TT with HD: John Weise
[Ed. note: Immediately before tottering, JW and HW hauled some books to the post
office for Books by Chance on HD's new bicycle cargo trailer.
Books by Chance in Ann Arbor sells books on consignment, drawing inventory from
the Ann Arbor region, and selling worldwide.]
HD: Feels more like a spring morning to me, doesn't it to you?
JW: Yeah, it does. Something about the dampness of the air [Ed. note: Standard totter pictures are taken] I took quite a few [pictures] on the ride there.
view photos of trailer ride taken by JW
JW: Yeah, so I'll get those to you one way or another.
HD: Oh, that'd be great! Well, welcome to the teeter totter!
JW: Thank you!
HD: Is it more comfortable than the trailer?
JW: Yes, it is.
HD: Yeah, I would think so.
JW: The trailer is fine, but for me, if I were just sitting on the floor my back would start to hurt after a while. The trailer's a bit like that. But it was great ride!
HD: So I know that you ride your bike to work ...
JW: ... yeah ...
HD: ... from the Eberwhite area to U of M campus ... [Ed. note: The board was squeaking fairly loudly] ... hang on for one second maybe we can ...
JW: ... adjust that?
HD: Well, yeah, it just makes it difficult to transcribe is all--above and beyond being irritating, the transcribing of the squeak, ah well. So anyway I know that you ride your bike into town along Liberty. Do you ever have occasion to traverse the section of Liberty that we did this morning with the trailer?
JW: You know, I don't think I have. I tend not to go out that way on the bike.
HD: Erica Briggs, the former coordinator of getDowntown, was commenting on the totter that it didn't really occur to her a lot of times to go that direction on Liberty, that it was always into town and back, as opposed to out to the Stadium [Blvd.] corridor.
JW: For me it's a little intimidating out there on Stadium.
HD: Even after the new improvements, widening, and bike lanes and islands and whatnot?
JW: Well, I mean it's a lot better. In fact, our ride out there this morning, it was better than I expected, just traffic and everything.
HD: Well this time of morning--just right in the middle of morning when all the morning commute is done and there isn't noontime lunch traffic--is I think maybe a little quieter.
JW: Yeah, that left turn light there at Stadium wasn't very friendly.
HD: No, from Liberty onto Stadium, there was split second of opportunity. So I was just wondering, last May during Bike to Work Month, were you a part of that caravan that Kris Talley led into town along Liberty? [Ed. note: It's Curb Your Car Month, but Bike to Work Week. Kris Talley is Chair of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition.]
JW: Ah, no I didn't. I knew about that, but I didn't manage to hop on board with that.
HD: Because I stood out on Liberty at the head of the street here and videotaped all the cyclists going past. There were several solo cyclists, and then the big group, and I was rummaging around on the hard drive last night to see if I could find it, because I wanted see if I could recognize you from the picture that ran in the Old West Side News. And there was one person I had identified as potentially you. But I guess not!
JW: Potentially me. No, could've and maybe should've. But it wasn't me.
HD: Okay. Do you follow the bicycle politics in town, or for you is a bicycle more or less just convenient, cheap transportation?
JW: Let's see, that's a good question. It's primarily convenient cheap transportation. My officemate is the significant other of Kris Talley--that's Phil Farber--and he's very much an advocate of bicycling, so he keeps me informed on a lot of things. [Ed. note: The squeaking from the board becomes intrusive again.] Can I do anything, can we scoot the board over or anything, or is it ...
HD: ... oh! I'm not sure what we did differently just then, but it stopped. So he keeps you abreast of the important stuff going on?
JW: Yeah. Encourages me to participate in various events and you know I should probably get out there more than I do, but.
HD: Yeah, it's one of those things, where I try to do that kind of stuff, but like the Ride Around Town that happened last Friday, I had the best of intentions of participating in that. But I got distracted. I looked at my watch and said, Oh, now's the time I'd have to leave, if I want to do it, and I was engaged in a conversation with a neighbor about a rock wall he was building, and it seemed like there might be an opportunity for me to use my sledgehammer. [Ed. note: For the record, the sledge hammer wound up being lent out but not actually used by HD.]
