Book Maverick Lynn Bender's
When Lynn Bender uses the word "atypical" to describe how he began selling books, you prick up your ears. There's a lot about Lynn Bender that is atypical. Sometimes, if you catch him in the right mood, he will acknowledge that he resembles Uncle Fester. He worked at the University Co-op for about one year and after he quit, he would occasionally stop by the store carrying a big black bag; store employees were told to follow him around and keep an eye on him. "They had this insane fear that he was swiping a bunch of books from them," Kirk Lynn, an assistant manager at the Co-op at the time, says. "So that's my first introduction to Lynn is this guy comes in and they say, 'He used to manage here and you need to really keep your eye on him.' And I think he kind of enjoyed the suspicious nature of his visits." Eleven years ago, while managing Europa Books in Dobie Mall, a sophisticated little store whose owners strictly intended it to be a showcase for foreign language titles, Bender had a friend who managed a "fetish boutique." There, among his high-minded European books, Bender suddenly had customers asking for Piercing Fans International Quarterly. He gave them a funny look and said, "Nope, sorry" until three weeks of awful sales altered his perspective. The next time someone came in asking for The Leatherman's Handbook, he said, "Sorry, we're all out but check back next week." "He's sort of like this medieval court minister," according to Scot Casey, one of Bender's friends and former employees who would eventually run FringeWare. "At one point his hair was long and he'd wear these $1,000 outfits to work in a bookstore and he just struck me as this guy who was misplaced, who would be thriving in a medieval court whispering into the king's ear about something." Many people who know Lynn Bender have Lynn Bender stories. A pattern develops after you've heard a fair number of them. Usually, the storyteller becomes, in one way or another, the brunt of Bender's anger. My own Lynn Bender story is just like that: Several years ago, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas wrote a book and mailed the Chronicle a letter about it. She wanted to know whether someone from the Chronicle would like to cover a reading she was going to give at Desert Books, a small bookstore in the basement of Bank One at the south end of the Drag that Bender owned. It seemed interesting. I called the bookstore to make certain it was okay to send a photographer to the event. Because most bookstores and authors are eager for publicity, a phone call like that is nothing more than a formality. I had vaguely heard about Lynn Bender but had never met him. When he answered the phone, he said it most definitely was not okay to send a photographer to the store and, come to think of it, I probably shouldn't send myself either. I don't recall whether he hung up on me or I on him, but after the befuddling shock wore off, Lynn Bender seemed, to me, irresistibly intriguing.
Bender sold books on the Drag for 10 years at four different locations. Before that, he worked in the cataloging department of the Perry-Casteñeda Library at UT and spent the weekends, he says, working for "some rather questionable Japanese businessmen." Once, at Les Amis, the funky lost haunt of UT intellectuals, Bender met two French brothers who imported books into the United States. They were looking for a locale in the South to feature their foreign language titles and Bender persuaded them to open a store in Austin. After they opened Europa Books in the Dobie Mall, they asked him to be the manager. They hired him not because he was proficient in at least six languages but because he had spent six months selling cars at his father's Buick dealership, "something I'm really embarrassed about," he says. "Everything they say about car salesmen is true. I couldn't stand it." Several weeks after he began managing Europa, Bender realized that selling foreign language titles wouldn't pay the rent. Enter the fetish crowd. Within two months, 3% of the inventory, the fetish titles, were generating 50% of the store's sales. Then three months after Europa opened, Garner & Smith, a local bookstore, closed and floods of people began flocking to Europa asking Bender why he couldn't stock Foucault in English if he was stocking Foucault in French. He began receiving similarly rarified requests: Baudrillard, Bataille, Bourdieu, Irigarary, Cixous, De Certeau, "and all the French critics. The early Nineties seemed to be the apex of the French craze, at least in Austin," Bender recalls. And no one questioned the erotica because it was a "European" bookstore. Europa, at that time, was an ecstatic experience for him because he enjoyed reading the critics he sold and he suddenly found that he had developed a community of people who shared the same interests as himself while making a profit. "He had all of the stuff going on over there," Casey says. "No one was doing Loeb Classics or Oxford Classical Texts. No one in the Classics department -- and this is before Amazon, which makes all the difference in the world -- could find that stuff. It would take them weeks and weeks to order it from Harvard or from Oxford. And all of a sudden Lynn says, 'Okay, what do you want?'"
