Archives For Fields Books

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

David Wiegleb, Heidi Geyer, and Esther Fishman

David Wiegleb, Heidi Geyer, and Esther Fishman

PPR SeekingtheMystery draft2 187x300

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Greetings from San Francisco! I’ve arrived safe and sound in the Bay Area, and have received warm hospitality from my lovely hosts. While you’re reading this I’ll be immersed in the proceedings of the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting, but yesterday I had some unstructured time, so I thought I’d spend it by visiting the legendary Fields Book Store, a vital outlet for metaphysical and esoteric material since 1932. Braving the BART and buses, and with the help of some kind elderly ladies, I soon arrived at my destination.

Just beyond the Jade Skin Spa

Just beyond the Jade Skin Spa

David Wiegleb, current owner of Fields, who I’ve interviewed via email for a variety of stories over the years, was gracious and open about the challenges of running a metaphysical bookstore in the current economic climate. Over the years he’s seen the number of metaphysical bookstores in the Bay Area greatly contract, and works hard to make sure the legacy of Fields remains in the years ahead.

David Wiegleb and Fields Book Store

David Wiegleb and Fields Book Store

What really hit home to me, after I made a couple purchases, was how essential shops like Fields really are in building community. They are hubs of local information, a place to check in, and a provider of resources for those looking to connect. Today I’ll be exploring theory, theology, and the latest scholarship regarding our interconnected faith communities, but it’s good to remember where community is created. The people and institutions who make sure there is a community to discuss, debate, and study. If you’re in San Francisco, take the time to make a pilgrimage to Fields, you’ll be glad you did!

Well-respected esoteric publishers Scarlet Imprint, producers of high quality limited-edition volumes on such topics as the cult of Pomba Gira, Palo Mayombe, and magical grimoires, has announced that they are going to start releasing their titles as ebooks.

A selection of Scarlet Imprint titles.

A selection of Scarlet Imprint titles.

“The e-book hopefully means more people will read books. That can only be a good thing. It also means that we can create affordable versions of our work so that readers can take the risk on new authors and unfamiliar subjects. You can dare to read and enrich yourself outside of your field, perhaps you haven’t encountered Pomba Gira or Palo Mayombe before, or you want to see if the poetry cuts it. It allows you to travel with a library rather than dislocating your shoulder with a satchel full of books- as we often do. It makes unwieldy reference texts quickly searchable for research. To this end, we are issuing all of our future paperback Bibliotheque Rouge titles in epub and mobi format.”

The move is part of their Bibliotheque Rouge line, which made cheaper paperback editions of their high-quality collectors editions available to the general public, and this latest expansion is being made in hopes that by “embracing the digital revolution” they can “get these relevant voices of modern magick to the new generation.” How are small metaphysical booksellers reacting to this move by Scarlet Imprint? I spoke with David Wiegleb, owner of Fields Books in San Francisco, about the new digital turn, and he expressed support and optimism for Scarlet Imprint’s new initiative.

“I applaud Scarlet Imprint for making their materials available in a variety of formats. They have fine editions available for the collector, nicely designed standard editions for those who want a copy for their permanent library, Bibliotheque Rouge unlimited paperback edition for the curious, the budget conscious, and future readers, and now ebook editions for those that want them. And the ebooks probably substantially help their bottom line. As a bookseller (and as a reader), whenever I see a publisher pursue a strategy that helps them not only survive into the future, but do so in a way that honors their commitment to good material and well-produced physical books, I will celebrate it. It looks to be a strategy other publishers should emulate.”

Also enthused by Scarlet Imprint’s new digital editions is poet, performer, and writer Ruby Sara, who edited the publisher’s recent collection of esoteric poetry, “Datura,” and is currently working on their new poetry collection, “Mandragora.”

“From a publisher that has amply demonstrated its continued commitment to the fine-bound book, I think the decision to offer digital editions represents an excellent, relevant, and holistic approach to the entire project of book-making. It simultaneously affirms the important place of the bookbinder’s art while ensuring that the words themselves – the blood, sweat and tears of the writer/occultist – are accessible to all. I’m personally very excited that the poetry in Datura, and the forthcoming anthology Mandragora, will be even more accessible through a variety of mediums, from the tactile beauty of the physical books to the economy of the digital editions.”

All digital books can be purchased directly from Scarlet Imprint, and are being released in EPUB (Nook compatible) and MOBI (Kindle compatible) formats. In addition, the company says they’ll “replace lost files for you free of charge as long as the lights stay on.”