HD: And that was hard to pass up. I figured there might be other Ride Around Towns I can do, but the sledge hammering opportunity might be fleeting.
JW: Well, very neighborly of you as well, I'm sure. I know my neighbor came over once and swung his sledge hamer a few times, and I appreciated it greatly.
HD: So he borrowed your sledgehammer, or?
JW: Well, we were working on breaking something up, and he came over and said, Hey, I can take a few whacks at that! So that was great.
HD: So generally a friendly neighborhood like that over there where you live?
JW: Oh, yeah, really friendly and really like it a lot.
HD: I remember I was over there--this would have been about seven years ago, back when I was working at the Humane Society--to pick up a sick raccoon. Probably had distemper. But, of course, when a raccoon has distemper, and you look at it acting weird out around in the daytime, people are usually afraid that it's rabid, but the vast majority just have distemper. So picked up the raccoon, took it back and had it euthanized. As I was cycling into your neighborhood with the trailer this morning, I thought, Yeah, I've been here before! To pick up that raccoon! So do you have a lot of wildlife there?
JW: My neighbor got skunked the other day!
HD: Oh yeah?
HD: Literally skunked!
JW: Literally skunked. He was walking his dog, and I think he thought it was a plastic bag blowing across the sidewalk, and he actually reached for it. I think he got it pretty good.
HD: [laugh] Oh man! Oooh, yeah. I took a dose of skunk juice straight into the eye once. And it was not as close as what you're describing. It was a pretty far distance. I was approaching it, and I was thinking, Okay, it's a skunk, Dave, so you gotta be careful! It was facing towards me, and it sort of turned its hind end around in an arc, and it seemed like it was a distance of about 20 feet, maybe I'm exaggerating ...
JW: ... wow, quick draw and accurate, too, huh?
HD: Yeah. Because I was conscious of what was going on and it didn't even occur to me that it could go that far or be that accurate.
JW: No, never would have guessed.
HD: But I have to say, it doesn't smell as bad as you'd think.
JW: Uh, huh.
HD: It might smell worse to other people, but if you have it on you, I think you very quickly get used to it. You just resign yourself that this is going to be the way it is for a while, and you're able to suppress it.
JW: Other summers we've noticed the late night wafting of skunk odor and we hadn't been noticing it much, though we did notice it the night my neighbor got skunked. We said, Ohhh, there's skunk! And then it turned out that he was directly involved.
HD: So before we left today, your wife, Stephanie, said she was going to teach Yoga over at the Y? And I know you play hoops over there quite often.
JW: Yeah, I get over there and shoot some hoops!
HD: Is that a part of a league, or do you just show up with a ball and it's a pick-up game, or you just work on your shot solo, or how does that work over there?
JW: I've been going over there just to work on my shot solo. I go on Sunday mornings when it's pretty empty actually. Even in the winter. And I like to have some time like that where the gym is pretty empty. But I also play at Slauson. On Thursday nights there's a group that's been getting together there for a long time--I think over 20 years.
HD: Oh really! So it's old Ann Arborites?
JW: Yeah. Well, Jon Strite is the P.E. teacher there at Slauson, and he was in the group and aided in the reservation of the gym and ...
HD: ... oh, so you guys play inside at the gym at Slauson, not outside? They have outdoor hoops over there, too, right?
JW: Yeah, they do. That's a great group of guys, and it's kind of changed over the years.
HD: So is Chris Easthope a part of that group? Because I know when he was here, I remember he had injured his knee--somebody was dunking over the top of him as I recall.
JW: Oh yeah?
HD: So I was thinking it would be a great story if it was you who injured Easthope's knee by dunking over the top of him!
JW: Oh, wouldn't that be something! [laugh] No, that's not where Chris plays. Sometimes the mayor shows up. And a variety of other people from around town. I haven't seen Chris. Yeah, no, I'd love to be able to dunk. I used to regularly have dunking dreams.
JW: Oh yeah. Actually, I'm not a bad jumper for someone who's 5-10. I've always be able to get up and touch the rim, but never more than that. But enough to get a little bit of an idea of how it feels to get up in the air. And so, yeah, dunking dreams.
