This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

February 21, 1999 — "You've Got Mail!", the new movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, has generated a hailstorm of commentary since its Christmas release. Not just film reviewers, but literary commentators, business reporters, and numerous varieties of cultural observers are all talking about it.

A brief synopsis of the film makes clear why: Hanks plays the owner of a giant bookstore chain obviously modeled on Barnes & Noble, down to the in–house Starbuck's. Ryan's character owns a small but popular neighborhood bookstore her late mother founded years before. When Hanks opens a mega–store around the corner, a storm of community and media protests ensue. Slowly, however, Ryan sees loyal customers passing by for bigger discounts around the corner. She has tearful flashbacks to being in the store with her beloved mother. She eventually loses the store, and is prostrate with grief.

Then, in the film's closing moments, she learns Hanks is the man with whom she's been conducting an anonymous on–line romance, she decides she loves him, and the movie ends.

I couldn't help wondering what a real–life Meg Ryan would think of all this.

So I asked one — Elena Skye, who ran Blackwater Books in Hoboken, New Jersey for nine years . . . until a Barnes and Noble opened down the street.

DJ: First of all, let's examine the fundamental premise of the film: Can you see yourself falling in love with a Barnes and Noble executive?

ES: (laughing) I guess it could happen, but there'd have to be a lot more going on than just the quick pan to, "Oh, my store's been closed for a year and I don't care anymore! Damn my mother and damn the independent book world!" You know, they're very different kind of people. (thoughtful pause) No. No. (laughing again) I can't see it happening.

DJ: Well then, what about the real–world relationship between these "different kinds of people"? What happened to you when Barnes and Noble came to Hoboken?

ES: It dramatically changed our business. We had a very loyal clientele. We were really sort of a meeting ground, and a lot of people would come in and hang out. But, you know, when you're in that kind of business your bread and butter is the top–sellers. And when Barnes and Noble could come in and discount that stuff by thirty percent, it was devastating.

DJ: But it sounds as if you had more going on than just selling books.

ES: Yeah. We had readings, we had Sunday night music, dance performances — I mean, we had all kinds of really cool things. We'd gotten write–up's in The New York Times and lots of press for our events. There were some films shot in and around the store, you know, people loved to use it as a prop. We were in an ad for the National Endowment for the Arts. It was very popular and very visible.

DJ: How long did you hold on after Barnes and Noble opened?

ES: Four months. And when we closed, I mean the whole community came out — people came out and actually packed up books, we had this huge, like, beer bash (laughs) . . . and a lot of crying. I used to come into the store the last few days before we closed and there would just be letters stuck on the door which I have and put in a box and I'll look at them, I don't know, farther down the road . . . .

DJ: So all the supportive people just couldn't help, ultimately?

ES: I think people just feel so marginalized that they don't really believe they can do something to save their community stores, so they kind of give up.

DJ: What happened to you when you had to give up?

ES: Well, you know, it was such a heartbreaking experience for my whole family. I have a daughter, Rosamunde, and she grew up there. I was pregnant when we opened the store, so she basically grew up in a basket in the store. And I always felt like I would leave the store for Ro. I really did. I felt like, "Oh, this will be so great, when she's a teenager, and she could" — you know, she was already running the register when she was nine. She could point out kid's books to people, and she took it very seriously. So for me, when I lost my store, it was — it wasn't something that I got over very easily. And it was something that really hurt, hurt my daughter.

DJ: So what did you do?

ES: Ironically, my daughter was part of why — after my bookstore closed — I took a job at Barnes and Noble.

The conversation continues next week . . . .



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