This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

February 21, 1999 — In the controversial Tom Hanks–Meg Ryan film "You've Got Mail!", an independent bookstore owner falls for the head of a Barnes & Noble–like mega–chain that puts her out of business.

Elena Skye's Blackwater Books in Hoboken, New Jersey, went under when a Barnes and Noble opened nearby, and when I asked Skye for her view of the film, she revealed that life's harder — and weirder — than in the movies . . .

DJ: You took a job at the Barnes and Noble that put you out of business?

ES: Well, we were falling into horrible debt, which I'm still getting out of, and they offered me the job of "community relations coordinator." I was so desperate for cash I thought, well, I could do this.

DJ: You must have run into your old customers there.

ES: Oh yeah. Oh! (sighs) People were so shocked. You know, "What are you doing here?"

DJ: So, what does a "community relations coordinator" do?

ES: Promote awareness of the store and tie it in with the community. I was to plan, run, and promote the events. I know so many artists in the community I felt maybe I could just be a conduit and it would be okay. It was also, I have to admit, just fascinating. I mean, to see how, every day, the faxes come in — the managers don't order for the bookstore — and then more faxes: "Okay, this is the display you're gonna build, this is where you're gonna put it." I mean, they're like ants.

DJ: Did that atmosphere affect you?

ES: Well, there wasn't a lot of respect for the arts. Like, I'm running a reading and they're making cappuccino! You can't hear the reading! So I said, "Look, you can't make cappuccino until this is over." And the manager came over and she was freaking out — "You can't do that! You can't stop operation of the store!" It's just like, nobody cared, nobody cared. Plus, the other restrictions — they got down on me for wearing a baseball cap to work, I couldn't wear open–toed shoes. (laughs) There were some nice people there, but the ludicrousness of the job requirements keep them so busy with inane stuff they don't have time to think about important things.

DJ: Like what?

ES: Did you know authors like Bukowski, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Paul Auster are all kept behind the register because they get stolen a lot? A young kid looking at their lit section won't find any of them. That really breaks my heart. And it's strange — we never had that problem at Blackwater. Maybe it's easier to steal from them because it's not clear who you're stealing from.

DJ: But at least they have a "community relations coordinator."

ES: But I found it really empty. I couldn't talk to the press — you have to clear every thing you say through their corporate office. I just couldn't connect with the community through Barnes and Noble. I felt like, "They're just using me because they closed my store down and boy doesn't this look good now I'm working for them."

DJ: How long did you last?

ES: (laughing) Maybe seven or eight months. What I felt I was up against at Barnes & Noble was people who had put aside certain values — either didn't have those values to begin with, or put them aside to work there.

DJ: They didn't hire people keen about books?

ES: No. It was just, what were your hours of availability. It could have been Burger King. You know, you don't run a bookstore unless you're really passionate about literature. It's the excitement of being around books, and authors, and having an affect on your customers. At the Barnes & Noble I worked at, those qualities really weren't there.

DJ: This bodes ill for your romance with Tom Hanks.

ES: (laughing) It's hard to imagine that a person who'd work for Barnes & Noble would retain qualities that someone in Meg Ryan's position would find appealing.

DJ: Any plans to try again?

ES: Maybe someday when I'm old and gray. But I'm sad about what's going on now: Barnes & Noble is trying to buy [the country's biggest book wholesaler] Ingram's. There's something compulsive about Barnes & Noble, something scary about how big they feel they need to be. They may have some decent bookstores, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be stopped when they're crossing the lines over free enterprise.

DJ: Any good memories from working there?

ES: A really wonderful moment was when we had the best Christmas I guess they'd ever had. For a Christmas bonus, I got and kept, because it was so unbelievable — a coupon for a free hot beverage from the café!

DJ: That was your bonus?

ES: That was my bonus!

Elena Skye has been out of the book business since leaving Barnes & Noble. She says she has no plans to see "You've Got Mail."



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