While other Pagan and esoteric publishers have made digital editions of their releases available in recent years, I think Scarlet Imprint’s move deserves special notice for making limited edition works accessible to a larger audience. Like it or not, e-readers are here to stay. Millions of people use iPads, Nooks, and Kindles to read books in a variety of contexts. While there will always be a place for traditionally published books, digital editions offer a cheap(er) and convenient way to  experience works that may not be easily acquired otherwise. It can also act as a deterrent to those who would pirate their books, removing the excuses of price or availability from normal rationales. Here’s hoping more specialty publishers make their works available in electronic formats, creating real options for those who prefer using e-readers. Our thanks to Scarlet Imprint for “offering a free and unfettered choice.”

On July 22nd the bookstore chain Borders started the process of closing its 399 remaining locations. This move was long predicted by industry watchers as the once-mighty chain wobbled in the face of Amazon.com’s rise (a company it once outsourced to) and costly missteps in non-book merchandise. The last few weeks of media coverage has featured a mixture of fond reminiscences, 20/20 hindsight analysis,  and predictions for the future of the book-selling industry. Many of the predictions haven’t been too cheery, for example, the investment site The Motley Fool predicts that Barnes & Noble will ultimately suffer the same fate, noting that “just because B&N will be the last one standing doesn’t mean that it will be standing for long.” Even if the Borders closure is the last domino to topple as the retail book market restructures itself for a post-ebook and post-Amazon world, that development alone could have far-reaching and possibly disastrous consequences for businesses that cater to modern Pagans.

The Borders Closure and Pagan Publishers

One of the most obvious ramifications of the Borders closure is the elimination of bricks-and-mortar booksellers willing to carry Pagan, occult, and metaphysical titles. At the beginning of 2010 Borders operated 508 superstores in the United States, plus several more “Borders Express” and Waldenbooks outlets in malls and airports. As more than one reporter has pointed out, in some areas Borders was the only significant bookstore within driving distance. Or as a recent NPR report put it, “an entire arm of book sales has been amputated.” No matter how healthy or solvent a publishing business is, that much reduction in retail space is going to hurt. Worse still, at the time of the Borders bankruptcy filing they owed nearly 300 million to its creditors. One of those creditors was Llewellyn Worldwide, the largest publisher of Pagan and metaphysical books. In its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing Borders revealed that it owes Llewellyn over half a million dollars.

As large as Llewellyn may be to the Pagan community, it’s still relatively tiny compared to the larger publishing houses, and losing that much money has to hit hard. I contacted Llewellyn for comment, but there has been no official response. However, I was able to speak with author Donald Michael Kraig, who has worked extensively with Llewellyn, and speaking solely as an individual, offered his take on what some of the ramification of the Borders closure may be.

“As an author, I don’t get paid until my publishers are paid. I probably won’t directly see the loss in “take backs,” although my royalties will undoubtedly be smaller. Those who self-publish may have a different experience and to them (and small publishers) I hope your losses, at best, are small. My guess, however, is that this will hurt the “bottom line” of some publishers and may have a worse effect on a few very small publishers. This is what happens in business.”

The second-largest Pagan and metaphysical publisher, Red Wheel / Weiser, is also owed money by Borders. Though less than Llewellyn, it is still over $200,000. Again, not insignificant for a company their size.

Jan Johnson, Publisher at Red Wheel / Weiser, responding to my questions via email, says that little should change at their company due to the closing of Borders.

“We’ll, of course, miss the stores and the sales from the books they’ve been carrying. Borders supported many of our titles. We don’t expect it to have a direct affect on the number of titles or authors we sign. Borders closure is another indication of the changing way people find and buy books. In order to succeed as publishers, we need to communicate even more with our reader communities.”

A third Pagan publishing company, BBI Media, which produces the popular magazines Witches & Pagans, SageWoman, and Crone, has also been hard-hit by the Borders liquidation. Publisher and editor Anne Newkirk Niven bluntly explained to me how hundreds of outlets disappearing directly impacts the company’s bottom line.

“The cataclysmic news of the final bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders bookstore chain (resulting in an immediate and pressing gap in our cashflow) rocked me back on my heels just as I was setting down to write the editorial for the 25th anniversary issue of SageWoman. In an additional irony, just as Borders was announcing its liquidation, copies of the current issue of Witches&Pagans were rolling off the presses — thousands of which are now sitting on the dock at our printer, with nowhere to go.