"I wasn't a genius or anything," Bender says. "I just didn't stumble into stocking the right titles in French/Literary Crit." A year before he began working at Europa, Bender was working at UT taking inventory of the university's postwar French and Italian holdings and using the checkout statistics to determine what titles were missing. This, of course, solidified his knowledge of the titles students demanded most routinely. "This was another stroke of good fortune," he says. But for all of his luck, Bender demonstrated, early on, a knack for building a sense of community around books. "Everybody came there," Casey says. "The French department to the German department, the medievalists, Classics people, critical theory people, and the S&M people were all sort of coming in and mingling shoulders in this very small space."
By its second year, Europa had become a magnet for iconoclasts. "It was common to see people like Bruce Sterling or Marcos Novak hanging out, and you never knew who would be on the phone," Bender says. "One minute it would be Bill Gibson [Neuromancer] or Mistress Antoinette and the next minute Sarah Pomeroy," the classics scholar. Everyone was happy: The owners had realized a profit in the mid-six figures and Bender was able to spend his days with people he enjoyed. Shannon Wheeler, the cartoonist who created Too Much Coffee Man, was a regular Europa fixture. "He would sit by the checkout counter, flirt with the female staff, and draw cartoons," Bender recalls. Bender had commissioned a coffee shop to make what he calls a "special motor-oil brew" that he would give to his employees whenever they started to drag. "That's where the Too Much Coffee Man mythos got started," Bender says. "Those were pictures of me bringing back more coffee."
The images of Bender as Too Much Coffee Man struck such a chord that he commissioned Wheeler to make ads starring Too Much Coffee Man to publicize the store's move to a larger location on Guadalupe, where Urban Outfitters is now located. And in the new space, there was a rumor that Too Much Coffee Man lived in the basement of the store. Except there was no basement. "Soon we had people getting in the elevator, trying to get down to the basement," Bender says. "The elevator only went up but that didn't stop people from trying to push whatever strange combination of buttons to get down into the secret chambers in the basement." Europa had grown, but foreign language sales only represented 5% of the store's entire sales; the owners were not happy. Once again, sales of foreign language books failed to pay the rent, although the owners insisted it didn't have to be that way. But they lived in Chicago, Bender points out, and had no intimate knowledge of the market in Austin. The owners -- "I feel like Klaus Kinski bitching about Herzog," Bender confesses -- started refusing to pay the local bills (like, oh, the plumbing) in order to force Bender to concentrate on selling more foreign titles. His close friend and fellow manager Michael Arbore, who had worked with Bender at Europa in Dobie Mall, drifted off to attend grad school in California. Non-foreign language titles still sold well and, judging from what Bender says, it was those very titles that made life at Europa somewhat surreal. He recalls chauffeur-driven drug dealers in cashmere trenchcoats coming in to buy Iceberg Slim novels. "And undercover feds talking into their windbreakers and Austin cops with guns and beepers following all the goth kids into the store looking for crime suspects. We could always tell the undercover cops from the drug dealers 'cause the drug dealers came in to look at literature and the cops came in to look at pictures of nekkid women." Scot Casey took Arbore's place and then took off to the desert; Bender, fed up with the whole situation, took $8,000 of his own money, paid off the local accounts, called the French brothers, and told them he was quitting.
Bender says that three hours after he quit, George Mitchell, the president and CEO of the University Co-op, was walking up and down the Drag looking for him. Mitchell invited him to lunch and asked him if he wanted to help "rebuild" the Co-op. It took three or four lunch meetings for them to decide on terms and then, after a one-month vacation, Bender began working at the Co-op. "Immediately Lynn ... is calling the professors," Casey says. "And almost like muscling them into this like, 'Oh well, all the students in your class are here buying these books and you haven't ordered these books for your classes through me yet and perhaps you should because I'm just going to tell all your students that you're a loser because you have no idea about these things' and the professor is like, 'Who's this bookseller talking to me?'"