HD: So have you ever trained specifically to improve your vertical leap? I mean I don't know what sorts of training it's possible to do in that area, but I'm sure that someone could design some kind of regimen.
JW: I could say I didn't, but I did a little bit. Really it was just that as a kid I just jumped a lot. We had an old farmhouse and the ceilings were kind of high, and had good sturdy old woodwork, and I would jump up and hang on the woodwork and keep on trying to jump higher. And set a goal to try to touch the ceiling, and I just kept going. Then it was like, Okay can I touch my head on the ceiling? And I don't think I ever did, but I got awfully close. You kind of get a little tentative ...
HD: ... right! You don't want to hit your head too hard! Yeah, I have to confess, if someone were to grant me the proverbial three wishes, I think a good candidate for one of them would be to be able to dunk a basketball at a regulation height rim.
HD: [laugh] I mean, world peace, maybe throw in there at number two, but. So you mentioned your work, your officemate, this is over at the U of M library? You work specifically with the digital aspect of the library, or?
JW: Yeah. In the Digital Library Production Service. We are responsible for putting content online, but also for developing the systems we use to provide access to that content online ...
HD: ... okay, so when you say 'content' are you talking about the card catalog, or the books themselves, or?
JW: Right, not the card catalog. There's a group of people that deals with MIRLYN, the electronic catalog. My responsibility has been for image databases--photography collections, art collections, things like that that get digitized. And we extend that service outside the library as well, so for instance to the Museum of Art and even to the broader community, local historical groups that have collections.
HD: So are you involved in the actual conversion of say, a giant painting into digital format? Or does somebody basically say, Here's the files, John, now you need to weave your database magic to make it all accessible.
JW: Right, I'm on the receiving end of the content after the digitization has occurred. So, putting it online and making it accessible.
HD: I guess there is some kind of irony to the fact that what we did this morning with the trailer was haul physical actual books down the street ...
JW: ... oh yeah ...
HD: ... and your work at the library which is in the digital realm purely.
HD: Is that something you think about at all?
JW: Oh, yeah, I do. Yeah. And you know, despite being a librarian and working in a library, I was never the 'book guy'--digital or otherwise, I was not the 'book guy'. I was the 'image guy'. And so the fact that I got into the book business is really almost, I mean it's related, but it's just kind of ...
HD: ... 'by chance' to coin a phrase?
JW: Yeah, definitely.
HD: I noticed one of the Tweets you sent, this would have been very early after I started following people [on Twitter]--so about four or five weeks ago--you mentioned that there was a client of Books by Chance, who upon delivering his book to him personally, wanted a discount on the shipping, or wanted to have the shipping cost forgiven, or something?
JW: That's right. We sell online, and pretty much exclusively online. Sometimes, though, a local person orders from us, and says, Hey, I was hoping I could come over and pick it up, or whatever. They are also kind of hoping to save money on shipping. Part of the problem is that we don't have a storefront, we don't have regular hours ...
HD: ... so you can't sort of say, Yeah, just drop by the store and pick it up.
JW: Yeah, and we don't want really want to create traffic in the neighborhood, or anything like that.
HD: Plus, I would think that aside from traffic for the neighbors, I'd think twice about whether I wanted to sacrifice that dimension of my privacy.
JW: Right, exactly. On the other hand, it's really nice to be able to meet some of the people that we sell a book to! And it does sound sort of ridiculous, I'm going to put it in the mail just so it'll go across town, which actually means, I think, that the book goes to Detroit and then comes back and all these other things, and it could easily take five days. In that particular case [that was Twittered about], I could hop on my bike and ride up to campus and meet the person pretty easily. Sometimes we see an order comes in, it's a local address, if it's a few blocks away, we think, Oh we'll just go put it in their mailbox or whatever. And often it doesn't work out--it's an apartment, or where you can't easily put a book there and be sure that they get it. And then it ends up being more complicated.
HD: Yeah, I would think it'd also be nice to have the U.S. Postal Service or whoever the carrier is, take on the responsibility of guaranteeing that the item was in fact delivered, in case there's some kind of dispute--I never got my book! What do you mean you put it on my doorstep?