The immediate loss — due to the six-to-ninth month gap between distribution and payment of newsstand copies — caused by the Borders collapse is likely to come in between $18,000 and $30,000. Like many other independent titles, this is a clear and immediate threat to our continued existence. Our plan — identical to the one we rolled out in 1997 when magazine distributor Fine Print went bankrupt owing us a similar amount — is to go directly to our readers, and ask them to donate enough to get us over the hump. In 1997, our readers generously donated to keep SageWoman going, and we hope that when we roll out a full-scale fundraising effort in September, our readers will respond again.”

Niven called this event a “body blow” but seemed optimistic that readers and supporters would rally to help save periodicals like SageWoman, which have become an institution to many in the Pagan community. The company also sounded a hopeful note in their recent initiative to branch out into digital editions of their magazines. The Wild Hunt will be following up on BBI Media’s fundraising initiative, checking back in with Anne Newkirk Niven once it launches.

Assuming that the two largest publishers of Pagan-oriented books, and the largest publisher of Pagan periodicals, are able to weather this storm and come out largely unscathed, there are some troubling forecasts ahead. Science fiction and horror author K.W. Jeter recently pointed out that the prevailing lesson some are taking from the Borders closure may be that it carried too many books, and spent too much time catering to the “long tail” that the Internet thrives in accommodating. This is echoed by another genre writer, J. A. Konrath, who predicts that the “midlist is going the way of the dodo.” For those not up on the publishing-world lingo, “midlist” books are titles that are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication. Should Barnes & Noble decide to cut back on its midlist in a post-Borders book market, that could mean metaphysical/New Age sections that are dominated by titles like “The Secret” and  Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” and little else. For many Barnes & Noble stores, this is already nearly the case.

Can Independent Stores Bridge the Gap?

While some are mournfully singing eulogies for Borders, others point out that it wasn’t too long ago that the chain was seen as a villain that many wished doom upon. During their ascent in the 1990s book superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble put many small independent bookstores out of business, and many more nearly so, by offering convenience, big selections, and oftentimes deep discounts the smaller (often niche) stores couldn’t match (illustrator/cartoonist Alison Bechdel famously fictionalized this process in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”). Now that Borders is closing, many are wondering if independent booksellers will benefit, or even grow, in this environment. Jan Johnson at Weiser, when asked about the future of the esoteric bookselling market, said that  “we love it that there are still independent shops who specialize in selling esoteric books, and we’ll continue to support them. We also really like getting feedback and ideas from them.” Will we see independent Pagan and esoteric bookstores rise to fill the gap(s)?

I asked David Wiegleb, current owner of Fields Book Store in San Francisco, an esoteric bookstore that’s been a fixture in the Bay Area since 1932, for his perspective on how the Borders closure will affect business.

“In the short term, we’re seeing some new customers as well as customers returning who we may not have seen in a while. In San Francisco, not only are the Borders stores now closed, but there are no longer any Barnes and Noble stores. This recent uptick for us is certainly welcome, but because of the larger economic and cultural effects our business is still down from prior years. Our challenges are by no means past. There is an opportunity for us to market ourselves to the larger neighborhood as a place people can special order books in any subject and get them usually in only two days. We already carry the Bay Area Bestsellers, and a fair number of customers use us as their “special order” store now. In the medium term, I’m concerned about the ripple effects on publishers and distributors. I’m sure the losses they have incurred with the Borders closing will hit many of them hard, some perhaps fatally, and will impact past and future title availability, as well as pricing. Amazon has already driven list prices up with their demands for deep discounts. This will certainly impact what we can offer.”

Wiegleb also expressed concern that the “next generation will lose the basic cultural experience of browsing in a brick and mortar bookstore,” noting that “more than 1200 Borders and Waldenbooks” have been closing since 2003. Wiegleb’s experience of a recent increase in customers isn’t isolated, other news reports have noted this experience from independent bookshops across the United States. Linda Bubon, an owner at Women and Children First in Chicago, admitted to having “a little happy bookseller who’s jumping up and down” now that “we have this behemoth off our backs.” However, the concerns brought up by Wiegleb are also present. A recent Sacramento Bee report zeroed onto the challenges of growing independent bookstores as more and more people turn to Amazon.com and ebooks,  quoting Mike Barnard, board president of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, who pointed out that “stores that are still left are stressed,” and that “the down economy affects everybody.” Indeed, many reports on metaphysical bookshops I’ve read in recent years have focused on shops trying to stay afloat in a tough economy, in addition to the challenges of the modern bookseller.

