anything inside of them, etc. I still remember the day the truck delivered several pallets of boxes that said Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on them, warning about the legal ramifications should those boxes be opened before the release date, and our GM at the time decided the books weren’t going to sit in the stock room for 2-3 weeks. My manager and I loaded every box onto a cart, put large black blanket over them, and moved them into the GM’s office over several trips back and forth (while customers shopped in the store), and they were neatly stacked along all 4 walls of his office. The soundproofing in that room was unbelievable. I still wonder how that many boxes fit in that room.

We also had a man who would come into our store who was probably about 30 years old with his father, and he had hounded every manager in the store about bringing in his homemade Harry Potter props to put all around the store, wanting the Harry Potter cardboard display sign that we had, and also asking about the events in the store non-stop every time he came in. When it was my turn to deal with him and I heard over my radio that he was already told about how we didn’t need the props, the sign couldn’t be given away, and all the other questions we had already answered for him, he began to ask me about his Harry Potter props given I was a supervisor he hadn’t asked, and when I politely started to tell him no, he screamed “YOU SURE DO KNOW HOW TO KICK A GUY IN THE ASS!”

July 20, 2007 was definitely going to be a long day. And I was scheduled for a day shift from 7:00AM-4:00PM. The long list of people who had pre-ordered the book all received phone calls in the few days prior, there was a table being set up for people to be issued a wrist band determined by color. It was hard to say how many books we would have left over, or if anyone who didn’t reserve a copy would receive one. They issued a few different colored wrist bands to determine if they were the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd group, and another color for those who didn’t reserve it and were going to chance it. The line was already growing outside before we even opened the doors for business. After working my regular shift, I was asked if I could come back a few hours later to work the release as overtime, and for some crazy reason, I accepted the hours.

When I came back to the store a few hours later, things were already starting to get crazy and there were people in the store all over the place. A co-worker and I were given the job of keeping the crowd in check, making sure they didn’t clog the aisles in the case of a fire, and to move the crowd according to its size. There were people in costumes, people acting freaky, and people who just wanted to hang out to watch the people hanging out. The local newspaper spent time at the Barnes & Noble down the street instead of in our store, and we dealt with the local news station earlier in the day, so there was no press in the store during the big event. In the children’s department, we watched the adults in costume battle to the death with the children in costume over prizes given out during the various games.

And of course, the freaks came out that night.

We used to have a couple of strange female characters come into the store, a couple of sisters who would come in late at night and we’d have a hard time getting them out of the store after closing hours. As I walked back and forth, I heard them discussing their pornographic fantasies about Harry Potter, hearing about the Harry Potter based erotica they wrote and posted online, and some of those details continue to haunt me to this day and I never looked at them the same when they were in the store. I also remember a woman coming up to be dressed in a full witch costume with a hand and she gently put her hand on my head and said, “you have a nice shaped head…” By that time and with how much the crowd was swelling in the store to where there were bodies everywhere, I wasn’t amused by creepy witch lady telling me I had a nice shaped head.

The closer we approached midnight, the more bloodcurdling it became. The people were starting to become unruly; what we thought we had for a line became disorganized and didn’t make any sense, customers also became angry. The operations manager decided she was going to take the line outside given how many people were in the store, in the 100+ degree desert nighttime heat, and this infuriated one woman who referred to me as ‘f**king moron’ after declaring we were moving the people who came in first during the day outside into the heat and out of the air conditioning; it wasn’t a bad call considering how many people were in the store, even with the customers becoming upset. A woman also came up to me franticly yelling at me about how someone cut in front of her young daughter who had been the first to receive a bracelet and how I needed to get on my “thingy” (my radio wire) to get the general manager involved. The cafĂ© began to prepare cups of ice water for those who had been waiting outside to be given to them as the line moved into the store. Shortly before midnight, a train of my co-workers began rolling out the several hundred copies of the book we received on multiple carts to the register area. When we let people back into the store at 12:01AM on July 21, the anticipation was over. The line took over 1 hour to ring through with all cashiers on deck (7 of them), I stood at the back of the line when the last of it was released into the store and followed it all the way up to the cash registers.