JW: Yeah, right. But you know, by the time I actually handed the book to the guy on campus, we had a really nice conversation, and the part about the shipping, we were beyond that.
HD: So he didn't care that much about the buck-25 or whatever it costs?
JW: Yeah, $3.99.
HD: $3.99, is that a typical charge for it?
JW: Yeah, that's what Amazon charges. And that's for standard shipping, which when you're buying from someone like us, is slow shipping using what's called media mail rate. It's actually a low-priority shipping rate for the Postal Service. So it might actually sit in a post office for a couple of days before it goes anywhere. Just depending on what else they have to do, how busy they are.
HD: But I noticed that some of the packages this morning were Priority Mail?
HD: So people who are buying books through you can select expedited shipping if they just absolutely have to watch that Incredible Hulk video as soon as possible--that was that one video, right?
JW: There was an Incredible Hulk video--going to Ireland. And I thought, Okay, Incredible Hulk, he's green and Ireland and green, and I couldn't think of what else would ... ! [laugh] That was going out and they should get that--we can get things to Ireland about as fast as we can get them to California. There's not really that much difference.
HD: So was it a studied choice you made to use the U.S. Postal Service, or did it just happen to be the way you started and then you stuck with it? I mean this sort of classic What Can Brown Do For You, kind of deals right?
JW: Mmm, yeah.
HD: ... so why not U.S. ...
JW: ... why no UPS or ...
HD: ... yeah, or I was just trying to think what is the actual company behind that slogan, What Can Brown Do For You? They've managed to obliterate their actual company name from my brain. Is it UPS?
JW: Ah, I don't know. Probably, right? The brown trucks and all? United Parcel Service.
HD: Okay, I'm sorry, I interrupted you.
JW: No, I was mmm, oh, how did we choose the Postal Service. It's really actually the only obvious choice for books, unless you are Amazon and you cut some deal with the other shippers. The Postal Service, as I understand it, is obligated to offer affordable shipping for certain things, including books.
HD: Oh, so that's a part of the condition on their government subsidy? Or are they even still subsidized to some extent? I mean I know there was the point at which they privatized some dimension, but ...
JW: I'm not sure where that stands right now. They're definitely more private than they used to be.
HD: So what's the limiting reagent on the business Books by Chance? I mean, to get the books, you are willing to actually go pick them up from people, so is that a limiter? Is it a matter of having enough space to temporarily warehouse the stuff at your house? Or do you have plenty of room to do more business?
JW: Space is definitely an issue. Each summer we tend to have to do some quick re-evaluation of whether we have enough space to take on the increased load. People moving in the summer and everything, they tend to want to get rid of books in large quantities.
HD: So there's that seasonal aspect to it tied to when people are moving?
JW: Yeah, each summer, our inventory grows substantially. So I was pretty frantically building shelves in the summer.
HD: That's right, I guess you can't simply have them all in a big pile. You have to have them in some sort of organized system.
JW: Very systematic, in fact. And not really anything like a used bookshop.
HD: So not anything like a used bookshop, where it's sort of organized, but maybe not exactly?
JW: Yeah, I mean you go into a used bookshop and you want to just kind of serendipitously discover things. But we need to know where every book is, and we need to be able to find it quickly. So every book has a number, and it's on the shelf in an order, and there's a database, and it's all very systematic and orderly.
HD: So at some point, surely you must decide, Okay, this title is just not going to sell, we're just going to donate it to one of the four different charitable organizations that you give stuff to?
JW: You know, that does occur that we've had a book on the shelf for a long time. What we actually try to do is make the best decision we can up front. We have a lot of data available to us from Amazon, that helps us make decisions about what to accept and refuse at the outset. And we end up selling a high percentage of what we put on the shelf.
HD: Okay. So by 'high percentage' do you mean like 60 or 70, or is it more like 90 or 95?
JW: 90 to 95 in the course of about a year, with most of it going out within a few months.