One additional issue for those looking to independent Pagan-friendly shops picking up the slack in a post-Borders world is that there aren’t that many robust Pagan/occult/metaphysical bookshops around. The vast majority of Pagan-owned shops carry only a small selection of books, often bought directly from Llewellyn, fewer still carry Pagan magazines. Books are a high-overhead item, and don’t turn the profit that statues, jewelry, stones, herbs, or consignment items often do. I’ve witnessed first-hand how even a single bookshelf full of books can become a fiscal liability for a shop that is barely making ends meet. High-quality esoteric bookshops like Fields Book Store in San Francisco, or independent booksellers like Powell’s in Oregon that are large enough to have a metaphysical/Pagan section, aren’t as common as anyone would like. Creating a new network of esoteric and occult bookstores, along with bigger independents willing to cater to our communities, will take work and commitment from booksellers, publishers, and consumers.

The Bottom Line

The best case scenario here is that some of our largest Pagan-oriented businesses are able to withstand this massive shift, hold out, and recover; that the larger publishing/book-selling world largely stabilizes, and independent booksellers thrive in a post-Borders world, ultimately creating a more diverse and unique marketplace. A worst case scenario would mean that many of the institutions that have  helped define us and support us would cease to be, or exist as a ghost of their former selves. A situation like this would ripple out, hurting many other interconnected Pagan businesses. Economies, especially those that cater to smaller targeted audiences, are like webs. Pull the wrong strands, and the whole thing could collapse. I’m hoping that isn’t the case, and that something approaching the best case scenario wins out. For that to happen, a renewed and concerted effort to invest our time and money in Pagan-owned and Pagan-friendly business should be a top priority.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be returning to this story, for it’s an issue that’s far larger than I can encapsulate here. I want to touch on ebooks, and epublishers, strategies that Pagan businesses are pursuing to survive and thrive, and how these changes might affect other sectors of the Pagan economy.

Resources

Because I was not able to fully quote the statements of everyone I talked to for this piece, I’m attaching them here as PDF downloads so you can read them for yourself in their original contexts. Statement by Anne Newkirk NivenStatement by Jan JohnsonStatement by David WieglebStatement by Donald Michael Kraig.

At the beginning of June, copies of a new anthology, “Crowley: Thoughts & Perspectives, Volume Two,” started arriving at the homes of individuals who ordered the book. Published by Black Front Press, the volume received generally positive feedback from commenters at the Aleister Crowley Society. On June 10th, well-respected esoteric publishers Scarlet Imprint released a statement regarding Black Front Press, and its head, Troy Southgate.

“We were approached recently to contribute to Troy Southgate’s Black Front Press whose last published work was a Crowley anthology. After a little research, we were disturbed to find their rather murky history hidden beneath the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist and permaculture ideals. Though we are very happy to promote the independent esoteric and occult authors and publishers whose work and dedication invigorate and stimulate our community, it is entirely another matter to contribute our energy to a project which would seem to be attempting to use a multiplicity of voices from the occult scene to promote the ideas of the so-called New-Right.

It seems that Southgate is the leading figurehead for the “National Anarchist” movement, a political extension of the European “New Right” (not to be confused with neoconservativism). National Anarchists endorse a manifesto that defines Zionist Jews as “vampiric parasites intent on carving up the world’s resources in an attempt to create a single, global market,” rejects egalitarianism, and is pro-racial separatism.

“Race defines who we are, it provides us with an identity and exists for a damn good reason. Without maintaining this essential diversity, something you can find throughout nature, the world will become increasingly drab, standardised and monotonous and the only people left on the planet will inevitably form part of a coffee-coloured mush of uniform humanity. National-Anarchists wish to preserve the different races of the earth and believe that multi-racialism ends with the dissolution of all races. Racial separatism is the only way that the organic balance can be restored. We realise that it is impossible to separate people in the large cities and towns, many of whom have racially-mixed children or wish to live among foreign populations, and neither should we attempt to do so. Indeed, we believe that the nation-states of the West are likely to collapse in the next few decades and that our respective countries will begin to fragment along racial and cultural lines. So there is clearly no need to treat people inhumanely by herding them into camps or deporting them in the way that the Nazis and Soviets did in the last century; something which ended disastrously for those concerned. National-Anarchists must form new communities based on their own racial and cultural values. The maxim of the future will be respect for others and unity in diversity.”

