Cutting access to books

Olsson’s Bookstores in Washington, D. C. were great places to spend time shopping for books.  Several of my friends and I who gathered a few times a year for news directors association board meetings would wander into Georgetown after dinner, walking down M Street and turning right at Wisconsin Avenue and going uphill a couple of blocks to Olsson’s where we would stay until closing, often leaving with bags of books and sometimes CDs.   There were several Olsson’s stores in the area.  I had scoped out several and made sure than no visit to Washington was complete without discovering what the folks at Olsson’s had.

Two or three times, our board meetings coincided with big Book Fairs Olsson’s sponsored where dozens of authors, even Supreme Court Justices, signed their books.   I have a lot of signed volumes in the library at home, including books signed by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor.

But the increasing power of big box bookstores (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million)  and other factors took their toll on John Olsson’s stores.  He closed his anchor store in Georgetown in 2002 and later after declaring bankruptcy closed the last five of those wonderful stores in 2008.   Washington, great city that it is, wasn’t as interesting where there wasn’t an Olsson’s Books and Music store to spend an evening in.

Independent bookstores are wonderful places.  This writer fell in love with the Tattered Cover in Denver years and years ago and with Page One in Albuquerque.  Left Bank Books in the St. Louis West End.  Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas.  What used to be the Treasure House in Jefferson City is down Downtown Book and Toy in Jefferson City, a place I check every Wednesday when the new books and magazines are on the shelves (They’ve sold a lot of my books but they have many more to sell should you need one—and you do.).  And a dear friend in Rolla used to have me in for signings at Books and Things a lot.

And the great, legendary, Strand  in New York City.  If you are ever in New York City and if you like books, make the Strand part of the list that includes the Statue of Liberty and a Broadway play and Ground Zero.

What happens, though, when books are limited to only a few outlets?   What happens when a few conglomerates are able to influence what gets published or sold?

We are seeing that situation develop.   No, it’s not Barnes& Noble.

It’s Amazon.

We are on the mailing lists of several independent book stores.  The Tattered Cover’s most recent “Shelf Awareness” newsletter referred to Left Bank Books in writing about what Amazon is doing to a publisher, a situation that emphasizes the importance of the independent bookstore.

“The dispute between Amazon and Hachette, which shows once again that independent bookstores are the only booksellers who can be counted on to make all books available to readers, has continued into its fourth month–and gotten more heated.

Last Sunday, the group started by author Douglas Preston called Authors United ran a two-page ad in the New York Times calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to stop targeting Hachette authors in an effort to force the publisher to agree to Amazon’s terms. Signed by more than 900 authors, the ad states that it’s just plain wrong for a bookseller to block the sale of certain books (even the Wall Street Journal has condemned Amazon’s corporate behavior).

Amazon countered by creating something called Readers United, and sent a letter to Kindle Direct Publishing authors asking them to pressure Hachette. The letter reiterated the same arguments they’ve been using, but with a new twist: misquoting George Orwell. Amazon’s citing, and misuse, of Orwell’s words might lead readers to recall 1984 and think more closely about how the corporation uses its technology. This week, in a letter to the New York Times, Orwell’s estate essentially called Amazon’s approach Orwellian, saying that the company’s selective quoting was “dystopian and shameless… as close as one can get to the Ministry of Truth and its doublespeak.”

Many indie booksellers have responded creatively and positively, setting up special displays of Hachette titles, taking orders for upcoming Hachette books–and, in one case, making home deliveries of one book. It’s been what Kris Kleindienst, owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., called “a teachable moment” for booksellers. “It’s tapped into folks who have never really thought about this.”

The major lesson to be learned from this contretemps: shop locally. As author John Scalzi says, ‘Companies trying to drive the market toward monopoly rarely are on the side of the consumer in the long run.’ –Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers”

Whether you read books from an independent book store or a big-box store, whether you red book books or tablet books or whether you listen to audio books, beware of the time when one entity, or a few entities, can keep us from access to them.  Our ability to learn and to think and to affect our world with our thoughts and their accompanying actions is in the balance.

Flour girl

A two-billion dollar lawsuit filed in Chicago federal court brings us to a story we have meant for years to tell on ACROSS OUR WIDE MISSOURI but we’ve never had the time to write it.  Someday we’ll put it into the broadcast rotation but it probably will have a different angle to it than this tale today.

The lawsuit was filed by D. W. Hunter, the great grandson of Anna Short Harrington.

Now, understand that Anna Short Harrington was not a Missourian. We don’t know if she ever visited Missouri during her 58 years although she probably did.  But that two-billion dollar lawsuit would not be in the courts if it was not for events in Missouri about 125 years ago.

But first, who was Anna Short Harrington?   Friends called her “Annie.”   She was born near the South Carolina town of Wallace, a poverty-stricken rural area, in 1896.  A book written a few years ago, “The Story of Aunt Jemima,” says the Short family was a sharecropper raising tobacco and cotton on the 20,000-acre Peguese Plantation, now on the National Register of Historic Sites.  One of her nieces who helped compile the book was Lenora Harrington Pegues.

She headed north to look for work to support herself and her two children after her husband Weldon took off,  and landed in Syracuse, New York where she became a cook at fraternity houses at Syracuse University.

One day she was making pancakes at the State Fair when a representative of Quaker Oats spied her and signed her up to become the new image of Aunt Jemima pancake flour.  Her image was used as that symbol until her death at the age of 58 in 1955.