HD: Wow. So the way you have things set up, I suppose it would be easy for you to take a client like Lou Rosenfeld, if Lou called you up and said, How are all my books doing? that you could say, Of the X number of books that we took from you, Y have sold and this many are still sitting here and these are the ones.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. Each month we report out. So if you sold something, ...
HD: ... then you get money.
JW: Yeah, so you're going to get a check and you get a report. And it lists every book that sold, what it sold for, what percentage you're getting and where it was shipped to--just for fun--and how many books you have left that are unsold.
HD: So that doesn't even require a phone call. That just gets provided as baked-in service?
JW: Yeah, and what I'm trying to do is head towards is just letting people monitor their sales online.
HD: Oh! Wow.
JW: And kind of reduce the paper we print and ship and mail out.
HD: Cool. Alright, well, listen anything else on your mind that you definitely want to talk about on the teeter totter here? I have to say this is turning out to be just a spectacular day.
JW: Oh, I know.
HD: Late last week I was thinking this week was shaping up to be a really crappy week, but.
JW: Yeah, it's all right! You know, I just wanted to say thanks for the trailer ride!
HD: You bet!
JW: You know in the early days when we weren't selling as many books, I would throw them in backpack or whatever and walk them up to the post office. Or even have them on the bike--I had one of the kid trailers and I'd put some books in there. But they really don't hold very much.
HD: No, those kid trailers are very good for the narrow application they were designed specifically for, but cargo was not what they were designed for.
JW: Yeah, so I did that a little bit as an experiment. But I really like the idea of being able to haul our goods to the post office by bike, and I hope that we can incorporate that more into our daily process.
HD: Yeah, I'm really, really excited about the trailer--about the possibility of eliminating a lot of the trips that I have to make by car now. Because it's possible to make a grocery run just on your bike--I mean I've got one of those oversized messenger bags that I can get a lot of stuff in. But even with that oversized bag, you can't just take your list and go down the aisle and buy the stuff on the list without thinking, Okay, am I going to be able to fit that in? What's the weight consideration? And with this trailer, I can with reckless abandon, just buy whatever needs to be bought and know there will be plenty of space and weight capacity. I also think that for certain things, it'll be easier than a car for bulky items. For example, a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood, I could carry on it.
JW: I was kind of wondering about that--you mentioned that you went out to Lowe's, and I didn't know if you had them cut it before you put it on the trailer, or?
HD: Actually the pieces of plywood I ended up getting, it was 2 4 x 2 sheets so they would have fit in the car. It's ironic, because I went over to Ace, because I know they have plywood--Stadium would have been my first choice, but they don't sell plywood. And they had this 4 x 4 piece, and a 4 x 4 piece won't fit inside my Civic hatchback. I went out and measured and it didn't seem like it would fit. You look at it and you think, That ought to fit, but it didn't fit. And they don't cut wood there, they don't have that capacity. So I trailered it out to Lowe's to get a piece of plywood that ultimately would have fit in the car. I guess what I could have done is gone back to Ace and gotten their 4 x 4 sheet and put that on the trailer. But I kinda felt like they should have been willing to find a way to cut it for me, so I was feeling a little grumpy towards them. I mean, I'll get over it, and I'll go back and spend my money there when they have something I need. I was just thinking, Man, you sell circular saws, can you not find somebody who's willing to just do a cut? I mean, I didn't need a precise cut. The sizing I would have done here on my table saw. But no, I'm totally geeked about the trailer. So I'm thinking actually if I can get a container that's adequately insulated--maybe a cooler would work--I would like to volunteer with Motor Meals--it would be a non-motorized brigade of Motor Meals. I mean they need people to cart these hot meals around, that's something you could do with a bicycle trailer. And you might be able to do it more efficiently, depending on how the routes are designed, on a bike with a trailer than in a car, where you'd have to find a place to park so that you could get access to the apartment or whatever. You could just pull the thing right up to the door or on the sidewalk. Anyway, something I'm thinking about.
JW: That's really cool.
HD: Listen let's dismount and get you back home!
JW: Okay! Thanks a lot!
[Ed. note: Except for the two cases where John Weise appears in the shot and obviously does not have a camera in his hand, all photos below documenting the trailer ride were taken by John Weise using his iPhone.]