Scarlet Imprint noted that they held a “profound” disgust for the views expressed in the National Anarchist manifesto, and stated that “what is clear in magickal history is that racial mixing has been incredibly beneficial.” The well-regarded San Francisco esoteric book-seller Fields Books thanked Scarlet Imprint for their stance, and promises “a longer and more nuanced response to all of our customers soon” on the matter. In response, some Crowley fans instantly went on the defensive, wondering if there was going to be a “blacklist” of contributors, bemoaning the “war of ideologies” that will be raised on the issue. This is exactly the kind of response that National Anarchists like Southgate hope for, since a veneer of an apolitical “pox on both your houses” attitude is what gives these New Right/third positionist groups their oxygen.

“The danger National-Anarchists represent is not in their marginal political strength, but in their potential to show an innovative way that fascist groups can rebrand themselves and reset their project on a new footing. They have abandoned many traditional fascist practices—including the use of overt neo-Nazi references, and recruiting from the violent skinhead culture. In its place they offer a more toned down, sophisticated approach… Their cultural references are the neo-folk and gothic music scene, which puts on an air of sophistication, as opposed to the crude skinhead subculture. National Anarchists abandon any obvious references to the Hitler or Mussolini’s fascist regimes, often claiming not to be “fascist” at all.

Like the European New Right, the National-Anarchists adapt a sophisticated left-wing critique of problems with contemporary society, and draw their symbols and cultural orientation from the Left; then they offer racial separatism as the answer to these problems. They are attempting to use this new form to avoid the stigma of the old discredited fascism, and if they are successful like the National Bolsheviks have been in Russia, they will breathe new life into their movement. Even if the results are modest, this can disrupt left-wing social movements and their focus on social justice and egalitarianism; and instead spread elitist ideas based on racism, homophobia, antisemitism and antifeminism amongst grassroots activists.”

Before Southgate and his apologists muddy the water on the debate that will no doubt gear up, lets be clear that his views are extremist, but always with the added caveat of “we’ll leave them alone if they leave us alone.”

“The most important thing for us is the Natural Order. It is natural for men and women to procreate. Anything which threatens the harmony of Nature must be opposed. Feminism is dangerous and unnatural not because it threatens to leave men with a pile of dirty washing-up and a few smelly nappies (as some of its adherents claim), but because it ignores the complimentary relationship between the sexes and encourages women to rebel against their inherent feminine instincts. Anyone interested in the opposing view should read The Female Woman by Arianna Stassinopoulos (Davis-Poynter, 1973) or Chapter 20 of Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World (Inner Traditions, 1995). Homosexuality is contrary to the Natural Order because sodomy is quite undeniably an unnatural act. Groups such as Outrage are not campaigning for love between males – which has always existed in a brotherly or fatherly form – but have created a vast cult which has led to a rise in cottaging, male-rape and child sex attacks. Nature is about life and health, not death and AIDS. One of the most eye-opening pamphlets produced on this issue is Alexander Baron’s truly excellent Guide to Gay Sex: A Primer For Young People (Infotext Manuscripts, 1994). But we are not trying to stop homosexuals engaging in this kind of activity like the Christian moralists or bigoted denizens of censorship are doing, on the contrary, as long as this behaviour does not affect the forthcoming National-Anarchist communities then we have no interest in what people get up to elsewhere. I just hope these people respect our own right to live in the way we choose. As far as abortion is concerned, this process violates the sanctity of life and once again the killing of an unborn child is flying in the face of Nature and one could do far worse than read Abortion: Yes Or No? by John L. Grady (Tan Books, 1979).”

Amazingly, the “we’ll let you live in peace apart from us come the revolution” defense seems to often work. Allowing views that would get them painted as neo-fascists to get lost in a constructed apolitical fog. However, any direct contact with self-proclaimed National Anarchists makes plain what they are, and apologists end up having to twist themselves into pretzels in order to insulate figures like Southgate from the odious effects of their pseudo-intellectual rhetoric.

I don’t think there should be a “blacklist” for those duped into thinking Black Front Press was truly apolitical in orientation, but once enlightened, it will become increasingly hard to erect a firewall between Southgate’s publishing arm and the views he and his followers espouse. Just because this book on Crowley avoided becoming a pamphlet for neo-fascist views doesn’t mean the publishing house that produced it should be given a free pass. Ultimately, there’s an expectation that intelligent people will consider who is funding and distributing a project. If your work is helping to bolster the image of a company that endorses the philosophy of the National Anarchists, if your work helps these groups further insinuate themselves within Pagan and esoteric communities, then the fig leaf of apoliticism must be challenged.