When the last customer was rung up and we locked our doors after 1AM, we looked around the store and saw that it was completely trashed. While they shut down the registers and calculated the sales in the cash office, a small group of us began trying to put the store back together. As we all declared how insane that release was, I remember hearing the operations manager declare that we would never have to do another Harry Potter release again. I felt as if I was in a hurricane when we left the store at 2AM, and when a group of my co-workers decided to hit Denny’s, I was definitely in the mood to unravel in food therapy.

When I think back to the liquidation of Borders 4 years later, it’s hard to believe that Harry Potter wasn’t that long ago. While the release was chaotic, it definitely had a spirit of anticipation and excitement for those who gathered in the store to buy the final book in their favorite series. It’s hard to believe that this is being replaced by, and that there hasn’t been another series like Harry Potter that has people gathering in the middle of the night in anticipation to buy the latest of the series. The Twilight and Hunger Games series didn’t even come close to Harry Potter, and we had release parties for those too, and they weren’t even half of the size of that last Harry Potter book.

When I signed onto my personal blog the following day after the release of the book, I saw many messages of thanks and praise from my friends for working the Harry Potter release. Plus I can say it was the one big book event in my lifetime, and I was employed by Borders when the last Harry Potter book came out. 

A couple of pics from our release at Borders in Rancho Mirage, CA 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Me in the New York Times

I'm a week late, but I was one of the "artists" that Caitlin Kelly wrote about in the New York Times last week. The subject of the article dealt with artists who had fallen on hard times and help coming from unexpected places. Below is a link to the article at the New York Times.

I also interviewed Caitlin last year about her book, "Malled." That can be read HERE

I was injured back in November after taking a fall in my home that resulted in a break of my L1 vertebrae in my back. Borders, my former employer, picked up the cost of my aftercare through the Borders Foundation, now known as The BINC Foundation. I wrote about this back in December when it happened.

I definitely encourage those who are book lovers and to those who miss their local Borders to think about  making a donation to the BINC Foundation. You can do so at

Many thanks to Caitlin Kelly for including me in her article, and many thanks to those who have sent me compliments on being in the article.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Manning Marable’s autobiography of Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, that was finished before Marable’s death in April of 2011 is a fascinating look into the life of the revolutionary icon and a prominent figure of the civil rights movement era. While this book has won critical acclaim, received a Pulitzer Prize in the “History” category and was listed as one of the best 10 books of 2011 by the New York Times, it also has some controversy associated with it. As I read this book, I found myself reviewing Marable’s notes and examining many of his sources.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley that was published shortly after Malcolm X’s death in 1965 is put under the magnifying glass in this book; Marable makes the claim that Malcolm X wasn’t as big of a criminal as he made himself out to be to Alex Haley, and Marable quotes many of Malcolm’s speeches post  Malcolm’s initial trip to Mecca that contradict that he had reversed many of his views on race, Martin Luther King, integration, and hinted that he may not have been totally opposed to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad.  Marable’s accusations of Malcolm having a homosexual affair with a white businessman are also brought up and are all according to rumor; Marable also suggests that his wife Betty Shabazz also had an affair with one of Malcolm’s security detail, and that Malcolm’s journal entries in a couple of places during Malcolm’s trips abroad suggest he had extramarital affairs as well.

At the same time while Marable makes some strong accusations throughout the book, the life of Malcolm X aside from what you read in Alex Haley’s autobiography is well written. The problem with acquiring sources based on interviews and being on record and going through someone’s journals is that it still doesn’t paint an accurate picture, but Marable does include a lot of good information of Malcolm’s activities in and out of the Nation of Islam. He goes further into the things that we also already know about Malcolm and the Nation of Islam.