The book recounts her first appearance as Aunt Jemima was in an ad in Women’s Home Companion, that she was paid well enough to tour as Aunt Jemima that she could buy a 22-room house and nearby bungalow.

The lawsuit filed by her great grandson claims her contract with Quaker Oats  entitled her to royalties from the brand during the time she was its trademarked symbol.  It also says the company took control of 64 of her recipes and 22 complete menus and made money by selling them to the public.  It takes 108 pages for Hunter to explain his claims.

The lawsuit says Quaker Oats started using the image of Olivia Hunter, Annie’s youngest daughter, to update the Aunt Jemima image.

So that’s the end of the story as of now.

But how about the beginning?  And how is Missouri involved.

It’s because “Aunt Jemima” pancake flour was born here.  It’s kind of a winding story.

Back in 1875, African-American minstrel show comedian Billy Kersands wrote a song called “Old Aunt Jemima.”  Kersands was the most popular black comedian of his time (he died in 1915) and made his living in African-American minstrel shows.

Several years later, the editor of the St. Joseph (MO.) Gazette, Chris Rutt, joined his friend Charles G. Underwood in buying a flour Mill.  That was 1888.  There was a lot of flour on the market so they had a lot left over.  They decided they’d make money if they mixed it with corn flour, phosphates, and bicarbonate of soda, then re-branded it as Pearl Milling Co. ready-made pancake mix.

One night in 1889, Rutt went to a minstrel show where one of the white blackface performers sang the “Old Aung Jemima” song, inspiring Rutt and his partner to market their product as “Aunt Jemima’s” pancake mix. But their business faltered and they sold out to the Randolph Truett Davis Milling Co. in 1890.

Davis then hired Nancy Green, a former slave, as the company spokesperson later that year. She was Aunt Jemima until she died in the Fall of 1923.  Her popularity was such that the Davis Milling Company renamed itself Aunt Jemima Mills in 1913.

Few people remember Aunt Jemima’s family.  Kimberly Wallace-Sanders wrote a book about fifty years ago noting that early in the brand’s history, people could buy paper dolls of Aunt Jemima, her husband Rastus, and their five kids, Abraham, Lincoln, Dina, Zeb, and Dilsie.   Rastus’ name was later changed to Uncle Mose because Cream of Wheat had a trademark figure named Rastus.

Quaker Oats bought the company in ’26 but did not have anybody touring the country as Aunt Jemima until seeing Anna Short Harrington at the New York State Fair in 1935. It trademarked her image two years later.

Quaker Oats introduced Aunt Jemima syrup in 1996.  There also are Aunt Jemima frozen foods.

And that is how a blackface comedian’s song written by a black minstrel show entertainer performed in St. Joseph Missouri 125 years ago has become a two-billion dollar lawsuit filed in Chicago.

The campaign against The Four: a campaign too far?

We’ve taken to calling them The Four.

The Four will tell you that the Club for Growth isn’t a club.

It’s a bludgeon.

Four State Representatives have survived last Tuesday’s primary elections beaten but not defeated.  They say there is no doubt what billionaire GOP supporter Rex Sinquefield tried to do:  he tried to buy four seats in the Missouri House of Representatives.  And all of them say what’s good for Rex Sinquefield is NOT good for Missouri.  At least not in this case.

They don’t condemn Sinquefield so much as they blame the political action committee that lives on his money, the Club for Growth.  They say Sinquefield should get rid of those who organized campaigns against them that were laced with distortions and wild accusations. “Deceit and untruths,” as Rep. Jeff Messenger put it.

Sinquefield wanted The Four to help House Republicans overturn Governor Nixon’s veto of a tax bill favorable to him last year.  When they voted to uphold the veto they were immediately threatened with retaliation in the form of well-funded opponents in the Republican primary.  In the end, more than one-half million dollars was spent trying to defeat them.

And it didn’t work.  All four won, three by substantial margins.

Rep. Paul Fitzwater of Potosi got almost 79% of the vote.  Rep. Nate Walker of Kirksville got almost 59%.  Rep. Lyle Rowland of Cedar Creek got better than 57%.  The only close race was Republic Representative Jeff Messenger, who got almost 52%.

Messenger doesn’t appreciate the kind of campaign launched against him.  He says his people “didn’t want the type of politics coming out St. Louis in our district.”  And Rowland is even stronger, citing the old statement that   “figures don’t lie but liars figure.”   He says that’s what happened in the campaign he won last Tuesday.

All four say they won because they stood up to outsiders thinking they could buy their seats in the House.  Messenger says the campaigns emphasize the need for campaign finance reform, observing, “It’s not right for an organization to come out and try to sway an election, and that seems to be all based around how much money can be generated.”  Fitzwater thinks the elections pointedly emphasize the dangers of a well-heeled special interest getting control of Missouri’s political system. “If we don’t stand up to these special interest groups like this and let them run over us like they’ve been trying to do, why do we have a legislature? Why do we have it?”

Walker wondered if representative government is possible in an era in which. as Fitzwater noted, high-roller interests can “buy” legislative seats.  “When you get too much money from one particular interest group, then the perception is-and maybe the truth is-you’re going to be pretty heavily influenced and maybe not be your own person,” he observed after the balloting.

Rowland hopes the August Primary experience leads to change, commenting, “I would support some type of reform because it is completely out of control.”

The legislature has done a lot of talking about campaign finance and ethics legislation for years.  But its members have never been threatened as four of them were last week. We’ll learn next year if the August primary campaign against The Four was so far over the top that the legislature will move to equalize the volume of the voices of campaign money.

Long-time legislative observers will believe it when they see it.