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— At B. Dalton they have all this stuff on computer: online, up-to-date warehouse information (from Ingrahm, their main distributor), what is actually on the shelves at that moment, and the current, electronic Books in Print.

As much as I've always held an allegiance to independent bookstores, I'll have to admit, the chain, at least this store in question, seems to have it down.

At Hunter's Books in La Jolla ten years ago, we had a reordering system known as "short slips," three-by-five cards with pertinent information: title, author, publisher, price, and how many on hand. It would take, literally, days to go through a moderate stack. This system combined with our purchase order/inventory methods was like something out of Charles Dickens. At B. Dalton, if they don't have it and it's in print, they'll get it into your hands in a few days.

If it sounds like I'm waving a corporate flag, let me add that well-thought-out efficiency is no substitute for basic literacy. I would sooner go to Wahrenbrocks and ask Jeff, Chuck, or Jan about a book than walk into any fluorescent-lit Walls-'o-Books-'o-Rama. It was again at B. Dalton (though the old Fashion Valley location) when I once walked in and asked for a new release, a book in a popular fiction series. The book was titled Flashman and the Redskins, and I was directed to the anthropology section. More recently I requested a book from the Horton Plaza store and seemed to confuse the young clerk by giving him the title and the subtitle (Grace: A Fictional Memoir -- that one I can let slide; even the author seemed confused).

Cruise the window displays of D.G. Wills, John Cole's, the Blue Door Bookstore, even Warwick's, to name a few independents. You are unlikely to be met with the horrifying reminder of declining literacy, the rampant, gathering taste for predictability and mediocrity with which Horton Plaza's B. Dalton's has assaulted prospective customers over the summer: 479,000,000,000 books by Tom Clancy!

Last summer, right near the front door, these were the offerings at B. Dalton.

A Guide for Enriching Relationships; The Book of Questions; Love and Sex; Don't Sweat the Small Stuff with Your Family; Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus; The Soul of Sex; Care of the Soul; One Day My Soul Just Opened Up; Simple Abundance: A Day Book of Comfort and Joy; and, of course, much, much more Tom Clancy.

One might infer that the book-buying proletariat were concerned with sex, relationships, the soul, abundance, terrorism, nuclear threat, the last pathetic twitchings of Soviet communism, and neato tanks, missiles, or submarines.

Last August I called manager Julie Cheever just to ask her about B. Dalton's distribution arrangement and if it had changed over the years with the growth of the chain. She wouldn't answer any questions -- I mean nothing. She referred me to the top-secret headquarters in New York -- the public relations flak. It seemed a little silly to call New York, so I called the store downtown and asked the pleasant-sounding woman on the phone my question. She told me, straightforwardly enough.

"Yes, we order from Ingrahm mostly. Can I help you find something?" I special-ordered a book from her, just grateful to speak with someone who wasn't looking over her shoulder at corporate axemen. The book came in within two weeks and they called me.

This holiday season, the front window featured a lot of cookbooks: The Joy of Cooking; Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook; Paul Newman's Cookbook; How to Cook Everything; Jewish Cooking in America, Sophia Loren's Recipes and Memories. This subject matter strikes me as a life-affirmative improvement over last summer's morbid fixation on dysfunctional love and terrorism.

Calendars are also in the window and the blond, pubescent rock goyim Hanson have taken a marketing tip from Jewish calendars by expanding to 16 months instead of 12. You got your basic cat calendars, of course, here's an Edward Gorey calendar, a Babe (the pig) calendar, and 12 months of a nonaging Xena Princess Warrior.

The hot books currently are Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier ( a celebrated literary novel that Greil Marcus in Esquire called "...a ridiculous book ... its language: denatured, tangled, squeamish"), A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells, about the "complex bonds between a mother and daughter," and anything Oprah Winfrey has read recently like Midwives by Chris Bohjalian. Midwives, the cover will tell you, concerns, "... icy winter nights in an isolated house in rural Vermont. A seasoned midwife named Sybil Danforth takes desperate measures to save a baby's life, an emergency Caesarean section on a mother she believes has died of stroke. But what if Sybil's patient wasn't dead and Sybil inadvertently killed her? As Sybil faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives moves and transfixes ...."

Maybe, but I'm buying Bag of Bones, by Stephen King, and a Dilbert Calendar -- or possibly a marked-down fruitcake at Target -- for someone I forgot at Christmas.

As I'm leafing through Ben Bova's nonfiction work Immortality to see if he's actually onto any promising new technology to weasel out of death, I hear a salesman-type (aluminum siding, I figure, or bathroom fixtures) ask the young woman behind the register, "Have you read all these books?"

The employee looks pained and hesitant as if she's not quite sure she heard correctly before answering slowly, "I'm afraid not."

"Well, then," says the man looking around the store and tapping his watch, "is there someone here who knows what they're talking about?"

Chain or otherwise, my sympathies remain with the grunts of the book trade.

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