There are a lot of disputed claims from the Nation of Islam and some of Malcolm’s closest associates when it comes to this book, but a lot of the information regarding the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakan, and that fateful day of Malcolm X’s assassination is consistent with other accounts that have been documented. Elijah Muhammad definitely formed the Nation of Islam based on schemes that had nothing to do with traditional Islamic practices or philosophies, which the Nation of Islam still embraces to this day and makes traditional Islamic groups refuse to embrace the Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s conversion to traditional based Islam after Elijah Muhammad banished him were probably bound to happen—Malcolm was already questioning Elijah Muhammad’s beliefs and morality.

The problem with any book on Malcolm X is that Malcolm himself didn’t leave a lot of information about himself behind, especially in the sense that he never released any writings of his own, and he left behind several recorded speeches and media appearances. Malcolm X also died in the midst of a transformation that became very problematic for him due to his association with the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad produced Malcolm X; Malcolm X saw Elijah Muhammad as his personal savior, a prophet who could do no wrong, and Malcolm was shattered when he discovered Elijah Muhammad was a man who was having inappropriate sexual relationships with the Nation of Islam’s secretaries. The group was threatened by Malcolm’s activities in creating groups that would likely lure away members of the Nation of Islam, and while Malcolm exposed Elijah Muhammad in the process of reinventing himself.

Marable’s accusations that Malcolm never completely reinvented himself and never changed his views on race are up for debate. The more Malcolm traveled overseas to Islamic countries, the more people he met, the more that the Nation of Islam threatened him and his family are what led to his many revelations. And to be fair to Marable, he does quote an interview that Malcolm gave right before his death where he said that the infamous incident where he answered “nothing” to a white student who asked what she could do to help his cause was something that he later came to deeply regret. Had Malcolm X survived, he would have likely had more time to evolve and further his transformation.

If there’s one conclusion that this book makes well, it’s that the Nation of Islam is a dangerous organization and that Elijah Muhammad was not who he made himself out to be. Malcolm built the reputation that the Nation of Islam enjoyed, built up its membership, lived and breathed the cause, and then spent his last days trying to rediscover himself and destroy the mentality that Elijah Muhammad installed in him. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Arthur Goldwag's "The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right"

“As it’s turned out, ‘The New Hate’ is less about prejudice than it is about American’s long-standing penchant for conspiratorial thinking, its never-ending quest for scapegoats.” – Excerpt from The New Hate

When the people elected Barack Obama to office in 2008, it didn’t take long for the craziness to ensue afterward. The Tea Party, birth certificates, death panels, hostility at town hall meetings, and of course a slew of conspiracy theories started to present themselves from right-wing figures on television, the radio, and bloggers began to surface and become mainstream. If there’s one person who knows about conspiracy theories, it’s Arthur Goldwag. Arthur Goldwag has spent several years writing about conspiracy theorists and has researched most of the conspiracy theories out there. He has a blog where he addresses various conspiracy theories, and he also wrote Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more. Arthur Goldwag’s new book, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, examines many of those same conspiracy theories the right-wing populists were promoting after the 2008 election—but they aren’t exactly new.

Goldwag goes into detail tracing the origins of what we see today. Much of it is recycled fear from other eras of history; he describes what a conspiracy theory is and how these beliefs become fact in some people’s minds. Glenn Beck channeling an anti-Semitic Mormon named W. Cleon Skousen, Sarah Palin quoting an anti-Semitic figure during a speech, the theories of the John Birch Society, Freemasonry and the Illuminati, the new world order, Henry Ford and many others quoting an anti-Semitic text known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theories surround 9/11, and the conspiracy theories that drive Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups are some of the things discussed in this book in great detail; the final result is a history lesson and a debunking of many of these theories.