Bender's ability to build up a community around books was always a two-way street. If he made the effort to find and stock the books a professor wanted for a class, he expected the professor to send his students to his store to buy them. Bender never believed that the customer is always right. In fact, there were many times in Lynn Bender's bookstores when the customer wasn't even close to being right. He preferred to challenge his clientele and to engage them. "He knew his clientele," Kirk Lynn says. "He didn't have the books for the casual browsers, and so I think whenever somebody sort of, through the book that they were looking for, approached that area of casual browser or unlearned or not quite up-to-date, I mean he often wouldn't do it tersely, he would just say, 'Oh, if you're really interested in that, then the book for you is 'X.'" Later, when Kirk Lynn had become a publisher's sales rep, he was in Desert Books when someone entered the store looking for New Age books. "And after answering a couple of questions [Bender] got very impatient with him and just sent the kid packin'," he says. "But I sort of sympathize with him; you can only tell [customers] so many times that that's not the sort of book that we're ever going to carry."
Bender stayed at the Co-op for 11 months, having cut the store's inventory and improved its sales. He says the Co-op owned "about $500,000" in out-of-date science books, so he returned them and replaced them with computer books. Since there were only about 6,000 computer books in print at that time, he decided to just stock the store with one of each. By his own reckoning, the technical book section at the Co-op went from an average daily sale of $1,280 to more than $4,000. "The Cog Sci people were coming in and just going crazy," Casey says.
The Co-op paid Bender well and he was able to put aside half of his salary, but he didn't enjoy working there. The French brothers persuaded him to return to Europa, asking him to either re-profitize the store (it had been losing money) or to liquidate it. It was Bender's decision, not the owners', to close Europa, though Bender didn't mention that at the time because "the book lovers of Austin would never have forgiven me." After having made a profit on selling Europa's lease to Urban Outfitters, the Europa owners asked Bender to manage a third Europa in the space just north of Mojo's Daily Grind, which he did for four months. Three months after he quit, Europa closed for good. Using the money he had saved, he opened Desert Books in 1996.
"He was our best helper, our best friend," says Katie Arens, a professor in UT's German department, "in terms of making us feel like what we were doing was valid and important and giving us a venue to share." A little more than a year after he opened Desert Books, however, Bender began to place far less of an emphasis on stocking humanities titles in favor of some math and mostly computer books, which may seem like a less than noteworthy event. But when a community considers a bookstore its center of interaction, and then finds its books no longer stocked there, the selection of books on the bookshelves suddenly begins to matter. Bender says only that his years of experience learning that "the faculty had an almost universal inability to measure things in economic terms" began to wear him down. Arbore says that "academic discourse has deteriorated." "Ten years ago, you could count on selling Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, you could count on the feminist titles," he says. "There were some key authors who would sell, but now it was just endless regurgitation, new faculty who were just sort of regurgitating tertiary, secondary sources, who were then quoting people who were quoting Foucault. It got really bad." But the change may be simpler than all that: Bender was developing a more intense interest in getting "closer to the machine," in programming and administering computer systems. Thus, he began carrying more computer titles. In October of last year, he closed Desert Books and is quick to point out that his decision wasn't because of the chains. "I know it sounds selfish," he says, "but after about 10 years of managing bookstores, I wasn't learning anything new." "He gets bored with the existing constellation every five or six years," Arens says. Bender is now an editor at ibooks.com, an Austin company that calls itself "the leading e-publishing company of online reference books."
"'Machiavellian' applies to no one better than Lynn," Casey says. Then he says, "But I mean that in the best sense. It's always been amazing to me how he has been able to foster community through exploiting these almost arcane or -- arcane's not quite the right word and esoteric isn't either -- but maybe elitist areas of the book industry." Casey isn't interested in most critical theory or postmodernism, but Bender's ability to impart the sheen of gold to those disciplines has him mystified. "It's this priveleged sense," Casey says. "This sort of enthuses you in a way because you think, 'What's there that's so interesting?' Maybe in the end there's nothing, but it's one of his bizarre talents."
Lynn Bender is a panelist on the "eBooks and eStories" panel during the SXSW Interactive Festival on Tuesday, March 14, at 3:30pm.