Goldwag’s in-depth look at Glenn Beck’s rhetoric and reading material that he would suggest to his audience makes you wonder why anyone would put Glenn Beck on the air. The fascination for W. Cleon Skousen, a former police-chief of Salt Lake City, was one of Beck’s main inspirations; Glenn Beck also told his fans to purchase and read Skousen’s book, The 5000 Year Leap. Skousen’s history is filled with controversy—he was a member of the John Birch Society, he accused Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a communist, ran the Salt Lake City police department like a Gestapo, and promoted the idea of a New World Order and world government. Skousen was so unpopular amongst conservatives that even William F. Buckey, who ran The National Review, dismissed him as insane, Ronald Reagan tried as hard as he could to distance himself from Skousen, and many other conservative figures were not impressed by Skousen, either.

The one interesting piece of literature that Goldwag discusses is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,  an anti-Semitic text that states a theory that the Jewish people are out in a quest for global domination. The writings, described and proven mostly to be a hoax, have been used many times by conspiracy theorists. The writings have been used by 9/11 conspiracy theorists to promote the idea that Israel was behind bringing down the twin-towers, by various figures to promote the idea that our banking system is part of their plot for world domination, and that things such as labor unions and liberal politics are also part of the Jewish quest for world power and the enslavement of the Christian white man. The writings also went on to inspire a number of other political figures and people such as Father Coughlin during WW2 (an anti-Semitic priest),

The history of hysteria is something in our past that we cannot deny, but it’s also starting to rear its ugly face in this modern age. Trying to make sense of many of the conspiracy theories that we have been seeing over the past few years can only be understood by examining the roots of where they come from. Goldwag’s history of these theories is a very accurate and scary piece of insight for those of us who are concerned about the future of our society. It’s a must read for any political minded person who believes in bringing reason and sanity back into our political system. 

Visit Arthur Goldwag's blog HERE

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Death of Gay Literature

I read a great article yesterday that asks the question,“Is gay literature dead?” The article is in part an interview with Christopher Bram about his new book, Eminent Outlaws, a retrospective on the era of James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and other gay writers from the post-WW2 era. There are many questions about the death of gay literature, what caused it, the current gay generation attitudes towards the older gay generation, and the current era of gay literature. As a gay man myself, I have concluded that the days of great gay literature are indeed over. While working as a bookseller, I found myself unimpressed with the selection of “gay literature” that the chain bookstores stock, and even the stuff that is stocked in the independent LGBT bookstores.

When you look back on the post-WW2 era of gay literature writers, you can’t argue that they weren’t great writers. Gore Vidal is one of my major influences given he wrote on a variety of subjects. The Narratives of Empire series of books offering a look into our history based on fictional characters being the narrators are only a handful of Gore Vidal’s masterpieces. Gore Vidal’s ability to write fiction, history, politics, essays, plays, and screenplays made him an American literary icon. His gay literature novel , The City and the Pillar, that was published in 1946, is one of the first books in American literary history to have homosexuality as its main theme; The City and the Pillar was also controversial upon its release—The New York Times refused to review any of Vidal’s writings after its release. Vidal wrote his mystery novels under the pseudonym of “Edgar Box” to avoid any connection with the controversy of The City and the Pillar.

James Baldwin was just as brilliant of a writer as Gore Vidal. Baldwin also wrote on a variety of subjects and a variety of formats. He wrote novels, essays, poems, plays, and was a social critic. Baldwin was an African-American and a homosexual in a time when America was racially divided and homosexuals were scorned. Baldwin relocated to France given France’s treatment of African-American artists, musicians, and writers. His 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, published 10 years after Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, is about a young man living as an expatriate in France who has relationships with other men. Baldwin was also involved in the civil rights movement and took part in the Civil Rights March on Washington in August of 1963; his writings about combining the dissimilar philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King inspired the second phase of the civil rights movement in the 1970s.

When you take a look at the gay literature of today and look back on the era of Gore Vidal and James Baldwin, it’s easy to say that gay literature is dead. Gay literature today, for the most part, is glorified erotica writing, love stories that are the Nicholas Sparks for gay society, and characters that don’t really have any depth to them. The closest thing to the gay literature that Vidal, Baldwin, Capote, and Isherwood provided in the post-WW2 era would be the writings of Armistead Maupin, the author of the Tales of the City series, which made light of the AIDS epidemic. It’s amazing to think that the post-WW2 era gave us the best years of gay literature. The interview with Christopher Bram asks if it’s a generational disconnect and whether the young doesn’t want to acknowledge the old, but it doesn’t seem that indifference is the reason for the death of gay literature given Bram doesn’t believe there is any difference between the older and younger gay generations.

When you take a look at modern literature, whether it’s gay or not, you could argue that literature is slowly dying. Many of the writers that defined literature in the postmodern era—John Updike, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett to name a few—aren’t leaving many worthy heirs in the modern day. We’re also living in the times where the formats are changing from print to e-Readers, corporate book stores and independent bookstores having any possibility for a future is in question, and when people are choosing to curl up with their James Patterson and Stephanie Meyer books. The quality of today’s literature is questionable given it doesn’t seem to inspire and influence the way that it used to. Gay literature is not the only genre that has gone through a transition of masterful literary works to erotic and romance writing in the modern era; African-American literature is now less Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and has become filled with the erotic romance novels of Eric Jerome Dickey, Zane, and Noire  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Gil Scott-Heron's "The Last Holiday"

"I was trying to get people who listened to me to realize that they were not alone and that certain things were possible." - Excerpt from The Last Holiday 

If there was a man who had a way with words, it was Gil Scott-Heron. The revolutionary poet and songwriter, who mixed jazz and poetry together, was an iconic figure in the 1970s. His songs and poems were the backdrop of the post-civil rights era and were the early inspiration for hip-hop and rap music. His poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was a big hit and has been named one of the “Top 20 Political Songs” by The New Statesmen.

The Last Holiday was posthumously released in January after his death in May of 2011. In 2010, his career was on a comeback after a decade of drug problems, health issues, and incarceration. He released his first album in several years that was amusingly titled I’m New Here--the album was praised by critics and sparked an interest in his previous recordings. He started touring again and played the big music festivals around the world.

He begins The Last Holiday discussing his family’s origins. He has warm memories of his grandmother who raised him after his parents separated, he talks about his father’s career as a professional soccer player, and he talks about how all of his maternal family were educated people. There is no doubt that Gil Scott-Heron was an intelligent person, and we learn just how intelligent he was as a child when he discusses his full-scholarship to a preparatory school, his college years at Lincoln University, and Johns Hopkins where he received his masters degree in creative writing.

He discusses his music career with stories from the road and playing in various cities in America. One of which is where he talks about playing a benefit concert against nuclear energy put together by Jackson Browne, where he went on stage to an audience screaming for Bruce Springsteen, who was scheduled to play later on that evening. In one amusing tale, he talks about how we walked into his hotel room to find Bob Marley and his friends sitting in there after being given the key to his room. Touring with Stevie Wonder and talking about Stevie Wonder’s benefit to establish Martin Luther King Day included a story about meeting Michael Jackson, and when he and Stevie Wonder learned about the assassination of John Lennon.

The one problem I had with The Last Holiday is that it’s a collection of stories being told in chronological order as they happened. There were a lot of moments where I found myself wanting to know more and what happened next in transition, but you end up starting a new story when you turn the page. It’s as if you’re getting samples of his life at times and that you want him to emphasize more on what he’s sharing. I came to a part towards the end where he said that when he used to teach creative writing courses before he became a musician, he would tell his students to write about an event that they could remember in vivid detail, and it seems that’s how he decided to write his memoir. The memoir ends around 1999 when he talks about his mother’s death. We don’t get to hear anything about those lost years that followed where he was struggling with drug addiction, with arrests, and his fight to attain sobriety where he decided to revive his music career again. The one thing that he eventually admitted to in a later interview was that he was HIV-positive.

For music fans or anyone who has heard of Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday is definitely a delight to read. For those who are just being introduced to his music, it’s a good place to start. The Last Holiday is the climax and last testament of the life of the man who changed how he listened to music and how we experienced poetry.